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Jacques Prévert

To Paint the Portrait of a Bird

First paint a cage
with an open door
next paint
something pretty
something modest
something beautiful
something useful
for the bird
then prop the canvas up against a tree
in a garden
in a wood
or a forest
conceal yourself behind the tree
saying nothing
not budging an inch
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but he might just as well take years
before he makes up his mind
Don’t be discouraged
wait for years if you must
the speed or slowness of the bird’s arrival
having no relation
to the success of the picture
When the bird comes
if he comes
observe the profoundest silence
wait until the bird flits into the cage
and once he’s in
gently close the door with your brush
paint out all the bars one by one
being careful not to touch any of the bird’s feathers
Then paint the tree’s portrait
choosing the loveliest of its branches
for the bird
paint also the green leaves and the freshness of the wind
the ash of the sun
and the murmur of the insects in the heat of summer
and then wait until the bird decides to sing
If the bird doesn’t sing
it’s a bad sign
a sign that the painting’s no good
but if he sings it’s a good sign
a sign you can sign
that being so you very gently pluck out
one of the feathers of the bird
and you write your name in a corner of the picture


The poetry of ‘Paroles’ is distinguished by its capacity to articulate the extraordinary in a very ordinary way. I have tried, here, to retain Prévert’s deceptively plain diction without sacrificing any of the poetry’s strangeness or richness.

As translations go, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s versions of ‘Paroles’ are pretty hard to improve upon, & it is to these (published by City Lights Books) that interested readers should turn.

Translation copyright © C. J. Allen 2006