Toby Fitch Reviews Michael Farrell and John Ashbery

28 November 2011

thempark by Michael Farrell
BookThug, 2010

Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud
translated by John Ashbery
W.W. Norton and Co., 2011

In her review of John Ashbery’s new translation of Illuminations in The New York Times, Lydia Davis reminded us that: “When Rimbaud’s mother asked of A Season in Hell, ‘What does it mean?’ — a question still asked of Rimbaud’s poetry, and of Ashbery’s, too — Rimbaud would say only, ‘It means what it says, literally and in every sense.'”

I thought of myself in relation to this, but also of how others might relate to modernism and, subsequently, postmodernism, since both can be seen as continuations of the original spur — or spore — that Rimbaud left us with: “I is an other”. I thought of the situations in which we often find ourselves, listening to the voices, or simply words, washing about in our heads; and then I thought of those who can’t help but take words literally, often turning a conversation on its head by use of a homonym, or a pun; those whose thoughts are guided, almost compulsively, by the connotations of language. Michael Farrell is one such poet, always looking for ninety-degree turns, even one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turns, and at every possible juncture detonating the ability to understand — to perceive — yet somehow also able to provide new ways to stand under a sieve and purr.

In ode ode, Farrell established a disjointed but consistent voice within “rectangular strictures” — agrammatical poems of pastiche with “(relatively) stable syntax”, as a previous Cordite reviewer, Stuart Cooke, noted well. The non-capitalised, non-apostrophed style that pervaded the book has become Farrell’s signature and, in a sense, the only un-experimental aspect of his language or, at least, the only predictable aspect. In a raiders guide, Farrell experimented further with his syntax and aesthetics via “concept-poems” with freer lineation and wordplay, sometimes adapting, messing with, or just utilising the poems of others — Laurie Duggan and J.H. Prynne for instance — as a starting point, though this wasn’t explicit. But now, in thempark, Farrell has taken this latter concept and made it explicit.

Selecting poems of John Ashbery’s from Where Shall I Wander and Hotel Lautréamont as templates (retaining the original word counts, lineation and punctuation), Farrell superimposes his own poetry over the top. In this way, he has found a theme park in which to explore his knack for deconstruction and pastiche, while at the same time enacting a kind of homage to one of his great forebears, the Ashbery bear. In ‘cold turkey’, Farrell seems to be commenting on his process, taking that postmodern self-consciousness and spiralling inwards on it, then coming up for air with a promise for more submersion/subversion:

sometimes i spend all day in the sandpit.
i left home, teddy bear in hand, wolves crying
toowhit toowhoo, dont come in. i only got into the water
to avoid getting into you. this isnt the way it ends;

When compared to the corresponding passage in Ashbery’s ‘Involuntary Description’ (below), it becomes clear how Farrell’s adhesion to Ashbery’s word count, as opposed to a more strict syllable count, gives him greater freedom:

Sometimes I think it’s all one big affectation.
The forty jars, each holding its thief, draw closer
to me, trying to eavesdrop. But the only sound is water
dripping in the last millennium. I try and say it too;

For an example of how the syllable count is eradicated, and of Farrell’s perfectly random word choice, compare Ashbery’s two single-syllable words, “to me”, to Farrell’s “toowhit toowhoo”. Compare then, as metaphors for the writing of poems, Farrell’s: “sometimes i spend all day in the sandpit”, to Ashbery’s: “Sometimes I think it’s all one big affectation”, and we see the many possible interpretations that can be made by the mixing of sand and water.

Farrell acknowledges his use of templates at the back of the book, foregrounding his sources, allowing readers to edge closer to the workings of his poetry. And while reading thempark on its own is interesting and energising — complete with its constant shifts of tone and idiolect, its verbal interruptions, and its cultural references, which are oddly Australian (“…& i hope the easter / bunny notices the trouble with darlinghurst”) — thempark really comes to life in a non-linear reading, side by side with the Ashbery templates.

Take ‘the deer inside itself’, which uses ‘Musica Reservata’ (from Hotel Lautréamont), as its template. According to Ashbery’s piece, “Poems are such old little jiggers. / This one scratches himself, gets up, then goes off to pee”, to which Farrell responds with: “still being put together by science. / thats you looking in, seeing yourself, then trying to brush yourself”. Are the “old little jiggers” of Ashbery’s poem now scientists in Farrell’s? Are poems constructions that the poet as scientist experiments with? And is the scientist experimenting on himself (“goes off for a pee” to then test and examine the poetic results)? Or is that the reader’s role: “looking in, seeing yourself”? Of course, many other readings are possible here as well.

