Jade Cuttle on Guillaume Apollinaire

A brief delve into the French poet and playwright

I first stumbled across the work of Guillaume Apollinaire as a student of French and Russian at the University of Cambridge, and years later, still uphold this French poet and playwright of Polish descent to be one of the greatest literary geniuses. Born in Rome on August 26, 1880, and then moving to Paris with his family in 1899, Apollinaire enjoyed soaking up the stimulating influences of the avant-garde scene from a young age. In 1911, he joined the Puteaux Group, a branch of the Cubist movement, and drew inspiration from their fascination for collapsing temporal and spatial distinctions. As a result, Apollinaire’s poetic style is sometimes described as a form of “literary cubism”, constructed upon unlikely juxtapositions that rattle the rusty framework of expectation. He is widely considered a forefather of Surrealism, famous for his experimental verse and innovations, but was also a soldier composing much of his verse in the trenches. With the centenary anniversary of his death having come and passed widely unacknowledged on November 9, 2018, it feels like a crime to not celebrate the legacy he left behind.

One of the most exciting collections is The Little Auto, reissued in 2016 to the delight of Apollinaire fans. The book includes one poem from his pre-war collection Alcools (1913), ‘Zone’, and a selection from Calligrammes, which was largely composed while he was fighting on the front lines in World War I. The book marks a critical addition to the contemporary landscape of poetry in translation as Beverley Bie Brahic, winner of the 2013 Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation, commendably respects Apollinaire’s preference for plain tone and simple grammatical constructions over more elaborate ones. Bie Brahic shuns with fierce resolution the temptation of false embellishment in her translation so as to let the original power of the imagery shine through. In the preface, she compares these poems to “small palaces of thunder” – a beautifully accurate image to hold onto when pouring over these pearls of avant-garde wisdom.

“Avant-garde” was originally a French military term used to describe the soldiers who were sent ahead of an armed force in order to determine its course, which translates here via the revolutionary thrust to Apollinaire’s work. This is evident from the very first line of The Little Auto, opening with the weary observation, “A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancient” (“In the end you’re tired of this old world”) in ‘Zone’. This poem continues with an inventive metaphor for the modern Eiffel Tower as Shepherdess: “Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin // Tu en as assez de vivre dans l’antiquité“ (“Shepherdess O Eiffel Tower your herd of bridges is bleating this morning // You’ve had enough of living with Greek and Roman antiques”). The pleasure of navigating this surreal poem is the fluidity of thought to flaneur through various imaginative territories whilst flaneuring through the streets of Paris itself.

The Eiffel Tower has often been taken as a subject in French literature, and whilst the monument might be a proud symbol of Paris today, it hasn’t always been the cherished object of admiration. In fact, as soon as the plans for its construction became public back in the 1800s, it gained the grumbling disapproval from 300 luminaires. French poets like Léon Bloy were quick to pen their poetic insults comparing it to a “truly tragic street lamp” or a “mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed” (François Coppé). Even fiercer still was Joris-Karl Huysmans’s protest against this “half-built factory pipe, a carcass waiting to be fleshed out with freestone or brick, a funnel-shaped grill, a hole-riddled suppository”. Whilst the shepherdess image is striking, Apollinaire, explores an even more unique approach in Calligrammes. Apollinaire pioneered the poetic calligram: a text where the design and layout of the letters create a visual image related to the meaning of the words themselves. The most famous example is when the poet arranged the letters of a poem into the shape of the Eiffel Tower, then compared its pointed form to a fiercely proud Frenchman sticking out his tongue to the losing Germans. “Salut monde, dont je suis la langue éloquente que sa bouche O Paris tire et tirera toujours aux allemands”. (“Hello world, of which I am the eloquent tongue that your mouth, O Paris, will forever stick out at the Germans”). Outrageously inventive, the law of the line was broken like never before. The Little Auto masterfully translates one of these calligrams in its title poem, albeit leaving certain words in the original French.

More than a century later we’re still plumbing the depths of visual potential, foraging after formal inventions that rupture and redraft expectation; challenging the constraints of established trends. Wayne Holloway-Smith’s I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE WENDING (2018) is a fabulously imaginative recent collection of poems that at times recalls the calligrams of Apollinaire. The most exciting page in the pack is ‘Contents’, and though billed as a contents page, it functions as a fascinating poem in its own right. Breaking the law of the line in favour of a looping rollercoaster, each segment is comprised of the first sentence of each poem. The unruly shape is fitting since each poem is published on unbound, unpaginated sheets that slot into a box rather than inside a book, its loose pages embracing liberation from their traditional place of lock-up. I also recently reviewed The Tree Line: Poems for Trees, Woods and People (Worple Press, 2017) anthology and again, caught myself wondering where modern poetry would be without the pioneering boldness of poets like Apollinaire. In The Tree Line, David Morley’s visual mapping of the semi-enclosed cavity of a tree hollow in ‘Forgiveness’ is a delicately precise work of pure art, whilst Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s ‘Spruce sonogram’ is equally as intriguing, its leaf-esque spattering of lexis across the page yielding fruitfully sonorous associations.  Since Apollinaire, too, scorned poetry which “fails to exploit its two principal sensuous aspects [of] sound and shape”, thereby embracing the limitless potential of language, the translation process is rendered especially difficult. However, with an ear finely attuned to rhythm and rhyme, these latent perils are navigated impressively by translator Bie Brahic in The Little Auto. The poem becomes a weapon against established ideals bringing the reader originality in bundles.

Jade Cuttle is a poet, critic and songwriter. She is a former Foyle Young Poet, and she won Best Reviewer (Editor’s Choice) in the Saboteur Awards 2018. Her debut album of poem-songs with PRS Foundation & Warren Records is forthcoming in July 2019. She was Deputy Poetry Editor of Ambit.

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