Guillaume Apollinaire, Copywriter of the New
By Darran Anderson.
On an idle Tuesday morning, in the summer of 1911, the Mona Lisa vanished. For a time, nobody noticed the bare rectangular space next to the Titian in the Salon Carré section of the Louvre. Eventually it came to the attention of a passing artist Louis Béroud (to add a Borgesian slant to the curious emerging whodunnit, Béroud specialised in painting himself painting famous paintings for tourists). With theatrical alarm, Béroud notified the museum’s security guards, who in a state of nonchalance or numbed disbelief, presumed it had been taken away to be cleaned, photographed or reframed. After all, the gallery’s director had often boasted to the press that there was more chance of the Notre Dame being stolen. Added to this was the fact that Da Vinci’s painting was the most famous on the planet, making it both a priceless artifact and an unsellable liability for any thief. Béroud persisted, eventually resorting to offering the guards a bribe to go look for it. The 400 year old painting had indeed been stolen. The police were called, the museum was closed and an investigation launched, an investigation that would set into motion a series of events which would result in the untimely death of one of the greatest writers of the age, a writer by the name of Guillaume Apollinaire.
Today Apollinaire is remembered, when he is remembered, as simply the man who baptised Surrealism. He was however infinitely more than this; cultural svengali, writer of filth, phantasms and proclamations, poet, polemicist, playwright, librettist, artist, traveller, soldier, hopeless romantic and carouser of note. “Copywriter of the new” in Frank Kermode’s memorable phrase, the martyred patron saint of Modernism. What accounts for the relative obscurity he is held in today is puzzling; perhaps he was too much of an artist’s artist and so never permeated beyond a narrow elite of admirers, perhaps it’s because he died just before the ideas he sowed came to fruition, that he was too far ahead of his time and others less brilliant but more disciplined and diligent reaped the benefits and acclaim. Or perhaps it’s because there never really was an Apollinaire, at least in an easily definable form, that he was a set of paradoxes not easily packaged for mass consumption or caricatured into an icon the way that his friend Picasso was. Apollinaire, the man who was too many things, the innovator who was too far ahead of the world, the writer whose time may only now be coming to pass.
According to official records, Guillaume Apollinaire was born twice; on the 25th of August 1880 and again a day later (in the city of Rome). Consequently, he was given two sets of birth certificates and corresponding names; Guillelmus Apollinaris (the name coming appropriately from the Greek God of poetry and oracles Apollo) Albertus de Kostrowitzky and Guilliaume-Apollinaire-Albert. Throughout his life, Apollinaire would claim he was a blue-blooded Russian prince, a Polish aristocrat and, with irreverent relish, the bastard son of His Holiness Pope Leo XIII himself. Most put this down to his talent for self-publicity, in fact his boasts were closer to reality than suspected. Though it’s a matter of some debate, his father was most likely Francesco Flugi D’Aspermont, an Italian from a family on the periphery of Bourbon nobility and who, with customary aristocratic chivalry, ditched his mistress and child when the threat of scandal arose. The young Guillaume instead spent his youth travelling with his mother Angelica Kostrowicka, a Polish noblewoman and prolific gambler, around the casinos of Europe, enjoying a lifestyle that lurched wildly from the extravagant to the dissolute (from the toast of high society soirées to fleeing hotels in the middle of the night). In his early twenties, Apollinaire settled in Paris (having visited the metropolis as a child during the Exposition Universelle of 1889 at which the Eiffel Tower, a construction he became fixated on, was unveiled). There he dabbled in anarchism, became a Dreyfusard in the great anti-semitic schism that ran through French society and was drawn to writing initially under his school nickname ‘Kostro’ and then the Gothic guise ‘Guillaume Macabre’ (a tip of the hat to predecessors such as Poe and Lautréamont ). Significantly, he funded his early literary endeavours, setting up his own brief periodicals Le Festin d’Ésope (‘Aesop’s Feast’ – named after an étude by the mysterious outsider composer Alkan) and La Revue Immoraliste (‘The Immoralist Review’), by ghost-writing erotic novels (there’s an entire alternate history of literature and high art in Paris being funded by smut – take Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press which funded the work of Troochi, Miller, Beckett and Burroughs, a story for another time). As it happened, Guillaume had a rare talent for pornography (of an extravagantly sordid kind but containing a rare gallow’s humour), his books including (and the titles are fitting) The Cheap Little Hole, The 11,000 Rods or The Amorous Adventures of Prince Mony Vibescu , Memoirs of a Young Rakehell, and The Debauched Hospodar (sample quote; “as soon as she had let go of his balls the prince hurled himself upon her”). Such were the more trangressive elements of the books (homosexuality, orgies, incest, BSDM), the books’ author was listed only as the engimatic ‘G.A’. They sold well under the counter, being denied full legal publication in France until the 1970’s.
