Born, out of wedlock, in Rome in 1880 to a high-spirited, convent-educated but unconventional young aristocrat of Russian, Polish and Italian descent, the poet Apollinaire was given no fewer than five prénoms by his mother: his full name, in its French version, was Guillaume-Albert-Wladimir-Alexandre-Apollinaire de Kostrowitzky. During his schooldays in Monaco he was known as Cointreau-Whisky, and his poetry includes characters with equally peculiar monikers – Rotsoge, Madame Salmajour, Monsieur Panado, Herr Traum, Frau Sorge, Lul de Faltenin, L’Hermès Ernest, Noubosse. The exuberance of Apollinaire’s life and writings (perhaps best summed up by the title of his pornographic novel, Les Onze Mille Verges, ‘The 11,000 Penises’), his compulsion to overflow boundaries and genres, to multiply, Cubist-style, narratives and images and perspectives and ideas, can seem uncannily prefigured by the excessive number of names bestowed on him at birth, like a series of bets, by the rambling, gambling Angelica de Kostrowitzky.
It used to be agreed that Francesco d’Aspermont, a well-bred Italian army officer, was the poet’s father. Laurence Campa’s biography of 2013 has now cast doubt on this. Campa also suggests that Guillaume’s younger brother, Albert, born two years later, was probably the product of a different relationship from the one that resulted in the birth of Guillaume. While the record of these early years is patchy, it is clear that by 1887 all three were living in Monaco, where Angelica (now calling herself Olga) was a familiar face at the casino. Guillaume, meanwhile, was enrolled in the exclusive Collège Saint-Charles, where he did well, winning numerous prizes.
Apollinaire probably picked up from Walt Whitman his habit of naming himself in his poems: ‘Je me disais Guillaume il est temps que tu viennes’ (‘I said to myself Guillaume it is time that you came’). This trait Apollinaire in turn passed on to Frank O’Hara, who acknowledged the debt in ‘Memorial Day 1950’, in which O’Hara figures himself reading music by the light of ‘Guillaume Apollinaire’s clay candelabra’. Yet a note of uncertainty not really found in the American poets often pervades Apollinaire’s acts of poetic self-naming, even in lines seemingly brimming with confidence: ‘Je lègue à l’avenir l’histoire de Guillaume Apollinaire’ (‘I bequeath to the future the story of Guillaume Apollinaire’). He was not just fatherless but divided in his national identity and allegiance, for, despite being passionately committed to France, he was granted French citizenship only after two years of war service, and two years before his death at the age of 38 of Spanish influenza. If he struck many of those who met him, from Alfred Jarry to Max Jacob to Picasso to Robert Delaunay, as larger than life, as the avant-garde spirit incarnate, and if his long poems, like those of Whitman and O’Hara, seem to expand and prolong themselves as effortlessly as amoebas in a petri dish, then beneath the shifting decors and personae a sense of genuine perplexity often emerges. A line from ‘Zone’ (composed two years before Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was published) memorably captures this: ‘Tu ressembles au Lazare affolé par le jour’ (‘You’re like Lazarus utterly terrified by the light of day’).
