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Collected French Translations: Poetry by John Ashbery review

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Visionary lunacy and peculiar choices tell us much about the Pulitzer prize-winning poet

In a 1956 letter to Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery wrote: I hate all modern French poetry, except for Raymond Roussel, specifying: I do like my own wildly inaccurate translations of some of the 20th-century ones, but not the originals. The editors of this book rather solemnly gloss this as Ashbery musing on his own hard work, and his difficulties in building a canon for his own new poetic journeys. They may be right, but the comment is also funny and provocative, taking a dandy-esque line on the tired debates (tired even then and comprehensively exhausted now) about accuracy and fidelity in translation.

This book (along with its sibling, Ashberys Collected French Translations: Prose) is mostly non-canonical in focus. Though several poets may be familiar Reverdy, Breton, Supervielle, Eluard others, such as Daumal, Ganzo, Lubin, Blanchard, Roche, will not. The highlights include a few poems by the Swiss boxer-poet Arthur Cravan and the sequence of prose poems, from The Dice Cornet, by the the Jewish-Breton Max Jacob, who died on his way to a concentration camp in 1944. The contemporary with whom Ashbery feels most kinship is his friend and former companion, Pierre Martory, whose volume The Landscapist he translated in 2008. Where Ashbery often reads like a French poet writing in English, Martory, barely known even in France, has the air of an American poet writing in French. His poem The Landscape is Behind the Door not only gives us one of the best lines in this book I draw you like a salary but reads like a New York School poem that just happens to use French words:

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