Tag Archives: illuminations

Davis on Ashbery on Rimbaud

In the New York Times, Lydia Davis reviews John Asbery’s new translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations:

Even a simple problem reveals his skill. In one section of the poem “Childhood,” there occurs the following portrayal of would-be tranquillity: “I rest my elbows on the table, the lamp illuminates these newspapers that I’m a fool for rereading, these books of no interest.” The two words sans intérêt (“without interest”) allow for surprisingly many solutions, as one can see from a quick sampling of previous translations. Yet these other choices are either less rhythmical than the French — “uninteresting,” “empty of interest” — or they do not retain the subtlety of the French: “mediocre,” “boring,” “idiotic.” Ashbery’s “books of no interest” is quietly matter-of-fact and dismissive, like the French, rhythmically satisfying and placed, like the original, at the end of the sentence.

It takes one sort of linguistic sensitivity to stay close to the original in a pleasing way; another to bring a certain inventiveness to one’s choices without being unfaithful. Ashbery’s ingenuity is evident at many moments in the book, and an especially lovely example occurs in the same poem: he has translated Qu’on me loue enfin ce tombeau, blanchi à la chaux as “Let someone finally rent me this tomb, whited with quicklime.” Here, his “whited with quicklime” (rather than “whitewashed,” the choice of all the other translations I found) at once exploits the possibilities of assonance and introduces the echo of the King James “whited sepulcher” without betraying the meaning of the original.

Also see Donald Brown’s review in The Quarterly Conversation.

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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Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

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