The Illuminated Text: John Ashbery translates Rimbaud

by Claude Peck

Two remarkable artists join hands across time—and across the chasm of some of the most idiosyncratic French ever written—in a new translation by John Ashbery of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (W. W. Norton, $24.95). The project makes so much sense that one wonders why someone didn’t think of it sooner.

Ashbery, for one thing, long has been interested in French language and literature. He moved to Paris in the mid-1950s on a Fulbright, and ended up staying there for most of the next ten years. He began and later abandoned a doctoral dissertation on the avant-garde writer Raymond Roussel. He has written about and translated Roussel as well as other French writers, including his former partner and longtime friend, Pierre Martory.

Rimbaud and Ashbery are radical practitioners who have divided critics and readers. Ashbery says of Rimbaud that he “resembles no one else”; the same could be said of Ashbery. And when, in his Preface to this translation, Ashbery notes that “absolute modernity was for Rimbaud the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second,” he seems also to provide a précis of his own unique aesthetic.

The similarities, however, end there. Rimbaud, that most audacious and revolutionary poet of the 19th century, did all of his writing between the ages of fifteen and twenty, then quit. Ashbery began writing poetry seriously in high school before attending Harvard in the 1940s, and he continues to write and publish in his mid-eighties. He has issued twenty-nine volumes of poetry as well as books of journalism, criticism, and even a novel. His newest book of poems,Planisphere, came out in 2009.

In a phone interview from his home in Hudson, New York, Ashbery talked about “Les Illuminations,” translation, and his own regard for the man of whom he writes: “If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.”

Claude Peck: How old were you when you first read Rimbaud?

John Ashbery: I think I was sixteen. At that time a slightly older friend of mine told me about him and read “O Saisons, O Chateaux” to me, in English. I had high-school French then, but couldn’t read Rimbaud. It seemed just wonderful. The second line is, “what soul is without its flaw?” I don’t know, it seemed to be poetry for me as I hadn't seen it before. A few years later, when I was in college, I bought the Louise Varèse translation of Illuminations, which I still have, dated 1946, with a little sticker in it from The Personal Bookshop in Boston. (It seems funny today that there could be such a thing as The Personal Bookshop.) I read that then, along with the Wallace Fowlie translations. About ten years later, I went to France and actually started to learn the language, and read him in French around 1955.

CP: Did Rimbaud’s writing influence your own poetry?

JA: Yes, certainly, though it’s hard to say how, exactly. When I was in high school the 20th-century poetry they taught was mostly limited to Frost, Millay, and Robinson, and though I was interested in them, it wasn’t until I discovered on my own poets like Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane and Auden, and of course, Rimbaud, that I really got involved in modern poetry.

CP: Among French poets of the 19th century, do you like Rimbaud best? Who else?

JA: Lautréamont's Maldoror was published by New Directions in the early ’40s—I read that when I was in high school, and that was another big influence. More so than any of the other 19th-century French poets, I would say, including Baudelaire, whom I didn’t read until later.

CP: When did you begin working on Illuminations?

JA: I translated the first one ten or fifteen years ago, thinking it would be fun to do the whole thing, someday, maybe. Since I now do know French, it has become a sort of exercise, to translate things I like and that might perhaps influence my own poetry in a good way. Then I never went any further with this project, like so many other projects of mine, and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that an editor at Norton, Bob Weil, whom I know quite well, started saying, “I wish we could publish a book of yours at Norton.” I said, “What I write is poetry and I’m very satisfied with my publisher, Ecco." He said, "What about a translation?” They had a big success with Simon Armitage’s translation of Gawain and the Green Knight, and also published Seamus Heaney's best-selling Beowulf. Weil had the idea that if they could match the right poet and translator, they might get something rather successful. I said, “Well, there is Rimbaud,” and he said, “That sounds great.” I told him I always liked Illuminations, maybe I could have a go at that. So that’s how I started doing it, I guess about two years ago.

CP: What was your method? Did you start working directly from the French? Or make a study of other translations?

JA: I just started working on my own, although I won’t deny that I looked at other translations—sometimes as much from being stumped about how to translate something as for not wanting to repeat somebody else’s successful version. A number of them were really excellent, so I didn’t feel I was going to be coming up with a definitive translation. I was doing it really for the enjoyment of it, and for the possible after-effects it might have on my writing, which I can’t really judge and I’m not sure whether they’ve happened. I like Wyatt Mason's version. The Varèse is still pretty good. (I always thought that Louise Varèse was French until I started on this project—she was married to the French émigré composer Edgard Varèse, but was actually born Louise McCutcheon, in Pittsburgh.) The poet Donald Revell, a friend of mine, has published excellent translations of both A Season in Hell and Illuminations.

