From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Born in Paris, Desnos’ poems were first published in 1917 in La Tribune des Jeunes and in 1919 in the avant-garde review, Le Trait d’union. That same year, he met the poet Benjamin Péret who introduced him to the Dada group in Paris and André Breton. While working as a literary columnist for the newspaper Paris-Soir, Desnos became an active member of the Surrealist group and developed a particular talent for the “automatic writing” procedures. Although praised by Breton in his 1924 Manifeste du Surréalisme as being the movement’s "prophet", Desnos’ continuous work for journalistic publications and his disbelief in Surrealism’s involvement with communist politics, caused a rift between the two men.
In 1926, he composed The Night of Loveless Nights, a lyric poem about solitude, curiously written in quatrains like classics, more similar to Baudelaire than Breton. He fell in love with the singer Yvonne George, but the crowds of fans also obsessed with her ensured that his love was impossible. He wrote several poems for her including those in his collection La liberté ou l'amour! (1927).
By 1929, Breton had definitively condemned Desnos, who in turn had joined Georges Bataille and Documents as one of the authors to sign "Un cadavre" attacking “le boeuf Breton”. He wrote articles on “Modern Imagery”, “Avant-garde Cinema” (1929, issue 7), “Pygmalion and the Sphinx” (1930, issue 1), and Sergei M. Eisenstein, the Soviet filmmaker, on his film titled The General Line (1930, issue 4). His career in radio began in 1932 with a show dedicated to Fantômas. During this time, he became friends with Picasso, Hemingway, Artaud and John Dos Passos, published many critical reviews on jazz and cinema and became increasingly involved in politics. He wrote for many periodicals, including Littérature, La Révolution surréaliste, and Variétés. Among numerous collections of poems, he also published three novels, Deuil pour deuil (1924), La Liberté ou l’amour! (1927), and Le vin est tiré (1943).
During World War II, Desnos was an active member of the French Résistance, often publishing under pseudonyms, and was arrested by the Gestapo on February 22, 1944. He was first deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, Flossenburg and finally to Térézin (Theresienstadt) in Czechoslovakia in 1945, where he died from typhoid, only weeks after the camp’s liberation. He wrote poems during his imprisonment which were destroyed accidentally following his death.
He was married to Youki Desnos, formerly Lucie Badoul, nicknamed "Youki" ("snow") by her lover Tsuguharu Foujita before she left him for Desnos. Desnos wrote several poems about Youki. One of his most famous poems is "Letter to Youki," written after his arrest.
He is buried at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.
Desnos's poetry has been set to music by a number of composers, including Witold Lutosławski with Les Espaces du Sommeil (1975) and Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1991) and Francis Poulenc (Dernier poème, 1956). Carolyn Forché has translated his poetry and names Desnos as a significant influence on her own work.
- Deuil pour deuil (1924)
- La Liberté ou l’amour! (1927)
- Corps et biens (1930)
- État de veille (1943)
- Le vin est tiré (1943)