Whilst writing of bodice-ripping, vampiric necrophiles and tumescent members, the young Apollinaire fell in with an emerging crowd of largely-foreign artists (for all the decadent delights and intellectual hothouses of the metropolis, most of standout cultural figures then, as often now, were so-called ‘provincials’), who congregated around the then little-known Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and who were based in Le Bateau-Lavoir section of Montmartre (the area was so named as the dank garrets and bohemian squats were so run-down they creaked in the wind like ships in a storm). For a decade, the area flourished as an artistic citadel to a degree arguably never seen before or since, the list of artists and writers who lived there (Matisse, Braque, Modigliani, Utrillo, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Radiguet etc) an embarrassment of riches. In the midst of this daunting collection of genius and narcissism, Apollinaire became indispensable. A naturally gregarious person with a child-like élan for pleasure and play, he ingratiated himself with everyone who was anyone. It would be tempting to paint him as a sort of Zelig, the ‘Where’s Wally’ of bohemian Paris, but that would be unfair, for arguably Apollinaire became the central figure in the scene, the fulcrum which linked the writers with the artists and the dynamo that encouraged all these erratic talents. In their midst, he found his calling as an agitator for art, writing with boundless enthusiasm in favour of the works of the coming generation. In many ways, it was his encouragement that helped raise many of the artist’s to their full greatness, in terms of public perception and also crucially self-belief. Picasso didn’t merely paint, in the words of his propagandist Apollinaire, he “interrogated the universe.” Apollinaire exhorted Matisse, at a time when his work was being condemned as “a pot of paint flung in the public’s face” – “People look at you and see a monster when there is, in fact, a miracle” and aided the artist’s eventual acceptance and then canonisation by writing, “We are not here in the presence of an extravagant or an extremist undertaking: Matisse’s art is eminently reasonable.” He discovered Henri Rousseau, then a customs official and a weekend amateur artist, and jointly threw the famous banquet in his honour with Picasso (such was his regard for Le Douanier that Apollinaire wrote the moving epitaph for the painter which Brancusi sculpted onto his tomb, “We salute you Gentle Rousseau if you can hear us… Let our luggage pass duty-free through the gates of heaven / We will bring you brushes, paints and canvas”). Apollinaire persuaded Boccioni to sculpt in bronze and was among the first to publicise and celebrate the work, and verve, of Marinetti and his Futurists. He arranged the first ever solo exhibition of the magical Russian folk-painter Marc Chagall. His first books of verse were illustrated with woodcuts by the Fauvists Andre Derain and Raoul Dufy. He acted as a mentor to Blaise Cendrars and Marcel Duchamp, who’s pioneering of conceptual art was born in his conversations with Guillaume. Having profoundly influenced Picasso’s Rose Period by inundating him with poems about circus characters and harlequins, Apollinaire then introduced the painter to Georges Braque with whom he would go on to create (with Apollinaire’s ideological assistance) Cubism. Scarcely a single major artist in the city went uninfluenced by the man. We think of Picasso as the figure of the group and time, chiefly because time, money and his obvious incredible skill and vision have been kind to the Spaniard, but at the time Apollinaire assumed the effective role of leader. He actively changed the perception, content and direction of some of the greatest art of this, or any, age and made Picasso for one, in the way we think of him, possible. Rather than simply push art criticism forward, Apollinaire single-handedly dragged it kicking and screaming into the 20th century.
In extolling the genius of his contemporaries, Apollinaire, by implication, extolled his own genius. Sometimes when implication was too subtle a means, some heroically-shameless self-aggrandising was needed. He wrote superlative blurbs and extravagant reviews of his own work, claiming in one case that his book had “no parallel in the history of literature.” In his prose-work The Poet Assasinated, he weaves a thinly-veiled autobiographical account of one Croniamantal “the greatest living poet” who rises to literary glory in the capital and ends being sacrificed by a philistine lynchmob. This tendency for hyperbole even megalomania, whilst somewhat charming and tongue-in-cheek, was also evidence of the eccentricity of the man. He was given not just to grand statements but foolhardy acts. He challenged Arthur Cravan to a duel to the death after the boxer-poet made some obscene comments about the painter Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire’s girlfriend at the time (it’s perhaps good fortune that Cravan, himself somewhat unsound of mind, declined the challenge). Apollinaire would often walk around the streets of Paris commentating on his actions and surroundings as he did so, often following strangers and loudly describing them and what they were doing as they hurried away, presumably deeply unsettled by this apparent madman. Adapting the Parisian archetype of the flâneur, rather than pensively stroll through the city, Apollinaire would fall on it like a feast, a fervent participant rather than observer, he would drag friends on great arcs through the arrondissements, dining and drinking to the point of near-oblivion. He would roar out songs and scrawl verse on the back of matchboxes. He was unembarrasable by all accounts. And perhaps therein lies why his legacy has waned; his personality, his sheer force of nature, was his real talent and in an age just prior to mass recorded sound and vision (only a few decaying frames of celluloid exist of him along with a handful of crackling recordings), this could not be adequately captured for posterity. Like Wilde, his real masterpiece was his life.
Nevertheless his actual achievements are impressive. He set-up the first exhibitions and provided the intellectual backing for Cubism, intellectualising what was an instinctive project by Picasso and Braque. In writing of their mission in which “the immensity of space eternalized itself in all directions at once”, he made sense of what they were doing and articulated what was so revolutionary about it (allying it to the epoch-changing developments of Einstein who was obliterating traditional conceptions of space and time with his general theory of relativity at the same time). Through his assaults on the sacred foundation of the representational in art (now made redundant he believed by photography), Apollinaire pathed the way for the rise of abstract art. Duchamp may have built conceptual art but he did so in the space that Apollinaire had cleared. Aside from the Cubists, he elevated the dastardly anti-hero Fantômas to high culture appraisal (at a time when such pulp books were seen as throwaway trash) and was responsible for the rescuing of several monumental neglected figures from obscurity; namely Baudelaire (whom he helped move from cult figure to one central in the French canon) and De Sade (almost totally forgotten at that stage, Apollinaire forced a revival of interest in the libertine, a complete academic reappraisal from the status of a depraved degenerate to a philosophical moralist and predicted, accurately given what was to come, that De Sade, and his explorations of freedom and man’s inhumanity to man, would dominate the century to come). He had a female alter-ego Louise Lalanne under which he wrote feminist verse. Apollinaire predicted too, at a time when cinema was seen largely as a parlour trick, that it would become the predominant global artform. Indeed he wrote some rough film scripts with various touches that seem highly innovative in hindsight (stories within stories, shifting perspectives, use of montage, theoretical ideas of cross-cutting and splicing) at a time when films were still, by and large, silent one-dimensional affairs. Art, for Apollinaire, was the creation of new self-contained universes (with the artist a god-like presence), a task at which cinema excels and it’s tempting to imagine what he could have accomplished in the medium, had he lived.
