Apollinaire: Between the lyric and the adventure

In 1847, Walt Whitman, scribbling in his notebooks, put down a proposition that runs, manifesto like, through a considerable portion of the poetry written since:

In the earliest times (as we call them—though doubtless the term is wrong.) every thing written allat all was poetry.—To write ^any how was a beautiful wonder.—Therefore history, laws, religion, war, ^were all in the keeping of the poet.—He was literature.—It was nothing but poems. Though a division and subdivision of subjects has for many centuries been made since then, it still prevails very much as in those early times, so called.—Every thing yet is made the subject of poetry—narratives, descriptions, jokes, sermons, recipes, &c &c.”

Whitman’s last sentence (with its characteristic hyphenations) has the nervous certainty of a domino player slapping down his piece. Here we have modernity, with its rescue of the archaic – its reinstitution of the idol, the cause of such fear and anxiety in the West – and its discovery of formlessness as invitation. In the short run, Whitman’s poetry was an exception to his rediscovery, or rather intuition, of the oldest way of poetry making. Indeed, everything could be a “subject” – which meant, in the precincts of verse, everything could be a form. Victorian poetry in America and Britain was far from accepting, as Paul Zweig, Whitman’s interpreter, once put it,  bringing “the unpoetic into poetry.” But for the generation of the “Pound era” – people like William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore and T.S. Eliot – the survey of useable poets after the seventeenth century kept beginning and ending with  Whitman,  the sole real example of advanced poetic practice in English. Pound preferred Browning, in actual fact, since Browning, too, was “a village explainer” – Gertrude Stein’s put-down of Pound. But Browning’s ashes are cold.  Even Pound knew this – hence the lines in  Canto 2:


Hang it all, there can be but one Sordello!

But say I want to, say I take your whole bag of tricks,
Let in your quirks and tweeks, and say the thing’s an art-form,
Your Sordello, and that the modern world
Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thought in;


In France, the story is more complicated. Baudelaire enrolled the classic forms of French verse in the spirit of shock. That shock was communicated through, among others, Laforgue, Rimbaud and Mallarme – through Parnassians, decadents and symbolists, the schools or circles or cafes.  For those French writers who couldn’t read English, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was more of a rumor than an influence. It wasn’t translated into French until 1909, by  Léon Bazalgette, who Apollinaire knew, of course. And yet still, in spirit at least, Apollinaire is one of Whitman’s children, even as he took the aesthetic of shock in a different direction. Apollinaire is a city poet, like Baudelaire, but his angle and attitude couldn’t be more anti-Baudelairian. Whitman contained multitudes, while Baudelaire had a horror of multitudes. Apollinaire, like Whitman, has an infinite tolerance (save for his hatred of Germans in World War 1 – a war that made him as crazy as it made, on the opposite side, Thomas Mann). In Vendemiare,  he writes: “I am thirsty cities of France and Europe and the world/ Come all flow into my deep throat.” This is Rabelais, but it is also a promiscuous inclusiveness that makes the city less an ideological point scored against nature, Baudelaire’s theme, than a place of appetites accepted as such. Baudelaire couldn’t let go of original sin; Apollinaire couldn’t understand it: he was happy in his appetites. Which is a different thing from being happy, but a long step from making unhappiness an emblem of commitment.

What distinguished the path Apollinaire took, and what made him internationally influential is an aesthetic of “adventure” – that is, his own style of introducing the non-poetic into poetry, of making a collage like, prophetic verse.

I take the concept of “adventure” from two sources, one German – George Simmel, whose essay, Das Abenteuer, appeared in 1910 (and was probably never read by Apollinaire) and from a 1913 essay by the editor of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, Jacques Rivière, “The Adventure Novel,” which made quite a splash at the time. Apollinaire, always a voracious reader of literary mags, surely read it.

The Simmel essay is deeper – perhaps the deepest essay ever devoted to adventure. But the Rivière essay makes a pertinent distinction that helps us map the course followed by Apollinaire,  a path that violates Rivière’s precepts and sense of the historical movement from Baudelaire to Mallarme. Note that Rivière  was at the center of the NRF circle, which included Gide, Valery, Claudel and Proust – a group that was suspicious of what Apollinaire was up to. Apollinaire was never as openly hostile to the NRF group as Blaise Cendrars, his friend, who mocked the idea that a writer was supposed to come in to the NRF office and kiss Gide’s ring; but Apollinaire was averse to the whole system of mandarin aspirations, and the tendency to emit marmoreal sighs about the faddishness of the avant garde.

Rivière was not infected with an automatic disdain for the contemporary, as many of his colleagues were. He was a great reader of Robert Louis Stevenson, and – to the extent that he was known in France – Joseph Conrad. His essay on the adventure novel hooks itself to a contrast between it – as the correlate of a certain interface between the reader and the future – and the lyric – which, in Rivière’s view, was the endpoint of poetry. The lyric, here, becomes infinitely introspective:

And in fact, in a beautiful poem, there is never any progression; the end is always at the same level as the beginning; we communicate with it immediately; everything is on plain footing; everything is the same from the first. The verses form a circle, turned one towards the others, they look at themselves, they are closed in their round.

The novel of adventure, however, is first and foremost “progressive”. This sequential form reflects a certain existential situation:

The emotion that we demand from the adventure novel is, contrary to the poetic emotion, that of expecting something, of not yet knowing, it is that of being lead as close as possible to the edge of what doesn’t yet exist. With what we have, we have the ingredients for being satisfied; however there is something, there, near us, which is going to be coming, something which is at the same time absolutely unknown and absolutely inevitable. We feel the breath of this thing on our face and we don’t yet see it. Our pleasure is just in the fact that we are missing it. … For, during this instant, we put out there, before us, pele-mele, without reconciling them, all our desires; we have  two steps before us the treasure of infinite possibility; we possess everything, for a few minutes still; our soul, completely open, by an attentiveness that is delicious and voiceless, listens to the white noise [bruire], like the sea, of the immense future.

