If Rimbaud anticipated the Surrealists by decades, Ashbery is said to have gone beyond them and defied even their rules and logic. Yet though nearly 150 years have intervened since Rimbaud’s first declaration of independence, many readers in our own age, too, still prefer a coherence of imagery, a sameness of tone, a readable sequential message, even, ultimately, what amounts to a prose narrative broken into lines. Enough others, however, find the “crystalline jumble” intellectually and emotionally revitalizing and say, Yes, please do interrupt the reverie you have created for us to allow an intrusion of Popeye! Besides his early absorption of Rimbaud’s work, Ashbery brings to this translation a long and deep familiarity with French life, language and culture, particularly artistic and literary culture, and the experience of having translated many other French works over the years — by Pierre Reverdy, Raymond Roussel, Max Jacob, Pierre Martory (as well as at least one detective novel, as the amusingly renamed Jonas Berry). These translations are part of a larger body of Ashbery’s work that has served to offer us — his largely monolingual Anglophone readership — access to poets of another culture, either foreign or earlier in time. (Notable, for instance, is his keenly investigatory, instructive and engrossing “Other Traditions,” the six Norton Lectures that open our eyes to the work of such luminaries as John Clare and Laura Riding.) In tandem, then, with his own 20-plus books of poetry (not to mention his teaching and his critical writings on the visual arts), Ashbery has extended his generous explicating intelligence to the work of many others, most recently in “Illuminations.”
more from Lydia Davis at the NYT here.