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“Dusk excites the mad.” #Baudelaire #Paris

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Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire
Translated by Martin Sorrell

I’ve touched briefly on the French author Charles Baudelaire on the Ramblings in the past; but despite having several of his books lurking, it’s decades since I dipped into his poetry. The “Selected Poems” you can see on the pile in the picture has been with me since the 1980s, when I first began to really explore literature, but the rest of the volumes have arrived gradually over the years. I’ve meant to go back to his work many times, but it was reading “Orphic Paris” which gave me an attack of French Poetry (as those who follow me on social media might have seen…) Baudelaire was a constant touchstone in Henri Cole’s Paris and I thought it was about time I got down to actually reading some CB…

Dreams, always dreams! And the more the soul is ambitious and discerning, the greater the distance between dream and the possible.

“Paris Spleen”, a pretty little Hesperus Press volume that I’ve had for quite some time, contains 50 short prose pieces by Baudelaire which are considered just as revolutionary as his poetry was. His best-known work is the poetry book “The Flowers of Evil” (Les Fleurs du Mal), and apparently the pieces in “Spleen” often correspond with the poems in the former volume, almost considered as prose versions of the verse; I can’t really comment on that as yet, as it’s a looong while since I spent any time with “Flowers…” However, I think “Spleen” stands on its own as a marvellous work and could well be a good introduction to Baudelaire for those new to him.

The fifty pieces range in length and subject matter; some are no more than half a page, some stretch to four or more; and they’re anything from fables and allegories to poetic pieces of prose exploring Baudelaire’s thoughts, dreams and beliefs in all their variety. There is a streak of dark melancholy running through the work and a recurring motif of autumn; which is often a particularly bittersweet time of year and indeed time of life. It’s perhaps worth recalling that “Spleen” was published posthumously, and the dating of each piece can range over several years, as if Baudelaire revisited the pieces regularly to refine their final form.

She loves with autumn love, as though approaching winter were lighting a new fire in her heart, and the servility of her tenderness is never a burden.

“Paris Spleen” is not a jolly read, that’s for sure; Baudelaire was not a happy chappie and he has a dark view of humanity which is in places reminiscent of Poe. However, I’m very fond of Poe’s darkness and found myself equally drawn to Baudelaire’s spleen. (The fact that Baudelaire was a pioneering translator of Poe may have some relevance here…) Nevertheless there is great beauty and melancholy in his writing, and these vivid pieces linger in the mind. For example, one section tells of the narrator being brought face to face with an old and redundant circus performer; seeing this surplus member of humanity, Baudelaire predicts a destitute and useless old age for himself – which, for better or worse, he never reached, dying at the age of 46. The language is often heightened and melodramatic; there are tales of meeting with, and losing your soul to, the Devil; and love never goes well for our Charles…

…an exquisite autumn sky, one of those from which hosts of memories and regrets descend..

However, an additional element which needs to be born in mind is the time and place in which Baudelaire was living. The nineteenth century saw Paris being pulled to pieces and rebuilt and the descriptions of the city in these poetic vignettes often reflect this. One of the best-known pieces is “The Eyes of the Poor” (which you can find online easily, and which I’m sure I’ve read before). Although the story shows the impossibility of real communion and understanding between humans, an important element is the changing city. The poor characters are shown as being witness to changes taking place which are not for them, in their poverty, and this resonated strongly with my recent reading of “City of Light” for Shiny New Books, which of course covered the razing and rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann. Modernity is creeping into the world and that’s reflected in these stories, with so many of the characters appearing to be out of date and unneeded.

… the intoxication of Art dulls the terror of the void better than anything else…”

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862 – Public Domain

“Paris Spleen” is translated and introduced by Martin Sorrell (who I believe has translated a number of French authors of this era) and I was interested to compare his rendering of what is possibly Baudelaire’s best known piece from this collection. No. 33 is here rendered as “Be drunk” and advises us to be in a permanent state of intoxication – whether from wine, poetry or virtue, it doesn’t seem to matter! (Poetry for me, please!) I’ve seen this translated as “Get drunk” and I think on the whole I prefer “Be drunk” as it kind of implies a permanent state, rather than something which has to be constantly refreshed!

… what does eternal hellfire matter to someone who for one second has known an infinity of joy?

Somehow, Baudelaire made perfect reading for a wet, dull Bank Holiday Sunday (yes, I’m that behind with my posts…) His writing is intense, beautiful, dark, evocative and melancholy, and his imagery memorable – well, he’s a poet writing prose, so it would be, wouldn’t it! I hadn’t realised he had such a reputation as an essay writer until I did a bit of online research and remembered I had a Penguin Great Ideas volume of his prose knocking about too. So I think I might be spending a bit more time in the company of this melancholy man in weeks to come – pass the absinthe, please!

