The War Poems of Guillaume Apollinaire
from American Poetry Review, July / August 2014
When the poet Guillaume Apollinaire enlisted in the French artillery in December of 1914, his friends received the news with deep dismay. Apollinaire was a pivotal orchestrator of the roiling Paris art scene, a circle that included Picasso, de Chirico, Max Jacob, and Henri Rousseau. Through his tireless literary entrepreneurship and his flashy, opinionated art criticism, Apollinaire had made himself the foremost advocate of the new spirit in literature and painting. His career, with theirs, was coming to a boil. Past the age of conscription—he was thirty-five—not even, legally, a French citizen  (his mother's nationality was Polish-Russian), Apollinaire was in no danger from the draft. Moreover, he had practiced the café life of a freelance intellectual for years, part of an artistic cadre for whom borderline irresponsibility was an aesthetic principle. Apollinaire seemed an unlikely candidate for following orders, not to mention the hardship and violence of war. His battles were aesthetic; his weapons were his tongue and pen.
But for Apollinaire, a soldier's life was a revelation. He loved his training in arms and horseback riding, learning to use and care for the famous French 75 cannon. He delighted in the discovery of his physical prowess, his ability to keep up with men fifteen years younger than he, the manly camaraderie of barracks life, the welter of new sights and sounds and information. "Soldiering is my true profession," he wrote his Parisian friends. To another he wrote, from training camp, "I love art so much, I have joined the artillery." And because waiting and idleness turned out to be a part of life in uniform, he wrote a great deal—"enough," said one of his correspondents, "to kill the postman." Between December 1914 and March 1916, in the 38th regiment of field artillery, at times using an inkwell made from a cartridge casing, Apollinaire produced a passionate, strangely uncelebrated body of poetry. Still compelling and eerily effervescent, these poems challenge our modern assumptions about art and war.
The sky is starred by the Boche's shells
The marvelous forest where I live is giving a ball
The machine gun plays a tune in three-fourths time
But have you the word
Eh! Yes the fatal word
To the loopholes to the loopholes Leave the picks there
Like a lost star searching for its seasons
Heart exploded shell you whistled your love song
And your thousand suns emptied the caissons
That the gods of my eyes fill silently
We love you oh life and we get on your nerves
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
Hear our shells sing
Their deep purple love hailed by our men going to die
The wet springtime the night light the attack
It's raining my soul it's raining but it's raining dead eyes
Ulysses how many days to get back to Ithaca
Lie down in the straw and dream a fine remorse
Which as a pure effect of art is aphrodisiac
("April Night 1915") 
The speed, the range of association and of register are still astonishing: "It's raining my soul it's raining but it's raining dead eyes / Ulysses how many days to get back to Ithaca."
Apollinaire's war poems are startling, sometimes even macabre, for their enthusiasm. Irony and melancholy are not absent from their rich tonal palette, but more often the speaker sounds like a schoolboy allowed to stay out late, delighted with the glamour of his toys. The poems rejoice in the spectacle, the improbability, and the technological glory of modern warfare. A year before, in his 1913 poem "Zone," he had compared Christ to an aviator "who holds the world record for altitude." In the war poems of Calligrammes, the prevailing mood is one of rhapsodic, intoxicated excitement. "The Little Car," his poem about the outbreak of hostilities, portrays his sense of historical adventure, and even of destiny:
August 31, 1914
A little before midnight I left Deauville
In Rouveyer's little car
Counting the chauffeur we were three
We said farewell to a whole era
Furious giants were rising over Europe
eagles flew from their eyrie to wait for the sun
Voracious fish ascended from the abyss
nations hurled together so they might learn to know one another
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
I felt within me skillful new beings
Build and even arrange a new universe
A merchant with unheard-of wealth and whose size was prodigious
Arranged an extraordinary showcase
"Nations hurled together so they might learn to know one another"—Apollinaire's definition of war as a kind of terrible blind date is comic, cosmic, and, on one level, terribly true.
