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Louise Varèse

An encounter it would have been gripping to see: the 1875 reunion, in Stuttgart, of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, at the conclusion of the older poet’s two-year imprisonment in Belgium. (He had been convicted for firing on his lover and giving him a flesh wound in the wrist.)  Verlaine told his friends that, as soon as he was released, he made his way to Germany, hoping he would be able to persuade the younger poet to resume their travels and adventures together. When they stood face to face again, did they cry, did they jump up and down, cackling with laughter? Or, if there were bitter reproaches, did those come more from Verlaine or from Rimbaud?  Until time-travel is invented we won’t have answers because neither poet left a detailed record of the meeting, nor were there any witnesses. So much about relationships that crash and burn must always remain undiscoverable, even when the breakup happens in our own time. Fact in these cases abdicates, replaced by gossip, rumor, and, often enough, malice.  This universally acknowledged truth doesn’t seem to prevent us from assuming we’ve got the lowdown on what really happened, even when we’re not close to those involved.

Assuming Verlaine’s account is accurate, it seems that the 1875 meeting was the moment when Rimbaud entrusted the manuscript of Illuminations to him, with the request that it be sent to a friend of his in Brussels, who might be able to arrange for its publication. If Rimbaud didn’t trouble to send it himself, does that mean he wanted Verlaine to read it first and perhaps regard the work as some sort of compensation for the disaster their relationship had been?  Should we see in this book another literary transformation of their shared experience, the follow-up to A Season in Hell?  Or was Rimbaud seeking helpful critiques of the poems, still unaware that he had already outdistanced his poetic master? Did Rimbaud put the poems in the order assigned to them when eventually published, or did Verlaine and later editors who handled the ms. change that order?  Few books have been as persistently dogged by enigmas as Illuminations, a fact that puts it in a paradoxical relationship to its title.

If it’s true that Verlaine kept his promise and sent the poems to Rimbaud’s friend Germain Nouveau in Brussels (a letter of Verlaine’s complains about the postage costs), then at some point he must have retrieved them. We know that they eventually turned up in the hands of his brother-in-law in Paris.  Not Verlaine nor Germain Nouveau nor the brother-in-law, but instead editors who weren’t intimates of Rimbaud a decade later arranged for their publication in the Symbolist magazine La Vogue. Because the loose pages of the ms. weren’t numbered, these editors admitted to an uncertainty as to the order of the poems, except for a few that Rimbaud had transcribed on the same page.

Also, we have to take Verlaine’s word for it that the title his friend  wanted was Illuminations because the sheaf of poems Verlaine forwarded to others lacked a title page.  The book has sometimes been published under the title Les Illuminations, the standard form for a French-language title. However, Verlaine said that Rimbaud was using the English, not the French word, as he did in several individual poem titles (“Bottom” and “Fairy,” for example).  The older poet explained that “illuminations” in English referred to printed, hand-colored engravings, which were common at the period. Of course the term in both languages carries the more general sense of light and even mystical enlightenment, one version thereof being the occult belief and practice known as “Illuminism.”  In English “illuminations” can also refer to the hand-painted pictures and decorations found in medieval manuscripts, but whether Verlaine or Rimbaud was aware of this extra meaning, who can say? (The French term for these is enluminures.) Considering Rimbaud’s ironic and challenging temperament, it’s possible he wanted to make both senses of the English term available, as a way to suggest that his mysterious and even quasi-religious texts could also be compared to cheap popular prints.  The strategy of the young and not yet established poet is often to “have it both ways,” defending his most exalted thoughts with an electric fence of high-voltage irony.  Since we’re on the topic of electrical equipment, consider this interesting coincidence: the first incandescent light-bulb was made in 1874, and commercial distribution of the new invention began in 1886, the year when La Vogue first brought Illuminations to the French reading public. If it seems fanciful to conflate the two phenomena, recall that the most widely distributed light-bulbs in twentieth-century Europe were called Mazda bulbs, after the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda.

