[The Cunning Tower by Kim Davis: March 8, 2011]
Truly there are only a handful of poets writing in English whose each book publication is an event. I won't provide a list, as lists are mainly good for arguing about, but if you start counting them on your fingers you will find that they are to novelists what duckbilled platypi are to ducks. Very rare. There's no serious argument, however, that John Ashbery is one of them.
But it did. Approaching the age of seventy, Ashbery entered a remarkably prolific and fecund phase of his career. He had published four books only in the 1980s, but in the '90s he was showing signs of a powerful second (or third) wind. The book-length poem Flow Chart (1991) had been followed swiftly enough by Hotel Lautréamont (1992) and the volume I had just finished. Can You Hear, Bird? arrived the following year. I then made some progress with his earlier work before he fired off, in quick succession, Wakefulness (1998), Girls On the Run (1999), Your Name Here (2000), the very slim pamphlet 100 Multi-Choice Questions (2000), As Umbrellas Follow Rain (2001) and Chinese Whispers (2002), not to mention a collection of lectures, Other Traditions.
After Chinese Whispers, he finally stopped to sharpen his pencil, and I caught up with him. He had led me a good chase for a man of (then) seventy-five years. But of course he started up all over again. I think I am not alone in thinking this period of "late Ashbery" rich in treasures, but some critics detected a falling away in his most recent collection, 2009's Planisphere, and indeed there seemed to be signs of weakness in a throwaway tone more pervasive than usual; some poems seemed thin, incomplete.
Perhaps the curation of his collected poems in two volumes by the Library of America would be the coda to a remarkable career. Then again, perhaps not. He has clearly been sharpening his pencil again, and has reached back to an early source of inspiration, French poetry.
Ashbery lived in France for some ten years, is fluent in French, and has translated individual poems by Pierre Reverdy, René Char and others. Still, it came as a surprise to me to read (in the New Yorker again), that his forthcoming work would be a translation of Arthur Rimbaud's prose poem cycle Illuminations (Ashbery is surely the master of prose poetry in English). Rimbaud had completed this work by the age of twenty. Was there something appropriate, or just plain strange, in an octogenarian poet reaching back to this work of youth for refreshment?
We'll see, I suppose, when the entire translation becomes available. The excerpt published in the New Yorker, a version of the section "Cities (I)," was, however, revealing. And not in a way I had expected. I read it through and took away the light impression that Ashbery had turned Rimbaud to his own ends. Some passages, and especially the closing lines, seemed pure Ashbery:
"...(T)he eternal west of forests and prodigious plantations where savage gentlefolk hunt down their gossip columns by artificial light."
There were laughs in the poem, and I didn't particularly remember laughs in the original. Out of curiosity, I turned to the poem in French, and to a supposedly literal translation Oliver Bernard (yes, Jeff's brother) undertook for Penguin Classics. To my amazement, it turned out that Ashbery was faithful to Rimbaud's French; more faithful, even, than Bernard. "Faubourg" is "suburb" in Ashbery; in Oliver, less naturally, it becomes "outlying part." "Nabobs," surely an Ashbery word, is there in the French ("nababs"). Ashbery's "savage gentlefolk" is surely much closer to Rimbaud's "gentils-hommes sauvages" than Bernard's rather un-literal "misanthropic gentlemen." "Gossip column" too seems a fair translation of "chroniques" - Bernard renders it simply "news."
The value of a translation which meets high standards of exactitude is obvious, but coming from an original poet of Ashbery's standing, is it a little disappointing? Would we rather have Ashbery's personal take on Rimbaud's poems? In fact, what promises to be extraordinary in this work is the light it reflects on Ashbery's own poetry. Ashbery never directly discusses his poems, but seems to have found a marvelous way to reshape the way in which they are read.
Whoever thought that John Ashbery would begin to sound, not like Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, but like Arthur Rimbaud?