Wednesday, 23 June 2010

A Season In Hell

Between The Ears, BBC Radio 3’s occasional ‘radiophonic’ slot, gave a repeat airing to an abridged adaptation of Rimbaud’s symbolist/decadent (the two terms seem to alongside a blurred boundary) prose poem A Season In Hell (Une Saison en Enfer), read by Carl Prekopp from a translation by Jeremy Harding and John Sturrock, which you can listen to here until Saturday 26th June. Composer Elizabeth Purnell provided the music, which included three songs sung by Robert Wyatt, and the shifting contours and transformations of the soundscape. There’s been a long and fruitful tradition of radiophonic fusions of word and sound at the BBC, going way back to the 1957 productions of All That Fall, which Samuel Beckett had written specifically for such a treatment, and Frederick Bradnum’s Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, which was subtitled A Radiophonic Poem, the first use of such a term. The success of these productions, both made under the aegis of Desmond Briscoe, who was joined on the latter by Daphne Oram, led to the formation of the Radiophonic Workshop, in which they both played key roles, a year later. The Workshop would further experiment with experimental and concrete poetry in the 60s and 70s, an area of their work which is often overlooked in the understandable enthusiasm for their creation of a very British form of musique concrete and electronic music. Sound sometimes takes precedence over words or gives them a more associational meaning in programmes such as the 1960 collaboration with Brian Gysin on an adaptation of the cut-ups and permutated poems from his collection Minutes to Go, or Lily Greenham’s 1975 piece Relativity, which took Einstein’s energy/mass equation as its launching point. Interestingly, Greenham voiced the aim of her piece in terms akin to Rimbaud, pointing out ‘how a sentence can be given shape and driven in a musical sense beyond its meaning’. Perhaps one of the most readily available examples of the Radiophonic Workshop’s excursions into word and music is The Seasons, with music by David Cain and poems by Ronald Duncan, which was released as a BBC Drama Workshop album in 1969, and tracks from which are given a regular airing on Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday afternoon show on BBC Radio 6. You can find it here, in fact.

In this sense, Rimbaud’s work, and A Season In Hell in particular, is ideal for a latter-day radiophonic approach, given its avowed intent to create ‘a poetic language that would one day be accessible to all the senses’, as he puts it in Alchemy of the Word, the second of the poems Deliriums. It’s almost as if he were waiting for the possibilities that a well-equipped modern sound studio provide. His famous statement of artistic abandonment from the ‘Lettre du Voyant’ to Paul Demeny in 1871 required the poet or artist to achieve a visionary state through ‘a prolonged, absolute and rational derangement of the senses’, something which he achieved through a combination of hashish, absinthe and possibly, during expeditions to the East End whilst he was living in London with Paul Verlaine, the smoking of opium. The results of reaching a level at which he ‘found (his) madness sacred’ are recorded in A Season in Hell in terms of hallucinatory transformations and a synaesthetic kaleidoscope of impressionistic collisions. He literally spells out such an apprehension of the spectrum of sound with his vowel colours from The Alchemy of the Word: ‘A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green’, although he slyly notes that he ‘withheld the translation’ for this new ‘poetic language’. ‘In the Farewell’ section of the poem he remembers, now in a spirit of having failed, ‘I tried to invent new flowers, new stars, new bodies, new tongues’. The addition of sound furthers the advancement of a synaesthetic language, the attempt to move beyond the limitations of the written word. It allows the words to move into that wider dimension which he was seeking with his colour vowels and which led to him proclaiming, as he looks back at the damage which he inflicted on himself through the intensity of his quest, that he had been ‘damned by the rainbow’. If nothing else, Rimbaud was capable of producing great epigrams. ‘Morality is a weakness of the brain’ is another good one.

