Category Archives: Poetry

A tragic, poetic, adventurous life: Rimbaud

rimbaudRimbaud, by Graham Robb; W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.
The original rebel poet adventurer

 

SAN FRANCISCO, March, 2001:  

 

Many Rimbauds have haunted San Francisco. Once this city was resplendent with Rimbauds reciting fiery, fragmented poems in dingy cafés, drinking and carousing, ingesting all kinds of dope, defecating and puking in alleys on their stumbling way home. The general populace appreciated them for channeling our Bohemian spirit with anarchist fervor and literary zeal. They were our anti-heroes.

Now, in a city that even Beat-era poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti concedes has succumbed to the sludge of corporate monoculture, Rimbauds are scarcely seen or heard outside of the Haight and a few other select neighborhoods that still make room for wretched visionaries and vagabond geniuses. Who here now even knows who the original Rimbaud was?!

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Rimbaud

To loosely paraphrase and embellish upon the latest, most exciting tome in the always churning Rimbaud-studies industry – Graham Robb’s splendid Rimbaud (W. W. Norton & Co., 2000) – he was a teen literary terrorist of late 19th century France who famously sucked up to and came to dominate a married Parisian poet 12 years his senior, Paul Verlaine, who was smitten with the provincial lad’s radical verse, tender body, crude habits, irreverent attitudes, and vast, poetic insights into the nature of humanity, himself, and the written word.

Arthur Rimbaud shredded poor Verlaine emotionally, financially, and poetically (not that Verlaine didn’t try giving as good as he got), turned poetry on its head, gained ill repute as a sodomite, boozer and home destroyer, crossed paths often with the cops, and alienated every other poet and friend. He abruptly said “fuck you” to poetry at age 19 and went slogging around the continent and the East Indies, struggling to find work, constantly destitute, suffering countless indignities and hardships. He eventually made his way to mostly uncharted eastern Africa (Abyssinia/Ethiopia), there to take up trading – of coffee and arms mainly, and possibly of slaves, though Robb takes pains to note that while this latter “commodity” was being heavily traded in the region at the time, and Rimbaud certainly would have had contact with it, no evidence shows Rimbaud’s direct involvement.

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With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.

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In his new career Rimbaud persevered and eventually excelled under the harshest imaginable conditions, becoming one of France’s most infamous explorers and adventurers, a man of extraordinary cunning and ambition, portrayed by Robb as hard-bitten but fair, often reclusive but engaging and even charming in social circumstances, respectful of and perceptive about his African friends, neighbors, clients, rivals and potential enemies, all of whom in turn respected Rimbaud. Though he complained bitterly of his circumstances in plain-prose letters to his mother and sister, he felt at home under African skies, no matter that his hair had grayed and his skin turned leathery. He emerged a master of the incredibly brutal trading game, constructed of the same outlaw mold (judging from Robb’s description) as contemporary American commodities trader Marc Rich, he of the infamous pardon.

Rimbaud, too, was on the lamb – from his pederastic past, from scandal, from anything even resembling poetry, from the draft board he kept eluding, from the clammy climate back home, from his implacable mother, from the sheer miserableness of his life. He had been a superior perceiver; alas, others (save Verlaine) did not share his perceptions, nor even understand them. With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.

It’s a seamless life Robb vividly portrays, an enormous accomplishment. The great challenge for biographers has been to make sense of Rimbaud despite the distressingly slim documentation of his adult years and the marked difference in personas manifested by Rimbaud in his teens versus his 20s and 30s (he died agonizingly of a cancerous leg at age 37).

Invariably, every biographer comes to the question: Why did Rimbaud give up on poetry? And the answer to that question must serve as the transition from one Rimbaud life to another. Robb’s reply (in part): “Rimbaud’s interest in his own work . . . did not survive the failure of all his adult relationships . . . . Without a constant companion, he was writing in a void. . . . He might have felt in any case that his poetry had crossed the limits of communicability and turned into a simple waste of energy.”

Robb’s intimacy with Rimbaud’s poetry and the field of poetics shines in this work, and those who most savor textual analysis will feel amply rewarded by the book. But Robb’s skills transcend literary interpretation, gripping readers with his delight at historical sleuthing, eagerly filling in gaps with new information and insights and telling us where other biographers have gone astray (he’s particularly harsh on Enid Starkie, one of the first and most famous of Rimbaud’s biographers, who cleaned up Rimbaud’s image to suit Victorian tastes). Robb is both a master researcher and storyteller, having honed his skills on previous, highly acclaimed biographies of Victor Hugo and Balzac. He displays a poetic sensitivity not only to the vulnerable teen versifier but to the rugged adventurer, telling a well-documented tale sure to hold armchair adventurers in thrall with details of camel caravans, Koranic debates, bloody wars, secretive deals, intolerable climates, international intrigue, and daring escapades.

