Decadent Poetry in the Face of Destruction

Bad news: I’ve been permanenlty priced and Brexited out of London, and the “big cities” on my blog title is no longer accurate to my living situation. Good news: I’m briefly going back, because my short story “Death, Charles and I” is getting published in an anthology, and I’m intending to show up at the launch party in Aldgate. The story includes biographical bits about Charles Baudelaire, so the publisher asked me to talk about my research on the great poet at the book launch. I’m excitedly preparing a talk, mindful to try to keep it reasonably short, as I could go on about Baudelaire all night if they let me.

The famous French symbolist poet and essayist published relatively little during his career, and as within any body of work, not all of it is stunningly good writing. I’m not even sure I like all his poems. Some are excessively morbid and some use such ambivalent romantic cliches I can’t tell when he’s being ironic. His descriptions of the ideal lover as a frigid corpse are problematic on multiple levels (although I pretended to be fascinated by necrophilia, back when I was a young goth in London and tried to build myself a controversial poet reputation). Several writing mentors have pointed out to me there are better poets to look up to, and they are right. I don’t look up to Baudelaire; I relate to him, and I feel that all that is wrong with me was wrong with him, too, on top of other faults, so if he could become a revered literary figure despite all that, then maybe my existence wasn’t such a terrible mistake. He is a comforting figure as much as a fascinating one, a soul-brother, if you will.

Baudelaire’s writings on Paris helped me to live in London at those times when it wasn’t easy on its own. In a classic 1954 French Review article, Ihab H. Hassan writes, “the affinity of Baudelaire with modern poets [is in] his sense of isolation; his irony and self-irony, correctives of Romantic sentimentality; his acute awareness of diversity and disorder, of multivalence in good and evil, of the diffusiveness in consciousness; and his pungent, almost Bergsonian, sensitivity to change, to the durée.” Don’t ask me to explain “almost Bergsonian,” I never really understood Bergson, but the appeal of Baudelaire in brief is his acceptance of the world as it is without concealing any of its multitudes in his writing.

In most circumstances I’d be nervous about going to London after the recent terrorist attacks – last summer I was in Nice shortly after the Bastille Day incident and believe me, I watched very closely for left-alone luggage and big trucks – but somehow the fact I’m going there to speak about decadent poetry makes me want to laugh in the face of potential death. If I asked Baudelaire, he’d probably tell me it’s good for me to be close to death. And that I’d look prettier if I was dead, but I wouldn’t pay attention to that bit, because the man was a weirdo.