Baudelaire has been on my mind lately, a bit because I’ve been hobnobbing with the French writers of the 20th century, but mostly from Brautigan’s poem, The Galilee Hitchhiker, wherein Baudelaire does various things like pick up a hitchhiking Jesus in his Model A Ford or open a hamburger stand in San Francisco or watch a baseball game or go into an insane asylum.
I read the Martin Sorrell translation, not being up on my French. In the intro, Sorrell reminds us that Baudelaire’s misogyny “permeates everything.” Oh goody. Suck it up, ladies, and open your mouths for another shit sandwich. Nevertheless, I persisted in reading his selection of poems because I’m curious about what he witnessed in 1860s Paris. One of the titles Baudelaire considered for the poems was Le Rôdeur parisien, “prowler around Paris,” which I love. He’s a “wanderer, ironic and eccentric, the flaneur adrift in a wasteland of deprivation, squalor, failed ambition, and rich in flawed and affecting humanity… The ordinary humanity of the wanderer, as well as of the ambitious artist, begins to find recompense in the teeming mess that is Paris.”
Baudelaire had been thinking about Paris as a subject as early as 1846, “Parisian life is rich in poetic, marvelous subjects. We are surrounded by the marvelous, which sustains us like air itself, but which we do not perceive.” An 1862 letter outlined his ambition for prose poems: “Who has not, in bouts of ambition, dreamt this miracle, a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the bump and lurch consciousness?” As Sorrell notes in the intro, “The idea of major interest here is that the prose should be poetic and musical without the support of meter and rhyme… The prose poem allows, more readily than verse, rapid and random changes of mood, contrasts, incongruities… the flexibility to place side by side such antagonists as lyricism and analysis, the glib and the intense, irony and sincerity, beauty and ugliness.”
The poems themselves give us a sense for Baudelaire the man, luring a glassmaker up six floors to pretend to want to purchase his wares only to shout at him that there is no colored glass, how dare he try to sell something that doesn’t make life look beautiful, shoving him down the stairs and dropping a pot of flowers on him from the 6th floor which caused him to smash his entire pack of glassware. “And drunk on my madness I raged at him: ‘Make life beautiful, make life beautiful.’ Such tortured antics are not without danger, and often they cost us dear. But what does eternal hellfire matter to someone who for one second has known an infinity of joy?” We see his hatred of women come out clearly in other works. But then he entertains us with poems like this 1864 gem entitled “Be Drunk”:
Be drunk always. Nothing else matters; there are no other subjects. Not to feel the grim weight of Time breaking your backs and bending you double, you must get drunk and stay drunk. But drunk on what? Wine, poetry, virtue—the choice is yours. Just be drunk. And if sometimes, on a palace staircase, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy isolation of your chamber, you wake sober or just a little tipsy, ask the wind, waves, stars, birds, clocks, ask anything that flies, moans, moves, sings, speaks, ask it the time. And the wind, wave, star, bird, clock will reply: “Time to get drunk! To avoid the enslaved martyrdom of Time, get drunk and stay drunk! On wine, poetry, virtue, the choice is yours!