Reader’s Corner: Rimbaud in Ethiopia

The legend of Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) is an intoxicating one. He started writing young, and by the time he was done at 21 years of age, had quite possibly changed Western literature forever. Poems like The Drunken Boat ripped something open in the era’s creative mindset:

If there is one water in Europe I want, it is the
Black cold pool where into the scented twilight
A child squatting full of sadness, launches
A boat as fragile as a butterfly in May…

Rimbaud also led the poetic lifestyle that many adolescents would dream to emulate. He debauched, he innovated, he caroused, he blazed forth briefly and brilliantly, he defined libertine.

He also may have changed history.

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Rimbaud in Harar, Ethiopia (self-portrait, c. 1883)

After a dustup with his lover, poet Paul Verlaine, in which Verlaine ended up shooting him, Rimbaud left France. In 1880, he washed up in, all of all places, the ancient trading city of Harar in Ethiopia. There, Rimbaud changed from dangerously licentious artiste to jack-of-all-goods trader. He even became an arms dealer, at one point agreeing to secure weapons for Ethiopia’s emperor, Menelik II, who apparently swindled Rimbaud out of the money he was promised.

According to Rachel Doyle:

Frustration aside, Rimbaud’s procurement of weapons for Menelik II may have been his greatest contribution to modern African history. Scholars reckon that the guns he sold in 1887 likely helped the emperor defeat Italy in 1896 when the country’s troops tried to invade Ethiopia. As a result of the rout at Adwa, Italy signed a treaty recognizing Ethiopia as an independent nation…

It’s not every poet who is still remembered over a century after their death. And it’s certainly not every poet who might have changed the course of world history.

Quote of the Day: No Armistice for the Dead

ww1trench

Today marks the signing of the armistice in 1918 that put an end to the First World War. The United States marks the occasion as Veterans Day, while in England it’s Armistice Day.

Although the day is meant to commemorate all the men and women who have served and died in the armed services, something particularly tragic and horrific remains in the collective memory of World War I. An official statement of Congress ending the war included this aside:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals …

Over 8 million soldiers and nobody knows how many civilians died in the four-year conflict. Some 36 percent of all British soldiers, and 65 percent of German soldiers, were either killed or wounded. And still nobody still quite understands why it was fought.

Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon

One of the war’s great poets was Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). He served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in France. In 1917 wrote a protest letter to the House of Commons, refusing to fight anymore: “I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” He was hospitalized later that year.

Here’s his poem, “Absolution“:

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?

Writer’s Corner: Publish Your Poetry

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

If you’re a poet, you’ve already most likely resigned yourself to a career filled with penury and frustration. Fortunately, every now and again, there comes a rare chance to make some money as a poet and (quelle surprise) actually get published in a format that ensures people who aren’t family and friends will read you.

According to Poets & Writers, The Academy of American Poets is making a couple changes to their Walt Whitman Award, which “is given to an emerging poet who has not yet published a book.” It’s now “the most valuable first-book award for poetry in the United States.”

Check it out:

In addition to a $5,000 cash prize, the winner of the 2015 award will receive publication of his or her manuscript by Graywolf Press, and a six-week all-expenses-paid residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, Italy.

So get your pencils and poetic sensibilities sharpened. Submission guidelines are here.

By the way, this is what the Civitella Ranieri looks like. Good luck.

Writer’s Corner: James Franco is a Poet Now, Too

At some point, you would think that the whirling creative polymath that is James Franco would settle down. Onetime heartthrob actor turned creator of curious art installment films (Interior. Leather Bar), star of trashy-smart comedies (This Is the End), director of small-scale literary adaptations (As I Lay Dying), author of novels and short stories, and now: poetry.

francobook1Instead of going with a big press for his collection, Directing Herbert White, Franco smartly went with one of the more respected small poetry outfits out there: the expert Minnesota-based indie Graywolf Press. You can read an excerpt from the collection here.

How is the poetry itself? Not that memorable, but not noticeably worse than much of what’s out there and not necessarily contingent on Franco’s name.

As David Orr puts it in last week’s Times‘ Sunday Book Review, it’s:

“Directing Herbert White” is the sort of collection written by reasonably talented M.F.A. students in hundreds of M.F.A. programs stretching from sea to shining sea. Which is perhaps not surprising, since Franco actually has an M.F.A. in poetry…

…uniformly written in the kind of flat, prosy free verse that has dominated American poetry for ages (typical line: “New Orleans Square is my favorite part of Disneyland”), with stanzas that aren’t so much stanzas as elongated paragraphs.

