Reflections on Charles Baudelaire's Paris Spleen
I know nothing about poetry. And when I was 20, I knew even less. Still clinging largely to my punk rock roots, my view of what constituted good poetry was extremely narrow. Bukowski was my hallmark against which all other writers were compared, (and few did so favorably).
I knew there were other, older, more “literary” poets, those who were studied in the universities. The Classics: I tried. I tried to read them. Time and time again I would make the effort to educate myself, to expand my understanding of poetry. And time and time again, I was repelled by what was almost always a seemingly foreign language., one that was far too ornate for my liking, and, a language so dense and overgrown there was no way I was going to see the forest with all these trees in the way.
Then, one day, while wandering the narrow aisles of a used bookstore in San Francisco, I tripped over an interesting looking little volume called Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire. I recognized the name as one of those dead French guys I could never really understand. But the writings in this book were in a form previously unknown to me; prose poems. Okay, I was intrigued enough to start looking closer.
As I first skimmed, and then read with increasing intensity. These poems drew me in like no poetry had done before. They were lyrical, profound and obviously well crafted. At the same time they stank of cheap wine and old sweat and a passion spliced with gloriously atonal cynicism. They were angry and fantastic. They were violent and full of love. In short, they sang.
Baudelaire's poems sang to me in a voice both foreign and familiar. He would reference mythology with which I was unacquainted, but did so in a language so driven and involved in the subject that I couldn’t help but be drawn in. I felt to my core the overwhelming romance for life expressed in his work because I finally had found somebody who could articulate the roiling confusion inside me. The volatile mix of compassion and antipathy that was my inner construct resonated loudly with the echoes of Paris Spleen.
“A Hemisphere of Your Hair,” is immediately, and without a doubt, the work of someone prone to immersion in what he believes is love, regardless of the consequences. “Beat Up the Poor,” articulates a firm and well-defined philosophy. Even at that young age myself I could recognize the immaturity therein, but identified so urgently with the point of view that I clung to it as truth like no other ever uttered. Still, across the intervening years, his attitude informs and cajoles my mind and my perspective.
Taken as a whole, Paris Spleen is a wondrous cacophony of colors and disasters, and overwrought misanthropy coupled with an almost desperate need for love and human contact. There is an urgency, and, an unbridled passion that even though it is youthful in its origin, succeeds in sustaining itself with determination and precocious insights into the human condition. I could not have discovered Baudelaire, and this volume in particular, at a better time in my life. It would never have had the same impact on my mind and my creativity had I come across it even a few years later. That said, his words, his ideas, and, his passion remain with me every day, not only in my own writing but in my life in general. When I have hated humanity, it has been with his voice in my head, singing lullabies of cynicism. When I have loved a woman, it has been with his imagery that I decorated our exchanges. When I have wandered hungrily through the streets resentful of bourgeois complacency, it has been while drinking wine flavored with his lack of discretion.
Baudelaire wrote Paris Spleen during the last years of his life and, it was posthumously published. At the time, the prose poem was innovative and groundbreaking. I am so grateful that he did this. I can only imagine how far he would have taken this literary transformation had he lived longer.
Paris Spleen, Charles Baudelaire, New Directions, 1970, 118 pages, 0811200078 , $13.00.