If translation sounds like a dusty occupation, you don't know the fearless work of Aaron Poochigian. This onetime Minnesotan spilled blood at the Guthrie Theater in 2020 with his visceral, contemporary version of an ancient Greek classic: Euripides' "The Bacchae." Now, with a bold new translation of Charles Baudelaire's "The Flowers of Evil," Poochigian takes up the biggest gauntlet in modern French literature — and succeeds.
Baudelaire was "the first seer, the king of poets, a true God," according to his countryman and fellow bad boy Arthur Rimbaud. A creature of 19th-century Paris who hung out with the city's greatest painters; a drug addict and libertine; a fallen Catholic who never gave up sparring with the divine, Baudelaire helped establish a fashion for bohemian excess that continues to this day. He died, little known, at age 46, but his artistic influence has spread everywhere.
American poets have translated this Parisian dandy repeatedly, as if he were an antidote to our national cult of self-help and enforced optimism. He's been especially attractive to formalists — Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Lowell, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Allen Tate and others — who saw how Baudelaire's use of traditional rhyme and meter added to the expressive wallop of his sordid subjects. Poochigian charts a similar course through 126 poems, capturing the full sweep of Baudelaire's 1857 masterpiece, which was meant to be read as a sequence.
This new translation comes with notable trimmings: an expansive introduction by poet Dana Gioia, and a personal essay by bestselling novelist Daniel Handler ("Lemony Snicket"). Both texts underscore the vast cultural reach of this Parisian writer. Want to read Baudelaire in French? The full text of "Les Fleurs du Mal" is also included.
The Flowers of Evil
By: Charles Baudelaire, translated from the French by Aaron Poochigian.
Publisher: Liveright, 400 pages, $27.95.