CP: Wallace Fowlie is said to be a more literal translator of Rimbaud.

JA: I myself try to be very literal, and I frequently use cognates even when they might sound a little strange in English, just to stay as close as possible to the original.

CP: Are there times when that doesn’t work, when you have to abandon the literal and float above it, for the sense and the sound?

JA: Oh sure, on every page, many times.

CP: When it’s a Thursday morning and you are working on Rimbaud, do you have stacks of books and other translations, or is it just you and the French version?

JA: I work directly from the French, with three gigantic dictionaries!

CP: Can you work on translation at the same time as you write your own poetry?

JA: Sure. No problem about that. I don’t write poetry every day, by any means. Or even every week, so I have lots of free time. I was doing both simultaneously.

CP: Was it a joyous process, or hard work? Or some of both?

JA: I would say joyous. I think I probably have blocked out the hard-work part, but even that was always fun. How am I going to translate this sonuvabitch? [laughs] How dare he make it so difficult? It was always stimulating.

CP: Why has Rimbaud appealed, over the years, to various music icons, from Jim Morrison to Patti Smith?

JA: Bob Dylan, I think, also. Rimbaud has always appealed to misfits and delinquents, who are very often poets. Poets are very often of those persuasions. And he was so utterly an outlaw, in such a profound sense of the term. His bisexuality, for instance, if that’s what it was—he wasn’t even homosexual, as far as I know. Verlaine seems to have been his only male lover, and he lived with a mistress in Africa. He doesn’t seem to have ever thought about, “am I straight, am I gay?” or whatever, but just went about living each day as it came along, with its own set of questions and phenomena. He could be a real shit, too. These are all things that, how shall I say, delinquent poets glom on to and start running with. Also the fact that his poetry is totally un-paraphraseable is something that I and many other poets are trying to achieve—something that can be said in no other way, at which point it becomes poetry.

CP: In his biography of Rimbaud, Edmund White uses the word “inedible” to describe Rimbaud and to explain the enduring fascination with his writing and life. In another food metaphor, you wrote something similar in discussing Roussel, saying that commentators and critics of different stripes are drawn to his work because it can be “served with any sauce.” Is this true also of Rimbaud?

JA: Yes. The French idiom is accommoder à toutes les sauces—serve up the same topic with every kind of commentary. That’s definitely true for Rimbaud, as for Roussel. Both are totally sui generis.

CP: Did the intense work on Rimbaud lead you to other, new appreciations of Rimbaud, or other insights into your own work?

JA: I think, in a kind of invisible way, it encouraged me to greater freedom in my own writing, but this is something that always seems to happen anyway. At least I hope it does. But the example of this great mind in the 19th century writing such incredibly off-the-wall, provocative lines . . . Let me dip into the book a minute and give you an example. Here, from “Cities I”: “a few red velvet divans, they serve arctic beverages, whose price varies from eight hundred to eight thousand rupees.” This is in the sort of surrealist city that he’s describing. What the hell is he talking about? And yet he said it, and it couldn’t be said in any other way. This is one of the poems that's supposed to be descriptive of London. It undoubtedly is, but I really hate the tradition, particularly among French academic critics, of trying to link everything in his poetry to something that was part of his biography. There’s another poem in which he mentions Scarborough, the English sea resort, and Brooklyn in the same sentence. There’s a period of several months when he was in England, and nobody knows what he was doing. He had left London, and therefore people have tried to trace him to Scarborough, just because he mentions Scarborough, and I think there may even be some critics who are somehow hoping to trace him to Brooklyn! But no one has seriously tried to do that. [laughs] There is always the idea that if a poet writes something it must have some direct bearing on his life or experiences, which is not what happens at all. It's as though Shakespeare would have had to visit Verona in order to write Romeo and Juliet. The best parts always seem to come from something totally unlived and/or unimagined before.

CP: In yet another Rimbaud biography, Graham Robb says that Rimbaud’s “refusal to adopt contemporary prejudices” is what makes Illuminations “such an excitingly alien work.” Do you agree? What made Rimbaud adapt style and content that was so alien to most readers and critics in his era?

JA: Yes, alien. I think that’s exactly it. It says it better than I’ve been trying to.

CP: What does it mean to you, as someone still actively writing poetry in his eighties, that your subject here stopped writing at about the age of twenty?

