Skip to content

Photo of Robert St. Clair, assistant professor of FrenchIn this week's edition, we speak with Robert St. Clair, assistant professor in the Department of French and Italian.  Rob is a scholar of 19th century French literature, who finds the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud an inexhaustible source of inspiration and inquiry.  The author of Poetry, Politics, and the Body in Rimbaud: Lyrical Material (Oxford University Press, 2018), Rob is also co-editor in chief of the Rimbaud-focused journal Parade Sauvage. How does Rob manage to get work done?  With post-it notes.  Lots of them.

What is your book about?

Poetry, Politics, and the Body in Rimbaud is about the social materiality of poetry in Second Empire France (1851-1870)—that is to say, the intersections of the aesthetic and the historical, of art with its social situation. It takes as an emblematic case of this materiality the role played by representations of the body in the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891): the enfant terrible of French letters whose work transformed the literary landscape of French modernity before he ostensibly gave up on poetry altogether at the age of 20.

Where did you get your ideas for this book?

From years of reading Rimbaud's poetry and being productively puzzled.

What does research look like for you? What element of research could you not live without?

If I were to settle on one allegorical image of what research looks like for me, it would be this: post-it notes. An absolute maelstrom of post-it notes littered across piles of books. I have always found that reading is the sneakiest, most productive form of writing there is. So, in a word, the research element I couldn't live without is: books. Library books. None of my research could have been done without library books!

What do you think the library of the future will look like?

My sincere and real hope is that the library of the future persists and thrives in its material form: that is, as a real place, with real librarians, with real books among real stacks that one can wander around in - perhaps for the sheer pleasure of picking up a book out of curiosity, perhaps in only apparent aimlessness. If I did not regularly lose entire mornings leafing through the stacks in Baker-Berry - coming on occasion across invaluable texts and studies that I hadn't been looking for - I shudder to think of the state some of my work would be in.

What advice would you give to an aspiring scholar or writer?

Don't stop reading.

And finally, what do you read for fun?

It's not always easy to find time for this, but I find it's crucial. In the past week I've been reading a book by the art historian T.J. Clark called Heaven on Earth. It's a study of the idea and political problem of the utopian in Western art from the late middle ages to the contemporary period. There's a chapter in there on Bruegel's Land of Cockaigne (Shlaraffenland, Le Pays de cocagne, or something like the more recent "Big Rock Candy Mountain") for which every page was breathtaking, poignant, humorous, a little on the despondent side. Similarly in the vein of picking things up for no reason, I got through a very short novel by Georges Perec the other day, Quel petit vélo à guidon chromé au fond de la cour? It's a deeply funny, playfully complex little story about a group of friends trying to come up with a way of getting one of their pals - whose name the narrator can never quite recall or get consistently right - out of the draft during the Algerian War of Independence (like any good "joke," in other words, its implicit cultural and historical backdrop is anything but a laughing matter).