Wednesday, September 21, 2011

John Ashbery's translation of Illuminations reviewed in Boston Review

Robert Huddleston reviews Ashbery's translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, from Boston Review. I’m interested in how Huddleston characterizes Ashbery here (“Ashbery is a rationalist, even a phenomenologist of language”). I love that idea of Ashbery of a rationalist. I’ve always thought of his as a/the poster child for the power of the irrational imagination. Huddleston writes:

At first glance, Ashbery seems like a perfect match for Rimbaud. I would emphasize seems because dans l’occurrence, as the French say, there is something fishy about this “Dancing With the Stars” model of translation.

But first we should consider the dance card: Ashbery himself was something of a prodigy, winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize for Some Trees at 29. He is especially notable for being the only poet ever to win the so-called Triple Crown of poetry (the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award) in a single year for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975). If one measures success by accolades, then Ashbery is Secretariat. Perhaps more surprising, he has also amassed considerable outsider cachet despite this formidable record of insider approval. Ashbery is one of the few “mainstream” poets who is also a darling of the avant-garde.

But for this reason, Ashbery presents an interesting tension with Rimbaud. Imagine an alternate reality where Rimbaud progresses from enfant terrible to celebrated literary elder statesman (“a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” in Yeats’s wonderful phrase) and you would have John Ashbery. But you can’t really imagine it, can you? For then he wouldn’t be Rimbaud. Ashbery is a rationalist, even a phenomenologist of language, tracing the inward contours of perception, the hesitations, digressions, and aporias of thought, which makes him beloved by postmodernists. Rimbaud believed in the “Alchemy of the Verb.” As Claudel observed, the word “like,” that copula of symmetry keeping things intact and in place, approximating without joining, hardly ever appears in his poetry. If Rimbaud is postmodern, he is so by blurring boundaries and yoking heterogeneous elements together by violence. As he wrote to Paul Demeny, in order to be a poet “one must . . . be a visionary, make oneself a visionary through a long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses.” We live now in an unvisionary age, and Ashbery is its poet laureate.

You can read the full review here:


At 9/21/2011 5:42 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

The way this thwarts expectation is interesting. Nevertheless, Rimbaud is a proto-Ashbery in that he was one of those French poets who started the modern thing of pinballing among associations and suggestions instead of making direct, paraphrasable statements. And Ashbery is like Leonard Bernstein in that he has some kind of gay sex appeal that has persisted into his hoary-headed years. That links him to the off-and-on gay and rock 'n roll-sexy Rimbaud. It's a natural pairing.

I haven't had time to read much of A.'s Illuminations, however.

What is it with the French and pinball, anyway? In films by Godard or Carax you see brainy existential loners playing pinball. Strange.

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