A Refutation of Common Sense
An Interview With John Ashbery
Apr 29, 2011
22 Min read time
What book has wanted more to be translated by John Ashbery—the most towering and iconoclastic poet of our time—than the Big Bang of modern poetry itself, Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations? Although scholars still debate when exactly the collection’s poems, almost all of which are in prose, were actually composed, their tonal assurance and stylistic sophistication mark Illuminations as the poet’s most mature work, the final testament of a prodigy who had abandoned poetry by the time he turned 21. Despite his short writing life, Rimbaud looms so large it is impossible to underestimate his impact on the poetry and poets of the last century—Ezra Pound translated him, T. S. Eliot borrowed from and reformulated him, and Hart Crane, in his more ecstatic moods, boasted of himself, “I am Rimbaud come again!”
The enfant terrible of French symbolism has never lacked admiring readers, nor those willing to carefully distinguish between his incomparable accomplishments and his mythically abbreviated life. Rimbaud signaled a sea-change in modern poetics, not to mention twentieth century painting and music (pace Bob Dylan and Patti Smith). The poet David Shapiro has suggested that Picasso’s Boy with a Pipe is an early, significant homage to Rimbaud.
Enter John Ashbery who, at the age of 83, continues to be as prolific as he is lauded, and recent publications attest to an astonishing late-career fertility—Planisphere (2010), Notes from the Air: Later Selected Poems (2008) and Library of America’s Collected Poems, 1957–1987 (2008), A Worldly Country (2008), Where Shall I Wander (2005), and Selected Prose (2004). The weight of Rimbaud’s memory goes back to the beginning of Ashbery’s career. Ashbery read “O Saisons, O Chateaux” at the age of sixteen and knew “it seemed to be poetry as I had never seen it before.” When Some Trees, Ashbery’s very first collection, was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets by W.H. Auden, the connection cropped up again, though this time vaguely censorious. Ashbery recalled once in an interview: “He mentions me as being a kind of successor to Rimbaud, which is very flattering, but at the same time I’ve always had the feeling that Auden never read Rimbaud. He was very outspokenly anti-French.” Here are Auden’s own words, which not only tie the two poets together, but also single out Illuminations for parallel consideration with the then emerging Ashberian project:
Where Wordsworth had asked the question, ‘What is the language really used by men?’ Rimbaud substituted the question, ‘What is the language really used by the imagining mind?’ In “Les Illuminations” he attempted to discover this new rhetoric, and every poet who, like Mr. Ashbery, has similar interests has the same problem. . . . the danger for a poet working with the subjective life is . . . realizing that, if he is to be true to nature in this world, he must accept strange juxtapositions of imagery, singular associations of ideas, he is tempted to manufacture calculated oddities as if the subjectively sacred were necessarily and on all accounts odd.
Auden was more blunt in a letter to the runner up for the same prize, Frank O’Hara: “I think you (and John [Ashbery] too, for that matter) must watch what is always the great danger with any ‘surrealistic’ style, namely of confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue.”
That said, Ashbery’s translation of Illuminations may come to be seen as the definitive version for the very reasons Auden so hemmed and hawed over. Poetry since Rimbaud, and now since Ashbery, has changed. The contemporary poem is more and more a “working with the subjective life,” whether documented, invented, or deconstructed. Ashbery’s advantage as translator is intimately related to his gifts as a poetic stylist: maximum verbal invention with the greatest tonal control. In fact, the closer one examines his encyclopedic odd-job vocabulary, his penchant for shifty pronouns and astonishing ease as ventriloquist, his acrobatic mastery in nearly every poetic form he selects (not least the prose-poem), the more one sees Rimbaud alive again, redefining American lyricism as we’ve known and know it.
I sat down with Ashbery in his Hudson, New York home to talk about this recent project and his double life as poet and translator.
Adam Fitzgerald: So tell me how this all came about, you translating Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations.
John Ashbery: It came about because Bob Weil, an editor at Norton whom I know and have seen many times over the years, said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could publish a book of yours.” And I said, “Yes, but I write poetry and I have a publisher whom I’m very satisfied with.” Anyway, at some point he said, “Well, maybe you could do a translation? Is there anything you’d like to translate?” And I thought well, I’ve always wanted to translate Illuminations. I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to translate for the joy of translating it, with the possible exception of a certain text by Julien Gracq.
F: Who was Julien Gracq?