A sense of sheer delight at the subject matter pervades Robb’s Rimbaud. You sense his enthusiasm, and share it. He strips away veils of myth about Rimbaud, who since his death in 1891 has been romanticized to death. Careful not to take too much poetic license (unlike Jeremy Reed’s fabulously impressionistic Delirium, which goes overboard for a wonderful romp), Robb nonetheless breathes life into Rimbaud and all the remarkable characters in his Dickensian life.

From a queer perspective, one shortcoming of this work, as of all speculations on Rimbaud’s life in Africa, is it’s inability to track Rimbaud’s sexuality as a post-poet adventurer. Robb speculates a bit on the relationship of Rimbaud to an Abyssinian woman, Miriam, with whom the trader apparently had a liaison from 1884-86. But any hints of lingering homosexuality on Rimbaud’s part – apart from slim evidence of something between him and his long-time servant, Djami – have vanished. Says Robb: “In fact, there is no sign that Rimbaud had any lasting emotional attachment at all after 1886.”

While that may be true, the conclusion is unsatisfying. It is difficult to accept that the man who as a teenager flaunted his buggery and wrote paeans to the anus now had ceased to be sexual, or at least to take sensual delight in the Abyssinian and Muslim men who constantly surrounded him. Yet Robb, being a responsible scholar, dares not take readers into the realm of speculation, and we must be content for now, until some invaluable, long-lost correspondence turns up to help further demystify Rimbaud, to let Rimbaud remain sexless.

This review originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, March 15, 2001

The Sonnet Bites Back: Lord Alfred Douglas

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‘Bosie’ Author Douglas Murray
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‘Bosie,’ aka Lord Alfred Douglas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As popular imagination has it, Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie, was a faggy, foppish British poet at the turn of the 20th century who suffered – and largely brought upon himself – a disastrous and highly public fling with literary giant and big queen Oscar Wilde. Bosie came to regret having been a flaming homosexual at a time of harsh Victorian prudery and persecution, and did a dramatic about-face after Wilde’s death, turning Catholic, marrying a woman and fathering a son, denying any unwholesome dalliances with Wilde, and zealously denouncing and/or litigating against anyone associated with Wilde or Wildean vices.

For this betrayal of his kind, other practicing homosexuals never forgave him. Though he enjoyed a modicum of fame during his life, he remained an odd duck in the literary world, a sonnet composer who never adapted his formalist style to the loosening poetics of the era. Bosie left but a minor literary legacy, his personal star forever attached to and outshone by Wilde’s supernova.

To British biographer Douglas Murray, Lord Alfred has been pissed on too much by an ignorant public. The social/political upheaval surrounding Bosie’s life all but guaranteed Bosie’s early, defiantly gay poetry would not receive a fair reading or assessment in his day, nor even his more mature, Catholic poems. Young Murray decided years ago to rectify that sad state of affairs, which has resulted in his captivating biography, Bosie.

“I intended originally to write a book about poetry,” says the sunny 20-year-old author, casually attired in a white linen suit over a pale button-up T-shirt as he sips a beer at the Top of the Mark on Nob Hill, fresh from a live, on-air interview at Berkeley’s KPFA Radio. “That was one of the first things that kick-started me, finding a copy of one of his poems that hadn’t been taken out of the library in 50 years, and realizing they were bloody good. I think some of them are.”

He was a mere 15 at the time, a student at Eton prep school, and little did he know that within five years he would be one of the darlings of the book-publishing world, zipping around the globe, promoting a book published by Tina Brown’s latest enterprise, Talk Miramax Books, an imprint of Hyperion Books.

“I took a year out between Eton and Oxford,” explains Murray, asked how he managed as a student to produce such a well-researched, well-written book. “In England it’s very common. I spent my time teaching. My contemporaries did as well. And in my spare time I wrote the book.”

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Douglas Murray. Photo by Marc Geller.

No doubt marketing decisions factored into Brown’s interest in Murray. He presents at media ops just the sort of sophisticated, sexy young face and engaging personality cameras and tape recorders love to record. As important, and as enticing, is the book’s literary merit, which earns high marks. Murray stubbornly set out to show Bosie wasn’t the complete villain he’s been made out to be, and that he deserves recognition for his literary accomplishments. “I think he should be regarded as a good minor poet,” declares Douglas. To convince skeptics and lure new Bosie fans, Murray traces the intricacies of the relationships among all the key players in the Bosie/Wilde saga with dispassion, thoroughly but clearly and engagingly delineating and speculating on the facts and issues, clearly siding with his principal subject, but never a died-in-the-wool Bosie apologist.

Murray describes Bosie is “an antihero, a tremendous lesson in how not to live your life. . . . The great problem with Bosie, always has been and always was, from the beginning of his life he makes a mess of enemies.”

It may be life imitating art, but Murray himself now attends Magdalen College, Oxford – the very college Bosie attended when he had his first affair with Wilde, when it was still a haven for “schoolboy business.” Clearly Bosie was happiest in life at that time, before homophobia destroyed their love.

The key incident that almost completely unhinged Bosie was Wilde’s apparent betrayal from beyond the grave, where he was untouchable. Wilde’s seeming animus toward Bosie rose up in the form of an infamous, accusatory letter addressed to Bosie, given to one Robbie Ross to deliver, but which Bosie claimed never to have received. When that letter’s contents were read aloud in court, Wilde’s hostile words stabbed him, destroying any traces of his former carefree innocence, turning him into the ogre he became until his autumnal years.