It’s a recurring theme, a man of the future stuck in the past. Whilst he waited for history to catch up with his imagination, Apollinaire worked prolifically in the true sense of avant-garde – an advanced spearhead of the main force, appearing at, and supporting, the critical pioneering cultural events of the day. He attended the debut of Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s notoriously radical ballet The Rite of Spring, which premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and which, after the composer Camille Saint-Saëns stormed out over “mis-use of a bassoon”, descended into fistfights and a full-blown riot. More importantly Apollinaire started to find his own voice artistically. Part of this involved outgrowing his earlier activities, rejecting the braggadocio and fervent nationalism of the Italian Futurists, whom he had championed, that would lead them to a rapprochement with Mussolini’s Fascism. Whilst he never lost his knack for stunts (demanding the abolition of punctuation for example), Apollinaire’s methods became more refined, if no less controversial. He came to regard the work of Sonia and Robert Delauney as a visual poetry that transcended the use of language and existed as a supreme ‘pure’ art. He christened this Orphism, a sort of mystic Cubism with touches of the Fauvist Wild Beast (named after Orpheus, a character who would appear again and again in his life and work). It was manifestly art that existed in, and of, itself and had vaguely magical qualities (pre-empting the work of that dark celestial engineer Malevich). It was also a further move away from the representational towards pure abstraction which he was all in favour of, perhaps working towards art as a new religion, somehow disconnected from, even superior to, reality. Art that merely reproduced or reflected the world was dead, the photograph and the film reel had killed it. As life seemed no longer entirely real or natural anymore, why collude in the pretence that art should be? To assess how radical Apollinaire’s assertions were at the time, it’s worth considering that his simple decision to leave commas out of his poems caused a wave of critical derision and outrage. That is what he was dealing with (and without trailblazers like him, we’d still be facing).
The best definition of Apollinaire’s work was helpfully his own pronouncement; “the full unfolding of our modern art / Connecting in mysterious ways as in life / Sounds gestures colours cries tumults / Music dancing acrobatics poetry painting / Choruses actions and multiple sets.” This would come to be the backbone of his performances and plays. Yet though he evangelised the limitless potentials of modern art and wrote manifestos against the past, or at least how the great figures of the past are used as “a barricade against the present generation,” he was far-sighted, asserting that the innovations of the past should not be cast aside, chiefly as it limited your armoury. Thus in his verse, you find Sappho-esque fragments of antiquity colliding with the first vestiges of the mass communication age. In this collision, in the tension between the ancient and the new, lies his poetic strength. He had sensed something in the Italian Futurists that had scared or appalled him as much as it had attracted; a death instinct, a revelling in destruction (the flooded museums, the overturned cars, the adolescent lust for battle) that would consume them (their greatest figures – his friend the artist Boccioni, the architect Antonio Sant’Elia and a dozen others of their number would die incredibly young in the conflict that they had eagerly willed, extinguishing the finest art movement to emerge from Italy since the Late Renaissance). Instead Apollinaire seems Janus-faced, regarding the past and the future simultaneously (he “brought the baroque into modern times” according to his cohort André Billy), acutely aware that upheavals and progress must surely be made but astute in seeing that the iconoclasts who were nihilistically preaching year zero would soon start heaving up their own idols to replace the ones they’d toppled (again, Marinetti’s championing of ll Duce). For Apollinaire, real change could only come with an engagement with the past, a past that was not a mausoleum as the Futurists labelled it but a scrapyard. The key to his thinking was the realisation that you can be imprisoned within the present (or some imaginary utopian future) just as much as in the past. Where once he had sworn to cast Dante, Shakespeare and co overboard (in his Futurist Antitradition polemic), now he realised these things could, indeed had to, exist in a symbiotic relationship with the contemporary (as he asserted in his Poetics and Spirit lecture). The shock of the new and the rediscovery of the buried past were the same feeling. Exploit what came before you to your advantage.
Let us consider then Apollinaire’s role in his future, what is our past. When you consider The Wasteland was published in 1922 and heralded rightfully then (and still) as innovative for incorporating shifting perspectives and narrators (it’s original title you’ll recall was He do the Police in Different Voices), it still occurred years after Apollinaire had shored up fragments of high art and the detritus of the everyday against his own ruin. Similarly years before Pound, Apollinaire urged ‘make it new.’ You have to wonder is it ignorance or duplicity that airbrushes the likes of Guillaume from history and elevates others? Bad luck or conspiracy? This is incidentally no fault of Eliot’s or Pound’s, who for their faults (a fondness for black-shirt maniacs for example) freely cited their forebears. Rather it was the dead hand of the philistine literary establishment of the time, and their attendant historical curators, who recognised only that which was produced by one of them (whether that be defined by class, nation or clique). From the epicentre that was Paris, the revolution of Modernism could nevertheless be exported to those not constrained by a blinkered world-view; the Vorticist masterpiece BLAST, for example, was directly inspired by Apollinaire’s pamphlet The Futurist Anti-Tradition in form and content, whilst the only ever print edition of the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich featured the poet’s writing. Before Lorca or Brecht, Apollinaire broke down the barriers between different artforms in his bizarre play of sexual metamorphosis The Breasts of Tiresias, merging art, drama, poetry, mime, puppetry, fashion and music in a unique form of theatre that baffled and enraged as much as it inspired. Applying art theory to literature, he came up with idea of simultaneity – a sort of prose cubism by which the traditional charade of linear plot would be shattered and characters be presented from all angles in spacial and temporal terms. Whilst not all his innovations were welcome (some have criticised his esoteric pseudo-mysticism that became fashionable in art criticism – the critic as priest or shaman), he was nevertheless the pioneer of many of the poetic forms of the century to come, before many even had a name; automatic and stream of consciousness writing, found poetry and proto-sampling (writing down passing snippets of conversation he heard on the street), collage and concrete poetry. The future was his it seemed.
