Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Terrible Infant

It's a surprising thing to find yourself, or something you've written, as a source for part of a famous dead poet’s biography. Especially a famous dead poet with an exotic, volcanic life. I’m speaking of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). I wrote an essay for a magazine about Rimbaud's time late in his life as a coffee trader in Ethiopia, about how he got there, unlikely as that was. I was thinking about writing something else about Rimbaud, so I promptly went to everyone’s convenient source of choice, Wikipedia. Lo and behold, there it is, citation number 64, a reference to the article I'd written thirteen years ago and nearly forgotten.

It made me think of how strange it is the places we end up in our lives. Here was this enfant terrible, possessed of extraordinary poetic powers, who ended up in a small house in Harar, in what is now eastern Ethiopia, having abandoned poetry forever some fifteen years earlier, counting his money, forever concerned that local merchants were cheating him out of a few pennies, or whatever currency they used.

But that’s not the way it began. 
Arthur Rimbaud

He sprang full blown as a poet from a small city in northern France. He was writing lasting poems by the age of sixteen. Arthur Rimbaud was a poet whose life was like one of those Roman candles that goes astray and sweeps erratically across the sky with the possibility of crashing into a house or a person or you. Everything about his life was dramatic, self-destructive and extreme.
He wrote incendiary, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes fearlessly sexual and often frustratingly complex poetry in the remarkably brief period he wrote poetry. Which is to say, from the age of sixteen to the age of nineteen or twenty. His most famous poems are "The Drunken Boat" and "A Season in Hell." Nothing had ever been seen like this in French poetry before, even from Baudelaire. After the age of twenty or so, Rimbaud stopped writing altogether. No one knows why. The rest of his life, he was a wanderer. He went in search of something he could never find, because it wasn't there. He looked for it in Paris, in Indonesia, in London, in Cyprus, in Yemen. And, finally, in Ethiopia.
Rimbaud by Picasso

Some artists love Rimbaud because his chaotic, fiery life gives them reassurance for their own. Or what they would like their own to be. (I am a passenger on that ship.) And Rimbaud's life was as chaotic as any self-destructive American artist's has even been, if not more so. Typical is the affair he had with the (married) poet Paul Verlaine that ended with Verlaine, in a rage, shooting Rimbaud in the wrist. As Allen Ginsberg said, "Rimbaud seems to be a complete turn-on catalyst to every poet in small town isolated, or big megapolis, staring at the city lights over the roof."  What that means to me is: don't let those small town minds stop you from becoming the comet that you are. So you destroy a few things, or lives, along the way. You're an artist. Yes, an artist! A pass for crashing through life!
Rimbaud in Ethiopia

The last years of his life Rimbaud spent exporting coffee from Ethiopia—an astonishingly able linguist, he learned the language quickly—and smuggling guns. All he cared about was money. In those later years, someone realized who he was (Rimbaud had become famous in Paris without knowing it) and asked him about his poetry. "Disgusting!" Rimbaud replied.
One of his last letters, written to his sister from a hospital in Marseilles, where he was soon to die at the age of thirty-seven, says, "Our life is a misery, an endless misery. Why do we exist?"  I can’t imagine myself saying that. But, then I couldn’t imagine my life unfolding the way it has, either.


  1. I learn a lot from your history-centered musings on various artists. Lucky for him the miserable life was short. From time to time I have to stop and remind myself that the academic life is a privileged one. Who else gets to read what they want, write what they want, and schedule their days pretty much the way they want. The pay is crummy. There's management to contend with. So, on the work front, things are more than ok. It's the personal side of things that is so persistently challenging. So, I have a poem for you, Professor Goodman. Roses are red, violets are blue, on this Valentine's Day, I hope love finds you. With warm regards, Jacki p.s. And we're so lucky to be blessed with beautiful, smart daughters who really do love us when they aren't absorbed with themselves. ;)

  2. Jacki,
    So sweet of you to wish that for me. I trust in your powers.

  3. "We do not write the story; the story writes us." H.D. the imagist poet said that first and my mentor/friend Helen Norris said that to me and proved it in a half dozen ways with specific incidents that showed up in her work. (She wrote novels, stories, and poetry.) I think as writers we must simply trust (and enjoy when we can) the process wherever it takes us--and ultimately, I believe, it will take us to the right "home."

    I enjoyed this lofty rumination, Richard, and would probably understand it better were I as well read as you are. Best wishes.

    Kathleen Thompson

    1. HI Kathleen,
      Thanks so much for your note. I never want to be lofty. Try today's post. If that's lofty, then I'm a monkey's uncle.
      All best,