Joyeux Anniversaire d’Arthur Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud2


NEW YORKER: On a winter day in 1883, aboard a steamer that was returning him from Marseilles to the Arabian port city of Aden, a French coffee trader named Alfred Bardey struck up a conversation with a countryman he’d met on board, a young journalist named Paul Bourde. As Bardey chatted about his trading operation, which was based in Aden, he happened to mention the name of one of his employees—a “tall, pleasant young man who speaks little,” as he later described him. To his surprise, Bourde reacted to the name with amazement. This wasn’t so much because, by a bizarre coincidence, he had gone to school with the employee; it was, rather, that, like many Frenchmen who kept up with contemporary literature, he had assumed that the young man was dead. To an astonished Bardey, Bourde explained that, twelve years earlier, his taciturn employee had made a “stupefying and arthur rimbaudprecocious” literary début in Paris, only to disappear soon after. Until that moment, for all Bardey or anyone else in his circle knew, this man was simply a clever trader who kept neat books. Today, many think of him as a founder of modern European poetry. His name was Arthur Rimbaud.

What Bardey learned about Rimbaud that day is still what most people know about Rimbaud. There was, on the one hand, the dazzling, remarkably short-lived career: all of Rimbaud’s significant works were most likely composed between 1870, when he was not quite sixteen, and 1874, when he turned twenty. On the other hand, there was the abrupt abandonment of literature in favor of a vagabond life that eventually took him to Aden and then to East Africa, where he remained until just before his death, trading coffee, feathers, and, finally, guns, and making a tidy bundle in the process. The great mystery that continues to haunt and dismay Rimbaud fans is this “act of renunciation,” as Henry Miller put it in his rather loopy 1946 study of Rimbaud, “The Time of the Assassins,” which “one is tempted to compare . . . with the release of the atomic bomb.” The over-the-top comparison might well have pleased Rimbaud, who clearly wanted to vaporize his poetic past. When Alfred Bardey got back to Aden, bursting with his discovery, he found to his dismay that the former wunderkind refused to talk about his work, dismissing it as “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting.”

That Rimbaud’s repudiation of poetry was as furious as the outpouring of his talent had once been was typical of a man whose life and work were characterized by violent contradictions. He was a docile, prize-winning schoolboy who wrote “Shit on God” on walls in his home town; a teen-age rebel who mocked small-town conventionality, only to run back to his mother’s farm after each emotional crisis; a would-be anarchist who in one poem called for the downfall of “Emperors / Regiments, colonizers, peoples!” and yet spent his adult life as an energetic capitalist operating out of colonial Africa; a poet who liberated French lyric verse from the late nineteenth century’s starched themes and corseted forms—from, as Paul Valéry put it, “the language of common sense”—and yet who, in his most revolutionary work, admitted to a love of “maudlin pictures, . . . fairytales, children’s storybooks, old operas, inane refrains and artless rhythms.” These paradoxes, and the extraordinarily conflicted feelings of admiration and dismay that Rimbaud’s story can evoke, are at the center of a powerful mystique that has seduced readers from Marcel Proust to Patti Smith. It had already begun to fascinate people by the time the poet died, in 1891. MORE

VULTURE: At 16, she saw Arthur Rimbaud on the cover of Illuminations at a bus stop in Philadelphia and fell in love with him (“I think I sort of traded Rimbaudrimbaud for Bob Dylan for a while”), as well as his poetry. She brought her copy to work at her first job as a “baby bugger beeper inspector” in a factory, where she made $1.25 an hour and wasn’t allowed to read. Her co-workers were mostly illiterate and told her to leave it at home, especially because they saw it was in two languages and thought it was a communist book. “I was an arrogant teenage girl,” Smith said, “so of course I brought the book the next day. So they took me into the john and gave me a lesson.” At least she got a song out of it: “It’s called ‘Piss Factory’ because I got dunked in a little yellow water.” (Rimbaud probably would’ve been proud, for what it’s worth.) MORE

VILLAGE VOICE: Patti Smith opened her 2015 tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of her first album, the now-legendary Horses, in Paris at L’Olympia on October 20. Inside, the stage was bedecked with red and white roses, with a crown of alternating colors atop the bass drum skin, which read, “Patti Smith. Horses. 40th. 1975–2015.” The band would continue the celebratory theme by coming out dressed crisply in white dress shirts with black vests and ties, and then Patti herself took the stage in her usual uniform of black jacket and vest over Electric Lady T-shirt, dungarees, and black lace-up boots. She picked up the album liner for Horses and stepped up to the microphone. The audience burst into applause before she had a chance to perform anything more than that initial gesture. Patti flipped over the sleeve and began to read the poem that appears there, ending, “Charms, sweet angels — you have made me no longer afraid of death.” […] It was no coincidence that Patti Smith opened this tour in Paris, on Arthur Rimbaud’s birthday, at L’Olympia, the theater made famous by Édith Piaf. This is the country that has already made her a Commandeur in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an award granted for “significant contribution to the French cultural inheritance.” Smith sold out two additional nights at L’Olympia, and it’s easy to understand why. MORE