William Cliff was born in 1940 in the small Walloon town of Gembloux. He studied Spanish and Catalan at the university of Namur (Namen). Becoming acquainted with the work of the Catalan poet Gabriel Ferrater (1922–72), of whom he was later to translate two collections, was of crucial importance to him. In Ferrater he discovered the possibility of combining a modern, colloquial idiom with strict, classical verse forms and, above all, of remaining close to his own experience – of striving for a veracity that is averse to – and often likes to mock – our bourgeois and poetical norms of respectability.
In Cliff’s debut, Homo Sum
(1973), which thanks to the mediation of Raymond Queneau was published by Gallimard, the main features in terms of themes and form were indicated for an oeuvre that has since developed into twenty or so collections of poems, like the diary of an anarchistic bard. To read Cliff is – in ever-changing forms and episodes – to hear the unmistakable, somewhat gravelly voice of a bachelor and buccaneer who, since the early seventies, has made long peregrinations through Europe, Asia and North and South America from his home base – an attic on the Brussels Kolenmarkt. And as a sixty-year-old he sounds hardly more reconciled and certainly no less divided, sentimental, thirsting for life, sardonic, Brussels-like and Cliffish than he did thirty years ago. His homosexuality, openly confessed since his first collection, has given him, within a smallish circle, the status of a cult hero, but to stamp Cliff as being a typical “pink hero” would be just as simplistic as dismissing Jacques Brel as being a “hetero chansonnier”.
The selection that Cliff has made for this festival mainly derives from his most recent collection Immense existence
(Gallimard, 2007), of which ‘le tram de Nantes’ (The Nantes Tram) is the opening poem and ‘l’espèce humaine’ (The Human Species) the conclusion. A striking feature of this collection is the looser, quasi-casual way in which rhythm and rhyme are treated, so that Cliff’s poems, more than ever, sound like the natural, unforced language of someone who “manages the alexandrine like you scratch your nose/as a way of passing the time...”.
Whoever is put on the wrong track by his sometimes raw, consciously snubbing irony and concludes that all of this is merely a postmodern pose, will when listening to Cliff’s magnificent presentation eventually – it seems to me – come to realise that the tradition of Villon, Verlaine and Rimbaud (the ‘Adolescent’ born in Charleville in the poem ‘Charleville – Mézières’) is still very much alive and kicking in the 21st century.
© Maarten Elzinga (Translated by John Irons)
Homo sum (1973)
En Orient (1986)
Conrad Detrez (1990)
Fête Nationale (1992)
Journal d’un Innocent (1996 )
Adieu patries (2001)
Le Passager (novel , 2003)
Passavant la Rochère (2004)
L’Adolescent (novel , 2005)
Le Pain quotidien (2006)
Immense Existence (2007)