“On Some Motifs of Modern Life”
Out of Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen: Little Poems in Prose, translated by Keith Waldrop (Wesleyan University Press, 2009), XLIII:
The Gallant Marksman
Crossing the wood, he stopped the carriage at a shooting range, remarking how agreeable it would be to fire a few shots, to kill Time. Killing that monster, is it not everyone’s most ordinary and legitimate occupation?—And he offered his hand gallantly to his darling, delightful, execrable wife, to that mysterious woman to whom he owes so may pleasures, so many sorrows, and perhaps also a great part of his genius.
Several balls struck far from the proposed aim; one indeed lodging in the ceiling; and as the charming creature laughed wildly, mocking the clumsiness of her husband, he turned to her suddenly and said, “See that doll, out there, straight ahead, her nose in the air, with a haughty look. So, darling angel, I’m reckoning her as you.” And he closed his eyes and pressed the trigger. The doll was cleanly decapitated.
Then, leaning towards his darling, his delightful, his execrable wife, his inevitable and pitiless Muse, respectfully kissing her hand, he added, “Ah, my angel darling, how I thank you for my dexterity.”
Waldrop’s version (joining the terrific earlier limning of Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil into “measured paragraphs” or versets) is straight-forwardly done, with perhaps a bigger hint of demotic—a colloquiality, a looseness—than in the original. In a richly casual introduction, one learns (amongst other things) that Baudelaire’d once consider’d the title Lycanthropic Poems for the book. Too, Waldrop points to Baudelaire’s defining “raillery” in the prose poems—a thing “not lacking in the verse poems, but in the prose poems . . . more obvious and more pungent.” “Here,” Waldrop writes, “the snarl of satire and its nasty laughter are closer to the surface.” And if reading “The Gallant Marksman” recalls anything (beyond a whiff of Poe), it’s some of the items in a book titled Sick Jokes, Grim Cartoons & Bloody Marys (by one Max Rezwin) that batter’d perennially around the cabin where we lived in northern Michigan, early ’sixties. Particularly a piece about a newly-wedded couple out for a ride. The bride’s horse rears up at a rabbit, nearly throwing her off—“That’s one,” says the groom. Horse goes off at a gallop, spook’d by a train—“That’s two.” Horse “misbehaves” again—a low hanging branch, a hoof in a gopher hole, I forget—and the man draws a pistol and shoots the horse. Woman, horrify’d, screams “You brute, &c.” “That’s one,” says the man. Unaccustom’d to thinking of jokes (“raillery”) descending out of literature, one concludes that Baudelaire—cue available in the way that haute couture “descends” out of the inventings of the demimonde, that is to say, “low” culture is the irrepressible source for “high” (another way to say it: that is why literature (writing) must needs always return (cannot pretend to abandon) speech)—one concludes that Baudelaire is likely reworking nineteenth-century “sick” jokes.
Le Galant Tireur
Comme la voiture traversait le bois, il la fit arrêter dans le voisinage d’un tir, disant qu’il lui serait agréable de tirer quelques balles pour tuer le Temps. Tuer ce monstre-là, n’est-ce pas l’occupation la plus ordinaire et la plus légitime de chacun?—Et il offrit galamment la main à sa chère, délicieuse et exécrable femme, à cette mystérieuse femme à laquelle il doit tant de plaisirs, tant de douleurs, et peut-être aussi une grande partie de son génie.
Plusieurs balles frappèrent loin du but proposé l’une d’elles s’enfonça même dans le plafond; et comme la charmante créature riait follement, se moquant de la maladresse de son époux, celui-ci se tourna brusquement vers elle, et lui dit: “Observez cette poupée, là-bas, à droite, qui porte le nez en l’air et qui a la mine si hautaine. Eh bien! cher ange, je me figure que c’est vous.” Et il ferma les yeux et il lâcha la détente. La poupée fut nettement décapitée.
Alors s’inclinant vers sa chère, sa délicieuse, son exécrable femme, son inévitable et impitoyable Muse, et lui baisant respectueusement la main, il ajouta: “Ah! mon cher ange, combien je vous remercie de mon adresse!”
Waldrop provides a capsule history of the prose poem, managing to dispel the silly notion (purvey’d repeatedly) that it emerges full-blown with Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit. Importantly, he mentions “certain pieces by Poe that Baudelaire himself had translated: ‘Shadow—A Parable’ or ‘Silence—A Fable.’ And even Eureka, which Poe himself had called a ‘prose poem.’” If Baudelaire, in the famous letter to Arsène Houssaye that serves as dedicatory letter writes “I’ve a small confession to admit to you,” and proceeds to “admit” that “leafing through, for at least the twentieth time, the famous Gaspard de la Nuit of Aloysius Bertrand (a book known to you and to me and to a few of our friends, don’t we have the right to call it famous?) that the idea came to me to try something analogous, applying to the description of modern life—” isn’t that akin to the feints and folderol of, say, Ron Silliman in “The New Sentence” wherein he says “I know of no precedent for this . . .”, or, “The sole precedent I can find for the new sentence is Kora In Hell: Improvisations and that one far-fetched . . .”, and proceeds through a mighty what-what all the whilst patently avoiding Pound (he’s mention’d only in relation to Grenier’s Sentences), whose ideogrammic “ply on ply” juxtaposition is at the heart, too, of the “new sentence.” One’s reluctant to render the fat of one’s own bacon.
