Poetry News

Drink Every Time You See the Phrase "Cursed Poet"

By Harriet Staff

Bookforum leads us to an article entitled "The Cursed Poets and Their Gods" over at First Things, which appears to be a Catholic-leaning publication -- "cursed poet" refers to the Verlaine coinage, as writer Algis Valiunas notes. More:

His little book Les poètes maudits (1884) interleaved his own honorific prose with poems by some of the poets he most esteemed but whose very greatness assured that they were known only to the cognoscenti. It was their obscurity—society was indifferent to them because they were hard to understand—that prompted Verlaine to speak of them as cursed. This cultivated sense of neglect, even oppression, at the hands of the bourgeois philistines became the classic pose of the avant-garde.

The piece also goes on to discuss Baudelaire in depth, who Verlaine had "adopted...as his intercessor. 'It is to Baudelaire that I owe the awakening of poetic feeling, and what is deep in me,' he wrote." The drunken poet is also in play here; Valiunas writes of Edgar Allan Poe that:

In Baudelaire’s telling, the intoxication made Poe a superior poet, which is to say, a superior man. Killing the worm gave the writing life. “I think that very often,” Baudelaire wrote, “Poe’s drunkenness was a mnemonic device, a deliberate method of work, drastic and fatal, no doubt, but suited to his passionate nature. Poe taught himself to drink, just as a careful man of letters makes a deliberate practice of filling his notebooks with notes.”

Verlaine enjoyed a snifter or two himself:

Drink, to which he became addicted, made him insanely violent. He could not be trusted with absinthe in his system and sharp objects at hand. One night, when Verlaine wanted to go on drinking and his closest friend thought he’d had enough, the poet charged after his companion with a swordstick. Coming home drunk on another occasion, he demanded 200 francs from his mother and attacked her with a saber when she didn’t deliver.

But the piece isn't entirely about poets as curséd, blesséd alcoholics; it eventually moves on to look at Verlaine's sixteen-year-old lover Rimbaud, who "was a genius—but to what use did he put his prodigious gift?" as well as Verlaine's suffering and poetry in detail. The piece gets most mouthwatering when Valiunas arrives at a peculiar point: "Today’s intellectuals scorn the very notion of a soul." For it seems:

There are three basic responses to the spectacle of the cursed poets and their suffering. Artists and their rooting section have traditionally blamed the bourgeois, dubbing them philistines for their failure to understand poetry and to appreciate the emotional turbulence supposedly necessary for poetic genius to flourish. By this way of thinking, conventionality stifles true art, and therefore transgression serves as the proper path toward original rather than derivative art—and authentic rather than soulless life. Of course, this line of defense seemed more plausible in Baudelaire’s day than in our own: Moral aberration is not nearly so despised now as it was then. But it endures. Indeed, the liberating fantasies of transgression now have the protections of tenure and the emoluments of endowed chairs. Rimbaud has become the poet laureate of our new bourgeois conventions.

The moralizers provide the second response. They are quite satisfied to see the literary types ruined for their wickedness. Such gratified loathing was more common in the nineteenth century than it is now, when irreligion and sexual disorderliness are not uncommon among the respectable. Nevertheless, in certain instances custom dies hard. The 1857 judicial ban on publication of six Baudelaire poems that violated public morality was not lifted until 1949, after years of efforts to get the ruling overturned. The popularity of Allen Ginsberg is often cited as proof that anything goes if you’re a poet these days, but there are still many who despise him and his kind.

Neither response does justice to the cursed poets of nineteenth-century France, men whose verse did so much to shape modern literature. Truth be told, one finds it difficult to sort out the injuries that others inflicted upon them, and those they caused to themselves. . . .

Read the whole thing here.

Originally Published: January 19th, 2012