The Weekly Verse: Vagabonds by Arthur Rimbaud
Rimbaud is hailed by many as an exquisite genius who changed literature forever. Certainly there’s a long line of artists who cite him as inspiration, from Jim Carroll to Patti Smith to Bob Dylan to Pablo Picasso to Jack Kerouac to Vladimir Nabokov, and so on. Rimbaud himself was an interesting fellow; his wrote all of his brilliant poetry before he turned 21, and even though he died of cancer sixteen years later, never published any other poetry.
I’m not entirely schooled on Rimbaud, but I know he went on to inspire the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the Symbolists; Paul Valéry said of Rimbaud, “all known literature is written in the language of common sense—except Rimbaud’s.” Rimbaud was a proto-surrealist; his work is considered brilliant not only because it’s good to read but because it’s inventive–he was the first, or among the first, to step out of sensible lines of thought and expression and into the surreal and abstract. He also used the prose poetry form, which was relatively unused at the time, having been fleshed out from earlier prototypes by Baudelaire and Aloysius Bertrand.
This particular poem, according to the translator, is about Rimbaud’s relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine. They had a volatile relationship, often violent, even while they were lovers; they sometimes had knife fights, and Verlaine ended up shooting Rimbaud (though Rimbaud didn’t die from the gunshot wound). They were drinking too much, and probably too much absinthe in particular; both were pulled mercilessly into vice and degeneracy, and I’m sure the effect was twice as strong when they were together.
While their lives sound like an episode of Jerry Springer, both poets had a profound effect on modern art, from poetry to rock and roll. Writer Lisa Appignanesi said the men “were both transgressive writers who influenced not only modernism but also the young for many generations, including the world of rock and pop.” Patti Smith called Rimbaud the “first punk poet.” Rimbaud’s work unlocked something in the consciousness of many.
“Vagabonds” is a prose-poem that loosely tells a story about Verlaine and Rimbaud’s relationship, but with a dreamlike quality that strongly brings to my mind the painting The Night Café by van Gogh: the angles are funny, the lighting is weird, it’s dreamy but also a little sinister. There are words that insist bravado–calling Verlaine “pitiful” and his dream “stupid”–and words that might reveal vulnerability (“He saw me as a loser, a weird child”). Rimbaud rolls the volatility and uneasy trust between them into a small bite of a poem, but a good one.
by Arthur Rimbaud
Pitiful brother—the dreadful nights I owed him! “I’ve got no real involvement in the business. I toyed with his weakness, so—it was my fault—we wound up back in exile and enslavement.”
He saw me as a loser, a weird child; he added his own prods.
I answered my satanic doctor, jeering, and made it out the window. All down a landscape crossed by unheard-of music, I spun my dreams of a nighttime wealth to come.
After that more or less healthy pastime, I’d stretch out on a pallet. And almost every night, soon as I slept, my poor brother would rise—dry mouth and bulging eyes (the way he’d dreamt himself!)—and haul me into the room, howling his stupid dream.
Truly convinced, I’d vowed to take him back to his primal state—child of the sun—and so we wandered, fed on wine from the caves and gypsy bread, me bound to find the place itself and the code.
Bonus material: I went to see The Old 97’s recently and the opening act was Lydia Loveless, who I loved. She has a strong voice with just the right among of twang. If you like Neko Case, you should give her a listen. I’m talking about her here because she wrote a song that is relevant: “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” (see? Totally still influencing pop culture).