In terms of bare comparison, other disparities between Farrell’s poems and Ashbery’s are the line counts and stanza spacing, but only in a few of the poems. Choosing to leave out 3 lines in one case, a 7 line stanza in another, or 1 or 2 lines here and there, would seem to be deliberate (who could possibly miss whole lines in translation simply by accident?), and this is probably best explained artistically — like a painter leaving negative space, white or black, to lessen an overbearing colour; not quite red herrings, more like anomalies to keep the reader guessing. In other words, Farrell would have left out, or not bothered transforming, certain lines because his options wouldn’t have added to the poem’s internal creative logic, or might have become predictable.

Farrell’s words often seem like direct answers or follow-ons from Ashbery’s ideas, sometimes giving insight, sometimes augmenting. This is especially the case when Farrell’s words are close in sound or shape to Ashbery’s — as if Farrell wants us to read into both at that point. Take Ashbery’s: “That, at least, is my hope”, compared to Farrell’s: “they, at nest, work it out.”

If it weren’t for Farrell’s augmentation, I wouldn’t have been reminded of something Ashbery said in an interview with The Paris Review in which he remarked on a question directed at the critical reception of his work. While he hoped his readers would understand where he’s coming from and was pleased his poems “seem to have found readers”, he was disappointed his poetry “has become a kind of shibboleth, that people feel they need to join one side or the other … I often feel that people … are much more familiar with the myth that has grown up about my work than they are with the work itself.”

‘Musica Reservata’ is one of those poems of Ashbery’s that can be read as a comment on the nature of the creative act, particularly as it applies to the writing of poetry. And so can Farrell’s ‘the deer inside itself’. The scales are different, but it’s worth comparing the two. After all, Farrell’s poems have polarised opinion within Australia in a similar way to Ashbery’s globally.

But that’s just my reading, which could be a ‘storm in a teacup’ (another poem in thempark worth reading in this light). In ‘Musica Reservata’, Ashbery may not be referring to his feelings about his reception, and may be referring to his hope of remaining modern. And furthermore, Farrell might not even mean to augment these ideas, though I doubt that he’d mind me misreading him in this vein. Nor would Ashbery, I’d hope.

Below the surface of many a great poem, the poem is often about poetry itself. With a Farrell or an Ashbery poem, however, this buried layer is brought to the surface. The language, aware of itself, is what makes their poems tick. As with Ashbery, so much of Farrell’s language is about possibility, unburdened by tradition, disrupting the expected. It’s his major concern, and he continues to shift on this front, here “where poets idle by baggage”. So, rather than waiting for the carousel of poetic tradition to deliver him his bag, Farrell leaves us “by the fire, ‘language, that great mystery’” — ending the book by accentuating his objective at the same time as demonstrating it, literally and in every sense.

From one theme park to another: John Ashbery’s translation of Illuminations, by Arthur Rimbaud. Illuminations consists of 42 poems (43 if including the ‘Fragments’ as another poem, which Ashbery has translated here) written either side of A Season in Hell, his only other book. Two of the poems are in free verse, very possibly the first examples of vers libre, while the rest are prose poems. Illuminations was a development of, and a leap from, the Symbolist tradition, as well as being an antecedent to Surrealism. Rimbaud wrote both of these books by the age of twenty, then famously quit poetry (or outgrew it, arguably) and spent the next decade travelling and trading through Java and Africa before returning to Paris, ill, where he died in his mid-thirties. A Season in Hell was published before he denounced poetry and skipped town, but Illuminations was published in his early thirties, when people thought he was dead, having become a myth.

Ashbery’s new translation has so far met with praise for its sensitivity to the original and for its inventiveness at the same time. I’d like to focus more on the inventive aspects, and to touch on its Ashberyness which, on the flip side, might reflect a little on how Rimbaud has influenced Ashbery, or at least remind us of his influence, and thus his importance to the modern practice of poetry. The opening line of ‘After the Flood’ establishes Ashbery’s intentions — to make it new but not at the cost of the original. Translating Rimbaud’s “Aussitôt que l’idée du Déluge se fut rassise”, Ashbery writes: “No sooner had the notion of the Flood regained its composure”.

The alliteration of “No” and “notion” comes closer than other translations to echoing Rimbaud’s music, riding its rhythm. The phrase “regained its composure” is a neat way to link back to the “notion” of the flood, and a fresh take on the French “rassir” — to go stale, sedate. At first glance, “regained its composure” might seem an odd translation, but when you think of the Flood as a figment of the imagination, an “idée”, then that kind of Flood doesn’t necessarily go stale, subside or recede in the mind (as in other translations); it snaps out of its funk, regains its composure. Moreover, it sets up the disappointment of the narrator’s voice at the end of the poem when he yearns for the Flood of the imagination to return — so he can be in that kind of funk, or that kind of dream again. This lilting opening phrase and its abstract qualities could easily begin one of Ashbery’s own poems.

