Modern Times


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I’m scared of Arthur Rimbaud. Frightening lines like the following can be found in his last collection of poems, Illuminations, newly translated by the great American poet John Ashbery.

Long after the days and the seasons, and the beings and
the countries,
The flag of bloody meat against the silk of arctic seas
and flowers; (they don’t exist.)
Recovered from old fanfares of heroism—which still
attack our hearts and heads—far from the ancient assas-
Oh! The flag of bloody meat against the silk of arctic
seas and flowers; (they don’t exist)

What is most troubling about those lines is the way Rimbaud gives us our flowers and then takes them away again, twice. And I hear the word “sweetness” uttered between clenched teeth, with a hiss. This is a man, after all, who once argued that a poet must explore “[a]ll the forms of love, suffering, and madness. … He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences.”

  • Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by John Asbery. 176 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $24.95.

The poems of Illuminations barely made it into the world. Rimbaud gave them to his lover, the Decadent poet Verlaine, before leaving Europe on journeys that took him through the next two decades and to his death. Verlaine was just getting out of prison, having been put there for shooting at Rimbaud with a revolver, hitting him once in the hand. Rimbaud and Verlaine were engaged in a drink- and drug-filled binge that drove them both to the edge of sanity. They were living in filth and violence at the fringes of society, all in the name of a greater poetic truth. Rimbaud was 20 years old. He’d written a handful of poems and some prose. The poems are no less fiery today than when he first wrote them. I say fiery because that is what Rimbaud’s writing does, it burns. But at 20, he was done. He had lived a few short years as a selfish and monstrous poet and that was the end of his writing career. He would live into early middle age as a traveler in the colonial world. He schemed and cheated and tricked his way through those brutal experiences and then he died. In short, it is very difficult to sympathize with or even understand Rimbaud as a human being. I suspect it is impossible.

His poetry will not be understood either. It isn’t written for understanding. It doesn’t enter the mind so much as it finds a way directly into the nervous system, the heart, the soul. It is difficult to explain what happens when reading Rimbaud since the very act of explanation is an attempt to translate the poetry from a non-intellectual into an intellectual framework. Perhaps that is the problem with poetry in general. It impacts us in a way that cannot, by its nature, be discussed in any clear manner, which frustrates us and kicks up all manner of paradox. Plato was already complaining about this 2,500 years ago in his dialogue Ion. In that dialogue, Socrates takes a young rhetor (one of the traveling performers who recited the epics of Homer at public gatherings in ancient Greece) through a typically devastating analysis of the rhetorical craft. In the end, Ion decides, with much help from Socrates, that poetry is a divine madness that no one really understands. Since we have no idea where it comes from or what it means, practitioners of poetry and poetic recitation must either be dishonest or divinely touched. “Call me touched, then,” replies Ion.

If Ion was touched, then Rimbaud was grabbed and well-nigh throttled. Verse of such raw power spilled out of him at such a young age, and in the midst of such terrible behavior, that it is difficult not to think he was merely the vessel, the cipher for some greater force. That is, actually, pretty close to what John Ashbery thinks. Ashbery even gives the greater force a name in the preface to his translation of Illuminations: “absolutely modern.” “If we are absolutely modern — ,” writes Ashbery, “and we are — it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.”

What, then, is this force of the absolutely modern that spoke through Rimbaud and that made its uncompromising demands on the rest of us? For Ashbery, it is a flattening out and accessibility of all things, all experiences. Speaking of Rimbaud, Ashbery says, “absolute modernity was for him the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second.” And that is all Ashbery tells us before launching into his translation of the poetry of Rimbaud.

Ashbery did, though, write more expansively on this idea in a lecture he gave about the relatively obscure 19th-century English poet John Clare. Clare wrote some reasonably good poetry in the early part of the 19th century. Then (more interesting to Ashbery), he started to go off the deep end, finding himself institutionalized at the High Beech asylum for the first time in 1837. And it is the poems written during Clare’s asylum years, at High Beech and then at Northborough, that represent Clare’s greatest literary accomplishment, a poetic modernity that Ashbery calls, “a kind of nakedness of vision.”

