You can find the excerpt from “Crisis in Poetry” (translated by Mary Ann Caws) online here.
Here are some thinking questions for the excerpt. Feel free to comment on them (Stanford students: in blue right below the questions here; online visitors: in the comment section below).
1. The essay from which this excerpt is taken is called “Crisis in Poetry,” so its subject is a difficult situation poetry finds itself in at the time. Part of the background to this crisis is Mallarmé’s observation that although there are many languages, “the supreme one is lacking.” In your opinion, what implications might this basic observation have for poetry–the way poetry functions as a specific mode of communication with others, for examples, but also the way the poet conceives of a poem before or as s/he is writing it? And why could that be a problem for Mallarmé, the “master” poet of Symbolism?
From a reader’s perspective Mallarmé’s statement that languages are imperfect and that “the supreme one is lacking” is intellectually conceivable and notable in everyday language and in especially in poetry. Through my reading of Baudelaire’s “Hymm to Beauty,” for example, in my mind as I read the English translation I knew that language translations are onerous — a task which never truly relays the original unique emotionality or the psychological impact of the original. A literal translation renders a fractured incoherent verse, which yields nothingness. I studied the words in context to the entire poem as best I could. I had a friend on mine read the original French version to me so that I could “feel” and “see” shapes and motion in my minds eye. In the end, my thoughts and feelings were different, yet similar to the translated version on the opposite page. The uniqueness of the “word,” is not in its meaning but rather in its sound and shape. WildeFranc
The quest for the ideal language, that is to say, the research for the allegedly lost Adamic or Divine language has always been a great concern for philosophers and poets. Although the idea according to which one could find some sort of ultimate language that would match the signified (mental image, the concept) with its signifier (acoustic image, the word) and vice versa may seem to be illusory; it might nonetheless be argued that some specific literary devices may help us overcoming the finiteness of languages. The might of the metonymy, the metaphor, and the allegory largely used in symbolic poetry constrain the linguistic sign to transcend and self-other (se faire autre). In this latter case, the semantic prevails over the syntax. These peculiar literary devices implement what one could call transfiguration and reification, namely, they turn these dead words written on paper into some sort of alive poetic discourse. -R.C.
I like the idea of self-othering here, and it’s interesting also to note your ideas of matching signifier/signified and overcoming finiteness, RC. What’s at stake seems a) transformation, and b) mastering a barrier. Plato and mimesis are always in the background here (not to mention Jacques Derrida’s “Double Séance”; Mallarmé was an important touchstone for Derrida). We’ll talk about mimesis (the Platonic tradition of the problem and its relation to literature of the 19th century) in class soon; it’s central to an understanding of Symbolism and Decadence. Ask me about it in class soon 🙂 Thanks for prompting these thoughts! -petradt
Especially in relation to the symbolic nature of real-world elements, there is no “supreme” language. What different elements represent or mean might have some degree of universality within a culture, but between individuals, interpretations can be vastly different. This makes it more difficult to communicate, especially through poetry, as is perhaps part of Mallarmé’s quandary. The struggle for the poet trying to communicate using symbolic language is to deliver the intended message without sacrificing the desired aesthetic. -M.P.
2. Mallarmé says that “[t]he pure work implies the disappearance of the poet as a speaker, yielding his initiative to words …” What does this mean for the role of the poet here, especially when you compare it, say, to the preceding Romantic tradition in which the poet was often seen as a prophet-like figure?
I would say that Mallarmé is less interested in the word – its meaning – than the sound or the shape it has; in this he is miles away from the Romantic tradition. WildeFranc
That’s a really interesting observation, WildeFranc: that the aesthetic and perceptive effect is in the spotlight here, rather than the meaning. In a way, this idea thinks of words more two-dimensional, horizontal or flat, i.e. more surface- rather than depth-oriented. What does this imply for the functions of poetry? Does it become purely decorative then? We need to think about this more. Thanks for bringing it up. -petradt
3. Look at the metaphor of words as fireworks in that same paragraph. What do you make of that?
I think it’s a beautiful image with too many different facets to even begin to comment on them all. But here’s a preliminary stab at a few of them. I think it’s probably important that he chose a complicated object like fireworks to stand in for words. Fireworks are a human invention, we mix them and make them into whatever color and shape we please, yet all of their ingredients are fundamentally natural chemical elements and compounds which we find in and which constitute the world around us. We manipulate them, but we are also made of them. We use fireworks as a celebration of life. We send them up in moments of ecstatic joy and they then heighten the joy within us. They are an ostentatious display, of course, but breathtakingly beautiful. They make us happy. Furthermore, they are ephemeral–they exist as light and sound for moments only, then as smoke-ghosts for moments longer, before they are gone. The spoken word is the same. The written word thankfully has more permanence, but spoken poetry (which he may have meant, since he references “perceptible breath”) and fireworks seem to have much in common. However, there is another association being made. We do not watch the fireworks, we watch their reflections in a jewel. Jewels refract and reflect light across all their facets, making a show perhaps more brilliant than the fireworks themselves, but also robbing us of the fireworks in truth–we have a substitute image. Maybe a symbol? It seems a plausible interpretation to assign the role of poetry to the jewel, leaving fireworks to be not words but the realms of truth which can be described only indirectly. We cannot see them, but we can see–and describe, and appreciate–their reflections. -LN
That’s a great “preliminary stab” at the fireworks metaphor here, LN. Did you notice what happens to the agency here? The words light up because of the “shock of their difference,” animated by something that seems inherent in them, not arranged by the poet. There is no fireworks engineer behind this. What does this mean for the role of the poet here? And if the words do so beautifully on their own, what’s the “crisis”? You call the words/fireworks “smoke-ghosts” … what a beautiful phrase! Love it. -petradt
I think Mallarmé sees words as fireworks bursting, igniting the page. His job as poet is to “direct” them as a painter would choose his colors. WildeFranc
4. What might Mallarmé mean by the “absent” flower in the bouquet at the end of the excerpt? How does that relate to or complement the idea of the disappearance of the poet as a speaker?
I see the absent flower as the ideal, the sublime, something that mere language–flawed and incomplete as it is–cannot grant us access to. More specifically, though one may labor long and hard at providing a comprehensive description of a bouquet, the final product will merely be a collection of words, which has nothing to with the experience (not limited to sensory, though in what way I couldn’t possibly explain), the physicality of the bouquet itself. The best way to get at the essence of something is perhaps not through description, but by suggestion (or symbolization)…? -LH
You’ve started grappling with a very important collection of concepts here, LH: experience, physicality, essence. We will need to think about all this more; thanks for bringing it up. I also wonder if there is an implicit value judgment inherent in this passage in Mallarmé: does the “absent” flower in the bouquet seem like a better one than the ones that are physically present? And if so, what does that image imply if we transpose the image back on to words and poetry? -petradt
In all art, the absent (negative space) is important; one could argue that the negative is just as important as the positive space. A painting, a poem, a musical composition is as notable for what is not there as what is there. And a true work of art rises above its origin, above its creator. In this, it complements the idea of disappearance of the poet as speaker. Through use of poetic features such as onomatopoeia, rhythm, dissonance, and the like, poetry becomes accessible beyond national boundaries. A word, a phrase, can become the embodiment of the thing, e.g. the sibilance of hiss and slither can bring to mind a snake or something serpentine, even if we do not know the meaning of the words. How words are arranged on the page can also give us a clue as to meaning. WildeFranc