Poetry News

John Ashbery's French-American Divan, as Told by Richard Sieburth

By Harriet Staff


At Bookforum: Translator, scholar, and professor Richard Sieburth gives us "something of an impromptu book review" of John Ashbery's Collected French Translations (which we mentioned not long ago), published in April by FSG. Volume I is devoted to poetry, volume II to prose. Sieburth writes:

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.

He soon goes on about Raymond Roussel:

...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.

There's Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Max Jacob, and:

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. . . .

Read the full piece at Bookforum. And find Sieburth's own "revelatory" translations of Love Sonnets and Elegies from the 16th-century poet Louise Labé--who made desire a strong point of poetic concern--at New York Review of Books. Finally, for your Friday links fix, if you can't wait go out and buy the book, read some of Ashbery's translations of Pierre Martory here, and Rimbaud here.