JA: That’s puzzled everybody, of course, even young poets. One regrets the fact that he didn’t go on writing, because what he did write was so wonderful; there could presumably have been many more wonderful poems to come. On the other hand, that’s the way he did it, and maybe there was no other way. He stopped when he had to, or more likely when he wanted to. It seems to have been a question of his just sort of closing the book on poetry one day and going on to something that interested him more, which was his trading and life in Africa. For some reason this outweighed poetry as a life experience.

CP: In the 1950s in New York, was Rimbaud someone to talk about, to read, to enthuse about?

JA: Yes, I’m sure we did. O’Hara and Koch loved Rimbaud. He was one of the divinities in the poetry stratosphere.

CP: The painters, too?

JA: I guess so—I don’t remember anyone not being interested in Rimbaud.

CP: Why did you choose to translate Illuminations as opposed to some other body of work?

JA: Well, there are three major works—A Season in Hell, which I could have gone for. I love that, too. And The Drunken Boat is his breakthrough, sort of like Huck Finn’s raft adrift in 19th-century France. A Season in Hell is somehow more clamorous than the Illuminations, which have a kind of ripeness about them, as though he had to live through a season in hell to have written them.

CP: Among the Illuminations, do you have favorites?

JA: One is definitely the first one, “After the Flood,” and the two “Cities” poems. . . also “Promontory,” “Genie,” and “Parade,” which I translated as “Sideshow.” That’s a difficult word to translate, because it sort of means parade, but it also refers to the patter about a show that a barker gives at a carnival to get people to go in. There’s a Seurat painting that shows that sort of scene, and it’s also called “Parade.” That’s one case where I chose not to use the cognate because I thought it would be distorting it.

CP: What other titles and lines did you play around with?

JA: Well, there were many, I guess. For example, "Vagabonds" I translated as "Drifters." Vagabonds sounds a bit too jolly and operetta-like (as in "The Vagabond King"), whereas "Drifters" has the required slightly sinister overtone. Or so I thought. And at the end of "Cities (II)" I have "from whence issue my sleep and my slightest movements." I'm aware that "from whence" isn't quite correct—though it’s often accepted, as in the Psalms' "the hills, from whence cometh my help." But I felt that in the context it might sound prissily correct.

CP: You assert in your Preface that for Rimbaud, “the self is obsolete.” But Robb finds the prose poems to be “a chaotic identity parade” and “a search for a missing person who never existed.” Are the two notions at odds?

JA: Perhaps both of these stem from his famous line, “Je est un autre,” or “ 'I' is another.” Which is from his “Lettre du voyant,” the seer’s letter. The I who writes poetry is not the I we are accustomed to dealing with in our daily lives. I think that’s what I meant, and maybe what Robb had in mind, too.

CP: In closing, let me ask about your own affinity for Rimbaud. Do you consider him “difficult”?

JA: One of the Rimbaud poems I read early on was his famous sonnet of the vowels, where he assigns different colors to the various vowels. That seemed to make perfect sense to me, at the age of sixteen. It didn’t require any explanation. I also read Gertrude Stein at about that age and again felt there was nothing at all strange or peculiar about this writing. I recognized it as poetry right away, as with the colored vowels. There’s also an early lyric where he says, “On summer evenings I’ll walk through the fields with the grass pecking at my wrists”; since I grew up in the country, and did that myself in the summer, that was one of the first ones I liked especially, because of both the strangeness and the familiarity of it.


Translating Rimbaud

The writings of Arthur Rimbaud have appeared in widely divergent English versions over the years. The opening line of the prose poem “Conte” (“Tale”), for example, shows some of the options that Rimbaud’s French offers to translators:

Un prince était vexé de ne s’être employé jamais qu’à la perfection des générosités vulgaires.

Wallace Fowlie:
A Prince was tired of merely spending his time perfecting conventionally generous impulses.

Wyatt Mason:
A Prince was troubled by his tendency to act only on his most obvious impulses.

Donald Revell:
A Prince was vexed at never having busied himself with anything but the improvement of crude generosities.

John Ashbery:
A Prince was annoyed at always being occupied with perfecting vulgar generosities.

For another example, here’s the final line of "Conte" ("Tale"):

Rimbaud: La musique savante manque à notre désir

Wallace Fowlie: Our desires are deprived of cunning music.

Wyatt Mason: Our desires lack an inner music.

Donald Revell: The cleverest music falls short of our desires.

John Ashbery (in galley): We have no desire for complex music.

John Ashbery (in final book): Wise music is missing from our desire.

And, from the opening of “Parade” (a title that Ashbery translates as “Sideshow”):

Des drôles très solides.

Husky fellows.

Muscle-bound goons.

Sturdy rogues.

Very robust rascals.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011