Necessary Evil

By Christina Lay

Part of my morning, pre-writing routine is to read a poem. By doing this I hope to nudge my brain toward a more graceful, flowing state of being. That’s the idea, anyway.

More often than not, it leads me to spend precious writing time on Google Translate, as I try to outwit the interpreter and discover what the poet really meant. My favorite collections are by foreign poets that include the original version of the poem printed alongside the English translation. I entertain a little conceit that I’m teaching myself French, Spanish and, god help me, Czech, in this way.

Currently I’m working my way once again through Flowers of Evil, by Charles Baudelaire. As I was listing the French words and phrases that I wanted to look up and explore further, it struck me that Baudelaire should be the poet laureate for ShadowSpinners.

Here’s part of the list, which doesn’t really require a trip to Google translate to get the gist: Sinistre, mysterieux, malefique, macabre, etrange, ce poison noir, un malheureux ensorcele, flambeau des graces sataniques!

What sort of French I’m a learning here, anyway?

Baudelaire was possessed by the same fascination with the dark side of human nature as we are here at ShadowSpinners. He found a way to make horror beautiful, suffering sublime, death alluring. This snippet from L’Irremeidable (The Irremediable) seems to capture the essence of our shared malaise:

Un Ange, imprudent voyageur

Qu’a tente l’amour du difforme

An angel, rash wanderer, who craves

To look upon deformity


(Irremediable means “impossible to cure” by the way. Had to look up that as well.)

What? Doesn't everyone keep rose brambles around  for photo opps?

What? Doesn’t everyone keep rose brambles around for photo opps?

And because looking stuff up is easier than writing this blog, I had to find out which six poems in this collection were banned one month after the book was published. (Baudelaire was tried for obscenity in 1857). As usual, the reading public found sexual images much more horrifying than horror.

Last week our guest blogger Stephen Vessels spoke most eloquently on why we writers (and painters, poets, filmmakers, etc) are so compelled to create what is termed “horror”. As I mused on my thirty year fascination with Baudelaire and revisited the banished poems— Lethe, Les Bijoux, Lesbos, Femmes Damnes, Les Vamperes Metamorphoses, and To Her Who Is Too Gay— I found myself asking, how is it a poem can threaten the very fiber of society? How can a few paragraphs frighten the powers that be enough to get the poet locked up in jail? (Baudelaire got six months).

I looked up the definition of obscenity, which of course has changed many times over the past 150 years. This is the supreme court “test” I like best—“Whether the tendency of the matter charged is to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.”

Because it’s a simple thing to not read, see or listen to works of horror, what is it that worries us about other people being exposed to these things? (Us referring to society and our shared culture). Do we really think horror inspires more horror, horrible acts? Or is it simply that these are thoughts that should never be admitted to, that might threaten to expose our own inner turmoil?

Victor Hugo said Baudeliare created un noveau frisson, a new shudder, or thrill, in literature.

The new shudder or thrill: when a poet speaks that which should not be spoken, expressing what should not be felt, or thought, or brought to light. That which should never be admitted to. Shameful secrets. Evil tendencies. Baudelaire went too far.  He committed the ultimate literary sin of writing about sex and death.

Obviously there’s nothing I can say on the topic that hasn’t been said, but because it is National Poetry Month, and because Baudeliare still speaks to my hidden dark side over the gulf of a century and a half, I felt I must take note of his bravery. While mulling over what it was I wanted to say, I stumbled across this quote from poet Patricia Smith, (thanks again to S. Vessels) which pretty much sums it up.

“I teach a class called “Writing on the Other Side of the Wall.” The concept is that we constantly write “toward” a wall — sometimes we even get close enough to touch it — but it’s formidable, and it draws us near while pushing us away. The raw, terrifying, necessary writing is on the other side of that wall.”

Baudelaire spent his poetic life on the other side of the wall, writing what was necessary.

I’m  tempted to include all sorts of excerpts glorifying evil here, but I’ll leave us with this, as inspiration for all the creators approaching the wall today.


From The Sun

I practice my fantastic fencing alone

Dueling in every corner with the hazards of rhyme

Stumbling over words like paving stones

Colliding with verse from old dreams sometimes.