By Christopher Atamian
As students at the Lycée Français de New York in the 1980’s we were made to declaim French poetry on a regular basis. Charles Baudelaire was on the curriculum in Fifth Grade: L’Invitation au Voyage. Was there ever a more wonderful title for a poem? I remember having to look away from the particularly maniacal head shot of Baudelaire in our book which seemed, to a twelve-year-old, almost satanic in nature. Up we went to the board, one after another, all 24 of us in Septième B. Some of the students came from Parisian Lycées and had their French poetry down pat—they might as well have been at a French version of The Newyorican. Others were technically French but from Brittany or Corsica, and spoke Gaelic or Corsican at home, so for them it was more of a stretch, as was the case for some of the African students from Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire or Mali whose native tongues were, say, Bambara or Baoulé. Still others were American and had one hell of a time.
Up went Allen Mogos, a tall brainy Yugoslav who would one day end up at Cornell then Medical School, followed by Sophia Heller, a beautiful blonde Jewish girl who adored alfalfa sprouts and lived in an old-style Soho loft. The grades were announced publicly in a manner that would today incite lawsuits against the school on the part of outraged parents and students alike. My turn arrived. As an American whose parents were born in Lebanon and Switzerland, both francophone countries, I fell somewhere in between on the francophone spectrum. I spoke without an accent. I was also a natural ham. And so I intoned: Mon enfant, ma soeur/Songe à la douceur/D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble!” I waved my hands around dramatically, ending the first part of the poem in a deep diminuendo. Our beloved teacher, Madame Benzaken, who spent most of the time exhorting students to declaim with un minimum d’effort, pour l’amour de Dieu, was clearly annoyed by my vehemence. “OK, stop exaggerating Atamian!” she barked at me, and gave me a 16 or A-. Baudelaire was beautiful but hard to memorize for any fifth grader, and more to the point, the meaning of the poem went way above our heads. We did however comprehend that it was an invitation to travel, and that travel was “luxe, calme and volupté” or, as Aaron Poochigian writes in his upcoming new translation of The Flowers of Evil on Norton Press, “harmony, calm and pleasure.” Given how neurotic some of us were even at that young age, and the nightmare that modern travel was already becoming, the irony of what we were being made to recite was lost on us at the time. Even before Covid-19 restrictions, masking up, and the advent of low-cost cramped airlines, “le voyage” was anything but calm and voluptuous.
Baudelaire was more than some type of hopped-up travel poet. He’s considered by many to be no less than the Father of Modernism, a writer of rare ability and finesse who limned the borders between beautiful and ugly, Good and Evil, the virtuous and the depraved. He was famously tried and convicted of obscenity, contracted syphilis which would eventually kill him and lived his life out with his mistress Jeanne Duval. During his lifetime he was reviled by most and knew little popular success, but quickly rose to posthumous fame to influence other poets such as Lamartine and Rimbaud. His impact has been such that two hundred years later, the children of Lemony Snicket bear his last name.
This year marks the bicentennial of Baudelaire’s birth, hence Norton’s new edition of The Flowers of Evil, which contains the poet’s work in its entirety. Poochigian is one of our best poets and translators, a country boy from North Dakota and adoptive New Yorker with an advanced degree in Classics and a seemingly unending ability to write one learned disquisition after another. This is his eleventh book to date, not bad for someone still in his 40s. His latest book of confessional poetry American Divine is on its way to becoming a minor classic of its genre and so may his new translation of The Flowers of Evil. Poochigian’s rendition is the first to replicate the original French rhyme-schemes in our own 21st-century idiom. In the introductory “To the Reader,” he delivers the poet at his satanic best: “The Devil guides us like a puppet master./Disgusting objects please us very well/Each Day we take another step toward Hell,/Unflinching through a putrid lack of luster.” And in L’Invitation au Voyage, the more soothing: “The ships that dream/on river and stream,/each in an errant way,/is waiting to bear/your least desire/wherever it wants to be.” Poochigian’s translation is scholarly but accessible, an enjoyable hundred and fifty pages followed by the original French. So for a few hours, forget about climate change and omicron and enjoy this new translation of The Flowers of Evil. Then just close your eyes and, like Baudelaire exhorted over 200 years ago, simply dream.