And then occurred the incident that would be the undoing of Guillaume Apollinaire. Following a tip-off from a journalist on Le Journal, Apollinaire was arrested on suspicion of theft of the Mona Lisa, two weeks after it’s disappearance, and was brought in for questioning. There are several possible reasons why he was implicated; professional jealousy on the part of a rival hack, simple xenophobia towards this upstart ‘macaroni wog’ (history has papered over the casual virulent racism exhibited towards immigrants like Apollinaire, Picasso and co by many Parisians especially in the press and upper echelons of society) and some opportunism on the part of conservative elements in the art world (Apollinaire had after all, in a moment of Futurist uncouthness, called for the Louvre and it’s contents to be burned to cinders). The other reason was that he may well have been involved in stealing it. Details are murky even today but Apollinaire was almost certainly involved in the theft of a number of primitive Iberian sculptures from the museum, sheltering the main suspect Géry Pieret and passing on the stolen goods to Picasso, who used them in his ‘barbarian’ Cubist works. It was also known that Apollinaire fraternised with some shady underworld characters during his debaucheries. Panicking that the police were onto him in some capacity, Apollinaire blurted out that he knew nothing about the Mona Lisa’s disappearance but his friend, sorry ‘associate’ Picasso might and both were detained in custody. Given that he was the mouthier of the pair, Apollinaire enjoyed almost a week locked up in the dreaded La Santé prison. The statues were soon recovered and the charges dropped, but only after both friends had, in a state of some terror, implicated each other. No concrete evidence could be found to pin them to the Mona Lisa’s disappearance, which it was feared had been destroyed. Two years later, it turned up in Florence in the possession of one Vincenzo Perugia who’d kept it hidden behind a stove and ineptly tried to sell it to an antiques dealer for half a million lire and when caught tried to pass off the theft as a patriotic act of kidnapping on behalf of the nation of Italy.
The episode shook both Apollinaire and Picasso’s brotherly bond (though their friendship would recover) and more profoundly the former’s sense of identity. In an effort to prove himself to his beloved adopted country, Apollinaire sought French citizenship through hastily, fatefully enlisting in the French Army. Initially turned down several times due to unfitness (too many years living the good life and a naturally immense frame), he tempted fate and persevered until being signed up for the infantry just in time for the most destructive war in the history of mankind up to that point. Like many of the fin de siècle generation, he was invested with a Nietzschean dissatisfaction towards the decaying old orders and saw war as a purging, a means of accelerating social change. It would also be an adventure, a heroic endeavour, action where he’d previously had mere words. With the declaration of war and the French halting the German invasion at Marne (locking them into the stalemate that would become the Western Front), Apollinaire was posted as a gunner in an obscure outpost deep in a forest in the French countryside, isolated and behind the fighting. Yet here, he was to write what is arguably his finest, certainly most visionary verse; meditative and strangely magical accounts capturing the eerie otherworldliness of an ancient woodland and night-time on the edge of battle. After six months, in a case of be careful what you wish for, his request to be transferred to the front was accepted and he entered the full hell of trench warfare. He soon wrote of ‘horror (which) cannot be described, let alone imagined.’ The poetry in his letters home changed from good-humoured, erotic and filled with wide-eyed wonder to sullen, abject depression and revulsion (“night descends / you sense coming / an endless future of blood”). At times there are still glimpses of marvel and always even during outright terror, a sense of spectacle, that veneration of the world as some kind of godless miracle that aligns him with the likes of Lorca (or rather not godless than populated by the old more interesting pre-Christian gods who the monotheists had banished), all the more remarkable and haunting given the poems were written under fire, by the light of flares and mortar, “The sky is starred by the Boche’s shells / The marvellous forest where I live is giving a ball / The machine gun plays a tune in three-fourths time…”
Apollinaire fought on the Champagne Front where the French alone suffered over a quarter of a million casualties in battle plus the mutilations, amputations, septic wounds and men stricken with shell-shock, a multitude of examples of what happens to the human mind and body when exposed to mechanised slaughter, squalor and the mercies of the elements. He was there until the 17th of March 1916. That afternoon, he was in his trench, reading a copy of Mercure de France , a literary journal to which he contributed, when a German shell exploded above him. Several pieces of shrapnel passed straight through his tin helmet, fracturing his skull and embedding in his brain. He was immediately rushed from the front and surgeons operated to save his life, removing a portion of his skull in the process. Having recovered to a walking wounded state deceptively quick, within days he suffered a series of epileptic seizures and became paralysed down his left side. The treatment that followed were partially successful, restoring his mobility. His health however would never fully recover; he remained prone to infection and the bandage which he proudly wore as his trademark upon his discharge from the army and return to Paris hid ailments both physical and mental. Following an honorary promotion to Lieutenant, Guillaume came back a changed man, his moods would shift from near-manic frenzy to morbid introspection (what he called “my deep sorrow”). He went from writing passionate letters to his fiancé Madeline to cold detachment and on occasion paranoia and fiery outbursts. He became terrified of strangers and remarked that he now wished only for the solitary life of a monk. He would burst into tears suddenly and without reason. Recent studies of the helmet he wore, in which the shrapnel holes can still clearly be seen, indicate that he may well have had significant brain damage with possible lesions to his right temporal lobe that arguably affected his temperament and personality. Whether shell-shock, post-traumatic stress, brain damage or just a loss of faith in mankind was responsible, the carefree boisterous Apollinaire of old was gone forever and he knew it, “I am no longer who I was…” he wrote sadly. Following the Mona Lisa debacle, he had sought acceptance from his adopted homeland by fighting to defend the country. It was an exorcism and an affirmation and it would ultimately kill him. But not quite yet. For in the brief reprieve of his return, in the borrowed time he had left, Apollinaire would present his finest work to the world.
