bad verses just never end
Carel de Vogelaer (1653-1695), 'En blomsterkrans' ('A Wreath of Flowers'), 1668-1695, public domain.

Poet: Arthur Rimbaud
Translator: Wyatt Mason
Language: French 
Region:
 France

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bad verses just never end

A poem by Arthur Rimbaud, translated from French by Wyatt Mason

Take Two: “On the Subject of Flowers: Remarks, Addressed to the Poet”

     Arthur Rimbaud’s “Ce qu’on dit au poet à propos des fleurs” appears in a letter the sixteen-year old wrote to Théodore de Banville, a respected Parisian poet of the day. The letter was Rimbaud’s second to Banville. In his first, the teenager was fishing for encouragement or assistance. Although we don’t know the particulars of Banville’s response, it’s pretty certain that no assistance was forthcoming. 
     In Rimbaud’s second letter, sent a year later, he asked, cheekily, “Have I improved?” It’s an interesting question, particularly given the nature of the poem Rimbaud includes. 
     A barbed parody of the sort of sincere poetry Banville himself was writing, the poem is 160 rhymed lines of gentle invective, a highly-cheeky sort of hello, an excellent way of getting it’s reader’s attention, but not necessarily the best way of getting on Banville’s good side. 
     This is my second translation of the poem. The first appeared in Rimbaud Complete (Modern Library, 2002). The revised version appeared in my edition of Rimbaud’s correspondence, I Promise to be Good (Modern Library, 2003). The two versions differ radically. The first was a literal approach. The second, which follows, apes Rimbaud’s rhyme scheme, something I didn’t attempt the first time out. The poem is, in French, not very good. Technically excellent, as all Rimbaud’s poems were, but nothing a reader would rush to reread. High-art juvenile. To translate the poem literally and without rhyme is to lose whatever limited charm it possesses. 
   And, because translators never know when to quit, I have elected, 19 years later, to revise the poem one more time, below.

                                                                                                                                      —WM, 2022

Arthur Rimbaud‘s (1854–1891) period of poetic output was furious and brief, yet his influence is as lasting as his life is misunderstood. All of his poems were written by his twenty-second year, after which he turned his back on a literary world that has been chasing him ever since.

Wyatt Mason is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He teaches at Bard College, where he is a writer in residence and a senior fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center. His translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s complete poetry, prose, and letters was published by the Modern Library.

Ce qu’on dit au Poète à propos de fleurs

        À monsieur Théodore de Banville

I

Ainsi, toujours, vers l’azur noir
Où tremble la mer des topazes,
Fonctionneront dans ton soir
Les Lys, ces clystères d’extases!

A notre époque de sagous,
Quand les Plantes sont travailleuses,
Le Lys boira les bleus dégoûts
Dans tes Proses religieuses!

—Le lys de monsieur de Kerdrel,
Le Sonnet de mil huit cent trente,
Le Lys qu’on donne au Ménestrel
Avec l’œillet et l’amarante!

Des lys! Des lys! On n’en voit pas!
Et dans ton Vers, tel que les manches
Des Pécheresses aux doux pas,
Toujours frissonnent ces fleurs blanches!

Toujours, Cher, quand tu prends un bain,
Ta Chemise aux aisselles blondes
Se gonfle aux brises du matin
Sur les myosotis immondes!

L’amour ne passe à tes octrois
Que les Lilas,—ô balançoires!
Et les Violettes du Bois,
Crachats sucrés des Nymphes noires! . . .

On the Subject of Flowers: Remarks, Addressed to the Poet

        To Monsieur Théodore de Banville

I

There, bordering blue black skies
Where wavecrests tremble gold,
Lilies stimulate evening ecstasies,
Enemas thrust between bardic folds.

After all, times have changed:
Plants now labor—aloe and rose.
Lilies, artfully arranged,
Decorate your religious prose.

