Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Baudelaire in Hebden Bridge

I hadn't read anything at a public reading for some months, until Monday evening at The Blind Pig, Sowerby Bridge, following a fantastic reading by Keith Hutson of his latest round of biographical sonnets - widening the scope somewhat from music hall to general showbiz, with a range of characters from hapless 19th Century dancers to Bob Monkhouse.  The other guest was Phil Foster, and he read a poem about Clarke Kent, in which he wondered how CK had managed to keep schtum about his secret life as Superman, and a passionate tribute to the Kurdish people, with particular emphasis on the indomitable Kurdish women.The open mic was a jolly affair, and when it came to my turn I spoke briefly about how much I had recently enjoyed the videos and images people have been sharing from this year's Pride festivals, having only ever been to one Pride myself. In particular I liked seeing the Hebden Bridge tree,



...and its umbrella theme certainly seems fitting for this pluvial summer, drenched as August has so far been by almost continual rain.

Somewhat sunnier than our dampened shores, the island of Lesbos was the birthplace of Greek poet Sappho (c.630 - c.570 BC), and, after reading from the poetry of Payam Feili, it was this Aegean idyll that I recalled in my reading: not my own poetry, but that of the French poet Charles Baudelaire, one of my long time inspirations.  Baudelaire, whose adult life was largely defined by his continual financial struggles and ultimately unrequited love for one woman, and whose controversial book Le Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) appeared one hundred and sixty years ago this year,  celebrated Lesbos as mother of the Latin games and the voluptuous rites of Greece, (where) kisses of languor or rapture, sun-scorching or melon-cool, / make lovelier the glorious nights and days - romanticizing its female inhabitants just as he had done in earlier poetry:

Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a poursuivies,
Pauvres soeurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains,
Pour vos mornes douleurs, vos soifs inassouvies,
Et les urnes d'amour dont vos grands coeurs sont pleins

 You whom my soul has followed into lairs infernal,Poor sisterhood, I pity and adore,
For your despairing griefs, your thirst eternal,
And love that floods your hearts for evermore!

(Trans. Roy Campbell)



For the socially anarchic Baudelaire, more truth-seeker than decadent, the vision of an isle of the sultry swooning nights like the myths of Delphine and Hippolyta, would evoke Utopian notions of transcendence: I can see him, penniless and bedraggled, trudging through the grime of  a Parisian winter, turning through the narrow streets and absinthe-poisoned alleyways, his tortured, tired mind drifting into dreams of the sunlit island, where kisses cascade fearless  into fathomless depths, /
sobbing or chuckling, stormy or secretive, seething or profound;/ Lesbos, where the kisses cascade down, personifying - deifying, even - the island as a queen of the realms of gentleness,/ lovable motherland, queen of the inexhaustible subtleties of loving.  With his ideological compass swinging between the revolutionary and the reactionary, and eventually settling into an almost nihilistic detachment, his religious impulses alternating wildly between Satanism and devout belief, Baudelaire simply did not fit into the defined territories of his times, and as such a great many of his poems and proclamations provoked incensed receptions, always taken literally by an easily scandalized reading public:

"There are but three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill and to create. The rest of mankind may be taxed and drudged, they are born for the stable, that is to say, to practise what they call professions."


Censored, prosecuted and harassed, Baudelaire would face the wrath of the authorities for his Fleurs du Mal, his artistry criminalized, his works confiscated and withheld from public view, until a shortened version of the book found publication in 1861.  Among the Pieces Condamnees - which would not legally appear until their limited Belgian publication in 1866 - was Lesbos, and in its counter-cultural reproach of Patriarchal prudery, we might find presentiments of the indignant bluster with which his own ignominy would be greeted, as the poet taunts the Gods: Let greybeard Plato frown with his reproving eye ...asking rhetorically, Lesbos, which of the gods shall presume to be your judge /if the golden scales fail to weigh the deluge of tears / your streams have poured into the sea? /
Lesbos, which of the gods shall presume to be your judge.

Baudelaire's poetry sometimes seems like a plea for beauty and truth in a world of ugliness and falsity:

Sometimes I have seen,  in a third rate theatre,
lit by the sonorous orchestra,
a fairy kindle miraculous dawn in infernal sky,

a being who was naught but light and gold
overthrow  gigantic Satan,
but my heart ...
is a theatre in which the gauze-winged being
is forever awaited in vain

at other times, it is drenched in a brooding introspection too profound to be labelled as self-pity:

I am fuller of memories than if I had lived a thousand years...

I am a graveyard that the moon abhors,
in which long worms crawl like remorses,
always battening on the dead I hold dear

in places philosophical:

This life is a hospital
in which every patient 
is obsessed with the desire to change beds 

and elsewhere, downright suicidal:

In a rich soil full of snails
I want to dig a deep ditch for myself
where I can stretch my old bones at leisure
and sleep in oblivion like a shark in the sea.


With his poems of devils, rape and vice, his blasphemy and descriptions of prostitutes, tramps, murderers and vampires - as well as his spirited defences of clandestine love - condemned by hypocrites and envious contemporaries, Baudelaire fumed against his situation in a letter to his mother:

"I have always considered that literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality ... But this book, whose title says everything, is clad, as you will see, in a cold and sinister beauty. It was created with rage and patience. Besides, the proof of its positive worth is in all the ill that they speak of it. The book enrages people. Moreover, since I was terrified myself of the horror that I should inspire, I cut out a third from the proofs. They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even the knowledge of the French language. I don't care a rap about all these imbeciles, and I know that this book, with its virtues and its faults, will make its way in the memory of the lettered public."

 

I see Baudelaire stumbling in clumsy grace into Keith Hutson's pantheon of vaudevillian heroes. I imagine him centre-stage, performing sinister magic under the lamps of Covent Garden, or pulling serpents out of hats at the Batley Variety Club. I see him as neither Superman or Clarke Kent, but instead championing Lex Luther.  I can picture him in Hebden Bridge, not wining and dining but wandering the canal banks late at night, weaving starlit trysts with hash-hazed fellow travelers, composing poisoned sonnets and howling at the moon. I see him on the fringes of cities, avoiding the crowds but discreetly drinking in the atmosphere, dazzling at poetry readings but vanishing before the end. I see him on the side of the Kurdish women and today's femmes damnee of Russia, Zimbabwe, Iran and Pakistan, writing poems of protest but drifting quietly into the background, living in the world within his hallucinatory mind, a world and deity-defying delights and beautiful madness . And to be quite honest, I see him, if he were living now, very likely being just as ill-treated, just as marginalized and as misunderstood in today's  supposedly enlightened world, as he was in the turbulent atmosphere of his own turbulent times.


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