Poet's Pick April 15
Charles Baudelaire: "The Stranger"
Selected by Sam Taylor
National Poetry Month 2015

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Sam Taylor's Poetry Month Pick, April 15, 2015

"The Stranger"
by Charles Baudelaire (1821 - 1867)

Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love best? Your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?

- I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.

- Your friends?

- You are using a word whose meaning to this day remains unknown to me.

-Your country?

- I do not know in which latitude it lies.

- Beauty?

- I would love her gladly, goddess and immortal.

- Gold?

- I hate it as you hate God.

- Well then! What do you love, unfathomable stranger?

- I love the clouds… the passing clouds … up there … up there … the marvelous clouds!

           —Translated by Sam Taylor

(The original L'Etranger, by Charles Baudelaire.)

* Sam Taylor Comments:

When Poetry Daily asked me to pick a poem written before 1923 (the modern copyright era), I marveled that nearly all my favorite poems were either from the Modern Era or were international poems (whose translations, dating after 1922, are themselves still under copyright). Of course, there are exceptions: poems of Whitman, Dickinson, Keats, and Hopkins that I cherish, but such poems are well known and frequently chosen. I suppose both Eliot’s "Prufrock" and "The Waste Land" could sneak in before this date, but the prompt had already got me thinking about the birth of Modern Poetry and its break with what came before. On the whole, while I may admire some poetry from the long British tradition, it’s not dear to my heart. It doesn’t violently upend my world in a moment, which is what I usually come to poetry for.

What I understand poetry to be really begins with Walt Whitman in America and overseas perhaps with Charles Baudelaire. It is fascinating to me that at roughly the same moment Whitman’s glorious megalomaniac self was leaning and loafing, “observing a spear of summer grass,” Baudelaire’s stranger was idly gazing “up there, up there” at the marvelous clouds. The two gestures are obviously similar and express an uncanny synchronicity as each poet ushers in modern free verse with a decisive declaration of independence. As what was to become “Song of Myself” opened the first editions of Leaves of Grass, “The Stranger” stands like an archway at the beginning of Paris Spleen. And, to me, the opening salvos of these two books stand like twin archways by which one effectively enters the full range of modern poetry.

Both authors, of course, immediately throw off traditional rules of meter and verse, establishing a poetic mode that is, as Baudelaire wrote, “musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and jarring enough to be adapted to the soul’s lyrical movements, to the undulations of reverie, to the twists and turns that consciousness takes.” But, both authors are also more generally in rebellion against traditional values. Whitman went so far as to avoid referring to antecedent poets and thinkers, in order to father not continue a tradition. Here in “The Stranger,” Baudelaire rejects traditional values and monolithic orders and instead holds up the ultimate in ephemeral mystery. Meanwhile, the categories of Beauty and God only half-escape this dismissal, as Baudelaire ridicules the hypocritical claims made upon them. Fifty years before Pound, both Whitman and Baudelaire go in fear of abstractions, preferring the world itself to any noble concept. A leaf of grass, a cloud. And, needless to say, both speakers lie idly dreaming, leaning and loafing. Indeed, it’s possible that “The Stranger” reclines in the same park, just a few meters off from where Whitman lounges in the grass.

And yet, what different men they are! For all they share, these two gestures also could not be more dissimilar, and they seem to encapsulate everything that is different between the American and French traditions (and to an extent other international traditions). Whitman is looking down beneath his feet at what is nearest and most common; Baudelaire is gazing up at what is distant and magnificent. Whitman gregariously embraces the bustle of human life, while it seems to make Baudelaire sick. Whitman styles his speaker as one of the masses, one of the roughs, while Baudelaire’s is a foreigner, a stranger, a misfit. Whitman declares his home both where he is and everywhere he can imaginatively travel “afoot with his vision.” Baudelaire does not know the latitude on earth that he could call home.