The cornerstones of Apollinaire’s legacy, the legacy he should have, rest with two books, Alcools and Calligrammes. Though there was an earlier short collection of verse Le bestiaire ou le cortège d’Orphée (based on the medieval phenomena of ‘the bestiary’ – collections of mythic zoological curiosities – and the myth of Orpheus) of which barely a hundred copies were printed and a multitude of fragments of every kind (periodicals, leaflets, advertisements, the Arthurian medievalist prose The Putrid Enchanter, the semi-autobiographical collage The Poet Assasinated), it is these twin works that constitute his true claim to greatness, collections still undervalued. “I bequeath to the future the story of Guillaume Apollinaire” he proudly announced. The future has yet to answer him.
The poems of Alcools (meaning ‘spirits’ in the intoxicating sense and illustrated by no less than, the now reconciled, Pablo Picasso) were written mainly during a period he spent teaching in the Rhineland and then Paris before the war and document, amongst other themes, his various affairs of the heart. Noted as something of a ladies man, he seems in hindsight to have possessed a quixotic form of romanticism that easily ventured into restraining order territory, pursuing one target of his affections Annie Playden to London. He’d previously taken her to the top of a mountain and threatened to throw her off when she turned down his proposal of marriage (quoting Wilde’s “every man kills the thing he loves” with a mad glint in his eye). Eventually she fled to America, never to speak to him again, instructing her family not to, under any circumstances, pass on her address to the lovelorn bedlamite. Apollinaire seems to have been attracted to the sweet melancholy and drama of rejection, always falling in love, always in brief tempestuous romances destined (even designed) for collapse; a feature he acknowledged (in verse such as ‘The Pont Mirbeau’), christening himself the ill-loved, the unloved, the self-dismembered man.
Though it was the last poem added to the collection, the epic ‘Zone’ is the nucleus of Alcools, less a poem about the city than the city itself in microcosm (much like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project which it pre-empted). Though a rich diverse collection, it is perhaps best viewed through ‘Zone’ – an encapsulation of the poet’s vision (inspired in fact by his friend Blaise Cendrars’ poem ‘Easter in New York’), following the tormented writer wandering through the streets following the loss of his mistress. ‘Zone’ pre-empts psychogeography and postmodernism in it’s mix of myth, geography, internal monologue and the song of the streets, raising the everyday to the realms of the monumental in the process. From now on these things could be the stuff worthy of verse (breaking away from the lofty mock-classicism of symbolism and Pre-Raphaelite poetry), “Handbills catalogues /advertisements that sing overhead / Furnish your morning’s poetry / Three times a morning sirens groan / A choleric bell barks at noon / Billboards posters and / Doorplates twitter like parakeets / There is charm to this Paris factory street / Between rue Aumont-Thiéville and the avenue des Ternes.” From now on, you could write about the world you actually lived in and it’s depiction could be as rewarding, chaotic and exhiliarating as the actual world around you. A sense of sadness (and terror, the last line of ‘Zone’ “sun slit throat” being as chilling in it’s context as the last scene of Un Chien Andalou) is always evident undercutting his work but Alcools is notable too for it’s excitement. This is a man who is aware that he is on the boundary between two ages, enthralled with the promise of the world to come and mourning at what will be lost forever. He mixes these two epochs to startling effect. There are meetings on bridges and siren songs, odes to parisian nightlife (“drunk on gin / and blazing with electricity”), hanged men and decapitated mannequins. Ophelia floats down the Seine. Circus animals beg at the roadside. In ‘The Song of the Ill-Loved,’ he roams from “one night of London mist and flame” to the Zapur-Gog Cossacks and the Sultan of Constantinople to the Milky Way (“Oh memory my lovely ship / When will our voyaging be done”). Elsewhere there are witches and gypsies, convents and highwaymen, waltzing cadavers, brothels and the songs of boatmen. A sense of writing about the modern but not being restrained to the solely visual or the immediate. A dunk in the collective Jungian consciousness and an celebration of city life undercut by man’s temporariness (the old Hippocratic maxim ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’ – ‘art is long, life is fleeting’), not just in Apollinaire’s salutation to the cosmos above the city but in his simple exhortations that haunt us daily still, ‘will the working week never end?’ for example, a voice of reassurance from a figure we know is now long a pile of bones. When arrested, ever melodramatic, he recounts thinking to himself in his cell, “what sinister voice howled / guillaume you have fallen… farewell songs and dances / my youth O my loves,” highlighting his tendency to wallow, if not lounge, in nostalgia and blissful morosity. That he says this to us from beyond the grave, from the end of an age that we will never know and the beginning of our own makes it all the more engaging, “you who are not yet born remember me / I lived when kings died out.”
‘Zone’ is a precursor to the radical eclecticism of Calligrammes, a collection that is defined by the myriad styles and innovations Apollinaire adopts. Yet he asserted that far from being a fresh start for poetry, this was a farewell note. Poetry was redundant now in the face of the fledgling arts he heralded, “the cinema and the gramophone.” Calligrammes keeps pace with these usurpers in terms of ingenuity and expressiveness but the author knows it will not last, poetry will be relegated to an antique, specialist medium, a cult. The cutting edge of art will move on elsewhere.
