Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Read Rimbaud: Do It Now

Arthur Rimbaud, c. 1871

One of the sharper young folks I know is taking up Rimbaud. And bravo to that. Rimbaud was an extraordinary figure in almost every way. To read him is to realize it immediately. A 19th century French teenager from a small-town backwater who basically reinvents shamanism from scratch. On his own. And his linguistic genius, there's nothing else like it in English or French: the cussed sharpness of it, the fact that this is basically a kid from farm country who's read the whole town library and seriously intends to remake the world through language. The fierce oddity of it; the seriousness of the project--and most important, how in many ways one gets the sense that he almost pulled it off.

My friend laments that Rimbaud didn’t write more. I don’t. There’s already a wealth of material. It fits, of course, in a single volume. In English either the Wallace Fowlie translation or Paul Schmidt translation will do. And for a good biography, Graham Robb’s is very well done, though his readings of individuals poems often miss the boat, I find. No matter.

As for Bruce Duffy’s book, Disaster Was My God, it really is extraordinary. Graham Robb may be the best of Rimbaud’s biographers, but his grasp of Rimbaud’s poetics isn’t that strong. Duffy gets it, and writes a searing fictionalized account of the life besides.

For me the key question is this: What would language have to be for Rimbaud’s project to make sense? I’ve some writing on this problem myself, stored away, and hope to get back to it someday. Rimbaud, and later Max Jacob, very different figures, are the reason I took up French on entering university.


42 other important public service announcements can be found in my book Idiocy, Ltd.

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