RIMBAUD / ILLUMINATIONS / ASHBERY

Niall McDevitt

What a timely pleasure, Ashbery's Illuminations. Timely because the 'Rimbaud’s ever-present genius' (Neil Oram) never dates, because of a new and growing awareness of Rimbaud as a London writer and of Illuminations as a London masterpiece, and because these mysterious but prophetic prose-poems have their finger on the pulse of our globalised and mediated post-9/11 reality. Ashbery concludes his preface to this finely produced Norton/Carcanet edition: 'If we are absolutely modern – and we are – it's because Rimbaud commanded us to be.' If Baudelaire was the first modern poet, Rimbaud was the first modernist poet. Illuminations – probably begun in 1872 – is 50 years ahead of high modernism's annus mirabilis of 1922. (Interestingly, W.G. Blum's essay 'Rimbaud as Magician' appeared in The Dial in 1919, followed by the first surprisingly belated English translations.) Joyce's epic prose-poem Ulysses owes as much to Illuminations as it does to Homer; his 'Epiphanies' are literary exercises in transcendental shifts of perception, urban prose-poems, by a writer who was on the Rimbaud trail as early as 1902, when he sent a photo-postcard of himself from Paris costumed in Rimbaldian ‘ideal’ overcoat, hat and scarf. This was all anticipated by Verlaine who, in an early London letter, boasted of ‘our increasingly modernistic poetics’.

Click here to view an extended version of ‘RIMBAUD / ILLUMINATIONS / ASHBERY’, from the published print copy in The Wolf 25 and taken from ‘Black Goddess White Goddess: Four Psychogeographical Book Reviews’.

 

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