A: A somewhat surrealist prose writer. He was born in 1910, and he lived well into his nineties. He wrote highly admired but not much talked about surrealist novels. Au château d’Argol was one, andUn beau ténébreux, which I read many years ago, when it was published by New Directions as The Dark Stranger. I wanted to translate a novella-length piece, La Route, or The Road, but I found someone had already done it.
F: Gracq still remains pretty off the radar, I’m assuming.
A: A bit, yes. He didn’t live in Paris, but in the Vendée, west of Paris towards the Atlantic. I don’t think he belonged to any literary circle.
F: What was the actual experience of translating Illuminations like?
A: It was a stimulating exercise for me because it got me thinking about my own writing as I was doing it. Translation is sort of like writing, but it’s not: it’s a parallel activity. Meanwhile, Bob Weil had edited Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf translation, Simon Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and R. Crumb’s Genesis—not exactly a translation, but an interpretation of a classic by an eccentric contemporary artist. So he was thinking along the lines of pairing the right translator with the right text, hopefully to make a commercial success of it. We’ll see if that happens!
F: When did you finish the first of these translations?
A: I had once translated “After the Flood” just as a kind of exercise about ten years ago, at least. I remember Jorie Graham once saying to me she was going to translate Illuminations, and that I should let her know if I was going to. It was sort of like “dibs.” I don’t know if she ever did the translation.
F: Did you tip her off?
A: [Laughs] No, I didn’t. But I should have!
F: Why did you stop after the first one?
A: I didn’t know of anyone who would be interested in publishing it. There are things I never follow through on. I’ve translated a poem by Baudelaire, another one beside the one I published. And one by Nerval.
F: Can you remember abandoning any other large-scale translation projects?
A: I had intended to get a Ph.D. and do a dissertation on Raymond Roussel, who at that time was completely unknown even in France, or pretty much. I had forgotten how much material I’d amassed. I’ve been having an assistant go through it because there’s going to be an exhibition on him in Spain and Portugal. I own a couple of original photographs of him, among other things. I discovered translations I had begun from his novel Locus Solus, and also the first act of one his plays completely and neatly typed up, which I actually don’t remember having done.
F: So when exactly did you learn of Bob Weil’s interest and pick the project back up again?
A: I can’t quite remember, but I think it was about two years ago, two and a half maybe. I didn’t do it very steadily. Overall, it took me about a year of not very—what is the word?—not very rigorous work.
F: Were you reading a lot about Rimbaud at the time?
A: I read the Graham Robb Rimbaud for the first time then. I had read the Enid Starkie biography years ago.
F: I wonder if the shadow of Rimbaud’s life, the enfant terrible myth that’s snugly enwrapped around it forever now, influences or means anything when you were translating the poems.
A: No, the Rimbaud myth has become too much of a cautionary tale. I mean look at that movie, Total Eclipse. Nobody knows why he stopped writing so there’s not really much point in thinking about it, or looking for biographical material in his poetry, and I sort of resent the idea that poetry is veiled autobiography. There are several places in Illuminations, for instance, that are supposed to be descriptive of London, where he spent a lot of time, and which was at that time an ultra-modern metropolis as opposed to Paris, which was not yet quite demolished by Haussmann and rebuilt—and it may be a model, of course, but Rimbaud was quite capable of describing a mythological city without needing one to hand. And then there’s the question of his relationship with Verlaine. There’s a poem I translated as “Drifters” that’s been interpreted as his feelings about Verlaine.
F: So the autobiographical approach to poetry doesn’t appeal to you, even curiously so?
A: I resist the idea that a poet can’t invent his or her own life, which may or may not coincide with the real one. In my own poetry, there are autobiographical passages, and there are also ones thatsound as though they’re autobiographical even though they aren’t. I reserve the right to invent my own life story.
F: For the poem “Génie,” which you talk about admiringly in the introduction, one of your favorite poems in the sequence, I know I’ve read a critic who believed that the “he” in the poem could have a biographical flavor, whether about a lover, Verlaine, or some mysterious other. It seemed like a stretch.
A: It certainly doesn’t sound like Verlaine! He comes through as quite an unattractive person. I don’t know of any evidence that Rimbaud had other homosexual relationships. There’s a rumor he was buggered by communards during the Commune, but that’s just speculation. As I said to someone, “Had they no shame!” [Laughs]
F: In Rimbaud Edmund White zestfully performs gay readings of certain texts and how they connect to the life, and also debunks this specific putative episode and how manufactured it was. He tracks how Starkie grossly exaggerated this account by treating it too plausibly as a reality. Starkie was a strict Freudian, I guess, and looking for a reason to explain the “perversity” of the work—so, argues White—therefore he interpreted Rimbaud’s alleged rape as the perfect crux to understand the formation of the life and ensuing poetry.
