Hilton Als on John Ashbery’s Rimbaud

In the New Yorker, Hilton Als reviews a new production called “Rimbaud in New York,” which is based on John Ashbery’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s great collection of prose poems, Illuminations.  As Als explains:

Working from Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud, the Civilians, a Brooklyn-based theatre collective, have put together a new piece, “Rimbaud in New York” (at BAM Fisher, March 1-6). The socially concerned group, under the direction of Steve Cosson, uses songs and prose to investigate, among other works, Rimbaud’s dense and wild “Illuminations,” written during his relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine.

Als doesn’t say much about the production, but instead spends most of the brief piece praising Ashbery’s wonderful translations of French poetry, which were gathered in Collected French Translations in 2014 — a two-volume set that Als calls “essential reading not only if you’re interested in the esteemed poet but also if you share his interest in French cultural figures, ranging from Baudelaire to Redon and beyond.”

Als traces the history of Ashbery’s engagement with French:

As a boy growing up in upstate New York, Ashbery was entranced by distant relatives who lived abroad. The glamour of expatriation was formative. In high school and, later, at Harvard, the burgeoning writer studied French and was excellent at it; he moved to France on a Fulbright in 1955, and lived in a number of towns before finally settling in Paris

Making a living was tough but not impossible. In 1960, Ashbery joined the staff of the International Herald-Tribune. He wrote about art, and about the milieu that helped inform the work of such French masters as Toulouse-Lautrec. After ten years in France, Ashbery returned to New York, where he continues to live, surrounded by poets young and old, who learn from him and take heart—language can change your life in more ways than one.

And closes with some more praise for Ashbery’s Rimbaud:

Ashbery not only captures that French renegade’s intensity and playfulness in his translation, he does so with an urgency that reminds us that Rimbaud left the form that he helped create—modernism—as a disenchanted young man, while Ashbery, never a cynic, works in his own vibrant space, one that goes on and on.

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