I’ve been meaning to write about Rimbaud for some time now. His poetry has been immensely inspiring to me and to others whose work I respect, like Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Let’s begin with the most obvious –
Yeah, that’s one 17 year old Rimbaud in his natural habitat. He wrote most of his poetry as a teenager and gave up on writing just 3 years after this picture was taken. This is very important and sometimes keeps me up at night. Realizing what he could write at age 17 is one of the few things that makes ME want to give up on writing… I don’t think the world would notice either way though, so let’s sail on.
He rejected everything – his mother, god, the army. When reading his poetry he said “shit” after every line. Took drugs, ran away from home several times and reveled in obscenity and filth. But that’s what teenagers do, I hear you quietly mutter in your wicker chair? Well… maybe now, but definitely not in the 1870’s. Back then you farmed some beets and died. No fanciness – only beets and death.
I first came to Rimbaud through Bob Dylan. Both share the skill of crafting intricate, visual landscapes of memories or pictures that jump deep inside you and never let you go. Don’t believe me? Get out of your goddamn wicker chair and let’s compare notes. Jesus.
Like Rimbaud, Dylan often jumped perspectives. Looking at himself from afar and judging the uselessness.. nay, helplessness of the “I” as a thought or a feeling is formed. “He’s sure got a lot of gall, to be so useless and all, muttering small talk at the wall, while I’m in the hall. How can I explain, oh it’s so hard to get on. And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn.” Notice how Dylan introduces the “I” and “Him” in the same verse. Dylan, like Rimbaud, enjoyed this divide in his identity.
Rimbaud: “For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it is not its fault. This is obvious to me: I am present at this birth of my thought: I watch it and listen to it: I draw a stroke of the bow: the symphony makes its stir in the depths, or comes on to the stage in a leap.” Rimbaud is helpless, like Dylan, against what he feels and envisions. All he can do is watch, forlorn, from the corner of his mind. This is brought on by the combination of a very sharp analytical skill and a sensitive mind, receptive to outside influence.
Both Bob and Rimbaud had very interesting lives, with decision-making constantly forced upon them. They both realized that you need to challenge and change your path, drive for experience and emotion and stock up on things to write about. Rimbaud wanted to transcend to a new form of poetry through what he described as a “long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one must be strong, be born a poet, and I have recognized myself as a poet.”
Or like Dylan: “Behind every beautiful thing there is some kind of pain.”
Let’s jump to Allen Ginsberg who I mentioned earlier, shall we? No need to get up. Oh? Well you can sit back down now.
Allen Ginsberg is one of the greatest American poets ever in the human history of the mammal world. And I’ll duel anyone who says otherwise. Like Bob Dylan, Ginsberg was greatly influenced by Rimbaud’s work, proclaiming him as “The First Punk”
From his lecture in 1975: “I was, in fact, physically, erotically, in love with Rimbaud when I was 18. It was my first.. “Voici le temps des Assassins” – that turned me on completely – and I went downtown to Times Square to meet a local criminal world with their “petty crime howling in the mud of the streets“.
That last line is from a Rimbaud poem “City” Noticing anything about it? No rush.
Yeah? Well- nah you got it…
If Ginsberg’s “Howl” sprang to mind, you’ve earned some beef jerky, or cake. Either one is fine. I’d prefer jerky… but we ARE reading about punks and poets so I guess you can do what you want…
While you eat your “not-beef-jerky” I’ll whisper you some interesting things about Ginsberg and Rimbaud. It’s raining outside now. Ever seen London soaked in rain? Beautiful people passing our window, dressed in the sounds of rainfall. It’s very easy to find yourself in a poem.
Let’s see how Howl starts.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
Now let’s push in some Rimbaud:
I saw with his eyes the blue sky and the flower-filled work of the fields; I followed his fatal scent through city streets. He had more strength than the saints, more sense than any explorer – and he, he alone! was witness to his glory and his rightness.
Along the open road on winter nights, homeless, cold, and hungry, one voice gripped my frozen heart: “Weakness or strength: you exist, that is strength. You don’t know where you are going or why you are going, go in everywhere, answer everyone. No one will kill you, any more than if you were a corpse.” In the morning my eyes were so vacant and my face so dead, that the people I met may not even have seen me.
In cities, mud went suddenly red and black, like a mirror when a lamp in the next room moves, like treasure in the forest! Good luck, I cried, and I saw a sea of flames and smoke rise to heaven; and left and right, all wealth exploded like a billion thunderbolts.
There are similarities and you can see where Rimbaud has influenced Allen. It’s the stark, surrealist imagination that both of their writing possesses. It jumps off the page and conjures up a memory, a scene, even a sense smell. As Allen wrote to his professor when studying in Columbia: “Season in Hell seems to me the most individually expressive poetry I have run across—more than any poet, I can understand the personality—half childish, half sardonic, somewhat sentimental, furious, jealously personal and strikingly dispassionate—from the poetry. I mean, it is so compressed and flexible that it contains whole visions in a single line. To me it is pretty clearly the work of genius, and so despite your lack of enthusiasm I continue to admire Rimbaud unabashedly. “
This is what all of these three poets have in common – they all have the ability to confine complex, immensely specific imagery into a single line.
I’m gonna leave you with some examples from all three.
Let’s start with Allen Ginsberg, one of my favorite poems of his called “Kaddish”. Allen’s mother had numerous psychotic episodes and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she later died. The poem recounts the tale of a young Allen Ginsberg visiting her ill mother in the asylum. He was around 13 years old. A 13 year old trying to understand his mother slowly losing her mind and the concept of insane asylums. Reading this you can feel yourself transported next to this young poet and every line gives us a perfect understanding of confusion, sadness and hurt Allen felt.
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handfull of rain, tempting you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing really nothing to turn off
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.
On the calm black water where the stars are sleeping
White Ophelia floats like a great lily ;
Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils…
– In the far-off woods you can hear them sound the mort.
For more than a thousand years sad Ophelia
Has passed, a white phantom, down the long black river.
For more than a thousand years her sweet madness
Has murmured its ballad to the evening breeze.
The wind kisses her breasts and unfolds in a wreath
Her great veils rising and falling with the waters ;
The shivering willows weep on her shoulder,
The rushes lean over her wide, dreaming brow.
The ruffled water-lilies are sighing around her ;
At times she rouses, in a slumbering alder,
Some nest from which escapes a small rustle of wings ;
– A mysterious anthem falls from the golden stars.
O pale Ophelia ! beautiful as snow !
Yes child, you died, carried off by a river !
– It was the winds descending from the great mountains of Norway
That spoke to you in low voices of better freedom.
It was a breath of wind, that, twisting your great hair,
Brought strange rumors to your dreaming mind ;
It was your heart listening to the song of Nature
In the groans of the tree and the sighs of the nights ;
It was the voice of mad seas, the great roar,
That shattered your child’s heart, too human and too soft ;
It was a handsome pale knight, a poor madman
Who one April morning sate mute at your knees !
Heaven ! Love ! Freedom ! What a dream, oh poor crazed Girl !
You melted to him as snow does to a fire ;
Your great visions strangled your words
– And fearful Infinity terrified your blue eye !
– And the poet says that by starlight
You come seeking, in the night, the flowers that you picked
And that he has seen on the water, lying in her long veils
White Ophelia floating, like a great lily.