‘Only connect . . .’ wrote E.M. Forster in Howards End. John Ashbery responds to this invitation with his incandescent two-volume Collected French Translations: Poetry and Prose, leaving us astonished. The bilingual Poetry volume, with the French originals printed en face, contains translations from twenty-four poets. It begins with the baroque poet Jean-Baptiste Chassignet, and includes French luminaries such as Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Max Jacob, Jules Supervielle, Paul Éluard, Pierre Reverdy, Francis Ponge, Jean Follain, René Char, and Yves Bonnefoy, as well as Pierre Martory, Ashbery’s partner during the nine years he lived in Paris, and lesser-known authors such as Armen Lubin, Serge Fauchereau, and Robert Ganzo, making for great discoveries – an altogether mind-blowing course in French poetry.
The diverse and iconoclastic selection reveals all the facets of Ashbery’s genius, how his poems are experiments in language. He is known for using multiple voices and inhabits different worlds, just like Henry James. He even quotes James in his poem ‘The Sponge of Sleep’ from Breezeway: ‘Be one of those on whom nothing is lost, advises Henry’.
The companion Prose volume presents the work of seventeen writers, such as Raymond Roussel, Henri Michaux, and Pierre Reverdy, artists like Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dalí, musicians and critics, some of them previously unpublished. It starts with the magical fairytale The White Cat by Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, which spurred Ashbery’s love for French. ‘I had a younger brother who died of leukemia at the age of nine’ he recounts in an interview in Le mot juste, ‘and when he was ill some friend of my parents sent him a volume of Madame d’Aulnoy’s Fairy Tales, which I read. I fell in love with them and perhaps associated them too with my little brother, and years later translated La Chatte Blanche’.
When Ashbery moved to Paris in 1955, he was executive editor of Art News, and art critic for the International Herald Tribune, and several of the pieces he contributed are included. His immersion in the art world had a profound in uence on him. With friends, he started two literary journals, Locus Solus, and Art and Literature, which helped him discover Denis Roche, Marcelin Pleynet, Pascalle Monnier, Anne Portugal, and Pierre Alféri, among many. Ashbery was at the same time very influenced by French cinema and particularly by Jean Cocteau’s Le sang d’un poète and Orphée. Proust, Rimbaud and Baudelaire had a profound impact on him too, with Proust remaining his favourite writer.
According to Baudelaire, ‘Romanticism exists precisely neither in the choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in the way of feeling . . . For me it is the most recent expression, most current of the beautiful . . . Who speaks of romanticism speaks of modern art – that is to say, intimacy, spir- ituality, colour, aspiration towards the infinite, expressed by all the means contained in the arts.’
One of the most delightful selections in the Poetry volume is the selection from Mallarmé’s Recueil de ‘Nursery Rhymes’, prefaced by Ashbery. It is sheer fun. It consists of the original nursery rhymes Mallarmé included in his English textbook when he was professor at the lycée Fontanes in Paris, followed by Ashbery’s translations of Mallarmé’s translations of this nonsense verse. It is fascinating to read that Mallarmé’s superiors at the lycée seemed unimpressed by his poetry, such as L’après-midi d’un faune. One inspector wrote:
this professor busies himself with things other than his teaching and his pupils . . . Those who have read the strange lucubrations emanating from the brain of M. Mallarmé should be surprised to learn that he occupies a chair at the lycée Fontanes’. But his academic work with nursery rhymes failed to reassure them. 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;
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 in the presence of a lunatic’. Today of course no one is concerned about Mallarmé’s effectiveness as a pedagogue. What might matter to us with regard to these long-forgotten exercises are the brilliant fragments of prose poetry resulting from his sometimes straightforward, sometimes fanciful translations of the nursery rhymes.
The herculean task of gathering the works fell on editors Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie, who started this project in 2004. They first collected texts from Ashbery’s house and the Ashbery Resource Center, which was directed at that time by Micaele Morrissette and established by David Kermani and John Ashbery to house all the materials collected over the years. They also did their research in libraries, in particular the New York Public Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale. The spectacular introductory essay by Wasserman and Richie first appeared in The Massachusetts Review, and was divided into two parts, one for each volume. It over flows with invaluable information and anecdotes gleaned from every interview Ashbery ever gave.
‘He retranslated a lot’, says Wasserman, ‘especially those earlier pieces. He went back, he wouldn’t let us publish things that he had done sixty years ago without making sure’.
