A Translation of Apollinaire’s “Zone”

Updated: Jul 16

I love this poem, “Zone.” It opens Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1913 book Alcools. It was the last poem he wrote for that book, and in some ways it inaugurated the modern era of poetry, with its use of dislocations, collage, lack of punctuation, and fluid identity. It is a poem of huge gaiety and vitality, and also of a despair about death—“your Zone with its long crazy line of bullshit about death,” as Allen Ginsberg had it, in his poem “At Apollinaire’s Grave.” The narrative structure of the 155-line poem is a 24-hour walk in Paris lasting from one sunrise to the next. Its subjects are the things seen and thought about in that walk, including automobiles, detective stories, billboards, a church, immigrants, Jesus, faith and loss of faith, travel, love, and many other things. As he said in his great 1917 manifesto “The New Spirit and The Poets,” poetry should include the world: “In the realm of inspiration, their [the poets] liberty cannot be less than that of a daily newspaper which on a single sheet treats the most diverse matters and ranges over the most distant countries.”

The poem is written in loose couplets, which I and every other translator tend to ignore, the significant exception I’ve seen being the incredible effort by Samuel Beckett, who uses rhymes and slant-rhymes in parts of his translation to give a sense of Apollinaire’s language. It is a beautiful, fascinating, and to my ear, a not quite successful effort. But it stands well with the many other excellent translations of the poem, by Roger Shattuck, Ron Padgett, Donald Revell, and more recently, the highly praised piece by the poet David L