Although I did read and write poetry during my teenage years, I didn't become engaged with the work of Arthur Rimbaud until my midtwenties. In 1962, following my urge to see some of the world, I joined a group of Peace Corps Volunteers for Ethiopia: I had become interested in Henry Miller, and I had packed some of his books in my luggage, including "The Time of the Assassins," his book on Rimbaud. Up to that point I had only encountered Rimbaud by way of some references in the Beat literature of the time. I had suspected all along that Rimbaud would be a revelation for me, but I had put off reading him, for the same reason, as it turned out, that Henry Miller had put off reading him, that Rimbaud represented a stick of dynamite, and one was reluctant to light the fuse. After reading "The Time of the Assassins" during my first few months in Ethiopia, my curiosity
reached a feverish pitch, and I began writing to friends, requesting any books they could send on the subject, especially English translations of Rimbaud's poetry. The excitement of it all was enhanced by the fact that Rimbaud had spent his final years living in Ethiopia, something I had only discovered while reading Miller's books.
As for a description of the impact that Rimbaud the poet made on me, it would not be too much to say that he led me onto a path I remained on. When I left Ethiopia I followed the route of his last journey from Harrar to Djibouti. Quite a few years later I spent a day in Charleville, Rimbaud's birthplace.
Now, more than sixty years after my first encounter with the poet, I can only wonder what my life might have been like if Rimbaud had not lived. Of course we all have many influences in our lives, and each one plays a role. If it is worthwhile to examine our lives, then all our influences, big and small, should be considered.
The feelings Rimbaud's poetry produced in me are long gone, but I remember their power and depth. Rimbaud had done what all poets try to do, describe in words what cannot be described in words, and done it while following his own star, a nova too bright to ever be forgotten. He convinced me that the power of language is greater than we imagine. And whatever deprivations a poet may have to live with, there is realization that the right words can perform miracles. I believe that the understanding of this has helped me profoundly during times of hardship and frustration. It is to Rimbaud (and others) that I owe my ability to experience life in a poetically meaningful way that becomes a lasting part of the consciousness.
Rimbaud always gave me the sense of being an explorer in the natural world, or perhaps "a poet in the wild state." Rimbaud's teenage disdain for the most celebrated poets of Paris was a big contribution to my development of a healthy cynicism, part of the lifelong business of balancing truth and reality, falsehood and fantasy. The example of Rimbaud's poetry, and his life, makes us sadder sometimes, and happier sometimes, but it certainly always makes us wiser. And whether or not this is a wisdom that makes us feel happier or sadder, it is a wisdom that always makes us feel more alive.
Now that my poetic passions have waned somewhat, I don't think about Rimbaud as much as I used to. The waters, now, are letting me go my own free way. But I am aware that some part of who I am I owe to him. No doubt his voice can be heard in the poetry and painting I have done over the years. The very soul of art is in his poetry, and for that I will be grateful for the rest of my old age.