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It’s to be expected that when America’s greatest living poet publishes a translation of one of the greatest and — to borrow a phrase from the titles of old forgotten anthologies — best-loved poets of world modernity, readers would take notice. And they have, so maybe I should think twice before adding more kudos to the pile. But it’s surprising that people haven’t been more surprised by John Ashbery’s decision to undertake a translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations. For one thing, Ashbery has never been known as a man for underwriting the canon. He has been, rather, as a proponent of “other traditions,” to borrow the title of his 1989-90 Norton Lectures at Harvard, published as a book in 2001, which offered a spirited defense of certain kinds of “minor poetry” through sympathetic readings of such overlooked or cultish figures as John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding, and David Schubert. Ashbery’s other recently published translations from the French include a very little-known prose piece by Pierre Reverdy and the poems of Pierre Martory, whose work is apparently as unfamiliar in France as it is in the English-speaking world. While it makes all kinds of sense that someone who loves Roussel or Schubert or Martory would love Rimbaud too, the fact remains that Rimbaud hardly needs the sort of rescue operation that they do. And he’s far from minor. “Rimbaud hallucinates,” as Jean-Luc Steinmetz said, “and creates an epic.” That the epic is conveyed in shreds and tatters makes it no less epic and all the more contemporary. As paradoxical as it ought to be that a poet as rude and rebellious as Rimbaud is part of the world’s literary canon, there he is — jostling for position, maybe, with Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe, and giving them dirty looks. And then, consider how essential it is to Rimbaud’s legend that his meteoric career played itself out by the time he was twenty. By contrast Ashbery, of course, is now in his eighties and still writing up a storm. How curious that the man full of years should turn at last to the writings of the marvelous boy (the epithet more commonly attached to the name of Thomas Chatterton being equally appropriate to Rimbaud).
So how did Ashbery find common ground with the proto-punk who, had he lived his life out to a ripe old age, could have been the famous literary lion of Ashbery’s own teenage years? Maybe it was possible because poetic time is not that of the calendar and poetic life is not the one chronicled by biographers. In poetic terms the intransigent young voyou Rimbaud was already ancient by the time he wrote Illuminations — it could almost be a “late work” in the sense that T.W. Adorno and Edward Said used the phrase — while the poetry Ashbery is writing today is hardly unacquainted with either childlike wonder and adolescent frustration. In his Preface to Illuminations Ashbery writes of “the simultaneity of all of life.” His maturity is not the weary illusion of having gone beyond all that. It’s what he already knew more than forty years ago when he wrote “Soonest Mended,” that:
Tomorrow would alter the sense of what had already been learned,
That the learning process is extended in this way, so that from this standpoint
None of us ever graduates from college,
For time is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up
Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.
Reading those lines of Ashbery’s, or ones written much more recently or even earlier, one would never think to say that his tone has anything of Rimbaud’s about it. And yet one of the delights of Ashbery’s Rimbaud is how clearly one hears Ashbery’s idiosyncratic intonation in it without ever feeling that he has manipulated Rimbaud’s poetry to make it more his own. Simply by trying to find the right words and phrases and lines to communicate the sense and tone of Rimbaud’s poetry, he has discovered something a bit like his own. Suddenly Rimbaud is a direct precursor of Ashbery — or more strangely still, Ashbery a precursor of Rimbaud.
Of course this Ashberyan tone or flavor is all a matter of very specific word choices, like rendering the “niais” of “Parade,” “Sideshow,” as “nincompoops” rather than the “dimwits” or “fools” we find in other versions, or the “subalternes” of “Villes [I],” “Cities [I],” as “flunkies” rather than “underlings.” Perhaps the most Ashberylike of all the Illuminations is “Vies,” “Lives,” in which the poet confess, “I don’t miss my old role in divine merrymaking.” How far other translators seem from this wild ruefulness, as when Wallace Fowlie reduces it to “I do not miss what I once possessed of divine happiness” — which just might work, I admit, if pronounced with a Nawlins accent by an actress playing the part of Blanche Dubois — or Martin Sorrell to “I do not regret my erstwhile share of divine gaiety,” which wouldn’t do even for an academic on his deathbed looking back on his too-many sherries with the English Department. And at the end of the same poem, compare Ashbery’s “I’m really beyond the grave, and no more assignments, please,” with the same two translators’ versions: “I’m truly from beyond the grave, and completely unbeholden” (Sorrell) and “I am really from beyond the tomb, and without work” (Fowlie). Ashbery’s Rimbaud knows he’s putting in a performance, while those of his predecessors are just mumbling to themselves. Not to belabor the point, but allow me one more example, this time from “Villes [I],” “Cities [I].” Fowlie: “For the foreigner of our day, reconnoitering is impossible.” Sorrell: “For the stranger of our time reconnaissance is impossible.” Ashbery: “For today’s tourist, orientation is impossible.” A pedant might object that Rimbaud’s “étranger” is certainly a foreigner and in that sense a stranger but might not necessarily be a tourist — but surely this very slight heightening of specificity on Ashbery’s part amounts to a tiny tweak of Rimbaud’s sense that gives this version a huge gain in immediacy.
Rimbaud’s translators are legion. I’ve briefly indicated Ashbery’s superiority to a couple of them but am I ready to call his translation the definitive Illuminations in English? Ah, but you won’t lure me into that trap! I know full well that “definitive translation” is an oxymoron. And I’m certainly not going to give up my old copy of the Illuminations as Englished by Louise Varèse. Though her niais are merely simpletons, her subalterns subordinates, and her étranger a stranger, still, her Illuminations, which first conveyed the Rimbaldien spirit to me back in the day, still seem to me to do so far better than any of the other versions I’ve read since then until now with the appearance of Ashbery’s. But from today forward his is the one to read first—above all the one to give to anyone who doesn’t yet know anything of this transporting poetry, but also the one, perhaps, to convince a longtime reader that these poems still contain much that is not only “absolutely modern” but absolutely new.