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National Poetry Month: Reflecting on COVID-19 through Baudelaire

Two hundred years after the birth of the first modern poet, Charles Baudelaire, his words still teach us how to cope with modern struggles.

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This year’s National Poetry Month contains a significant date for the history of poetry—the bicentennial of the birth of the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire, the first Modern poet, on April 9th, 1821. As my work translating Baudelaire’s “The Flowers of Evil” has coincided with the Covid-19 crisis in the United States, I see this occasion as an opportunity to reflect on the past year under lockdown, on Modern poetry and on Baudelaire, the poet laureate of disease and malaise.

In an essay “on Beauty,” the great Modernist poet and critic T.S. Eliot asserts: “the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.” First off, through there is plenty of horror and glory in Baudelaire, he is the preeminent poet of ennui (intense boredom). A slew of articles over the past year has documented pandemic-induced ennui—our hours after hours spent in isolation trying to decide what to do with ourselves. In his address “To The Reader,” Baudelaire gives us a striking image of what we have gone through:

Boredom! Moist-eyed, he dreams, while pulling on

a hookah pipe, of guillotine-cleft necks.

You, reader, know this tender freak of freaks—

hypocrite reader—mirror-man—my twin!

Baudelaire understood tedium; in his poetry, he is right there with us, suffering under the weight of indecision. Ennui is a distinctly modern malaise, but the pandemic has greatly intensified it over the past year. I see poetry—Baudelaire’s poetry specifically—as providing its most poignant portrayal. So it was: locked down last year with my mother and in a state of restless frustration, I worked 12-16 hours per day finding English words for Baudelaire’s vocabulary of boredom.

Furthermore, as the preeminent poet of escape, Baudelaire offers a way out of the doldrums. In a sense, all literature is escape but, more than prose, poetry has an incantatory effect; it draws a magic circle around what it is describing and says, “inside here, anything can happen.” In Baudelaire, this escape does, yes, take at times the potentially addictive form of intoxication (through wine and opium), and liquor sales have indeed spiked over the past year. Just as often, however, the escape arises from a flight of imagination:

Dream of the joy

of living with me,

my child, my dear. We two

will love all day,

love and then die,

in a land that looks like you. . .

There will be nothing but beauty and leisure,

harmony, calm and pleasure.

Anticipating the world-building characteristic of sci-fi in his poem, “Parisian Dream,” Baudelaire even flaunts the make-believe nature of his creations. He tell us of a “vision I recall / of awe-inspiring scenery / nobody ever saw for real,” in which a “Babel of stairways and colonnades / was like an endless palace filled / with water basins and cascades / flowing with dull or burnished gold.” In Baudelaire’s “The Flowers of Evil,” the delights of the imagination often work as an antidote to ennui—a healthy lesson to keep in mind during this year’s National Poetry Month.

I had the pleasure of escaping from an oppressive situation by stepping outside of myself and becoming Baudelaire for a time. I regard the translator as a medium, a vessel to be possessed by the “spirit” of the original author. The months I spent summoning and submitting to him (the months of March, April, May and June of 2020, when COVID-19 was at its worst) were intense and exhausting. As the levels of infection surged around me, I worked on translating his bouquet of “sickly flowers.” So strong is Baudelaire’s personality, that he will never be fully exorcised from me. I am grateful for that. 

Aaron Poochigian is a renowned poet, author, translator and lecturer. His latest collection, American Divine, came out in March 2021.

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