In the Preface to his wonderful 2011 translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, John Ashbery provides a blurb quote that’s already gone viral: ‘If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it's because Rimbaud commanded us to be.’ Many Rimbaud acolytes including Patti Smith long ago adopted a credo rather like Ashbery’s, but more often than not with an exotic, bohemian line back to 1870s Paris and the radical Cercle des poètes Zutiques who met at the aptly named L'Hôtel des Étrangers where Rimbaud had a third-floor room in late 1871.
Discipleship such as Smith’s tends to be inflected by the decadent effrontery of Rimbaud’s seventeen year-old behaviour and appearance – that sticky thatch of hair, the pale, icy eyes, dishevelled dandyism, pallor, bi-sexuality. This emphasis on Rimbaud’s ‘rebellious’ youthful persona between 1869 and 1875, the period in which we can date all the poems we know about – tends to generate a romanticised reading of the poems that stresses their subjectivity: their introspection, their ‘personal voice’, their lyric emotion. But Rimbaud’s training was in strict Latin verse forms (he won prizes at school); as I noted in a previous blog, he proclaimed his loyalty to the classicism of Racine, and his famous pronouncement ‘je est un autre’ (I is somebody else) is enacted through many of the self-abjecting poems leading up to A Season in Hell (1873), most notably perhaps in ‘Drunken Boat’. He wrote to his mentor Georges Izambard, ‘subjective poetry will always be horribly cloying’. The ‘disordering of all the senses’ that he advocated (misrepresented in the hallucinating 1960s) came with the rider ‘reasoned’. The Season in Hell poems seem to renounce this early manifesto – but Rimbaud’s intense struggle to think about the presence or abjection of the self in what he was writing continued into the Illuminations. What we now encounter is a profusion of selves and points-of-view, and a variety of ways of locating (and distancing) them; much of the poetry’s extraordinary energy comes from this rather than from what Frank O’Hara meant when he wrote something like, ‘Subject matter, how I hate it.’
Then, to a modern reader, it’s as though Rimbaud transported his self from an imaginative geography to a physical one – to Ethiopa, for example, whence he wrote not poems but letters, mostly signed straightforwardly ‘Rimbaud’, as if he’d finally got that straight. It’s as though, in writing the poems, he’d produced a mechanism that made the struggle with subjectivity redundant; he stepped through the mirror of the reflexive self and went elsewhere. Job done, he debouched for Djbouti. Thank god he was adventurous (not to mention in need of an income); even, perhaps, thank god the selfhood-ennui he struggled with in his poems wasn’t the banal product of coddled academic tenure.
It’s clear that Ashbery the poet-translator isn’t particularly interested in Rimbaud’s appearance or behaviour, less still in the mythology of romantic rebellion associated with his poetry – its lyric temperature. In his Preface he writes that, for Rimbaud, ‘the self is obsolete’. It’s also clear, however, that Ashbery doesn’t intend this to mean anything as absolute as, for example, the American Kenneth Goldsmith’s dogmatising in Uncreative Writing (2011) of such writing strategies as those used, or played with perhaps, by writers such as the wonderful Georges Perec. Perec, whose ‘story-making machine’ generated Life: A User’s Manual, and whose agonising exploration of traumatised memory produced the recast selves of W, or The Memory of Childhood, wouldn’t make it past Goldsmith’s border control, which turns back any non pre-existing, any ‘original’ text. In many ways, it’s writers such as Perec associated with the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle – workshop of potential literature) who explain what Ashbery means when he says that we are modern because Rimbaud commanded us to be.
The prolific American scholar and polemicist Marjorie Perloff, emerita Professor at Stanford University in New York, has been an influential advocate for a modernist trajectory of poetry whose sources run from Rimbaud and into America through Gertrude Stein, and subsequently poets including Susan Howe and Ron Silliman associated with magazines such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in the 1970s. Her latest book, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (2010) moves her polemic in favour of ‘appropriation, elaborate constraint, visual and sound composition, and reliance on intertextuality’ much closer to Goldsmith’s resolute rejection of original writing – of inventio as Perloff characterises it, by which I assume she means the rhetorical strategies linking personal experience to argument, rather than flights of fancy or ‘inventions’.
It’s about here that I feel the stretch from Rimbaud beginning to tear free of Perloff’s narrative. What Ashbery credits as Rimbaud’s push into the modern certainly incorporates the inventio that Perloff, and more emphatically Goldsmith, now claim to reject. But inventio was there the day I walked along Cox’s Bay creek and sensed some kind of my-self under a murky transparency on which the tidal junk of time washed in and out, and which might be pierced at any moment by – what, memory? Another presence? Arthur Rimbaud? The resolute vanguardism of Perloff’s (and Goldsmith’s) neo-modernist progressive time neglects the tidal, which also washes back out; which washes back and forth, not just onward.
There he was, all right, the seven/seventeen/one-hundred and thirty-one year-old poet, beady-eyed and on the look-out, ready to jab at the surface of the modern.
Kingfisher on a branch
above the Cox’s Bay creek
and a menacing heron
stalking the shallows below –
their shadow stands up over
the small fry in the murky
historical tide that flows
back up the channel to where
storm-water drains disgorge junk,
stains of domesticity,
of home-making, the dreamy
rainbows of effluent hope
swirling in the same spring-time
sunshine that casts the shadows
of twiggy trees on the grass
beside the water, as if
we were all dazzled under
the surface of something we
can’t seem to see past but think
we remember what’s up there,
those shadows, waiting for us?