Apollinaire's uncensored gusto for the conflict, so controversial on the surface, sprang in part from his unquenchable thirst for modernity. Even in the maw of World War I, the cataclysm which would destroy humanist faith for most of Europe, Apollinaire believes in Progress, both material and cosmic. He is happy to say goodbye to the old era because of his confidence that the next era will be marvelous, "an extraordinary showcase." And it was part of his heroic romanticism to feel that his own fate and that of the century were intimately entwined. "The Little Car" concludes:
We arrived in Paris
Just as they were posting the draft
We realized my friend and I
That the little car had driven us into a new era
And although we were both already mature men
We had just been born.
Apollinaire was one of the first truly twentieth-century poets. Like his friends the first-generation Cubist painters, he broke rules with abandon—his demolition of conventions and his consequent discoveries prefigured most of what has passed for avant-garde ever since. One of his many innovations was the removal of all punctuation from his book Alcools, in 1913, an impulsive act undertaken the night before the poems went to press. Goodbye, boundaries! The relationship between beginnings, endings, and middles, between poetic fragments and poetic wholes, might be said to have changed that night. In the war poems, the lack of grammatical boundary seems expressive of confusion, excitement, and a kind of circumstantial collective consciousness:
The soldiers are coming
The village is almost asleep in the perfumed light
A priest wears a helmet
A bottle of champagne is artillery yes or no
Vine stocks like ermine of a coat of arms
I see them running to and fro
Hello soldiers you bottles of wine in which the blood ferments ...
("The Vine Grower of Champagne")
Often enough, thrill and horror intermingle in Apollinaire's war poems. The ecstatic, addictive intensity of war's experience is well-known enough. Soldiers have always found battle and war intoxicating, profound, and haunting. Its intensity seems to tap into the same deep levels of the psyche as sexual experience, and the confusion of the two realms (darkly evident, of course, in wartime rape) has often been represented in literature. In the temporary madness of Ajax depicted in the Iliad, the hero slaughters a herd of cattle, believing them to be enemy soldiers. Then, he kills himself.
In Apollinaire's case, the poet's great natural resources of temperament infused all experience, even his failure and death, with a romantic appreciation ("a dying love is the sweetest," he wrote). If there is something childlike in these transformations of battle into lyric poetry, Apollinaire's appreciation for the war also represents a calculated, lifelong dedication to wonder, asserting its equality to anything. "Be afraid," he says in his poem "Victory," "that someday a train will no longer thrill you / Look at it faster for your own sake." In the poem "Guerre" (War), his gusto for technology is spookily prescient. In the poet's allegorical imagination, the fantastic paraphernalia of modern warfare seems to promise a kind of impending spiritual freedom. In Apollinaire's psychic process, no division exists between machine and vision; to him, the noise of gunfire is also the sound of the approaching future:
Central combat sector
Contact by sound
We're firing towards "noises that were heard"
The young men of the class of 1915
And those electrified wires
Then don't weep for the horrors of war
Before the war we had only the surface
Of the earth and the seas
After it we'll have the depths
Subterranean and aerial space
masters of the helm
We'll assume all the joys
Of conquerors in repose ...
The most uncanny aspect of Apollinaire's war poems, collected in Calligrammes, is their erotic energy. For Apollinaire, as for his immediate successors the Surrealists (though that label had not yet been coined), all experience was infiltrated with romantic sexuality. The Surrealist ethos proposed that Eros provided access to mystery and the unconscious. Romantic longing for the hypothetical other was the catalytic agent of the creative spirit. Marcel Duchamp, Apollinaire's avant-garde contemporary, used the name "Rrose Selavy" as one of his artistic pseudonyms, a homonym for "Eros c'est la vie." It is not surprising that, even during his two years of military exile, Apollinaire managed to be engaged to several women, sometimes mailing the same love poem to more than one address. The declaration of love was the password into the kingdom of poetry. And so Apollinaire sees, in the bursting of flares, an affair that might end in death—but, nonetheless, an affair. The bombs remove their brassieres and make available both love and death:
Like two breasts unbound
Raising their nipples insolently
HE KNEW HOW TO LOVE
what an epitaph
But the Eros in Apollinaire's war poems, so French, so avant-garde, so romantic, was disquieting even to some of his most ardent friends. His descriptions of battle, which mingled lust and wonder, seemed, to Louis Aragon, who wrote an editorial on the subject, indecent. "It would be a crime to show the attractive face of war," wrote Aragon in a public reproach, "even if it had one."
