Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations
Translated by John Ashbery
W. W. Norton & Company, $24.95 (paper)

To admirers as well as skeptics, Rimbaud has always been more than a poet: martyr, saint, visionary, rebel, prodigy, and hooligan. As Henry Miller wrote in his celebrated study The Time of the Assassins, Rimbaud’s refusal “to accommodate himself to the ways of the world” made art and life into one inseparable drama; he was the poète maudit, without precedent or rival in the sublime wreck of his destiny. I am led to think of a short poem by Paul Celan that seems as though it could have been dedicated to him:

With masts sung earthwards
the sky-wrecks drive.

Onto this woodsong
you hold fast with your teeth.

You are the songfast

Every myth has its origins. Before passing into the hands of curators such as Paul Verlaine, Paul Claudel, and Miller, the myth of Rimbaud the accursed was first propagated by the poet himself. “The real problem,” he wrote, “is to make the soul monstrous.” Or take another example, from John Ashbery’s new translation of Illuminations: “Is it possible to become ecstatic amid destruction, rejuvenate oneself through cruelty!” By terminating the question with an exclamation mark, Rimbaud has, in a sense, already given the reader his answer. Because there is always something fearsome about prodigy, which is connected etymologically to magic and monstrosity, some were all too ready to believe that this boy, who between the ages of sixteen and nineteen turned poetry on its head, was inspired, if not by gods, then certainly by the devil.

Rimbaud published only three books during his short life: The Drunken Boat, A Season in Hell, and Illuminations. Of these, he saw only the first two in print. He handed over the manuscript of Illuminations in unfinished form to his former lover Verlaine, possibly with the idea that he would send it on to Rimbaud’s then–most recent companion, Germain Nouveau. As the story goes, Verlaine gave the manuscript to Charles de Sivry, a composer and the half-brother of his estranged wife Mathilde. Sivry turned the work over to Gustave Kahn, the editor of the symbolist review La Vogue. Kahn would eventually publish it, in 1886, as the work of “the late Arthur Rimbaud.” Rimbaud was still very much alive at the time but was, as Ashbery notes in the preface to Illuminations, pursuing ‘a mercantile career in Africa, trafficking in a dizzying variety of commodities,’ including guns and—according to some, though not Ashbery—slaves. The publisher, unable to locate him, simply assumed he was dead. While Rimbaud eventually learned of the publication of Illuminations through his friend Paul Bourde, he was totally unconcerned with his growing literary reputation and the fate of his work. He had become, as he put it, “someone else.”

These 44 prose and free-verse poems owe their title and final form not to Rimbaud himself but to Verlaine, who claimed several meanings for the title: “flashes of insight or divine illumination, festive lighting or fireworks, colored plates or illuminated panels in a manuscript.” The last of these meanings is particularly evocative, especially since translation itself can be a form of illumination, as one writer brings his or her thoughts and experiences to bear on another’s work and reveals new facets as a jeweler does when cutting or resetting a gem. The best translations of poetry are usually by translators who are poets themselves and who, for one reason or another, show an affinity for the work of a poet in another language. The sources of this affinity are often not only poetic but personal. Some writers also seem to demand retranslation time and again. Think of the seemingly innumerable translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, none of which can claim to be definitive. The case of Illuminations is similar: though frequently translated, it resists closure, always calling for another attempt that will at last—vain hope!—provide a comprehensive grasp of the original.

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.

Imagine an alternate reality where Rimbaud progresses from enfant terrible to celebrated literary elder statesman and you would have John Ashbery.

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.

Though he cannot dispel the myth of Rimbaud the accursed, the “mystic in a savage state” as Claudel called him, because that myth is partly founded on fact, Ashbery can—and, in his version of Illuminations, does—bring to light something new and unexpected. In that famous passage I quoted above, there appears the much-neglected little word “rational.” Ashbery gives us Rimbaud as rationalist. His version of Illuminations is distinctive for prizing fidelity and clarity. Here Ashbery also reveals another aspect of his own protean multiplicity: as a translator he is a careful student of Rimbaud’s meanings and fantastically associative verbal leaps that twist and bend the French language out of its ordinary channels. Only a poet as fluent in both languages as Ashbery could find such ingenious solutions in English to many of Rimbaud’s verbal enigmas. A good example comes in the short poem “Marine” (“Seascape”):

Les courants de la lande,
Et les ornières immenses du reflux
Filent circulariement vers l’est

What is fluid and ambiguous in the original (“les ornières” could be troughs, ruts, or billows) is made clear and distinct. In Ashbery’s rendition:

The currents of the heath,
And the huge ruts of the ebb tide
Swirl toward the east

We can see the grasslands waving in a tidal motion. “Whirlpools” and vortices are everywhere in Rimbaud’s language; in Ashbery’s rendition, they are given a terrestrial fixity.

