Les Fleurs du Mal
Yesterday I finished reading John Sutherland's Stephen Spender: A Literary Life (Oxford, 2004). For anyone who likes Spender's writing or is interested in the so-called Auden group this book is excellent. I think one of the elements that makes it such a great biography is that the author worked closely with Spender's wife, Natasha, for this project. While that does make this a relatively tame "authorized" biography, her anecdotes and perspective on Spender's life help define his writing.
Regarding a series of lectures Spender gave at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. in 1968, Sutherland writes:
"Spender centered his series on the theme of twentieth-century modernism. The hero of the lectures is Baudelaire—a fellow poet with a lifelong passion for the visual arts and the first critic to use the term 'modernism.' The Frenchman was 'not just a critic, he was also a partisan, an advocate, a polemicist...he wanted an art which was a synthesis of past values with the heroism, beauty and squalor that characterized modern life.'"
Reading over Spender's assessment of Baudelaire, I can't help but think of Jean Michel-Basquiat's answer to an interviewer's query regarding his subjects: "Heroism, royalty, the streets." Basquiat's recent retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum was full of beautiful evil flowers. Making me think of that great rap song whose lyrics consist of "Puerto Rico!" being chanted over & over with the choicest beats.
As Nick pointed out recently at his blog, much of Spender's later years were spent hustling for temporary teaching positions and speaking engagements around the globe to pay his bills. Even after being knighted, his final entry in his journal (6 July 1995) is regarding worries he has about his wife's financial affairs after his death.
Of course, Spender undoubtedly lived a privileged and cosmopolitan life, outliving most of his friends. But reading about his continuous financial worries is a sharp reminder of the monetary uselessness of poetry.
Spender's comments on Baudelaire above, and at other moments in the biography, have led me to the book I plan to begin reading today (along with the final pages of Ernesto Cardenal's memoir): Enid Starkie's Baudelaire, which has been sitting on my bedside shelf for almost two years now. Her Rimbaud remains a crucial text for me, so I expect great things from her Baudelaire bio.
An e-mail I got from a friend recently concerning my poem "Evil Stanzas" reminded me how much I've borrowed or imitated from Baudelaire in my attempts to write, even though I've only read a handful of his poems. But those few poems I first read in college have stayed with me with continued intensity, particularly his (allegorical) use of evil as a motif and subject. Augmenting this cult of Baudelaire, I would also have to mention Walter Benjamin's fantastic essays on that poet's relationship (in life and on the page) with Paris and the concept of the city in general.
Sutherland's exhaustive and compelling portrait of Spender reminds me of Jacinta's recent post ("El poeta desayuna"), which recounts a brief encounter she had with the Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas in Madrid. She writes:
"Anyways, he doesn't look at me, he only has eyes for his bread, even though there's no one else in the dining room with twenty-something empty tables, and I retire and leave him there, Gonzalo Rojas eating alone.
But I remember that image later on: the empty dining room, the sunny morning in Madrid, the white table cloths, the silence, his wise animal profile. And it seems to me it was a good way of being with The Poet."