While Whitman is staring at the real, Baudelaire is looking off toward the surreal. The clouds he is gazing at Magritte will still be painting eighty years later, and Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Breton, Eluard, Desnos, and Lorca will all follow his pursuit of the “marvelous” for decades to come. Eventually, these currents enter American poetry, through poets like Stevens, Ashbery, Merwin, and Wright—but the marvelous always remains the counter-melody in American Poetry, the dessert not the meal, an appropriated exoticism, not the native tradition. (But, to say the word native is to recall that all these traditions have been written over the truly native tradition of America, which is to only briefly recognize the epic, seminal injustice before reverting to the norm of complete denial and erasure.)

I was thinking of all this the other day as I lay in the grass looking up at the clouds, and I found myself thinking also of what Baudelaire, or Whitman for that matter, would think of the clouds today. They are different, of course, now that we fly above them, now that our bootheels tramp up and down the airplane aisles on top of them, as if the clouds themselves were the grass beneath our feet, and yet often without even a thought of the marvelous. One has to go further and further to find the marvelous, the unknown. What Stevens identified as the pressures of the real seem to be proliferating everywhere around us. And yet, it is not exactly the real that pushes in on us. It is perhaps something more like the Cloud—though not the clouds of Baudelaire’s “Stranger.”

For, now, even the Cloud has become a repository of bustling human activity and digital information. In name only, we could argue, but there are thousands of actual satellites up there—up there!—beaming our texts, tweets, and feeds, our constant connectivity. All of which can fill us with wonder, but it is not the same wonder that Baudelaire was calling marvelous.

And, all of which brings me to a related confession: I am not sure what poetry is anymore. Or, perhaps I should say, given the poem under discussion, that I do not know under what latitude it lies. Indeed, faced now with an interrogation similar to the one in this poem and asked if I loved poetry, I think I would respond much like “The Stranger.”

The poet Chase Twichell remarked to me last year that she had always assumed poetry involved a conversation that took place forward and back across time—a timeless conversation—but she said she no longer has any faith this is true. She no longer knows if the future can understand the present, or vice versa, in part because of how technology is changing human brains and their relationship to language. I find that many poets I talk to feel something similar.

Does this make poetry one more disposable product like paper plates and smart phones, with a new model of poetry released every few years to keep up with the changing operating system of human beings? Does this call for a greater search for a new poetry of the moment or for a vigorous quest for a poetry so essential that it remains timelessly present? Or, do we leave any classical conception of poetry aside entirely like some ancient ruins in Battlestar Galactica, as we write poetic texts in new technological forms?

Of course, I imagine Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda will always be out there on a mountain somewhere reading Han Shan, Buson, and Li Po. But then, my references are now mythological TV shows and movie characters, not poets or real people.

In any case, I doubt if our beloved Jedi hermits will be reading Dean Young or Ariana Reines—both poets of the moment I admire. Perhaps, they will be reading Yeats and Keats and Hopkins; indeed, perhaps the same thing that makes me appreciate but not treasure such legendary poets—their remote distance—will ensure they last when our time is thoroughly obsolete and obliterated. And I’d like to think the Jedis among us will be reading Whitman and Baudelaire too, sifting through the archaeological ruins accompanying the birth of the modern era, thinking about history and the rise and fall of epochs.

Perhaps all this could have been glossed by Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us, late and soon,” but if so, not by the whole poem, with its sea bosom and suckled pagan, but by its runaway first lines, which would make a fine stand-alone tweet, with plenty of room to spare for several hash tags of ephemeral personality.

Meanwhile, I wonder, for all those of us below Cold Mountain—for all those of us living now in the Cloud of the brave new world, I wonder—where do we now turn for the marvelous?

About Sam Taylor:
Sam Taylor is the author of two books of poems, Body of the World (Ausable/Copper Canyon) and Nude Descending an Empire (Pitt Poetry Series), and he is the current recipient of the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship.  You can visit his website at www.samtaylor.us.

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