Friday, January 25, 2008

I've been excited lately about Guillaume Apollinaire

Apollinaire by Vlaminck

It often takes me a very long time to really hear or understand a poet who ends up meaning a lot to me. Whether it's the cumulative effect of many pages, or the sudden arrival of the right page at the right moment, it the past few weeks I've become conscious that I finally get Apollinaire. I'm pretty dense.

The book in which Apollinaire first appeared to me was not Alcools but a selection from the later poems (collected posthumously as Calligrammes) in a bilingual edition selected and translated by Donald Revell, called The Self-Dismembered Man. The decisive poem for me, my new favorite poem, was the second-to-last, "La victoire," an amazing elegy for the twentieth century which ended with World War I–the giddy, hopeful, magical, arrogant twentieth century of cubism and imagism, the zenith of "modernity." He had fought in the war, and was to die on Armistice Day, 1918. Victory meant returning home to find that the world in which his great early poems had been possible was utterly destroyed, that the discourse of the first, innocent modernism had been erased, and that language was undermined on either side by the smugness of victory and the scared reticence of shell-shock. Before the war Apollinaire had written the first poem to take the Eiffel Tower, or the airplane, seriously–as Whitman had written the first poem honoring the steam locomotive. Now he foresaw a future when trains and cities would become merely quaint, and when poetry, if it could exist at all, would have to resort to "an assortment of labial farts" and "only consonants no vowels" to refresh the language. Did he have to die after that, seeing his work stalled or finished?

Some excerpts:

Hard to imagine
How stupid and smug success can make a man
. . .
The old words are dying
Only habit or cowardice
Puts them into poems

They are invalids
Christ we may as well sink into pantomime
It works well after all in the movies
. . .
An assortment of labial farts could brighten the discourse
Belch often and at will
And what letter is it engraves the sound of a bell
Across our memorials
We have never loved the joy of seeing
New things with adequate intensity
O my sweetheart hurry


Dreading the day when the steam engine no longer
Thrills you
For your own sake look at it faster
The sanguine choo-choos
Will soon be gone
Only to become absurd and beautiful

I read this poem while riding the bus to work (going over the bridge with a view G.A. would have loved, of multilayered traffic on six other bridges), glancing constantly back and forth between the French and the English. It's amazing that a poem could move me so much on a first reading under those circumstances. Something about the angry sarcastic desperation of "Christ we may as well sink into pantomime" (literally more like "everybody better get used to muteness quick"), and "for your own sake look at it faster." But it's a strangely hopeful poem too, with all Apollinaire's giddy, vertiginous, floating sense of a new world coming into being, his recurrent emphasis on the "horizon." (A word which, Revell notes in a "Translator's Afterword", appeared in nearly all his late poems.)

The new thing that Apollinaire brought to poetry was a sense of spacing, a new semantics of silences, the hover between unpunctuated phrases, a new more breathless atmosphere that alternates between unprecedented speeds and sudden floating stoppages of time. One can't help thinking of him as an aviator. Now I start to understand him, I have to go back and reread Alcools. And I have a fat yellow Apollinaire on Art out from the library, maybe I'll get to that soon.

There is something very moving and also disturbing about Apollinaire as a war poet, loving the world no less lustily than before as he watches it destroy itself. The poems would be less sad if they were less funny–by which I mean, he never shrinks from feeling, nor does he let a rhetoric or a message emphasize one feeling over another simultaneous one. This is very rare, and I'm not sure how he did it. It's impossible for me to imagine comparable poems being written about our present war. (But I'm not sure why that is, unless its merely the appalling closeness and equally appalling distance one feels as a spectator of that "news".)

Hey, does anyone know whether Apollinaire read Whitman?

Apollinaire by Metzinger


rodney k said...

"Now he foresaw a future when trains and cities would become merely quaint, and when poetry, if it could exist at all, would have to resort to "an assortment of labial farts" and "only consonants no vowels" to refresh the language. Did he have to die after that, seeing his work stalled or finished?"

Liked this post, Sam, and esp. the above. Tagged so often as the emcee of urban modernity, it's interesting to think of A. as the poet who foresaw the banality of innovation.

Nicholas Manning said...

This is really great.

The "superposition of feelings" in A, one over the top of the other, almost like an affective palimpsest, is a really insightful observation. I read that and thought: 'yes, that's what happens', though I'd never thought to formulate it in that way.

But it's a very difficult effect to describe isn't it? A's quite a difficult poet to pin down generally I think: you suspect he's a futurist, then he's not, then a dadaist, and then no not that either, then uruban hip proto-surrealism, and then well actually etc. . . .

It's strange he's still thought to be a "minor" poet by some otherwise pretty interesting and sane critics. I suppose he just never wrote an oppressively declarative long poem (even "Zone" is not this).

Interesting to note though that he's the most widely read poet in France today, by a long shot. The Gallimard cheap pocket edition of "Alcools" is in its like 76th reprint (or its 6th, but anyway cela fait beaucoup, quoi). And it seems like 30 percent of French people can quote the line about Christ rising into the stratospheres like an aeroplane.

Apollinaire forever!

Rich J said...

This is exciting.

Glad to be here.

There is so much &

I don't know any of it!