Monday, November 5, 2012

A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud

Once, if I remember well, my life was a 

feast where all hearts opened and all
wines flowed.

Opening to

A Season in Hell
by Arthur Rimbaud
Translated from the French by 
Louise Verese.
How is it that someone who could write something as brilliant as "The Drunken Boat" could write the adolescent drivel I found in "A Season in Hell"?

I know that you really must read poetry multiple times before you can unlock it.  Because this is my first encounter with "A Season in Hell," I really should reserve judgement.  When I read it again, I'll probably have a different opinion.  However, this time, this first time, I had two reactions to Mr. Rimbaud's long poem: first I wondered if they had spiral notebooks in 1873, because A Season in Hell is just the sort of dark night of the soul introspective stuff you used to find teenagers writing in spiral notebooks back in the my day.  I still have a couple I wrote myself in a box at the bottom of my closet.  Don't worry, I won't be self-publishing them.  Second, why is it that no one ever sat that boy down and gave him the cup of tea and comforting pats on the head he so clearly needed.

"There, there, little Arthur.  It will be alright.  Everyone goes through this sort of thing when they are 17.  Janis Ian will someday write a beautiful song about it."

I should be kinder, I know.  

I found "A Season in Hell" to be a long screed against the world.  It's easy to see why both Allen Ginsburg who wrote "Howl" and Patti Smith who wrote the introduction to my edition both were inspred by Rimbaud. He strikes out against the bourgeios society of his time, against the poetry establishment of his day, just as they both did, and, to his credit, broke the ground that gave rise to new forms of poetry.  I give credit where credit is due. It's easy to see how Rimbaud's work would shake up the poets around him and affect so many poets who followed him.

But it's really the work of a child.  Rimbaud, along with both Allen Ginsburg and Patti Smith for that matter, did his best work, his only work, when he was very young, and it shows.  It's easy to rail against your parents when you're 20, not so easy when you're 50.  If you don't know that already, you will someday.

As for form, can someone point out what Rimbaud does that Walt Whitman hadn't done already?  I don't imagine Whitman was widely available in French in the 1870's, but he seems to be doing the same sort of experimentation with form, breaking free of strict verse, that Ribaud does in "A Season in Hell."  That Whitman did it with so many more years of experience under his belt should not be held against him.

For now, those are my thoughts.  I'd love to hear from someone more knowledgeable than I am.  I will come back to "A Season in Hell" again sometime.  My edition also contains "The Drunken Boat" which I still think is brilliant, so it's not going anywhere.

When I spend another Season in Hell, I'll probably walk away with a very different point of view.


Sandy Nawrot said...

I'd love to help you out but at this point I'm a block down the street. First I don't do well with most poetry. I haven't the patience to read something multiple times to get it. And second I don't really want to read poetry that is the work of a child. Still I'm ever appreciative of the warning.

Emma said...

I think it also reflects the dramatic events Rimbaud had just been through before writing this book, and if I remember from my French studies decades ago, what drugs did on him as well.

C.B. James said...

He was more than a child, but I do think the work reflects the point of view of a young person. I'm also willing to grant that his experience, much of it 'bad' is also reflected in the work. I'll probably be much more appreciative the next time I read it.

As I said, I love The Drunken Boat, so I'll be keeping the book around for a while.