Kerdrel disappeared behind them
In the Sonnet of eighteen-thirty;
Poets are buried beneath them,
In amaranth and carnation flurries.

Lilies, lilies. So often mentioned,
So seldom seen. In your verses, 
They blossom like good intentions
Sinners’ resolutions that come and go.

Why, even when you bathe, Dear Sir,
Your sallow-pitted gown must bloom
With morning breezes: sleeves confer
High above forget-me-nots in swoon.

Yes: our garden gates let lilacs pass.
But such candied clichés have a cost:
Spit on petals looks like glass
But is still spit. Our poor flowers? Lost.

II

Ô Poètes, quand vous auriez
Les Roses, les Roses soufflées,
Rouges sur tiges de lauriers,
Et de mille octaves enflées!

Quand BANVILLE en ferait neiger,
Sanguinolentes, tournoyantes,
Pochant l’œil fou de l’étranger
Aux lectures mal bienveillantes!

De vos forêts et de vos prés,
Ô très paisibles photographes!
La Flore est diverse à peu près
Comme des bouchons de carafes!

Toujours les végétaux Français,
Hargneux, phtisiques, ridicules,
Où le ventre des chiens bassets
Navigue en paix, aux crépuscules;

Toujours, après d’affreux desseins
De Lotos bleus ou d’Hélianthes,
Estampes roses, sujets saints
Pour de jeunes communiantes!

L’Ode Açoka cadre avec la
Strophe en fenêtre de lorette;
Et de lourds papillons d’éclat
Fientent sur la Pâquerette.

Vieilles verdures, vieux galons!
Ô croquignoles végétales!
Fleurs fantasques des vieux Salons!
—Aux hannetons, pas aux crotales,

Ces poupards végétaux en pleurs
Que Grandville eût mis aux lisières,
Et qu’allaitèrent de couleurs
De méchants astres à visières!

Oui, vos bavures de pipeaux
Font de précieuses glucoses!
—Tas d’œufs frits dans de vieux chapeaux,
Lys, Açokas, Lilas et Roses! . . .

II

And when you get your hands on roses,
Windwhipped roses red on laurel stems,
Their effect upon you one supposes
Irresistible: bad verses just never end.

BANVILLE’s roses fall like snow,
Their whiteness flecked with blood.
A pricking feeling readers know:
Incomprehension chafes and rubs.

Through grassy banks and wooded ways
Feast your shutterbugging eyes.
What they seize on sure amazes:
A monotony of pretty lies.

Why this mania for floral arranging?
Why does it prompt such turgid lines?
Low-slung hounds with bellies dangling
French poets grope budding vines.

As if the lines weren’t bad enough,
Consider the pictures they adjoin . . .
A first communion? Either option’s rough:
Sunflowers or Lotuses? Flip a coin.

Can French poets resist Ashokan odes?
Can addicts resist bags of blow?
As if butterflies take the high roads,
To avoid shitting on daisies below.

All this greenery is becoming mulch.
Blossoms plucked to raise the stakes.
Salons bedecked like a flowery gulch
Better for beetles than rattlesnakes.

Grandville’s sentimental sketchings
Fill margins with mawkish blooms,
Caricatures of flowery retchings
Evening stars the dark consumes.

Saliva drooling from your pipings
Is all we have for nectar: Pan dozes.
His song has become mere guttersniping
About Lilies, Ashokas, Lilacs, Roses.

III

Ô blanc Chasseur, qui cours sans bas
A travers le Pâtis panique,
Ne peux tu pas, ne dois—tu pas
Connaître un peu ta botanique?

Tu ferais succéder, je crains,
Aux Grillons roux les Cantharides,
L’or des Rios au bleu des Rhins—
Bref, aux Norwèges les Florides:

Mais, Cher, l’Art n’est plus, maintenant,
—C’est la vérité,—de permettre
A l’Eucalyptus étonnant
Des constrictors d’un hexamètre;

Là! . . . Comme si les Acajous
Ne servaient, même en nos Guyanes,
Qu’aux cascades des sapajous,
Au lourd délire des lianes!

