THE FRENCH-ITALIAN-POLISH poet Guillaume Apollinaire wasn't quite sure of his identity. Right in the middle of a hectic life of pleasure in early 20th century Paris, he halted for one moment - and asked himself "who am I", in a stanza without punctuation.
He was born in Rome in 1880 and died in Paris at the end of the war in 1918. At the time of his funeral, people ran out into the streets shouting: "Down with Guillaume!" But this did not refer to the poet, but to the German emperor Wilhelm (Guillaume in French). The chief mourners, following the casket - his mother and all kinds of artists - were shocked, supposing the uproar was on account of the dead poet.
Apollinaire's real name was Wilhelm-Apollinaris von Kostrowitzky. His mother was a Polish noble lady, who lived in the Vatican. Without being married, she became pregnant and had two sons. Apollinaire's maternal grandfather was a colonel and commander of the papal Swiss guards. But nobody knows for certain who Guillaume's father was. In Paris there were rumours that the pope himself was the father. This was neither confirmed nor denied by the poet.
After schooling in Nice, Cannes and Monaco, he quickly gained employment at an office, which bored him. His mother had lost the family assets at the casino. She married a Jewish business man, and the family moved to Paris. Before that, Guillaume had worked one summer as a private tutor to a noble girl in Bavaria, and experienced his first love affair with his pupil's best friend Annie.
In Paris Guillaume Apollinaire mingled in the bohemian artist circles. Through his great verbal talent, both in speech and in writing, he soon became a leading character there. Among his closest friends were Pablo Picasso, Max Jacob, AndrÃ© Billy, Eric Satie, and others. He became violently infatuated with his female fellow artists, especially with Marie Laurencin, to whom he dedicated a great part of his poetical production. Throughout his lifetime, his strongest bonds, however, were those to his mother.
When Apollinaire's office went bankrupt and he became unemployed, he started to publish pornographic books, together with a former school mate from Nice. Thus he accumulated enough money to make possible his later literary activities in magazines and publication of poetry collections.
Guillaume Apollinaire, the innovator of French poetry, was - like his artist friends - influenced by the rapid succession of frames in silent movies, and he adopted this technique in his own work. At the beginning of this century there was, in general, a great curiosity about new inventions within communications. Apart from trains, automobiles and airplanes, artists recognized entirely new means of expression through the telephone, the wireless telegraph and the phonograph.
Apollinaire outlined the developmental optimism of the time in his manifesto "The New Spirit and the Poets" (L'Esprit Nouveau et les PoÃ«tes) in 1917; with his demise to the Spanish flu the next year, this actually became his artistic testament. His point of departure was a universal belief in scientific exploration of the macrocosm as well as of the microcosm, of things big and small. The altered conception of the world will necessarily bring on fresh ideas and new means of expression, breaking with antiquated tradition, he claimed. He especially stressed that artists should make use of a reality that sometimes exceeds legend or implements it:
It would be strange, during an epoch when the absolutely most popular artform, cinema, is a picture-book, if the poets did not try to create images for the thoughtful and more sophisticated souls, who will not be content with the filmmakers' clumsy imagination. The movies will get more sophisticated, and one can foresee the day when the phonograph and the cinema will be the only recording techniques in use, and poets may revel in a liberty hitherto unknown.
At the same time, Apollinaire, who was now a wounded patriot with bandaged head, talked with commitment about the decisive roll the French intellectual elite had in this new conception of art and culture. And he would probably have been overjoyed, if he had known that the editor Karl-Erik Tallmo one day would transmit his manifesto "L'Esprit Nouveau et les PoÃ«tes" in French over the Internet!
But, again, who was Guillaume Apollinaire? Who knows? He delighted in good food and drink. He supported his friends, even when one of them stole a couple of Phoenician statues from the Louvre - both Apollinaire and Picasso became involved. He loved his women more than he could find free vent for. Instead, this spilled over into his writing, where it provided the French language with a new poetical spirit for all time to come.