Guillaume Apollinaire (Wilhelm Albert Vladimir Apollinaris Kostrowitzky) was born in Rome on August 26, 1880. He purposefully kept his parentage clouded in speculation but was most likely the illegitimate child of Angelica Kostrowitzky, a Polish woman living in the Vatican. Apollinaire was raised in the gambling halls of Monaco, Paris, and the French Riviera; during his education in Cannes, Nice, and Monaco, he assumed the identity of a Russian prince.
In his twenties he worked for a Parisian bank and kept company with artists such as Picasso, Braques, Chagall, Max Jacob, Eric Satie, Marcel Duchamp, and his lover, Marie Laurencin. During this time, he published a number of semi-pornographic books, proclaiming that the writing of the Marquis de Sade would gain prominence in the new century.
Apollinaire's first collection of poetry, L'enchanteur pourrissant, appeared in 1909, and his reputation was established in 1913 with Alcools, a melange of classical versification and modern imagery. Apollinaire had a reputation as a thief—he was detained for a week in 1911 on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa—and decided to become a French national by enlisting in the infantry during World War I.
He was stationed on the front in Champagne until 1916, when he suffered a head wound and had to be trepanned. He outlined his poetic and political beliefs in L'esprit nouveau et les poëtes in 1917. In 1918, after a series of short-lived affairs, he married Jacqueline Kolb. War-weakened, Apollinaire died shortly after of the Spanish Flu on November 9, 1918, in Paris. Calligrammes, a collection of concrete poetry, was published a few months after his death.
Apollinaire was an important part of several avant-garde movements in French literature and art at the start of the twentieth century. His influences include the Symbolist poets of the former generation: Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Jules Laforgue, and Tristan Corbière.
His work is often concerned with the clash between the modern and the traditional, often juxtaposing drastically different stylistic elements: it exhibits gritty modern imagery in traditional forms, for example. His book Peintres cubistes (1913) expounded on the theory behind cubism and analyzed the work of important cubists. His play La mamelles de Tirésias, which was made into an opera by Francis Poulenc in 1947, is one of the earliest examples of Surrealism—a word he is credited for coining.
L'enchanteur pourrissant (1909)
Le poète assassiné (1916)
La mamelles de Tirésias (1917)
Les onze milles virges (1906)
Les mémoires d'un jeune Don Juan (1907)
Peintres cubistes (1913)
L'esprit nouveau et les poètes (1918)
It’s hard to believe that this is our FIFTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. Nearly 30Â books, 3 magazines, countless events and online entries later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 120Â entries, you can find them (in reverse chronological order) here.]
When I began this exercise on my own blog, in 2011, I began by speakingÂ to National Poetry Month’s beginnings, in 1966, and wrote that my intentions “for my part, as a humble servant and practitioner of this lovely, loving art,” were to post a poem and/or brief history of a different poet…. as well as write and post a new poem a day. I do function well under stricture, but I soon realized this was an overwhelming errand.
Nonetheless the idea stuck — to have this month serve not only as one in which we flex our practical muscles but also one in which we reflect on inspiration, community, and tradition — and with The Operating System (then Exit Strata) available as a public platform to me, I invited others (and invited others to invite others) to join in the exercise. It is a series which perfectly modelsÂ my intention to have the OS serve as an engine of open source education, of peer to peer value and knowledge circulation.
Sitting down at my computer so many years ago I would have never imagined that in the following five years I would be able to curate and gather 150 essays from so many gifted poets — ranging from students to award winning stars of the craft, from the US and abroad — to join in this effort. But I’m so so glad that this has come to be.
Enjoy! And share widely.
– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator
ASHLEIGH ALLEN on APOLLINAIRE’s ‘ZONE’
- Guglielmo Alberto Wladimiro Alessandro Apollinare de Kostrowitzky, aka Guillaume Apollinaire, with his fiancee, Madeleine PagÃ¨s, in 1916.
If youâre fortunate enough to live in the vicinity of Paris (or New York for that matter) as a young person, you will live this poem intimately if you pay attention. Society has proven unpredictable for him, and this poem is a reflection of that unpredictability, he morphs reality ever so slightly, he defines surrealism.Â
I fell in love with the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire because he was no bullshit and I appreciated that. My favorite writers have traditionally been the ones who entirely, honestly show me how they see and exist in the world. This is the main, very simple, reason I initially came to love the poetry and writings of Guillaume Apollinaire. A man whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, born in Rome, Italy, he was raised in France and passionately considered himself a Frenchman. His writing is at once vulnerable and playful, yet he remains secure in his assertions.
