Expansive Poetics – (Rimbaud)

Allen’s 1981  “Expansive Poetics” lecture continues…

AG: Yes. If you want to see where that came from we would go back to the French precursors, the heroic precursors, and check out (Arthur) Rimbaud‘s letters to his teacher. Does everybody know Rimbaud’s letters to his teacher, (Paul Demeny)  Are people familiar with Rimbaud’s early letters here? Raise your hand if you are. Well, how many here have read Rimbaud? [Allen is presented with a show of hands]  So everybody knows a little Rimbaud, and who he is historically. For those who don’t, he was considered the greatest French poet of the nineteenth-century. (He) emerged into literary prominence in 1871, when he was (only) fifteen years old.

The text I’ll read you is when he was fifteen years old, which has some of the same tone as the Russian Futurist Manifesto. This is a letter to (Paul Demeny) in Douai, who was his high-school teacher, telling his high-school teacher the great prophetic future of Rimbaud and what was going to happen to literature, (from) Charleville, his home-town, in his mother’s house. (the translation is by Louise Varese)

“Charleville,  May 13, 1871 –  I have decided to give you an hour of new literature. I begin at once with a psalm of current interest.
Poem Enclosed: “Parisian War Song”  (“Chant de guerre parisian)
And now follows a discourse on the future of poetry – All ancient poetry culminated in Greek poetry, harmonious life. From Greece to the Romantic movement – Middle Ages – there are men of letters, versifiers. From Ennius to Theroldus from Theroldus to Casimir Delavigne, nothing but rhymed prose, a game, fatty degeneration and glory of countless idiotic generations: Racine is the pure, the strong, the great man. Had his rhyme been effaced, his hemistiches got mixed up, today the Divine Imbecile would be unknown as any old author of Origins. After Racine, the game gets moldy. It lasted for two thousand years!
Neither a joke nor a paradox. Reason inspires me with more certainties on this subject than any Young France ever had angers. Besides, newcomers have a right to condemn ther ancestors; one is at home and there is plenty of time” – (That’s really smart, actually) – “Romanticism has never been properly judged. Who was there to judge it? The critics!! The Romantics? who proved so clearly that the song is very seldom the work, that is, the idea sung and understood by the singer.  For, I is another..” – [Le moi est un autre – The “I” is another – or, as Carl Solomon translated it, “I’s another” – for the “I”, the “moi est un autre. – he’s actually making an interesting commentary on the nature of ego. “I” – the “I” – “is another” – for “I is someone else”, (here it’s translated – Le moi est un autre – “I is another”, “The I is another person”) – [Allen continues] – “If brass wakes up a trumpet it isn’t to blame. To me this is evident: I witness the birth of my thought. I look at it, I listen to it. I give it a stroke of the bow: the symphony begins to stir in the depths or comes bursting onto the stage. If the old fools had not hit upon the false significance of the Ego only, we should not now have to sweep away those millions of skeletons who, since time immemorial, have been accumulating the products of these cockeyed intellects claiming themselves to be the authors. In Greece, I have said, verses and lyres, rhythms: Action. After that, music and rhymes are games, pastimes. The study of this past charms the curious, many delight in reviving these antiquities – the pleasure is theirs.
Universal Mind has always thrown out its ideas naturally; men would pick up part of these fruits of the brain; they acted through, wrote books with them: and so things went along, since man did not work on himself, not being yet awake, or not yet in the fullness of his dream. Writers were functionaries. Author, creator, poet – that man had never existed!
The first study for a man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, entire. He searches his soul, he inspects it, he tests it, he learns it. As soon as he knows it, he cultivates it: it seems simple: In every brain a natural development is accomplished; so many egoists proclaim themselves authors; others attribute their intellectual progress to themselves! But the soul has to be made monstrous, that’s the point – like Comprachicos, if you like. Imagine a man planting and cultivating the warts on his face.
One must, I say, be a visionary, make oneself a visionary. The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, keeping only their quintessences. Ineffable torture in which he will need all his faith and superhuman strength, the great criminal, the great sick man, the accursed – and the supreme Savant!…”

AG: Knower
Student: Sage
AG: Savant
Student: Sage
AG: Sage, yes. Good – [continues]: “For he arrives at the unknown! Since he has cultivated his soul – richer to begin with than any other! He arrives at the unknown, and even if, half-crazed, in the end, he loses the understanding of his visions, he has seen them! Let him be destroyed in his leap by those unnamable, unutterable and innumerable things: there will come other horrible workers; they will be in at the horizon where he has succumbed.

