Between 1872 and 1875, a young French vagabond, perhaps under the influence of alcohol and opium, travelled between London, Paris and Belgium, writing poems that would reflect how he had ‘[made] himself a seer through a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses’.
The end result was a manuscript that Arthur Rimbaud – then just 21-years-old – would hand over to his former lover, Paul Verlaine, on the occasion of their last meeting in Stuttgart in 1875. Illuminations, the book of poems that Verlaine eventually published in 1886, would turn out to be one of the masterpieces of world literature, and a precursor for much of the modernist poetry of the 20th century.
In April 2012, Belfast-based poet and author Ciaran Carson was approached by the National University of Ireland to reinterpret some of Rimbaud’s poems. His words were to accompany an art exhibition at Maynooth University. But within a week of commencing work, Carson found that he had enough material to make up an entire collection.
In The Light Of: After Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud features 22 verse interpretations, as well as three prose versions, of the prose poems from Rimbaud’s original manuscript. Relating to the collection, Carson explains how ‘literal meaning’ can be a problematic phrase when it comes to translations of poetry.
‘The temptation with Rimbaud’s Illuminations, because the pieces are ostensibly in prose, is to render them more or less word for word, thus ignoring their music. But the more you examine them, and read the French aloud, you can see that the prose has metre, and occasional rhyme embedded in it.
‘Any translations I had read of Illuminations hitherto seemed flat,’ Carson continues. ‘So I decided to rewrite them in the rhyming couplets of the classical French alexandrine. I wanted Rimbaud’s dreamlike imagery to rhyme, chime, and echo: to make some kind of music to my ear.’
By transforming the majority of Rimbaud’s prose poems into verse, Carson says that he became particularly aware of the musicality and cadence that Rimbaud (pictured below) sought to capture on his travels across Europe.
Much of the imagery in Illuminations dichotomizes both the awe and disgust that London and Paris inspired in Rimbaud during his 19th century wanderings. Does Carson feel that what the young chronicler was attempting to express in his poems was his joint horror of, and fascination with, the idea of the modern metropolis?
‘I don’t know if “express” is the right word for what Rimbaud was doing,’ Carson muses. ‘That word implies that the poet begins with some kind of manifesto, which he then illustrates in poetry. But the poems are visceral reactions: they come out in their own weird and zany logic.
‘In retrospect, we can read some of them as critiques of industrial society. Rimbaud was fiercely anti-respectability, and took a certain delight in squalor. Therefore his reactions to the horror and opulence of cities is indeed complicated.’
In The Light Of is one of many translation projects that Carson has undertaken during his career. In 1998 he published adaptations of sonnets by Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, in The Alexandrine Plan, while his version of Dante’s Inferno in 2002 was awarded the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Carson finds the process of translation challenging and ultimately satisfying.
‘When reinventing, one must find another spin on the language,’ Carson says of the process. ‘It’s more a renegotiation, perhaps, than a reinvention. Besides the music of the matter, there is the fact that words apparently similar can carry different cultural gravities in different languages.’
To appreciate where his love of language and etymology originates from, it is perhaps worth considering Carson’s formative years growing up on the streets of Belfast. Born in 1948, Carson was raised in a house on Raglan Street, off the Falls Road in the west side of the city.
‘We spoke Irish before English, which I later learned off the street,’ Carson recalls. ‘Increasingly, it does seem that this bilingual upbringing does matter. My name is a paradigm of opposition: Ciaran, very Irish – meaning little dark-haired one – and Carson, the same name as the putative founding father of the state of Northern Ireland [Edward Carson].
‘We can never be wholly one thing or another, and ambiguity is essential to all poetry. Any proper poem divulges different meanings at different times. Even one’s own poems, which we think we know, mean different things each time we read them.’
The inflections of speech, and the peculiar rhythms of the Irish language in particular, have greatly influenced much of Carson’s poetry to date. ‘I think that Irish lies at the back of everything I write in English,’ he agrees. ‘I am very attached to the art of sean-nós singing in Irish. Often those kind of melodies are in my head, informing what I write.’
I refer Carson to the poem ‘Dresden’, from his collection The Irish for No, where he writes: ‘Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother Mule; / Though why Mule was called Mule is anybody’s guess.’ He recalls that he wrote the poem at a time when he was deeply immersed in playing and learning music: an experience that took him on rambles around various parts of Ireland.
‘The speaking voices in that collection were, to some extent, based on the storytelling of the late John Campbell,’ he remarks. ‘What I loved in the sessions I encountered was the fluid mix of music, song, chat, anecdote and story, not to mention drinking.
‘It seemed that there was no fixed line between those genres, or between art and life. That was enormously refreshing and interesting to me: how apparently ordinary speech can, within a couple of turns, become a story.’
One last word on the act of writing poetry, then. Does Carson find the process cathartic? Is the act of writing and subsequently reading poetry in the end worth all the effort?
‘I don’t know if poetry does anything for one,’ he surmises. ‘It’s not about exorcism. It’s not that kind of medium. One writes because one has to, without any thought of what it is for, or even what it might imply. It’s about looking into the language to see how it might apply. Apply to what?
‘Perhaps it’s a matter of the questions. Poetry doesn’t have any answers, but it does have lots of questions. It provides a questioning dimension to our lives. Who we are is a mystery, but an interesting one, and all we can do is to explore that as best as we can through language.’
— J P O’Malley, Culture Northern Ireland