The following is an excerpt, with additions and edits for clarity, from the essay Our Rimbaud Mask forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse this fall.
Between 1978 and 1980, David Wojnarowicz created the Arthur Rimbaud in New York series, several hundred black-and-white photographs of someone wearing a mask of Rimbaud’s face. The photographs say, “he would have visited Coney Island”; “he would have seen porn in Times Square”; “he would have eaten a hamburger and fries.” Spotting the nineteenth-century French poet in the Big Apple is more than delightful. We, whoever feel addressed by him, are like him, and he is a source for our identification, a root for our identity.
Ted Berrigan’s “The Drunken Boat” — a mimeograph publication from 1974 with drawings by Joe Brainard — exemplifies a different type of insouciance towards the source text than any we’ve seen thusfar. Berrigan passes off his seemingly straight, utterly conventional translation of Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” as his own work. He calls his translation a “homage” to Rimbaud — which, while usually a humble gesture acknowledging influence and gratitude, in this case could be possibly interpreted as a form of naked aggression and erasure.
“A Poetics of Virtuosity” considers — through the writing of A. R. Ammons, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Arthur Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, and the obscure Trumbull Stickney — what it means to write against the dominant literary modes of your time.
Poet, artist, composer and publisher Dick Higgins’ culminating work might be his 1987 study, Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. The categories he draws up, and the drawing up of them, are as fascinating as the examples in this profusely illustrated book. Categories that replace received notions of prosody in visual terms call for new units of measure. Why replace? Because we equate poetry with verse, using the old would make the term “pattern poetry” redundant, short-circuiting its explanatory power.
Sean Bonney is another poet who turns to a poetics of iteration as a poetics of revolution. Especially in Baudelaire in Englishand Happiness: Poems after Rimbaud, Bonney adapts iteration to revolutionary poetic and political ends. In these two books, Bonney attends to the way revolutionary writing, if too direct or smooth, can become implicated in the power structures it seeks to overcome. Bonney’s Baudelaire in English concludes: “the poem is in danger of becoming an overly smooth surface fit only for the lobbies of office buildings and as illustrations / expensive gallery catalogues, that kind of bullshit.” In Baudelaire in English, Bonney stresses the relation between echoes and cracks in the smoothness in his version of “Correspondances,” which contains the phrase “their echoes split us.” Bonney’s texts are idiosyncratic translations of Baudelaire’s poems so breaking the smooth surface of standard translations. Bonney’s translations overlay lines of typewritten text to the point of illegibility, even as they superimpose twenty-first-century London onto nineteenth-century Paris. Through grainy photographs of neglected and forgotten places in London, Bonney (like Baudelaire) emphasizes the ruins and decay of the modern city, the fissure lines and suffering that are the neglected side of the progress of modernity.
In Happiness: Poems after Rimbaud, Bonney again makes the city of London his subject, this time through a focus on the protests against the existing economic and political order that took place in 2010 and 2011 in the wake of the financial crisis. Much of Happiness first appeared on Bonney’s Abandoned Buildingsblog so that the book functions as a retrospective archiving and framing of poems written as news, as part of and in response to a movement for revolutionary change.