– continued in six minutes –

Here, I interpolate a second psalm outside the text: kindly lend a friendly ear and everybody will be charmed. I hold the bow in my hand, I begin:

Poem enclosed: “My Little Sweethearts” (Mes Petites Amoureuses”)

That’s  that. And if I weren’t afraid of making you spend over sixty centimes for postage – I, poor waif – [Varese notes Rimbaud’s poem, “Les Effares” (“The Waifs”) “describing haggard street urchins gazing through a cellar vent at bread in a baker’s oven”] – without a red cent to my name the last seven months! – I would offer you my “Paris Lovers” (“Amants de Paris“), one hundred hexameters,  dear Sir, and my “Death of Paris”  (“Mort de Paris”), two hundred hexameters! -” [Editorial note – Varese notes these two particular poems have never been found – Allen continues..] – ” I say:

So then, the poet is truly a thief of fire.

File:Rimbaud 2.jpg

Humanity is his responsibility, even the animals; he must see to it that his inventions can be smelled.

If what he brings back from beyond has form, he gives it form, if it is formless, he gives it formlessness. A language must be found; as a matter of fact, all speech being an idea, the time of a universal language shall come! One has to be an academician – deader than a fossil – to finish a dictionary of any language at all. The weak-minded, beginning with the first letter of the alphabet, would soon be raving mad!

This harangue would be of the soul for the soul, summing up everything, perfumes, sounds, colors, thought grappling thought, and pulling. The poet would define the amount of unknown arising in his time in the universal soul” – (That’s an interesting line)

Student: Say that again..?

AG: “The poet would define the amount of unknown arising in his time in the universal soul” … “He would give more than the formula of his thought, more than the annotation of his march towards Progress! Enormity become norm, absorbed by everyone , he would truly be the multiplier of progress!

This future, as you see, will be materialistic. Always full of Number and Harmony, these poems would be made to last. As a matter of fact, it will still be Greek poetry in a way, “This eternal art will have its functions since poets are citizens. Poetry will no longer accompany action but will lead it.” – (“Of course, this was the desire of the (Russian) Futurists, also. Well, of course, it’s the same conception that (Percy Bysshe) Shelley had,  that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world“, and it’s a very common conception, and it’s true, in the sense that before you can take an action, you have to have a thought, and before you have a thought, the poet’ll have it before you (I mean, any major thought, the poet will have first). (So) in that sense, “antennae of the race”] .

[Allen continues] – “These poets are going to exist! When the infinite servitude of women shall have ended, when she will be able to live by and for herself , then man, hitherto abominable, having given her her freedom, she too will be a poet..”

Student: Hear hear!

AG: “.. Woman will discover the unknown. Will her world be different from ours? She will discover strange unfathomable things, repulsive, delicious. We shall take them, we shall understand them.Meantime ask the poet for the new – ideas and forms. All the bright boys will imagine they have satisfied this demand: it isn’t that at all!”

“The first Romantics were visionaries without quite realizing it. The cultivation of their souls began accidentally, abandoned locomotives still burning, that go on running along the rails for a while. Lamartine is at times a visionary, but strangled by the old form. Hugo, too much of a ham, has really vision in his last works: Les Miserables is a true poem. I have Les Chatiments at hand; “Stella” shows the limits of Hugo’s visionary powers. Too much Belmontet and Lamennais, too many Jehovah’s and columns, old, dead, enormities

Musset is fourteen times execrable for us, suffering generations carried away by visions – to whom his angel’s sloth is an insult! Oh! the insipid Tales and Proverbs! O the Nights!, O “Rolla, O Namouna!, O the Chalice!. It’s all so French, that is, detestable to the last degree; French not Parisian! Again the work of the evil genius that inspired Rabelais, Voltaire, Jean LeFontaine with commentary by Mr Taine! Spring-like de Musset’s wit! Charming, his love!  Regular enamel painting, solid poetry! French poetry will long be enjoyed – but in France. Every grocer-boy can reel off a Rolla-esque apostrophe, every budding priest has the five hundred rhymes hidden away in a secret notebook. At fifteen, these flights of passion make boys ruttish; at sixteen, they are already satisfied to recite them with feeling; at eighteen, even seventeen, every schoolboy who has the chance, acts like Rolla” – (The Romantic hero- “..writes a “Rolla”! Perhaps some may still even die of it. Musset achieved nothing. There were visions behind the gauze curtains; he closed his eyes. Dragged from cafe to school-room, French and driveling, the fine corpse is dead, and from now on let’s not even take the trouble to wake him with our execrations!

