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Blaise Cendrars: A Poet for the Twenty-First Century

Cendrars was, beyond all questions, the pioneer of poetic modernism.

Blaise Cendrars (1907) (via Wikipedia)

Since the first two decades of the twentieth century, so much has changed radically in the space of poetry, in its evaluations and critical confrontations. One thing, however, remains absolutely the same: the force of authentic poetry. Such is the poetry of Blaise Cendrars.

Its powers are inexhaustible; it is a poetry of energy and life, always modern and provocative. If Rimbaud was the true founder and pillar of the spirit of the new poetry, Cendrars was the architect of its brand new structure.

Cendrars was, beyond all questions, the pioneer of poetic modernism. Already in 1914 — while Ezra Pound was preoccupied with translating Latin epigrams, Chinese quatrains, and trying to control his aesthetics; long before T. S. Eliot’s transcription of Indian scriptures and formation of structural complexity — Cendrars had completed five of his poetic masterpieces: The Legend Of Novgorode, Easter in New York, The Prose Of The Transsiberian, Sequences and Panama. The unique Nineteen Elastic Poems followed in 1919.

Cendrars integrated into his works the tropes of advertising and journalism, and the temper of jazz. Yet he was one of the few poets who gave a distinctive emphasis to the handling of the poetical subject, rather than the subject itself. Cendrars was also one of the few, and possibly the first poet of his generation, who believed in differentiating the poetic flow of reason for the benefit of spontaneity and discovery during the creation of the poem. Moreover, he pioneered parallel and simultaneous correlations, wherein the poem reflects at least two opposite forces whose relation constitutes the meaning.

(via Flickr/Chris Drumm)

Though Blaise Cendrars had deep knowledge of the legacy and voices of the old masters from the near and distant literary past, he left everything behind him. He undertook serious risks and advanced into chaotic and incoherent fields, which he conquered with a steady belief in innovation, compassion and consequence. What was his goal? It was nothing more than the complete reprioritization of the world’s values and ethics.

Life experience does not influence writing in itself; together with intellect and spirituality it serves as the source of poetical inspiration. “Cendrars taught me that you must live poetry, before you start writing” noted Philippe Soupault. Fundamentally an extraordinary modernist in his way of life, Cendrars was the major pioneer of a poetical avant-garde; his work is more than difficult to compare with the work of most of the major poets of our time.

Cendrars’s longer poems are rooted partly in the poetry of the Middle Ages, having certain kinships with the Swiss Benedictine hymnographer Notker le Bègue, and, more concretely, with Latin hymns. Although produced in a more linguistic and formal climate, his poetry has affinities with that of Remy de Gourmont, whose writings were equally founded on the musicality and syntactic styles of ecclesiastical antiphonaries and hymnals. Yet all these influences are incidental; his overall poetic synthesis was unique and totally unexpected.

Photograph of Blaise Cendrars in his Foreign Legion uniform, taken on Easter Sunday 1916, a few months after his amputation of the right arm (via Wikipedia)

Except for Cendrars’s three major and extended poetic works — which continue to bear a tremendous influence today — he focused on what he characterized as “verbal snapshots,” astonishing works of rhythm, vocabulary and style that prefigured so-called “poetic cubism,” a pioneering movement that made its official appearance soon after in the work of certain avant-garde poets.

However, “poetic cubism” fails to capture Cendrars’s linguistic originality; in fact, he was never identified with any literary movement and was, himself, completely indifferent to the characterizations and classifications of the poetic idioms of his time. He moved forward, all alone, toward unknown waters of poetical creation, composing complex but superlative work, which American writer Henry Miller defined as “a splendiferous hulk of a poem dedicated to the archipelago of insomnia.”

Concerning his equally extraordinary prose works, Cendrars’s goal was not to concentrate on the fatal outcome, not even to originate meaning, but to be deeply involved with the emptiness of literary process and the versatile paths of its incompleteness. A monument of innovative fiction, his was a tireless artistic drive that brought the future into the present.

Such a literary man was Blaise Cendrars, a Poet. A true writer with a made-up name, whom life baptized several times over in its innumerable maneuvers of changes. The Hand that got lost in the Legion made the typewriter sound like a furious demoniac machine.

(via Wikipedia)

Since the days of early modernism to today, assertion and literariness work against creation and content. Content is created the moment of the poem’s completion; it is given shape for the first time with the form of the poem. Most poetry written today is a mere expression of “personal truths,” centered on the individual or in the society. Yet poetry is nothing but creation; it is a forever-unprecedented substance. Originality. Not compliance.

That’s why the small amount of powerful poetry, never matches the countless editions which fill the selves of the bookshops worldwide. Cendrars was a rare creator of new content.

The essence of his texts is not located in conceptual definitions of aesthetics, but in the most obvious and immediate difficulty of its inventive nature. Blaise Cendrars was the first poet of the twenty-first century.

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