In Paris the Symbolists and the avant-garde influenced him, and just a year before the First World War began, he published his influential collection of poetry: Alcools (1913). This is the first collection of his I came across as a teenager while researching other early 20th century French poets, and it is the collection that has influenced my writing and reasoning the most. It is not only Apollinaireâs enthusiasm and frankness that attract me to his poetry, but his uses of pronouns in natural discourse that encompasses and addresses the personal as well as the collective in âZoneâ specifically (although he plays with this to great success and astonishment elsewhere).
âZoneâ is his masterpiece, for many of us, in part because it doesnât need to tell you it is â its existence suffices. I came across Apollinaire out of chance, which seems to fit. He was not a poet I studied in any of the courses I took as a high school student in a lycÃ©e in France or even at a university in Canada where I was limited to: Cocteau, CÃ©line, PrÃ©vert, Colette, Sarraute, and Camus. We spent the entirety of grade 11 reading J-P Sartre, and J-J Rousseau in my French class. While both menâs enlightened musings seemed at first irrelevant to my female teenage life, they introduced me to a literature that didnât tell me how to feel, but one that introduced me to how these people interacted with their thoughts and their world; thus readying my mind for Apollinaire and eventually my ability to trust and vocalize own perceptions. âZoneâ is a poem that takes you on a journey through the modern world, it is a blueprint for how to map out experiences, valuing a seemingly random, surreal order that echoes that of the very world he occupied.
Oddly enough, since I became an Apollinaire aficionada as a teenager, I continuously return to him with the same care and ease as I do older relatives who live in Western Europe, who I donât see regularly. Thereâs a familiarity that is unique between people who should be strangers, and itâs this sensation of being surprisingly known and knowing that I get with reading âZoneâ.Â From the very first line, the reader is paying attention because our mortality is on the line: âÃ la fin tu es las de ce monde ancientâ (In the end you are tired of this ancient world). At the beginning of the poem heâs placed an exit you refuse to take since itâs an entrance into the Modern world of the poem, or, rather itâs your entrance since he uses âtuâ (second person singular). Hereâs your world, take it or leave it.
I should confess, my reading of the poem is in its original French and as such, I canât help but be sidetracked a bit by the pronouns, which have always stood out to me in âZoneâ. Of course there is much scholarship around the poemâs relevance to Modernity and vice versa, but thatâs never been of great influence or concern to me. Perhaps this is a meditation on pronouns âjeâ, âtuâ, and âvousâ â first person singular, second person singular and third person singular, respectfully. When one uses âtuâ (second person singular) itâs as if theyâre looking a person in the eye; this could be a friend, family member, or anyone else you would speak to informally using eye contact. âVousâ on the other hand, is used for anyone one wouldnât talk to at eye level. This is only reserved for professors, employers, clergymen, the Queen, and anyone with a professional/social rank above the speaker; but it can also be used to create distance from someone one does not see eye to eye with. It should be noted that one does not move between âtuâ and âvousâ fluidly in speaking or writing, but, over time, there is an innate sense for which one to use and when. Apollinaire also uses first person singular, âjeâ, which places him right there alongside you, dear reader, as you wander around and wonder at Paris and the Modern world it exists in. You both (âjeâ and âtuâ or I and you) exist in this Paris, feel nostalgic about things in the near and distant past, had a childhood, went to church, and now hear the buzzing of planes overhead together. This is brotherhood and it has value in the modern world, just as it did in the past. There is the sense of waking up to the Modernity, an urgency to not simply let things happen around you, but to be a part of them.