‘Zone’ is often accorded a status similar to that of ‘Prufrock’, and seen as inaugurating French modernist poetry. I first came across it as the opening poem in Paul Auster’s bilingual The Random House Book of 20th-Century French Poetry (1982), where the English-language version is by Samuel Beckett. ‘Zone’ begins, like ‘Prufrock’, by signalling a determination to move beyond 19th-century diction and imagery – ‘A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien,’ rendered by Beckett as ‘In the end you are weary of this ancient world.’ But unlike Beckett or Eliot, Apollinaire is rarely weary or disaffected for long, and the poem is soon registering contemporary Paris with curiosity and élan, pondering posters and flyers and newspapers, praising the beauty of an industrial street whose name the poet can’t remember (it has since been identified as rue Guersant), and appreciatively noticing managers and factory hands and beautiful secretaries on their way to work. Apollinaire’s secession from earlier poetic modes doesn’t include the jettisoning of rhyme, but the poem’s irregular line lengths, its open-endedness, its semi-surreal urban imagery, its lack of all punctuation, exhibit a determination to be ‘absolument moderne’, as Arthur Rimbaud had thought all poets must be some forty years earlier. Beckett translated the poem’s visceral, if enigmatic, last line, ‘Soleil cou coupé’, as ‘Sun corseless head’. This perhaps underplays the violence which other translators have attempted to replicate in various ways: ‘Decapitated sun’ (William Meredith); ‘Sun slit throat’ (Anne Hyde Greet); ‘The sun a severed neck’ (Roger Shattuck); ‘Sun neck cut’ (Beverley Bie Brahic); ‘Let the sun beheaded be’ (David Lehman); ‘Sun sundered head’ (Martin Sorrell); ‘Sun throat cut’ (Ron Padgett). The compression of this lurid image of the dawn must have greatly appealed to Beckett; indeed his streamlined version possibly takes its cue from the phrase, for it elides the more garrulous side of Apollinaire, nipping and trimming, eliminating what can be eliminated.
‘Zone’ is, in theory, a circadian poem, presenting 24 hours on the streets of Paris, from the early morning of one day to the blood-red sunrise of the next. Much of it, however, is taken up with memories of the poet’s Mediterranean childhood and youth, and with snapshots from his later travels around Europe: the poem invites us to picture him in Prague and Coblenz and Amsterdam, as well as in Rome, his birthplace, where he is seated under a Japanese loquat tree. Like later circadian novels – Mrs Dalloway, or Ulysses – ‘Zone’ deploys stream of consciousness to slide from present to past, from inner reflection to observations of the scenes around; but it also finds room for an extended riff on exotic species of birds, ranging from the pihi to the lyrebird to the phoenix. Counterbalancing this flight of fancy are gritty depictions of immigrants at the Gare Saint-Lazare and of Paris’s impoverished Jewish quarter, and an impressionistic nighttown-ish account of Apollinaire among the nightingales, pitying various prostitutes and kissing one who has a horrible laugh. A line towards the end gives Alcools (1913), the volume that ‘Zone’ opens, its title:
Et tu bois cet alcool brûlant comme ta vie
Ta vie que tu bois comme une eau-de-vie
It’s all but impossible for translators to capture the pun present in eau-de-vie (a kind of brandy) while recreating Apollinaire’s rhyme, though Padgett makes a brave effort: ‘And you drink this alcohol that burns like your spirit/Your spirit you drink down like spirits.’ Beckett, elsewhere so scrupulous in emulating Apollinaire’s rhymes, here contents himself with a mere assonance: ‘And you drink this alcohol burning like your life/Your life that you drink like spirit of wine.’
The notion of a poem offering the equivalent of a shot of alcohol mirrors Rimbaud’s dream of an aesthetically inspired deregulation of the senses. Apollinaire, however, lacked the enfant terrible’s pitiless invulnerability, and a wounded heart often lurks, or is indeed brandished, as the source for his poetic/alcoholic fits of inspiration. Many of his best-known pieces are, to borrow the title of an ambitious early poem, explicitly chansons du mal-aimé, songs of the badly loved. Midway through ‘Zone’ we learn that ‘L’angoisse de l’amour te serre le gosier,’ that the anguish of love grips the poet by the throat; and that this pain is so acute that he wonders if he will ever be loved again.
The vividly signalled erotic origins of many of Apollinaire’s poems mean that the women who caused or eased his anguish have become engrossing figures in Apollinairean mythology. The most important were, in chronological order, Linda Molina, Annie Playden, Marie Laurencin, Louise de Coligny, Madeleine Pagès (with whom he embarked on an extensive and intimate correspondence after a single chance meeting on a train) and Jacqueline Kolb – la jolie rousse, the pretty redhead, addressed in the late poem of that name, and his wife for the last six months of his life.
