Friday, July 1, 2011

Doing the Watusi with Rimbaud

I put my hand inside his cranium, oh we had such a brainiac-amour
But no more, no more, I gotta move from my mind to the area
(go Rimbaud go Rimbaud go Rimbaud)
And go Johnny go and do the watusi,
Yeah do the watusi, do the watusi ...
—Patti Smith, Land

I had hoped, when I picked up John Ashbery’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, that I’d find a way into it without need of the commentary that swirls about Rimbaud and his work.  I figured, since I’d not read a line of Rimbaud and didn’t know a thing about him, I could come at Illuminations “fresh.”

I was stumped at the first line of the first poem, After the Flood:  “No sooner had the notion of the Flood regained its composure.”  What on earth could that mean?  I knew I was likely being too literal-minded, but I had trouble with the concept of a notion having, letting alone losing, its composure.

I looked to the French, which, in the book, is helpfully placed on the facing page:  “Aussitôt après que l'idée du Déluge se fut rassise.”  Alas, I recognized all but the crucial phrase, “se fut rassise.”  After a vain effort to determine what it meant, I decided to leave it go, plow through the poem, and, after that, the rest of the book.  Surely something would catch hold and resonate for me.

I discovered many beautiful lines—After the Flood is notable for them, in fact.  Here is one:
 . . . a hare paused amid the gorse and trembling bellflowers and said its prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web.
You can see it, can’t you?  A hare’s-eye view of the world, the spider’s web sparkling with water drops, the sun refracting them into the colors of the rainbow.

And there was this:
Stalls were erected in the dirty main street, and boats were towed toward the sea, which rose in layers above as old engravings.
I thought of the sense of perspective in ancient Chinese scrolls, where the sea does exactly that. 

Rimbaud piles image upon lapidary image, evoking the whole of earth revealed again after the Flood.  But then he writes this:
. . . Waters and sorrows, rise and revive the Floods.
For since they subsided,—oh the precious stones shoveled under, and the full-blown flowers!—so boring!
Boring?  Where is he going here?

I read through the remainder of the book, trying to find a thread, but failed to find any I could follow.  I read the book through again, with the same result.  Finally, desperate for an explanation, I turned to Edmund White’s biography of Rimbaud for clues.

I learned quite a bit about the man Rimbaud, not much of which appealed.  He seemed, all in all, to be a nasty piece of work.  But that, as we know, hasn’t a whit to do with the quality of the poetry, and Ashbery claims Illuminations to be “one of the masterpieces of world literature.”
Early on, Rimbaud declared his poetic manifesto.  “Let the new writers denounce their ancestors!” he wrote.  As White explains:
The “Letter of the Seer” is remarkable because it makes a clean break with the past and calls for a radical reinvention of poetry.  The poet is a seer who achieves his visionary powers by disordering his sense through alcohol, drugs, madness, disease, and crime.
Later in life, Rimbaud left poetry behind and took up a career as a trader in Africa.  For the views he’d held so passionately as a younger man, he had only contempt.
When his boss Bardey, for instance, asked him about his time in London, he dismissed it as “a period of drunkenness.”  And when another curious colleague in Africa asked him about his career as a poet, Rimbaud said, “Hogwash—it was only hogwash.”
Who, then, are we to believe?  Rimbaud the poet, Rimbaud the trader, or Rimbaud as interpreted by countless others?  As to that, from which of the Rimbauds should we pick among the many White lists:
. . . Rimbaud the Symbolist, Rimbaud the Decadent, Rimbaud the Surrealist, Rimbaud the Cabbalist, Rimbaud the Magician, Rimbaud the Saint, Rimbaud the Fascist, Rimbaud the French patriot, Rimbaud the Communard, Rimbaud the Bolshevist, Rimbaud the Honest Bourgeois, Rimbaud the Voice of the Ardennes, Rimbaud the Man of Action, Rimbaud the Adventurer, Rimbaud the Thug, and Rimbaud the Pervert!
If there was one constant that ran through Rimbaud’s life, it was boredom, a boredom he valiantly tried to forestall, if not to smash, again and again.  Of living in his childhood home of Charleville, he wrote, “I am decomposing in dullness.”  Yet despite throwing his poetic life over for that of a trader, he found himself in the same psychic place.  As he wrote to his family, Aden, Africa, was “the most boring place in the world, after the one you live in, that is.”

Which brings me back to the place I started, After the Flood.  By now, I’d got past that first line, though it still made little sense to me.  Other translations, after all, use “abate” or “subside.”  Even Ashbery uses “subside” in his introduction.  But perhaps composure, its loss and gain and loss again, fits best what the poem is about.  After all, what does Rimbaud do in the poem?  He reminds us of the comforting beauty of the everyday world, entices us to fall in love with it a bit, then throws it over and calls for a return of the Floods.

To hear Antique, from Illuminations, as set by Benjamin Britten, click here.

Credits:  The quotation at the head of the piece is from the lyrics of Patti Smith’s song Land.  The quotations from After the Flood and about the work as a masterpiece are from John Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations.  The quotation about Charleville’s dullness is from Arthur Rimbaud, Presence of an Enigma, by Jean-Luc Steinmetz.  The quotation about Aden is from Selected Poems and Letters (Arthur Rimbaud).  All other quotations are from Edmund White’s Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel.  The photographs of the book are by the author of the post. 


Friko said...

Good grief, Susan, if this is the sort of post you will continue to write you will leave me far behind and unable to comment.

You have me scrabbling for Rimbaud on our joint shelves to see if I can find a different translation, but even if I find one, what use is that?

I'll just sound stupid, incapable of replying coherently, intelligently or meaningfully.