That link, between Eros and war, makes us uneasy for very good reasons. Confronted with the beginning of Apollinaire's ''Wonder of War," what would widows and humanists make of the poet's description of bombardment? In these intoxicated images of bombardment, they might at first find something to recognize, but then, in the poem's mordant, oracular rapture, they would be moved toward more troubled recognitions:
How lovely these flares are that light up the dark
They climb their own peak and lean down to look
They are dancing ladies whose glances become eyes arms and hearts
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
It's also the daily apotheosis of all my Berenices whose hair has
turned to comet's tails
These dancing girls twice gilded belong to all times and all races
Swiftly they give birth to children who have just enough time to die ...
The canonical benchmark for twentieth-century war poetry has often been awarded to the work of Wilfred Owen, poems written on a different front of the same war. (The two poets died within five days of each other in 1918.) Owen's poetry embodies the shock and moral repugnance that have been the better-known model for how poetry should respond to civilized violence. And Owen's romantic story, as well known as his poems, has come down to us as a parable about the transforming effect of history on innocence: how the young British soldier went to war as a maker of flowery verse and came back a poet of moral rage and insight. Owen's poetics of horror and pity seem to testify to how reality disciplines language itself.
But there are different kinds of knowing to be gathered from the war poems of Apollinaire, who went to war as a chanteur of love and celebration and, apparently unchastened by experience, grew more rapturous and ecstatic than ever. In "Wonder of War," one of Apollinaire's greatest poems, the poet seems to be not down on the field, but high in the bleachers, cheering on this huge spectacle of wasteful violence, in which he sees the ritual engagement of grand, primeval forces: the devouring earth-mother who gives and takes back everything in orgiastic ecstasy.
I seem to be at a great feast lighted a giorno
A banquet that the earth offers herself
Hungrily she opens her long pale mouths
Earth is hungry and here is the feast ...
It is his mythological, visionary consciousness which transforms one reality into another and celebrates the surging archetypal energies released even in this display of destructiveness. This mythological consciousness does not distinguish in absolute terms between Eros and Thanatos; all are the processes of the monumental, omnivorous life of Earth.
How lovely these flares are
but it would be finer if there were still more of them
If there were millions with a full and relative meaning like letters in
However it's as lovely as if life itself issued from those who are dying
But it would be finer still if there were still more of them ...
This is not the French poet, but the ravenous earth-mother speaking, both horrible and wonderful. In his ecstatic transport, the poet relishes the climax of battle. Yet there is also a mournful, visionary compassion in Apollinaire's poem, an acknowledgment of the grotesque inhumanity of the spectacle. In a subsequent, even more Whitmanesque passage, the poet exceeds his own physical boundaries and heroically flows into the myriad physical elements of the battlefield, an imaginative act both chillingly unnatural and heroically tender:
But I have flowed into the sweetness of this war with my whole
company along the long trenches
A few cries of flame keep announcing my presence
I have hollowed out the bed where I flow and branch into a thousand
small streams going everywhere
I am in the front line trenches and I am everywhere or rather I am
beginning to be everywhere
For it is I who begin this affair of the centuries to come
It will be longer to realize than the myth of soaring Icarus
I bequeath to the future the story of Guillaume Apollinaire
Who was in the war and knew how to be everywhere
In the lucky towns behind the front lines
In all the rest of the universe
In all those who died tangled in barbed wire
In women in cannons in horses
In this cosmic climax, destruction and reunion are strangely, poignantly conjoined. Apollinaire's identification of his own prophetic powers, so completely realized here, runs throughout his work; such passages can be startling because they exist in such fluent continuity with his other, more mortal registers—the charming, socially amicable voice, for example. But Apollinaire is a true shape-changer, or leaper, who springs from role to role, from level to level of poetic possibility. Perhaps the intensely religious sensibility evident in Apollinaire's descriptions, which can be traced back to his Catholic upbringing by nuns, created a capacity for visionary meaning even in death. Liberated by modernity from confinement to one doctrine, his spirituality finds itself heroically adaptable and confident. In his poem "On Prophecies," he explains to his friend:
Everybody is a prophet, my dear Andre Billy
But for so long people have been made to believe
They have no future and are ignorant forever
And born idiots ...