Apollinaireans are particularly fascinated by his affair with Annie Playden, an English governess whom he met in 1901 while employed for a year as a tutor in the Rhineland mansion of the Vicomtesse de Milhau. Annie is directly commemorated in poems such as ‘Annie’ and ‘L’Emigrant de Landor Road’ (her family lived at 75 Landor Road in Clapham), and her presence, and the elation and despair she inspired, suffuse a number of his Rhineland poems as well as the complex and ambitious ‘La Chanson du mal-aimé’, whose opening stanzas evoke a foggy evening in London, which Apollinaire visited twice in his attempts to further his suit. There survives a quaint picture of the pair taken in a photographer’s booth in Cologne in February 1902, framed in the window of a fake railway carriage supposedly travelling from Berlin to Brussels to London; Apollinaire holds her by the elbow, and they certainly look like a courting or even betrothed couple, but quite how far the relationship went has never been clearly established. Later that year he bragged in a letter to a school chum that he was sleeping with her, and went on to commend her breasts and posterior (‘je vois toute l’Allemagne, et couche avec la gouvernante, anglaise 21 ans, épatante & des nichons et un cul!’; ‘I’m seeing all of Germany and am sleeping with the governess, English, 21, splendid boobs and arse!’) By all accounts, however, Annie had been strictly brought up and was unlikely to have yielded to her enraptured but eccentric admirer, despite the close contact that they must have enjoyed as fellow tutors of the vicomtesse’s nine-year-old daughter in a large remote house in the Rhineland woods.
What is clear is that Apollinaire wholly failed to win over her parents when he appeared on the doorstep of 75 Landor Road in November 1903, and then again the following May. It has even been suggested that her seemingly sudden decision to emigrate to America only ten days after Apollinaire’s second visit was partly taken in order to escape his attentions. The poem ‘Annie’ imagines her on the coast of Texas near Galveston in a big garden full of roses, although she actually spent most of the rest of her life in California, where she was eventually tracked down by an ardent Apollinairean in 1946. Padgett himself met her at an Apollinaire conference held at Barnard College in the 1960s, by which time she was in her eighties, and living with her sister in Katonah, New York State. Had Apollinaire ‘behaved’ himself, Padgett tactfully inquired, to which she responded: ‘He was a perfect gentleman.’
Alcools collected more than a decade of poems, and is accordingly somewhat uneven. Its inclusiveness does, however, mean that one can follow Apollinaire’s metamorphosis from a late Symbolist poet into the visionary bard of modernity, a role most fully assumed in ‘Vendémiaire’, whose radical ambitions are encoded in its title’s reference to the republican calendar of the French Revolution. The poetic/alcoholic metaphor here becomes a means for Apollinaire to celebrate the comprehensiveness of the new kind of poetry which he imagines flowing through and from him – ‘Je suis ivre d’avoir bu tout l’univers’ (‘I am drunk from drinking the entire world,’ as Padgett has it) – while his audience is enjoined to listen to his all-embracing songs of universal drunkenness. The poem excitedly hymns the heady sense of adventure and possibility that characterised prewar Paris, and encapsulates its feverish atmosphere of artistic experiment. Roger Shattuck titled his wonderful 1958 study of this period The Banquet Years, and enthroned Apollinaire in the seat of honour as the ‘impresario of the avant-garde’. More recently Peter Read has explored in rich and rewarding detail the complex relationship between Apollinaire and Picasso, illustrating the way the ‘creative dialogue’ between them ‘fostered and inspired some of their finest art and poetry’.
Apollinaire’s activities took many forms: he edited a series of short-lived but radical journals; he wrote copious amounts of art criticism in praise of Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, Rousseau and Braque; he issued Marinetti-style manifestos like ‘L’Antitradition Futuriste’, which champions dynamisme plastique and mots en liberté; and, as well as dashing off pornographic fiction for money, and editing a whole series of classic examples of the genre, he published numerous short stories and experimental prose pieces that were later gathered in the volumes The Poet Assassinated and The Heresiarch and Co.
