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This review is taken from PN Review 244, Volume 45 Number 2, November - December 2018.

Cover of <i>Reading Apollinaire’s </i>Calligrammes
Beverley Bie BrahicBeautiful Writing
Willard Bohn, Reading Apollinaire’s Calligrammes (Bloomsbury), £79.20
‘Is Apollinaire France’s greatest twentieth-century poet?’ someone mused at a London literary event a few years ago. I hadn’t thought of him in that light, because his early death, aged thirty-eight, in 1918, might seem to make him an unlikely candidate for a twentieth-century-spanning honour. Upon reflection, though, Apollinaire, né Guillaume­-Albert-Wladimir-Alexandre-Apollinaire-­Kostro­witsky (there are different spellings) in Rome on 26 August 1880 of an unknown father and a Polish mother, might well be my nominee – if I can discount the claims of some who have written on into the twenty-first century, and the cerebral Valéry. In Calligrammes, the subject of Professor Bohn’s new book, Apollinaire shows himself to be an astonishingly vivid, wide-ranging and experimental poet. He was also an art critic and the author of some deliciously licentious tales.

To read Apollinaire alongside Rupert Brook and Wilfred Owen is to rub one’s eyes in disbelief – imagine Vanessa Bell discovering Matisse. A fellow traveller of the young century’s most subversive painters – Picasso, Braques, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Matisse and the ‘gentle’ Rousseau, whose tombstone is engraved with an Apollinaire poem: ‘Let our baggage pass free through heaven’s gate / We’ll bring you brushes, paints and canvases / So you can devote your sacred leisures / In the Real light to painting /… the Face of the stars’ – Apollinaire was also a forerunner of the post-war Surrealists. Indeed, until 1914, when his enlistment in France’s 38th Artillery Regiment made him a war poet, Apollinaire thought to call his new collection Me Too, I’m a Painter. This collection would have included ...

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