Yesterday, Oct. 20th, is Arthur Rimbaud’s day of birth, so, in honor of that, it’s time to do the next book in my list of '15 Books That Stayed With You.'
8. Complete Works, by Arthur Rimbaud (French; trans. by Paul Schmidt, 1976)
Previous to Schmidt’s version, the only complete English Rimbaud, I believe, was Wallace Fowlie’s, which I had gotten from the library sometime earlier in high school, after coming across the name a few times, notably in commentary about Dylan songs like 'Desolation Row.' But Fowlie’s volume, which was bilingual, offered English language versions of the poems that were too stilted, too dependant on the originals. A good way to go if you’re trying to parse what the French says and just want to look at the English for guidance, but it was rare for the English version to read as if it could stand alone. Even the prose sounded too dated. Which of course it was, since Rimbaud wrote the originals of these works from 1869-73, or from age fifteen to nineteen. Try as I might to get into Fowlie’s versions, it just didn’t happen.
Then, in the spring of my senior year of high school, age seventeen, I picked up Schmidt’s version, and fell in love with it. Here were rhythms and locutions that sounded contemporary -- or contemporary enough. Which is to say: contemporary verse, i.e., what was being written and published in 1977, didn’t interest me at all. What I wanted was older stuff that could still fire my imagination with some idea of a great poetic past. And that’s precisely what concerned Rimbaud. In A Season in Hell, written in the most poetic prose I’d ever encountered, he was mourning the end of a poetic past that had occurred sometime before his late teens. Ah, there’s the rub, indeed. That was exactly how I felt too, Arthur. My imagination was much better before I knew it was merely imaginary, so to speak. As a child, in other words.
But there was more to my infatuation with Rimbaud. And I call it that because from about seventeen to twenty-one, when I gave a public reading from Schmidt’s translation at The Painted Bride Art Center on South Street in Philadelphia, A Season in Hell dominated my imagination to a degree that no work of literature had done before or since. Or rather: Hamlet would be the only contender, but it wasn’t the play Hamlet, it was the character Hamlet. And Rimbaud went one better than that because he wasn’t a character. He was a French kid born in Charleville in 1854, and what he wrote, the voices and personae he created, made claims for poetry that were wholly unworkable, but which, for that very reason, were filled with the rapturous grandeur of the poet as eternal teen.
That might well sound insufferable. Everyone likes to denigrate teens, and everyone likes to smile smugly when they recall themselves as teens (if they’re willing to at all). But Rimbaud was no ordinary teen, or maybe he was the quintessence of what the notion of teen should impress on us: no longer a child, but still able to recall what it meant to be a child, what it felt like. Not yet aged into anything like acceptance of the blandness and drudgery of life, still able to experience the mind, the passions, the appetites, the senses, language itself as uncanny presences that simply surge up, that have a logic or an intention all their own, not yet scripted to coincide with some 'purpose' to life, some 'given' or situation in which one must abide and thrive.
Not even writing poetry and having a literary career could qualify as such a purpose for Rimbaud. And that’s probably why I loved him most. He knew it was all bullshit. Parnassus was home to stuffed gods. It didn’t matter that they were technically brilliant, that they were fêted and celebrated and had great accolades and numinous careers. Big fucking deal. They hadn’t re-made poetry, they hadn’t insulted Beauty, they hadn’t dreamed the impossible and then tried to describe it. They persisted with well-made poems placed in respected journals. Quel fucking bore.
But, unlike many an arrogant teen who might thumb his nose at his elders and become a rebel, Rimbaud was truly gifted. He didn’t just contain chaos, he had an amazing facility for making that chaos appear -- for sounding its depths, with a pristine lucidity that probably only a French teen could hope to have.
Rimbaud was thoroughly extravagant, a word I’d rather use than decadent, though he was that too. But decadence too readily conjures the senescent, the too-much-ness of feeling, a satiety that turns to disgust. These indeed were some of Rimbaud’s tones, possibly his favorite pose. But what got to me was his sheer energy. It was like Hamlet berating himself in endless speeches, going on while no one’s listening or, as he says, while he is so 'dreadfully attended.' That’s the feeling I got from Rimbaud too: that challenge: do you get it? Hey, clever poet guy, hey, Mr big name critic, hey, know-it-all scholar, hey, seen-it-all libertine, yeah you. Do you get this? Can you begin to see where it takes you? What it demands of you? No, probably you can't.
Rimbaud runs through the whole vain pageant of what it means to have creative genius -- and then drops it into the ocean. Throws it overboard. Signs off as the winds of change push him toward his twenties. Because sooner or later you’ll have to stop making such faces. You’ll have to join the human race. Rimbaud knew it was an absurd, inescapable fate. And again unlike Hamlet, who couldn’t ever stop being the prince, son of a murdered father, Rimbaud could simply stop being a poet, and he did.
But he left us the purest expression of talents beyond the ability of the person to bear them. The great curse of the poète maudit: to be too much, to have too much to be taken seriously, to be great not simply because one wrote great poems, but because one saw the poet’s fate to be forever cursed, outcast for not cleaning up the act, for daring to insist that poetry can’t really exist and still be poetry. It becomes, as Rimbaud’s mentor, lover, friend, and nemesis Verlaine said, 'literature.'
The difference? As Rimbaud made me see: poetry is the fire of extravagant imagination. It’s something you keep away from people because it will drive them mad. Literature is something you can teach in school to help people think and understand themselves and other people and the human condition, and other humanistic, liberal-minded panaceas ad nauseam.
Hard to get with that program once you’ve spent a season in hell.