But his tastes were wide and various. While his polemics and more visionary poems often hail an ecstatic, even utopian artistic future, he also shared Picasso’s interest in tribal art, and depicts himself at the end of ‘Zone’ as returning to sleep in his room in Auteuil among his ‘fétiches d’Océanie et de Guinée’, which he compares to images of Christ. His friendships and artistic alliances, particularly those with Picasso and Delaunay, had a direct impact on his poetry; in a piece such as ‘Les Fenêtres’, which now seems proto-Surrealist, he deliberately sought to emulate the effects achieved by the painters he admired, repeating phrases such as ‘Du rouge au vert tout le jaune se meurt’ (‘From red to green all the yellow dies’), in order to give the poem a spatial as well as a chromatic feel. His calligrams, or shape poems, took the process further still: one entitled ‘Il Pleut’, for instance, is in the form of five slanting streams of rain.
Apollinaire’s most compelling calligrammatic poem, ‘La Petite Auto’, is also the one that marked the end of the banquet years. He was with his friend André Rouveyre in Deauville on the Normandy coast when news that war was coming reached them on 31 July 1914. They set off at once for Paris, and a cunning arrangement of type creates out of words an image of their car on a winding road. Apollinaire wasn’t immune to the general excitement unleashed by the events of that turbulent summer; like poets as dissimilar as Marinetti and Rupert Brooke, he saw in war an opportunity for some kind of rebirth, and ‘La Petite Auto’ ends with exactly this trope, soon to seem so bitterly ironic:
Nous comprîmes mon camarade et moi
Que la petite auto nous avait conduits dans une époque Nouvelle
Et bien qu’étant déjà tous deux des hommes mûrs
Nous venions cependant de naître
We understood my buddy and I
That the little car had taken us into a New epoch
And although we were both grown men
We had just been born
Despite his maturity – he was 34 – Apollinaire volunteered for service, signing up with an artillery regiment in December 1914.
‘Ah Dieu! que la guerre est jolie’ opens the best-known of the poems Apollinaire wrote during his time near or on the frontline – ‘Oh! What a lovely war.’ ‘L’Adieu du cavalier’ is in fact an ironic pair of quatrains about a cavalryman riding gaily into battle only to die while his lover is chuckling over the various surprising turns of destiny. Padgett includes only a handful of Apollinaire’s many war poems, perhaps disliking the way they intertwine images of erotic love with the machinery and spectacle of violence – rockets and shells compared to breasts, kisses figured as explosions, and so on. The reader in quest of English versions of these poems should seek out Beverley Bie Brahic’s The Little Auto (2012), which concentrates on the second half of Apollinaire’s poetic career – the work collected in his second major volume, Calligrammes, published in January 1918. Martin Sorrell also translates a number of Apollinaire’s most convincing war poems, such as ‘Les Soupirs du servant de Dakar’ and ‘Merveille de la guerre’, along with a selection of the verses he sent to Louise de Coligny, with whom he’d enjoyed a brief but intense affair just before joining his regiment; their few but evidently uninhibited nights of passion were often recalled in vivid, uncensored detail in his letters and verse epistles to her.
Apollinaire’s war poems tend neither to be satirical, like, say, those of Siegfried Sassoon, nor outraged in the manner of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Many apply the modernist sublime mode developed in poems such as ‘Vendémiaire’ and ‘Cortège’ to the theatre of war, which can result in some rather unnerving comparisons: ‘Que c’est beau ces fusées qui illuminent la nuit’ he writes admiringly in ‘Merveille de la guerre’ (‘How beautiful these rockets lighting up the dark’); these rockets are then figured as so many dancing, flirting women, among whom he even spots his own smiling beloved – ‘J’ai reconnu ton sourire et ta vivacité.’ In ‘Chevaux de frise’ a rocket burst is depicted as a nocturnal flower, and its payload streams to earth like ‘une pluie de larmes amoureuses’, a rain of tears of love. Unlike Wilfred Owen, who in a poem such as ‘Greater Love’ deployed the traditional language of love poetry to communicate the intensity of trench warfare and the bonds of male affection it fostered (‘Red lips are not so red/As the stained stones kissed by the English dead’), Apollinaire seems to be evoking erotic fantasies as a means of escape and survival: his transformation of German artillery bombardments, or of firing across no man’s land at enemy lines (‘Désir’), into metaphors of sensual arousal shows the Apollinairean, or Orphic, to use his own favoured term, imagination triumphing in the most perilous and unpropitious of circumstances.
