October 20, 2021

Living In the Moment with Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, and the Philadelphia Flyers

By Stuart Mitchner

Described as “the gun that almost killed Arthur Rimbaud,” a 7mm six shooter purchased by his lover and fellow poet Paul Verlaine in July 1873 sold at Christie’s in November 2016 for 435,000 euros, more than seven times the estimate, according to the November 30 Guardian.

So why would an “unknown bidder” pay a small fortune for the gun that almost killed Rimbaud, who was born on October 20, 1854, and died 120 years ago on November 10, 1891? Because we’re talking about a legend, a star, an action hero of literature who gave up poetry for good at the age of 21. As it happened, Verlaine was in a drunken delirium at the time and no more capable of doing away with Rimbaud than he was of helping Bob Dylan write “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (“I been shootin’ in the dark too long … Relationships have all been bad / Mine have been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud’s”).

Rimbaud and Rambo

Verlaine’s gun was sold three weeks after Donald Trump was elected president. Remember those flags and yard signs showing Trump as a bazooka-wielding Rambo? It’s possible that some super rich supporter bought the gun as a souvenir for the Donald, not that he’d want anything soiled by the hands of a poet. In fact, Rimbaud not only rhymes with Rambo, he was symbolically present at the birth. When David Morrell first conceived the hero of his 1972 novel First Blood, he intended the name of the character to rhyme with the surname of the poet, aware that the title of Rimbaud’s Season in Hell fit with the horrific POW experiences he imagined his Rambo enduring and from which sprang the blockbuster film franchise starring Sylvester Stallone. The OED extends the implicit Rimbaud connection, defining Rambo as a term “commonly used to describe a lone wolf who is reckless, disregards orders, uses violence to solve problems, enters dangerous situations alone, and is exceptionally tough, callous, raw and aggressive.”

Creating a Visionary

Writing in May 1871 to his teacher and friend George Izambard, the 17-year-old Rimbaud declares, “I want to be a poet and I am working to make myself a visionary.” Arrogantly patronizing a valued teacher, he adds, “you won’t possibly understand, and I don’t know how to explain it to you. To arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses, that’s the point.”   

Rimbaud expands on the idea in a letter to his friend Paul Demeny: “The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, keeping only their quintessences. Ineffable torture in which he will need all his faith and superhuman strength, the great criminal, the great sick-man (malade), the accursed, — and the supreme Savant! For he arrives at the Unknown! Since he has cultivated his soul — richer to begin with than any other!… and even if, half crazed, in the end, he loses the understanding of his visions, he has seen them! Let him be destroyed in his leap by those unnamable, unutterable and innumerable things: there will come other horrible workers (travailleurs): they will begin at the horizon where he has succumbed.”

Even as he’s imagining a visionary future, Rimbaud seems to foresee his retirement from poetry less than four years later (“let him be destroyed”), a possibility also suggested when he inserts the word “rational” (raisonné) between “prodigious” and “disordering.” After he stopped writing poetry, Rimbaud followed an itinerary seemingly suited to exotic ambitions, traveling to Java in the Dutch East Indies, Cyprus, Yemen, and then living out his last decade in Abyssinia, where the Abyssinian maid plays her dulcimer “singing of Mt. Abora” in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s visionary adventure “Kubla Khan.”

The grim last year of Rimbaud’s life described in Edmund White’s biography Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel (Atlas 2008) has at least one cheerful sequence. In July of 1891, with cancer giving him only months to live, he returned home from the hospital in Marseilles and for the first few days “surprised his mother and sister by cracking jokes all the time and reducing them to tears of merriment.” He’d also brought back an Abyssinian harp, “which he played in the evenings.”

Intensely “In the Moment”

I was going to begin this column with Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work (Zone 2019) by Timothy Hampton, who devotes the better part of a chapter (“Absolutely Modern”) to Rimbaud’s impact on Dylan. But choosing between Verlaine’s gun and a book by a professor of comparative literature and French whose previous work was Fictions of Embassy Literature and Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe, I went for the gun.

Hampton opens Dylan’s Poetics with an epigraph from the poem “To a Reason” in Illuminations — “A drumbeat from your finger releases all sound, and a new harmony begins.” In the chapter featuring Rimbaud, Hampton singles out the “famous axiom, ‘One must be absolutely modern,’ “ before quoting John Ashbery on how Rimbaud’s investment in the present moment involves for him “the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second.” Rimbaud’s “modernism” means living and writing so intensely in the moment that the “drumbeat” from his finger in May 1871 can be felt in October 2021. After citing additional lines from Illuminations (“these poems will be made to last …. Poetry will not accompany action but will lead it”), Hampton talks about projecting art into action: “For Rimbaud, as poet, the shaping of action comes materially, through the poetic resources of rhythm and form. The visionary experience overtakes the entire sensorium, recalibrating how we process phenomena.”

Hampton repeats the word “sensorium” in reference to the way Dylan, in his own “pop modernist moment,” will “expand the sensorium of the songwriting self to include the diverse material put in play by the new media culture” of postwar America. The same word comes round again in the next paragraph’s reference to the “visionary mode” breaking with the “brute phenomena of everyday experience as it recombines or transforms elements  from the sensorium into some new artifact.”

Rimbaud in Philadelphia

Last Friday, in an immense, brilliantly lit “sensorium” of total unremitting sound, action, and sensation, I shared “the simultaneity of life” with thousands of screaming, chanting people doing what the flashing digital feed commanded (MAKE NOISE). And so I thought of Rimbaud. Of all the poets and writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, or perhaps any century, the “Absolutely Modern” poet who believed in the prodigious disordering of all the senses made sense in that prodigious soundscape, with its fire-breathing Jumbotron. Yes, it was Opening Night at the Wells Fargo Center for the Philadelphia Flyers, known in their Stanley-Cup-winning prime as “the Broad Street Bullies” for their “unmatched toughness and tenacity,” regularly “pushing the limits of the rulebook” and backing it up with “literal punches” when the situation deemed it necessary.

A “Savage Side Show”

Opening at random my battered, beaten but unbowed New Directions paperback of Illuminations, I immediately find lines in “Side Show” written at the same pitch as the hockey arena’s blaring, glaring in-the-moment intensity: “Very sturdy rogues ….What ripe men! Eyes vacant like the summer night, red and black, tricolored, steel studded with gold stars; faces distorted, leaden, blanched, ablaze; burlesque hoarsenesses! The cruel strut of flashy finery! Some are young, — how would they look on Cherubin? —endowed with terrifying voices and some dangerous resources.” After references to “the most violent Paradise of the furious grimace,” Rimbaud imagines the sturdy rogues enacting “heroic romances of brigands and demigods, more inspiring than history or religions have ever been …. Eyes flame, blood sings, bones swell, tears and red trickles flow. Their clowning or their terror lasts a minute or entire months.” At the end, Rimbaud writes: “I alone have the key to this savage side show.”

Dylan’s Vaudeville

In Dyan’s Poetics, Hampton refers to the San Francisco news conference in December 1965 when Dylan was asked, “What poets do you dig, Bob?” Dylan answered, without hesitation, “Rimbaud,” then, “Smokey Robinson, W.C. Fields, Allen Ginsberg, Charlie Rich. The association of poetry with vaudeville, comedy, circus acrobats, soul music and country can only come under the sign of Rimbaud.”