For most of his contemporaries, France was the place to go for culture, food, and education; for John Ashbery, the place, but especially its language, provided—from his very first encounter with it—something even more personal. As a fourteen-year-old sophomore at the Sodus High School in rural upstate New York, the French language gave Ashbery the ability to explore private thoughts in a form that only he could read and understand. He had roiling ideas and feelings—irritations at school and home, crushes on both girls and boys, uncertainties about love and sex—and curious, anxious parents. To whom could he express himself? That year his mother bought him his first diary; he purchased the next three. These books contained his first raw translations.
To keep a diary the way he wished and still feel safe from prying eyes required using a language his parents did not know. He initially wrote some sentences in Latin, which he studied first, but less than a month after he began French I with the pretty Miss Case, he switched to French, which gave him more opportunity to record his emotional life with texture and nuance. Initially he wrote only one or two French words per entry—“joie,” for example, in the corner of one page—to convey some private sentiment he hoped to remember. But he learned the language quickly—he completed three years of classes in only two—and what he didn’t know he guessed, creatively circumventing his limited French so he could get the language to fit what he wanted to say. Soon he could compose entirely in French. These were more than translations, for he could express freely what he could not write down in English. When he wrote an entry in English, it was only because, as he acknowledged to himself one day in 1943 shortly after he turned sixteen: “Nothing happened today worthy of translation into French.”
By the time he moved to his own apartment in New York City after college, he no longer needed to keep a diary or a secret emotional language, but he never stopped thinking about France, which was always connected in his mind to those early feelings of privacy, memory, and love. In “A Dream,” written in the fall of 1949, he imagined “that Paris of dark glass and frozen steel which resembles the top of an enormous railway terminal” with “gusts of snow” on “little” streets. In the poem, the speaker hears beautiful music in the distance, sounds barely reaching his ears like a nearly forgotten memory, producing unbidden but appealing thoughts. Ashbery was eager to go to Paris, but lacked the money to travel. Despondent that he might never actually get there, he started to read in French, which made him feel closer to the place.
His own translations naturally followed. By this point, he was nearly twenty-seven and had not taken a French class in nine years. After a few rough starts, he completed a draft of Max Jacob’s “Littérature et Poésie,” a brief prose-poem he loved about a French child’s imagined trip to Naples. This poem, which he translated one afternoon in the spring of 1954 in his West 14th Street sublet, is his earliest translation to appear in the new Collected French Translations edited by Eugene Richie and Rosanne Wasserman. He liked the intricate work, and the task of oiling his rusty French energized his mind. He started to send light blue airmail letters to the Parisian bookshop, José Corti, requesting they mail him anything in their store by Raymond Roussel so he could translate those as well. Working from French to English, the process of finding (or inventing) solutions to problematic passages once again granted him access to an inner world otherwise unavailable to him. These translations and the promise of more won him a Fulbright to France, and he arrived in Paris in late September 1955.
Finally he was on the same soil as Proust, Roussel, and the Comte de Lautréamont, writers whose works he had read so closely he had internalized them. One of his first translations in France was of Jules Supervielle’s “To Lautréamont,” a poem which described standing in the exact location where Lautréamont once walked, but wishing one were even closer to him, and literally wanting to “dig the ground hoping you’d emerge from it.” At the end of the poem, Lautréamont pops up from his grave just to smack the poet “right between the eyes.” This violent but playful act is both a shock and a relief for the poet who has been so long in search of his subject. It’s a fitting moment for the man whose childhood translations enabled him—and would continue to provide—unexpected moments of access, new avenues to gain insight into the shifting and mysterious landscape of his own mind.
Karin Roffman is an Associate Professor of English at West Point and is currently completing the first biography of John Ashbery’s early life, which will be published by FSG. She has published two essays recently on Ashbery in Raritan.
Details of collages by John Ashbery courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.