As farewell notes go, it’s an affectionate one. Initially the most striking features are his picture poems in which the typography of the poem inform and inhabit the meaning as much as vice versa. This appears ground-breaking but really he was tapping into a forgotten tradition, from Mallarmé going back to the ‘technopaegnia’ of the Ancient Greeks. In Calligrammes, there are poems as smoking pipes, canons, birds, horses, fountains. There’s a poem shaped like the Eiffel Tower, poems as postcards, musical notes, a mandolin, a pocket watch and a crown, poems as rain-showers, telegrams sent across the ocean, curious maps (anticipating the Lettristes and the ‘dérive’ routes of the Situationists). It makes you reconsider even today what is possible in that overlapping area between poetry, art, syntax and landscape. Of course this would be just of decorative appeal if it were not for the content and key to this is the book’s setting – the First World War.
Subtitled ‘Poems of War and Peace’, Calligrammes was dedicated to René Dalize (real name René Dupuy) a friend and author who was killed at the front just over a month after Apollinaire’s wounding. The war haunts the book but not in the way you’d initially imagine, not in the Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon sense we’ve become accustomed to. It’s stranger than that. The early poems are set in his initial posting, in a forest behind the front, a strange sanctuary that he writes about as if it’s some otherworldly realm beyond human affairs. “I enlisted under a beautiful sky…” he wrote, listened to the sound of artillery trumpets to the north, a bizarre place of calm as in the eye of hurricane. There he wandered the fields and woods with his horse, he tried to conjure the ghost of a former love in wood smoke, he gazed at the stars dreaming of Paris, listening to a friend sing operatic arias. That it is just miles away from the drudgery and murder of the frontline only heightened the hallucinatory sense of unreality, “frogs and tree frogs… ascesis under poplars and ash trees… they have hung death / at the edge of the woods…” With his posting to the front, the poems certainly darken but they’re never explicitly anti-war, rather they capture something diabolical, supernatural perhaps, “furious giants were rising all around europe… voracious fish ascended from abysses… the dead trembled fearfully in their dark dwellings / dogs barked yonder where the frontiers were.” There’s an absence of rawness or didacticism (beyond the occasional veiled swipe – “caesars turned to vampires” or the curious prophetic mention of a swastika amidst his visions).
Apollinaire wrote poems in and about his environment (printing early copies of the collection at the actual gun batteries facing the enemy), sending them back home in the post. He wrote by moonlight on sentry watch. He penned requiems for fallen comrades and lustful letters to his fiancé Madeleine Pagès. He fashioned poems as satanic curses and good luck charms. Poems as mysterious objects in themselves with their own existence, their own logic like gnostic fragments. Some are written during bombardments, often the most transcendant scrawled under the most extreme pressure (mortar fire or storms for example) or experimental almost by mistake -the postcard format producing a collage effect, the stamp an valuable addition to the poem by an unknown hand. His is a landscape that changes from the horrific to the magical to the mythical (or is all three at the same time) where bullets speak like a Greek chorus, where a man dreams of Africa or Grenada or building a house in the middle of the ocean whilst taking care to avoid prowling German sights. A man who saw nights of sorcery and nebula above no mans land and flames burning like human souls and flares turning the whole front into some spectral ballroom. Who else, you wonder, meditated upon space travel or how machines may one day begin to think for themselves in the trenches of the First World War?
The problem with much Surrealist verse that would follow, that it threatened to spin off into incoherent whimsy at any stage, never really happens with Apollinaire. For all his flights of fancy, he trawls behind an anchor. He returns continually to dialogues overheard in a bar or to menial activities in the bunkers (smoking, telling dirty jokes, cooking over stoves, collecting firewood). He may write of the beauty of sailing to the stars or the disgust of coprophiliac angels but it’s done so with a self-awareness and an earthiness. His incorporation of myth, anthropomorphy and romantic yearning is done with an invigorating modern twist; magi are to be found in train stations, metallic saints in holy factories. Christ appears as an aviator. Archangels fight dogfights with devils in the skies above the capital. Phonographs gallop. The clouds are phantoms. This is a time of liquorice vendor bells and lanterns, when elevators and ferris wheels were dazzling frightening new creations, an early mythic modernism that the poet relishes, “see the future is ablaze… this is the time of magic it’s coming back” with a poignant proviso, “everything is sadder than it used to be… we said farewell to a whole era… we had just been born.”
The fact he defies our presumptions of what it means to be a war poet gives his work a startling freshness today, a baffling ambiguity, a “night that is violet and violent and dark and momentarily full of gold.” You start to realise what an unusual character he was, the contents of his head spilling out and warping the world around him as much as the world evidently warped him, from “my desire is the reason that lies before me / behind boche lines” to “love has upturned my life as the earth is upturned in the army zone.” He is seeing all this unimaginable tumult through this narcissitic gold-fish bowl view that bends light (vaguely reminiscent of the poems of Mayakovsky who built poetic monuments to Bolshevik Russia in his own image). Maybe it was a survival mechanism, to keep him one step removed from a reality that was too much. Or just the personality traits of an extremely peculiar person. Few writers have ever weaved romance and modern warfare quite so bizarrely (“your memory is a searchlight, cannons are cathedral bells”) nor serenaded the beauty of destruction (“how lovely these shells are that light up the dark / they climb up their peak and lean down to look / they are dancing ladies whose glances become eyes arms and hearts”). When death is potentially raining down upon you, who but a madman or a saint would see the allure in it, a “metallic storm” exploding as fireworks “in a brilliant sky”? He warns further do not weep for us, once this war is finished man will have mastered the skies and the depths, the constellations will have battled for us, until you begin to think if it isn’t psychosis perhaps it’s bravado to reassure those at home, poetry as a disguise, as a confidence trick, a spell to ward off evil. Act as if death cannot touch you and maybe it won’t. It would work no more for Guillaume than for his fallen comrade who’s tale he recounted, “the look in the eyes of the wounded breton lying on the litter / who cried out to the dead to the pine trees and the cannons / i’m poor peter good god pray for me…”
So Apolinaire doesn’t sit well with our conception of a war poet, which has to do with our conceptions more than anything (What should a war poet be? And do we have a right to decide?). It’s characteristic though of his legacy as a whole, why perhaps he’s fallen through the cracks; he’s not easy to categorise (which again should lead us to ask why do we need to categorise everything?). Too classical to be a full blown Surrealist with a capital ‘S’, too decadent and experimental to be classical. He undoubtedly pioneered the Theatre of Absurd yet he doesn’t fully belong to it either, sharing certain comic/illusory elements but lacking the deep monochrome sense of alienation that Camus originally defined the absurd as. Apollinaire’s problem might be, that for the most part, even in his laments, he was relatively happy. And happiness, in art, is rarely fashionable. Tragedy on canvas, celluloid or print art travels better. Apollinaire saved all the tragedy for his life rather than his work, a tragedy foretold as it happens.
