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Illuminations Hardcover – May 16, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“John Ashbery has gifted us with an exquisite, untainted translation of Rimbaud; a transmission as pure as a winged dove driven by snow.” — Patti Smith

About the Author

Unknown beyond the avant-garde at the time of his death in 1891, Arthur Rimbaud has become one of the most liberating influences on twentieth-century culture. Born Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud in Charleville, France, in 1854, Rimbaud’s family moved to Cours d’Orléans, when he was eight, where he began studying both Latin and Greek at the Pension Rossat. While he disliked school, Rimbaud excelled in his studies and, encouraged by a private tutor, tried his hand at poetry. Shortly thereafter, Rimbaud sent his work to the renowned symbolist poet Paul Verlaine and received in response a one-way ticket to Paris. By late September 1871, at the age of sixteen, Rimbaud had ignited with Verlaine one of the most notoriously turbulent affairs in the history of literature. Their relationship reached a boiling point in the summer of 1873, when Verlaine, frustrated by an increasingly distant Rimbaud, attacked his lover with a revolver in a drunken rage. The act sent Verlaine to prison and Rimbaud back to Charleville to finish his work on A Season in Hell. The following year, Rimbaud traveled to London with the poet Germain Nouveau, to compile and publish his transcendent Illuminations. It was to be Rimbaud’s final publication. By 1880, he would give up writing altogether for a more stable life as merchant in Yemen, where he stayed until a painful condition in his knee forced him back to France for treatment. In 1891, Rimbaud was misdiagnosed with a case of tuberculosis synovitis and advised to have his leg removed. Only after the amputation did doctors determine Rimbaud was, in fact, suffering from cancer. Rimbaud died in Marseille in November of 1891, at the age of 37. He is now considered a saint to symbolists and surrealists, and his body of works, which include Le bateau ivre (1871), Une Saison en Enfer (1873), and Les Illuminations (1873), have been widely recognized as a major influence on artists stretching from Pablo Picasso to Bob Dylan.

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet John Ashbery has translated many French writers, including Alfred Jarry, Pierre Reverdy, and Raymond Roussel. In 2011 he was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Bilingual edition (May 16, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393076350
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393076356
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.8 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #827,588 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R. T. Greene on December 19, 2012
Format: Paperback
I'm sorry: this strikes me a most unnecessary book.

In an interview in Rain Taxi last year, the ever candid and clear-sighted John Ashbery made a couple of admissions that put this project into perspective. The idea of a translation came from the publisher, who was looking for a follow-up to Heaney's Beowulf, their best-selling pairing of well-known contemporary poet with classic text. And as Ashbery put it, "I didn't feel I was going to be coming up with a definitive translation. I was doing it really for the enjoyment of it, and for the possible after-effect it might have on my own writing....I like Wyatt Mason's version. The Varese is still pretty good....The poet Donald Revell, a friend of mine, has published excellent translations of both A Season in Hell and Illuminations."

I don't think he was just trying to be nice, or sound humble, I think he states the case. There is something bloodless and unconvincing about the writing here, falling as it does somewhere between vernacular naturalness and strict faithfulness to the cognates. Comparing it to the Varese, often what changes were made were merely so as not to "repeat someone else's successful version," as JA puts it. The earlier phrasing naturally is almost always better. And the Varese sounds more passionate, and tense, even somewhat formal on occasion--the Ashbery diction sometimes seems inappropriately flabby and demotic.

Further, if you stick with the New Directions books you get certifiable artistic masterpieces on the cover--Ray Johnson for the Illuminations, superb Val Telberg photo for the Season in Hell.[oops! they have issued a second edition that drops that cover. Pity.] These are high water marks for twentieth-century cover design! I plan to check out the Wyatt Mason volumes too, which promise a much-needed replacement for the Wallace Fowlie complete works.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
On a purely subjective note, of all I've read during my lifetime, Illuminations remains the most compelling work of literature I've encountered. My first contact with the work lead to what was probably intended: a slapp happy sense of disorientation imbued with a sustained and profound attraction to the fluidity of meaning and perception, to the images, to the now broken and drowned world overrun: impervious to inference, awash with unexpected associations and "new misfortunes". Rimbaud's work lead my reading on to Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Tzara, Breton, Eluard. Yet none of these authors has left as deep an impression, with such pervasive force or tangible presence. In its form, in its brevity, in its perpetual instability Illuminations accomplished mutually exclusive ends, including the end of Rimbaud's pursuit of writing. Concise and expansive, effortless and intricate, of language and of experience, it remains the best possible compass for getting lost, now made more acutely affecting by Ashbery's new and resonant translation.
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Perhaps no translator on the planet has served Rimbaud as well as John Ashbery.

The text has been translated with a modern voice that makes it feel as if you're reading the poems for the first time again. It feels as if it was written in 2011 not 1866.

Rimbaud was so far ahead of his time. The length of the line, the imagery, the clarity, the intensity of his vision.

I can only assume this will become the definitive translation of this work, clearly a labor of love.

If only Ashbery takes on A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat.

Let's hope he does.
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Format: Paperback
I first got to know of Rimbaud's astonishing collection of prose-poems through Benjamin Britten's 1939 setting of nine fragments for soprano and string orchestra. It is a brilliant work whose wild energy and scintillating colors are the perfect response to the extraordinary imagery of Rimbaud's writing. But only a fraction of the whole. So when I came upon this beautiful bilingual edition with the original French on the left-hand pages and translations by John Ashbery on the right, I was eager to buy it.

I started by reading each poem in French two or three times, without consulting either the translations or a dictionary. Only then did I turn to Ashbery's versions and read them through as a single sequence, without looking back at the French. They were very different experiences, both challenging, but for different reasons. In between, I tried translating two pieces myself: MARINE, which is one of the few written in verse, and one of the prose-poems, FLEURS. I found the former more demanding but ultimately easier, since the structure of verse forces a search for the most evocative verbal jewel to set in its precise place. The experience gave me a greater respect for Ashbery's work -- but at the same time made it clear that any translator was attempting the virtually impossible.

The collection was Rimbaud's farewell to poetry, completed in 1875 before he was even 21. It is astounding that these poems, penned when Impressionism had hardly got going, should already look forward to the verbal equivalent of Post-Impressionism and even Cubism. They are modern in a way we associate with verse of the Twentieth Century.
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