A tribute to Sean Bonney

sean bonney
Photo by Frances Kruk

With the world’s attention turned to the Covid-19 virus and to the mass sickness and death that it is causing and has the potential to cause, I want to pause briefly to dwell on the singularity of each life and in particular the life of the poet Sean Bonney, who died in November last year. David Grundy has recently published a moving tribute to Bonney on the Poetry Foundation website. I was lucky enough to meet Bonney a few times, including at the Poetry and Revolution conference that he co-organized and which Grundy mentions in his piece. Based on my encounters with the poet, I can attest to the revolutionary energy that he displayed in his life as well as his poetry.

I write about Bonney in the conclusion to Make It the Same, where I contrast the political energy that drove his rewriting of Rimbaud with that undertaken by Canadian poet Christian Bök:

On March 26, 2011, tens of thousands of Londoners took to the streets to oppose government cuts in public spending and to voice their outrage at the bankrolling of wealthy elites in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Some protesters turned their anger on prominent businesses, such as Topshop, HSBC, and the Royal Bank of Scotland, breaking shop front windows and clashing with police. The next day, Sean Bonney celebrated the protesters’ efforts to “smash the Ritz” hotel in a poem entitled “Communique— (After Rimbaud).”

Around this time, the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud appeared in a series of English versions by another prominent avant-garde poet, Canadian Christian Bök. Bök and Bonney are almost exact contemporaries. Born in 1966 and 1969 respectively, they belong to the generation of poets who came to maturity during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the period that brought a new wave of globalization, the spread of the World Wide Web, and the rise of the poetics of repetition. Published within a couple of years of one another, Bök’s and Bonney’s versions of Rimbaud illustrate the copy strategies that had over the previous two decades become commonplace. Their purposes, methods, and resulting texts are, however, worlds apart. Bök demonstrates his linguistic virtuosity in his “Five Translations of Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles.’” He included the translations in a revised edition of his best-known work, Eunoia, which uses a different single vowel in each of its five chapters. In Eunoia Bök deploys the lipogram constraint popularized by Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition (1969) and by other Oulipo writings. Bök also takes inspiration from Rimbaud’s sonnet itself, whose associations between vowel and color are literalized on the multicolor cover of the revised edition of Eunoia. Bök’s translations of Rimbaud extend his book’s emphasis on writing under constraint. Each of Bök’s five translations is written according to a different set of rules. The first preserves “the rhyme scheme of the original, while enforcing the rigorous, syllabic contours of the alexandrine line.” The second is a homophonic translation, and the third a “homovocalic” translation, in which Bök uses exactly the same vowels in the same order as the French original but changes all the other letters. The fourth is an English anagram of Rimbaud’s French text, and the fifth is simply all the vowels of the original with all other letters removed. Bök exemplifies the connection between iterative practices— such as algorithm, constraint, and translation— and new technologies and media. He used painstakingly compiled word inventories to write Eunoia, and he has elsewhere experimented with genetically encoded poetry. He has claimed that “technologies of information-processing are going to become the medium for all forms of cultural expression” and that artists therefore should participate in fields such as genetic and computer engineering. In poems such as Eunoia and his Rimbaud translations, Bök takes up this challenge, producing virtuosic technical solutions to poetic problems that both celebrate and render absurd the techno-scientific world.

By contrast, Bonney makes repetition a tool for contesting political authority. Whereas Bök’s versions of Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” (“Vowels”) focus on sounds and graphemes, Bonney is more interested in how Rimbaud’s disruption of grammatical and linguistic certainties relates to an explosion of political, social, and economic structures. For Bonney, Rimbaud’s “‘systematic derangement of the senses’ is the social senses.” Bonney’s versions appear in Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud and form part of the rewriting project that also includes his Baudelaire in English. In Happiness Bonney rewrites Rimbaud to tell the story of the protests against the existing economic and political order that took place in London in 2010 and 2011 in the wake of the global financial crisis. Much of Happiness first appeared on Bonney’s Abandonedbuildings blog, so the book functions as a retrospective archiving and framing of poems written as news, as part of and in response to a movement for revolutionary change.

Yet for all their immediacy, Bonney’s poems are reiterations: they come “after Rimbaud” and echo the revolutionary moment of his poetry. Happiness begins with an epigraph from the preface to Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune of 1871: “They who tell the people revolutionary legends, they who amuse themselves with sentimental stories, are as criminal as the geographer who would draw up false charts for navigators.” The problem is how to retell revolutionary history without transforming it into mere fodder for the culture industry, like the commodified revolutionary chic of those endlessly reproduced Che Guevara T-shirts or Lenin and Mao icons. As Bonney’s Baudelaire in English concludes, “The poem is in danger of becoming an overly smooth surface fit only for the lobbies of office buildings and as illustrations / expensive gallery catalogues, that kinda bullshit.”9 Bonney stresses and redoubles this problem by echoing past texts— like Rimbaud’s and Lissagaray’s— and events like the 1871 Paris Commune. Lissagaray’s statement opens the entire collection, but Bonney repeats it in the final part of a poem that fuses Rimbaud’s “Vowels” with a description of repetition as a prison: “We invented colours for the vowels, rich people live there: a mobile holding cell where reality would go on reproducing and representing itself endlessly where we could not exist, a systematic & carefully charted series of political assassinations.” For Bonney, Rimbaud’s revolutionary poetics has become like those lobbies and catalogues: a place for “rich people” to live. Though Bonney explores how echoing Rimbaud might be revolutionary, he also cautions that what look like revolutionary “political assassinations” could in fact be “false charts”: a “charted series” of repetitions that assassinate the political—as Bonney might read Bök’s formalism.

Published by Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.

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