I watched the Dylan/Scorsese Rolling Thunder flick the other day and got a little uncomfortable during the clip of Patti Smith at the start. I mean, she’s in full bloom and it’s a great document of Patti in her prime, but it’s tense. Like, jaw-grinding tense. She does a wild and rambling intro that, at one point, extols Rimbaud. Hadn’t thought about him in years. With good reason too. I’ll admit, all that poet as shaman stuff seems pretty out there.
There are certain writers you can’t go back and read again.They’re great catalysts for creativity when you’re young, but it’s the literary equivalent of going back and listening to hardcore punk, it just doesn’t have the same pull. Kerouac, Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, Burroughs, and, to a certain degree, Hemingway. On top of the list of ‘you can’t go back’ writers is Arthur Rimbaud.
Remember him? Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Richard Hell, people like that really dug him. That’s where I’d first heard of him. Or read his name, more specifically, because of course I mispronounced Rimbaud when I asked my English teacher. I remember reading him, buying that fancy bilingual edition of A Season in Hell and knowing instantly that I must be missing something in the translation. But I kept trying.
Years later, I cracked the same volume, took a peek, and guess what? That shit was unreadable. I thought to myself, what a bunch of pretentious shit! Was I wrong in saying it? No!
But, let’s consider the poor Rimbaud. Always getting kicked around by the literati. Don’t pity him, don’t morn his footnote in literary history either. He had some serious sense of self. He decided early on that writing was stupid. He recognized folly for what it was. Yeah, easy to judge him for basically inventing Emo. I mean, c’mon, Joy Division had nothing on Rimbaud. But he knew enough about life to realize he didn’t want to write about it. He wanted to live it!
Rimbaud quit writing at 19 and left for Africa to become a gun runner. Nice pivot. He never wrote again. At that tender young age, he realized it’s quite possible navel-gazing may not hold much significance in the great scheme of the existence. I mean, I guess he was wrong. He’s still read today, albeit by sensitive adolescences who are assuredly going to live life as social outcasts. You got to respect a guy who knew when to move on. I’ll save you the Kenny Rogers quotes, but I think you know where I’m going with this.
So let’s not get too hasty mocking our youthful dalliances with poetry and pretentious prose. They’ve got their place and they’re right where they’re supposed to be. Back there.