Jones Irwin​​​​​​​

Parallèlement: From Paul Verlaine and Symbolism to Tom Verlaine and Television

[A]n art of the nerves … it is what all art would tend towards if we followed our nerves on all their journeys. (Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature).

I’ll tell my deaf mother on you! / Fall on the floor and eat your grandmother’s diapers! / Drums, Whatta lotta Noise you want a Revolution? (Allen Ginsberg, Punk Rock Your My Big CryBaby).

I Belong to The Blank Generation / I was sayin' let me out of here before I was / Even born (Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blank Generation).

Paul Verlaine’s nineteenth century Symbolist verse has been aptly described as embodying a fundamental duality (Sorrell 1999), between religious belief and blasphemy, peace and violence, romantic delicacy and pornography. One of his later collection title concepts, Parallèlement (Verlaine 2009), captures this parallelism which also signifies a specific kind of irresolution at the heart of his artistic vision (other commentators have referred to this as Verlaine’s fundamental indecision, imprecision, or vagueness). While contemporary commentators on Verlaine tended to interpret this aspect of his work on a deficit model (lacking some kind of Cartesian clarity and distinctness), in hindsight Verlaine’s meta-level undecidability comes to be seen rather more virtuously, as anticipating (and influencing) the later twentieth century emergence of post-modernism. Verlaine’s brevity and succinctness of expression is also paradigmatic, even if this is nearly always rendered paradoxically.

Philosophically, there are undoubted connections between Verlaine’s aesthetic vision and that of post-structuralists such as Jacques Derrida and Jean Francois Lyotard. Although the term ‘postmodern’ is often associated with this philosophical movement from France, the term ‘postmodern’ had originated some thirty years before as employed by the American poet and theorist (and leader of the Black Mountain School) Charles Olson. In his seminal Introduction to The New American Poetry (1960), Donald Allen had designated the commonality of his various five groupings (from Black Mountain to Beat to New York poetries) as their mutual and irrevocable difference from previous ‘modernist’ models.

There were continuities but unquestionably, also, there had been a rupture, to describe which Olson coined the term ‘post-modern’. For Olson, the possibilities of poetry, and creative thought more generally, had been decisively altered and expanded in this moment of historical rupture, which he designates as developing into what becomes known as Projective or Open or Field Verse, ‘Projective or Open or Field Verse’ (Olson 1960. Lyotard infamously tells us in The Postmodern Condition that the latter epoch is epitomised by an ‘incredulity to meta-narratives’. Or we might rather say that the only meta-narrative in town is indecision, vagueness, duality.

Contemporaneous to the sudden eruption of the latter philosophical anti-systems, an earthquake is happening in music and art culture. By the late ’60s of the breakdown of the romanticism (but simultaneous complacency and ‘peace and love’ mantras) of hippie culture, there begins to become visible a more underground sound, look and meaning-making, perhaps most obviously associated with the US. Bands such as The Velvet Underground (with links to Warhol) and The Stooges articulate a post-hippie anger and ennui that at the same time baulks against easy solution panaceas. In this, such a music underground connects back to the late nineteenth century existential duality of Verlaine and others (Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Mallarmé).

Interestingly one of the most seminal bands who emerge at this time namechecks Verlaine. The band Television with their singer, ‘Tom Verlaine’ (originally Tom Miller). Television are important as a proto-punk phenomenon for several reasons, not least in that they connect back (especially through Verlaine’s aesthetic commitments) to the jazz improvisation which much of the punk movement eschewed (this jazz improv aspect also links them to the Beat poets). If Patti Smith’s obsession with Rimbaud is well known, then her former lover Thomas Miller himself had chosen his stage name, Tom Verlaine, in reference to the other half of the scandalous couple formed by Rimbaud.

