“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us,” James Baldwin wrote a generation before Leonard Cohen declared poetry “the Constitution of the inner country.” Poets have always been the ones to see most deeply into the human soul, because they are the ones most unafraid of knowing their own depths.
A century before Baldwin and Cohen, a fifteen-year-old poet articulated this equivalence with astonishing precocity and passion in a meteoric letter to a friend.
On May 15, 1871, the teenage Arthur Rimbaud (October 20, 1854–November 10, 1891) wrote to the poet and publisher Paul Demeny what would become a sort of personal manifesto and creative credo for the remainder of his short, poetically catalytic life.
Rimbaud begins by locating the fount of self-knowledge from which all creative work springs:
The first task of any man* who would be a poet is to know himself completely; he seeks his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it. And he must develop it as soon as he’s come to know it; this seems straightforward: a natural evolution of the mind.
Unafraid to acknowledge how much of our constitution and contribution is an endowment of chance for which we cannot take credit, Rimbaud scoffs with the full ferocity of teenage scorn at the “many egoists” who consider their talent self-earned and their success self-made. Instead, he considers the crux of creativity. A generation before the artist Egon Schiele exhorted to “envy those who see beauty in everything in the world,” Rimbaud writes:
I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer.
In a sentiment Georgia O’Keeffe would echo in insisting that in creative work “making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you,” he adds:
The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences. Unspeakable torture where he needs all his faith, all his super-human strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the one accursed — and the supreme Scholar! — Because he reaches the unknown! Since he cultivated his soul, rich already, more than any man! He reaches the unknown, and when, bewildered, he ends by losing the intelligence of his visions, he has seen them. Let him die as he leaps through unheard of and unnamable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where the other collapsed!
Recognizing that the poet’s task is to “find the words,” he exults:
The day of a single universal language will dawn!… This language will be of the soul, for the soul, encompassing everything, scents, sounds, colors, one thought mounting another. The poet will define the unknown quantity awaking in his era’s universal soul: he would offer more than merely formalized thought or evidence of his march on Progress! He will become a propagator of progress who renders enormity a norm to be absorbed by everyone!
Half a century before Nikola Tesla presaged women’s intellectual and creative empowerment, the young Rimbaud issues a prophecy far ahead of his time — a time when women had no access to formal education and Emily Dickinson was quietly writing her volcanic poems without hope of publication:
Poets like this will arrive! When woman will be freed from unending servitude, when she too will live for and by her self, man — so abominable up until now — having given her freedom, will see her become a poet as well! Women will discover the unknown! Will her world of ideas differ from ours? She will find strange, unfathomable, repugnant, delicious things; we will take them in, we will understand.
Complement with Wendell Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being and Rilke’s impassioned letter to a young poet about what it takes to be an artist, then revisit the teenage Susan Sontag, writing at the same age as Rimbaud, on the plasticity of the self.
via Patti Smith