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 Lehman. All of these are terrific, but in each I found some bit of language or usage that seemed inauthentic or that struck my ear as wrong. Thus, my translation. I’d be surprised if readers do not react the same way to my effort as I have to the efforts of others, finding flaws in the language translation or bad aesthetic choices made in some of the lines. That’s okay. I don’t claim my translation is better than others, only that it is different, and that it solves some of the problems that I had identified in the work of others. In any case, I encourage every reader to do his or her translation of the poem. It’s the best way to see first hand its stunning beauty and inventiveness.

A few words here about Apollinaire’s life: He was born in Rome in 1880 to a Polish mother and named Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki. He never knew his father or his father’s name, but throughout his life improvised a series of biographical fathers, making himself variously a bastard of princes, prelates, a pope, and others. He came to adulthood in Paris, where the culture was then in a moil of reinvention, and became a member of an incredibly creative circle of artists and writers that included Picasso, Jarry, Max Jacob, and many others. He saw, perhaps before many of them, the significance of the changes taking place, and invented the names, pedigrees, and principles for the revolutions of Surrealism and Cubism. He opened his own poetry to new techniques of collage, polyphony, the shifting self (reflected in “Zone” in the shifting pronoun changes between “I” and “you”). In 1911 he was falsely arrested and imprisoned for six days for the theft of the Mona Lisa, an experience reflected in a couplet in the poem:  “You are in Paris before the judge / Arrested like a common criminal,” and also in his poem “In La Sante.” The false arrest was an incident in which his life seemed to him to take on improvisational qualities of fantasy and improbability. (The actual thief was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian house painter caught two years later when he tried to sell the painting in Florence.) In a later biographical change, in 1916 he joined the French army for World War I, and was wounded in the head while reading a literary magazine in a wartime trench. Discharged, he returned to Paris, and began a round of prolific activity, publishing erotic novels, fiction, and poetry, editing avant-garde literary journals, writing the play The Breasts of Tiresias, delivering the manifesto “The New Spirit and Poets,” writing the poetry collection calligrammes. In many ways his whirlwind of activity in support of the arts, the invention of new ways of writing poetry, and his constant effort in publicizing the work of his friends is much like that of his contemporary Ezra Pound. By 1918 he had become the foremost critic of his age, reviewing art, literature, theater, and ballet as a contributor to leading journals and newspapers. In May, 1918 he married Jacquline Kolb in a love-match that by all accounts made bride and groom extremely happy. But his health was failing from the war-wound and the subsequent operations. Only a few months later, in November 1918, two days before the Armistice, he died of the Spanish flu. He is reported to have said, on his deathbed, “I want to live! I still have so many things to say!”

“Zone” is considered by many to be his greatest work. I agree, though I would add as among his greatest works “The Pretty Redhead” and “Le Point Mirabeau,” the latter also included in Alcools. These are wonderful poems, and share the same robust vitality and risk-taking as Zone.