Both the band Television led by Miller aka Verlaine and the original poet occupy analogous breaks with what went before in their respective milieus. In the case of the poetry, Verlaine’s poetry of symbolism occupies a crucial cusp between an earlier literature and the modernists such as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. Both the latter become absorbed in French poetry through the influence of Arthur Symon’s key text The Symbolist Movement in Literature, originally published in 1899 (Symons 2021) and its central focus on the Image in poetics. Symons also links Symbolism to the aesthetics of Decadence and this will be important in the run-on to Television and proto-punk (in that punk has always had a somewhat paradoxical yet complicit relation to Decadence). Symons translated Verlaine and Mallarmé into English and had met with the Symbolist poets in person in Paris as well as with Decadent writers such as J.K. Huysmans during the 1890s. He was also on familiar terms with Irish Decadent and Mystic writers exiled in London or Paris, most notably Oscar Wilde and W. B. Yeats. At the heart of this Symbolist/Decadent vision for Symons is a liberation of art from moral stricture and prescription: ‘I deny that morals have a right of jurisdiction over it. Art may be served by morality, it can never be its servant. Thus, the principles of art are eternal’ (Symons 2021).

Verlaine’s poetry in particular captures a specific revolutionary moment in poetics. Unlike the philosophically complex poetry of Baudelaire or even of Rimbaud, here there is no undue preoccupation with the Unconscious or with deeper meanings. There is a kind of ‘surface brilliance and immediacy … it is no accident that Verlaine’s poems are short, evanescent, almost fugitive pieces, emotions caught on the wing and then soaring into space again’ (Bernstein 1993b). In some recent short critical texts for Red Ogre Review, I have made an argument for the ‘American haiku’ (and punk haiku) [Irwin 2023] on similar grounds. Not seeking elaborate rethinkings but rather essentially, as with Kerouac’s vision for poetics, calling on a new movement of poets to ‘simply say a lot in three short lines’ (quoted Weinreich 2004: x), which perfectly tallies with the punk dictum to bring everything back to ‘three chords’ (Irwin 2024a).

Bernstein notes that it is Verlaine above all who captures the essence of Symbolism in his poem Art Poétique where, significantly for our purposes in this essay, he asks for ‘music above all else in poetry’ (quoted Bernstein (1993b: 33),

For we seek the nuance / Not color, just the nuance / Oh! the nuance alone / Joins dream with dream and flute with horn (Verlaine quoted in Bernstein, 1993b).

In the case of music itself, the emergence of a lean, lithe, and lyrical US proto-punk represents a revolution away from the fat ostentatious and overblown indulgences of both Glam Rock and a dusty cobwebbed Hippie era. As Bruno Lesprit notes in his Le Monde obituary for Tom Verlaine, the paradigmatic album Marquee Moon was pivotal in ‘establishing that the energy of punk rock was not incompatible with the technical mastery and sophistication inherited from jazz and the taste for improvisation’ (Lesprit 2023). The matrix of connections at the heart of the band’s origins is a kind of who’s who of the American underground (whilst also connecting back to end of century France), with the cover photo for the album taken by Robert Mapplethorpe who was then in a relationship with Patti Smith, the latter an ex-girlfriend of Verlaine himself and the band originally featured Richard Meyers, a school classmate of Tom’s from Delaware, who would go on to rename himself as the infamous Richard Hell (in reference to Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer or A Season in Hell). Hell and Verlaine actually published a book of poems, Wanna Go Out? in 1973, although attributing the writing to a mythic Theresa Stern, a character of German-Jewish and Puerto Rican origin, whose face on the cover combined those of the authors, both in drag.