A: Does White find any other “putative” episodes in Rimbaud’s life?
F: Well, there’s the question of Germain Nouveau who wrote a poem about having the soul of a pederast. It doesn’t seem likely, but . . .
A: They might just have fallen into bed one night. [Laughs] And then there’s the mystery of what happened to him for those four months in London when we have no trace of him. Rimbaud mentions Scarborough in “Promontory” and talks about “Hotels, the circular façades of the Royal and the Grand in Scarborough or Brooklyn.” Since there’s that missing period in England, people say he must have gone to Scarborough, and have even checked hotel registers for that period, but as far as I know nobody has ever found anything. Someone even checked railway and train schedules in order to pin him to this real place. I seem to remember a French writer admitting that Rimbaud was never in Brooklyn, but kind of wishfully thinking that he might have been. Which is very funny. “Rimbaud in Brooklyn”: there’s a project for someone.
F: Sounds like a one act play about Hart Crane! This readerly detective work on behalf of the literal strikes me as a grievance that Rimbaud and Roussel and you have had to deal with, as when people might come up to you and gambit, “So when did you see your first Korean Soap Opera?” Is it frustrating to know that so many people are trying to literalize such imaginative work?
A: Yes; I’ve never seen a Korean soap opera. To give you an example, someone wrote a book about the New York School poets and their love lives. I forget what it’s called. But in the chapter on me he construes my poem “Lithuanian Dance Band” as a love poem to the dead Frank O’Hara, my lover, supposedly. All of this is completely baseless. First of all, O’Hara and I were never lovers for one minute, though we were very close friends. And second, if I had intended to write a poem about my love affair with him—which I wouldn’t have since it never happened—I would have just done so. This poem is about a real person who drove a little car through New York, and it’s deliberately in O’Hara’s “personist” style. What clinches it for that critic is the last line of the poem: Crows pecking the dirt of the field after the harrow has passed. Obviously, it has to be about O’Hara because of the word “harrow,” one of those famous “crypt words” or whatever they call them, which allow anyone to prove what they think you’re saying by pointing to words that sound vaguely similar. So that’s it. Case dismissed. [Laughs] But as Freud allegedly said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a harrow is just a piece of farm machinery.
F: I wonder if your attitude as a reader does allow for some prying and snooping after the literal in contrast to your attitude as writer who should be understandably protective of having their work misinterpreted. For instance, when you’re reading Roussel, is there ever a tendency to guess how it might have come from a more factual realm of inspiration?
A: [Laughs] Yes, I’m sort of guilty of that, now that I think about it. When I was doing my Roussel research I discovered what was at that time his only unpublished work, although there have been others since then. It was, in fact, an introduction to that final novel I mentioned earlier, Documents to Serve as a Framework. It gave the outline of the novel to come. Roussel—in one of his few remarks about his writing, from the essay “How I Wrote Certain of My Works”—said: “I never use anything real in any of my works. With me, imagination is everything.” In his preface it turns out there’s this club in Havana, where the novel is supposedly taking place, dedicated to proving the superiority of Europe over America. All the members after their first meeting are given the task of bringing in examples of this. The problem is that none of the documents really has anything to do with this topic. There’s even one about a great Honduran poet, which would seem to be an example of Central American superiority at least. There’s also an American polar explorer mentioned in one of the episodes who seems to be a fairly superior type since he got to the North Pole, or close to it. That was part of the framework, and maybe that’s why he didn’t want it published, though it was set up in type to go along with the rest of it. It belonged to a Romanian surrealist painter I met in Paris.
So anyway, after they decide to have the first club meeting, as a memorial for the brother of the young woman who founded it, who died tragically and was always a great admirer of Europe as opposed to crass America, they have to figure out what costume she will wear for the inaugural meeting. She suddenly remembers that in a vitrine in their house there’s a Saxe figurine representing the rape or abduction of Europa by the bull, of course, and this seemed like an ideal symbol for the club, as the French term for the rape of Europa can also mean “Europe’s carrying off the prize.” So she adapted the figurine’s flowing drapery, and everyone compliments her on the appropriateness of this costume.
