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Poète Maudit
The Seer and the Forest Fire

Poète Maudit
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“La race toujours maudite par les puissants de la terre.” Or, “The race that will always be cursed by the powerful ones of the earth,” wrote author Alfred De Vigny in his novel Stello. Poet Paul Verlaine put it to wider use in his own work to describe both writers and artists who were against or otherwise working outside mainstream society. 

And the “race” was called the poète maudit, cursed poet.

Though they were given a name, don’t let the appellation trick you into thinking they were a formalized group of writers, let alone a movement. It would be much easier to imagine them not getting along if they were all put in a room together. The poète maudits were disparate, lonesome, libertine, decadent, conflicted, “against it,” fringe types who lived life like cannonballs shot out into the dead of night. Volatile, shooting stars intent on the marrow of creation, they embodied the hypocrisies Walt Whitman spoke of when he famously wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Others might describe them with less panache. They might bring up insanity, drugs, illnesses, alcohol, violence, and crime. They might speak of the time Paul Verlaine shot Arthur Rimbaud and not mention the love that came between them. They might mention Hart Crane throwing himself into the Gulf of Mexico and not speak to the enduring power of his epic, anti-Wasteland poem “The Bridge.” They might add up Charles Baudelaire’s mountains of monetary debts upon his death, rather than the debt much of modern art owes to his poetry, philosophy, and art criticism.
The truth comes after you take both the sickness and the cure wholly. The poète maudits were troubled and trouble, but they also brought forth some of the greatest imaginations and manifestations of all time. It stands to reason that such masterful work must come at great cost, if not emotionally or physically, then one of great time and effort. Many of these poets embodied what Rimbaud put so clearly in his famous “Letter of the Seer” (found in Rimbaud’s Selected Poems): 

The poet makes himself a seer by a long, rational and immense disordering of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, madness: he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in himself, to keep only their quintessence. Unspeakable torture, where he needs all his faith, every superhuman strength, during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed—and the supreme Knower, among men!—because he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than others! He arrives at the unknown, and when, maddened, he ends up by losing the knowledge of his visions: he has still seen them! Let him die charging among those unutterable, unnameable things: other fearful workers will come: theyíll start from the horizons where the first have fallen!
One must question them not on moral grounds, but on the grounds of the question is great art worth great suffering? Is such suffering necessary to attain great expression, or is it merely the one worthwhile relief when you are born at such odds with life, with such restlessness or in such displacement? 

Did the poets and artists who came before our time walk a path and give us the maps and data from such paths so that we never have to walk them ourselves? Hopefully so. Though one might be hard pressed not to feel the presence of the great muse (the seer, the inspiration and passion) after diving into any of their works, it would be folly to idolize them for their self-destructive habits, like they often did when they studied each other. Instead, we should ponder what lies beneath the veil of their actions: their tales, benedictions, and all the ravages of desire. “Unhappy perhaps is the man, but happy the artist torn by desire!” wrote Baudelaire.

By Thad Higa


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