The central conflict in Zoroastrianism is figured as a struggle between the forces of darkness and light.  It seems fair to class Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell as a book about the forces of darkness, and so perhaps we can understand Illuminations as the poet’s effort to evoke—at least for poetry—the forces of light.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t flashes of beauty in the earlier book or that all is serenity and effortless ascension in the later one.  That would be too neat and monotonous, and besides, as Stevens put it, “No man of imagination is prim.”  The prose poems in Illuminations are rather short and the sequence develops no discernible narrative; instead, a series of dreamlike vignettes or meditations whose context is never provided.  More than half are descriptive, surveys of landscapes or cityscapes too imaginary and protean to exist in actuality, though they often include the equivalent of Marianne Moore’s “real toads.” The tone is generally exalted and hyperbolic, a cornucopia of images and words tumbling out rapidly in sentences with loosened syntax.  Apostrophes introduced by the exclamation “O” are frequent, yet the mosquito whine of irony is found in almost every poem, provoked in part by hyperbole and acting in part to neutralize it.  Thoroughly enigmatic as they are, the poems are the last to be aware of the fact, judging by the prevailing tone of confidential assurance and the absence of any fumbling efforts at explanation.  We may not understand them, but it’s clear that these poems understand themselves, giving meanwhile the curious impression that they can survive and even thrive without our assistance.

Rimbaud is an often-translated poet and many distinguished hands have made versions of Illuminations, Louise Varèse and Paul Schmidt among them.  Ashbery’s versions are strikingly better than his predecessors, which isn’t surprising when you consider that he resided for a decade in Paris and that he has also successfully translated the poetry of Reverdy and of his friend Pierre Martory.  Add to that Ashbery’s own unconventional literary mastery, and he would seem to be the ideal author to negotiate the difficulties of a poet who inspired a century of poetic experiments, continuing up to the present.  Ideal for us; but you have to wonder why a poet so eminent, so thickly swathed in laurel (he has won every important poetry prize except for the Nobel) should want to take time away from his own work to provide us with this topnotch version of Illuminations. The brief introduction Ashbery provides for this book offers no explanation apart from his thorough admiration for Rimbaud. Still, admirers can admire profoundly without bothering to translate.  I’m guessing that he undertook the task as a way of reminding readers hostile to his own poetry that experimental (or dreamlike, difficult, fragmented, disjunctive, enigmatic—whatever term seems applicable) poetry has been around for a century and a half. If you want to dismiss Ashbery, you also have to dismiss Rimbaud and the Surrealists, plus all the Modernists in various molds who were influenced by him.  It no longer makes any sense to call this kind of poetry the “avant-garde” or the “poetry of the future,” at least no more so than the poetry based on narrative, spoken language, prosody, and sequential reason. Both approaches will be used in the future, as they have been during the past. Some readers will prefer experimental, and another part, mainstream approaches, so there’s no point in trying to legislate an aesthetic Prohibition against either.

It goes without saying that some practitioners of mainstream poetry are better than others, just as it’s reasonable to assume that experimental poetry is sometimes good and sometimes not. Yet critics of experimental work don’t seem to have arrived at a practical criticism capable of sifting the large amount of experimental writing now being produced in order to put aside what’s not worth reading and to make a case for the part of it that’s good. All the alternative critics seem to be able to do at present is repeat any number of times that traditional approaches to poetry are old and therefore irrelevant or inferior. When it comes to the experimental aesthetic, they don’t offer a set of evaluative principles as familiar and dependable as the criteria used to analyze and assess mainstream work.  Given the antinomian and deconstructive nature of experimental writing, its resolute effort to undermine orthodoxy and consensus perception, we can question whether any individual or critical school could ever develop an agreed-on set of yardsticks applicable to it.  However, if adequate critical tools aren’t devised, then criticism will simply amount to “I like this” and “I don’t like that.” A purely personal criterion might be acceptable if we weren’t faced with the real-world problem of public rewards. Which poets should be published, and, among those, which should receive prizes and artist fellowships, including grants based on state funding?  Perhaps most experimental poets write without conscious concerns like these; but critics who ignore them aren’t acting responsibly.