Elizabeth Burnell produces some great sounds to colour the words. She occasionally distorts and adds echo to the voice to enhance the mockery and torment of Rimbaud’s self-critical inner demon, and also produces a chorus effect to underline the self-aggrandising rallying calls or denunciations of his more grandiloquent statements. These latter make him sound as if he is addressing a stadium crowd from a triumphal balcony, a hint of the enormity of his ego. There are sounds of oceanic engulfment which might also be the rush of fiery blood as he offers ‘a few leaves of the notebook of a soul condemned to hell’, and the sounds of the ocean return throughout, possibly an indication of the passage across the English Channel on the way to London, where many of the experiences which informed the poem were gained, and where some of it was also written. As he describes his Night of Hell (Nuit de L’Enfer), which follows o from his announcement ‘now comes the punishment’, Burnell underlies his torments with a molten rumble of a drone which threatens to erupt in an engulfing flood of magma, and surrounds him with a swarm of jabbing trumpets. There are metallic clanging sounds which are introduced in the Bad Blood (Mauvais Sang) section in which he imaginatively explores his Gallic ancestry of pagan peasantry, and which could approximate the forging of swords (and of the language and culture of those who wield them which he has inherited), although the mutability of all sounds, in keeping with the general aura of synaesthesia, mean that they also morph into the clinkin. These sounds recur when he makes his claims for having developed a new poetic language in Alchemy of the Word. There are also the sounds of bird song which occur on several occasions, a wood pidgeon cooing as he recalls his childhood, ‘the road in all weathers’ and suggesting a bucolic paradise lost. After the initial roar of noise which introduces the programme, there is a ringing harmonic, a pure note like a singing wine glass or a clear sine wave tone. It is the fundamental from which all the words and sounds and chaos arise, the noise of life, and into which they all fade back at the end, dwindling into imperceptibility but implicitly eternal. It’s an idea which Pete Townshend hovered around in his abortive Lifehouse project, and which was expressed in the song Pure and Easy (now released on the CD reissue of Who’s Next after previously being thrown into the Odds and Sods collection). ‘There once was a note, pure and easy/Playing so free, like a breath rippling by’.

A low-key jazz arrangement backs his statement ‘I became a fantastic opera’, and this sets the tone for the songs which feature in the Alchemy of Words section. These are sung in inimitable style by Robert Wyatt, whose loose, jazzy style suits the words perfectly. The first song is Loin des Oiseaux, in which he is accompanied by a hallucinatory, quavering accordion sound. He sings the second and third verses in French, perhaps feeling that the sounds of the words within the context of the song are more important than the meaning; or perhaps just expecting us to make a little more effort to be more multi-lingual. Here are the words in English, from the translation by Enid Rhodes Peschel: ‘Remote from the birds, from flocks, from country girls/What did I drink, while kneeling in that heath/Surrounded by new growth of hazel trees,/Within a mild green mist of afternoon? What could I drink in that young river Oise,/- The voiceless elms, the flowerless turf, dark sky-/From yellow gourds, far from my cherished hut?/Some golden liquor that induces sweat. I made a doubtful signboard for an inn./- A storm arose and stalked the sky. At night/The forest water drained itself in virgin/Sands, God’s wind cast drift ice on the ponds; Weeping, I saw gold – and could not drink’. The second song is Song of the High Tower, which is accompanied by piano haloed by a sparkle of high, tinkling sounds which suggest intoxicated bedazzlement and the glimpse of a mirage-like paradise in the blurred distance (‘Let it come, let it come, the time we dote on’ sings a female voice – Burnell’s own, perhaps). Wyatt sings the whole song in French this time. In English, it reads thus: ‘I have endured so patiently/That I have lost all memory./My many fears and sufferings/Have taken flight into the skies./And now the health-destroying thirst/Is darkening my blood and veins. Such is the meadowland/Delivered to oblivion,/All overgrown, and flowering/With frankincense and tares,/Amid the frantic buzzing/Of the filthy flies’. The third song, ‘O Seasons, O Chateaux’, is sung in English until verse three, from where it reads: ‘Hail to it, every time/the Gallic cock announces dawn./ Ah! I shall have no more desire:/It has taken charge of my life entire./ That charm has captured soul and body/And dissipated my endeavours./ Alas! The hour that it flies/ Will be the hour of my demise’.

Verlaine and Rimbaud
The poem is essentially a progression of thought in motion, a quality which the radio production brings out particularly well. Rimbaud goes through wild mood swings, and contradicts or undermines his own statements and claims in an ongoing inner dialogue. Forces of self-aggrandisement, self-doubt and self-loathing battle each other for the key to knowledge of the self through which an apprehension of the true nature of the world can be gained. At one point he is proclaiming that ‘the poets and the seers will be jealous/ I am a thousand times richer than them’, the next deriding his efforts as a waste of time (‘so much for my fame as an artist and storyteller’). He veers from peaks of ecstasy and world-conquering ego, to wallowing in self-pity and revelling in his own degradation, convincing himself ‘I reek of charred flesh’, and recalling his ‘skin gnawed by dirt and plague, worms seething in my hair and armpits’. It’s all very self-absorbed, of course, and risks reducing the world to a mere reflection of the poet’s own particular neuroses, which can seem like an amplified version of the world-view of any despondent teenager. Rimbaud wrote Seasons in Hell when he was 18, and it bears the arrogant certainty of youth as well as its violent mood swings. Carl Prekopp, who reads the poem, captures a convincing air of brattish precociousness and the no doubt infuriating know it all conviction. It’s possible to have some sympathy for his patron, travelling companion and lover Paul Verlaine, who he drove out of his mind to such an extent that he ended up shooting him, thankfully with no great accuracy.

