The 200-year-old Baudelaire Challenge
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE WAS a formalist poet given to pass rhetorical tropes, which also used stereotypes to represent black people. Here in the 21st century, free verse is making a comeback, and formalism and rhetorical tropes are out. Moreover, if Baudelaire wrote today, his treatment of racial difference would hardly make much noise. What does a contemporary translator have to do with him? Speaking a bit about the challenges I had to overcome during the translation The evil flowers, I hope to reveal some characteristics not only of Baudelaire but of ourselves. How much has changed in the 200 years since his birth in 1821!
What moves me the most about Baudelaire’s poetry is its incantatory sound. The totality purpose of my translation is the recreation in English of his “trance music”. Because this music is made up of words, it calls for lush, extravagant, even disturbing images at the same time. In “Autumn Song,” for example, the sound of men chopping wood in late summer conjures up not only images of autumn, but also siege machines, gallows and coffins:
I tremble listening to the thud of fuel.
Stem manufacturers don’t make any worse noise.
My mind, like a tower, turns cruel
obstinate ram percussion: Grind. Grind. Grind.
To me, lulled by those annoying thuds, it seems to me
a coffin is quickly nailed down. But to whom?
Summer was yesterday; now fall is coming.
There is a departure in this strange noise.
I felt that, in a poetry so dependent on sound, not preserving the almost mystical effect of Baudelaire’s rhymes would deprive the work of an essential element. Baudelaire translated into free verse and blank verse strikes me as a magician without magic. In one of his most trippy endeavors, “Parisian Dream”, he exults as he creates a world of words worthy of MC Escher:
This Babel of stairs and colonnades
was like an endless palace filled
with pools and waterfalls
flowing in matt or burnished gold.
Like curtains of precious stones,
the intimidating stunts
seemed to be pending
along the wall frescoes.
At the highest point in Baudelaire, sounds are images and images, sounds – which brings us to the next challenge: to preserve his synesthesia.
In high school, I was in love with a girl who saw colors around her eyes when she heard music. She had a perfect pitch. I remember strumming a chord on my guitar and asking him what chord it was. She said, “G minor,” and she was right. When I asked her how she knew, she replied, “Because it’s purple. She has a neurological condition called synesthesia, in which a person perceives information from one sense (to them, the auditory) in terms of another (to them, the visual). We also use the term to refer to a writer’s description of one type of sensory information based on that of another: a “mute color” (auditory and visual), for example, or a “strong taste” ( tactile and taste). Synesthesia is also a common psychedelic experience, and Artificial Heaven (Artificial paradises), Baudelaire’s treatise on his experiences with opium and hashish, in fact had an influence on drug treaties of the 1950s and 1960s such as Aldous Huxley’s The doors of perception and “Turn On / Tune In / Drop Out” by Timothy Leary. In many ways, he is the father of psychedelic music and imagery.
Although Baudelaire is famous for his use of synesthesia, one cannot be sure that he was a born synaesthet, that he elicited the experience with drugs, or that he only used it as a poetic technique. In her poem “The Bight”, Elizabeth Bishop refers to this trend:
the color of the gas flame has become as faint as possible.
You can feel it turning into gas; if we were Baudelaire
you could probably hear it turn into marimba music.
Most often he deals with olfactory information in terms of images and sounds, as in his sonnet “Exotic Perfume”:
When, on a warm autumn evening, I breathe in,
with closed eyes, the scent of your sweet breast,
I see a very happy stretch of coast
lit by the fires of a slightly subtle sun:
a lazy island on which nature grows
trees and particular fruits with a taste of happiness,
nervous males with vigorous limbs,
and females showing off the candor of their eyes.
Led by your perfume to this charming place,
I see a dock with ships and rigs still
exhausted from riding on the ocean swell;
meanwhile the scent of verdant tamarind,
puffing up my nostrils, riding the breeze,
mingles with the songs of the sailors in my head.
Here, breathing in the scent of his mistress’s chest, he sees an island paradise characterized by health and innocence. He then zooms in on a port and the poem ends with the auditory – its scent evokes the smell of tamarind which “mixes with the chanteys of sailors”. The whole experience is brief and intense as if, while inhaling its aroma, he was blowing a household cleaner or doing what is called a whippet. The impression I have strived to maintain is that of a sensual psychedelic feast.
