Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) was a French poet of the symbolist and decadent traditions.  Amazingly, he wrote all of his poetry between the ages of 16 and 20, then gave it up in favor of a globe-trotting libertine lifestyle that ended abruptly at age 37.

Unlike many of my other subjects this month, I really don't know a lot about Rimbaud.  I first heard his name in the movie Eddie and the Cruisers (too embarrassed to include a link) and, other than random paging through books in bookstores -- and a bit of research leading up to this post -- I haven't read much of his work.  But what I've seen has a certain ineffable glow to it that brings to mind my other favorite poets, so he's been on my "back-burner" to-read list for a long time.

Rimbaud sometimes included shocking and grotesque imagery in his poems, but he painted vivid pictures even with "tame" words...
Clear water; like the salt of childhood tears,
the assault on the sun by the whiteness of women’s bodies;
the silk of banners, in masses and of pure lilies,
under the walls a maid once defended
(from Memory, translated by Wallace Fowlie)  He also was an early explorer of the poetic use of flowing prose:
   O my good! O my beautiful! Atrocious fanfare where I won’t stumble! enchanted rack whereon I am stretched! Hurrah for the amazing work and the marvelous body, for the first time! It began amid the laughter of children, it will end with it....
   Little eve of drunkenness, holy! were it only for the mask with which you gratified us. We affirm you, method! We don’t forget that yesterday you glorified each one of our ages. We have faith in the poison. We know how to give our whole lives every day.
   Behold the time of the Assassins.
(from Morning of Drunkenness, translated by John Ashbery)  You can feel the hangover in that, can't you?  :-)

Lastly, I wanted to give you one more that can't be found via Googling...  My subject for the letter "I" translated Rimbaud's fantastically synaesthetic poem Voyelles ("Vowels") and included it in her book Sword of Wisdom.  I like this translation much better than the ones that can be found more easily, but I had to retype it myself...  I take responsibility for any typos...
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue --
Vowels, I'll tell your hidden origin!
A, swarthy coat of glistening flies that whine
Round disenchanting stenches there below

E, white of curtain-mist, the glacier's proud
Spear-shaft, pale kings, rustle of umbel-bloom
I, lovely in ire or sad delirium
The crimson laughing lips that have spat blood

U, tides, celestial murmur of green seas
Peace of herd-scattered pasture, wrinkled peace --
Alchemy's imprint on a studious brow

O, the last trumpet of strange stridencies
Omega, violet radiance of Her Eyes --
Aeons and Worlds rise through their silence now!


  1. I'm pretty sure I've read him before.

    1. Yeah, this won't be my last reasonably-well-known poet, either. :-)

  2. Excellent post on Rimbaud --phenomenal writer on a very tight schedule. His work was widely read during my teens and 20s. His influence was both constructive and cautionary.

    1. It's funny how poets and authors "peak" in popularity at different times... sometimes unconnected to their own lifetimes. I can see various points in the 20th century being more receptive to his influence dangereuses than others... :-)

  3. Squeamish. Had to stop at:

    swarthy coat of glistening flies that whine
    Round disenchanting stenches there below

    But I do agree with Geo. that this is, as per usual, an excellent post.

    1. Thanks. Yeah, Rimbaud was all over the place, thematically. Kind of his appeal to me is that different poems, and different translations, present such a wide spectrum of different impressions.

  4. When I was at the Sorbonne in the 1980s it was de rigueur to carry around your copy of the poetry of Rimbaud. I think people liked the illusions about his life better than the poetry.

    I must admit to a fondness for Eddie & the Cruisers, although I acknowledge its essential cheesiness.

    1. I forgot to mention my 'Eddie and the Cruisers' memory. Got sidetracked by the translation of 'Voyelles.'

      I was in 8th or 9th grade and was spending the night for the first time at the house of a friend down the street. She had a waterbed and about twenty animals in her house. After we watched the movie on the waterbed with a rotation of pets leaping on and off it, I thought to myself, 'I cannot sleep here.' I faked sickness and regret and walked home.

    2. My memory from the first time I saw the movie is that the snippets of Eddie's rendition of "Une Saison en Enfer" were SO dark, mysterious, and unapproachable. After seeing the movie again a few years ago, I had to chuckle at that.

      The junkyard wonderland was pretty cool, though. It was based on a real place, but it's unclear whether it was really filmed there or not.