blaise cendrars: art from easter ashes

amedeo modigliani

The Henry Miller video we posted on Friday has led us to an Eastertime revelation. It can be summed up in two words: Blaise Cendrars.

Miller praised the French writer as “my idol,” and says, “what a writer learns from Cendrars is to follow his nose, to obey life’s commands, to worship no other god but life.”

Cendrars’ poem “Easter in New York,” written exactly one hundred years ago, is one of the foundation texts of modern literature. (You can hear it being read in the original French here; English translation here.)

Relatively unknown in this country, Cendrars has been called “the son of Homer.” He’s considered by many writers to be the poetic genius of the age, the creator of modernism, the chief influence on giants of literature.  Just to name a few of his friends and admirers: Hemingway, Picasso, Leger, Matisse, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Delaunay, Braque, Modigliani, Eisenstein, et al.

With all that, he once told an interviewer he did not consider himself an artist. “I’ve had thirty six professions and I’m ready to start something entirely different tomorrow morning.”

photo: robert doisneau

Following our nose, we learned that Cendrars’ was indeed an improvised life: he was a beekeeper, a filmmaker, a chef, a soldier, a movie-house piano player and a traveler with drunken gypsies. His brilliant Easter poem came directly from “the daily possible,” as he described to an interviewer for The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER: In 1912, you were in New York.

CENDRARS: In 1912, at Easter, I was starving in New York, and had been for a number of months. From time to time I took a job, by force of necessity, but I didn’t keep it a week and if I could manage to get my pay sooner than that I quit sooner, impatient to get on with my sessions of reading at the central public library. My poverty was extreme and every day I looked worse: unshaven, trousers in corkscrews, shoes worn out, hair long, coat stained and faded and without buttons, no hat or tie, having sold them one day for a penny in order to buy a plug of the world’s worst chewing tobacco.

Time passed. Came Easter. Easter Sunday the library was closed. In the evening I entered a Presbyterian church which was giving an oratorio, Haydn’sCreation, so said a lighted sign hung to the spire. In the church there was a scattered audience and, on a stage, fashionable young girls who played ancient instruments and sang divinely well. But a wretched bishop interrupted the oratorio every five minutes to preach I-know-not-what pious sanctimony and make an appeal to the good hearts of the faithful and, when the oratorio continued, another croaker of a preacher as tiresome as the first entered the stall where I had taken a place, and tried to convert me by surreptitious exhortation, all the time thumping my money pocket in an effort to draw out a dollar or two for expenses, shaking his leather money plate under my nose.

Poor me! I left before the end and walked home to West Sixty-seventh Street where I was living, absolutely disgusted and dead beat. It could have been two or three o’clock in the morning. I gnawed a hunk of dry bread and drank a big glass of water. I went to bed. I went immediately to sleep. I woke up with a start. I began to write, to write. I went back to sleep. I woke up the second time with a start. I wrote until dawn and I went back to bed and back to sleep for good. I woke up at five o’clock that evening. I reread the thing. I had written Les Pâques à New-York.

INTERVIEWERThe whole thing?

CENDRARS: As it was published. There were three erasures.

Upon writing this poem – his first masterpiece –  the poet changed his name  from Frédéric Louis Sauser to Blaise Cendrars, evoking a fireball of art (ars) blazing forth from ashes (cendre).

David Saltman

Related posts: henry miller’s microcosmic bathroom
henry miller’s eleven commandments
thelonious monk’s notes on life and music
barney rosset: a risktaker’s legacy
isamu noguchi’s creative process
louis c.k on being broke (with su tung-p’o)

3 Responses to blaise cendrars: art from easter ashes

  1. Samuel P. Marchbanks, LLD 04.08.2012 at 7:40pm #

    My God, what a man! And you left out all sorts of amazing things like: he only had one arm! His right arm was shot off in World War One. Instead of taking a prosthetic he relearned how to live as a left-hander! An improviser beyond compare!

  2. Peggy Markel 04.09.2012 at 9:56pm #

    What I love is the chance to read about art and inspiration from known and unknown artist, at least to me. Out of the blue on a Monday night, I read an amazing poem from a destitute being, who in his haze creates something of sheer
    depth and beauty.

    Thank you David.

    Peggy

  3. Juliet&William 04.13.2012 at 2:07pm #

    We liked this fascinating story, and we love the author very very much.

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