On Apollinaire

Apollinaire seems to me the best of the “poets of the future” in this century. His entire Oeuvre should really be called A la recherche de l’avenir. Although he was born in 1880 and died in 1918 and thus spent less than two decades in the century with which he’s so closely identified, it is the search for the future—that is, the meaning of the arts in the twentieth century—that was to give his brief mercurial life its underlying stability and his poems their distinctive gaiety and pessimism. He thought of art us a battlefield, but with comrades rather than enemies—the enemies were in fact simply the people who couldn’t see the future or understand it. And Apollinaire’s battle was to make the future clear to himself and to others. His best poems—poems like “Les collines,” “Vendemiare,” “La jolle rousse.” “Zone,” “La Maison des Marts“—have about them the force of prophecy, are extravagant visions, vatic chants, commingling of the carnal and celestial, yet rendered in an extremely simple voice; the language itself is not simple, or is simple only in the sense of Adam at the dawn of paradise naming the animals…

La victoire avant tout sera
De blen voir ou loin
De iout voir
De près
Et que ioul ait UH nom nouveau

Apollinaire seemed to have a real feeling for the twentieth century, its marvels and disasters, both the clutter of the cities and factories and the panoply of new ideas and inventions; a feeling which somehow got all mixed up with his personal life—his love life, especially. He was still a young man when he died, in his late thirties, and must have known that his own imminent and baleful end awaited him at the front. One senses through his lines—and long before the poems he was to write under fire in the trenches at Nimes—the aura of epitaphs or premonitions of early death or the drains of expiation. His own actual dealth was of course as mysterious and “mythical” as any in his work, occurring on the eve of the Armistice, the crowds below his window shouting “Mort a Guillaumal“—meaning Death to the Kaiser.

He played the fool among Braque and Pleasso and Cocteau, but was the fragle clown of his epoch. His life was touched by the idiosyncratic, the ill-starred, the miraculous: the “theft” of the Mona Lisn; his incarceration at La Sanio prison; his pornography; his campaign on behalf of the “new art” or the “new spilt”: his advertisement of himself as the child of his century, as vagabond and bastard: the periodic temptation to the Catholicism of his youth (“si je m’ecoutais je me ferais pretre ou religieux“); the flotsam of his love life and the jetsam of his erotica (was it not Apollinaire who once said that a man is always impotent with the woman he loves?): the pictorial poems in Calligrammes (a poem about rain in the typographical shape of falling raindrops) or the…

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