That Lone Meteorite: the story of Guillaume Apollinaire

A lone meteorite called Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) slammed into Paris with his mother as an impressionable young visitor in the spring of 1899. The surname has such resonance! Shades of the glory of Apollo, Appolinaris, Appolonius of Tyre seem to crowd at its back…

The surname itself was a careful contraction, and perhaps even an act of necessary simplification. Born Guillaume-Albert-Wladimir-Alexandre-Apollinaire Kostrowitzky in Rome to a father who had served in the Italian military, and an impoverished mother descended from Polish aristocracy who in time became overfond of the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, such was the legend that he became later on that the great Baltimore humourist H.L Mencken, writing in 1924, denied that Apollinaire, poet, journalist, novelist and art critic, had ever existed at all.

Mencken was wrong. It had all been true. He had really been there with Braque, Derain, Matisse, Picasso (but especially Picasso) and all the rest, defending their reputations to the nay-sayers, the ever-looking-backers, and doing his best to define and describe the Spirit of the New in flashings-cum-fencings of art-critical talk and polemical jabber, often intemperate, almost always combative and high-spirited, and poetry the equal of any other French poet of the twentieth century.

Gertrude Stein gave us a snapshot of him around her table at the apartment in the Rue de Fleurus, Paris. This little extract, cunningly self-serving and gently other-knocking as ever (there was no greater a presiding genius than Gertrude when she was writing about herself and others in the third person), is from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was not published until a decade and half after Apollinaire’s tragically early death by the Spanish flu. (He had been weakened by a shrapnel wound to the head while serving as a French infantryman during the Great War.)

Guillaume was extraordinarily brilliant and no matter what subject was started, if he knew anything about it or not, he quickly saw the whole meaning of the thing and elaborated it by his wit and fancy carrying it further than anybody knowing anything about it could have done, and oddly enough generally correctly.

As a critic, Apollinaire was largely self-taught. Like many another jobbing journalist he learnt on the job, by sheer hard looking. Although he defended the new with verve, recklessness and aplomb, he also had time for the not-so-new. The same was true of his poetry. Although Caligrammes (1918), his great experimental collection of poems which often give flamboyant visual shape to their own meanings, anticipates the future (concrete poetry and much else, for example), his poetry is also steeped in a reverence for his forebears – the form of his most famous poem of all, ‘Sous Le Pont Mirabeau Coule La Seine’, an all too brief, limpid lyric of great beauty which is on the lips of very French school child, is based on a medieval original.

But it is to Picasso that he was drawn most of all. They were blood brothers, almost married, such was the the closeness of their temperaments. Apollinaire wrote about Picasso’s paintings in out-spoolings of lyricism akin to prose poetry. He incorporated descriptions of details from Picasso’s paintings into his actual poems – those sad troops of saltimbanques, with their drums and their monkeys and their gilded hoops…. Picasso also turns up in Apollinaire’s fiction. Apollinaire’s first sighting of Picasso’s studio at the Bateau Lavoir during the chilly winter of 1905 is re-imagined in a novel called Le Poete Assassiné. Here is that moment of epiphany:

He took a corridor so dark and so cold that he thought he was dying, and with all his willpower, clenching his teeth and his fists, he shattered eternity….He knocked on the door and shouted…Behind the door the heavy step of a tired man, or of someone carrying a heavy load, slowly came nearer, and when the door opened in that sudden light two beings were created and immediately married.

The two of them were possessed, if not consumed, by the spirit of reckless adventurousness. They both became adherents of the cult of the Marquis de Sade. They both had more than a touch of the diabolical about them.

Apollinaire did his best to define the achievements of his new friends, which included the coining of portmanteau words which would later be taken up and adopted as general currency by us all: Orphism, for example, the word that he used to characterise the paintings of Robert Delaunay and others, and Surrealism, which puts in its first appearance in his programme note to the ballet Parade to which Picasso contributed backdrops and costumes.

Only one book of art criticism appeared during his lifetime, Les Peintres Cubistes, which was first published in 1913, and later praised by William Carlos Williams almost a decade later when it was published in an English translation in the Little Review.

Apollinaire wrote from the heart, with confidence, chutzpah and tremendous flair. He knew what he liked, and he was a marvellous talent-spotter. The new art would be ‘pure’, which meant austere and more cerebral. It would throw off the antique shackles of optical illusion, literal proportions, traditional rules of perspective. What is more, art could be made from whatever materials came ready to the maker’s hand. Why exclude postage stamps or starched collars? Let artists construct realities of their own!

Apollinaire also knew what he often could not abide – the woolliness of Impressionism, for example. His words, when at their best, give off the white heat of all good and impassioned commentary. They often have a captivating, slashingly uproarious insolence about them. Catching the world as it moves by at lightning speed is no easy matter, and Apollinaire can be muddle-headed – he splashes the word Futurism around with overmuch recklessness, for example.

Picasso drew him after he suffered that shrapnel wound to the head which would help to hasten on his death. His head is swathed in a bandage, but that very bandage seems to possess a slight air of defiance about it, as if it might after all be being worn as a slightly peacockish badge of honour. Life must always be lived brazenly, and to the full – still! still! – in the teeth of nay-saying adversity, whether it take the form of words or mere bombs.

I am indebted for help with this feature to two people: the poet Ron Padgett, whose excellent translations of the selected poetry of Apollinaire, Zone (2016), were published by the publishing imprint of the New York Review of Books, and Peter Read, the foremost francophone scholar of Apollinaire, in whose book Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory (2008), the translated extract quoted above from Le Poete Assassiné first appeared.

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