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“Evenings lit up by burning coals” (Baudelaire) @nyrbclassics @colehenri #paris

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Orphic Paris by Henri Cole

That serendipitous book thingy’s been happening to me again. I was browsing the NYRB catalogue, and my eye was caught by the title of this one; and as someone who’s always been captivated by the thought of Paris, a look at the blurb was enough to convince me I should read it. Henri Cole is a poet, and a winner of numerous awards for his writing; he’s also taught widely and has been poetry editor of the New Republic. Yet in my ignorance I’d never heard of him (I’m *not* well-read in modern poetry if I’m honest); and the loss has been mine.

Poetry is a language that doesn’t shut us out; it should give the opposite experience.

“Orphic Paris” is Cole’s love-letter to a city he lived in, its denizens, and any number of poets; but so much more than that. I’ve seen it described as a kind of literary commonplace book, and it certainly combines a number of literary forms to paint its picture. It’s a beautiful collage of a book – photos, memories, stories, musings, poetic fragments, pieces of his own verse – all building up an image of the Paris Cole lived in and loved. The text is not limited to Paris alone, however; Cole explores his family background (his mother was a French Armenian, his father an American, and he was born in Japan) and the parts dealing with his relationship with his family are some of the most touching in the book. He also explores the connection that other authors have had with Paris and poetry, and the ghosts of Elizabeth Bishop, Baudelaire, Stein, Hemingway, Plath and Rilke, to name just a few, hover beautifully over the narrative. Baudelaire in particular is a regular touchstone, a writer connected to the heart of Paris.

I want to write poems that are X-rays of the soul in moments of being and seeing. This includes the ghastly, the insane, and the cruel, but also beauty, Eros, and wonder. In short, a poem is like a portrait. It is an artist’s most profound and expressive response to life.

The loose structure of the book allows Cole to meditate on all number of subjects; from his deep friendship with author James Lord to his thoughts on the art of writing poetry. The former are moving; the latter illuminating; they did much to enlighten me about the power I often feel poetry has over me and why I’ve responded so strongly to books, and also to people who use words well. The book ranges wide and free, stopping here and there on subjects such as AIDS, the introduction of same-sex marriages in France and the changes to values Cole has seen since he was a young man in the 1970s and 1980s. The latter aspects recur in the section dealing with the symbolism of roses as a flower and also their colour, tied in with sadness at the coming of HIV and its consequence.

Poetry is different from fiction. Poetry is not a lie that tells the truth. A poem must burn with a truth-seeking flame and be a small symphony of language, too.

Cole’s musings on Plath I found to be particularly thoughtful, and one section of the book focuses on bees, using their activity as an analogy for the work poets do. Plath, of course, drew heavily on beekeeping imagery, and I found myself pondering on the way some poets burn bright and then burn out. Of the seminal influence of Plath and the personal nature of her work, Cole comments perceptively:

I believed then, and I still do, that a poem is organized violence. Like Baudelaire, Plath extended the boundaries of the lyric, taking the reader deeper into the shadows of her sorrow during the final weeks and months of her life. Even today, in certain quarters, she is trivialized and dishonored because of the confessional nature of her poems.

Needless to say, the language is quite beautiful and evocative throughout; I suppose by definition, the prose of a poet will of course be poetic. The book is eminently readable, full of wisdom and wearing Cole’s love for the city on its sleeve. The small images, some taken by Cole and some from other sources, enhance the narrative – particularly when dealing with the poet’s family. And the Orphic connection? Well, for me Cocteau and his spellbinding film “Orphee” have always been inseparably linked to Paris; and both the classical Orpheus and Cocteau’s character were poets. I couldn’t helping thinking that Cole’s literary flaneuring was carrying on a great tradition…

To look inward and explore the darker corners of the soul is one of the functions of lyric poetry.

“Orphic Paris” is a gem of a book, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon it. The words are hypnotic; the pictures evocative; and the book invokes the spirit of Paris beautifully. Cole’s narrative builds to a beautiful, lyrical crescendo where he pours out what he loves about Paris and it’s extraordinarily moving. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the book is actually being released directly in the UK, as the NYRB catalogue states there are no UK rights. Fortunately, however, you can buy it from online sources (as I did!) and so you can get your own copy of this wonderful book, which I really urge you to do!

Photo by Nicolas Vigier, Public Domain

As for Henri Cole’s poetry, I’m going to make a point of going off to explore it; he has a website with some wonderful examples, and if his poetry speaks as strongly to me as this book did, I may have to end up with a dedicated shelf… 😀

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