Poetry International Poetry International
Poem

John Tranter

RIMBAUD AND THE MODERNIST HERESY

RIMBAUD AND THE MODERNIST HERESY

RIMBAUD AND THE MODERNIST HERESY

The kind of poetry that I needed, to teach me the use of
my own voice, did not exist in English at all;
it was only to be found in French.

– T.S. Eliot

The whole of my admiration goes to the Great Mage,
inconsolable and obstinate seeker after a mystery which
he does not know exists and which he will pursue, for ever
on that account, with the affliction of his lucid despair,
for
it would have been the truth . . .
– Mallarmé



1

Sitting by the river under damp trees
I listen to the wind in the leaves
whispering hatred and loneliness: a spirit
eats into the bones of small animals, I hear
a distant roar like a crowd driven mad,
devouring itself. When it rains in the bush
you get depressed, everything’s grey
and the way you live disappears leaving
a blank mind with a slight headache
clouding the edges of the view, and the view’s
fucked by your understanding of history, e.g.
this is the century of indecipherable writing,
the age of impossible verse, of wrecked metal,
cancer, bad sex and epidemic syphilis,
cities flaring into cinders, machinery
sunk and rusted in the flowing stream.
So you begin a letter to a certified
criminal  –  dear Arthur, this is just a gesture
like a self-addressed sympathy card.
You should have been at the Poets Ball,
everyone was pissed, it was like
the Left Bank . . .
The library is full of
academics, and they’re reading your book!
How do you like that?
When you shout
the sound plunges into the tangled bracken
and the bank of tussocks, your voice
is taken away from you and buried in the hills.


2

Reading books expands the cranial capacity
and with that extra brain you can talk
to the dead, and sometimes in another language
that takes years to decipher, for example
The old poets are drifting
back into the mist: Li Po drowned, Tu Fu
grey and dazed in the bamboo thicket –
they used to hold hands, share a blanket
in the winter, and get drunk together.
That was the T’ang Gang, in the old days,
if you survived the purges you were okay,
but you needed nerves of steel and a healthy
appetite; then battle, famine and ruin . . .
in the eighth moon of Autumn a storm
tore three layers of thatch from Tu Fu’s hovel –
‘After the disasters of war,’ he said,
‘I have had little sleep or rest,’
and the rain pouring through the roof.
‘Now I dream of an immense mansion,’ he tells me,
‘thousands of rooms, where all the cold creatures
can take shelter, their faces alight . . . ’ You
should have had such pity on the future,
or were you dreaming of the future, of the
creatures huddling under the river bank,
the rain curtain smoking low on the water?
You are a parable for what has gone wrong,

and through that mirror I see the Chinese poets
bewildered by the twentieth century like children
shocked into recognition of the distant voices,
the rain in the rain-wet boughs, the bright wind.


3

The City, the Book, these ordered lies,
it’s part of a grand authoritarian design
to drive us mad, and only the Celebrations
keep us sane: the Fiesta, the Mardi Gras,
Fat Tuesday, Black Friday and the Suicide Follies,
these are our defence against the history headache,
the dialects that glitter in the bookish gloom:
mad butchers gilded out of recognition,
a simpering prince made into a man,
a man made into an idiot, and a woman burnt –
the Romans brew up a subtle broth of poison
and sign their decrees in purple ink,
athletic Greeks compose an army of homosexuals,
Egyptians unsettle the future with a
nightmare weighing a million tonnes
and the Gauls rave and blabber in the forest,
shocked by their destiny: to hack a city
out of a marauding wilderness and see
the suburbs crawling with merchants. Like
Rimbaud, in Aden, buying coffee –
Ten per cent! Ten per cent! Yet that
City’s final logic is conceived by wiser men
than those who conquered with the stink of blood
in their nostrils, who spoke a military dialect
that said sophistication was a way of dying cheap
and cursed its own future in a foreign tongue.


