Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Reflections on a Favorite Book, or, The Dangerous Lives of Poets

I leave in a few minutes for the boyfriend's city, and my house is ready(ish) for my sublettor (I accidentally used the clean towel I'd left him, but Oh Well; I was clean at the time). I've been accomplishing many small tasks this week, and am feeling good about that:
  • I have selected an apartment
  • I have read the first in the long list of books I need to teach this fall
  • I have finished revising my article, and resubmitted it
  • I have vacuumed and done the laundry.
Etc.

This morning I finished rereading a book that I really loved when I first read it 10 years ago, and am happy to report that I still really love it. It's a little known, out-of-print novel by James Ramsey Ullman called The Day on Fire. You should read this book. It's long, but since when has that been a deterrent?

In brief, The Day on Fire is a fictionalized biography of the poet Rimbaud. From what I've been able to gather, not much is known of Rimbaud's life, but what we do know is pretty interesting: he wrote all of his poetry between the ages of about 15 and 19, he was Verlaine's lover for a time, and he travelled widely through Europe and Africa, mostly on foot. There's good material in there for a novel, and Ullman does a great job with it. I won't go heavily into the plot here. But one of the things I really like the most about the novel is how Ullman uses bits of Rimbaud's poetry to unify the whole story--which is, as I say, long, and involves a lot of different "sections" (e.g. Morel [the Rimbaud-figure] living with Druard [the Verlaine-figure]; Morel teaching in Switzerland; Morel the African gun-runner). The different segments of the story threaten to become disconnected, but Ullman invokes scraps of Rimbaud's own writings as refrains throughout the novel. So, for example, the lines, "The night alone, and the day on fire" are used to at various points to invoke literal heat (in Africa), the torture of Morel's hashish addiction, or the more figurative fire of his drive to write poetry.* These images accrue more and more meanings as the novel progresses, so that when they're used, a whole network of associations comes forward and reminds the reader of all the stages of the character's life.

[*That sounds rather lame as I've described it, but that' s only because I've got to go in a minute and don't have time to think of a better example.]

More personally, I find this book exciting. Not so much because of the story's action--though that's exciting, too, in its own way--but because Morel-Rimbaud is himself so rich and fascinating. The novel is long, and that's good. There's a lot to excavate. He's not a...nice person, to put it mildly, but in a strange way I find myself wanting to be him, as I read; through his poetry and his strange life he created a sort of otherworld, a bizarre and disturbing world of intense symbolic power. I'm glad that I've finally finished reading this book, because there are other things that I have to read, but I regret leaving that world behind.

Rimbaud, like so many poets, died young. He was 37, I think. Byron was 36, and the Scandinavian poet Edith Sodergran was 31. Why have so many poets died at such young ages? It's dangerous, to be a poet.

2 comments:

Sisyphus said...

Hooray for getting a place! Good luck on the next stages of craziness.

And for poets ... hmm, I may get flack for this, but I think it's worse when poets don't die off young ... read any late Eliot? So many others, too, just create brilliant stuff and then become parodies of themselves or creepily conservative (or both). Maybe they are the precursor to rock stars.

jb said...

I wondered whether the early death-age of so many poets has more to do with readers' actually preferring poets who die early? The quality of their poetry aside (and I'm not crazy about Byron, to be honest), they tend to be romantic figures, obviously.