 

Almost all of the Illuminations are prose poems, a form first tried by the French poet Aloysius Bertrand, then taken up with notable success by Baudelaire and Mallarmé.  That the poems are short and don’t rely on traditional French prosody lightens the burden of translation, with the result that a lot of time can be spent on finding the aptest word choices and pleasing sentence rhythms.  Ashbery handles both with cool but remarkable skill. A sample:

In an attic where I was shut up at the age of twelve I got to know the world. I illustrated the human comedy. In a cellar I learned history. At some nighttime carnival in a Northern city, I met all the wives of the master painters. In an arcade in Paris I was taught the classic sciences. In a magnificent abode surrounded by the entire Orient I accomplished my immense opus and spent my illustrious retirement. I churned my blood. My homework has been handed back to me. One must not even think of that now. I’m really beyond the grave, and no more assignments, please.

(part III of “Lives”)

Without arguing that this is the strongest passage in Illuminations, I can still see in it many of the work’s preoccupations, not to say obsessions: singular and perhaps visionary experience recalled from childhood; the mind’s susceptibility to rapid scene changes in space and time; a chest-thumping celebration of self that is nevertheless undercut by sly mockery; and the sense that the poem’s speaker has gone beyond the normal confines of human experience into something beyond reason and civility.

To translate is to interpret, and the reader who knows French will see that Ashbery’s “My homework has been handed back to me” (his reading of “Mon devoir m’est remis,”) could also be rendered as “My duty has been restored to me.”  In the poem’s final sentence, “pas de commissions” becomes “no more assignments, please.” But it could also be rendered as “no errands/messages/shopping lists.” Ashbery has added “more” and “please,” for sense, rhythm, and tone, but those words aren’t found in the original.  I cite this not as a fault but as evidence that he has tried throughout to make versions that are plausible as poems in English.  I was struck again and again how he passed over a reflexively dull equivalent to the French word in favor of something more idiomatic and non-routine.  That said, I also noticed several instances where non-cognates were translated as though they were cognates. Non-cognates are what the French call “faux amis,” “false friends,” words that look as though they meant the same in English and French, but actually don’t; for example, “actuellement,” which doesn’t mean “actually” but instead, “at present.”  Here are a few translations I had doubts about in this version: désert isn’t usually “desert,” but instead “wilderness”; pourpre isn’t so much “purple” as “crimson”; honnêteté isn’t merely “honesty” but rather “probity” or “integrity”; sciences need not be limited to “sciences” but can also mean “studies” or “disciplines”; cellier isn’t strictly “cellar,” but more properly “wine-cellar” or “storeroom.”  Apart from the “false friends,” there are a couple of other misleading translations. For example, faubourg and banlieue are both rendered by Ashbery as “suburbs,” but the right sense for the first is “district,” (as in “Garden District”) or “quarter” (as in “French Quarter”); and for the second, “outskirts of town” or “periphery.” Also, the word jour, when translated as “day” isn’t necessarily wrong; but in many contexts it means “dawn,” “daylight” or simply “light.” As the last word of Illuminations (at least, in the editorial order for the poems that Ashbery has adopted here) it seems probable that Rimbaud meant “dawn” or “light” when he wrote of the emblematic and redemptive figure that he calls “Genie”:

He has known us all and loved us all. Let us, on this winter night, from cape to cape, from the tumultuous pole to the castle, from the crowd to the beach, from glance to glance, our strengths and feelings numb, learn to hail him and see him, and send him back, and under the tides and at the summit of snowy deserts, follow his seeing, his breathing, his body, his day.

Translations of poetry are always in one way or another inaccurate. The reviewer with a sense of responsibility to the author being reconceived in English has the uncomfortable duty (homework?) of pointing out instances where the translation isn’t perfectly congruent with the original. This is done not in order to show superiority but to suggest that real interest, real love for a poet must inevitably inspire readers to learn the original language. When people tell me they don’t care for Dante, I ask them if they know Italian; none of the translations conveys all that can be found in his own idiom. By the same token, any reader astonished and moved to tears by Rimbaud will, I hazard, want to acquire a knowledge of the language and culture thatproduced the strength and beauty they’ve glimpsed through a door that translation has partially opened.  It goes without saying that the project demands a large commitment of time and energy that few can spare.  Meanwhile, those who haven’t had the luck to acquire a true working knowledge of the language and the thematic preoccupations of French literature can even so get a very good sense of Rimbaud’s Illuminations from Ashbery’s version, which is the best we have in English so far.