I own the sale catalogue of Madame Roussel’s art collection, which was enormous—some of it first-rate art, stuff by Fragonard and Constable. Pierre Martory once found it in a flea market in Paris. Nobody really knew what it was at the time. I discovered among the objects in the collection an eighteenth-century Saxe porcelain figure of Europa. This was a real thing that had been in the family for years, and which Roussel could have seen every day. I proudly claimed this as an example challenging Roussel’s claim that everything had been imaginary. But my point was almost as specious as that of the critic mentioned above.
F: Is there a connection between Roussel and Rimbaud? Can we be sure that he read Rimbaud?
A: It’s highly unlikely, since his tastes ran to popular, even “trashy” literature of his period. He did read Victor Hugo, a great passion of his—he even has a poem called “The Soul of Victor Hugo” (since Hugo was considered the greatest writer ever). Baudelaire? Possibly, since he was pretty canonized by that time, too. But it’s hard to know if Roussel had any kind of appreciation of the poetry or literature that is still read today. He got along quite well without it. You’ll remember he considered Jules Verne the greatest writer who ever lived. Rimbaud also liked literary junk. In theIlluminations, he speaks of “the lamp that lights up the table, these newspapers I am a fool for rereading, these books of no interest.” Also in A Season in Hell, he says: “I loved stupid paintings, decorated transoms, stage sets, carnival booths, signs, popular engravings; old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books with nonexistent spelling, the novels of our grandmothers, fairy tales, children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naïve rhythms.”
F: I remember you also quoted those same lines as an epigraph for your essay on Joseph Cornell from Reported Sightings. This must be something crucial you share with both writers—a love of reading non-required reading.
A: I guess it is. Why else would I read my upstate newspaper every day?
F: So what are the books of no interest you love?
A: Travel books. Biographies of little-known people. I’m just now reading one about the nineteenth-century Scotsman William McGonagall, often considered the world’s worst poet.
F: Is there a specific appeal you have in mind when you grab sources from non-canonical literature: a soap opera or a local newspaper? I imagine there’s a sort of joy gained by liberating elements from demotic, lowbrow culture into something supposedly stiff and stuffy like “lyric poetry”?
A: Why shouldn’t those elements be allowed in? Poems are like dreams, and dreams are very eclectic. I think maybe Rimbaud was the first poet to do that, to write poetry like dreams.
F: Ah, Valéry’s “Before Rimbaud all literature was written in the language of common sense.”
A: Yes, exactly.
F: Does it bother you when your work is described as a refutation of common sense?
A: No, I couldn’t agree more. [Laughs]
F: Is it hard, therefore, for you to enjoy reading work too rooted in the laws of common sense? I can’t help thinking of a Rimbaud or Ashbery poem as an occasion to go a little screwy, not unpleasantly, with logic.
A: You mean like Robert Frost? Yes, I would say that is hard for me to enjoy. Then again, I don’t know if you can divide up poetry into what makes sense and what doesn’t. In any case, Rimbaud’s poetry accepts and feels beyond common sense, as you were saying, and feels, as I was saying, like the stuff of dreams. No other French writer did this. I’ve often thought that the French language was far too meticulous to allow for such wanton freedom. The fact that he managed without even thinking about it is miraculous. I’m not sure if it ever happened again, even in the poetry of the surrealists, though they’d like to think so.
F: Why does [Illuminations] feel different than A Season in Hell? Do you prefer Illuminations?
A: I like both of them, but A Season in Hell is maybe too loud. In Illuminations he speaks in many different registers. It’s more varied.
F: One of the differences between you two seems to be his obsession, at least imaginatively, with violence and cruelty—a quality that doesn’t seem to resonate in your poetry at all.
A: Probably not.
F: Do you figure Rimbaud thought of the prose poem like we’d think of it today, like a James Tate poem, or something we’d see by you?
A: He uses the term in a letter he wrote. He says, “I’ve been writing some poems in prose.” And he would have had the example of Baudelaire and the person who is technically credited with inventing prose poetry, Aloysius Bertrand, who wrote Pierrot Lunaire.
F: So what’s the difference, in your opinion, between prose and prose poetry?
A: I think one has to look for or be awake to the sudden appearance of poetry in prose. I’ve mentioned this when people ask me what I was trying to do in Three Poems. My answer was I wanted to call attention to the poetic quality of prose that seems totally prosaic, and which can sometimes suddenly grab and move you to tears while reading a newspaper or a timetable or a guide book, and penetrate that source of the awe with which we respond to poetry.
