Why Poetry? Rimbaud

Every English major goes, methinks, and ironically enough, through a Rimbaud (French!) phase. I’m glad mine came and went before I found myself in an undergraduate workshop with William Logan, who forewarned us to please pronounce the name correctly (“ram-BOW”) and “not make a pinball machine noise out of it.”

Later, after I’d finished my MFA and was going nowhere publication or job-wise, I went through my second Rimbaud phase: I had to become a modern man; I had to give up poetry. He did it because he had done everything he was ever going to do (and everything he needed to do) with it. I did it because I couldn’t do anything with it. And so I went to law school.

Ten years later, I began to try to write poetry again.


Why do we write? Why do we do any creative thing?

Because we must, right? If you don’t have to do it, you don’t.

Is it that simple?

Why do I try to write poetry?

I tried quite a few forms of creative expression: guitar playing, singing, songwriting, acting, short fiction, plays, non-fiction. And of all the roads I tried, poetry was the easiest for me to travel, and the one that gave me the greatest rewards. Something in me needs coming out, and poetry is the easiest way for it to do so. No, not the easiest. I agonize through the process of writing and revising a poem. “Because poetry is the most complete, most satisfying way I have of expressing myself and being who I can be with and in language.”

And I do not mean that I write poetry simply for myself, no. Poetry without an audience — poetry without readers — is not enough for me:

Poetry is not at all what it’s often said to be, the indulgence, development, and expression of private inward life. This is one of those half-truths that is the worst error, even a lie. Poetry is inward self-development plus the insistence that this must have a principal place in the public forum plus a third thing, a conclusion that flows from the first two. Everyone must be allowed full personal development, and everyone must be allowed full participation, since only full participation leads to full personal development, and in turn a proper society can only be produced by full development of each member. Poetry is, above every other human endeavor, the place where person and society are not merely joined but revealed in their original unity.

What Man Has Made of Man, by A.F. Moritz (Poetry magazine).

Instead of “society” I might say “humanity,” but what is society if not the mechanism by which we are humanized through socialization? And I don’t think I’d privilege poetry above other disciplines, including philosophy and history.

Still, the point may be that maybe we don’t write poetry. Maybe poetry writes us. Or fiction, or songs, or concertos. Maybe we have as much choice in the matter as being born male or female, black or white, gay or straight. Maybe it is for us only to find what is calling to us, quietly, insistently, which might be each other, maybe:

I packed Rimbaud into my duffle bag a long time ago. “The first study for a man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, entire…But the soul has to be made monstrous,” Rimbaud wrote in the preface to his Illuminations, where quickly things get “unbearable! and the Queen, the Witch who lights her fire in the earthen pot will never tell us what she knows, and what we don’t know.” What did that mean? I didn’t know, but the “hare,” who “stopped in the clover and swaying flowerbells, and said a prayer to the rainbow, through the spider’s web,” I wanted to talk to, and the words curled up on the cold grate of reason and warmed one another, and soon started to glow and illuminate like candles of beeswax….

I am thankful for poetry. In the beginning was the word, and the word was posted to a tree, and around the tree gathered listeners and readers who began to talk among one another, even as the word was forgotten and fell to the ground and was buried in the falling leaves, and in the spring a young man out walking found the word now obscured from weather and compost and thought it said wood, or wode. This was the first reader of poetry, and Rimbaud’s Witch.

Why Read Poetry? by Joe Linker (Berfrois).


My poem:

Verlaine After Mons

Now that the boxcars
have ceased bickering
past his barred window
and the tracks remain

impassibly distant
as old lovers,
he watches them hold.
“Nights,” he complains

in letters he is free,
at last, to write,
“are raw, sleep bitter.”
To his east, Paris

grates the evening white,
a grand carnival
cold as the moon,
familiar as the hiss

of boiling stew. And so
he writes: of forcing
food into his mouth,
of how he’ll leave the rails

of an old life,
use momentum to flee
this room, these letters
he will never mail,

the glow and pull
of a body not his own
and never present,
if never wholly gone.


This poem was written and published (one of six I managed to place after my MFA) in the mid-90s.

I was reading Rimbaud heavily and a little Verlaine (a very little), and used their story as a mask to write about the end of a five-year relationship: I thought we’d marry; she had to move on. It took me about three years to write about it, and then in disguise.

I was also thinking about Rimbaud’s abandonment of poetry (allegedly accompanied by the statement, “I must become a modern man”) and wrangling with what it would take, post-MFA, to put poetry and teaching aside (I couldn’t get a job and placing poems was rare) and find another way to make a living.

The poem, perhaps, deals with these things. Mons is the city in Belgium where Verlaine was imprisoned after shooting and lightly wounding Rimbaud. The poem imagines him after his release, living somewhere west of Paris (perhaps even in England, where he soon found himself). The thoughts and words I ascribe to him are entirely made up.


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