Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Rare Thing in Poetry

Book Reviewed: Alcools: Poems 1898-1913, by Guillame Apollinaire (Translated by Frances Steegmuller)

Obviously, I love poetry. But reading poetry is very different from reading fiction. When I start a novel or a collection of short stories, I can't stop myself from going forward. I plow through the book until the very end. I find that nearly impossible to do with books of poetry. I tend to take them slow, reading a couple poems per day. It often takes me a month or more to read a book of poetry. But every once in a while, I find a collection that becomes compulsive reading. I start and I can't stop until every page has been obliterated.

The quasi-symbolist French poet Guillaume Apollinaire never fails to give me that experience. When I bought his long book of poems related to his World War I experience, Calligrammes, in Chicago a couple years ago, I moved through it so fast that I was half-done by the time my train arrived in South Bend two hours later. I loved Calligrammes; it's definitely one of my favorite single-volume poetry books. So when I had access to the book that came before it, Alcools: Poems 1989-1913, I had to get it.

I wasn't disappointed. I didn't enjoy Alcools as much as Calligrammes, but I still found it super readable. Obviously, part of this is due to the translator, who is surprisingly good at attempting to follow Apollinaire's rhyme schemes and patterns of speech. Apollinaire is famous for being a very symbol-heavy poet, but unlike a lot of poets who do the same, he never gets bogged down in the strange images and weird line shifts. Instead, he manages to keep the humanity and language intact while still coming up with surprising details and language. He's got a lot to teach me as a poet.

The poems I enjoyed the most in this collection included his most famous poem, "Mirabeau Bridge," as well as "Song of the Poorly Loved," "The Farewell," "The Voyager," and "Sick Autumn." But without a doubt, my favorite poem in this collection is the long and weird "House of the Dead." In a World Poetry class a few years back, a professor spent half a class hour on Halloween reading us this poem in its entirety. Its images of the dead returning to hang out with the living are bizarre but also very beautiful. The dead and living mingle, fall in love. And then Apollinaire sticks in a killer of a last line (which I'm not going to give away here). It's just one of those poems that haunts me. Before I read it this week, it had been three years since I'd first heard it that day in class. But I still knew the stanzas with the dead boy proposing to the live girl, and I definitely had the ending memorized. And that's why I love and continue to read poetry. For experiences like that.

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