Towards the end of last year I was fortunate enough to spend time travelling with my partner and son through India, South-East Asia and Australia. The one poetry-book I allowed myself to cram into my rucksack on departure was the Complete Poems (and Selected Letters) of Rimbaud (the quite old Wallace Fowlie edition). Rimbaud has been among my favourite handful of poets ever since I discovered him as an adolescent, although I hadn't read him all the way through for awhile and thought he would be the perfect reading for a lengthy and revelatory journey halfway across the world.
Although it was by no means the only book I read (the serendipitous method of picking up and abandoning novels and other volumes in guest-houses and hostels is to me one of the curious delights of travel), my dogeared Rimbaud stood me in good stead and did indeed illuminate many an hour of transit with the crosscurrents and tangents of the poems' restless diversity and inventiveness, the way their linguistic evolution tracks an itinerary as wayward and exploratory as the poet's own.
With no other poet, perhaps, are writings and biography so inextricable. The year before, I had completed a radio-play (called A Poet No Less ) attempting oblique perspectives on Rimbaud's extraordinary trajectory, using for my main source the quite astonishingly brilliant Graham Robb biog. In an article in last month's Wire magazine, the musician Alex Neilson refers to it as "the good book", and I agree that it should probably be regarded as a kind of Bible for anyone with a serious interest either in modern poetry or the art of literary biography (only Richard Holmes' Coleridge and Richard Ellman's Joyce are in the same league.)
I'm currently (rather reluctantly) rewriting the play after a representative of the BBC suggested "a more sober treatment" was called for (what, Rimbaud and Verlaine, sober?!) with this time Edmund White's 'Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel' as my accompaniment. You can tell from the crude title that this isn't very good; in many ways quite superfluous if you've read the Graham Robb. It has the feel of a pot-boiler about it: the prose is wobbly and White's attempts at translating the poems are riddled with errors and infelicities. But you can't really go wrong with Rimbaud, the story is always so enthralling and White manages to invest R and V's escapades with an appropriate mix of comedy and pathos. He also has some interesting observations to make from a gay standpoint, although at times labouring the point, given that it seems probable that Rimbaud's only homosexual relationship was with Verlaine.
To return to my travels, I remember sitting on a train trundling through the suburbs of Sydney en route to the Blue Mountains and reading my way through almost all of Illuminations with that Dickinsonesque feeling of having "the top of my head taken off". In terms of freshness, it could have been the latest suite of prose-poems by a nascent young star of the American avant garde - it felt as though these texts written in the 1870s, far from being superseded or assimilated into literary tradition, were still in many ways ahead of us and in spite of attempts by successive generations of impressionable poets, still to be caught up with.
More radically than any of the other inceptual locii of Modernism (Baudelaire, Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins, Mallarme) the Illuminations initiate that rupture in the fabric of coherent, normative discourses whose implications and resonances we are still working through. Although Baudelaire is justly cited (eg. by Eliot and Benjamin) as the first important poet to take the modern urban environment as his subject-matter, how much further does Rimbaud take this in pieces like the 3 'Villes', 'Les Ponts' and 'Metropolitan', which enact dizzying detournements on the later-modern experience of finding yourself adrift in a foreign city - for me at the time, Sydney, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Mumbai; but for Rimbaud, Victorian London. His sense of bewildered, intoxicated anomie erupts in fantastical and excoriating perspectives which combine the brutal political insight of the Communist Manifesto (Robb conjectures that Marx and Rimbaud might have met in the British Museum Reading Room) and the fictive urban dystopias of Calvino's Invisible Cities or Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition.
In a later post I want to look at some different Rimbaud translations, including perhaps my own.