4

A mad king plotting horror
in an overgrown field, broken steel
rusting on a hill, a plane tumbling
in the air then bursting into flame,
boys torn in half screaming,
the deliberations of important men
and their reluctant signatures
on a document that soon flickers into ash,
and a war, then another war – these nightmares
are neatly folded in the library,
stacked on the miles of shelves
waiting under the fluorescent glow.
And after that, the poetry selection.
Stop telling me to suffer! Let me do it
my way!
The book trolley
trundles up and down . . . Adamson said
he went to Fisher Stacks and saw
two million books – horrible vision!
And that was only Mod. Eng. Lit.!
Sure, I want to be a great poet;
what do I do? Write lyrics for The Mob?
Kill somebody? Arthur, you
would have made a great punk rocker,

says the consolation telegram in French:
‘J’ai perdu ma vie: Rimbaud’, it’s obvious,
and the author catalogue agrees, i.e.
No Translations Held in Stock, see Starkie, Enid,
but I didn’t go to Oxford, and I ‘have no French’.


5

After the lost generation we find the single
beatnik emerging, it’s like Castaways in Space
with a drug supply at the corner store
and we’re getting fresh on adrenalin milk-shakes
when the beatnik declines as a focus for the novel
and the word ‘hippie’ surfaces in the dictionary.
Inside a novel is a growing boy
buried in the print and waiting to get out,
in a diary a man pretending to look
carefully at his youth, on the painting
of the famous author the fingerprints
of an unwilled and crooked politics.
I look back into myself as a visitor
looks at his room and the bowls of flowers
obviously not gathered from the garden
he can see carelessly framed in a window;
the cupboards are lined with yellowed paper
and in a trunk he finds a suit
that fashion forgot, and a broken toy
belonging to a past he never knew.
I sure could see a lot of gum trees
from our front veranda – ‘veranda’,
before that was English, it was Hindi – but not
a single human being, and if I could
they’d be farmers thinking money.
You build your future out of sweat,
pain, deeply-felt experience and alcohol.
I’m thinking of ‘falling in love’.



class="menu" style="margin-top:-4px">Next
Close

RIMBAUD AND THE MODERNIST HERESY

The kind of poetry that I needed, to teach me the use of
my own voice, did not exist in English at all;
it was only to be found in French.

– T.S. Eliot

The whole of my admiration goes to the Great Mage,
inconsolable and obstinate seeker after a mystery which
he does not know exists and which he will pursue, for ever
on that account, with the affliction of his lucid despair,
for
it would have been the truth . . .
– Mallarmé



1

Sitting by the river under damp trees
I listen to the wind in the leaves
whispering hatred and loneliness: a spirit
eats into the bones of small animals, I hear
a distant roar like a crowd driven mad,
devouring itself. When it rains in the bush
you get depressed, everything’s grey
and the way you live disappears leaving
a blank mind with a slight headache
clouding the edges of the view, and the view’s
fucked by your understanding of history, e.g.
this is the century of indecipherable writing,
the age of impossible verse, of wrecked metal,
cancer, bad sex and epidemic syphilis,
cities flaring into cinders, machinery
sunk and rusted in the flowing stream.
So you begin a letter to a certified
criminal  –  dear Arthur, this is just a gesture
like a self-addressed sympathy card.
You should have been at the Poets Ball,
everyone was pissed, it was like
the Left Bank . . .
The library is full of
academics, and they’re reading your book!
How do you like that?
When you shout
the sound plunges into the tangled bracken
and the bank of tussocks, your voice
is taken away from you and buried in the hills.


