Out of Africa, Redux

-or-

A "New Rimbaud"

by Edward Lacie


Introduction

Introduction

"Had he set out deliberately to make his life a source of myth, Arthur Rimbaud could hardly have done better," reads a website devoted to Rimbaud (1854-1891) and his poetry. In THE TIME OF ASSASSINS, his 1956 homage to Rimbaud, Henry Miller predicted, "I think there are many Rimbauds in this world and that their number will increase with time." Of Rimbaud's life in Africa after abandoning poetry at the age of 20, Miller asked, "How did a man of genius, a man of great energies, great resources, manage to coop himself up, to roast and squirm in such a miserable hole? How do you explain it?" No less an establishment poet than T.S. Eliot regarded Rimbaud as a primary infuence on his own poetics. The Beats of the 1940s appreciated the renegade spirit of Rimbaud as well as his influence on the Symbolists of the early 1900s. The subsequent Hippie generation maintained interest in Rimbaud through Jim Morrison (lyricist for acid rock group, The Doors), who believed he was Rimbaud reincarnate. In the pre-punk 70s, Patti Smith also embraced Rimbaud as her own. The following qualities are some of those associated wi the "myth of Rimbaud." Other traits to be described embody his un-mythic contributions to the art of poetry (one might even say, "the art of living").

Rimbaud, a Definition

Eric Mader-lin, in an online essay, defines Rimbaud's relation to language as a "voyant" (poet/seer): "What is Rimbaud's philosophy of language? We need to state this philosophy of language as succinctly as possible. "Though it is never explicity stated, there is clearly something in Rimbaud like a doctrine of quintessences. This doctrine has its place in a philosophy of language. As follows: "1) Rimbaud believes language is capable of seizing the quintessences of things. "2) This is a potential in language that needs to be tapped. "3) The voyant is the only one capable of tapping this potential. "4) To tap this potential in language is to approach creating the 'universal language.' "5) The universal language is capable of transforming the world. "6) The universal language is already somehow latent in language as potential. "7) The voyant, as expeditor of the universal language, is a divine being. "Here, in a few positive statements, is Rimbaud's philosophy of language. It is not, as it stands, a necessarily magical philosophy of language, though it does owe much to an occult philosophy of language. As regards this latter, however, I do not think that Rimbaud believed in a lost Adamic language as the Kabbalists do. His idea of the power in language was not founded on the supposition of something precious that had been lost, but rather on the supposition of things that were there to be found or created. These things to be found or created would give the voyant the power to transform the world. "His notion of the approach to these things was a religious one, and it formulated itself in a kind of praxis: 'one must make oneself a voyant.' "Rimbaud's philosophy of language was not fundamentally magical...." -Eric Mader-lin Another description of Rimbaud was found on a website article quoting the director of a "Total Eclipse," a mainstream film treatment of the Rimbaud/Verlaine "soap opera" filmed in the late 1990s: "He believed he could find some kind of truth by going over the border of the ... traditional," director Agnieszke Holland says of Rimbaud, played by Leonardo Dicaprio ("the most important role of my life" he was quoted as saying). Poet as language seer stretching the limits, this should apply to anyone dubbed a "new Rimbaud." Other aspects of the "Rimbaud-myth" should be considered but disregarded. Qualities of the "Rimbaud myth" that are not relevant in naming a "new Rimbaud" include the romantic fact that Rimbaud stopped writing by the age of 20. This aspect of the myth is regretted by the world of letters so is not included as a requirement for a "new Rimbaud." Even after writing his "farewell" (in A SEASON IN HELL), he continued to write a pursue a literary legacy for another year or few years. Another quality of the myth is that Rimbaud was unrecognized during their lifetime (Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins are others on this unofficial "list"). In Rimbaud's case, despite his death at age 37, this is untrue: Rimbaud himself authorized the printing of a first book ("A Season In Hell", the printing was financed by his mother whom biographers otherwise are eager to berate). While Rimbaud was in Africa, no longer interested in pursuing a literary reputation, Verlaine and others arranged for the publication of ILLUMINATIONS (first in a periodical), with an introductory note that these are the work of the "late" Arthur Rimbaud.

