In the Zone

In reading about the Spanish Influenza, I came across a bit of information that is perfectly suited for the expertise of Mr. Cake. I pressed him into service for a guest post and he kindly agreed.  

Avant-garde catalyst, the quintessential modernist and fashionable man about town, Guillaume Apollinaire saw himself as a spiritual heir of Charles Baudelaire, an urban poet who doubled up as an art critic. He coined the term Cubism and was the most impassioned and ardent of its early defenders. He also coined the term Orphism (a tendency in abstract art) and more famously, Surrealism, to describe Erik Satie music for Jean Cocteau’s ballet Parade.

His list of contacts within Parisian artistic and literary scenes reads as a veritable who’s who of the pre-war avant-garde and include Picasso (a particularly close friend), Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau, Henri Rousseau, Andre Derain and Giorgio de Chirico, who painted a Premonitory Portrait of Apollinaire in 1914 that eerily predicts the wounds that he was to suffer during WW1.

His 1913 collection Alcools is a landmark in literary modernism and features the important poem Zone that while grounded in Symbolism, points towards the future in its emphasis on the energy and vitality of the modern city and engagement with (then) new, evolving technologies.

Apollinaire also wrote several erotic novels including Les Onze Mille Verges, (The Eleven Thousands Rods), and he also led to the critical re-evaluation of Marquis De Sade of whom he remarked was ‘the freest spirit to ever live’.

Apollinaire volunteered during the first WWI and was stationed, appropriately for someone who was known for his fondness of a drink, in the Champagne Region. He suffered a head-wound in 1916 that required Apollinaire to undergo trepanning; he never really recovered although he published in 1917 another landmark collection of poetry Calligrammes that uses typography to startling effect, poems are shaped like a mirror, heart, a watch etc.

In 1918, still weakened by his war wound Apollinaire succumbed, like 19 million others to the Spanish Flu. He was 38 years old.

After his death Andre Breton, who admired Apollinaire and was very much in the tradition of poet/critic and cultural instigator, would take his coined phrase Surrealism and make it into one of the major intellectual and artistic movements of the 20th century.

I would have liked to include his seminal poem Zone, however it is a very lengthy poem, so I have chosen instead one of his poems from his 1913 collection Alcools, Hotels.


The boss is doubtful
Whether you’ll pay
Like a top
I spin on the way

The traffic noise
My neighbour gross
Who puffs an acrid
English smoke

O La Vallière
Who limps and smiles
In my prayers
The bedside table

And all the company
in this hotel
know the languages
of Babel

Let’s shut our doors
With a double lock
And each adore
his lonely love

Translation A.S Kline

Image: Brassai-Bouvelard De Clichy 1932