Tuesday, September 7, 2010
EDMUND WHITE'S RIMBAUD
This relatively short, but substantive, biography of Rimbaud came out a couple of years ago but I'm only getting around to it now.
It's part of a series of short bios edited by James Atlas and now under his name ("Atlas & Co."). I love biographies, and a series of short ones written by great writers who have an interest or a connection to that writer is such a great idea I bought most of them when they first came out in hardcover under the "Penguin Lives" logo.
And just for "full disclosure"—White and I were good friends back in 1970s and early '80s New York, when he was still writing fiction (FORGETTING ELENA was the novel that introduced me to his writing after we had first met and it still has a place of honor on my bookshelves). I still consider him a friend though we haven't been in touch in years.
He eventually became well known as a writer of nonfiction focusing to a large extent on his experiences as a writer and a gay man, and a gay writer who spent many years in Paris, teaching at the Sorbonne as I understand it. So his Rimbaud bio is a perfect fit and White brings much of his personal story and studies into his writing of it.
Rimbaud, of course, was not just a major influence on French poetry—and eventually English-language poetry and modern poetry around the world—he also became a worldwide symbol, his name an emblem, for youthful revolt.
But it wasn't his poetic innovations that made his name synonymous with rebellion, at least not for most (like Sylvester Stallone's re-imaging of "Rambo"), it was the legend of his life.
A young provincial, with crude manners at best, arrives in Paris seemingly all alone in the world and scandalizes society with his social and sexual transgressions, including his infamous affair with an older, married, well-established and respected poet, Paul Verlaine, while at the same time revolutionizing the art of poetry forever with his unique approach to not just traditional verse but what had never been attempted in poetry or any kind of writing before! And then while still a teenager gives it all up and disappears into Africa where he becomes "a gunrunner" before dying, still only in his thirties, never having written again after nineteen!
It's a great story, and a lot of it is true, though not entirely, and not so neatly, yet still quite inexplicably.
There is no question about Rimbaud being a kind of "child prodigy" (or at least "teenage prodigy") and poetic genius, nor is there about his widespread influence. Though I believe in our own time he is more known than read (like other literary icons, say Jack Kerouac for one, whose story also overcame his actual writing and who, like Rimbaud, was intricately tied to his mother despite the lone rebel image).
I have no doubt that two of my own contemporaries, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith—who Whites cites as part of the continuing line of poets and artists impacted by Rimbaud's poetry and life—actually read and absorbed at least some of Rimbaud's literary approach and techniques. But I suspect a lot of others impacted by Rimbaud's legend skipped the actual poetry.
I read him when I was fairly young, though I didn't really get into him until I married my first wife when I was still in the service and she brought a shelf full of New Directions with her including the two Rimbaud titles: ILLUMINATIONS and A SEASON IN HELL. They had an instant impact on me, as they seemed to on so many of my contemporaries—and generations before and after—when we were young.
But as with many innovators who seem to change the direction of history, sometimes that direction turns out to be a dead end. And that's the conclusion I came to before I was out of my twenties. I ended up loving the idea of Rimbaud and a handful of lines and stanzas and one or two poems much more than the main body of his work or the possibilities of writing anything like what he created.
[I was asked for examples of my point above about dead ends etc. Obvious examples of favorite writers of mine are Joyce and Beckett. Anyone who tried to imitate or even extend the incredibly original approaches to the novel that those two writers took failed, at least for me with maybe a handful of exceptions, whereas those who took the innovations for the novel of say William Saroyan or Jack Kerouac, and extended them in various directions often came up with their own approaches that were equally good to my taste. And as for Rimbaud, just taking the prose poem—which if he didn't invent he perfected and marked indelibly with his proto-surrealist technique—again, after well over a century I can only think of a handful of prose poetry that rises to the level of "genius" for my taste, and those take an entirely different route to their fulfillment (like say John Ashbery's THREE POEMS or Mark Terrill's BREAD & FISH, etc.)]
But I kept reading new translations and any biographies or critical books about his work and his life. In part because I was hoping to have that old flame—the excitement of discovery and kinship I first felt on reading Rimbaud as a young man—rekindled, or discover an explanation for why that wasn't happening.
White's book—subtitled "The Double Life of a Rebel"—reinforces in a conversational and personable way, the idea of Rimbaud's sui generis genius. But his examples from Rimbaud's poetry—though they illustrate his points very well and are interestingly and succinctly translated by White himself—still didn't generate a desire to reread the Rimbaud classics again.
I did anyway, just because I wanted to see what I felt about them now. And once again I found lines and stanzas and occasionally entire poems that struck me personally and strongly as genius. And almost all of his limited poetic output is obviously original, unique in ways nothing before and a lot since is not.
But I don't have the feeling I will be dipping back into Rimbaud's poetry again any time soon, if ever, as I do with so many other books of poetry. But any new biographical information that might further clear up what little mystery is left about Rimbaud is welcome, or any new perspective, which in some ways White's is as he uses all the previous bios both in French and English to summarize a lot of the more recently uncovered evidence of what Rimbaud's life in Africa was like, as well as aspects of his most prolific years in France and London, a lot of that time spent with Verlaine.
It's still a fascinating story, and the poetry is still deeply original, and I will never get rid of my old New Directions paperbacks of A SEASON IN HELL and ILLUMINATIONS, and who knows, maybe some time I WILL pick them up and reread them once again and find the connection to the young man I was who found the promise of youthful genius an inspiration and solace for my own teenage troubles and struggles.