“Le Cancre” (1945) is a French poem learned at school by generations of pupils. Its simplicity and musical rythm are typical of what made Prévert’s poetry both accessible and popular. They also make a great read for French learners!
You will find the original poem in French and its English translation below. We have added a video clip (on a reading by late French singer Serge Reggiani) and a French pupil’s recitation of the poem to accompany your own reading.
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Il dit non avec la tête
mais il dit oui avec le coeur
il dit oui à ce qu’il aime
il dit non au professeur
il est debout
on le questionne
et tous les problèmes sont posés
soudain le fou rire le prend
et il efface tout
les chiffres et les mots
les dates et les noms
les phrases et les pièges
et malgré les menaces du maître
sous les huées des enfants prodiges
avec des craies de toutes les couleurs
sur le tableau noir du malheur
il dessine le visage du bonheur.
He says no with his head
but he says yes with his heart
he says yes to what be loves
he says no to the teacher
he is questioned
and all the problems are posed
sudden mad laughter seizes him
and he erases all
the words and figures
names and dates
sentences and snares
and despite the teacher’s threats
to the jeers of infant prodigies
with chalk of every color
on the blackboard of misfortune
he draws the face of happiness
Translation: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Born on 4 February, 1900 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, Jacques Prévert is one of the most popular and prolific French poets. The artist joined the surrealists in 1925 and became a true symbol of France in the world. Until his death in 1977, he wrote poems, novels, scripts and songs.
Header photo by Robert Doisneau.