On 17 March 1916 Apollinaire was sitting in his trench reading the Mercure de France when he heard an explosion and noticed that the pages he was holding were drenched with blood. It was his own. A piece of shrapnel had pierced his helmet at his right temple, bringing an end to his war. Although the splinters were successfully removed from his skull, periodic bouts of dizziness and the onset of paralysis led to his eventually being trepanned. The operation was deemed a success, but on his return to Paris many noticed a personality change, as did his penultimate love (it’s unlikely they actually became lovers), Madeleine Pagès, the girl he’d met on a train, whom he’d visited in Algeria three months before receiving his injury. He abruptly broke off their engagement, and, in a somewhat brutal letter, forbade her from coming to Paris to take care of him.
The old avant-garde reflexes still, on occasion, lurched into life: he managed, for instance a final artistic manifesto, ‘L’Esprit nouveau et les poètes’, a stirring attempt to rally his artistic troops and plot a path to the future. But in his final great poem, ‘La Jolie Rousse’, he does, at last, sound weary: ‘ma jeunesse est morte ainsi que le printemps,’ he laments – ‘my youth is dead just like the spring.’ ‘Ayez pitié de moi,’ he pleads in its final line, and there is tremendous pathos in the poem’s terse, truncated survey of his life from the standpoint of what Apollinaire so rarely was, ‘un homme plein de sens’, a sensible man. ‘La Jolie Rousse’ does, however, also express the hope that his burgeoning love for Jacqueline Kolb, the redhead of its title, will reinvigorate him, and inspire new artistic tussles in the long ‘quarrel between tradition and invention/Order and Adventure’. And he must have been pleased to find on his return to the capital so many younger acolytes keen to continue this quarrel; the fledgling Surrealists in particular were eager to claim Apollinaire as a precursor – especially since he was the one to coin the term surréalisme – and a 1917 production of his loopy drama Les Mamelles de Tirésias caused just the kind of scandal that Breton and his confrères would emulate in their quest to convert the world to their more polemical version of Orphism.
‘There are so many things I don’t dare tell you,’ Apollinaire complains in the last stanza of ‘La Jolie Rousse’. It’s a somewhat baffling claim. For it is the disarming fullness and frankness of the legacy he bequeathed to the future that has attracted so many admirers and translators, particularly among American poets; Auster’s selection of Apollinaire’s work in his Random House anthology includes versions by Richard Wilbur, W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, Paul Blackburn, James Wright, Dudley Fitts and William Meredith, as well as Padgett, whose translation of ‘La Petite Auto’ first appeared there, and is now reprinted in this excellent selection. Padgett’s versions are more fluent and colloquial than Sorrell’s, although Sorrell’s volume is somewhat more representative of the poetic career as a whole. As a second-generation New York School poet who took Kenneth Koch’s famed creative writing classes in the early 1960s, Padgett was introduced early to the delights of Apollinaire’s work, and no doubt became conscious of its powerful influence on the development of one of the poets whose work had first lured him from Tulsa to New York, Frank O’Hara. Granted a Fulbright Scholarship in 1965 to work on translations of Apollinaire’s prose, Padgett was in Paris when O’Hara died in a freak accident the following year, and so wouldn’t have heard the epitaph bestowed at O’Hara’s funeral by Philip Guston on mid-century New York’s poet among painters and impresario of the avant-garde: ‘He was our Apollinaire.’