It’s almost a Romeo and Juliet affair where letters are crossing “and don’t arrive in time, absolutely,” Murray agrees. “It’s a terribly tragic story, really two. One tragedy, although it’s the short version in the book, is the tragedy of Oscar Wilde, and the other one is the tragedy of Alfred Douglas. I have in many ways so much more sympathy with Bosie in this.”

Bosie can be admired as a fighter of enormous resolve, committed to his cause, central to which is figuring out, over many years, what exactly transpired in net of his relationship with Wilde, and to seeking redress for many and varied grievous insults he felt he had endured.

When at last in his later years Bosie allowed himself to relax, reflect and find forgiveness for himself and others, he once again regained some semblance of the brave poet who so boldly penned the words, “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” But in truth, that flame had long since expired, the torch taken up by others more true to their natures.

While Murray’s sympathies are with Bosie, his scholarship allows readers to make informed judgments. Admirers of the sonnet will, indeed, find much to admire in Bosie. He wasn’t half bad. Readers who find no mystery in a gay man going straight, on the other hand, will find no problem with Murray’s failing to cast a sufficiently critical eye on Bosie’s apparent transformation. Murray seems reluctant to criticize.

Given the repressive social atmosphere of his time, it’s not surprising Bosie proclaimed himself straight and allied himself with the Church. He had to survive. He was tired of insults, jails, rumors, and his status as social outcast. He wanted to be embraced, and for that he turned to his own aristocratic class for solace and comfort. He got but a modicum of it. One thing seems certain: had gay liberation occurred on his watch, you can bet Bosie would have jumped right in, conversion be damned. After all, the best times of his life were as a happy pervert. Bosie once wrote to Wilde from Biskra, North Africa, says Murray, “saying that he’d had a new lover and that they had sex once or twice a day, and that he was so young that the milk of his mother still hadn’t been wiped from his mouth. This boy was only I think 13; Bosie was 23.”

This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, August 10, 2000

Another Beat goes down: Philip Whalen

 

Public reading in San Francisco on Friday, August 30, 2002 to celebrate Philip Whalen

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Zenshin Philip Whalen

One of the nation’s leading poets, Philip Whalen, who was both a legend of the Beat era and a prominent figure for many years in the Eureka Valley/Castro neighborhood as abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center, will be memorialized in a public reading this Friday, August 30, to be attended by many of the most celebrated poets and writers of our time.

The free public reading by such eminences of the poetry scene as Michael McClure, Diane DiPrima, and Leslie Scalapino will take place Friday from 7 – 10 p.m. at Presentation Theater (formerly the Gershwin Theater), at 2350 Turk St. (near Masonic). Hundreds of Whalen’s friends and admirers are expected to attend.

In addition, a Zen Buddhist memorial service will be held for Zenshin Philip Whalen (his formal title as abbot) at Green Gulch Farms and Zen Center, located at 1601 Shoreline Hwy. (Highway 1), just south of Muir Beach, on Sunday, September 1 at 2:30 p.m., with Richard Baker Roshi officiating.

Whalen, who passed away on June 26, 2002 at the age of 78, was one of the original Beat poets along with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch and others (he roomed with Snyder and Welch at Reed College). He was born October 20, 1923 in Portland, Oregon, and wrote more than 20 books of poetry and two novels. He was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 1973, and in 1991 he succeeded Issan Dorsey as abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center, a small Buddhist center in the Soto Zen tradition founded in 1981 by a group of gay and lesbian Buddhists for the neighborhood and community. The center continues to open its Zendo daily to the community for formal meditations.

In a memoriam prepared by his friends, Whalen is described as “crusty, full of contrasts, unpredictably wise. He never tried to hide himself, no matter what his mood was. He engendered trust, but not complacency. He was unconventional, but also an old school gentleman.”

“He never gay identified, but he was a mystery sexually to everybody,” said fellow poet Rick London, a member of the board of Hartford Street Zen Center, who was with Whalen when he passed on. London is helping to organize Friday’s public reading, along with the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University and others.

“He was open to everybody and treated everybody the same, which is to say fairly,” added London.

In one of several websites devoted to Whalen’s memory, www.jackmagazine.com, Michael Rothenberg writes: “The degree of respect and admiration the Beats had for Whalen is remarkable. He was adored by Kerouac, who found him easy to be with and confide in. . . Ginsberg considered Whalen the only Zen Master Poet practicing in America.”

At another tribute site, www.everydayzen.org, close friend Zoketsu Norman Fischer writes: “Philip was a notorious and elegant complainer, but he bore his decline with a lot of dignity. He had no truck with the ‘death and dying’ movement. He just wanted to keep on living as long as possible with as much enjoyment as he could find in daily living – which he did do.”

For more information, visit the Hartford Street Zen Center website at www.hartfordstreetzen.com

This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.