Barry Schwabsky on America's Greatest Poet on the World's Greatest Poet

By Harriet Staff


The Nation art critic, prolific essayist and poetry reviewer and recent Triple Canopier Barry Schwabsky looks at John Ashbery's translational relationship with "proto-punk" Arthur Rimbaud for Hyperallergic, and you'll wanna read it. A new take:

But it’s surprising that people haven’t been more surprised by John Ashbery’s decision to undertake a translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations. For one thing, Ashbery has never been known as a man for underwriting the canon. He has been, rather, as a proponent of “other traditions,” to borrow the title of his 1989-90 Norton Lectures at Harvard, published as a book in 2001, which offered a spirited defense of certain kinds of “minor poetry” through sympathetic readings of such overlooked or cultish figures as John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding, and David Schubert.

Rimbaud is far from minor, as Schwabsky notes. Why would Ashbery have taken him on, then? "Maybe it was possible because poetic time is not that of the calendar and poetic life is not the one chronicled by biographers," Schwabsky writes. He continues:

In his Preface to Illuminations Ashbery writes of “the simultaneity of all of life.” His maturity is not the weary illusion of having gone beyond all that. It’s what he already knew more than forty years ago when he wrote “Soonest Mended,” that:

Tomorrow would alter the sense of what had already been learned,
That the learning process is extended in this way, so that from this standpoint
None of us ever graduates from college,
For time is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up
Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.

Reading those lines of Ashbery’s, or ones written much more recently or even earlier, one would never think to say that his tone has anything of Rimbaud’s about it. And yet one of the delights of Ashbery’s Rimbaud is how clearly one hears Ashbery’s idiosyncratic intonation in it without ever feeling that he has manipulated Rimbaud’s poetry to make it more his own. Simply by trying to find the right words and phrases and lines to communicate the sense and tone of Rimbaud’s poetry, he has discovered something a bit like his own. Suddenly Rimbaud is a direct precursor of Ashbery — or more strangely still, Ashbery a precursor of Rimbaud.

Wonderful. Read the entire piece here.

Originally Published: January 24th, 2012