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Friday, March 1, 2013


       francis picabia

Yesterday in the morning, a question came to me about Guillaume Apollinaire, French poet from the first two decades of the 20th Century. Apollinaire kicked off the Modern with his poem ZONE. It brings to my mind Allen Ginsberg's HOWL that kicked off the second half of the 20th Century. Apollinaire looks to the modern world with fascination from the first decade of the 20th Century. His book of poems, ALCOOLS, was published one hundred years ago, 1913. That was the same year Duchamp painted Nude Descending A Staircase that kicked off the Modern in the world of visual art. ZONE welcomes the new century, airplanes, the Eiffel Tower, Pope Pius X (the most modern European).

     You read the handbills catalogues posters that sing out loud and
     That's the morning's poetry and for prose there are the
     There are tabloids lurid with police reports
     Portraits of the great and a thousand assorted stories

It would be another 10 years for Surrealism to take shape after WW1. Apollinaire expresses the hope that came with the New before WW1. He survived the war, but only by a couple years after a head wound. If you think of Symbolism in poetry parallel Impressionism in painting, then Apollinaire's book of poems, Alcools (poems 1898-1913), is there with Post-impressionism (vanGogh and Gauguin), Fauvism (Bonnard and Matisse), Expressionism (Kirchner and Kandinsky), Cubism (Picasso and Braque), just before Dadaism (further breakdown of form and color during WW1, the chopping block of before and after), then Surrealism after "The Great War." Apollinaire's place was between Symbolism and Surrealism, that tremendously gestative time. He wrote in a March, 1913, essay, Through The Salon des Independants, For the past twenty-five years, it is the Salon of Independants that has brought to light the newest personalities and tendencies of French painting, which is the only painting that counts today and which is pursuing in the face of the universe the logic of the great traditions. This year the Independants is more alive than ever.

The poem I went looking for that set off this morning's spell of reading Apollinaire's poems was THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD, very much a Symbolist poem creeping toward Surrealism. The poem is like a dream in the way the story unfolds. It concerns walking by a row of shops called an arcade, shops with big glass windows and mannequins. He calls the mannequins the dead.

     A diamond angel shattered all the windows
     And the dead accosted me
     With looks from another world.

The dead stepped out from their glass mausoleums and joined the living people walking by. Some fell in love, some rowed boats in a park's lake, some walked holding hands. A dead woman sitting on a bench / Next to a barberry bush / Allowed a student / Kneeling at her feet / To speak of betrothal.

     "I'll wait for you if I have to
      Ten or twenty years
      Your will shall be mine."

     "I'll wait for you
      All your life,"
      Replied the dead woman.

At a given time the dead return to their windows and lie down,

     Waiting for burial behind their windowpanes

     They did not suspect
     What had taken place
     But the living remembered it as
     An unhoped-for happiness
     And so real
     They had no fear of losing it

Several years ago I discovered that Apollinaire wrote The House Of The Dead to the music of Pachelbel's Cannon in D, which he evidently had in his head very well. They didn't have recording devices then like we have now. I don't recall how I discovered that. Possibly I heard its slow progression in his short story in verse of the living and the dead having a night out together. I had Pachelbel's Cannon on LP to listen to then, but don't have it on CD to listen to it now. It works to read the poem slowly at the rate of the music's flow. High places match, low places match, the feeling carries all the way through and it ends at the right time.
I've been going nuts trying to remember the title and author of a novel written maybe in the 1930s or 40s that is the story of Apollinaire's poem told in Symbolist prose. It is a little-known classic. I have searched until I've convinced myself I gave it to somebody many years ago. I don't even know how to search for it on google or amazon. I'd remember the writer's name and the title if I saw them. Not able to call them up from the ocean floor of my mind. Maybe like a rising bubble it will surface in a few days. When it does, I'll note it here. I've been so distracted today so many times attempting to write this that I've lost the sense of it. The translator I've used here is William Meredith from his 1964 translation of Alcools.

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