Poetry, according to its etymology, is to create. Literary translators as- sume the roles of intermediaries, technicians, magicians, and alchemists. Georges Bataille wrote that ‘it is possible that the impossibility of poetry is itself the condition of poetry’ and yet Ashbery accomplishes a tour de force by recreating the original texts, while remaining true to the originals and infusing them with new life. ‘Eros Gone Wild’ is a beautiful translation of ‘Eros Énergumène’ by Denis Roche. It’s tricky. He manages to be faithful, creative, and very elegant. ‘It was typical of how John translated’, explains Wasserman, ‘which is to get that idea and make it work’.
Thanks to these magnificent collections, we come to understand how the quintessential American poet became so heavily influenced by French. The gargantuan amount of translations Ashbery produced was not only formative, it also deeply influenced the literary world. He maintained a lifelong connection with France, and ‘went back to Paris any time he could’, says Wasserman, ‘and Pierre would come visit him here. He cultivated connec- tions to French writers, French culture, and French lms. Though he had to come back to the US, he never left Paris, in many ways’.
Martory’s writings would probably have remained unknown in France and abroad if not for Ashbery’s translations. ‘He had very few friends’, confides Ashbery, ‘I was his only close friend. He preferred to be alone in his room. He was constantly writing poetry and very little of it was ever published. A few things in obscure little magazines. Eventually I realized that unless I translated it no one would ever see it’, reminding us once again of the importance of translation, as a passport to literature that would otherwise remain unavailable. Andrés Neuman calls the translation ‘an original of an original’. For Rachel Hadas, the act of translation is the most selfless act in literary life. ‘Translation is a kind of transubstantiation; one poem becomes another’, declares Anne Michaels. I call it the ultimate act of sympathy.
‘He had a standard of what he thought was most interesting’, says Wasserman, ‘more aesthetic than scholarly, which is always a good idea’. Ashbery’s longtime companion and bibliographer, David Kermani, his biographer, Karin Roffman, and Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus, Giroux were also instrumental to the project. Galassi came up with the idea of making the Poetry volume bilingual and took care of permissions and foreign rights. The books might not have happened without this. Wasserman and Richie suggested Ashbery’s collages from New York’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery for the covers of both the American and British editions. FSG used fragments of the collages on the spine’s edges. ‘It’s kind of like the secrets of translation in many ways. The FSG book has that quality of participating in what’s going on in translation’. The British Carcanet edition is beautifully adorned with the full images of the collages The Mail in Norway, and Moon Glow. Wasserman and Richie also found black and white photographs of Ashbery from his archives for the back covers.
‘Live all you can’, proclaims Henry James in The Ambassadors, his masterpiece novel set in Paris, a motto embraced by Ashbery in a life lived to the fullest. In The Middle Years, James’s deeply haunting and moving short story about writers and consciousness, he asserts, ‘We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art’. Henry acknowledged the mystical quality of the creative act, whether applied to writing or translating, having himself absorbed and been inspired by Balzac’s extraordinary works. Ashbery was influenced by both Henry and William James, and it was the latter who coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’. ‘I need sort of a sfumato effect to hide in or to find material in’, admits Ashbery.
It is therefore fitting and astute – one master paying homage to another – that Ashbery included in the Prose volume Martory’s brilliant and thorough introduction to Washington Square, in which he notes how James ‘addresses himself to the intelligence and imagination of the reader; how he confides in him, with a sort of refined politeness. To this trust, the reader must respond with equal goodwill; he must supply a truly active collaboration, unleash his imagination, and lend all his intellect toward helping create the beings that words and phrases have depicted for him’. James goes on to add that ‘experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative – much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius – it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations’. This expresses well the quality of Ashbery’s writing, too.
As synchronicity would have it, two recent translations of Ashbery’s work into French were recently published in Paris: Le serment du Jeu de Paume (The Tennis Court Oath), translated by Olivier Brossard and published by Éditions José Corti, and Vague (Wave), translated by Marc Chénetier and published by Éditions Joca Seria.
Collected French Translations: Poetry by John Ashbery, editors Eugene Richie and Rosanne Wasserman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Bilingual edition (April 8, 2014), Hardcover, pp.464Collected French Translations: Prose by John Ashbery, editors Eugene Richie and Rosanne Wasserman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Bilingual edition (April 30, 2014), Hardcover, pp.432Collected French Translations: Poetry by John Ashbery, editors Eugene Richie and Rosanne Wasserman, Carcanet Press Ltd (April 30, 2014), Paperback, pp.320
By Hélène Cardona