In 1958 John Ashbery sailed for Paris to gather materials for a thesis he intended to write about Raymond Roussel, who at the time was an all-but-forgotten French poet, playwright and novelist. Ashbery discovered Roussel in 1951, when his friend Kenneth Koch shared with him a souvenir from a yearlong sojourn in France. It was a faded copy of Roussel’s Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1928), a poem comprising four cantos, each written in a single sentence that expands to an epic length through a system of nested parentheses. Not one of the cantos contains a single impression of Africa, which helps account for why, several years before taking his own life in 1933, Roussel had been called “the Proust of dreams.” It was in part by immersing himself in those dreams that Ashbery learned to manufacture exotic realities in a matter-of-fact way. Ashbery’s poem “The Instruction Manual,” for instance, written in the mid-1950s, could very well have been titled “Nouvelles Impressions de Métal.” The speaker of the poem is at his job and must write an instruction manual about the uses of a new metal; instead, he blithely conjures up a vivid and precise travelogue about Guadalajara, a place he has never visited.
Shortly before embarking for France, Ashbery informed Koch that he was reading Roussel’s novel Locus Solus, which he found to be a revelation. “Locus Solusis the greatest thing I’ve read in years,” he told his friend in a letter. “It’s like a bouquet of cast-iron forget-me-nots.” At the heart of that bouquet is a knot impossible to untangle, not least because the bouquet is an extravagant and mysterious image–what must we not forget?–that seems to have been gathered from Roussel’s own scrupulously cultivated French garden. There’s also the matter of cross-pollination. By the time Ashbery arrived in Paris in 1958, many American poets had already found in French poetry a grand license to experiment. The trail Ashbery followed had been blazed by William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane and other poets who had discovered Dada in American and British little magazines in the teens and traveled to Paris during the Roaring Twenties to plunge into the city’s mélange of Cubist paintings and Surrealist poems.
But no predecessor was as important as T.S. Eliot, who was the first modern American poet to read French poetry critically, seeking not to mimic its styles but to absorb its lessons in order to rejuvenate poetry in English. As a young poet Eliot was captivated by the opening lines of Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Sept vieillards,” in which ghosts swarm a city sidewalk and accost pedestrians in broad daylight: “Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,/Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant.” “I knew what that meant,” Eliot recalled in 1950, “because I had lived it before I knew that I wanted to turn it into verse on my own account.” From Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal Eliot learned how to transform the sordid streets of a modern metropolis into the stage of his own suffering. And from the little-known poet Jules Laforgue, Eliot learned how to create a confessional persona for that stage by amalgamating the voices of a mocking commentator and a droll sufferer. Impressions culled from the streets of Boston and London fill “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Preludes” and The Waste Land, but each poem’s splenetic tone is French.
Eliot and Ashbery are among the American poets whose translations of French poems Paul Auster chose to include in The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry. Until the appearance of Auster’s book in 1982, American readers had to make do with a hodgepodge of anthologies of French poetry in translation–period collections like French Poets Today (1971), which focuses on poetry published since 1950, school primers like Modern French Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (1975) and movement chronicles like The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology (1974) or The Négritude Poets: An Anthology of Translations from the French (1975). The convenience of having poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, Pierre Reverdy and Aimé Césaire in one volume was one of the strengths of Auster’s anthology. Another was the inclusion of dozens of translations by American poets: Eliot, Pound, Williams, Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Ron Padgett, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, Richard Wilbur, Richard Howard, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, W.S. Merwin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, James Wright, Charles Simic, Clayton Eshleman, Michael Palmer and Auster himself. Auster’s accomplishment was to dramatize, as no anthologist had before, how the histories of American and French poetry became intertwined during the twentieth century, growing into a knot impossible to untangle.