—En somme, une Fleur, Romarin
Ou Lys, vive ou morte, vaut-elle
Un excrément d’oiseau marin?
Vaut-elle un seul pleur de chandelle?

—Et j’ai dit ce que je voulais!
Toi, même assis là-bas, dans une
Cabane de bambous,—volets
Clos, tentures de perse brune—

Tu torcherais des floraisons
Dignes d’Oises extravagantes!…
—Poète! ce sont des raisons
Non moins risibles qu’arrogantes!…

III

O White Hunters: your barefoot excursions
Trample the pastoral with derision;
Shouldn’t your flowery poetic diversions
Exhibit a modicum of botanical precision?

You deploy Crickets and Flies indiscriminately
Conflating Phylum and Genus. Rio’s gold
And Rhine blue are switched inadvertently.
Poor Norway becomes: “Florida, but cold.”

In the past, Dear Master, Art may have settled
For the alexandrine’s hexametrical constrictions;
But now, shouldn’t the stink of fallen petals
Rotting, make a clean sweep of our ambitions?

Our botanically-challenged bards forever bungle:
Mahogany is “a flower found in the country:”
Who could imagine that in the Guyan jungle
The real trees support armies of monkeys?

If decadent decoration is the answer that looms
To prettify your pages, the larger question’s clear:
Is this riotous, ceaseless, vomitation of blooms
Worth a seagull’s turd or one candle’s tear?

I think I’ve made my point: sitting there,
A poet in his far-flung bamboo hut
With Persian rugs to spare,
Resolutely keeps his shutters shut:

And then describe the sands as full
Of flowers, ignoring the barren dune:
It’s appalling, this mauling—total bull.
Keep it up: drive poetry to its doom.

IV

Dis, non les pampas printaniers
Noirs d’épouvantables révoltes,
Mais les tabacs, les cotonniers!
Dis les exotiques récoltes!

Dis, front blanc que Phébus tanna,
De combien de dollars se rente
Pedro Velasquez, Habana;
Incague la mer de Sorrente

Où vont les Cygnes par milliers;
Que tes strophes soient des réclames
Pour l’abatis des mangliers
Fouillés des hydres et des lames!

Ton quatrain plonge aux bois sanglants
Et revient proposer aux Hommes
Divers sujets de sucres blancs,
De pectoraires et de gommes!

Sachons par Toi si les blondeurs
Des Pics neigeux, vers les Tropiques,
Sont ou des insectes pondeurs
Ou des lichens microscopiques!

Trouve, ô Chasseur, nous le voulons,
Quelques garances parfumées
Que la Nature en pantalons
Fasse éclore!—pour nos Armées!

Trouve, aux abords du Bois qui dort,
Les fleurs, pareilles à des mufles,
D’où bavent des pommades d’or
Sur les cheveux sombres des Buffles!

Trouve, aux prés fous, où sur le Bleu
Tremble l’argent des pubescences,
Des Calices pleins d’Œufs de feu
Qui cuisent parmi les essences!

Trouve des Chardons cotonneux
Dont dix nes aux yeux de braises
Travaillent à filer les noeuds!
Trouve des Fleurs qui soient des chaises!

Oui, trouve au coeur des noirs filons
Des fleurs presque pierres,—fameuses!—
Qui vers leurs durs ovaires blonds
Aient des amygdales gemmeuses!

Sers-nous, ô Farceur, tu le peux,
Sur un plat de vermeil splendide
Des ragouts de Lys sirupeux
Mordant nos cuillers Alfénide!

IV

Heard of the notion of “keeping it real”?
Your efforts until now have been rotten.
Enough of this milk-fed literary veal:
Try describing tobacco and cotton.