Apollinaire discusses the present world using Paris and itâs artists as they stand among him; he attaches pastoral sentiment and remarks on the changes he sees without altering them tremendously, playing and constantly seeing things on the surface and reacting both superficially and profoundly. Modernism encourages this superficiality, but also requires more depth, especially with the war and its machines on the horizon. He observes himself (âjeâ) and a dear friend (âtuâ) for most of the poem. One of my favorite stanzas comes in halfway through the poem:
âMaintenant tu marches dans Paris tout seul parmi la foule
Des troupeaux d’autobus mugissants prÃ¨s de toi roulent
L’angoisse de l’amour te serre le gosier
Comme si tu ne devais jamais plus Ãªtre aimÃ©
Si tu vivais dans l’ancien temps tu entrerais dans un monastÃ¨re
Vous avez honte quand vous vous surprenez Ã dire une priÃ¨re
Tu te moques de toi et comme le feu de l’Enfer ton rire pÃ©tille
Les Ã©tincelles de ton rire dorent le fond de ta vie
C’est un tableau pendu dans un sombre musÃ©e
Et quelquefois tu vas la regarder de prÃ¨sâ
There is something largely relatable in each of these lines. How often I have felt a fool walking around a city, knowing completely that I am alone, and yet, there is an audience. The audience wonât love me, but it is watching and judging nonetheless. What is their use? What is mine? The last couplet is what truly haunts, and it is also precisely what Apollinaire himself is doing with the writing of this poem â he is looking in at the portrait of his life hung in a sombre place that houses artefacts. A thing we occasionally do when we have the time, strength, or both â purposefully look in on ourselves.
I continually return to this poem with the same curiosity and certainty that there is an unturned stoned or a metaphor that has meant one thing suddenly means another to me because of a shift in perception or an rebalancing of morals â who can say? Today there are at least two years standing between me my last reading of âZoneâ; of course, the poem takes a new shape. [Youâve gone and done it again, Guillaume.]
Indeed, Apollinaireâs main focus here is a meditation on Modernity and the modern city as a contact zone, a place of infinite potential, a per-war frenzy post lâage dâor opulence. For him, the Industrial Revolution is in full swing and Haussmannâs vision of Paris is near completion. In âZoneâ Apollinaire straddles the space and time. What I find difficult are the parts that relate to me the most, the nostalgic past needs letting go and the beautiful, filthy present must be consciously experienced for us to have any control over our lives. This poem reminds me, in my own life, that inaction or indecision is still a decision. For Apollinaire and those who make up âZoneâ one must learn the new walk of Modernity in that very moment, while it is being defined, lest they turn bitter and be left behind. The well-travelled, Italian born Apollinaire urges his fellow artists, countrymen, and maybe even more generally Europe forward via acute awakenings of their daily life. At the end of the poem, one getâs the idea that what heâs been going on about is that while the past exists, it canât control the here and now. The past is alive where it still serves (in the past), but, let us be part of this horrifying and stunning present world that is changing at the speed of light.
At times âZoneâ has felt like a letter home, a journal entry, as a marker of time for Apollinaire and his friends as they, with nostalgia, let go of the past through this meditation on itâs tender moments â the church will come with us, and knows more about what occupies the sky than our airplanes. Apollinaire goes from addressing the Pope (AKA âL’EuropÃ©en le plus modernâ) very formally using âvousâ to the churches relation to him and his friends who use may go to confession, but they spend their days concerned with writing and reading.
âEt toi que les fenÃªtres observent la honte te retient
D’entrer dans une Ã©glise et de t’y confesser ce matin
Tu lis les prospectus les catalogues les affiches qui chantent tout haut
VoilÃ la poÃ©sie ce matin et pour la prose il y a les journaux
Il y a les livraisons Ã 25 centimes pleines d’aventures policiÃ¨res
Portraits des grands hommes et mille titres divers
J’ai vu ce matin une jolie rue dont j’ai oubliÃ© le nomâ
Here he elevates newspapers to poetry and the memorable thing he has forgotten; thus drawing our attention to the fact that itâs not the place where one experiences beauty thatâs relevant, his focus is on the experience of the beautiful street. It is quotidian happenings like this keep this poem timeless for me because, really, he is mentioning the grit of life, which must have value â itâs how I (and many others) spend the days of life. This is reminiscent of the New York School. One need only look to OâHara or Ashbery to see what people did with this idea of elevating and profoundly questioning the quotidian present lay bare beside the past. And before them, Apollinaire wrote about his friends and their excursions:
Maintenant tu es au bord de la MÃ©diterranÃ©e
Sous les citronniers qui sont en fleur toute l’annÃ©e
Avec tes amis tu te promÃ¨nes en barque
L’un est Nissard il y a un Mentonasque et deux Turbiasques
Nous regardons avec effroi les poulpes des profondeurs
Et parmi les algues nagent les poissons images du Sauveur
Here he uses second person singular âyouâ/âtuâ, who is on board a boat in the Mediterranean but then says âweâ/ânousâ see the savior in the fish at the bottom of the sea. You are on the boat, but we all see the very Holy thing happening in the water. Why do I love these crazy pronoun shifts so much? I donât know but I think it has something to do with the ability to experience things we arenât present for, to be with those we love at all times.
