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Category Archives: poetry

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I recently finished a book by Michel Butor called Histoire Extraordinaire; an essay on a dream of Baudelaire. It begins with a dream that Baudelaire recorded at five o’clock in the morning, when it was nice and warm, for his friend Charles Asselineau. (I love the idea of calling a dream nice and warm; it makes me think of a croissant in the morning.) Butor then takes up threads of the dream and with them illuminates much of Baudelaire’s writing, including the translations he did of Edgar Allen Poe’s Extraordinary Stories.

While reading the book I was reminded of one of my favorite prose poems by Baudelaire, called Crowds. Baudelaire is surely one of the first, if not the first, to write of the essentially modern, urban experience of solitude in crowds. What struck me this time when I reread the poem was that it echoes the comments of people I’ve interviewed when they have talked about portraits. Here is paragraph three of Crowds:

The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be himself or some one else, as he chooses. Like those wandering souls who go by looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man’s character. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting.

The whole idea has a vampire quality to it: I love the image of people, wandering souls, walking past portraits in a museum, only to stop in front of one and feel as if they are entering into the life, if only for a moment, of someone else. I recall Erin’s comment when she was in front of the Mona Lisa: she felt as if she had reached across time and experienced someone else’s life.

Doesn’t this mean that we are all become poets in a certain sense when we enter a museum? Or, do we become image-gobbling vampires? Maybe we become both, for the act of observing a painting is one, an act of consumption and two, an act of creation; we create our own experience with a painting. John Dewey, an experience-vampire if there ever was one, speaks of this moment (act) in these terms:

The esthetic or undergoing phase of experience is receptive. It involves surrender. […] Perception is an act of the going-out of energy in order to receive, not a withholding of energy. To steep ourselves in a subject-matter we have to first plunge into it.

After we plunge into the painting (or suck out its blood), we digest it and this digestion constitutes the creation of a unique experience for every person, poet, or vampire.

Paris Spleen, Charles Baudelaire

Art as Experience, John Dewey

Here’s paragraph three in the original: Le poëte jouit de cet incomparable privilège, qu’il peut à sa guise être lui-même et autrui. Comme ces âmes errantes qui cherchent un corps, il entre, quand il veut, dans le personnage de chacun. Pour lui seul, tout est vacant; et si de certaines places paraissent lui être fermées, c’est qu’à ses yeux elles ne valent pas la peine d’être visitées.

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