“Poetic insights into France’s beloved bad boy of Gallic letters” – USC News, Susan Bell

News article and photo from USC News, by Susan Bell

Acclaimed as one of the greatest poets of all time, prodigy Arthur Rimbaud stopped writing at age 21 and died 16 years later, virtually indifferent to his work. (Illustration/Matthew Pla Savino)

r1-mini  While translating Arthur Rimbaud’s great symbolist poem “Le Bateau Ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”), poet Mark Irwin puzzled for weeks over one particularly challenging line.

“The literal translation was ‘Rain falling like lead from the sky,’” said Irwin, associate professor of English at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Trying to avoid the cliché in English, I translated it as ‘When July rained down its hammers,’ so I made up a completely different idiom. But that’s hard to do. That line took me a month, and it was exhausting.”

The project is a collaboration with Irwin’s friend and colleague Alain Borer, professor of the practice of French at USC Dornsife. One of the world’s foremost experts on Rimbaud, Borer is the owner of an 8,000-volume library on the poet.The final translation of the 100-line poem which appeared in The New England Review took Irwin three years to complete. Such is the challenge of translating Rimbaud, one of the most influential poets of all time. It is a challenge that Irwin has embraced. His new book, Zanzibar: Selected Poems and Letters of Arthur Rimbaud, containing 30 new translations of Rimbaud’s poems, is due out next year.

Zanzibar will contain a 15-page introduction by Irwin. Borer will contribute a 25-page essay.

“This will be the first book in which the translator is himself a poet and the scholar is writing poetically about Rimbaud,” said Irwin, whose ninth book of poetry, A Passion According to Green (New Issues/Western Michigan University Press), will be published next year.

Zanzibar will also be unique, Irwin said, because it will contain around a dozen rare documents, including maps, sketches and photographs from Borer’s private collection. Among them are Rimbaud’s sketch of the stretcher he designed after developing bone cancer, a photograph of Myriam, Rimbaud’s mistress in Abyssinia, and a number of self-portraits.

“Alain was the first writer to completely chart the world of Rimbaud and make it present for other people,” Irwin said. “This will be the first book where the poetry is presented together with other documents so readers can get a feel for the historical and cultural presence, as well as the poems themselves.”

Irwin chose the title Zanzibar because of Rimbaud’s frequent references to the East African archipelago in his correspondence as an ideal place that existed beyond the prison of his body.

Borer welcomed the choice of title, “It is the dream island, the paradise he never reached and this state, ceaselessly postponed, which corresponds exactly to his quest,” he said. “We all have our Zanzibars.”

‘A monster of purity’

Both Irwin and Borer were marked by the poet from a young age.

Irwin first read Rimbaud at the age of 15.

“Rimbaud was the poet who made me want to become a poet, more than any other. I’m not sure that I understood the poetry at that time, but I felt it very deeply,” Irwin said, adding that it was Rimbaud’s frustration with life that inspired him to write.

“French critic Jacques Rivière called Rimbaud ‘a monster of purity,’” Irwin said. “I always thought that was the best characterization. He was constantly looking for the essence of everything. That was why one place wasn’t enough for him. He couldn’t stand being….. r2-mini – Susan Bell, USC News

Continue reading on USC News, by Susan Bell –


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