There is even a connection between the specificity of the punk hairstyle/s and the French Symbolists in that ‘inspired by Etienne Carjat’s photo of Rimbaud, Hell is said to be the creator of the punk haircut, cut with scissors, no mirrors’ (Lesprit 2023). Hell left (or was kicked out) of Television at the beginning of 1975, taking his already written postmodern anthem ‘Blank Generation’ with him to join up with ex-New York Doll Johnny Thunders to form The Heartbreakers while he was replaced on bass in Television by Fred Smith (who’d just left a band he thought was going nowhere, a band called Blondie). Hell’s later poetry is also worthy of consideration in this story. Tim Carmody has drawn out a poetic Beat influence even on Verlaine’s Television singing voice in claiming that Allen Ginsberg’s ‘distinctive vocal warble’ (on his vinyl recording of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience) can be heard in both Verlaine and Patti Smith’s vocals (Carmody 2008).

In conclusion, I would like to offer a sub-group of (obviously) short poems which might accompany a text which seeks to draw out more or less covert (paralleling) affinities between Symbolism in late nineteenth century poetry and in proto-punk music culture.

Verlaine / Television Haikus

Chirp-chirp, the birds / They’re giving you the words / The world is just a feeling you undertook. (Tom Verlaine, Prove It).


Tom plays guitar
From outer space
Makes poetry noise


Thunders was a junkie
Thunders was a sweetie
Johnny sadly had to die


Hell is other people
Or Richard with a bass
And the first punk haircut


Debbie was a cutie
Debbie was a blondie
With a squeaky voicey


Joey got the sneakers
Is seven feet tall
On a telegraph pole droll


Marquee Moon closes eyes
To stare at the inner life
Before the world is even open


Mapplethorpe did the album
Tom with a middle parting
Patti Smith was jealous of him


Hell met Ginsberg
On the LES tenement stairs
Tripped broken rodent steps


If Verlaine was a punk vocal
With Baudelaire on bass
His lover Rimbaud on lead


Landing at Thessaloniki
I note Venus de Milo singing
A Symbolist poet is wringing

(Irwin 2024b).


Bernstein, J. (Ed.) (1993a) Baudelaire Rimbaud Verlaine. Selected Verse and Prose Poems. Citadel Press, New York.

Bernstein, J.(1993b) ‘Introduction’ in Bernstein, J. (Ed.) (1993a) Baudelaire Rimbaud Verlaine. Selected Verse and Prose Poems. Citadel Press, New York.

Carmody, Tim (2008) ‘Lineage of Ginsberg’s Vocal Warble’ in Jacket2 Poetry Journal, March 2008.

Irwin, Jones (2023) ‘American Haiku’ in Red Ogre Review, October 2023.

Irwin, Jones (2024a) ‘Punk Haikus’ in Red Ogre Review, April 2024.

Irwin, Jones (2024b) ‘Verlaine/Television Haikus’ in Deep Image or A Painting By Jeffrey Dahmer (Chapbook). Tofu Ink Press, California, USA (forthcoming)

Lesprit, B. (2023) ‘Remembering the Punk Poetry of Tom Verlaine, New York’s Rimbaldian Hero’ (Obituary). Le Monde, January 2023, Paris, France.

Olson, C. (1960) ‘Projective Verse’ in Allen, D. [ed.] (1960) The New American Poetry 1945-1960. University of California Press, Berkeley, LA.

Rimbaud, Arthur (2005) A Season in Hell. Random House, London.

Symons, Arthur (2021) The Symbolist Movement in Literature. Legare Street Press, London.

Verlaine, Paul (2009) Selected Poems. Edited with an Introduction by Martin Sorrell. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England.

About the Author

Jones Irwin teaches philosophy and education in Dublin, Republic of Ireland. He has just started a role as resident poetry critic and columnist with Red Ogre Review and continues to publish a series of short texts on poetics with ROR.

He is currently working on a new book of haiku poems based on the concept of “American Haikus” developed originally by the Beat poet Jack Keroauc and is currently collaborating with English artist Gemma Rose to develop a hybrid poem-illustration set of texts. His first chapbook, GHOST TOWN, was published by Moonstone Press, Philadelphia, in summer 2022. His second chapbook, Deep Image or a Painting by Jeffrey Dahmer, will be published by Tofu Ink Press in 2024.