Ashbery’s translation preserves many loanwords (such as “adagio”, “ritornellos”, and “bacchanals”) and also utilises old-fashioned words, like “gallantry”, “becalmed”, “postilion”, “baldequin”, “credenzas” and even “nincompoop” (to translate “niais”, i.e. “simpleton”) which is, surprisingly, seventeenth century in origin. In choosing these words as translations, Ashbery echoes the way in which Rimbaud used words — bringing them back from the dead, reviving the Medieval — evoking also how Rimbaud discovered new and foreign words on his travels to London, where he wrote much of Illuminations.

There are even a few colloquialisms in the translations: “chitchat” for example, which is very Ashbery, and: “Nothing posh.—The city”, as a translation of “Rien de riche.—La ville!

The translations of Rimbaud’s city poems — ‘City’, ‘Cities I’, ‘Cities II’, and ‘Metropolitan’ — and others besides, remind me of Ashbery’s own ‘These Lacustrine Cities’, from Rivers and Mountains, where large impersonal forces are dealt with in tangible, albeit surreal terms: at once hallucinogenic and descriptive of the so-called real world, abstracted further than mere impressionism; a “derangement of the senses”, as Rimbaud put it. There’s even a line at the centre of ‘These Lacustrine Cities’ that resonates bizarrely with Rimbaud’s life: “We had thought, for instance, of sending you to the middle of the desert”. So then, in Ashbery’s translation of ‘Barbarian’, we come to taste both the extremes of Rimbaud’s vision and a certain Ashberyness:

The live coals and the foam. Music, wheeling of abysses and shock of ice floes against the stars.
O Sweetness, O world, O music! And there, shapes, sweat, tresses and eyes, floating. And white, boiling tears,—O sweetness!—and the voice of woman reaching to the depths of the arctic volcanoes and caverns.
The pennant . . .

The “tresses and eyes, floating”, especially, evokes for me the title poem from Ashbery’s The Double Dream of Spring and its hallucinatory imagery. Also, in the first poem of that book, ‘The Task’, Ashbery very clearly used the word “pennant”, almost a premonition for his use of the word in ‘Barbarian’. In ‘Barbarian’, where the word is part of the poem’s refrain, its use can only be seen as deliberate as no other translator has used the same word for the French “le pavillon” (usually “flag” or “banner”).

How Ashbery is still capable, within the strictures of a faithful translation, to impart that classic Ashberyness is difficult to put a finger on. Besides his resourceful and distinctive vocabulary, Ashbery’s phrasing seems to be the key. Wherever he is able to make the rhythm as casual as possible, and wherever he can utilise key words from his own poetry, he does. Not that he flavours the translations on purpose to say: “Listen, it’s actually me!” It’s more an act of resonance, where shared images, memories and emotions all begin to coalesce as you delve deeper into the work. In other words, it’s impossible to separate a famous poet cum translator, who has a massive oeuvre, from the poet s/he is translating. Still, it makes for some interesting cross-referencing and non-linear readings, and it has parallels in this regard to how Michael Farrell’s poetry superimposes on to Ashbery’s — transforming, building anew.

The closeness and literalness of Ashbery’s translation does occasionally seem to have its limitations. Take the last line, a famous line, in the poem ‘Tale’: “La musique savante manque à notre désir” which Ashbery translates into: “Wise music is missing from our desire.”

Oliver Bernard, in his excellent and slightly freer translations, which have been the standard in England and Australia since the early 1960s (while the United States have had numerous Rimbaud translators over the last few decades), translates this pivotal line as: “Great music falls short of our desire”, which I originally felt was stronger and more insightful. Ashbery’s version seemed to lack Bernard’s abstractedness and its grand gesturing. Its manipulation of the original to say something startling in English caught my ear, and my heart. However, the more I mull over Ashbery’s, the more it grows on me; the more nuanced it becomes with its subtle soundings and its willingness to stick to Rimbaud’s syntax and rhythm. Its closeness to the original, in this case, is its strength. Rather than a quick bright fire, this line, and many others in Ashbery’s translation, burn slower and longer in my mind. Ashbery has kept the radical music of Rimbaud alive — to quell our desires.

So, in sum, Michael Farrell gambols in a theme park of free rides which allow for almost infinite chance, originality and mutation — a somehow befitting tribute to the aforementioned bear, despite the possibility of being caught, fingers in the honey pot — while John Ashbery gambles, albeit more gently, on projecting his own voice through the hallowed theme park (“the eternal west of forests”) of a much-translated forebear of modern poetry. Both are distinctive and successful at different kinds of translation/transformation but, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, both “owe their existence” to their respective blueprints.

Toby Fitch is currently undertaking a creative doctorate on Rimbaud at Sydney University and his first full-length collection is forthcoming in 2012. He has a weblog.

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About Toby Fitch

Toby Fitch is poetry editor of Overland and a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Sydney. He is the author of eight books of poetry, including Where Only the Sky had Hung Before (Vagabond 2019), Sydney Spleen (Giramondo 2021) and, most recently, a newly expanded and full-colour edition of Object Permanence: Calligrammes (Puncher & Wattmann and Thorny Devil Press, 2022).

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