A "New Rimbaud"

An online biography of Rimbaud by Felix Goudart describes a man "cut out to be an explorer, already in a dilettante way, since, to his poet's mind, the only valuable study was the knowledge of oneself. He was to carry on in a search of truth (and not beauty as we could expect from a poet)[.]" The "new Rimbaud" I propose here, understands, unlike Goudart, Keats's oft-quoted equation, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." Poet Greg Baysans starts a poem for the new millenium, "Y2K Musings", "Like Lewis and Clark mounting the continental divide," an apt metaphor for crossing into the new century. Baysans instructs himself to "Emulate Lewis: describe landscape, the flora, the fauna." The reader is brought into the new century by the last line of the poem, "Here endeth the text mode." In a poem dated 1979, this "new Rimbaud" cites famous letters from both Keats and Rimbaud which describe their distinct and diverse theories of poetics. The quotes appear as footnotes to a longer poem (published in pieces in The James White Review [hereafter "JWR"] [Vol. 1, No. 4] [1984]), "Panoply: Prepared and Unprepared." In "Is this garbage?", Greg Baysans, a co-founder of The James White Review, and contributor of poetry from its first issue until his departure from the publication nine years later (1983-1991), cites the famous letter in which Rimbaud states "The task of the man who wants to be a poet is to study his own awareness of himself .... make the soul into a monster" in a footnote. He then makes an allusion to (and footnotes) the John Keats letter in which Keats introduces his theory of Negative Capability, an unexpected mix.

Where to Find Him

With a few exceptions, poetry by Baysans has appeared only in The James White Review. The JWR has, since its inception in 1983, been a respected literary publication which chronicles the writing of out gay men (primarily in the U.S. but including international writers). Other than in The James White Review, poems by Baysans in print include a single poem ("That Sinking Poem," part of the novella Appendices) in a University of Minnesota literary supplement (Baysans was never a student there) and a few poems in a publication also begun in Minneapolis, Minn., The Evergreen Chronicles (The Evergreen Chronicles began publication a year or two after the JWR as a non-gender-specific gay and lesbian literary journal). Both publications drew some editorial staff from a Minneapolis writers group. That group was founded in February 1983 by fellow JWR co-founder and publisher Phil Willkie. With a third member of that group, Paul Emond, the first issue of the JWR was created and published by October of that year. In the mid-1990s management of the publlcation was taken up by the Lamda Literary Organization which successfully maintains the publication to this day. In its early years, the JWR prided itself on publishing the work of unknown and first-time-published writers. Many writers first appeared in its pages duing its first decade. Phil Willkie in 1991, then publisher of the JWR, wrote of Baysans's departure, "I met Greg Baysans back in 1983 at the first meeting of the gay wriers' group. He told me he was a typesetter and I knew right then that we would have a publication." (Vol. 9, no. 2, Winter, 1992) It was the last mention of Baysans in the JWR. A website at "http://members.tripod.com/~poetx/home.html" purports to be "The Complete Writings" and includes references to a world of occurences since his last poem appeared in the JWR in 1990. A reference to Baysans in the Library of Congress catalogue notes his role as editor of THE GAY NINETIES, a 1991 collection of short stories from the JWR. His website also mentions he was a contributor of crossword puzzles to OUTWEEK magazine in the late 1980s. Like the poems that appeared on paper in the first decade of the JWR, the poems on the website have a concern with form that is chameleon-like and inventive, reminiscent of Rimbaud. Like a more recent French writer, "people's poet" Jacques Prévert, Baysans is accessible.

