Sunday, October 02, 2005

Rimbaud and Blogs

What would Rimbaud blog?

I think it would be great to stumble upon a blog that contained such poems as "Drunken Boat", "Illuminations", "Is she Alma?", "A Heart Under a Cassock", and "A Season in Hell".

What would you blog if you were to creatively express the dominant idea that is driving your life?


Rimbaud as Capitalist Adventurer
by Kenneth Rexroth (1957)

Bureau of Public Secrets


Most people think of Rimbaud as the very archetype of youth in revolt, as well as the founder of modernist poetry, and one of the greatest secular, that is non-religious, or in his case anti-religious, mystics.

[VASPERS: Rimbaud was raised a Catholic. He is considered a poet of angelism, like Rilke. I would not call him secular or anti-religious. Metaphysical themes run through his work.]

A kind of Rimbaudian orthodoxy has grown up which meets with very little protest. A few European critics have spoken in demurrer, but most interested Americans have never heard of them.

[VASPERS: Have never heard of...what? The European critics who slam the Rimbaudian orthodoxy? What is this alleged orthodoxy, what are its doctrines? Rimbaud was a Poet Visionary. What more do we need to compare him to Blake, Whitman, Blanchot, Jeremiah, Mallarme?]

I think myself that the whole Rimbaudian gospel is open to question.

[VASPERS: So? Everything is open to question, whether it likes it or not. What exactly is your question?]

The very title of his prose poems raises this question.


Does it mean “illuminations,” as in medieval manuscripts? The French verb is enluminurer. “Illuminations” is usually considered an English import into French.

Does it mean mystical insights? Does it mean bits of illumination in the French sense — enlightenment? (This again in the ironic French sense; an illumin� is very close to being a sophisticate or, feminine, a bluestocking.)

Nobody ever suggests that the first meaning to occur to an unruly adolescent boy might be “fireworks.” I vote for fireworks.

The neuroses the treatment of which now consumes so much of the budget of the more fashionable members of the American upper middle class are actually, by and large, palpitations of behavior due to unsatisfied bourgeois appetites and lack of life aim.

In the young, especially in the young poor, the syndrome is called delinquency. Its ravages are often attributed to television. Television has a lot to do with it all right, but not the horror serials, the Westerns, and crime shockers.

The real source of corruption is the commercial.

[VASPERS: But the commercial is embedded within the sitcom, the news, the weather report, and various films. This was written before the age of video game mind rot and attention deficit euphoria.]

It is possible to mistake a demoralized craving for Cadillacs for “revolt.”

Revolutionaries hitherto have not expressed themselves by snitching the gaudier appurtenances of conspicuous expenditure. Genuine revolt goes with an all-too-definite life aim —- hardly with the lack of it.

Whether or not there is anything genuine about the vision, whether the visionary really sees anything, is open to dispute, but there is a wide consensus as to what the genuine experience is like, and how the genuine visionary behaves.


This leaves us with Rimbaud as a sort of magician of the sensibility —- of that specifically modern sensibility invented by Blake and Hoelderlin and Baudelaire —- and an innovator in syntax, the first thoroughly radical revealer of the poetic metalogic, which is the universal characteristic of twentieth-century verse.

[VASPERS: This is professor-speak, it tells me nothing. Rimbaud invented colors for vowels.]

I think this is enough.

[VASPERS: We are so glad you bestow your approval on a poet who is millions of times more popular than yourself.]

I don’t think anybody has ever demonstrated convincingly that behind the syntactic surface lay the profound content of a sort of combination Bakunin and St. John of the Cross.

[VASPERS: You "don't think anybody has ever demonstrated..." So you seek demonstrations? Why not trust personal experience, an event of your own, a struggle with the bizarre dreamscapes of Rimbaud's "Illuminations", with a hare saying its prayer, through the spider web, to the sun. You have not received his illumination, so you feel that no one else possibly could either. You are wrong.]

The content is the season in hell, the dark night of the soul, the struggle with God and the State, of all adolescence.

[VASPERS: So now you are limiting struggle, rebellion, anguished idealism to youth? You see such pursuits, literary experimentation, social revolt, reform activity, as an immature striving, an amusing chase after hopeless dreams, that only children could enjoy? Why this "...of all adolescence", rather than "...of all humanity"?]

This, of course, has its own common profundity.

[VASPERS: You grudgingly admit Rimbaud's youthful rebellious poetry has "profundity", but you demote its sublime values by adding "common", to make "common profundity", an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Profound is usually thought of as also being rare, uncommon, extraordinary.]

I do not doubt but what the first flares to burn in the gonads of puberty do light up the ultimate questions of the fate and meaning of man, but that is not what the Rimbaudians mean.

The excitement and fury is not metaphysical, it is youthful.


He applied to literature, and to litterateurs, the minute he laid eyes on them, the devastating methods of total exploitation described so graphically in the Communist Manifesto.

Some of them were not very applicable. He “ran” the vowels like he later ran guns to the Abyssinians, with dubious results. Usually, however, he was very successful — in the same way his contemporaries Jim Fiske and P.T. Barnum were successful.

He did things to literature that had never been done to it before, and they were things which literature badly needed done to it...just like the world needed the railroads the Robber Barons did manage to provide.

Not for nothing is Bateau Ivre a schoolboy’s dream of Cowboys and Indians — that’s where Rimbaud belonged, on the frontier — with Cecil Rhodes.

And that is where, back in his home town, he was immortalized.

The old monument to Rimbaud in Charleville ignores his poetry and memorializes him as the local boy who made good as a merchant and hero of French imperialism in the Africa where the aesthetes who were never good at business think he went to die unknown, holding the Ultimate Mystery at bay.



This essay originally appeared in The Nation (12 October 1957). It was reprinted in Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays (New Directions, 1959), and in World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Copyright 1959.

[VASPERS: I took the Kenneth Rexroth essay, treated it like it was a blog post, attached a running commentary to it, and now open the topic to reader comments.

"What would Rimbaud blog?", with the Picasso sketch of Rimbaud, should be mandatory tee shirts for high school teachers.]

[signed] Steven Streight aka Vaspers the Grate


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