Tragic tales and anarchic oddballs: finding 8 fascinating French poets in Brittany and Normandy

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In honour of World Poetry Day, here are 8 amazing poets who lived in Brittany and Normandy. How many of them have you heard of?...

Breton poets

Tristan Corbière

Roscoff and Morlaix

Belonging firmly to the tradition of tragic poets, Tristan Corbière was born near Morlaix in 1845 and lived in the area for most of his life. He was educated in Saint Brieuc and Nantes and, like most French poets, he spent some time in Paris but eventually returned to Brittany and settled in the pretty fishing village of Roscoff. It was here that Corbière wrote his one volume of poetry, 'les Amours jaunes', that spoke much of his passion for the sea and his Breton roots.

Corbière suffered from rheumatism that left him crippled and he died from tuberculosis aged just 29. In 1884, Paul Verlaine plucked his work from obscurity and published it in the anthology 'les poètes maudits' - the 'cursed poets', alongside Arthur Rimbaud and others.

Victor Segalen

Brest and Huelgoat

Victor Segalen travelled across the globe but his story begins and ends in Brittany. Born in Brest in 1878, Segalen was a naval doctor who fell in love with China and French Polynesia. Travelling extensively, he wrote a collection of poems known as 'Stèles', which emulated the inscriptions he found on stone tablets at Chinese burial sites.

As a foreigner in the East, Segalen's voice was an important one in Western discussion of the exotic in the early 20th century and the nature of living in another culture. In a sad turn of events, he died in 'mysterious circumstances' in the forest of Huelgoat. Found with a copy of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' open at his side, some dispute whether it was an accident or suicide.

Alfred Jarry

Rennes

Although born in 1873 in Laval, just outside of Brittany in Pays de la Loire, Jarry was educated in historic Rennes, and it was his education here that led to his most famous creation - Pére Ubu. A precocious child, Jarry studied at the Rennes Lycée (a beautiful building, now the Lycée Emile-Zola de Rennes) and created the boorish and vulgar character of Pére Ubu in poems with some classmates, as a caricature of their physics teacher.

However, whilst his classmates left Pére Ubu behind at school, the character stayed with Jarry for the rest of his life. His most famous work is the satirical farce he wrote for his monstrous title character - a play that ended in a riot by the audience at its first perfomance. Whilst his Pére Ubu character may have been juvenile, Jarry also coined the term 'pataphysics' and wrote a pseudo-scientific paper in response to H.G. Wells' 'The Time Machine' that was so straight-faced it is said to have nearly convinced several scientists.

Hugely experimental and ahead of his time, the anarchic Jarry has been credited as a precursor to Dadaism, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd. Another tragic death at a young age, Jarry died from tuberculosis at 34, almost penniless as he had been for most of his life.

Max Jacob

Quimper and Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire

Jacob had a tragic wartime end but his story began in the charming town of Quimper where he spent his childhood. As a young man, he moved to Paris and became an important figure amongst the artistic set in Montmarte and lived with Pablo Picasso. Jacob's modern poetry was influenced by Surrealism, Symbolism and Cubism as well as his life in Brittany and Paris. His prose poetry used playful wordplay and 'Le cornet à dés', 'the Dice Box', became one of his most famous works.

Raised Jewish, Jacob converted to Catholicism whilst in Paris and his moral difficulties with being a convert can also be found in his work. Tired of the Bohemian life in Paris, he later moved to a monastery at Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire where he lived for the next two decades. In 1944, the Gestapo arrested him and he was sent to a prison camp where he died of pnuemonia just a couple of weeks later aged 67.

Danielle Collobert

Rostrenen, Côtes d'Armor

A 20th century poet whose experimental writings are of a gloomy disposition, Danielle Collobert was born in 1940 in the town of Rostrenon in the beautiful department of the Côtes d'Armor. Collobert wrote prose poetry and her style of using unusual and minimal punctuation as well as unorthodox grammar made her voice unique.

Her primary concern in her poems is her obsession with death, originally from her own viewpoint, but later on she attempted to transcend her own musings to encompass the universal questions of death in human existence for every man and woman. Her works from 'Murder' to 'Survival' all discuss this theme and Collobert sadly committed suicide on her 38th birthday.

Norman poets

Casimir Delavigne

Le Havre

Born in the busy port city of Le Havre in 1793, Delavigne was a man in the right place at the right time. Educated in Paris, he received an honorary position from the Empress for his 'Dithyrabe sur le naissance du roi de Rome' celebrating the birth of her son with Napoleon. After the Battle of Waterloo, he wrote his impassioned, patriotic poems 'Waterloo' and 'Devastation du Muse' that formed, with a less successful third poem, the Messéniennes.

Delavigne and his poetry were a huge hit in Paris and his fame spread when he followed his success in poetry with success at the theatre too. But it was after the revolution of 1930 that Delavigne again captured the zeitgeist when he wrote 'La Parisienne', a song that was the French national anthem during the July Monarchy.

André Breton

Tinchebray

From quiet beginnings in the sleepy town of Tinchebray in the Norman bocage, André Breton became one of the most famous men in the art circles of Paris. Heralded as one of the founders of Surrealism, Breton was one of the most influential poets and writers in the early 20th century and counted a large number of important figures as his friends.

Fascinated by pyschoanalysis (he regularly corresponded with Freud), mental illness and the power of dreams, Breton worked in a pyschiatry ward during WW1. These interests led to his ideas of Surrealism and the study of dreams and reality, and he wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924.

Breton was also a very political figure who was a member of the Communist Party for several years. In 1938, he visited Mexico and wrote another artistic and cultural manifesto, the 'Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art' with the exiled Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. Many volumes of Breton's poetry and prose are available and he remains an impressive figure in modern literature.

Jacques Prévert

Omonville-la-Petite, near Cherbourg

Probably the biggest name on this list, Jacques Prévert is popular around the world and his poems are even used to help teach kids French at school, especially 'Dejeuner du Matin'. Associated with the Surrealists in the 1920s and 1930s, Prévert's poems often have an anarchic sense of humour and he wrote 'song poems' that were set to music whilst prose and verse poetry were popular at the time.

In the 1930s, Prévert began collaborating with filmmakers such as Jean Renoir and his frequent collaborator, Marcel Carné. With Carné, Prévert had a fruitful artistic partnership and created a highly stylised film genre known as poetic realism that went on to be a huge influence on the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism movements.

Prévert published several collections of poems including 'Paroles' and 'Spectacle' that were very successful and is still a hugely popular poet in the French-speaking world. In later life, he also wrote children's books and settled in the peaceful surroundings of Omonville-la-Petite on the Cotentin Peninsula. You can visit his house, the Maison Jacques Prévert, which has now become a museum dedicated to his work.

Did we miss out your favourite Breton or Norman poet? Tell us about them in the comments below.

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