Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Patti Smith and Arthur Rimbaud

In Patti Smith's autobiography, Just Kids (our next book club selection) she often refers to the importance of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud in her life and her development as a poet. As I read, I made a note to look up more about Rimbaud -- in fact, I've been meaning to find out more about him for years. Conveniently, the current New Yorker includes the perfect answer to my questions -- REBEL REBEL: Arthur Rimbaud’s brief career by Daniel Mendelsohn. The article includes a biography of Rimbaud, a discussion of his appeal to adolescents and maybe other people, and even a couple of references to Patti Smith's love of Rimbaud. Above all, the author tries to explain the "powerful mystique that has seduced readers from Marcel Proust to Patti Smith."

Mendelsohn writes:
"The peculiarly adolescent quality of the poet’s life and work, the desire to rebel against whatever milieu he happened to find himself in—the schoolboy against school, the wunderkind against his admiring hosts, the poet against poetry—undoubtedly accounts for his particular appeal to teen-agers. (One statistic that Rimbaldians like to cite is that one in five French lycĂ©ens today claims to identify with the long-dead poet.) ...
"Ashbery ... was sixteen at the moment of impact, as was Patti Smith, the author of what is, perhaps, the most moving testament to the effect that a reading of Rimbaud might have on a hungry young mind. 'When I was sixteen, working in a non-union factory in a small South Jersey town,' she writes ... 'my salvation and respite from my dismal surroundings was a battered copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, which I kept in my back pocket.' The anthology, she adds, 'became the bible of my life.'”
Now I understand why I heard so much about him when I was young, and so few people seem to talk about him any more. I admit, I bought some volumes of his poetry but didn't get around to it. I wonder why it took me this long to read even a single article.

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