Friday, July 18, 2008

Pure Poetry

Poetry has no other aim or object but herself....Truth has nothing to do with Song.... With these words, Baudelaire cut himself and poetry loose from a couple thousand years of literary tradition. I don't know if he got this idea from Poe or if he or Poe got it from someone else. Schopenhauer had said something similar about music but it is unlikely that either of them could have had a chance to read The World as Will And Idea which though published in 1819 would not become widely known until the the late 1850s or sixties.

Pure poetry is not easy to write. Henceforth this would be the ideal that ambitious poets would increasingly try to approximate. Rimbaud for example. Literary critics did not much like this idea, if they paid it any attention at all, for it didn't give them much to talk about. But it had important consequences for some critics in the 20th century who took it to mean that if you want to understand what a poem is actually doing, you had to try to understand it on its own terms. You had to try to get inside it, so to speak.

How 'pure' is Baudelaire's own poetry? This is a question that I am not qualified to answer since I don't read French very well.

Here, in Richard Howard's translation, is the poem that T.S. Eliot was 'imitating' in Preludes:


It comes as an accomplice, stealthily,
the lovely hour that is the felon's friend;
the sky, like curtains round a bed, draws close,
and man prepares to become a beast of prey.

Longed for by those whose aching arms confess:
we earned our daily bread, at last it comes,
evening and the anodyne it brings
to workmen free to sleep and dream of sleep,
to stubborn scholars puzzling over texts,
to minds consumed by one tormenting pain. . .
Meantime, foul demons in the atmosphere
dutifully waken--they have work to do--
rattling shutters as they take the sky.
Under gaslamps shaken by the wind
whoredom invades and everywhere at once
debouches on invisible thoroughfares
as if the enemy had launched a raid;
it fidgets like a worm in the city's filth,
filching its portion of Man's daily bread.

Listen! Now you can hear the kitchens hiss,
the stages yelp, the music drown it all!
The dens that specialize in gambling fill
with trollops and their vague confederates,
and thieves untroubled by a second thought
will soon be hard at work (they also serve)
softly forcing doors and secret drawers
to dress their sluts and live a few days more.

This is the hour to compose yourself, my soul;
ignore the noise they make; avert your eyes.
Now comes the time when invalids grow worse
and darkness takes them by the throat; they end
their fate in the usual way, and all their sighs
turn hospitals into a cave of winds.
More than one will not come back for broth
warmed at the fireside by devoted hands.

Most of them, in fact, have never known
a hearth to come to, and have never lived.

I (very briefly) discussed Eliot's poem, Preludes on 3-11-08. I'll show you that poem as soon as I can locate it. Ah, here it is:

THE WINTER evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.


The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.


You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.


His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

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