Collected French Translations: Poetry. John Ashbery, eds Roseanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie. (414pp, £19.95)

Carcanet have published, in two volumes, John Ashbery's collected translations of French Poetry and Prose. It's the volume of poetry translations alone that concerns me here - the prose is to follow. These are substantial books!

This is a welcome addition to the library not only of Ashbery-philes, but Francophiles too. 171 poems by 24 French poets with whom Ashbery has had an extended literary relationship, some of which have long been unavailable, and some previously unpublished. There's an extremely useful Introduction from Wasserman and Richie, which offers a close biographical interpretation of Ashbery's relationship with French poetry, from childhood, and High School French, through his study at Harvard, to his decade in Paris, and work as an art critic and editor. It's a bilingual edition on facing pages, using where possible the version of the texts from which Ashbery translated.

Ashbery began reading Rimbaud aged 16 and, as his comments here attest, the influence was great: 'We all grew up Surrealist'. Ashbery eventually played off Rimbaud's famous dictum 'Je est un autre' in his own collection title Your Name Here, as well as his acclaimed 2011 translation of Rimbaud's complete Illuminations. As well as engaging echoes such as this, the Wasserman and Richie's introductory essay examines Ashbery's interest in form, prose poetry, other critics' writings on Ashbery's translations, and the poet's literary friendships and in-depth engagement with Raymond Roussel - 'one of the writers I enjoy reading most'. Ashbery also wrote in French himself and translated back into English and, as the editors note, entered into an 'intuitive, interpretive alchemy' with the texts he translated: 'A poet's liberties with a text should at best give it apt but fabulous wings', they delightfully note. Ashbery's translation is therefore not only an innovative one, but one in which we also encounter works we did not know before, and in which we gain as much interest in both poem and translator, which is as it should be.

Ashbery has a taste for translating the prose poem (and writing his own, of course), and you'll need to share in that taste as well, with substantial prose poem excerpts here from Franck André Jamme, Serge Fauchereau, Paul ƒluard, André Breton, Max Jacob, and Arthur Rimbaud. But there's also plenty of translated verse, dating back to Jean-Baptiste Chassignet. It's hard to know what to pick out for comment from this book, but I liked Chassignet's mortal and bodily sonnets: 'Sometimes the harsh gravel swollen in your kidneys / Pinches your bowels with its trenchant tongs', given Ashbery's more contemporary phrasing and lexis. Along those lines, much has already been said about Ashbery's translations of Rimbaud's
Illuminations, so I shall limit myself to just one small observation how, in 'After the Flood', Ashbery's linguistic liveliness is readily at play: 'In the vast, still-streaming house of windows', whereas the more prosaic Penguin translated Rimbaud has 'In the big greenhouse'; or in 'Cities', Ashbery has 'even the flunkies that I was able to glimpse', whilst the official Penguin version calls them 'minor officials'. This sparky, contemporary diction is evident throughout the book.

It was good, once again, to read some of the delightful; poems of René Char - 'we made our happiness wrestle with each pebble' ('The Lords of Maussane'), or 'I harvest the grapes of the immature sky' ('The Roomin Space'), with their easeful, dreamlike philosophising so common to French poems, and the extended excerpts from Max Jacob's seminal
The Dice Cup, with the wit of prose poems such as  'Literary Manners' and the classical layering of 'La Rue Ravignan'. One can see strong echoes of Ashbery's own 'The Instruction Manual' in Jules Supervielle's '47 Boulevard Lannes', which begins: 'Boulevard Lannes, what are you doing so high up in space / With your carts drawn by percherons, one behind another, Their muzzles in eternity, / Their tails sweeping the dawn'. The mirroring injects his translation with the conversational ease so common to his own poems.

Criticisms? Women are few and far between in Ashbery's vision of French poetry, but then he's certainly not alone there and everyone's entitled to translate their friends and influences. Nonetheless, this is a certain kind of French poetic masculinity on display here. There are, instead, some very extensive selections from his translations of Pierre Martory (sixty pages), Ashbery's close friend in Paris, and a bewilderingly long selection (24 pages) of oddities from Stéphane Mallarmé - his translations of English nursery rhymes, which Ashbery has had to re-render in English. Given that these works of Mallarmé were heavily criticised at the time, their interest lies simply in the move from anonymous original, through Mallarmé, to Ashbery, and represent little more than an oddity - at the expense of, say, only one poem from Baudelaire. There's also some slightly odd typesetting, with fragments of poems appearing at the bottom of pages before breaking to the top of the next, and every single title printed in French and English on the title page - do we really need to know that 'Leçon No 1' is 'Lesson No 1' right the way through to 'Leçon No 101' etc.? But these are small quibbles in an elegant book with a very fine selection of work that will repay repeated visits and reading.

    © Andy Brown 2014