Positively the Last
by ALEX CARNEVALE
Collected French Translations
by John Ashbery
editors Rosanne Wasserman & Eugene Richie
Once or twice a year I get an e-mail asking me what I admire about John Ashbery.
Max Jacob was a prose poet who died in a concentration camp. He abdicated his Judaism, which meant that no Jew would claim him. He resented his homosexuality, which meant that no gay would. And he was a gay Jew, which meant the Catholicism he chose after being visited on a rainy night in 1909 by Jesus Christ would never bring up his name. He is the sort of figure who disappears from history because he has no people.
In his other French translations, collected for the first time in a volume edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie, John Ashbery fields a dutiful fidelity to the text. With Max Jacob something seems different, off — the surrealist poet and his scribe are equally reflective. There is a sympathy here. When two lenses mirror each other, you get something like this:
Surrealism as a whole was filled with junksters and cretins. Jacob was just another unhappy young man in a place and time that attracted poets like "the cushions of the night commode." Ashbery stood out among his trendy friends with his studiousness and capacity for self-awareness. He could see his friends for what they were as well as what they weren't; a rare gift in any collective.
As a pre-teen, Ashbery kept his private writings in French so that his parents could not read them. For his sixteenth birthday, they gave him a French dictionary, so it seems Mom and Dad were out to lunch.
Any translator takes on work for money alone, and Ashbery's versions of prose poems by André Breton and Paul Éluard are intensely restrained, and even resonate as semi-critical at times: translation as light parody. There is a similar lack of an expansive quality in his replications of Rimbaud, who seems childish and simple in Ashbery's grasp. Illuminations was a lot worse than I remember it.
Reading this stuff always pushes me back to Ashbery's poetry in English. Prose iterations were never his forte, and his novel with James Schuyler, A Nest of Ninnies, is a complete mess. The form of the line that he mastered in long and short form was always his calling.
There is an occasional feeling when reading the translated verse of Ashbery's friend Pierre Martory that one gets in Ashbery all the time: that of existence beyond the poem. In Ashbery, the world is always present as a functioning, breathing abstraction that drives all his transparent creativity. Coming back to other poets after that is such a dreadful disappointment.
Ashbery has never not chosen the right verb, and because action is somewhat rare here, the mere sounding of a bell or echo of the same is enough to rattle the cages.
In his brilliant book of poetics, Advice to a Young Poet, Max Jacob writes that "in poetry the precise value of the word only has value when the precision is exaggerated." Jacob is making a surrealist joke, but it is lost on us now. The thrill of chaos for its own sake died during the first World War. "Art is a game," Jacob continues. "Too bad for anyone who makes it a duty."
Reading Ashbery's work for hire, you do wish he had maybe taken his job a bit less diligently. Same for Lydia Davis with Proust. They both felt they owed something to the masters they translated, but think of what new masterpieces we would have if they had reworked things to their own satisfaction. Something like this, perhaps:
In a way this kind of writing brushes away all other efforts. Sentiment absorbs cynicism. The man's songs exude arrogance in everything except the way they announce themselves. I wonder what they thought, when they first read Hamlet, pretty much that everything else was shit? Who would bother writing after that?
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. Experience our mobile site at thisrecording.wordpress.com.
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