French Poet

In 1968, my head spent a significant portion of its young life in the clouds, and I along with it.

This spring of 1968 saw me living my life based on two certainties, yes, certainties: One was that poetry was the way to discover capital-T Truth; and two was that I was destined to move to France and (like Baudelaire and Rimbaud) become a brilliant and truth-finding poet—the fact that I more or less flunked my one year of French in junior high did little to deter me, brilliant dreamer that I was.

Let’s step back a little.

A year or so earlier I had never even heard of Baudelaire, much less Rimbaud. Poet-wise, yes, I had written some poems, or what I considered poems, but I had read very few if any written by others, i.e., real poets.

If memory serves, sometime in 1967 I showed one of my poems to a friend in my northern hometown of Hudiksvall (Inger was her name) and after reading it, twice, she told me that they reminded her of Baudelaire. She may have mentioned Rimbaud as well.

Also, Inger knew that I smoked hashish at the time and she told me that Baudelaire had, too, in his day.

Soul brothers, then.

My interest piqued, I soon bought a Swedish translation of Le Fleur du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) and with fascination read one of the first poems, The Albatross, once, twice, thrice, and especially the last beautiful stanza:

The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky 
Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman; 
When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jeers, 
His giant wings prevent him from walking.

Now, I really understood this, I loved this. And he was talking not only about himself, he was talking about all poets, and he was talking about me who had such large and glorious wings that when I was brought down to earth (or deck—among the pedestrian people) were too giant, too heavy to let me walk. This made sense, such enormous sense: I could only fly, I could only fly. I was made to fly. The skies (especially French skies, obviously) were my home. I was convinced. Totally.

This poem decided me: I was to become a poet. A real poet. No, not here in Stockholm, that would be a Swedish poet. Real poets are French. Baudelaire was a real poet, he was French. Rimbaud was a real poet, he was French—hence, I was to become a French poet.

Yes, I read some Rimbaud as well, in translation. Couldn’t heads nor tails them. I read some more Baudelaire as well, but didn’t quite get those poems so much either—The Albatross had done it for me and it was all that I truly needed to sustain my dream.

André was a French cook and the owner of a small restaurant by the Maria Square in Stockholm, only a short walk from my apartment. I took many a cheap (and delicious) meal there and at times talked poetry with him, Baudelaire especially. I told him that I wanted to go to France, learn French, and become a poet, just like Charles. Money, of course, was an issue.

André then told me that were I to go down to Southern France, Nice, he said, he knew of a small village a few miles north of Nice called, curiously enough, St. André, where you could probably buy yourself myself a livable cottage for, say, a thousand dollars. Not that much money. This sounded just great to me, and at that point I decided, truly decided that I was to go to France, buy a cottage in that little village and become a French poet.

This now became my life’s direction and goal, no (additional and rational) questions asked. Not only a dream, no; an actual, concrete, lived goal.

From a 2019 perspective this, of course, was flirting with insanity, and about as unrealistic as any plan or dream could ever be. Plans, to stand even a remote chance of accomplishment, should at least be able to see reality from where they fly, but dreams: oh, they could fly hither and yon unrestrained by such banal considerations as landmass and practicalities.

My life’s direction now set, I told all I met that I was going to St. André (a little village just north of Nice, I’d add for their elucidation) and write poetry.

Naturally, this was a very curious and romantic and interesting thing for a young Swedish man to do and put me in a rather mystic and stardust light—the poet; the French poet. A lot of interested, even admiring looks and glances my way. I reveled and basked in this warming attention.

Reality check: Did I speak French at all? No.

Reality check: Was I learning? No.

But, to prove how French I was, and how serious were my French-poet plans, I bought very expensive French editions of the complete works of both Baudelaire and Rimbaud: beautiful, gilt-edged, bible-paper editions, and these two books I carried with me wherever I went from then on. I was obviously meant to go to St. André via Nice via Paris. Obviously. I had the books to prove it.

No, it was not that I on some level knew that I was fooling myself. Yes, of course (from my 2019 perspective) I was fooling myself, and not a little; but at the time, this was indeed my plan in life.

And I lived it accordingly. I meant to do this. Took steps.

What actually happened, which is covered in more detail elsewhere in The Art of Dying, was that the 1968 French Student Revolution picked this very moment in history to erupt, spoiling my plans but good—the bus ride to Paris (and thence to Nice by thumb was the plan) was cancelled due to Paris uncertainty and violence and the fare refunded, leaving me one bus fare richer but one dream poorer.

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