That they've become resigned ...
There's nothing religious in any of these matters
in the superstitions or in the prophecies
Or in anything the people call occult
There is above all a way of observing nature
which is completely legitimate.
In March 1916, while reading a Paris newspaper in the trench, he was struck by a flying piece of shrapnel that pierced his helmet. He realized he had been wounded only when blood dripped onto his paper. The shrapnel was extracted, but his condition complicated; he was trepanned at a battlefield hospital and eventually sent back to Paris. Released from the military, he resumed his literary life in Paris, at last a fully illustrious figure among the painters and writers of his time. In the next year he saw projects to completion, coined the seminal term Surrealism, and wrote his manifesto "The New Spirit," as well as "The Pretty Redhead." But accounts suggest that he was a diminished version of his former self, and in November of 1918, one week before the armistice that ended the war, Apollinaire succumbed to another attack, the influenza epidemic that was sweeping, at that moment, the entire western world.
Apollinaire's poetry still enjoys great popularity. His love of urban particularity, his pastiche of common and lofty tones, his spontaneous intelligence, and his rowdy effervescence all make him peculiarly appealing to American readers. Lovers of the convivial, sprinting poems of Frank O'Hara are unwittingly sampling the texture of Apollinaire. His most anthologized poems, "Zone" and "The Pretty Redhead," are deservedly canonical, the first for its dramatic exhibition of modernist technique, the second for its extraordinary, droll, and lucid exposition of aesthetics.
Yet Apollinaire's war poems are less well known than one would expect. They challenge the reader who would segregate ethical understanding and imaginative wildness. These poems, however, are insistently astonishing—never jaded and, in fact, always wholesome. They exemplify the unquenchable capacity of the human imagination, which roams outside prescribed boundaries and finds delight and humor even in the middle of suffering. In his poem "Il Y A ("There Are"), he exercises one of his favorite poetic devices, simultaneism. The strategy of simultaneism is to catalogue the manifold possible contents of a single moment—a modernism of wonder. In poems like this, Apollinaire shows the vigorous, anguished expansiveness that keeps him relevant. The poem is part celebration, part lament, and it models the inclusive compassionate sensibility which makes this poet part of the heroic tradition in modernism, an explorer of the future who still seems utterly contemporary:
There are Barbary figs on the cactus in Algeria
There are my love's long supple hands
There's an inkwell I made in a 15-centimeter rocket they didn't send
There's my saddle out in the rain
There are rivers that won't flow uphill again ...
There are men in the world who have never been to war
There are Hindus watching in astonishment the Western landscapes
They think sadly of their friends and wonder if they'll see them again
For we have pushed very far in this war the art of invisibility
1. One motive for Apollinaire's enlistment, in addition to adventure, might have been to attain French citizenship in exchange for his service.
2. All translations are by Anne Hyde Greet, from the book Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
The best books about Apollinaire, his era, and his poetics are these:
Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, rev. ed., New York: Vintage, 1968.
Francis Steegmuller, Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters, New York: Farrar, Straus, 1963.
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About the Author
Tony Hoagland's Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays will be published by Graywolf Press in September. A new chapbook, Don't Tell Anyone, is now out from Hollyridge Press. He teaches at the University of Houston.
American Poetry Review
Editors: Stephen Berg, David Bonano, Elizabeth Scanlon