I missed Rimbaud as a teen. Instead, I was fascinated by Norman Mailer, that pugnacious celebrity who’d written the Great World War II Novel fresh out of Harvard and then gone on to help invent New Journalism staring himself as the brilliant, loutish, descendant of Hemingway madly typing his way through the phantasmagoria of America in the Sixties. No author got under my parents’ skin like Mailer did, the good boy gone bad. (My mother had graduated from Radcliffe the same year as his sister.) So I’m sure I was hoping to learn a few tricks by devouring his books as an independent study project in prep school. Looking back, I think of Mailer as an argumentative fountain of words, a fountain not unlike my father’s once I triggered him on politics, a fountain not unlike the one that still gushes up and washes through my brain many times a day. I’m an argumentative prose writer in my thoughts, not a poet, not a Rimbaud. He’s not an arguer. He’s an exotic gathering of moths craving the lamplight at the window. In recent years, I’ve been reading Rimbaud, perhaps in hopes of enjoying a teenage rite of passage that I missed the first time around. But I’ll never take to the guy the way Patti Smith describes in Just Kids:
“I had found solace in Arthur Rimbaud, whom I had come upon in a bookstall across from the bus depot in Philadelphia when I was sixteen. His haughty gaze reached mine from the cover of Illuminations. He possessed an irreverent intelligence that ignited me, and I embraced him as compatriot, kin, and even secret love. Not having the ninety-nine cents to buy the book, I pocketed it.
“Rimbaud held the keys to a mystical language that I devoured even as I could not fully decipher it. My unrequited love for him was as real to me as anything I had experienced. At the factory where I had labored with a hard-edged illiterate group of women, I was harassed in his name. Suspecting me of being a Communist for reading a book in a foreign language, they threatened me in the john, prodding me to denounce him. It was within this atmosphere that I seethed. It was for him that I wrote and dreamed. He became my archangel, delivering me from the mundane horrors of factory life. His hands had chiseled a manual of heaven and I held them fast. The knowledge of him added swagger to my step and this could not be stripped away. I tossed my copy of Illuminations in a plaid suitcase. We would escape together.”
Off they went to New York. “Go, Rimbaud!” Patti Smith sang less than a decade later on her classic debut album, Horses. Now we have a new Illuminations translated by John Ashbery. Here’s one with a famous last line.
Morning of Drunkenness
O my good! O my beautiful! Atrocious fanfare where I won’t stumble! enchanted rack whereon I am stretched! Hurrah for the amazing work and the marvelous body, for the first time! It began amid the laughter of children, it will end with it. This poison will remain in all our veins even when, as the trumpets turn back, we’ll be restored to the old discord. O let us now, we who are so deserving of these torments! let us fervently gather up that superhuman promise made to our created body and soul: that promise, that madness! Elegance, knowledge, violence! They promised to bury the tree of good and evil in the shade, to banish tyrannical honesties, so that we might bring forth our very pure love. It began with a certain disgust and ended—since we weren’t able to grasp this eternity all at once—in a panicked rout of perfumes.
Laughter of children, discretion of slaves, austerity of virgins, horror in the faces and objects of today, may you be consecrated by the memory of that wake. It began in all loutishness, now it’s ending among angels of flame and ice.
Little eve of drunkenness, holy! were it only for the mask with which you gratified us. We affirm you, method! We don’t forget that yesterday you glorified each one of our ages. We have faith in the poison. We know how to give our whole lives every day.
Behold the time of the Assassins.