Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Reading Mallarme' (assigned)

STEPHANE MALLARME. Required. The edition that must be used is Collected Poems and Other Verse, eds., E.H. and A. M. Blackmore (Oxford University Press paperback).


Coming to terms with Mallarmé is one of the hardest tasks in the whole history of Western literature. He is a supremely “difficult” poet. Sometimes, in my frustration with him, I have thought that I had rather succumb to a lifethreatening disease than to have to confront those darned poems one more time. All the same, he is the indispensable linchpin of the Symbolist Movement. A lion in the path, there is no way getting around him.

At first the compression of his corpus seems a help. He was surely the least productive of all major poets. The oeuvre that he approved for collection amounts to a scarcely more than 100 pages. Scholars have augmented this total several times with other poems, published and unpublished, and juvenilia. The results of this harvest are far from vast.

As one might expect, a horde of scholarship has accumulated to decode the work. Some hold that this endeavor goes contrary to Mallarmé’s intention, which was to create “open” works that defy any complete resolution. Their inderminacy is deliberate an inexpugnable. At all events, it is imperative to look at his work in French (with the helpful crib afforded by the bilingual Oxford volume), for much turns upon relations of sound and sense integral to that language. But take heart: someone remarked that it would have been better if Mallarmé had written his poems in German!

As the Blackmores remark, [f]or him … the vital role of poetry was to purge language of its everyday setting.” In this he indicated one of the main paths of defamiliarization or estrangement, that deliberate departure from everything ordinary, indeed everything that we normally expect, that is characteristic of the most challenging twentieth-century poets, such as Eliot and Pound, George and Rilke. In Mallarmé’s case, the achievement is all the more remarkable in that he keeps to standard verse forms. The subversion of language—which the poet would call a return to its true nature—takes place on the deepest level

The high priest of modern poetry, Mallarmé seems formidable for the reasons stated. However, he had a lighter side: he even edited a ladies’ fashion magazine for eleven months. Much of his work is also occasional, and therefore more approachable. In the end, though, one comes back the fearsome, hermetic Scriptures of modern poetry—-the core oeuvre.

Here are some hints to assist in your reading.

Examine the Introduction to the Oxford volume for discussion of the poet’s commitment to suggestion, nuance, and the thing not said. In a famous sentence Mallarmé formulated the 25/75 rule. Mere statement or “naming” affords only one-quarter—25%--of the value of a poem. By contrast, the other 75% provides the true measure of the enjoyment and appreciation of the poem. In that 75%, or so it seems to me, lies the essence of the Symbolist quest. Its exact content, of course, Mallarmé does not divulge. “Those who say, don’t know; those who know, don’t say.”

Examine the poems for references to decadence (esp. pp.83-85) and nothingness (le néant; cf. p. 20). How is the latter connected to theme of impotence (pp. 14, 20)?

What is Mallarmé’s take on the Salome-Herodias theme, as part of the larger issue of the femme fatale?

“The Windows” p. 10-13, offers parallels with Symbolist paintings.

What color words does the poet use?

In “The Demon of Analogy” (p. 88ff.) Mallarmé defends “accidental” relations of words. In his view, these links are not accidental at all, but take us into the realm of the essences of words. The poet preferred traditional verse forms, but in his affirmation of the “secret” links of words, he was farseeing. He implicitly posited the concept of the poem as an artifact, not dependent on relations with the outside world.

Note his reference to Puvis de Chavannes (pp. 208) and various other painters, many his friends (217 ff.). Famous for his defence of Manet, the poet cultivated a long friendship with the American James Whistler. Edgar Allen Poe was another major American influence.

What is the role of the blank spaces in the revolutionary concrete poem “Un coup de dés“?

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