Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Apollinaire, Guillaume (1880–1918)
Author:
Asselineau, Roger
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Guillaume Apollinaire's real name was Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitsky. He belonged to a cosmopolitan family and received a cosmopolitan education. He was a protean writer—in turn a futurist, a cubist, and a surrealist—a modernist in short. He was a friend of Picasso and like him an admirer of African art. Apollinaire became famous above all as an avant-garde poet with Alcools (1913), made up of both traditional and experimental poems deprived of punctuation, and Calligrammes (1918), also called "idéogrammes lyriques," which belonged to his cubist period. He thought poetry should enjoy the same liberty as journalism, but considered free verse only one of many possible innovations. He could turn any object, any topic, into something rich and strange.

The poems of Apollinaire are both serious and whimsical, and he was fond of hoaxes, one of which he perpetrated in the Mercure de France (to which he was a regular contributor) in the 1 April 1913 (April Fools' Day) issue. Although Apollinaire was neither a disciple of Whitman nor a homosexual, he pretended to quote an anonymous witness of Whitman's funeral in Camden, according to whom "pederasts came in crowds" and indulged in all kinds of rowdy activities to celebrate the death of their fellow homosexual. This pseudo-report was taken seriously by readers, and a controversy followed, which lasted for ten months in the pages of the Mercure de France as well as in other journals, until 1 February 1914. Stuart Merrill and Léon Bazalgette, the author of a romanticized biography of Whitman, denied the American poet's homosexuality, whereas Harrison Reeves and the German Eduard Bertz confirmed it. The whole controversy has been described by Henry Saunders and Betsy Erkkila. Federico García Lorca may have had Apollinaire's description of Whitman's funeral in mind when he composed his "Oda a Walt Whitman" in 1929–1930 during his stay in New York. (This poem is part of his Poeta en Nueva York.)

Despite his indebtedness to Whitman for some of his own innovations, Apollinaire joined the futurists in their Manifestes Futuristes (Milan, 1913) in saying "merde" ("shit") to him as well as to Poe and Baudelaire.

Bibliography

Billy, André, and Henri Parisot. Guillaume Apollinaire. Paris: éditions Seghers, 1947.

Erkkila, Betsy. Walt Whitman Among the French: Poet and Myth. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Lorca, Federico García. The Poet in New York and Other Poems. New York: Norton, 1940.

Saunders, Henry S. A Whitman Controversy—Being Letters Published in the Mercure de France 1913–1914. Toronto: Henry S. Saunders, 1921.


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