Among the great poets of literary history, certain names like Homer, Shakespeare and Whitman are instantly recognizable. However, there’s an early 20th century great poet whose name you may not know: Guillaume Apollinaire. Geneviève Emy shows how during Apollinaire’s short lifetime he created poetry that combined text and image in a way that seemingly predicted a artistic revolution to come. (TED)
The writer Guillaume Apollinaire was born in Rome on August 26, 1880. After an unconventional upbringing in the South of France, he moved to Paris as a young man and made a name for himself in the city’s bohemian circles. He befriended many avant-garde artists, including Matisse, Picasso, de Chirico and Duchamp. He wrote art criticism promoting this avant-garde, as well as highly experimental poetry. Apollinaire died of the Spanish flu on November 9, 1918.
Guillaume Apollinaire was born as Wilhelm Albert Vladimir Alexander Apollinaire de Kostrowitzsky in Rome on August 26, 1880. He was the illegitimate son of an Italian former military officer, Francesco Flugi d’Aspremont, and a Polish noblewoman, Angélique Alexandrine Kostrowitzky. He was brought up by his mother on the French Riviera and was educated in southern France and Monaco.
As a boy and young man, Apollinaire was interested in literature, particularly the poetry of Symbolists such as Mallarmé and Verlaine. At the age of 20, he moved to Paris and made his living in office jobs and teaching positions while beginning to establish himself in literary circles. One of his early poems, “Song of the Poorly Loved” of 1903, would later become famous.
In Paris, Apollinaire submerged himself in the city’s bohemian life. He became friends with the prominent art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and with noteworthy new artists like Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Henri Rousseau and Marie Laurencin. (Laurencin was also his lover for several years.) He began writing about avant-garde art movements for several magazines, discussing new and important artists such as Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico and Marcel Duchamp. His book The Cubist Painters, published in 1913, was the first serious consideration of the Cubist movement led by Picasso and Braque. He was also one of the founders of the literary journal Soirées de Paris in 1914.
In his poetry, Apollinaire took innovative approaches to the content and form of his writing. He often eliminated rhyme, traditional meter and punctuation. He enjoyed mixing sensory effects in his language, and he often played with unexpected combinations of words. His volume Alcools, published in 1913, was his first collection of poems to use these effects.
Apollinaire also experimented with the visual appearance of his poems, using unconventional layouts and typography. He pioneered a type of verse called an “ideogram,” which was equally a picture and a poem: the lines of the poem were arranged in the shape of the object it described, such as a heart, a bird or the Eiffel Tower. Apollinaire frequently collaborated with other avant-garde writers who shared his interests, including Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein.
Apollinaire volunteered for military service during World War I and was assigned to an artillery regiment. He received a head wound in 1916 and was discharged. Having recently obtained French citizenship, he returned to Paris and continued to write poetry and criticism.
One of his final poetry collections, Calligrammes (1918), included more of his experimental ideograms. He also penned a play titled The Breasts of Tiresias; it was considered an early work of Surrealism and it generated much interest and discussion when it was performed in Paris in 1917.