A bit of decadence from Beaudelaire and Debussy on a red letter day in my poetry writing.

I finished the first draft of my third sestina yesterday. I know, as with the first and second sestinas too, that I shall be doing some obsessive rewriting but it was a moment to mark in the silent days that that can hang over my study.

I am not complaining – far from it – it is a wonderful thing to be free enough to spend most of the day writing even if nothing of any lasting worth comes out of it. This doesn’t stop me wanting to put a few red  letters on my calendar which could, otherwise look monotonously grey.

For a couple of months now I have been revisiting traditional poetic forms filling in gaps or maybe grand canyons in my ignorance to find out if knowing what I am doing could make any difference to my poetry writing. Probably not some people would say. I don’t agree. I plan to carry on by writing at least three poems in most of the known forms until I can’t stand it any longer. So far, I have found it truly rewarding.

Since starting I have written three villanelles, three pantoums, a testina and three sestinas. I shall be moving on to the sonnet next but that is why today is a natural break. Studying the sonnet will mean at least one new one and a radical rewriting, I hope, of the two that I have already written.

All the above forms, before the sonnet, involve a highly controlled system of repeated lines or words and, obsessive that I am, I have discovered that I love repetition. Maybe I didn’t need to study form to work that one out but I have found a rich seam… I hope. Certainly, even if no one else likes the poems that I have been writing recently, they have given me real pleasure in their making.

I have some friends who mock me for my joy in repeated jokes and circular conversations but it is only now that I have come to see how deeply this stuff is embedded in me. I plan to look back over them all today so I will enjoy them for a few moments before I start to tear them apart.

Charles Baudelaire (1921-1867)

Here is a pantoum, Harmonie du soir  from Les fleurs du mal (The flowers of evil) by the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) who popularised this originally Malaysian form in the 19th. Century. The repetitions add to the heady, opium-fueled obsession – I just love it.

Evening Harmony

Now is the time when trembling on its stem
Each flower fades away like incense;
Sounds and scents turn in the evening air;
A melancholy waltz, a soft and giddy dizziness!
Each flower fades away like incense;
The violin thrills like a tortured heart;
A melancholy waltz, a soft and giddy dizziness!
The sky is sad and beautiful like some great resting-place.
The violin thrills like a tortured heart,
A tender heart, hating the wide black void.
The sky is sad and beautiful like some great resting-place;
The sun drowns itself in its own clotting blood.
A tender heart, boring the wide black void,
Gathers all trace from the pellucid past.
The sun drowns itself in clotting blood.
Like the Host shines O your memory in me!
— Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974)

Harmonie du soir

Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!
Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir.
Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige,
Un coeur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir;
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige.
Un coeur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir,
Du passé lumineux recueille tout vestige!
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige…
Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir!
— Charles Baudelaire

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

And, if you haven’t already swooned away with the decadence, here is Debussy’s setting of the same poem performed by the soprano Barbara Hendricks and the pianist Michel Béroff:

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