In 1914, the year the war broke out, shortly before departing for his homeland, the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico painted a curious portrait of his friend Apollinaire (the two shared a similar attraction to the tension between the ancient and the contemporary though De Chirico’s haunted piazzas and sinister mannequins, his metaphysical paintings, remain utterly unique to this day). At first, the portrait, which features a bust of a blind figure in front of a silhouette in apparent cross-hairs (based on a two-dimensional representation of Guillaume), was titled Man as Target. Later, the artist, and others in the Surrealist coterie which followed him, would interpret it as a prophecy. The target was placed in the vicinity of the actual head-wound inflicted on it’s subject three years later. The blind statue was the traditional depiction of poets and particularly Orpheus (an artist who could charm all living things, who could foretell the future and who had been to hell and back), on whom Apollinaire had based his first collection The Bestiary. It all seemed to fall into ominous place. As a result, the painting was renamed Premonitory Portrait of Apollinaire.
Returning to Paris, Apollinaire was greeted as a hero. Proudly wearing his uniform and displaying a bandaged head like some regal turban, he disguised his nerves and ailments and immersed himself in artistic life once more. With his farewell to poetry with the publishing of Aloccols and Calligrammes, he became involved in theatre and arguably the finest ensemble ever put together; the circus-ballet Parade; commissioned by Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau wrote the libretto, choreography was by Massine, Picasso designed the set and costumes, Erik Satie composed the music and Apollinaire acted as something between a polemicist and a carnival barker. It featured harlequin-type characters gleaned from commedia de l’arte tradition and Picasso’s own Blue and Rose periods (inspired as they had been by Apollinaire’s verse); cubist horses, the metropolitan sounds of trams and presses and pistons like a symphony of a city, enlivened with firebreathers and acrobats. Naturally the public and the critics loathed the play, to the extent that it’s creators were labelled “traitors”, “Germans”, “imbeciles” and best of all “opium smokers.” A riot, as seemed customary at the time for anything new and different, was narrowly avoided. They had failed even at that.
A month after the Parade triumph/debacle, Apollinaire staged his own play The Breasts of Tiresias. It began with a remarkable introduction in which the author announced how soldiers on the frontline had shot out all the stars and had been ordered to ignite them again and how with this play he would seek to ignite stars inside the souls and minds of the audience (anticipating Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt alienation effect and manipulation of the fourth wall), a revolutionary optimism desperately poignant for someone so unaware of how little time he had left. The playwright had learnt something from the reaction Parade had encountered and so the abrupt shock of the new would be sweetened with humour and a sense of its own ludicrousness. How else can we account for a curious gender-metamorphic play in which the female lead character’s breasts float off into the audience? Or a curious sideshow cast of babies, tarot-readers and gamblers, a gun-toting killer who goes by the name of ‘The People of Zanzibar’ and a policeman who rides around on a hobbyhorse (a wink to Dada). Thoughts of characters appeared written on placards like bubbles in comics. His attempts to fend off controversy through humour only partially succeeded. At it’s premiere, the play was met by an audience split between applause and jeers. Apollinaire’s own judgement – “at least no one was bored” – seems somewhat dignified in the face of the personal insults and threats of violence that soon flooded in his direction. It was at the premiere that the eccentric dandy Jacques Vaché stood up wearing an English pilot’s uniform and a monocle, and pulling out a pistol, shouted that he was more than willing to kill everyone in the audience. In the circles Apollinaire moved this absurdist threat of violence seemed par for the course (take his friend the pataphysician playwright Alfred Jarry who would cycle around out of his mind on absinthe using a revolver as a bell or their mutual heir André Breton who declared the “purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly”). It was in Apollinaire’s preface to The Breasts of Tiresias that the word Surrealism first appeared. Apollinaire had in fact not only baptised the embryonic movement but had given it it’s raison d’être, predicting the exploration of the subconscious (the “interior universe” in his words) that would advance not just art but humanity itself, foretelling it’s strange enchanting often nonsensical mix of Freud, Marx, Nietzsche and court jester. “Surrealism is to realism what a wheel is to a leg” he predicted. An alliance of artists, seers and psychoanalysts would “lead you alive and awake, into the nocturnal closed world of the dream, into worlds that throb ineffably above our heads, into those worlds both closer to us and remoter from us which gravitate around the same point in the infinite as the world we carry within us.” Alas he would be dead before this new phase of explorations had even begun.