Beyond Poe as originator (and “‘The Centaur’ of Maurice de Guérin or something from Alphonse Rabbe’s Album of a Pessimist”), Waldrop points out how Bertrand’s own book carries “an important sub-title, Fantasies in the Manner of Rembrandt and Callot, a slightly altered crib from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s title for a collection of Stories, Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner,” and further notes that Hoffmann used “the term fantasy as musicians do: sonata, fugue, waltz . . . all such labels indicate some predetermined structure (as does meter, as does rhyme . . .), whereas a fantasy has no set pattern, but is determined by its own internal development.” Which lends to fantasy a kind of organicism. Is that what Baudelaire is talking about when he writes (to Houssaye) that in the prose poem “I would not hold to the unbroken thread of some superfluous plot.” He instructs (in lingo that sounds aptly ideogrammic, too): “Cut out any vertebra and the two pieces of this serpentine fantasy will easily rejoin. Chop it into many fragments and you will see how each is able to exist apart.” Ply on ply. New Sentence erector sets. Too, there’s Baudelaire’s oddly coy admission of “failure” at the end of the note:
The work hardly begun, I realized that not only did I remain far below my mysterious and brilliant model, but also that I had made something, (if this can be called something) singularly different, mischance anyone else would doubtless brag about, but which profoundly humiliates a mind that considers the poet’s highest honor to have accomplished just what he proposed to do.That’s the faux-naïve language of someone delight’d with a discovery, and himself. The prose poem henceforth flourish’d (mildly enough) on the continent, and (mostly) echo’d Baudelaire’s: Waldrop mentions work of Oscar Wilde, Turgenev, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, along with “the lovely chinoiserie of Judith Gautier’s Book of Jade, in versets” and “the unique prose epic Songs of Maldoror.”. And as Waldrop says at the end of the introduction, with brilliant understatement at (the presumptuous novelty of) the tardiness: “In France the prose poem, after Reverdy and Max Jacob, becomes omnipresent. And American poets, in recent years, seem to have gotten the idea.”
Here’s Waldrop’s version of “Le Chien et le Flacon” (VIII):
Dog and Flask
“—My beautiful dog, good dog, dear bow-wow, come closer and sniff an excellent perfume, purchased at the best scent shop in town.”
And the dog, wagging his tail, which I suppose, in these poor creatures, the sign corresponding to laugh and to smile, approached and, curious, puts his moist nose to the unstoppered flask; after which, drawing back in fright, barks at me, clearly a reproach.
“—Ah! wretched dog, if I had offered you a bundle of excrement, you would have sniffed its scent with delight and perhaps devoured it. So you too, unworthy companion of my sad life, you are like the public, to whom one must not present the delicate perfumes which exasperate them, but carefully selected crap.”
Le Chien et le Flacon
“—Mon beau chien, mon bon chien, mon cher toutou, approchez et venez respirer un excellent parfum acheté chez le meilleur parfumeur de la ville.” Et le chien, en frétillant de la queue, ce qui est, je crois, chez ces pauvres êtres, le signe correspondant du rire et du sourire, s’approche et pose curieusement son nez humide sur le flacon débouché; puis, reculant soudainement avec effroi, il aboie contre moi, en manière de reproche.
“—Ah! misérable chien, si je vous avais offert un paquet d’excréments, vous l’auriez flairé avec délices et peut-être dévoré. Ainsi, vous-même, indigne compagnon de ma triste vie, vous ressemblez au public, à qui il ne faut jamais présenter des parfums délicats qui l’exaspèrent, mais des ordures soigneusement choisies.”
Charles Baudelaire by Nadar, 1855
Simplicity and octave, a-
symmetry and a John
Doe mantic process: banging
out a brute loyal
registry of whole-hoggedly
provisional pianoforte notes, a
way of bucking conventional
conversational arrangements, burrs stuck
willy-nilly in sounding-
slots, an impassable Khyber
to provoke. Williams put
it thus: “It is
the despair of poetry,
that there is nothing
more to say.” We
reiterate the usual lumpen-
proletariat unregeneracy, gob-slobbering
the sun-joust’d nape
of the kneeling girl,
the commissar’s own tenderly
dub’d and daub’d model,
the one who’s adept
at saying that nothing
with crack pizzazz. Self-
absorb’d, ready to lance
or be lanced by
any of the multitude
of devoidables who spin
raillery out of sass,
sass out of commitment,
the nuisance pups of
the age, the age.