2

Reading books expands the cranial capacity
and with that extra brain you can talk
to the dead, and sometimes in another language
that takes years to decipher, for example
The old poets are drifting
back into the mist: Li Po drowned, Tu Fu
grey and dazed in the bamboo thicket –
they used to hold hands, share a blanket
in the winter, and get drunk together.
That was the T’ang Gang, in the old days,
if you survived the purges you were okay,
but you needed nerves of steel and a healthy
appetite; then battle, famine and ruin . . .
in the eighth moon of Autumn a storm
tore three layers of thatch from Tu Fu’s hovel –
‘After the disasters of war,’ he said,
‘I have had little sleep or rest,’
and the rain pouring through the roof.
‘Now I dream of an immense mansion,’ he tells me,
‘thousands of rooms, where all the cold creatures
can take shelter, their faces alight . . . ’ You
should have had such pity on the future,
or were you dreaming of the future, of the
creatures huddling under the river bank,
the rain curtain smoking low on the water?
You are a parable for what has gone wrong,

and through that mirror I see the Chinese poets
bewildered by the twentieth century like children
shocked into recognition of the distant voices,
the rain in the rain-wet boughs, the bright wind.


3

The City, the Book, these ordered lies,
it’s part of a grand authoritarian design
to drive us mad, and only the Celebrations
keep us sane: the Fiesta, the Mardi Gras,
Fat Tuesday, Black Friday and the Suicide Follies,
these are our defence against the history headache,
the dialects that glitter in the bookish gloom:
mad butchers gilded out of recognition,
a simpering prince made into a man,
a man made into an idiot, and a woman burnt –
the Romans brew up a subtle broth of poison
and sign their decrees in purple ink,
athletic Greeks compose an army of homosexuals,
Egyptians unsettle the future with a
nightmare weighing a million tonnes
and the Gauls rave and blabber in the forest,
shocked by their destiny: to hack a city
out of a marauding wilderness and see
the suburbs crawling with merchants. Like
Rimbaud, in Aden, buying coffee –
Ten per cent! Ten per cent! Yet that
City’s final logic is conceived by wiser men
than those who conquered with the stink of blood
in their nostrils, who spoke a military dialect
that said sophistication was a way of dying cheap
and cursed its own future in a foreign tongue.


4

A mad king plotting horror
in an overgrown field, broken steel
rusting on a hill, a plane tumbling
in the air then bursting into flame,
boys torn in half screaming,
the deliberations of important men
and their reluctant signatures
on a document that soon flickers into ash,
and a war, then another war – these nightmares
are neatly folded in the library,
stacked on the miles of shelves
waiting under the fluorescent glow.
And after that, the poetry selection.
Stop telling me to suffer! Let me do it
my way!
The book trolley
trundles up and down . . . Adamson said
he went to Fisher Stacks and saw
two million books – horrible vision!
And that was only Mod. Eng. Lit.!
Sure, I want to be a great poet;
what do I do? Write lyrics for The Mob?
Kill somebody? Arthur, you
would have made a great punk rocker,

says the consolation telegram in French:
‘J’ai perdu ma vie: Rimbaud’, it’s obvious,
and the author catalogue agrees, i.e.
No Translations Held in Stock, see Starkie, Enid,
but I didn’t go to Oxford, and I ‘have no French’.


5

After the lost generation we find the single
beatnik emerging, it’s like Castaways in Space
with a drug supply at the corner store
and we’re getting fresh on adrenalin milk-shakes
when the beatnik declines as a focus for the novel
and the word ‘hippie’ surfaces in the dictionary.
Inside a novel is a growing boy
buried in the print and waiting to get out,
in a diary a man pretending to look
carefully at his youth, on the painting
of the famous author the fingerprints
of an unwilled and crooked politics.
I look back into myself as a visitor
looks at his room and the bowls of flowers
obviously not gathered from the garden
he can see carelessly framed in a window;
the cupboards are lined with yellowed paper
and in a trunk he finds a suit
that fashion forgot, and a broken toy
belonging to a past he never knew.
I sure could see a lot of gum trees
from our front veranda – ‘veranda’,
before that was English, it was Hindi – but not
a single human being, and if I could
they’d be farmers thinking money.
You build your future out of sweat,
pain, deeply-felt experience and alcohol.
I’m thinking of ‘falling in love’.



class="menu" style="margin-top:-4px">Next

RIMBAUD AND THE MODERNIST HERESY

Sponsors
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Ludo Pieters Gastschrijver Fonds
Hendrik Muller fonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Literature Translation Institute of Korea
Partners
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère