Oyster Boy Review 17  
  Fall 2003
» Cover

» Feature
» Art
» Poetry
» Essays
» Reviews
» Contributors

» Oyster Boy Review
» Levee 67

Poems & One Letter by Arthur Rimbaud


Mark Spitzer

Six or seven years ago, I got an itch to translate some Rimbaud. I knew that there were works of his that had hardly been translated, but what I didn't know was that there was a whole body of work that had never been put into English before. It was astonishing to me that the greatest poet in all of French literature, and one of the most translated poets in all of world literature, had work still waiting for translation.

Many of these untranslated texts were written in Latin when Rimbaud was in school. They'd been translated into French, but never into English. Others had been "reconstructed" from "scraps" by scholars. There were also previous and differing versions of more well-known works, and statements to the police from when Verlaine got busted in Belgium for shooting Rimbaud in the wrist. Plus, some poems were added to the oeuvre after Wallace Fowlie and Paul Schmidt published their supposedly "complete works."

Then there were the reports from Africa ("Report on the Ogaden" and "To the Bosphore égyptien"), which Rimbaud wrote in a journalistic style while running guns in Abyssinia. Somehow, these large prose works escaped translation for over a century. Not only that, but there were quite a few letters that other translators skipped because they felt they weren't worthy of translation.

So I got to work, and compiled a book called From Absinthe to Abyssinia: Selected Miscellaneous, Obscure and Previously Untranslated Works of Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud (Creative Arts, 2002). While this book was in the galley stage, however, Martin Sorrell published yet another incomplete Complete Poems and beat me to the punch on some of the verse that had never been translated into English. Wyatt Mason then published a Modern Library collection of Rimbaud translations that are also allegedly "complete." I have not seen Mason's book yet, but I hear that he is a talented rhymer, and has published some of the works I claimed had never been translated prior to my collection.

That's what happens when translations are released simultaneously. Nevertheless, here's what I can say about the works chosen for this issue of Oyster Boy Review:

"Trois baisers" is the earliest known version of a poem later published as "Première soirée" and "Comédie en trois baisers." As far as I know, "Three Kisses" has never been published in English prior to my translation.

"Fête Galante" is a parody of Paul Verlaine, and there are many possibilities of what the words can mean (see the end notes in From Absinthe to Abyssinia).

"Iranian Caravan Scrap" and "Melancholy Hyperimagism"—a parody of an archetypal poem of the Parnassian school of poetry by Belmontet—have rarely been seen in English.

The "Ass Sonnet," "Cock Sonnet," and "Asshole Sonnet" were collaborations by Verlaine and Rimbaud. Some scholars claim each poet is responsible for certain lines, but I believe they worked together on the entire project and that Verlaine had more say in the editing process. The improvised sonnet form employed in "Vi(o)lations" is based on what is sometimes referred to as the Berrigan sonnet.

Finally, the "Letter to Vice Consul Gaspary" addresses some of the problems Rimbaud inherited when his business partner died while traveling in Africa. The "Azzaze" Rimbaud keeps referring to is a type of local judge. The "Dedjatch" he refers to is a local warlord.

If you are interested in seeing the French texts, please refer to the "Sources" section in From Absinthe to Abyssinia.