Hélène Martin: Putting Poetry to Song - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Hélène Martin: Putting Poetry to Song

Hélène Martin: Putting Poetry to Song

By Marie Doezema


Because artists were riffing off each other long before the Internet.

By Marie Doezema

The 1962 footage of Hélène Martin singing Jean Genet’s famous poem “The Man Condemned to Death” reflects the powerful synergy between song and poetry; it is a collaboration, of sorts, between two artists who led drastically different lives but shared a common belief in the power of words.

If French writer and activist Genet’s calling was to bring attention to those who lived at the margins of society, French singer Martin’s calling has been to bring new energy and form to poetry through song. Though she got her start in cabarets, Martin’s powerful but under-recognized life work has been putting the words of famous poets to music. Genet is perhaps best known for starting life as a petty criminal and ending it as a respected intellectual. Over the decades, he explored themes of criminality and homosexuality in his novels, plays and poems. This poem, one of his most well-known, is dedicated to the memory of Maurice Pilorge, a 22-year-old man convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Genet, experimental and collaborative in his life and in his art, authorized Martin’s request to record herself singing his epic poem about prison life and the execution of Pilorge. He knew her voice, he knew her work and he considered her up to the task.

Summon the sun so it will come and console me / strange all these roosters! / Put the executioner to sleep! / The day smiles wickedly behind my window / prison is a tasteless school for dying.

Genet wrote the piece in 1942 while he was in jail. According to Edmund White’s biography, Genet managed to get the poem published in 1945 by passing it on to a fellow prisoner who was in jail for forging food-ration coupons during the war. When the man was released, he printed and distributed 100 copies of Genet’s poem, made all the more powerful by the fact that the author remained behind bars.

Genet would spend the war years in and out of prison — as White writes, “Genet either was actually behind bars or felt he was living in the shadow of a prison.” The psychology of imprisonment and the treatment of criminals would become a lifelong theme in Genet’s work. The stanzas of the poem Martin chose to put to music are filled with pent-up longing and passion. 

As Genet writes in the poem’s dedication, he long remained haunted by Pilorge’s death: “I have dedicated this poem to the memory of my friend Maurice Pilorge, whose radiant face and body haunt my sleepless nights. In spirit, I relive with him the last forty days he spent with chains on his feet and sometimes on his wrists in the cell of those condemned to death in the Prison of Saint-Brieuc.” Pilorge was executed by guillotine on March 17, 1939.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories