On the translation of Baudelaire by Aaron Poochigian

A YOUNG MAN from the provinces arrives in the big city to make a reputation as a poet. He translated the work of others, composed beautifully crafted verse, and became an accomplished chronicler of city life. This is not the story of Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire was born in Paris. As a teenager he began to write some of the poems that would become The evil flowers, and later translated Poe. The young man portrayed is Aaron Poochigian, who was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, trained as a classicist, translated Sappho and Aristophanes, and wrote about New York (and beyond) as a yellowish celebrant of his virtues and its vices. And now he is translating one of his poetic ancestors, Baudelaire (1821-1867). What Poochigian gives us in his Flowers of Evil are stylized, vigorous, clear, robust American poems, a recognizably 21st century Baudelaire.

For a taste of his approach, consider Baudelaire’s introductory poem, “Au lector” (“To the reader”), taking the first stanza as a basic poetic sample. Here is the 1982 translation of the late Richard Howard’s American Book Award:

Stupidity, delusion, selfishness and lust
torment our bodies and possess our minds,
and we maintain our affable remorse
like a beggar feeds his lice.

Here is Walter Martin’s 1997 version:

Sin, work, foolish acts and sophistry
Harasses the flesh and gnaws at the spirit;
We keep our stainless consciences maintained
Like paupers fattening their fleas.

Now at Poochigian:

For all of us, greed, madness, error, vice
exhausts the body and obsesses the soul,
and we continue to feed our sympathetic
remorse in the same way that vagabonds cure their lice.

Such remarkable variance in word choice. Until the fourth line, one could almost assume that the stanzas come from three different French poems. Only Poochigian uses “soul” and the four names in his first line. Howard and Poochigian choose “remorse,” while Martin changes the meaning of clumsy “stainless consciences” entirely. There is some confusion about insect infestation: lice or fleas? Baudelaire gives us the indeterminate “vermin”. Howard selects “beggar” (singular) for Baudelaire’s “beggars”, while Martin has the bureaucratic-sounding “indigents”. Poochigian uses “wanderers” aptly, which adds a suggestion of wandering and transience. Better yet, Poochigian opens with the inclusive phrase “For all of us,” not those dutiful name lists. He captures something typically Baudelairean with the oxymoronic “sympathetic/remorse”. In her excellent introduction to the Poochigian volume, Dana Gioia writes:

For Baudelaire, beauty exists in an endless dialectic between the spiritual and animal elements of human nature. The energy of this dialectic drives Baudelaire’s work. This also explains why his poetry is so difficult to interpret; it does not present static insights, but a dynamic relationship between contradictory forces.

This tense dance of opposites appears all over Flowers of Evil. When it comes to sin and “transgression,” Baudelaire has an adolescent side. You name it, he’ll try it: drugs, hookers, absinthe, Satan worship, all corruption of human body and soul. He delights in offending bourgeois sensibilities. After the publication of his book in 1857, the poet, his publisher and his printer were all prosecuted for offenses against public morals. More importantly, some of the poems still make reading uncomfortable. In a poem that Poochigian translates as “Une carcasse” (“A Carrion”), Baudelaire writes:

The blowflies in his entrails buzzed;
there was also a bubbling horde
the maggots flow like a restless stream
on his torn and living clothes.

And yet this bad boy was a strict formalist. In his “Note on the Translation”, Poochigian pledges his allegiance to this element of the work. The French originals are written largely in alexandrines, which he wisely made no attempt to reproduce. Instead, it relies on English stressed syllabics. Yes, it counts syllables but also pays attention to word stress and doesn’t hesitate to use iambs. The effect is a more conversational reading of Baudelaire’s lines, with less stilted diction and syntax. To contemporary ears, Poochigian’s versions often sound “natural”, especially since his approach also leaves room for humour, as in these stanzas from “To She Who Is Too Gay”:

Sometimes in green and pleasant places
where I dragged my great boredom,
I suffered like, like irony,
the rays of the sun have chewed me to pieces.

And then the spring greenery
so demoralized my heart
that I tore a flower
to punish the bombast of nature.

Despite all his excessiveness, Baudelaire remains a moralist. Yvor Winters observed that his poems often conform to a common poetic structure in the 19th century:[T]the account of an action, situation or object followed by a moral label. Among the poems that Winters enjoyed above all else, regardless of language, was Baudelaire’s “Le Jeu,” translated by Poochigian as “Gambling.” He sets the scene: “pale old courtesans” sit around the “green felt hat” listening to “the screaming stones / and the tinkling metals”. They are spectators at the roulette table, watching the “poets, who waste their sweat and their winnings there”. Baudelaire’s orator in turn watches the courtesans, “paralyzed by accursed illnesses”, who watch the players. The scene unfolds under his “visionary eyes”, as in a dream. Here is the last stanza:

I shivered at my craving for this lot
rushing so recklessly into the abyss.
Drunk on blood there they choose to settle
pain over death, Hell over nothingness.

Poochigian’s Baudelaire is evidence of a continuing golden age of translation from many languages, including Italian, German, and Russian. It’s a good time to be a reader. We stubbornly monolingual Americans, of course, have much to lose, especially in the work of such a musical poet as Baudelaire. Our debt to translators like Poochigian, who are comparatively sensitive to both sound and meaning, is enormous. In his translation note, Poochigian tells us that he attempted to reproduce “the almost magical effect of the originals and to make beautiful in English Baudelaire’s untraditional beauties – disease, vice, intoxication and decadence” .

It helps that Poochigian is one of our best young poets. A Baudelairean strain runs through his own work. A poem from his latest collection, divine americanis called “The Satanists”:

squatting with candles
and all the goodies
the demons appreciate,
in bewitched hope
and totally creepy
many deaths afterwards
at the cemetery.

And here is a memorable dog in “My Political Poem”, from the first Manhattanite: “So cute – one-eyed, scabby nostril, stubby tail.” Attractive and grotesque, a combination in which his French ancestor specialized. Present in Poochigian’s poems, including the translations, is what Baudelaire elsewhere calls “the heavy darkness of communal, everyday existence”, but made lighter, funnier, more bouncy, with gravity muted. WS Di Piero wrote of Thom Gunn: “He admired Ben Jonson and Baudelaire because their little furnace forms – those rhythmic, rhyming meters – could contain feverish appetites and personal anarchy. This is Poochigian and his calibrated tension between orderly form and riot: “forms of furnace”, with equal emphasis on both words.

Earlier I quoted Poochigian’s opening stanza from “To the Reader”. Here is his version of the last stanza of the poem, including Baudelaire’s most familiar lines:

Boredom! Eyes moist, he dreams pulling on
A hookah pipe, split-neck guillotine.
You, reader, know this tender monster of monsters —
Hypocritical reader — man-mirror — my twin!

Poochigian’s interpretation of “like me” as “mirror man” is inspired. As Gioia points out, the poem is written in the first person plural, blurring the identities of poet and reader. We are all concerned.


Patrick Kurp is a Houston-based writer and author of the literary blog Anecdotal evidence.

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