Once when I was breaking up with a girlfriend, she told me, “You act like a nice guy, but really you’re not.” Or maybe she said, “You pretend to be a nice guy,” I can’t quite remember. Anyway, I was taken aback. Would it be better to just habitually act like an asshole, rather than trying to do so as little as possible? Although I know my capacity for niceness is, like everyone else’s, limited, I try to cultivate my better qualities to the extent that I can. But then, what if, as a result, someone mistakenly comes to believe that I am nicer than I really am? Does that make me a bigger jerk than the guy who’s just self-evidently a jerk on the surface?
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.