F: Do you ever try to see translation as an entirely creative act, no matter what else it is, in the spirit of Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl?
A: Christian’s book is a new form, where the translation and his own poetry form a new substance, which is very interesting. In the translations I’ve done, I’ve always attempted to be entirely accurate. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve not tried to do that, where I manipulated the original for my own expressive purposes. That mode hasn’t interested me yet, but it could—if I think of it.
F: Then on the whole you favor the literal word choice? You’ve talked about sometimes choosing the cognate—
A: Even if it sounds too literal? Yes, but sometimes not. It’s always an individual case. I translated “Parade” as “Sideshow,” though others have not, though Louise Varèse did. I still haven’t figured out the precise English word for it. Say in a carnival where there are sideshows inside a tent, and the manager out front talks about all the wonderful happenings inside, and there’ll be a parade of cuties across the stage to try to entice the public in, and all that makes up the word “parade.” There’s also a ballet Parade with music by Satie and a curtain by Picasso.
F: So you favor instinct versus a methodology for translating.
A: Yes, I’m very much against canonic rules.
F: Do you worry about comparing your translations to other versions?
A: I have looked at other versions. Sometimes to find out what the hell Rimbaud meant, and in other cases to avoid repeating what someone else has come up with. I didn’t let it become a rule.
F: Getting back to your introduction and your fondness for “Génie,” why does it mean so much to you?
A: It just seems very beautiful. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
F: About the oft-quoted formulation Je est un autre (“I is someone else”), which you quote in the intro, do you think this has been terribly misunderstood?
A: I think too much has been made of it as the lynchpin or key to everything Rimbaud wrote. There’s always the temptation to do that when a poet comes up with a line that sounds like an exegesis of their writing, like [William Carlos] Williams’s “No ideas but in things”—which I never thought he meant to be a pronouncement on the way poetry ought to be, but was just something that came up in that particular poem.
F: You write, beautifully, “The self is obsolete” as a counter-riff on this famous phrase. Could you elaborate?
A: The self has been replaced by the simultaneity of all of life, everything happening in a given moment becomes the source of the poem, rather than the writer thinking about what he or she is going to write.
F: So writing’s a healthy way of escaping our good ol’ selfhood?
A: No, I think it’s unhealthy! [Laughs] The cubists’ coexisting views of objects that could not be seen by the human eye the way they’re portrayed on the canvas is a way of going beyond the self, or acknowledging it’s no longer doing its job.
F: That a single perspective is inherently limited when it comes to art?
A: Or that there’s no reason why multiple ones shouldn’t exist, too.
F: Much has been made about how Rimbaud was obsessed with altered states of consciousness, “the systematic derangement of the senses,” all that jazz. Have you ever tried that yourself, to compose poems in an altered state—drinking or smoking something?
A: I once wrote a poem when I was stoned to see if it would be any different but it wasn’t. It’s called “Hittite Lullaby,” it wasn’t particularly good, but I guess I liked it well enough to publish it. Even a sip of wine and I’m unable to write. Yeah, I don’t know why but it’s just the way it is. I’ve never tried to write when I had anything to drink. I know I have a reputation as a drunk. It’s because my drinking was always done in public.
F: OK, you mentioned before how you peaked into other translations to help understand some of the more enigmatic utterances of these poems. What does Rimbaud mean by “We have no desire for complex music”? I’m reading the line from the version you have in a bound galley, so maybe it’s changed.
A: I puzzled over that for a while. It was a hard nut to crack. I changed the phrasing in the final version to “Wise music is missing from our desire.” Savant is the adjective, and it means scientific, or knowing, wise. But who knows what this means? I have a Rimbaud dictionary that I got in Paris about twenty years ago, but I found I didn’t use it at all when I tried to translate him, even though words occur that do puzzle one.
F: Yes, like when you choose “buggered” to give us the line in English from “After the Flood”: “They are sent off to be buggered in cities, swathed in disgusting luxury.”
A: Other translations have been too ambiguous—no one wanted to use that word. [Rimbaud translator] Wallace Fowlie was apparently ashamed. Didn’t want to “go there.”
F: Luckily, you did!
This interview is part of BR’s special package celebrating National Poetry Month.
April 29, 2011
22 Min read time