If viewed as an act of world building, the construction of artificial realities, Seasons in Hell becomes more acceptable, and allows you to revel in the play of imagination, the power of language to effect transformations of perceived reality. Perhaps it’s more digestible fare for someone who reads science fiction and the literature of the fantastic in general. Samuel Delany’s Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand was intended as a diptych of novels, to be accompanied by a further volume entitled The Splendour and Misery of Bodies, of Cities. It never saw the light of day, in the end, but the influence of is clear in the title, and there are many Rimbaud-like characters in his early novels. At the end of A Season in Hell, Rimbaud envisages a time when ‘we will enter the splendid cities’ (the line which Delany draws on) and it’s easy to imagine these as the cities of science fiction dreaming. He also puts his faith in science, having dwelt on ‘pagan blood’ and the Christianity with which he was raised. Towards the end, after he has put the madness of his youth behind him, he declares ‘one must be absolutely modern’, and its easy to see in this the roots of a futurism and streamlined modernism, a Things to Come art deco. Rimbaud himself talks of his ‘dreams of monstrous loves and fantastic universes’, and professes his love of the more popular art forms, amongst which he lists ‘idiotic paintings, motifs over doorways, stage sets, mummers backdrops, insides, popular colour prints, unfashionable literature, church Latin, erotic books with poor spelling, the novels our grandmother’s read, fairy tales, small books for children, old operas, nonsensical refrains, galumphing rhythms’. Who knows what his modern day choices might be.

Before first Communion
Rimbaud’s influence can be felt, for better or worse, in the work of many popular artists, who often respond as much to his youth and wildly rebellious attitude as his small body of work. The Surrealists admired his life, including his later years in Africa, as a work of art in itself. He’s exerted an influence in the world of rock and pop music which is certainly rare amongst nineteenth century poets, perhaps his only rival being William Blake. Elizabeth Burnell’s music acknowledges this influence with an initial opening crescendo of formless noise, rising bass rumble and guitar feedback squall building to sensory overload. His appeal to the 60s and 70s countercultures lies partly in his youthful image. He was only 18 when he finished Seasons in Hell in 1873, and it proved to be his valedictory work. In the final section, Farewell (Adieu), he makes his mind up to ‘bury my imagination and my memories’, and declares himself ‘firmly back on the ground, eager for the rigours of the real’. He tells us in The Impossible that ‘I’m about to disappear, to give you all the slip’, and the fact that he did so with such success, settling after an itinerant life in Abyssinia and scorning any contact with the literary world in which his poems were making a belated impact, fixes his artistic persona in a state of eternal youthfulness. His offhand comment (again in the Farewell section) ‘who cares – I’ll make it to 20 if everyone else has the same plan’ has the ring of the ‘hope I die before I get old’ cult of youth.

Patti and Robert- Rimbaud in NY
Patti Smith relates, in her recent book on her early years in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, how they would read his poems to each other. Her song Easter imagines the young Rimbaud walking to his first Communion with his brother Frederic and sister Isabelle, a scene inspired by the picture of the two young boys solemnly posed with white armbands tied above their elbows. The song Horses replaces Chuck Berry’s Go Johnny Go with Go Rimbaud. Bob Dylan also regarded Rimbaud in iconic terms, perhaps due to his association with Allen Ginsburg, and in his song You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, he ruefully observes ‘Situations have ended sad,/Relationships have all been bad/Mine’ve been like Verlaine and Rimbaud.’ Elizabeth Hand, in her short story Wonderwall, has her protagonist, a young woman with a clear resemblance to Patti Smith living the Bohemian life in New York with her Robert Mapplethorpe like room mate, David. She writes ‘Je suis damne par l’arc-en-ciel’ (I have been damned by the rainbow) on her wall and reads Le Lettre du Voyant. She pushes through some sensory wall in a nightclub after a determined and sustained derangement of her faculties, and encounters a young man who may or may not be Rimbaud. He looks over the scene with interest, noting ‘cela s’est passe’. It’s as if he’s saying this particular dream is over, it’s become a routine, an empty ritual. The narrator has her moment of epiphany: ‘I was nineteen. When Rimbaud was my age, he had already finished his life work. I hadn’t even started yet. He had changed the world; I could barely change my socks. He had walked through the wall, but I had only smashed my head against it, fruitlessly, in anguish and despair. It had defeated me, and I hadn’t even left a mark’. The makers of the programme choose to end their adapatation with the penultimate paragraph. Rimbaud leads the way towards a shining future, and foretells the time when ‘at dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the cities in all their splendour’. He is then absorbed into his own myth, which these and others have drawn on ever since.

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