Exploring Modernism: ONE
The 2016 Cafe Writing Days series was prompted by requests from poets who wanted to spend the year exploring some of the formative writers and major texts of English poetry. The aim was to find a provisional pathway through the rich confusion of the terrain. I chose ‘modernism’ as the theme for the series, partly to limit the possible areas we might study and partly because I thought it might help us concentrate on the relationship between poetries of past times and the poetries of our own, and in doing so encourage us develop our own practices in response to the challenges we would meet.
I knew the series would open doors. I knew that if we were lucky, some of those doors would be unexpected ones. I didn’t know that the first Writing Day group would be spending time with the voyeuristic images of Belgian semi-pornographic artist and printmaker, Charles Baudelaire’s friend and illustrator, Felicien Rops.
How did we get to such a startling place? ‘Be careful what you wish for’ is the cliché that comes to hand. You cannot explore ‘modernism’ very deeply – if at all – if you confine yourself to the polite pages of English poetry. English poets have often been quite voluble about their practices, but most of them have not been particularly brave. Starting our journey with the great exception to this, William Blake, it was impossible not to look next to America and to France, to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire – the flâneur, the poet of the modern city, obsessed with its horrors and above all with its decadent sexual underworlds – his vision is so alien to the English tradition that I thought the Rops’ image titled La Parodie Humaine might help us find our way.
The French poet is following a street walker, whose lovely young face is a detachable mask, behind which, but not hidden, we can see the truth of the death by syphilis which is who she really is . In the same year that Les Fleurs du Mal was published , appeared in England the Moxon Illustrated Tennyson with its sinuous and sulky Lady of Shalott. The comparison betwen the Rops and the Holman Hunt, as between Baudelaire’s Poem Une Martyre (which we read on the Writing Day in translation) and the Tennyson poem could happily prompt an entire Cafe Writing Day of its own.
Each Cafe Writing Day generates its own ‘anthology’ – poems written on the Day, or in response to the Day, and then circulated within the group. The Rops’ image provoked powerful and often difficult responses from several of the poets. What their poems had in common was their complete rejection of the moral ethos which made Baudelaire’s essentially decorative treatment of his doomed men and women a genuine poetic possibility. TS Eliot claimed Baudelaire was the great poet of good and evil. Perhaps he was, in the sense that he deals with the subjects, but he seems so fascinated by the alluring poison of decadence, debauchery and excess, and so disgusted by human disease, dysfunction and suffering, that it was hard to find the empathy with the human condition which would have given us a sense that Baudelaire was keeping company with the great English moralist whose poem had opened our Writing Day.