Instead of answering your questions, could I please just say that some of Rimbaud's lines have always been and will remain sublime for ever and that for lesser mortals (compared to you) that will have to do?

PS: Perhaps Charleville-Mézières was boring in Rimbaud's day, we found it an interesting little town, historically, architecturally and from the modern tourist's point of view, it has some wonderfully posh shops.

Sadly, we gave the Rimbaud House and Museum a miss. Should have known I might one day have to show off my pitiful knowledge to a highly superior blogger.

Suze said...

'For the views he’d held so passionately as a younger man, he had only contempt.'

I wonder how often that happens, and if the incidence of such is coincident with a natural aptitude, or genius even, for a particular discipline.

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
thank you for that illuminating post! I know only a few poems of Rimbaud - which I like - but the theme of ennui seems to be a thread running through many French poems. Think of Beaudelaire (whom I admire).
It seems to me that it was fashionable to be ennuied, blasé. And when I think very deeply about it: it might be a cover up for fright.
I am trodding through E.M.Forster's "A Passage to India", for weeks now... it gives me - sorry to say: ennui. Then I found a passage in Forster's novel:
‎"Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence."
Ah - that quote explains why I find his novel so tiring to read - good sentences, but not much verve behind it, is my impression.

Mark Kerstetter said...

I like your interpretation of the poem. I think Rimbaud was so radical because of the way he interiorized poetry. He anticipated so much of what followed, up to the most abstract head-trips of modern art. The flood is an interior state, a state of the body/mind/soul - he examined (or created, poetically) these states with great art, beauty and subtlety.

"regained its composure" sounds like a phrase Ashbery would construct. I need to get this book.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. I think I agree with Friko .. it's way too highbrow for me .. and my education is distinctly lacking.

However I love learning and I have read through .. I wonder if the flood relate to the flood plains .. those widened valleys that absorb the waters in a never-ending cycle, allowing life to flourish again.

And to be bored .. sad for someone who obviously could see so much in life, yet not relish it, care for it .. etc

Oh to be so pig-headed too .. so opinionated as no-one else matters .. the one description White doesn't list is Rimbaud the Bore ..

I had to look up Watsui too ..

Well I learn! Thanks for the read .. you've opened my eyes to Rimbaud, and Patti Smith ... (I'm unmusical too!) ..

Have a happy 4th July weekend .. seems a very plebby end!

His words are extraordinary though .. loved reading them .. especially this one .. and yes I can see exactly what he's saying:

". . . a hare paused amid the gorse and trembling bellflowers and said its prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web."

Cheers for now .. Hilary

Von said...

Ah Acorns!I see why I always avoided Rimbaud, I always had that feeling of him being a faker and to be so often bored!It seems from the beautiful quotes that he did know how to see and to view life, but perhaps it was all puffery.How sad!

David said...

Brava for the choice of Britten's 'Antique' setting - I'd forgotten how well it could sound when soprano, rather than tenor, meshes with violins. She's very good, too. Only shame is that the fixed camera means we don't really register how Britten brings the violins in one by one, two by two, before pulling back again.

Next stop if you like this: 'Young Apollo', also A major, also not much but arpeggios (and in that case scales too). How much that genius could extract from how little - what a lot he has to teach the minimalists.

Wide Open Spaces said...

Well, another interesting post RA/Susan! I again feel unqualified to offer an educated comment, so suffice it to say that I enjoyed reading this piece and learning a little more. Love the photo at the top too.

Linda said...

All I can say is this was an extremely interesting post, and I'm glad I discovered your blog.

Susan Scheid said...

What fabulous comments! Thank you so much. And to each in turn:

Friko: Well, now, at least there was some glimmer of hope that you would have Rimbaud on your bookshelves! Would be interesting to find out about Charleville-Mézières then and now—though I suspect that, whatever the “then” was like, Rimbaud may have been a poor judge. And, last not least, of course I had to stop by Friko's Poetry and Pictures to see if I could spy any of your favorite Rimbaud poems. I see none as yet, but will hope for that down the road.

Suze: Interesting question, that. He does seem to be a bit of a special case . . . at least I hope so.

Britta: What a terrific point, that the “ennui” might be “a cover up for fright.” I hope you’ll share with us at some point your own favorite lines from Rimbaud. As for A Passage to India—well, now you’ll be having me pull that one down off the shelves (if I can find it) to see what I think on that. Loved that you pointed out Forster’s boredom quote. I hope by now you’ve been able to move on to some more scintillating reading!

Mark: I’ll be most interested to hear what you may have to say about the book. Your insight, “The flood is an interior state, a state of the body/mind/soul” is wonderful and makes perfect sense in the context of After the Flood.

Hilary: Oh, yes, “Rimbaud the Bore” as part of the list. It is fascinating, given his own psychic state, how exquisitely he described the natural world, in particular. And I commend to anyone his poem “The Drunken Boat,” in which he limns a voyage from the point of view of the boat (this is crudely stated). Remarkable poem.

Von: So nice to see you! Well, I agree that Rimbaud was not a delightful human being, but he wouldn’t be alone in that, while at the same time able to make beautiful art. He was, after all, just a kid, as Patti Smith might say.

David: Phew! Do you know how narrowly you escaped at Youtube of Ian Bostridge singing Villes? Thank you for pointing out Britten’s setting of Antique—I was pleased to find this example, and am well pleased you like it too. As for Young Apollo, I immediately had to seek that out, and it is wonderful.

WOS: Welcome back! Thanks for stopping by, and I do hope (hint, hint) that there may come a time when I can return the favor.

Linda: Welcome, and I’m pleased indeed you enjoyed the post!

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