Below, the fantastic conclusion of a fantastic very short essay by John Ashbery on Rimbaud’s Illuminations. The occasion? The publication of a new translation of that divine prose poem, by John Ashbery himself. Given that he might be the best American poet at work today, it’s hard not to recommend this work sight unseen.
We tend to forget that “modern poetry” is a venerable institution. Prose poetry (Rimbaud’s own term for what he was writing in Illuminations) had already been produced by Lautréamont and Baudelaire; Rimbaud mentioned to a friend the influence of the latter’s work in the genre. Free verse, today ubiquitous, was used by Rimbaud in two of the Illuminations. Yet, more essentially, absolute modernity was for him the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second. The self is obsolete: In Rimbaud’s famous formulation, “I is someone else” (“Je est un autre”). In the twentieth century, the coexisting, conflictingviews of objects that the Cubist painters cultivated, the equalizing deployment of all notes of the scale in serial music, and the unhierarchical progressions of bodies in motion in the ballets of Merce Cunningham are three examples among many of this fertile destabilization. Somewhere at the root of this, the crystalline jumble of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, like a disordered collection of magic lantern slides, each an “intense and rapid dream,” in his words, is still emitting pulses. If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.—ja