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"Rappelle"-ing Prévert’s "Barbara"

Despite what some people out there may believe, it really doesn’t take much to make me happy!

Take, for example, how delighted I’ve been all this week by the discovery of a single Guardian Unlimited Books Blog “Poem of the Week” post.

I’ve written here before about my (limited) experience with memorized poems. Maybe one reason I didn’t include Jacques Prévert’s “Barbara” in that post is that, like someone referenced in the Guardian’s post, I first encountered “Barbara” as a song, chanted, unforgettably, by Yves Montand.

That introduction took place when I was enrolled in a phonetics class in Paris during my junior spring abroad. My teacher (who, by the way, identified herself as the real-life mother of the [then] young French boy who played Julien in one of my favorite movies, Louis Malle’s 1987 Au revoir, les enfants) played a Montand recording before requiring us to memorize the poem for the next class.

Well, as you’ll see from the Guardian blog post, “Barbara” is one long poem! Even more challenging, from my perspective, is its reliance on the letter “r.” Let’s just say that despite all my practice with this poem, not to mention all the language lab time I was assigned in college to ameliorate my terrible accent by reading “r” words aloud from the French dictionary in the company of a native speaker, I still preface every first conversation with a French speaker, as apologetically and yet as reassuringly as I can, with this line: “Je comprends mieux que je parle” (“I understand better than I speak”).

Rereading the poem this week I am amazed that I ever knew it par coeur. But I did! I can still recite/hum chunks of it (believe me, though, I’m no Yves Montand).

(The Guardian post also provoked quite a thread of commentary about the poem, including much translation-related discussion.)

(Re)discovering “Barbara” reminded me that for that phonetics class we had to memorize another poem, too. (Click here to hear a remarkable recording–from 1913!–of its creator, Guillaume Apollinaire, reading it aloud!)

And rediscovering “Barbara” just put me in a mellow, nostalgic mood. And it helped inspire me as my new poetry class continues. (That’s going well, so far. I’ll probably post more about that sometime soon.)

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