The adventure, in Rivière, is bound up with an elaborate psychology of suspense, in as much as suspense is a psychological state that confronts absence, an absence that is recognized as absence – something unresolved. That suspense which Coleridge speaks about – our spectorial abstraction from a given aesthetic event – is transformed by the given aesthetic event happening, as it were, to us, by proxy.

In this divide between the lyric and the adventure novel, Apollinaire’s work falls squarely on the latter side. The enclosed, introspective lyric is forever being cracked open by Apollinaire’s experience, one that rudely intrudes itself on introspection, bathes in it, is too openly delighted by the invention of forms to be comfortably formalist. The sign of this, especially prominent in  Calligrammes and The Murdered Poet is the preoccupation with the future as a matter of omens and oracles: the fight  between the two airplanes, one representing “my youth”, the other representing “the future“, in Les Collines, or, a sort of gnomic doctrine, the verse in On the Prophecies (a title reminiscent of Fontenelle’s On the Oracles, a key text in the Enlightenment demystification of the world):

Everyone is a prophet my dear André Billy

But for a long time they have made people believe

That they have no future that they will never ever know

And idiots from birth

We have taken this side and nobody even thinks

Of asking if they know the future or not


It is interesting – given the line I am taking – that Willard Bohn’s Reading Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, a beautiful book,  makes no remark on this poem in which Apollinaire’s oracular remarks about prediction and prophecy are strongest.

If Riviere catches something essential in the reader’s experience of the adventure novel, he puts himself at a spectorial distance from adventure – in Nietzschian terms, he views it passively – and thus domesticates it, strips it of its historical and sociological meanings.  I am not claiming that Apollinaire was influenced by Simmel, or even read him  – but rather, that we can use Simmel as a beam to illuminate certain elements in Apollinaire’s legend and works in their overlap and duality.

Simmel’s essay begins with the hypothesis that a person’s experience has a double sense in as much as it is considered in itself or in connection to the whole:

Every piece of our acts or experiences bears a double meaning: it turns about its own middlepoint, it has as much depth and breadth, pleasure and pain, as the immediate process of becoming experience gives it; and it is at the same time a part of the whole course of life, not only a circumscribed whole, but a link in the total organism.

It is against this apercu that Simmel seeks to define adventure.

When of two living experiences, which are not widely different in their assignable content, one is felt as an adventure and the other is not – the reason for this is the difference of the relationship to the whole of our life, through which the one has this meaning, and the other not.

In fact, this is the the form of adventure generally: that it falls out of the connecting links of our life.

For Simmel, adventure is not a matter of themes that arise in adventure novels, but precedes these novels, just as dreams, a part of our organic life, precede fantasy as a genre.

Simmel’s essay is unusual in the rather miserable literature on adventure. There is a curious gap here in our historical consciousness. Adventurers certainly have existed. Adventurers brought down the Inca empire. Adventurers founded the Jamestown colony. Legitimists called Napoleon an adventurer for good reason – the same thing could be said for Garibaldi. Casanova was an adventurer, a galant in old Europe, as to a recognizable extent was Rousseau. It goes being the remit of this essay to press on this issue much more, but I must add this remark: the adventurer, the politician, the artist, the scholar/virtuoso are all types that appear in the Renaissance, social types that emerge under the shadow of, and in latent conflict with, the the system of patronage that was as much a feature of the ancien regime as serfdom. Of them all, the adventurer is the hardest, perhaps, to grasp, or to recognize, since it is difficult to say just what his object is. The politician aims at power, the artist at art, the virtuoso at knowledge, and the adventurer at experience – yet that seems much too vast and vague an object (although why it is vaster and vaguer than knowledge or power? A question that comes into focus when we include the adventurer in our gallery of types). Since experience in-itself loses its value in the social conditions prevailing under the utilitarian ethic of capitalism – or more broadly, of industrial society – the adventurer loses his social space, the recognition that would affirm his self-assertion , and is easily reduced to the treasure hunter, the colonist’s trajectory through exotica. The adventurer as artist, ah, that is a person whose trajectory is through the tropic of cancer – it is a transit one sees often in the art worlds of the twentieth century.

Finally, Simmel remarks on the uncanniness of adventure – and by implication of the adventurer:

While it falls out of the connecting links of life, it falls …in the very same movement back into it, as a foreign body in our existence, that is yet somehow bound up with the center.

The word “adventure” is always cropping out of the material written about Apollinaire, either by witnesses, allies, critics, or other poets. For instance, this, from Louis Zukofsky’s slant essay on Apollinaire:

His work, the lyric pace of his time or the tripping up of it and its modes of love or movement and their recoil a necessity, is a choice and a return to this choice. Adventurer of invention, which takes cognizance of order but particularly of its vehemence, he left to that “vide avenir l’histoire de Guillaume Apollinaire,” realizing at once the future’s illimitability as well as its indeterminate present; realized also, pitiless for himself, that there were many things which he did not dare, or was obliged not to say, and asked at the same time for the present’s pitying disdain and the uncolored future’s indulgence

Or the reminiscences of his friend, Paul Dermee, riffing on a line in the Musician of Saint-Merry (“I sing the joy of erring and the pleasure of dying from it”):

The joy of erring lyrically, of giving yourself over to multiple adventures of life and the imagination, and to always risk, to risk dangerously the most perilous experiments…


He was, after all, the child of a gambler. The joy of erring is never going to fold itself into the poem that holds itself still in its own circle, continually rolling Mallarme’s snake eyes.


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