Just as the sheer quantity of John Ashbery's literary criticism surprised even the poet's fans (see his Selected Prose, 2007), so too the poet's translations from the French: they fill two volumes, one devoted to prose, the other to verse. Farrar Straus and Giroux will publish in April. Edited meticulously by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie, the books are rich in the enthusiasms of a maverick sensibility who did more than anyone else to put certain important French ecrivains -- Raymond Roussel, for instance -- on the map.
Ashbery spent ten formative years in France, mostly in Paris, having won a Fulbright in 1955. The critics, always quick to categorize, relegated him to a category as flexible as it is ill-defined: surrealism. And if there were a literary house of lords, surely he would be dubbed Sir Realist and be seated in the front row of the opposition party. He did in fact translate important works by Paul Eluard and Andre Breton, including such of their collaborations as "Le Jugement original," one of the highlights of the brilliant "collaborations" issue of Locus Solus #2, which Kenneth Koch put together. "The Original Judgment" is like William Blake's "Proverbs of Hell," only more so: "Let the dreams you have forgotten equal the value of what you do not know." "Adjust your gait to that of the storms." "Never wait for yourself." "You have nothing to do before dying.'
But Ashbery was always less interested in surrealism proper, if that is not an oxymoron, than in "hybrid" poets who deviated from the dads of dogma. I love his translations of Max Jacob's prose poems and believe that Le Cornet a des (The Dice-Cup) would garner deserved accolades if presented as a separate volume as Ashbery's versions of Rimbaud's Illuminations were a couple of seasons back.
Ashbery has a special feeling for Pierre Reverdy, whose poems were in Frank O'Hara's pocket on the day he spent his lunch hour walking elegiacally in midtown with Jackson Pollock's recent death on his brain ("A Step Away from Them"). Reverdy's poems have since found their way into a lot of other pockets, perhaps because in his leaps and enigmas he seems so pure an example of the French poetic sensibility that recommended itself so strongly to midcentury Americans eager to stray as far from the Eliotic throne room as they could. Ashbery's versions of Reverdy's prose poems (such as "Heavier," "From Another Shore") and verse ("Surprise," "That Memory") make the ideal introduction to this unusually compelling poet. Reverdy's lines seem able to detach themselves from the whole. Or rather the whole of a Reverdy poem consists of lines that arrive from different points of origin and coalesce as mysterously as a drop of water:
The stars came out of the water
A ship passed flying low
The line at the horizon from which the current was coming
The waves laughed as they died
No one knows where time will stop
I have barely touched upon the treasures in the poetry volume of Ashbery's Collected French Translations and I have not even mentioned the highlights of the accompanying book of prose.
The introductory essay by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie, with invaluable information, biographical as well as bibliographical, appears in the new issue of The Massachusetts Review (Winter 2013) with an admirable Ashbery collage ("Corona" from 2011) on the cover and with his translations of poems by Pascalle Monnier and Yves Bonnefoy.