Why not render Pedro Velazquez’ face
And the dollars his cash-crop brings;
Why not let sun your pallor erase?
Describe the shit on swans’ white wings:

Yes: the Sorrento sea is full of feathers,
But an ocean of crap floats there too;
Are your stanzas equipped for all weathers?
Are there hydras in the waters with you?

Thrust quatrains into the bloody woods
And report the news that we need.
Expostulate on sugar and durable goods
Whether pansements or rubbers that bleed.

Your job? Deliver truth on these matters,
Such as: what covers our tropical peaks?
Is what crowns them like snow-splatter
Lichen, or eggs from insectoid beaks?

O White Hunters, we really must insist
You land us perfumed madders’ hues;
Nature nurtures, we gather: fat fists
Dye trousers that soldiers abuse.

Find flowers that look like muzzles,
At forest fringes dead with sleep;
Unpack oozing botanical puzzles,
Ochre ointments that they leak.

Find calyxes full of fiery eggs
Cooking in aestival juices
In meadows gone insane with legs:
Pubescent insects Spring seduces.

Find cottony thistledown in bunches
By which donkeys’ vision is impaired.
Nature never pulls her punches,
Some flowers even look like chairs.

Yes: find in the heart of dark divides
Flowers that look like gems;
Pistols and stamens the darkness hides,
Encrusted with faceted hems.

For once—Sad Jester—just serve it up;
Lay our table with a purple platter.
Fill it with a lily stew’s sweet syrup:
Fill our spoons with the heart of the matter

V

Quelqu’un dira le grand Amour,
Voleur des sombres Indulgences:
Mais ni Renan, ni le chat Murr
N’ont vu les Bleus Thyrses immenses!

Toi, fais jouer dans nos torpeurs,
Par les parfums les hystéries;
Exalte-nous vers des candeurs
Plus candides que les Maries . . .

Commerçant! colon! médium!
Ta Rime sourdra, rose ou blanche,
Comme un rayon de sodium,
Comme un caoutchouc qui s’épanche!

De tes noirs Poèmes,—Jongleur!
Blancs, verts, et rouges dioptriques,
Que s’évadent d’étranges fleurs
Et des papillons électriques!

Voilà! c’est le Siècle d’enfer!
Et les poteaux télégraphiques
Vont orner,—lyre aux chants de fer,
Tes omoplates magnifiques!

Surtout, rime une version
Sur le mal des pommes de terre!
—Et, pour la composition
De Poèmes pleins de mystères

Qu’on doive lire de Tréguier
A Paramaribo, rachète
Des Tomes de Monsieur Figuier,
—Illustrés!—chez Monsieur Hachette!

                   Alcide Bava
                   A.R.
                   14 juillet 1871

V

And, of course, we now arrive at love:
Surely it should be the poet’s thing.
Yet Renan below and Murr above
Avoid Dionysian blossoming.

Put your perfumes to good use:
Scent our stink of torpid lust;
Redeem the wanting we produce,
Lift us up on verbal gusts.

Let practicality be a poetic criterion,
As for any Soldier, Psychic or Salesman.
Awake us from thiopentalic delirium.
Split us like trees: tear us open.

Let strange fruit fall from stanzas,
Prismatic light refract from verses;
Black wings, lepidoptric memorandas,
Flutterings of electric purpose.

An Age of Hell is now upon us:
The earthly body pierced with spears.
Cellphone towers loom above us
Helplessly broadcasting silent tears.

Spin, my poet, a tale of terrestrial blight,
Exalt, somehow, in the potato’s sorry life;
Rhyme all ruin to make wrong right
Feed your poems on earthly strife. 

Whether in Babylons or Bayonnes
Let them ramble, let them range
Over paper with ruminant moans.
Graze the poem: make it strange.

                   Alcide Bava
                   A.R.
                   July 14, 1871

An earlier version of this poem was published in Circumference, Volume 1, Issue 1 • Autumn/Winter 2003 © 2003 CIRCUMFERENCE, Inc.