This is something of an impromptu book review, to mark the publication three weeks ago by FSG of John Ashbery’s Collected French Translations, volume I devoted to poetry, volume II to prose. I take this to be a major publishing event. As do its superb editors Rosanna Wasserman and Eugene Richie, who go so far to quote Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy in a widely reported remark he made to the Guardian in 2008: “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue.” So one of the things these two ample FSG tomes want to officialize is that Ashbery is definitely a player in the Big Dialogue. And therefore, as they say in French, perhaps even nobélisable.
One had always known that Ashbery was an accomplished Englisher of French—his versions of Rimbaud’s complete Illuminations, which probably mark the summit of his career as a translator, appeared as recently as 2011 with Norton, and were prominently reviewed in the New York Times by Lydia Davis. But with these new two volumes, a further portion of his considerable iceberg of translations now lifts into view, establishing once and for all—and this very much pace Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler and various English departments across the country—that his deepest linguistic and imaginative locus lies off-shore, floating somewhere in the mid-Atlantic between New York and Paris, and that he is read at one’s own peril if grounded exclusively in an triumphalist American mainland tradition of Emerson, Crane, or Stevens, something that Marjorie Perloff has of course been railing against all along.
To begin with the prose volume first—although it gets rather difficult to distinguish between prose and poetry here (other than the fact that in this edition the poetry is printed with the original en face, unlike the prose)—Ashbery’s most substantial and sustained encounter, which reaches back to the mid-’50s, has been with the work of Raymond Roussel, to which he was first introduced by Kenneth Koch and on which he briefly considered writing a doctoral dissertation with Germaine Bréé at NYU, before—fortunately for us all—deciding to return Paris, where he lived through 1965, editing the magazine Art & Literature, writing art criticism for the Herald Tribune, and now and then translating pulp detective fiction from French to English under the pseudonym “Jonas Berry” (which is how his name sounded to the French). In addition to an excerpt from Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique, this volume also includes his versions of Documents to Serve as an Outline. Since these are just his “Collected” and not “Complete” translations, there is apparently a fuller volume in the works that will contain the remainder of Ashbery’s research into Roussel—much of which he made available to his friend Mark Ford for Republic of Dreams, his fine biography of the author of Locus Solus (the name of another magazine with which he was involved in Paris, founded by Harry Mathews). When Ashbery was asked at a small informal launch of these new Collected French Translations three weeks ago what drew him above all to Roussel’s work, he replied that he admired the way the latter had achieved a perfectly neutral, almost school-textbook style of French that managed to demonstrate no affect whatsoever. Jonathan Galassi, in the audience, commented, “But John, you’re poetry is not about having no affect, it is about displacing affect.” Which was pretty sharp, coming from his publisher. Translation as displacement. And displacement, precisely, of affect.
Besides the Roussel, there are two other important chunks of prose in this volume. The first is Giorgio de Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros, passages of which read uncannily like Ashbery at moments, especially in the infinitely recessive and recursive perspectives of their long, meandering sentences, which suddenly stop to change direction, like a quarter horse, on a surrealist dime. The other big chunk is Ashbery’s complete translation of Reverdy’s hugely underestimated novella The Haunted House (first published in 2007 in Brooklyn by Black Square Editions and the Brooklyn Rail)—reminding us that Ashbery has also been a novelist à ses heures (A Nest of Ninnies, with James Schuyler). The rest of the volume is made up of shorter prose texts by Mme d’Aulnoy (a childhood fairy tale favorite), Odilon Redon, and Alfred Jarry; Artaud’s correspondence with Rivière (first published in Art & Literature in 1965); excerpts from Georges Bataille’s novel L’abbé C; brief writings by Henri Michaux (for an exhibit catalogue), Michel Leiris (on Roussel), and Dalí (on de Kooning); and ending with essays by Jacques Dupin (on Giacometti) and Marcelin Pleynet (on the Image of Meaning according to the gospel of Tel Quel).
To turn now to volume I, the translations from French poetry. It is a surprise and a delight to see that, organized chronologically, this anthology kicks off with a selection from the early seventeenth-century sonneteer Jean-Baptiste Chassignet, first rediscovered by Nerval in his 1830 anthology of early modern poetry, then not receiving a proper edition until 1967, which is when Ashbery’s attennae picked up on him. Leaping forward two and a half centuries, the moves from the mannerist Chassignet to the neo-baroque Baudelaire of “Paysage,” the first of his Tableaux parisiens. Arrayed into carefully rhymed couplets, “Landscape” is one of the few translations, to my knowledge, that Ashbery ever included in one of his own books of poetry (A Wave, 1984)—for the most, he has kept his translations at a separate distance from his own poetry. The next selection, from Mallarmé’s “Recueil de Nursery Rhymes,” first published in Conjunctions in 2005, is absolutely hilarious, consisting of the originals of the nursery rhymes that Mallarmé included in his English textbook, followed by Ashbery’s translations of Mallarmé’s translations of this nonsense verse ad usum delphini. Here is Ashbery quoting a local French school inspector evaluating Mallarmé’s performance as an English teacher:
During the winter of 1880, the inspector called again while Mallarmé was explicating his theme (“Lesson No. 43”) based on this rhyme: “Liar, liar, lick spit;/ Your tongue shall be split,/And all the dogs in town/Shall have a little bit.” “Since M. Mallarmé remains professor of English at the lycée Fontanes,” noted the inspector, “let him learn English. . . and refrain from dictating to his students such foolishness as this: ‘Liar, swallow your saliva, and the liar has more saliva than anyone, because of the numerous words he must utter to avoid speaking the truth. Although his tongue is already forked like a viper’s, because he often speaks evil of others, it will be further cut up into little bits and every dog in the town will get one.’ One is tempted to ask if one is the presence of a lunatic.”
