From the 2013 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review:
In the heady days leading up to and including the catastrophe of World War I, when Paris was the capital of modern art, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) stood at the vital center of a gang of writers and artists who embraced the future with such tremendous energy that avant-garde became an adjective of glamour and prestige. Apollinaire—whose circle included painters (Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck) and composers (Satie, Poulenc) as well as poets (Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy)—was a superb activist and agitator. He championed Cubism and gave Surrealism its name. In 1917, his edition of Charles Baudelaire’s poems linked the two men as kindred spirits, city poets who doubled as art critics; Baudelaire prefigured Apollinaire as the latter prefigures Frank O’Hara. Also in 1917, Apollinaire issued his manifesto, “The New Spirit and the Poets,” making the case for innovation as a transcendent value. Poetry had to keep up with the technological advances of the day—the cinema, the radio, the motorcar, the flying machine. Driving with a friend from Deauville to Paris in “La Petite Auto,” Apollinaire writes that “the little car had driven us into a New epoch / and though both of us were grown men / it was as if we had just been born.”
Apollinaire experimented with audacious techniques for generating verse. On occasion he would sit in a café and weave overheard phrases into the composition. For his book Calligrammes, he made shaped poems—poems that looked like a mirror, a heart, the rainfall, a pocket-watch. In his most ambitious discursive poems, he wins over the reader by modifying his self-pity with his wit and ebullience. There is a rare combination of enthusiasm and melancholy in Apollinaire’s self-presentation. A line from his poem “Les Collines” (“The Hills”) is etched into his tombstone at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris: “Je peux mourir en souriant”—“I can die with a smile on my face.”
“Zone,” the central poem in Apollinaire’s career, prefaces his collection Alcools, the title of which translates literally as “Spirits” in the alcoholic sense though I would argue for “Cocktails.” Alcools is in any case an apt title for one who likes to boast that he has “drunk the universe” and chanted “songs of universal drunkenness.” Published in 1913, the year Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had its Paris premiere, “Zone” is chronologically the last poem in the collection to have been written. The poet was thirty-three years old, the age of Dante embarking on his tour of the afterlife. The poem doesn’t so much praise its objects of futurist desire—the Eiffel Tower, airplanes, a railway terminal—as treat them like pastoral motifs. The heart of the poem is not in the future at all but in a past recollected in anxiety and sadness.
“Zone” heralds a striking new direction in Apollinaire’s work. He discards punctuation to good effect. He refers to himself sometimes as I, sometimes as you (both tu and vous in French), a habit that held a special appeal for O’Hara and other New York poets. The poem’s title embraces (or blends) the meanings of neighborhood, frontier, slum (and slumming), and the female erogenous zone, all of which come into play. (“And I smoke ZONE tobacco,” Apollinaire wrote in a later poem.) Organized around a walk in Paris from one sunrise to another—and from one time zone to another—“Zone” is in loosely rhymed couplets, which presents a difficulty that translators tend to evade. A notable exception is Samuel Beckett in perhaps the most impressive parts of his translation. For example, Beckett renders “C’est le beau lys que tous nous cultivons / C’est la torch aux cheveux roux que n’eteint pas le vent” as “It is the fair lily that we all revere / It is the torch burning in the wind its auburn hair.” In addition to the near-rhyme, Beckett gives us the echo of “burn” in “auburn,” a move that Apollinaire would have appreciated.
For more on Apollinaire's life and "new spirit," followed by David Lehman's new translation of Apollinaire's great poem, click here.