Rimbaud as Voyant

In Paris, Rimbaud once cut his long hair extra short -- not to gain respect, but just to see what reaction it would cause. I don't know that, like Rimbaud, Baysans inserts the epithet "Merde," ("Shit!") loudly in public at inappropriate times, but his "Wordsworth Meets Warhol" inserts the word "fuck" twenty-eight times into a well-known sonnet by William Wordsworth. Rimbaud is often credited with the invention of free verse ... because he wrote prose poems! To understand the contradiciton in that is to understand the importance of form to the "voyant". Form is crucially important to understanding some poems by Baysans. "Portrait of a Man" (JWR, Vol. 1, No. 1, cover) and "A Lesson In the Future" (Vol. 1, No. 3) are splayed across the page, reminiscent of Concrete poetry. In other works, attention to meter is high, sometimes jarring. Cut-ups and other technical moves (inclusion of newspaper accounts, a recent example) are reminiscent of Cubist painting. Given the possibilities that exist on the internet for Concrete, even "performance" poetry, Baysans's website is strikingly low-tech. Like some of the longer poems ("Five Prank Phone Calls," online only, an extreme example), the website has a unique, non-linear structure. Rimbaud abandoned the dream of a literary life after learning that "the powers that be" do not reward genius. Baysans departed after receiving a Lambda Publishers Service Award in 1991 for his work on the JWR, and his work has not been seen in print since. Recent poems which assimilate current events into the text (and context) are "A Real Education" (Enron, among other concerns) and "Uncle Sam Tamrin" (the Beltway sniper of 2002). Like Rimbaud's, this is not poetry that seeks to maintain the "status quo" or "politically correct". Doug Federhart, who knew Baysans in the early days of the JWR and is included in THE GAY NINETIES anthology, descibes him as "intriguing and sexy in a waif-ish sort of way. His wit and insight were wonderful, and his reading was always a high point, even when his stuff was so experimental that no one (including himself, at times) quite knew what it meant. One time he brought to group a 'constructed poem,' an actual physical arrangement of words and phrases he'd written out, cut out, and assembled on a framework of some sort - can't recall if the framework was cardboard, or balsa wood, or Tinkertoys, but it was definitely three dimensional. Other times, his poem constructs were simply various lines of poetry which he'd typed out, snipped apart and handed out to be shuffled and read in random order." Another contributor to the JWR and Minneapolis writers group member, George Klawitter, remembered, "(H)e was the typesetter for the journal, but he also had quite a bit of influence on selecting poetry.... I invited Greg down to La Crosse (Wisc.) once to read his poetry at the college where I was teaching.... I found (Greg's work) innovative, fresh, and interesting. Curiously, it did not, as I recall, have much gay content. Greg was a fine reader, and the students enjoyed his reading."

Two Poems in Detail

Like Rimbaud, Baysans is drawn to prose poems, ("Finesse, an Anti-Poem," an obvious example). There are also, however, several forms which Baysans created for one-time use only. One of them is the deceptively simple "As Thick As" (Vol. 1, No. 2, and online as part of the Appendices to "2007," the novella already mentioned as a sort of excuse to display early poetry).  "As Thick As" is set in a especially heavy, thick fog, and each line is centered. (Another poem of Baysans which might be said to be "centered" is "reverse/sunset" in which the words of the first line are the words of the last line, the words of the second line are the words of the line second to the end, repunctuate and in a new context, reach a unique "middle" line.) The title itself and each -usually short- line is rhythmically symmetrical, "centered" so to speak. Such attention to a "middle" that is more conceptual than real is a reference, in the form of the poem, to fog itself! The line "den in the fog" is a carry-over from the previously lines hyphenated "hid-". There are other provocative aspects to the poem, an interesting experiment. Rimbaud was, coincidentally, attracted to the fog of London, where he resided briefl on two different occasions, first when Verlaine and he moved there after Verlaine left his wife, After the shooting, Rimbaud returned to London years later with a younger and beautiful poet, Germain Nouveau. A far more recent poem, 2002's "Viaduct" is a quick, seven-line blip that follows a much longer quote from Ayn Rand, making the quote seem more the point of the poem than the poem itself. Reading "between the lines" (every other line, each a line of three syllables only layered between notably longer lines), the reader "finds" "I haven't/been asked to/the table", a reference to isolation similar to that proposed in the Rand quote.

Conclusion

Like Rimbaud in Africa, Baysans has been on a travel of self-discovery since his poems first appeared (in 1983) and disappeared (in 1991) from print. His move to electronic print only has resulted in further obscuring an already obscure poetic voice and innovator whose experiments and actual poetic achievements are noticeably absent from bookstores and libraries. Imagine if Rimbaud had brought poems "Out of Africa" instead of a bad leg! Baysans has, it seems, resumed writing after a decade-long silence away from The James White Review.