“I’m the Outcast . . . the ‘distinguished’ chap/Who puts it all in poetry/I’m more than half crushed to bits / Between the Bourgeoisie and the Worker/I’m the bloke whose work one hates/I’m a closet of Grief/I’m the Artist, the Dreamer/The Leper of Democracies” – “Les Soliloques Du Pauvre”
Back in the day, when libraries had card catalogs and not computers, I stumbled across a listing for a book published in the early 1900s titled “Paris and The Social Revolution” (1). The book was shelved in the stacks, that graveyard of unread titles, and when it came up, had a faint musty smell, an obvious sign no one had requested the book for some time. Opening the covers, I saw elaborate hand-drawn first letters heading up each chapter of yellowed pages; inside was filled with lithograph sketches of various anarchists, assorted radicals and Bohemian writers of the late 19th century. I know nothing about the author, Alvin Sanborn, but whoever he was, he was a keen observer, capturing the scene with great insight that only an outsider can bring.
What was shown in “Paris and The Social Revolution” was the real La Boheme, not the sanitized, well-fed versions of Hollywood and Broadway plays, but the La Boheme of grinding poverty, where artists starved and people froze to death to complete indifference of the larger society; a society riddled with class violence from top to bottom, where the memory of the slaughter of the Paris Commune was still fresh in popular consciousness. One of the poets mentioned in great detail was named Jehan Rictus and I still recall the sketched portrait of a thin, bearded man with a long, mournful face. A couple decades later, I thought of Rictus again while daydreaming at work and out of curiosity looked up his name in Books in Print. Sure enough, a selection of his poetry in translation had been issued in the early 1980s under the imprint of a small, off-campus academic publisher (2).
“I’m the Lord of the Streets/ The Prince of the Blacktop, the Duke of the Worn-Out Shoes/The Marquis Mournful-From –Looking-For- A – Pad/The Count-Trembling- Hands- And Feet/ The Baron of Asphalt and other places.”
“Les Soliloques du Pauvre” (“Monologues on Poverty”) remains vivid and searing stuff, a testimony to the hard life the author had led. Rictus was born to a former soldier, who ran off to London and never saw his son again. His mother was cruel and authoritarian, renting her young son out as a half-slave, errand boy and pocketing the money. Rebelling, Rictus ran away from home at 16, drifting in and out of low-paid jobs, and when he couldn’t pay the rent, lived in the street. After he passed out in the gutter and was taken to a hospital where he stayed a year (fortunately for Rictus, there were no HMOs at the time), Rictus was able to get a clerk job, where he met the poet Albert Semain, who encouraged him, based on some scraps of poetry, to write more.
The results, “Les Soliloques du Pauvre” and its follow up, “Le Couer Populaire” became overnight sensations and Rictus soon was hurling his linguistic and verbal dynamite, written in the street argot of the Parisian poor and criminal underground, to large and appreciative crowds at Montmartre “hipster” clubs such as the Chat Noir and Quat-Z-Arts. He railed against the bourgeoisie, the resignation of the poor, religion, patriotism and capitalism:
“I’ve been the kid and the poor do-nothin’/The bastard son of Paris whom poverty cradled/And who worked like a slave in “Business”/For a mere morsel of bread.
(And now, ya know why I detest ‘em/Those creeps who, in the name of ‘competition’/Have created a source of suffering/A legal means of assassination!)”
In “The House of the Poor,” Rictus dreams of opening a shelter that, unlike regimented church-run flophouses, would treat people decently, a shelter for “those who’re fed up/For the Discouraged, the Betrayed/ For the Pale, the Desolate/Who’re always told lies/And whom the sharpies have fleeced,” a place with “no suspicion or worthless papers ta fill out/Always ready to track ya down/With its mania of stickin’ a label on you/That ain’t brotherhood/But they’d say the exact opposite: Come in, come on in my friend/Make yourself at home, brother/Bring your lice this way.” And in winter, “All the rooms would be heated/And in the cans where ya put your butt/I’d have rabbit’s skin placed on the seats/So your ass wouldn’t get cold.”
“ I no Ionger wanna be one of those crushed/By the crassness of modern times/I’m gonna tell about the ills, the tears, the hatreds/Of those that call themselves ‘Civilized!’”
One of the most powerful sections of “Les Soliloques” is ”The Specter,” with Rictus imagining the return of Jesus Christ, “The Man with beautiful eyes, the Man with beautiful dreams/Him – the carpenter always on strike/The artist, the agitator. The anarchist/ The buddy of thieves” who he encounters “After midnight on a street corner/Incognito like the passers-by/Strands of silver hair in his wig/ And for a God who’d run away from home/ He wasn’t much to look at.”
Walking along with Jesus, Rictus yells at him:
“Let me give ya a helpin’ of your parables!/’Blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor/The Kingdom of Heaven is theirs’/It’s with that they trick us/And pile up their bricks and buildin’ blocks/Well, ya know, I don’t give a shit about your Kingdom/I’d prefer some duds/Some soup, a cozy corner and friendship.” Rictus then demands: “Come with me through the suburbs/Through the mines and factories/We’ll stroll through Countries/Where your brothers’re still on their knees/For it’s you who put ‘em there.” In the end Rictus, hallucinating from hunger and the bitter cold, realizes he’s been talking to his own reflection in a shop window.
It’s no surprise that “Les Soliloques” ended up, close to two decades after it was written, wildly popular with French soldiers during WW1.
With financial success came stability, the first time Rictus had experienced some, and he fell prey to the “bling” of his time, appearing in expensive dandy suits and top hats. As is so often the case, his success spawned inferior imitators and soon the work in the cafes and salons dried up as the fickle art scene, then as today, moved on to the Next Big Thing. Rictus wrote very little after 1896 to his death in 1933, though he kept up a large correspondence with other writers and fans. His experience on the streets ,however, decisively stamped him: Never having many friends, Rictus drove away those who came too close and he ended dying alone in a bare room. A small square in Montmartre today is dedicated to him and in recent years, his work has undergone a small renaissance in France, with many seeing Rictus with his angry rhymes and rhythms as a precursor to hip-hop. One French hip-hop group, Virus, in fact, has recorded an entire CD of Rictus’s poems set to modern music.
“Paris and the Social Revolution” is available for free download at archive.org
Kitson, Herbert (1982).“Les Soliloques du Pauvre de Jehan Rictus: A Tra