Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud
There weren’t no gangs. I didn’t know no one there, but we all got together that day, the Asians, the blacks, the whites. It felt like we were one big gang. We took over Birmingham. Normally we don’t get along. But we weren’t fighting each other; we were fighting the police… What I really noticed that day was that we had control. It felt great.
From interviews with participants in the 2011 riots in England, conducted for Reading the Riots, a study by the London School of Economics and the Guardian.
In the Letter of Poetics at the end of Happiness: After Rimbaud, Sean Bonney claims provocatively: ‘It is impossible to fully grasp Rimbaud’s work … if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Marx’s Capital. And this is why no English-speaking poet has ever understood Rimbaud’. At issue in Bonney’s statement is Rimbaud’s radical statement ‘Je est un autre’, ‘I is an other’, and in particular his demand, in the famous letter to Paul Demenyi, that the poet be a seer. This letter, as Bonney notes, was written a week before the 1871 Paris Commune erupted in the Bloody Week which saw the slaughter of up to 30 000 Communards, and the later imprisonment, execution or exile of thousands more. Bonney places this event at the centre of Rimbaud’s poetic.
Whether this is the case or not – other critics argue that the Paris Commune was only of incidental importance to Rimbaud – it permits Bonney to use Rimbaud’s writing as a startlingly effective stimulus towards expressing some of the complex energies of the present time. Happiness is a book in which conflicting forces engage in an unresolved dialectic that presents itself as a drama within language itself. Bonney gives us a colonised language stuttering with the fevers of revolution. The subject, if there is one, is the poet in a city (specifically London), and perhaps the city itself, lurching towards the explosiveness of action.
Rimbaud’s poetry is most often understood as an exemplary redefinition of subjectivity that inaugurated a new phase of modernity: the other that he invokes is seen as an unknown interiority, the asocial self released through his program of the ‘derangement of the senses’. Bonney, on the other hand, proposes an argument that relocates the individual self in social action. ‘”The long systematic derangement of the senses”, the “I is an Other”, he’s talking about the destruction of bourgeois subjectivity, yeh? That’s clear, yeh? That’s his claim for the poetic imagination, that’s his idea of what poetic labour is… The “I” becomes an “other” as in the transformation of the individual into the collective …” In this reading, the Illuminations, the series of poems that are also the last poems Rimbaud wrote, enacts the collapse of the collective vision, the return to ‘the old discord’ of the isolated individual. (Morning of Drunkennessii.)
Rimbaud’s 1871 call towards the visionary certainly suggests something more actively revolutionary than the rock star delirium or adolescent angst it’s commonly confined to: he imagines a poetry that has a direct relationship to social action, as a ‘multiplier of progress’. ‘External art will have its function, since poets are citizens [my emphasis]. Poetry will no longer take its rhythm from action; it will be ahead of it!’
Crucially, in placing poetry as before or after action, Rimbaud conceives it as performative (a sense reinforced by the references to all kinds of performance – theatre, pantomime, ballet – throughout his work). He sees poetry as the rhythmic creation of language which can express in sensuous form (‘his inventions can be smelt, felt, heard’) the ‘unknown awakening in the universal soul in his own time’.iii This is not so far from the Brecht analysed by Fredric Jameson in Brecht and Method: as Jameson has it, Brecht’s performative process makes the ceaseless transformation of modernity ‘comprehensible by making it strange’iv, and seeks to site the audience member historically, ‘in his own time’, by collectively performing the act of thought. This performative quality is, in Jameson’s argument, not didactic, but it is, importantly, pedagogic. Rimbaud, in contrast, doesn’t seek to teach, but to be, in the most radical senses of that possibility.
Bonney warns on the back of the Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud that ‘THESE POEMS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RIMBAUD. If you think these poems are translations, you are an idiot.’ Yet they are translations, in the sense that they take from Rimbaud the performative qualities that make his poetry so compelling and recreate them now. The poems in Happiness directly and urgently relate to action, with the ambiguities and reflexiveness you find in Rimbaud’s work. They do violence to Rimbaud’s poetry in the same way Rimbaud did violence to, and refracted the violences of, his realities, translating Rimbaud’s electrifying energies into a concatenation of contemporary experience, as especially focused through the UK riots and protests of 2011.
This conversation with Rimbaud works in several ways. Most overtly, there are direct allusions to the earlier poems; for example, Bonney’s several anatomies of vowels, which recur through the book, or an echo of Rimbaud’s list in Season in Hell:
I loved stupid paintings, decorated transoms, stage sets, carnival booths, signs, popular engravings; old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books with nonexistent spelling, the novels of our grandmothers, fairy tales, children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naïve rhythms.