With the image of degenerated and drugged Baudelaire, one can oppose his omnipresent classicism. He was a fairly classic scholar. Indeed, he won the first prize for composition of verses in Latin before being expelled from his Parisian high school. Although the father of modernism, he surprisingly enjoys tropes and archaic rhetorical figures, especially allegory – the personification of an abstract idea, such as justice, with, say, a blindfold to show impartiality and scales to show fairness. Although popular in classical and medieval literature, the allegory could not be more out of date today. In fact, I remember being berated in a creative writing class for using it, which made me want to use it more. However, translating Baudelaire’s allegories for a 21st century audience caused me a lot of anxiety. What I have learned is that he reinvigorates this worn-out rhetorical figure by presenting ambivalent representations of traditionally positive concepts, such as Beauty:
beauty, are you from paradise
or hell? Your gaze, hellish and divine,
overflows with benevolence and vice,
and that’s why people compare you to wine.
Even Beauty has a dark side to Baudelaire. Additionally, he kills Hope (Emily Dickinson’s “feathered thing – / that perches in the soul -“):
Just as often, he allegorizes negative concepts like disease, irony, homicide and hatred. I recently discovered, to my delight, that his poem “Twilight” is cited in Appendix B of The Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work (2006) for his allegorical representation of the oldest profession in the world. Here is his famous portrayal of boredom:
Boredom! With wet eyes, he dreams while pulling
a hookah pipe, slit sash necks.
You, reader, know this tender monster of monsters –
hypocritical reader – mirror man – my twin!
He even uses the word “allegory” himself in his masterpiece “The Swan”:
Although Paris is changing, nothing in my sorry
the state has moved. Blocks, nailed palaces,
old quarters, everything for me is allegory.
My dear memories weigh more than stone.
After writing and rewriting my translation of this stanza several times, I decided that it was essential to preserve the word allegory like “allegory” here, so I’m looking for a rhyme until I hit “my sorry / my state” for my melancholy. In this poem, the new construction in Paris strikes Baudelaire as the personification of an abstract idea: change, and his memory of what was there before him seems to “weigh more than stone” – the very stone from which the new buildings are made. . This poem also confronted me with another challenge: Baudelaire’s representations of blacks.
Race is the third rail in contemporary literature, and Baudelaire is anything but politically correct. In “The Swan”, he uses the word “negress” (negress) in its litany of all those “deprived of something that they can / never find / find again”. How to translate it into the 21st century? Since the context is nice and the usage is not pejorative, I decided to make it like this:
I think of a black girl with tuberculosis
searching with tired eyes, as she wades through the mud,
for the palm trees she knew in Africa somewhere
behind a huge barrier of clouds.
Yes there are a lot of The evil flowers it will offend the sensitive. Baudelaire portrays Jeanne Duval, his Haitian-born mistress of mixed French and black African descent, stereotypically, comparing her passionate nature, for example, to that of a tiger. Here it is in the poem “Bijoux” (banned in France for nearly 100 years) describing Duval:
Her waist got so thick in either hip
that I observed what appeared to be a new design –
a busty girl at the bottom, a boy at the top.
What great artist had coated it with exterior brown?
Because the sun was determined to go out,
we both saw through the hearth alone,
and, every time he breathed a sigh of light,
it sparkled crimson on that amber skin.
I felt that I owed it to Baudelaire to never be disgusted when it came to issues of race, sexism and disturbing themes like suicide and necrophilia. When he writes about, say, a man raping the headless corpse of a woman, I felt compelled not to pedal gently or to mask the horror of this act:
Is this man so dear, this stubborn lover
that you could not, during your lifetime, satisfy,
on your passive and welcoming corpse,
satisfy his giant appetite?
I have worked hard to give the contemporary reader a provocative and shameless Baudelaire, a formalist poet in the age of free verse, a rhetorician in the age of outspokenness, a willfully offensive man in the age of political correctness. . Such were my choices, my bets, and only time will tell if the beginning of the 21st century will be able to support the Baudelaire presented, with the greatest fidelity that I have been able to collect, in the sheets of this new Flowers of Evil.
Aaron Poochigian received a PhD in Classics from the University of Minnesota and an MA in Poetry from Columbia University. His first collection of poetry, The cosmic purr (Able Muse Press), was published in 2012, his second, Manhattanite, which won the Able Muse Prize for Poetry, was released in 2017, and its third, Divine american, which won the 2020 Richard Wilbur Prize, appeared in 2021 by the University of Evansville Press.