Homage to a Bad Boy: John Ashbery


When it came to choosing the Yale Younger Poet for 1956, W. H. Auden didn’t like the submissions, and it seemed that the prize might go without a winner until, at the last minute, he read a manuscript by John Ashbery. Auden went with Ashbery’s Some Trees, but there’s a slightly baffled, worried tone to the introduction he wrote for the book.

“From Rimbaud down to Mr. Ashbery,” Auden wrote, “an important school of modern poets has been concerned with the discovery that, in childhood largely, in dreams and daydreams entirely, the imaginative life of the human individual stubbornly continues to live by the old magical notions,” which, in the absence of the shared myths of antiquity, depend on “the unique particulars of the individual’s personal history.” For Auden, the problem with this inspiration was its idiosyncrasy, and he used Rimbaud’s Illuminations to describe it: “Where Wordsworth had asked the question ‘What is the language really used by men?’ Rimbaud substituted the question ‘What is the language really used by the imagining mind?’ ” Auden was suspicious of the French poet’s seemingly private world of discourse, and, bringing Ashbery’s poetry forward as the latest example of it, he wondered: “Is it now possible to write poetry?”

Over a triumphant, steadily unfolding career, Ashbery has settled that question time and again, while challenging readers to re-think what it means to write poetry and how to represent “the imagining mind” in language. Of the poetic influences Ashbery has drawn on, including Wallace Stevens and Auden himself, Rimbaud is not the most obvious. But Auden was on to something in 1956, and there is power and poignancy in Ashbery’s choice, many decades later, to pay homage to the original enfant terrible by translating his Illuminations in a book from which the two translations here have come. It’s a reminder that the elegant, whimsical, intellectual poet, now in his 80s, still has some of the bad boy and the visionary in him too.

Rimbaud’s challenge to poetic norms circa 1886, when Illuminations was published, is signaled by his use of the prose poem (a major form in France and one Ashbery often works in). It’s hard not to read “Drifters” as a portrait of Rimbaud’s famously turbulent relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine. Ashbery Americanizes a title usually rendered in English as “Vagabonds”; he sounds a similar note when Rimbaud’s drifter searches for the “recipe” (la formule) that would restore his “poor brother” to “his original state of child of the sun.”

Rimbaud’s nocturnal “Vigils” is followed by Ashbery’s own poems, “The Cost of Sleep” and “Among the Recyclables.” Rimbaud’s intense, meteoric career ended with Illuminations. If Auden is right, Ashbery’s long and singularly revelatory career merely began there.


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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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