Rimbaud follows, but with only five excerpts from Ashbery’s complete Illuminations, including the one he calls “one of the greatest poems ever written,” namely “Genie.” Here, in Ashbery’s English, we hear the Whitman tradition throb through this gay blason of the god of cosmic love:
O his breaths, his heads, his racing; the terrible swiftness of the perfection of forms and of action. (. . .)
His body! The dreamed-of release, the shattering of grace crossed with new violence!
The sight, the sight of him! All the ancient kneeling and suffering lifted in his wake.
His day! The abolition of all resonant and surging suffering in more intense music.
His footstep! Migrations more vast than ancient invasions.
After Rimbaud comes a lot of Max Jacob, equally crucial to Ashbery’s renewal of the prose poem form in English. Jacob’s prose poem “Literature and Poetry” was his first published translation, undertaken in 1955 while he was in Paris on a Fulbright grant to compile an anthology of modern French poetry in English translation, a still-born anthology later superseded by Paul Auster’s 1984 Random House Book of 20th-century French Poetry. Ashbery likes to joke about how green he was as a translator back his early years. Jacob’s poem opens “C’était aux environs de Lorient”—which he mistook for the mysterious East, only to be corrected by a French friend that it referred instead a small fishing village in Jacob’s Brittany. Following Jacob, there’s also a major selection from Reverdy—a widely shared taste among the NY Poets—as in the celebrated line in John O’Hara’s Lunch Poems: “My heart is in my pocket/it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy”—which serves as a blurb for Mary Anne Caws’s recent selection from Reverdy in translation, published last fall by NYRB/Poets, and which also includes a number of Ashbery’s versions of his prose poems.
Then there are a number of poets we don’t usually associate with the experimental Ashbery—Jules Supervielle, Maurice Blanchard, Robert Ganzo, Armen Lubin, most taken from the Anthologie de la poésie francaise depuis le surrealisme compiled by Marcel Béalu that he was using as a guide to his phantom Fulbright Anthology. In the more surrealist vein (and Ashbery has quipped that as a Upstate New York kid the thing he most wanted to be when he grew up was a surrealist), there are poems by Arthur Cravan (in rambunctious rhyme), Eluard, and from the 1930 Eluard-Breton collaboration L”Immaculée Conception, illustrated by Dalí. There follow poems by Ponge, Follain, Char, and Daumal. And coming closer to the present, by Bonnefoy, Marcelyn Pleynet, Denis Roche, and an inexplicable amount of Serge Fauchereau, a friend of Ashbery’s and Ron Padgett’s, better known as a French scholar of modern American poetry than as a poet in his own right. The youngest members of this anthology are Franck André Jamme (born 1947) and Pascalle Monnier (born 1958).
Nearly fifty pages of the anthology are devoted to the work of Pierre Martory. Ashbery also includes Martory’s introduction to a French edition of Henry James’s Washington Square in the volume of prose translations—a Parisian refraction of Jamesian New York which Ashbery in turn prisms back toward America, creating a kind of bilingual “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” This is also how his translations of Martory’s poems work. The two lived together for some nine years in Paris in the late ’50s and early ’60s—the temporal heart of these Collected Translations—with Martory sometimes writing in English and translating himself into French, just as Ashbery published himself in French Tel Quel in 1966 and then translated himself back into English in Art & Literature the following spring, both versions of his “French Poems” appearing in The Double Dream of Spring of 1970. Martory died back in 1998, and remains a singular case of a French poet probably more read and published in the US than he is in France—a figure whom Mark Ford hopes will be rediscovered in France via Ashbery, just as Poe was rediscovered in America via Baudelaire. Here in this volume, at any rate, read side by side, Martory’s originals and Ashbery’s faithfully unfaithful translations remind us that translation is first and foremost a complex act of love and cohabitation—which becomes, in time, elegy.
I read these Collected French Translations, as I do Pound’s—that is, as a sequence of masks or personae in which Ashbery addresses us by speaking through the foreign words of the Other. Pound based his translation practice on Browning’s dramatic monologues, and this is another way of thinking of Ashbery’s translations—as soliloquys, but as soliloquys without a subject, for translation is for him another way of pulling a disappearing act in order to re-emerge on the far side of language. As personae, these translations also perform Ashbery’s own tradition of the new, providing a kind of manifesto for an Other Tradition (as he calls it in the title of his Harvard Norton Lectures), a tradition within which he engages in a series of love affairs with an array of gay French writers—Rimbaud, Roussel, Jacob, De Chirico, Martory—while at the same time, as their American translator, standing apart, as he puts it, “on the outside looking out.”
In Persian, one might call this anthology of Ashbery’s French translations a Diwan—as echoed by Goethe’s West-Oestlicher Diwan. Here instead we have A French-American Divan, or, more specifically, A Paris-New York Divan—a kind of sofa or comfortably cushioned area to lounge around in while exchanging poems and council, but in this case a divan that would more specifically resemble an old-fashioned love-seat on which the two lovers, say, John and Pierre, or the English and French languages, take up a close proximity to each other, looking their opposite ways.
Richard Sieburth teaches French at NYU. His translations of Louise Labé’s Love Sonnets and Elegies appeared earlier this month in the NYRB/Poets series. He is currently preparing an edition of Baudelaire’s late fragments for Yale University Press.