The second Romantics are really visionaries: Theophile Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, Theodore de Banville. But, expecting the invisible and hearing the unheard being entirely different from recapturing the spirit of dead things, Baudelaire is the first visionary, king of poets, a real God! Unfortunately he lived in too artistic a milieu. and his much-vaunted style is trivial. Inventions of the unknown demand new forms

Trained in the old forms:  among the simpletons, A.Renaud (has done his Rolla); L.Grandet (has done his Rolla), the Gaulois and the Mussets, G. Lafenestre..”
(These are all relatively forgotten poets, except for (de) Musset, and.. actually I hear a roll call of now-almost-completely-forgotten poets, from Rimbaud, (1871), who, actually, were sort of hacks, as he was denouncing them at the age of fifteen, and whose names will be unrecognizeable to most people in this class) – “…Coran, C-L, Popelin, Soulary, L.Salles, the schoolboys, Marc, Aicard;  the dead and the imbeciles, Antran, Barbier, L.Pichat, Lemoyne, the Deschamps, the des Essarts; the Bohemians; the women; the talents, Leon Dierx and Sully Prudhomme, Coppee. The new school, called Parnassian, has two visionaries, Albert Merat and Paul Verlaine, a true poet. And there you are.
So I am working to make myself a visionary.

And now let us close with a pious chant.
Poem enclosed: “Squattings” (“Accroupissements“)

You will be damnable if you don’t answer: quickly, for in a week I shall be in Paris perhaps



Arthur Rimbaud – Fantin-Latour, 1872

Charleville, 15 mai 1871.

J’ai résolu de vous donner une heure de littérature nouvelle. Je commence de suite par un psaume d’actualité :  (“Chant de guerre parisien”)

– Voici de la prose sur l’avenir de la poésie.
– Toute poésie antique aboutit à la poésie grecque ; Vie harmonieuse. – De la Grèce au mouvement romantique, – moyen âge, – il y a des lettrés, des versificateurs. D’Ennius à Théroldus, de Théroldus à Casimir Delavigne, tout est prose rimée, un jeu, avachissement et gloire d’innombrables générations idiotes : Racine est le pur, le fort, le grand. – On eût soufflé sur ses rimes, brouillé ses hémistiches, que le Divin Sot serait aujoud’hui aussi ignoré que le premier auteur d’Origines. – Après Racine, le jeu moisit. Il a duré deux mille ans !

Ni plaisanterie, ni paradoxe. La raison m’inspire plus de certitudes sur le sujet que n’aurait jamais eu de colères un jeune-France. Du reste, libre aux nouveaux ! d’exécrer les ancêtres : on est chez soi et l’on a le temps.

On n’a jamais bien jugé le romantisme; qui l’aurait jugé ? Les critiques ! ! Les romantiques, qui prouvent si bien que la chanson est si peu souvent l’oeuvre, c’est-à-dire la pensée chantée et comprise du chanteur ?

Car Je est un autre. Si le cuivre s’éveille clairon, il n’y a rien de sa faute. Cela m’est évident: j’assiste à l’éclosion de ma pensée : je la regarde, je l’écoute : je lance un coup d’archet : la symphonie fait son remuement dans les profondeurs, ou vient d’un bond sur la scène.

Si les vieux imbéciles n’avaient pas trouvé du Moi que la signification fausse, nous n’aurions pas à balayer ces millions de squelettes qui, depuis un temps infini, ! ont accumulé les produits de leur intelligence borgnesse, en s’en clamant les auteurs !

En Grèce, ai-je dit, vers et lyres rythment l’Action. Après, musique et rimes sont jeux, délassements. L’étude de ce passé charme les curieux : plusieurs s’éjouissent à renouveler ces antiquités : – c’est pour eux. L’intelligence universelle a toujours jeté ses idées, naturellement ; les hommes ramassaient une partie de ces fruits du cerveau : on agissait par, on en écrivait des livres : telle allait la marche, I’homme ne se travaillant pas, n’étant pas encore éveillé, ou pas encore dans la plénitude du grand songe. Des fonctionnaires, des écrivains : auteur, créateur, poète, cet homme n’a jamais existé !

La première étude de l’homme qui veut être poète est sa propre connaissance, entière ; il cherche son âme, il l’inspecte, Il la tente, I’apprend. Dès qu’il la sait, il doit la cultiver ; cela semble simple : en tout cerveau s’accomplit un développement naturel ; tant d’égoistes se proclament auteurs ; il en est bien d’autres qui s’attribuent leur progrès intellectuel ! – Mais il s’agit de faire l’âme monstrueuse : à l’instar des comprachicos, quoi ! Imaginez un homme s’implantant et se cultivant des verrues sur le visage.