Certainly Ashbery has no trouble keeping pace with Rimbaud intellectually, and that in itself is high praise. But Ashbery can err in another direction by making the visionary ambiguities of these poems too plain. He shares with many other translators the tendency to chasten Rimbaud’s exuberant diction. (This tendency appears in contemporary translations from the romance languages into English, perhaps because of Ezra Pound’s influence and the post-Imagist preference for what Donald Davie called “purity of diction” in our own poetry.) For example, in “Métropolitain,” “l’ondine niaise à la robe bruyante, au bas de la rivière” becomes “the foolish mermaid in the garish dress, at the bottom of the river.” “Bruyante” could be rendered as “noisy” or “loud”—a better choice, capturing both sound and color—or even, stretching sense for homophony, as “braying.” But “garish” gives the image of the mermaid in her dress an ordinariness that fails to do justice to Rimbaud’s visual and auditory synaesthesia, his disordering of the senses. Nor is “ondine” simply a mermaid; here she is both a siren and one of the foolish virgins of the Gospels, a seductress and a femme fatale, but also, as the British say, “wet,” that is, feeble or silly. One gets a sense here of the Gordian knots confronting the translator.

Ashbery faces these challenges gamely. His versions are limpid and direct, almost denatured. But if there is rarely a loss of meaning—if anything, the images often become clearer—there is an attenuation of feeling. Rimbaud in French is more confusing, angrier, and more intense. Sometimes Ashbery’s sacrifice of ambiguity results in a regrettable diminishing of emotional range. For:

Que les oiseaux et les sources sont loin! Ce ne peut être que la fin du monde, en avançant.

Ashbery has:

How far away the birds and springs are! It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward.

While strictly accurate, something is missing. In the original, there is the suggestion that the birds have vanished and the springs have dried up; the end of the world is advancing ominously toward the speaker, not vice versa. This is an important difference. Ashbery’s speaker would appear to be much more calmly in control of his destiny, taking it all in stride. The reader who has no French is likely to be misled by this coolness.

In Ashbery’s Illuminations we encounter Rimbaud in the guise of a 21st-century urbanite stirring his mazagran in one of the estaminets of Brooklyn.

Then again, I am sympathetic to the translator’s dilemma—not just Ashbery’s but every translator’s. All choices are trade-offs, and no solution is perfect. How does one do justice in English to “Les ‘mazagrans’ fumèrent dans les estaminets”? If Ashbery’s solution, “Tumblers of coffee steamed in the public houses,” loses much of the exoticism of Rimbaud’s diction—neither “mazagran” nor “estaminet” being common words in French—it is also correct and evocative, making the line intelligible by creating an exact mental image without resorting to that dreaded crutch, the footnote. Compare it to Louise Varèse’s “‘Mazagrans’ smoked in the little bars,” and you will see what I mean.

Every translation ends up representing not only its subject but also the translator, whose experiences, beliefs, and values will always inform his or her interpretative choices. As an act often guided by feelings of identification, translation contains a strong element of self-portraiture, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Ashbery has given us a rational and perhaps overly cautious Rimbaud—an insider’s outsider. To an extent, this is a necessary corrective to the longstanding image of the French poet as a demonic genius, but some of Rimbaud’s visionary fire and reckless originality is also lost.

Too often in Ashbery’s Illuminations we encounter Rimbaud in the guise of a 21st-century urbanite, precocious and probably bespectacled, who might be found stirring his mazagran in one of the estaminets of Brooklyn. The problem with this image is that it is too domesticated and familiar. It also overlooks everything that Rimbaud did, said, and stood for after he gave up writing poetry. If he were a young man living today, we would more likely find him traipsing through the rubble of some disaster zone, supplying arms to the rebels, or—still more shocking to our sensibilities—fighting as a mercenary against the rebels for a dictator such as Qaddafi.

Rimbaud wore the persona of the artist with insincerity and carelessness, but his art was utterly sincere. He didn’t care very much about being a poet, but he cared deeply, for a while, about writing poetry at whatever cost. Because of this he still challenges us, controverting the assumptions of the literary world as well as the mores of bourgeois society. We writers and poets who are busy pruning our manuscripts and submitting our verses to contests and little reviews should remember this: Rimbaud rejected us. He despised us. Illuminations is a great masterpiece that exists not because its author won a coveted prize but because he shoved a “bunch of unpaginated and untitled pages” at his ex-lover Verlaine, probably so that he would go away.

Like Rimbaud himself, then, Illuminations remains “absolutely modern” (“One must be absolutely modern,” Rimbaud wrote in A Season in Hell) yet maddeningly elusive. Scholars still dispute the meaning and arrangement of the poems. Poets continue to grapple half-successfully with the task of translating them. But Rimbaud is already beyond us; he has escaped. As he wrote to Demeny: “Author, creator, poet,—that man has never existed!” And the translator who can fully do him justice has probably not yet been born.