Rimbaud Deserves Better

John Ashbery has a new translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, so he writes about it for the Poetry Foundation.

Granted, this is just a blog entry Ashbery probably just threw off in between bites of his lunch, but still, I don’t think someone in Ashbery’s position should be promulgating this kind of a view of poetry.

The polar ice returns in the final Illumination, one of the greatest poems ever written. Here a “genie,” a Christlike figure whose universal love transcends the strictures of traditional religion, arrives to save the world from “all resonant and surging suffering in more intense music.” Yet despite this, “the clear song of new misfortunes” will also reign. How can that be? According to André Guyaux, co-editor of the Garnier edition of Rimbaud that I have used for this translation:

This amazing expression implies that the future will be neither idyllic nor purely happy, as “the abolition of all . . . suffering” might seem to indicate, but that these “new misfortunes” will ring clearer and be preferable to the misery caused by superstition and present-day Christian “charity.”

The genie will usher in an age of sadder but wiser happiness, of a higher awareness than A Season in Hell foresaw, perhaps due precisely to that work’s injunction to be “absolutely modern.”

I’m pretty sure that Ashbery is a smart enough man and a good enough poet to know that this is an insulting way to treat “one of the greatest poems ever written.” Obviously great poetry isn’t about simplistic, moralistic readings like the above.

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I actually read that in Poetry magazine last week and because of Ashbery’s new translation read “The Illuminations” (Revell’s translation) this last weekend. I don’t pretend to understand Rimbaud or even “The Illuminations”, but I’d say that Ashbery’s above bromide summates a lot of what Revell’s end note says. I don’t know that there are a lot of complex patterns happening in Rimbaud’s work yet he’s impressive in his bald but passionate views on living.

I’d be very interested in what others have to say about “Genie” and the rest of the volume.

The question is: what is the point of another ‘new’ translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations ? (while so many French poets have not been translated yet – or badly) Just read Louise Varese’s translation (first published by New directions in 1946), still avalaible, one of the most reliable and accurate attempts.


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