Je dis qu’il faut être voyant, se faire voyant.

Le Poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens. Toutes les formes d’amour, de souffrance, de folie ; il cherche lui-même, il épuise en lui tous les poisons, pour n’en garder que les quintessences. Ineffable torture où il a besoin de toute la foi, de toute la force surhumaine, où il devient entre tous le grand malade, le grand criminel, le grand maudit, – et le suprême Savant ! – Car il arrive à l’inconnu ! Puisqu’il a cultivé son âme, déjà riche, plus qu’aucun ! Il arrive à l’inconnu, et quand, affolé, il finirait par perdre l’intelligence de ses visions, il les a vues ! Qu’il crève dans son bondissement par les choses inouïes et innombrables : viendront d’autres horribles travailleurs ; ils commenceront par les horizons où l’autre s’est affaissé !

– la suite à six minutes –

Ici j’intercale un second psaume, hors du texte : veuillez tendre une oreille complaisante, et tout le monde sera charmé. – J’ai l’archet en main, je commence; [“Mes Petites Amoureuses”]

Voilà. Et remarquez bien que, si je ne craignais de vous faire débourser plus de 60 c. de port, – moi pauvre effaré qui, depuis sept mois, n’ai pas tenu un seul rond de bronze ! – je vous livrerais encore mes Amants de Paris, cent hexamètres, Monsieur, et ma Mort de Paris, deux cents hexamètres ! – Je reprends :

Donc le poète est vraiment voleur de feu.

Il est chargé de l’humanité, des animaux même ; il devra faire sentir, palper, écouter ses inventions ; si ce qu’il rapporte de là-bas a forme, il donne forme si c’est informe, il donne de l’informe. Trouver une langue ; – Du reste, toute parole étant idée, le temps d’un langage universel viendra ! Il faut être académicien, – plus mort qu’un fossile, – pour parfaire un dictionnaire, de quelque langue que ce soit. Des faibles se mettraient à penser sur la première lettre de l’alphabet, qui pourraient vite ruer dans la folie ! –

Cette langue sera de l’âme pour l’âme, résumant tout, parfums, sons, couleurs, de la pensée accrochant la pensée et tirant. Le poète définirait la quantité d’inconnu s”éveillant en son temps dans l’âme universelle : il donnerait plus – que la formule de sa pensée, que la notation de sa marche au Progrès ! Enormité devenant norme, absorbée par tous, il serait vraiment un multiplicateur de progrès !

Cet avenir sera matérialiste, vous le voyez ; – Toujours pleins du Nombre et de l’Harmonie ces poèmes seront fait pour rester. – Au fond, ce serait encore un peu la Poésie grecque. L’art éternel aurait ses fonctions ; comme les poètes sont des citoyens. La Poésie ne rythmera plus l’action : elle sera en avant.

Ces poètes seront ! Quand sera brisé l’infini servage de la femme, quand elle vivra pour elle et par elle, l’homme, jusqu’ici abominable, – lui ayant donné son renvoi, elle sera poète, elle aussi! La femme trouvera de l’inconnu ! Ses mondes d’idées différeront-ils des nôtres ? – Elle trouvera des choses étranges, insondables, repoussantes, délicieuses ; nous les prendrons, nous les comprendrons.
En attendant, demandons aux poètes du nouveau, – idées et formes. Tous les habiles croiraient bientôt avoir satisfait à cette demande : – ce n’est pas cela !

Les premiers romantiques ont été voyants sans trop bien s’en rendre compte : la culture de leurs âmes s’est commencée aux accidents : locomotives abandonnées, mais brûlantes, que prennent quelque temps les rails. – Lamartine est quelquefois voyant, mais étranglé par la forme vieille. – Hugo, trop cabochard, a bien du Vu dans les derniers volumes : Les Misérables sont un vrai poème. J’ai Les Châtiments sous main ; Stella donne à peu près la mesure de la vue de Hugo. Trop de Belmontet et de Lamennais, de Jehovahs et de colonnes, vieilles énormités crevées.