One could argue that it’s just that flat and unadorned poetic style which all too often reads as lazy and slashed-up prose than actual lyricism which has helped reduce poetry to its currently weakened state.

But Orr’s ultimate take on the book is probably the right one. In short, there’s a lot of bad poetry out there. Better that somebody with the name recognition of Franco is at least taking up the flag and giving it an honest go:

Poetry is the weak sister of its sibling arts, alternately ignored and swaddled like a 19th-century invalid, and that will change only by means of a long, tedious and possibly futile effort at persuasion. Perhaps it’s a blessing to have James Franco on one’s side in that struggle.

Reader’s Corner: Wilfred Owen’s War Poetry

German soldiers on the Western Front lucky enough to have been taken prisoner (Library of Congress)
German soldiers on the Western Front lucky enough to have been taken prisoner (Library of Congress)

This Saturday June 28 marked one of the year’s uglier anniversaries: 100 years since the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was gunned down in Sarajevo, helping to topple that teetering Rube Goldberg contraption of treaties and animosities that started World War I.

More books will be written about the causes of the war, the way it was fought, the aftermath, and so on. Relatively few of those books’ pages will have much to do with one of the war’s most important aspects: What it was like for the soldiers unlucky enough to have fought it.

For that, we could do worse than to look back at the great Wilfred Owen, a young British officer with the Lancashire Fusiliers who was killed in action just one week before the Armistice. From his mournful, furious Dulce et Decorum Est, about a soldier dying from a gas attack:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

The Latin in the last two lines is usually translated as “it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.” It’s a rather odious line from Horace that has often been taken seriously, most often by the sort of propagandists who like to get young men exited about going off to war.

Readers’ Corner: Whiskey and the Dylan Thomas Centenary

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Dylan Thomas drank here: The White Horse Tavern, circa 1961 (Library of Congress)

The thunderously great poet Dylan Thomas would have turned 100 years old yesterday. So of course the date was used as an excuse to announce that Rhys Ifans would be playing the writer of “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light” in an upcoming film.

Whether Thomas was done in by poor medical attention or the demon drink back in 1953 is still a question for debate. But what’s unquestioned is the staggeringly large amounts of alcohol he consumed over his lifetime—and when other writers are shocked by how much somebody drinks, then you know they might have a problem.

And whether or not these actually were his last words, they need to be noted once more:

I have had 18 straight whiskies, I think that’s the record.

Writer’s Corner: Poetry vs. Congress

Pundits who want examples of how America’s school system is failing can easily point to any number of metrics: How the kids are faring in math versus Singapore, or how few of them can locate their own country on a map. One other way might just be to listen to our politicians.

The right honorable Representative Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina) went on the teevee over the weekend to talk politics. According to the Dumbest Man on the Internet (Missouri’s own!), Gowdy “hit it out of the park.” Judge for yourself:

Well, how would you like to run for reelection if you were in the House and the Senate based on Obamacare with its rising premiums, worse coverage and now we’re trying to convince you that you’re better off writing poetry than you working and getting money?

For those in need of translation from this garbled blather from an elected official, Gowdy thinks that Democrats are telling Americans that it’s better to go write poetry than look for a job. His mangling of the language is bad enough, but his gratuitous slandering of poets is just plain wrong.

As the great Charles Pierce (who memorably identified Gowdy as “a congresscritter from down in the home office of American sedition”) points out, the House of Representatives isn’t precisely known for working these days, unlike poets:

Trey Gowdy, who gets a base salary of $174,000, will work a total of 113 days in formal session this year, in which he will do very little. I happen to know several poets, and I can say with authority that every one of them works harder than does Trey Gowdy, that Philistine meathead, largely because most of them are working two or more jobs, none of which provide benefits.

Readers’ Corner: Peter O’Toole (1932-2013)

lawrencearabia

Although he will go down in cultural history as the incarnation of Lawrence of Arabia (not so much the real-life one, but the fascinatingly cinematic variation thereof), Peter O’Toole had his literary side as well. When he passed away last week, most obituaries mentioned one of the hellraising actor’s more memorable lines of poetry:

I will not be a common man.

I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.

For more O’Toole greatness, check out Gay Talese’s rattlingly good profile on the man from Esquire in 1963. Among other snappy lines, it includes this bit:

All he knew was that within him, simmering in the smithy of his soul, were confusion and conflict, and they were probably all linked somehow with Ireland and the Church … a former altar boy, a drinker who now wanders streets at night buying the same book (“My life is littered with copies of Moby Dick”) and reading the same sermon on that book (“…and if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves…”)…