March 28, 2017
Lifestyles of the poetic and maudit: Patti Smith buys Rimbaud’s childhood home
by Chad Felix
Songstress and poet Patti Smith, who was recently seen accepting a Nobel Peace Prize for Literature on behalf of Bob Dylan, is paying tribute to another one her heroes: the French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
Rimbaud, the original poète maudit, led a short, explosive life in verse. In 1873, at the age of nineteen, he wrote A Season in Hell, a book-length poem that had considerable influence on most, if not all, of the poetry and prose that came after it. In his work, he champions what he called a “derangement of the senses,” a poetic project he describes in a celebrated letter to his friend Paul Demeny (later known as “Letter of the Seer”):
I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed—and the great learned one!—among men.—For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul—which was rich to begin with—more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!
He quit writing entirely two years after publishing A Season in Hell, and the remainder of his short life (he died in 1891 at the age of 37) is shrouded in myth: hash smoke, absinthe benders, Ethiopia, gun dealing, and foreign wars.
Patti Smith is a well-known Rimbaud advocate. A recent edition of A Season in Hell & The Drunken Boat, published by New Directions, includes a preface from her, and she mentions the poet often when speaking in public. In a 1996 BOMB Magazine interview with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, she notes that “I devoted so much of my girlish daydreams to Rimbaud. Rimbaud was like my boyfriend.”
You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that, according to Nick Mafi of Architectural Digest, Smith has purchased Rimbaud’s childhood home, located in the northeastern French town of Roche, a sleepy village of some ninety residents. Prior to Smith’s purchase, the home, to which admirers have been making pilgrimmages for more than a century, was under the care of Jacqueline Kranenvitter and Paul Boens. The couple had found the building basically falling apart, and dedicated their time to reconstructing it. Learning of the situation, Smith stepped in to help by purchasing the home outright for an undisclosed price.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.