The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire for National Poetry Month

World War I entered the worlds of both of our last two poems, and that war’s poetry was one theme we visited over the early years of this Project that coincided with the centennial of that conflict. The interaction between that war and the arts was complex, but here’s a simple question: did WWI cause Modernism?

My best short answer: not exactly. The Modernist experiments were already underway before the war broke out. What the deadly and at times absurd war did for Modernism in the arts was twofold: it validated its breaks from past tactics and traditions, and it toughened it up and gave it more existential stakes. Hear, for example, of how quickly Imagist poetry could be turned from short poems about red-faced farmers to the harrowing urban bombing account of F. S. Flint’s “Zeppelins.”

One Modernist source-point that did owe something directly to the war was Dada, which emerged in neutral Switzerland among Europeans who had fled the conflict. Dada was all about experiment and tweaking tradition, and if I audaciously suggested that one can get something from the later High Modernism of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  by reading it as if it were Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,”  Dada was clearly willing to use outright random non-sense in service of breaking down old patterns.

One of Dada’s originators was a pan-European man Tristan Tzara. And if the young Tzara and European Modernism had an overall figurehead in the years before the end of WWI, it was another pan-European man Guillaume Apollinaire. Americans (who had an outsized influence on English-language poetic Modernism) may not fully credit how invaluable Apollinaire was in this era. He coined the terms “cubism” and “surrealism,” he wrote poetry in a freer and more freely-associative way,* and he began to lay his words out on the page to typographically break up the phrases, predating and serving as a model for E. E. Cummings.

Apollinaire’s war-time fate was to bookend Rupert Brooke’s. Still convalescing from a head-wound suffered in military service, Apollinaire became another victim of the great flu epidemic that swirled around the end-game and aftermath of the war.

And that story brings us to today’s National Poetry Month poetry prompt for those looking to do more than simply add to the solitary outcroppings on the mountain of poetry, another way to mesh and meld with our poetic ancestors. Why not translate a poem?

What, you don’t know a foreign language? Well, you know something about poetry (or wish to) if you write it. Poetry itself is a second language you either already speak or wish to speak fluently. Translation is the way to work hand in hand, eyeball to eyeball, with another poet, and I maintain that any poet can benefit from it, even monolinguals. The Internet offers increasingly adequate automatic translators and online dictionaries for some languages.**  Mixing the two, some research, and your own knowledge of the dialect and tactics of poetry can produce worthwhile translations that can be shared — but here’s the main creative benefit: you’ll learn, intimately, the way a poem can be constructed under the skin. The exercise of trying to find the right sounding, feeling, and meaning English word for another poet’s vision is powerful.   If I could make one request, one rule, for creative writing programs everywhere, it would be to make translation part of the curriculum.***

In was in that spirit that I chose to translate Tzara’s poem “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire.”   What would Dada’s young provocateur say about this death of this influence? I was surprised at the emotional depth of the piece — it’s an eulogy as a love poem — with opposites-imagery mirroring the opposites of the living considering the dead. I’m not sure how much better a translation of it I could do today, and I’m particularly proud of my rendering of the concluding two lines, a striking gothic image.

With Tzara’s “opposites-imagery” in his poem I couldn’t help but think of M. C. Escher’s later art used in this video.

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You can hear my performance of my translation of Tzara’s “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire”  from the French “La mort de Guillaume Apollinaire”  three ways. There’s a graphical player below for some, this highlighted link for others, and if you’d like to see the words and well as hear them performed, this brand-new lyric video.

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*For an example, consider Apollinaire’s own poetic witness to the outbreak of WWI, “The Little Car,”  which I translated and presented here.

**You shouldn’t use those automatic translations as anything more than guide and gloss. Your appropriate aim is to produce a poem in English rather than the literality of one-to-one words, to bring the images and the way they are arrayed over to our language. Dictionaries, particularly ones that provide examples of the word used in context, are important adjuncts to the online AI translations.

***Another benefit: this kind of crowd-sourcing of translation can increase the number of translated poems available, increasing the diversity of our culture. And then, like Wallace Stevens 13 lookings at blackbirds, having a spread of translations of the same poem may be a truer representation of the poem’s essence and spreading possibilities than any single one. Cubism activism!

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