Musset est quatorze fois exécrable pour nous, générations douloureuses et prises de visions, – que sa paresse d’ange a insultées ! O ! les contes et les proverbes fadasses ! O les Nuits ! O Rolla ! ô Namouna ! ô la Coupe ! tout est français, c’est-à-dire haïssable au suprême degré ; français, pas parisien ! Encore une œuvre de cet odieux génie qui a inspiré Rabelais, Voltaire, Jean La Fontaine, commenté par M. Taine ! Printanier, l’esprit de Musset ! Charmant, son amour ! En voilà, de la peinture à l’émail, de la poésie solide ! On savourera longtemps la poésie française, mais en France. Tout garçon épicier est en mesure de débobiner une apostrophe Rollaque ; tout séminariste en porte les cinq cents rimes dans le secret d’un carnet. A quinze ans, ces élans de passion mettent les jeunes en rut ; à seize ans, ils se contentent déjà de les réciter avec cœur ; à dix-huit ans, à dix-sept même, tout collégien qui a le moyen fait le Rolla, écrit un Rolla ! Quelques-uns en meurent peut-être encore. Musset n’a rien su faire. Il y avait des visions derrière la gaze des rideaux : il a fermé les yeux. Français, panadif, traîné de l’estaminet au pupitre du collège, le beau mort est mort, et, désormais, ne nous donnons même plus la peine de le réveiller par nos abominations !

Les seconds romantiques sont très voyants : Théophile Gauthier, Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville. Mais inspecter l’invisible et entendre l’inouï étant autre chose que reprendre l’esprit des choses mortes, Baudelaire est le premier voyant, roi des poètes, un vrai Dieu. Encore a-t-il vécu dans un milieu trop artiste ; et la forme si vantée en lui est mesquine. Les inventions d’inconnu réclament des formes nouvelles.

Rompus aux formes vieilles : parmi les innocents, A. Renaud, – a fait son Rolla, – L. Grandet, – a fait son Rolla ; – les gaulois et les Musset, G. Lafenestre, Coran, C. L. Popelin, Soulary, L. Salles. Les écoliers, Marc, Aicard, Theuriet ; les morts et les imbéciles, Autran, Barbier, L. Pichat, Lemoyne, les Deschamps, les Des Essarts ; les journalistes, L. Cladel, Robert Luzarches, X. de Ricard ; les fantaisistes, C. Mendès ; les bohèmes ; les femmes ; les talents, Léon Dierx et Sully-Prudhomme, Coppée; -la nouvelle école, dite parnassienne, a deux voyants, Albert Mérat et Paul Verlaine, un vrai poète. – Voilà. – Ainsi je travaille à me rendre voyant. –

Et finissons par un chant pieux. [“Accroupissements’]

Vous seriez exécrable de ne pas répondre : vite car dans huit jours je serai à Paris, peut-être.

Au revoir.

A. Rimbaud.

AG: So that’s actually pretty terrific.
Student: (A) manifesto?

AG: Well, it’s like a manifesto. It’s like any of the great manifestos of that time, but then compare it then to the “Slap in the Face of Public Taste”, the elegant, insistent pride in spunk!

Student: Is there a response to that letter?

AG: It hasn’t been preserved that I know of, though, if you’re interested in Rimbaud, you can get an excellent biography, history, novel-like biography of him by Enid Starkie called Arthur Rimbaud – a biography

Arthur Rimbaud: A Biography

– and, after he abandoned poetry at the age of nineteen, and abandoned his old lover, (Paul) Verlaine, and ran off with various other poets (Germaine Nouveau among them), taking a ship to Java and then coming back, walking across the Alps in the winter-time to join a circus in Bavaria, and then returninig home to Charleville, he finally took off for Africa and became a gun-runner to Prince Menelik in Abyssinia, and lived to the age of.. what? thirty-eight?

Student: Forty-three  [Editorial note – actually, thirty-seven]

AG: Forty-three, dying of carcinoma or cancer of the knee in a hospital in Marseilles, babbling visionary phrases which his sister Isabel, come down from Charlesville to take care of him, failed to notate. So there’s a second book by (Enid) Starkie, Rimbaud in Abyssinia [Editorial note – Starkie’s 1937 book actually pre-dates her 1947 biography – for Rimbaud in Abyssinia see also Alain Borer – Rimbaud in Abyssinia (1991) and Charles Nicholl – Somebody Else – Rimbaud in Africa 1880-1891]. And there are collections of his letters from Abyssinia and from Marseilles, from the hospital, which are as poignant as his prose-poems. And his great prose-poem is (of course) “A Season in Hell”. And his flashes of visionary perception that he spoke of are to be found in Illuminations. We have some of those inour anthology.

(Audio for the above may be heard here, starting at approximately thirty-one-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately forty-seven minutes in)   

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