Bob Dylan perked our curiosity about the poems of Arthur Rimbaud all those years ago, and Penguin Classics lead the fray when it comes to finding not just Rimbaud, but French poetry in general, in translation. Paddy Kehoe looks at some selections.
If you’d like to know your Rimbaud from your Baudelaire, maybe a good place to start is The Penguin Book of French Poetry 1820-1950, an 854-page paperback which takes the reader on a very long road indeed, from the poems of Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869) to René Char (1907-1988).
This scenic ride passes significant points between, including, yes, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) as well as the poems of Stephen Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine , who was also name-checked by Dylan on the track You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When I Go from his album Blood on the Tracks.
Selected, translated and introduced by William Rees, his must have been a mammoth task. The original poems in French occupy the top of the pages, the prose translations the lower portions. Indeed so capacious is the anthology that a number of schools are surveyed – Romanticism, Symbolism, Cubism and Surrealism, so it's like travelling through a number of time-zones.
Arthur Rimbaud – Selected Poems and Letters (translated - with introduction and notes – by Jeremy Harding and John Sturrock) is a handy 450-page paperback which provides the core writings of this extraordinarily fearless character who effectively gave up writing poetry after a few firecracker years of intense production. At 20, he signed up a mercenary in the Dutch East Indies, a clerk in a travelling circus and later as a quarry foreman in Cyprus.
In 1880, he began trading in Ethiopia, dealing in coffee, hides, weapons and ivory. He wrote lots of letters, spoke a variety if languages and was a fearless explorer to boot. Rimbaud was born in Charleville in France in 1854 and died at the age of 37 in 1891.
In this anthology of his work, the French originals are on the left-hand side pages and the English translations on the right-hand pages. The four-verse Au Cabaret-Vert - cinque heures de soir is delightful, a little cameo about nipping in for a bite to eat, as a young fellow in the town of Charleroi, his boots flayed from the stony road.
`Bright eyes and an enormous cleavage/ Earn the barmaid ten out of ten’ runs the translation of lines seven and eight:
Definitely not a shrinking violet. Service
With a smile; in comes my warmish ham
On a garish plate, and yes, the buttered bread;
Driven stir crazy by provincial life, the young poet fled to Paris in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War. So exciting did he find the place that he also fled there the following year, at the time of the Commune. Which prompts the thought as to why he didn’t just stay by the Seine and save himself the bus fares back and forth? But Rimbaud didn’t do things conventionally, and his poetry is described as a journey into the unknown, through a `reasoned disordering of all the senses’ by means of alcohol and drugs.
Charles Baudelaire - Selected Poems is translated with an introduction by Carol Clark, and it would be a shame to let one’s life pass without getting some familiarity with the work of a man who documented the louche, sometimes bizarre underworld of nineteenth century Paris. His poems are populated by thieves, poets, yes, drunkards, prostitutes, gamblers and chancers of all kinds. His prose poems are replete with acerbic political jibes and pithy one-liners.
The format in this collection is identical to that of the French anthology – poems above, prose translations on bottom ends of pages.
Je vois ma femme en esprit. Son regard,
Commme le tien, aimable bete,
Profond et froid, coupe et fend comme une dard (Le Chat)
(I see my woman in my mind’s eye. Her look, like yours, delightful creature, is deep and cold, and cuts and splits like a blade, The Cat.)
Baudelaire’s Selected Writings on Art and Literature is also available in Penguin Classics.
Finally, Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet John Ashbery Collected French Translations: Poetry recently appeared from Caracanet in an impressive 413-page paperback. Ashbery lived in Paris for ten years, working as an art critic, from 1955. He formed a close relationship with the poet Pierre Martrory and his acclaimed translations of Martory feature here, as do poems by Paul Eluard, Max Jacob and Pierre Reverdy and many others, once again in bilingual format.