Reading John Clare, Ashbery experiences a version of the “simultaneity” that impacts him so forcefully in reading Rimbaud. He writes, “The sudden, surprising lack of distance between poet and reader is in proportion to the lack of distance between the poet and the poem; he [Clare] is the shortest distance between poem and reader.” A lot of different people — artists, philosophers, scientists, regular folk — have made their own versions of the same point. Modernity takes away distance. It makes everything feel present. Maybe another way to express the same idea is that, with the modern world, every single thing suddenly feels as if it simply is what it is. There is no reference outside of experience itself, no Gods, no metaphysics, no transcendence, nothing immaterial, nothing unseen. There is nothing beyond what is immediately presented to us. There is great joy to be found in the possibility of encountering so many things in the infinite world. There is, at the same time, a weariness in so many things, so many things. Ashbery quotes the following lines from John Clare as an illustration:

Ah, as the traveler from the mountain-top
Looks down on misty kingdoms spread below,
And meditates beneath the steepy drop
What life and lands exist, and rivers flow;
How fain that hour the anxious soul would know
Of all his eye beholds—but tis vain:
So Lubin eager views this world of woe,
And wishes time her secrets would explain,
If he may live for joys or sink in ‘whelming pain.

Isn’t this roughly the same mood as can be found in Rimbaud? In Illuminations, there is a poem titled Departure.

Enough seen. The vision has been encountered in all
Enough had. Sounds of cities, in the evening, and in
sunlight, and always.
Enough known. The stations of life.—O sounds and
Departure amid new noise and affection!

It seems that the poetry of the absolutely modern is both exhaustive and exhausting. There is so much to catalogue, so much to notice. And then the tiredness sets in, the depression. Everything is the same. And then the sameness becomes exciting again because it means we can have it all, there is no beyond. The democracy of all experience fills up the heart. And then it collapses again. The simultaneity and the lack of distance means that no single experience matters any more than another. The cycling back and forth in joy and despair becomes overwhelming. The whole cycle threatens to collapse. In a poem titled “For John Clare,” Ashbery wrote the following line: “There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new, never any different.”

It is a brave thing to face the world as absolutely modern. Eventually, it has to culminate in the obliteration even of the self that is observing the world of infinite simultaneity, since that self must be nothing more or less than another thing among things. Ashbery says, “the self is obsolete: In Rimbaud’s famous formulation, ‘I is someone else’ (‘Je est un autre‘).” To be absolutely modern is to recognize, finally, that nothing matters, not even the subject making that very observation.

As much as the world has changed since the days of Rimbaud, I suspect that we are still, as Ashbery claims, just as absolutely modern today as Rimbaud wanted us to be then. To read Rimbaud’s poetry today, then, is to permit oneself to experience complete devastation, complete obliteration and still to feel, somehow, that this is an accomplishment. The line about being absolutely modern comes from Rimbaud’s “A Season In Hell.” He wrote:

O damned ones, what if I avenged myself!
One must be absolutely modern.
No hymns! Hold the ground gained. Arduous night! The dried blood smokes on my face, and I have nothing behind me but that horrible bush!…

There is a funny kind of hope there, I suppose. The obliteration of all distance, the reduction of all meaning to what is immediately present — all of this is “ground gained.” We are enjoined to hold that ground, to prize it. Ashbery says at the end of his essay on John Clare that Clare’s journey into the absolutely modern ended in long desolation and then death. “But,” Ashbery says, “the rewards for us are great.” What does he mean by this? Is there a way to live in the desolation of the absolutely modern, even to rejoice in it? John Clare was not able to do it; the prospect drove him completely mad. Rimbaud wrote his poetry of absolute modernity and then ran away, gave up writing completely, abandoning the very ground he begged the rest of us to defend. Maybe John Ashbery himself is the answer. Maybe his life of poetic production under the command of being absolutely modern is the proof that it can be done. I honestly don’t know. But the poems Rimbaud wrote in Illuminations are no less thrilling, no less terrifying than they were more than a century ago. The feeling of being absolutely modern and not knowing what to do about it is still with us. Or, as Rimbaud expresses it:

—Well up, pond;—Foam, roll on the bridge and above the woods;—black cloths and organs,—lightning and thunder, rise and roll;—Waters and sorrows, rise and revive the Floods.
For since they subsided—oh the precious stones shoveled under and the full blown flowers!—so boring! and the Queen, the Witch who lights her coals in the clay pot, will never want to tell us what she knows, and which we do not know.

6 April 2011