Which is rhymed by Bonney with these fragments:
what I liked were crumbled octaves, fruit markets
xenography, petticoats, reservoirs
But these allusions shape a deeper investigation. These poems are not variations on Rimbaud’s formal shapings, but an attempt to enact and extend in the present the radical spaces they open up. Bonney describes himself as a revolutionary socialist, and enfolds that ideology into his work: not that the political project promises order, so much as an expression of complex urgency, a paranoid awareness that finds its apotheosis in the act of destruction that inscribes its self-realisation into the social body. These poems enact an intensity at a particular moment in history, the UK now, stealing from Rimbaud his speed and multiplicity of perception.
september 2003. we were wondering why the poets were silent
we: children’s books, whisky, record shops
bombed orchards, paracetomol, refugees, circuit boards
the sun, god of fire
there we have a series of verbs. they pass to & fro as if no-one had seen them.
they go in and out of random houses. signal towers. border towns.
the course of study is that simple.
Its clarities, when they occur, are murderous:
If you see a Tory on the street, cut his throat
It will bring out the best in you.
It is as simple as music or drunken speech.
There will be flashes of obsolete light.
You will notice the weather only when it starts to die
Here the reflective, even moralistic, tone of the lines sardonically turns against their meaning, which is neither reflective nor moral, and this is then is undercut by the ironies of the final lines: the ‘obsolete’ ecstasies of violence which are blind to the larger complexities that are, for example, destroying the weather.
Like Rimbaud, Bonney distinguishes between language and act (language is before or after action). The violence of the poetry is of a different order than setting fire to buildings or killing Tories. It enacts a recursive politicisation, one that seeks to articulate the complexity of the impulse towards an ‘ugly revolution, the repulsive revolution, [where] deeds have taken the place of phrases’.
Language itself is the enemy. Since it is wholly colonised, it has moved away from the possibility of the act: ‘no one can even think revolt.’ Bonney sketches a spectral city full of the dead, the ghosts of ideas, ‘silken wraiths’. It’s the death within language itself, haunted by denatured meanings which threaten either to overspill their imprisonments or, zombie-like, to devour everything. Danger and hope simultaneously exist in negation: ‘Events in one voice are left totally void in the other voice, which thus becomes the negation of the first.’ Here the untranslatability of a scream, its inability to be heard in ‘the courts of our enemies’, becomes the subversive means of organising an alternative speech.
Happiness is, crucially, after Rimbaud, in that it is already aware of poetry’s futility as act: ‘later we made art, it shattered nothing.’ It’s driven by an anger tempered by its own atrocious scepticism:
Infinitely dense petals of social perfume. Ethanol, turpentine etc. Physical attacks on all excessive displays of personal wealth.
We flattered ourselves we were in on some secret, we kidded ourselves that ferric aristocracies were not patrolling our networks, patrolling us on pure lymph level. As in a blockage on all major routes in and out of the city. As in electric pink. Or the kind of fucker who would squeal on the gallows.
Rimbaud’s mercurial refusals are at once absolute and curiously untraceable, dramas of instability. (‘Oh! The pennant of bloody meat against the silk of arctic seas and flowers; (they don’t exist).’ – Barbarian, Illuminationsv.) He enacts a contagious violence of thought: like the Prince in Illuminations, his poetry creates a theatre of brutal hallucinatory spectacles, and at once destroys its scenery before our eyes:
In his enslaved vision, – Germany erects a scaffold toward the moons; the deserts of Tartary light up – ancient revolts swarm at the core of the Celestial Empire; along stairways and thrones of kings, a little world, pale and flat, Africa and the Occidents, will be constructed. Then a ballet of known seas and nights, a worthless chemistry and impossible arias. (Historic Evening)
These spectacles are the phantasmagoria of the chained mind, a ‘bourgeois magic’ which is refused for the ‘angry planet, and the resulting exterminations’ which will ‘not be like a fairy tale’. But when this spectral ballet is ripped apart, Rimbaud’s poetry flickers with a sensuous awareness of possibility that, in the same action that reveals it, is also destroyed. It’s this sense of motion, of unfinished, ambiguous act, that’s kept in suspension in Happiness. Bonney locates the multiple consciousness of the poems in a present in which subjectivity is exposed as an abject, enslaved state: ‘our homicidal lives now were a form of understanding / our expressions were lifeless, our hatred made visible’. The value here is in the movement towards visibility, which exposes the individual self’s abjection, its self-deceiving complicities in murder. This movement is towards, finally, an admission of its own hunger.
What this poetry refuses to conceal is the scandal of social violence in the moment of its eruption; it’s that wound, in all its linguistic inscrutability and ambiguous vitality and terror, that the thousands of words written in the wake of events like the London riots euphemise and domesticate. Rather than seeking to make it explicable to understandings that will only erase it, Bonney, poet as exile or witness, stays with the fleeting moment of liberation. ‘Like on the 24th November,’ he writes, as the final statement in the book, ‘we were standing around, outside Charing Cross, just leaning against the wall etc, when out of nowhere around 300 teenagers ran past us, tearing up the Strand, all yelling “WHOSE STREETS – OUR STREETS”. Well it cracked us up. You’d be a pig not to answer.’
i Toward the open field: poets on the art of poetry, 1800-1950. Edited by Melissa Kwasny, Wesleyan University Press, 2004
ii Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by John Ashbery. W.W. Norton, 2011.
iii Letter to Paul Dememy
iv Brecht and Method by Fredric Jameson, Verso 1998
v Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by John Ashbery. W.W. Norton, 2011.