Apollinaire never really recovered from his war wounds yet refused to believe so, carrying on a frantic workload. He would marry Jacqueline Kolbi and was working on two plays when he contracted Spanish Flu; a commedia del’arte farce about Casanova featuring pioneering ideas of plays within plays and a piece called Couleurs du temps (“Mood of the age”) which partially takes place onboard airplanes and provokes interesting questions as to how the hell he intended to stage it given it featured such minor details as volcanoes, the continent of Antarctica and a cameo from God. So many ideas, so little time.
It was the cold November of 1918. The day the Kaiser abdicated. Two days before the end of the Great War. A mob march through the Left Bank of Paris, chanting “Death to Guillaume.” Above them in his flat on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the hated German monarch’s namesake Apollinaire, aged just 39, lay in the last stages of terminal illness, a victim of the Spanish Influenza pandemic that would kill more people across Europe than the vast conflict that preceded it (it carried off Klimt, Schiele, Weber and an estimated 20 million others). In the days previous, Apollinaire, realising his health was in freefall, had desperately begged his doctor to somehow prolong his life, pleading that he has so much left to accomplish, so much left undone. Given the malignity of the virus and his already weakened state, it was to be in vain. Apollinaire would live long enough to hear the city apparently revolting against him. They were still jubilantly celebrating the end of the War as his coffin was being carried to Père Lachaise cemetary. His friend Blaise Cendrars, back from the same front that Apollinaire had been stationed on, freshly missing his right arm, recalled the burial as an almost supernatural occasion. A vast mist had seeped through the cemetary and Cendrars swore he heard a voice whisper, “Apollinaire is dead. Soon he will return.” It was by turns a cruel and chimerical end for a figure who, more than any other, created and embodied not just the dynamic cultural milieu of the Paris of his day but the early modernism of his time. What is even more unforgivable is that a century later, he is still a neglected figure, a footnote in the biographies of lesser figures. “I gave everything to the sun” he wrote, “everything but my shadow.” His reward has been pitiful.
Largely forgotten, his influence amongst those in the know has nevertheless been profound. “Although he lived his days among the baladins of Cubism and Futurism, he was not a modern man. He was somewhat less complex and more happy, more ancient, and stronger… he was a man of elemental and, therefore,
eternal feelings; he was, when the fundaments of earth and sky shook, the poet of ancient courage and ancient honor” wrote Jorge Luis Borges, one writer who followed in his footsteps into myth and literature as another world, or series of worlds. The Surrealists were his unruly brood even if their self-appointed pope André Breton chastised the dead poet for a lack of humour. Allen Ginsberg serenaded him in verse, “guillaume, guillaume… come out of the grave and talk thru the door of my mind.” Ginsberg’s cohort William S Burroughs‘ concept of the Interzone (as featured in Naked Lunch and the eponymous short story collection as well as the influential science fiction magazine of the same name) was inspired by Apollianire’s ‘Zone’. He’s naturally inspired poets, though wildly divergent from Giuseppe Ungaretti to Frank O’Hara to Peter Manson.
Musicians have been drawn to his lyricism and the (ir)rhythms of his work; there’s been operas (Per Norgard’s Nuit des Hommes), song cycles (Poulenc’s Sept Chansons), concertos (Piers Hellawell’s Cors de Chasse) and symphonies (Shostakovich‘s 14th is based on the poet’s ‘Lament’). Artist’s too have fallen under his spell. Francis Picabia rhapsodised about their car journeys together (back when driving was a thrilling cutting-edge endeavour), Graham Sutherland based a series of prints on Apollinaire’s bestiary, many others painted homages to the man himself (joining Henri Rousseau’s earlier tribute The Muse Inspiring the Poet) among them Marc Chagall, Max Ernst (Pietà or Revolution by Night) and Picasso (Reading the Letter). The latter was commissioned by committee to design his erstwhile friend’s tomb, only to have each of his efforts shot-down in un-Apollinairean fashion (“a bizarre, monstrous, mad, incomprehensible, almost obscene thing” went one review). Haggles over his resting place aside, Apollinaire’s poems have been found from Godard’s Breathless (as well as passing on his Orphic obsession to Jean Cocteau) to a themed Parisian Prada store. He’s everywhere and nowhere, a shadowy figure lurking at the back of stage, quoted and cited continually but rarely read or known.
Fittingly his poetic descendants are not really poets at all, at least not the traditional definition of the title. They are the innovators, pushing things forward, encapsulating all that is enticing and perplexing about poetry whilst not remotely resembling what poetry is ‘supposed’ to resemble; Bob Cobbing, Cia Rinne, Anatol Knotek, Ragnhildur Jóhanns, projects such as Dreaming Methods, Brian Dettmer’s Book Autopsies as well as countless filmmakers, cinematographers, animators, artists (the Fluxus movement for example) and kinetic typographers breaking down the boundaries between artforms and expanding what is thought possible. Aside from his influence, his own voice has unexpectedly returned this century. His collection of correspondence Letters to Madeleine came to light and was published only in the past decade. Furthermore, his early erotic books The Eleven Thousand Rods and Memoirs of a Young Don Juan have came back into notoriety with Turkish publishers being prosecuted “for publishing obscene or immoral material liable to arouse and exploit sexual desire among the population.” It’s a rare writer who retains the power to offend almost a century in the grave (his work being damned by a judge, in what seems a backhanded compliment, as “a smear of transcendental smut”) or one as charmingly egotistical to address readers in the future from the afterlife,
“I bequeath to the future the story of Guillaume Apollinaire
Who was lucky in the war and knew how to be everywhere
In the lucky towns behind the front lines
In all the rest of the universe
in those who died tangled in the barbed wire
in women in cannons in horses
at the zenith at the nadir at the four cardinal points
and in the unique ardor of this eve of battle…”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is the author of Tesla’s Ghost and The Fool as well as half a dozen unpublishable books. He is currently finishing a new collection of poetry entitled The Mechanical Turk.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 6th, 2011.