In the recent documentary on Patti Smith Dream of Life there is a scene in which she is shown clinging to the tomb of the poet Rimbaud as she recites a typically Rimbaudian elegy to him. At one point she claims, ‘we would have been friends.’ That statement is highly doubtful but rings with Smith’s typical brand of transcendental humanism. She has imbibed and inherited the legacy of the Beat generation; the key members of which—Burroughs, Kerouac and particularly Ginsberg—all idolised the work of the great French poet. Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, 1956, is effectively an updating of Rimbaud’s ferocious prose poem ‘A Season in Hell’, 1873, and Smith’s brand of performance poetry drinks from the well of Ginsberg.
With this in mind it is no surprise to come across this handsome new edition of Rimbaud’s ‘A Season ’ published by the not-for-profit art imprint Morel, and illustrated with drawings by Smith herself and with photographs by her close friend and occasional lover, the late Robert Mapplethorpe.
Rimbaud’s life story is a founding myth for every rock ’n roller with faintly bohemian leanings. Born in Charleville in the Ardennes in 1854, he had written all of his significant works by the time he was 20 years old and had given up poetry altogether by the age of 21. His affair with Verlaine notoriously ended with the elder poet shooting Rimbaud in the wrist in a drab bedsit in London. After renouncing poetry, Rimbaud became a drifter for some years before ending up as a gunrunner in French colonial Africa.
A Season in Hell is the poet’s greatest work. A violent renunciation of bourgeois morality and values, it rages across the page without metrical constraints, a decadent squall of pain, a plea for feeling in a sanitised world.
Although Smith claims an inheritance from Rimbaud via the Beats, it is actually Mapplethorpe who could more reasonably put be the one to claim an affinity. Smith’s drawings are as charmingly naïve as you would expect, but Mapplethorpe’s photographs are considerably closer to capturing the decadent tone of the poet’s life and work and it is hard not to draw parallels between the two. Both died young, both worshipped a libertine spirit, both saw sexuality as fluid and both were deeply affected by a religious upbringing they felt had made them suffer.
Indeed, it is religion that lies at the heart of Mapplethorpe’s photographs here. He once said of churches: ‘A church has a certain magic and mystery for a child… it’s there in how I arrange things, it’s always little altars.’ His complicated relationship with the Catholicism he grew up with is beautifully explored in these images: the sacred and the profane, the black mass, an image of Satan himself, all rendered in Mapplethorpe’s highly considered black and white. They do not rage in the babelogue manner of Smith, but instead capture the aesthetic and spirit of the decadent period handsomely.
This is a surprisingly sophisticated, beautifully designed, exploration of complex themes; a little book equal to the raging poem within its pages.
John Douglas Millar is a writer based in London