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Guillaume Apollinaire

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) played a central part in the avant-garde movement that swept through the French literary and artistic circles during the early 20th century. Much of his early history is unknown, and even the origin of his original name remains clouded by contradictions. Like Gertrude Stein, his work was unfluenced by the Cubist movement in the arts. The book Alcools, written in 1913, is considered his greatest work, darting from formal poems (like alexandrines and regular stanzas) to those devoid of rhyme, regularity, and punctuation.    Alcools[ Click to Order Alcools (tr. Donald Revell - soft $) ]

What makes Alcools a respected work of art, however, is his ability to capture scenes and experiences in refreshing ways that carry a familiarty and truth among the reader (if only on an emotional level). These "refreshing ways" were manifested in experiments on the page that included a fracturing (collage) of images, and an almost equal disregard and respect for tradition.

Apollinaire is credited for introducing the word "surrealist" for the first time, which appeared in his introduction to the drama "The Breasts of Tiresias" (1918). His unique verbal associations became the foundation for the movement known as "Surrealism."


The ground is poisonous but pretty in autumn
Slowly the cattle
Poison themselves
The saffrons are colored circular and lilac
Like your eyes and flourishing
Purplish like rings and like the autumn
And for your eyes my life takes poison slowly

Dressed like hiccups playing harmonicas
Noisily children out of school
Pluck the saffrons that are like mothers
Daughters of daughters the colors of your eyelids
Flutter and are flowers in a crazy wind

The cowboy sings very softly
The slow and lowing herd forever
Abandons the meadow poisoned by flowers
1913. Alcools. (tr. Donald Revell)

"Saffrons" exemplifies Apollinaire's strange and inventive use of what we now recognize as surrealism: "Dressed like hiccups playing harmonicas." However, this poem is very understandable on an emotional level: the metaphor of poison carrying through the poem in juxtaposition of beauty and life through the image of flowers (saffron).

Perhaps the most personal line in the most poem is also the weakest, probably why it occurs so early in the poem: "And for your eyes my life takes poison slowly." The second stanza stands out as the most surreal and the most interesting as a dance of images and sounds. The last stanza is nice, understandable, and lolls the reader in perhaps the way the cowboy lolls the speaker in song.

Links of Interest:

Guillaume Apollinaire
This site provides nice biographical introduction and bibliography of author.

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