Blaise Cendrars: The Poet’s Camera Eye
[Travel Poems; Kodak series]
The camera eye is a technique that uses acute observation as a basis for writing. The camera eye implies taking visual snapshots of scenes from life and transferring those observations into immediate textual portraits of the observed phenomenon.
In its poetic form, the work of Blaise Cendrars is probably one of the best examples of poetry based on exceptional observational attention to detail from scenes observed in life.
In the typically flamboyant style that Cendrars would become famous for throughout his writing life, Cendrars embarked upon a series of poems known as the Kodak Poems (1924) that attempted to employ a technique of ‘verbal photography’ which, as Anne Reverseau* writes, was aimed at “… convey[ing] a cinematographic or photographic model [of poetry] … we are reading descriptive poetry and vignettes by a writer-reporter. The “documentary” aesthetic thus sets the “horizon of expectation” for these poems…”
Whilst Cendrars was controversially accused of in fact using a montage of cut-up texts plagiarized “…from the adventure novels of Gustave Le Rouge…” – the ruse later allegedly admitted by Cendrars himself (which is typical of Cendrars’ own mischievous self-mythologizing as a writer) – Cendars nevertheless demonstrates himself to be an uncanny master of the use of visual imagery or ‘cinepoetics’ in his texts whether using his own words or allegedly appropriating those of another writer (Kathy Acker is worth mentioning here as a contemporary reference point for similar controversies embroiling her work).
The Kodak poems saga no doubt represents just one of the many imbroglios that Cendrars was involved in throughout his charismatic and often turbulent career: indeed, he seemed to either specialize in, or actively court, controversy throughout much of his life. I have always been intrigued by Cendrars’ work as well as the scholarship surrounding it, and accordingly, I have extracted below an excellent piece of writing on the Kodak poems which deals with some of the fascinating mechanics of the Kodak poems controversy.
The Kodak Poems Saga…
In her highly engaging essay on Cendrars and the ‘Kodak saga’ entitled, Kodak Modernism: Avant-Garde Poetry in the Age of Popular Photography  Elena Gualtieri documents the essential dynamics of the saga involving Cendards and the Kodak company itself over the use of the trademark name ‘Kodak’ –
In June 1924 Blaise Cendarrs was visiting Brazil when he received the first edition of his latest collection of poems, Kodak. Published by Stock with a cover design by Frans Masereel and frontispiece portrait by Francis Picabia , Kodak comprised sixty-three poems that looked like the simple vignettes caught by the poet during his travels to the U.S and beyond, and put down with the apparent immediacy and directness of a tourist’s photographic record…
As Gualtieri goes on the explain, it was here that Cendrars unexpectedly felt the wrath of the Kodak Company in New York who, through their lawyers, took a different view of Cendrars’ creative exploits in using the name Kodak as a direct infringement of their trademark name [!]:
… The poems’ easy charm was, however, lost on the makers of the [sic] Kodak. At the publication of the book, Stock received ‘a notarized letter from the American firm of Kodak Co’ which objected to the unauthorized use of their trademark. The publishers replied that they believed it acceptable ‘to use a commercial name once that name has acquired the sense of an object in everyday language’, and that the company itself had made of the commercial name ‘the synonym of the photographic apparatus that accompanies the traveller’. Their position was that the appearance of Kodak on Cendrars’s title page was effectively proving free publicity for the company. For the Kodak lawyers, though, such unlicensed use of their trademark was ‘on the contrary detrimental to it, because it distracted customers form the precise uses the company’s products sold by their company’. While the company did have the legal power to request that the publication be withdrawn from sale, it eventually settled for the commitment that any subsequent editions of the poems would be published under a different title. **
Cendrars was undoubtedly an extraordinary admix of raconteur, provocateur, self-styled swashbuckling adventurer, but above all, a brilliantly observant poet. He is without doubt one of the great heroes in my literary pantheon and a source of endless inspiration in reading of his adventures both fictive and real.
He was a unique and spirited visionary that will unquestionably continue to inspire and confound many generations of new readers brave enough delve into his exotic and highly eclectic body of work.
*See: ‘Kodak or Documentaires’, Anne Reverseau as found at http://www.litteraturesmodesdemploi.org Viewed 31 May, 2017
** The title was in fact changed to Documentaires (Documentaries)
Editors Note: An excellent critical biographic profile of Cendrars’ kaleidoscopic and sometimes confabulated life can be found within Richard Sieburth’s review of Cendrars’ Oeuvres Autobiographiques Complètes ‘Blaise Cendrars in the sky’ in Time Literary Supplement, n.d [which sadly seems to have disappeared from open access online].
Details of the collection itself can be found at the publishers website at:
See also an excellent interview with Cendrars on The Art of Fiction as appeared in The Paris Review which can be found at: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4388/blaise-cendrars-the-art-of-fiction-no-38-blaise-cendrars
Marcus D. Niski, May 2017