And I really could go on pointing out stimulating images or experiences by one of the many people who seem to occupy this poem, but I urge you to read the poem and, if you write, to use a variety of vague pronouns in your own poetry. Additionally, if youâve only ever read the English translations (there is a rich bevvy of translations at your disposal â David Lehmanâs is at the bottom), youâve known no better than to wonder about who the âyouâ was – singular or plural? It does shift, and itâs when he addresses things related to the church do we read the formal âvousâ. The second person singular âyouâ is very tender and the âjeâ (I)even more tenderly understands, loves, sees, offers the âtuâ and the entire world he mentions.
The first, happening every presently âtodayâ:
Aujourd’hui tu marches dans Paris les femmes sont ensanglantÃ©es
C’Ã©tait et je voudrais ne pas m’en souvenir c’Ã©tait au dÃ©clin de la beautÃ©
EntourÃ©e de flammes ferventes Notre-Dame m’a regardÃ© Ã Chartres
Le sang de votre SacrÃ©-Coeur m’a inondÃ© Ã Montmartre
Je suis malade d’ouÃ¯r les paroles bienheureuses
L’amour dont je souffre est une maladie honteuse
Et l’image qui te possÃ¨de te fait survivre dans l’insomnie et dans l’angoisse
And of course the final 20 lines are the peak of the crescendo of the poem, when the images shatter, each line its own stanza, its own meditation:
Tu es la nuit dans un grand restaurant
Ces femmes ne sont pas mÃ©chantes elles ont des soucis cependant
Toutes mÃªme la plus laide a fait souffrir son amant
Elle est la fille d’un sergent de ville de Jersey
Ses mains que je n’avais pas vues sont dures et gercÃ©es
J’ai une pitiÃ© immense pour les coutures de son ventre
J’humilie maintenant Ã une pauvre fille au rire horrible ma bouche
Tu es seul le matin va venir
Les laitiers font tinter leurs bidons dans les rues
La nuit s’Ã©loigne ainsi qu’une belle MÃ©tive
C’est Ferdine la fausse ou LÃ©a l’attentive
Et tu bois cet alcool brÃ»lant comme ta vie
Ta vie que tu bois comme une eau-de-vie
Tu marches vers Auteuil tu veux aller chez toi Ã pied
Dormir parmi tes fÃ©tiches d’OcÃ©anie et de GuinÃ©e
Ils sont des Christ d’une autre forme et d’une autre croyance
Ce sont les Christ infÃ©rieurs des obscures espÃ©rances
Itâs a roll-call of experiences that ends in the death of the sun, preceded by a superstitious phrase a French citizen would only say to someone they have no intention of seeing again in this life. âAdieuâ is reserved for enemies and those near death, and here Apollinaire says it twice. This roll-call encapsulates his Modern life: Church â check, boulevards of Paris â check, suffering women â check, nostalgia for childhood and innocent past â check, awkward acceptance of Modernity â check, filth, dawn, blue collar workers, immigrants, beauty, death, violence â yes to all of it, And these things that he experiences, we all do to some capacity in our lives. If youâre fortunate enough to live in the vicinity of Paris (or New York for that matter) as a young person, you will live this poem intimately if you pay attention. Society has proven unpredictable for him, and this poem is a reflection of that unpredictability, he morphs reality ever so slightly, he defines surrealism.
Things can be grim and beautiful in this day-to-day living in a city constantly changing at a time that doesnât wholly make sense. Apollinaire has taught me that you can describe your own pulse while you search for another. And we are all entitled to voice our observations and experiences as we search and live, exist and pray though this occasionally drab existence. Guillaume Apollinaire doesnât reflect the times, but remarks on and discusses what happens when you digest the times (a true gourmand). Heâs not just watching, heâs consuming life to live it. There is a confessional sentiment we find in other early 20th century French writings, this idea that one is the child of the society that raised it, as such one cannot but be an honest likeness. Guillaume Apollinaire canât help but exist as he does at the time and place in which he exists, and for me, he encourages me to be so frighteningly, undistracted and present.
Â Ashleigh Allen is a Canadian poet and teacher who was raised in Toronto and grew up in New York City.
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