Mallarme And The Death Of Poetry


All in all, after reading Stephane Mallarme’s Collected Poems (unsatisfactorily translated by Henry Weinfield), I’ve decided that Mallarme’s poetry is not my thing (as far as I can tell from the all-too-freely-rendered translations).  However, it is obvious to me that Mallarme was at the fore-front of almost every innovation that made modern poetry “modern.”  And from my point of view, that’s not a compliment.

Poets of Mallarme’s day (the late 1800s, and into the early 1900s) were in the process of ripping open the straitjacket of strict form that poets had labored under through the centuries as… well, as part of the job description.  Some poets used the new freedoms well:  Eliot, Yeats, several passages of Whitman—to name a few.  Others (most others), not so well.  And it only trended worse…

By 1960, poetry was dead.

There are several lines of Mallarme I like (and one whole work), but I would like to write about those in a separate post.  Today, I just want to list four major innovations of modern poetry practiced by Mallarme.  I label them like a good patriot…

1.  The Burroughs Cut-Up Technique

Mallarme appears to be one of the first to use the “cut-up” technique of writing, most infamously practiced by Burroughs, wherein seemingly unrelated phrases are juxtaposed in the attempt, I assume, to stumble upon something unique and/or meaningful.  I guess the thinking is:  where skill fails, perhaps luck will lend a hand; it’s the poetic equivalent of the quarterback’s Hail Mary pass or the basketball player’s shot from halfcourt at the buzzer.  Composing in the Cut-Up Style, a writer must blindfold the mind, tie one hand of talent behind the back, and throw unsharpened words at an impenetrable dartboard.   [clarification: modern trend #1 & 2 were used by Mallarme in “A Throw Of The Dice”]

2. The ee-cummings-style Of The TEXT Becoming Part Of The A*R*T

In some of Mallarme’s works, he has moved past merely painting with words—he is scratching the wax with individual letters.  Bold print, italics, capitals, lower-case— it all becomes part of the artform for him.  Unfortunately, this approach, mis-used, murders all elegance while failing to give life to any additional poetic beauty…  An unappealing style wrapped around a rotten substance— a tossed-bucket paintjob over a rusted-out jalopy.  When poetry stopped being about the performance and the sound, and started being about words on a page… poetry had one foot in the grave already.

3.  The Whitmanesque Break With Form

Mallarme was an early major poet to break with traditional poetic forms.  Many of his “poems” are actually just short essays, typically of a depressing tone, often mentioning winter or ennui (a disease suffered only by those who do not have to resort to real, physical labor to earn their daily bread).  Taking the form out of poetry was like taking the air out of a balloon.  With the abandonment of form, the second foot (no pun intended, poetry majors) joined the first in poetry’s grave.

4.  The Dickinsonian Obscurity   

Another change in poetry occurring concurrently with the dropping of form, was the move to make poetry obscure— purposely obscure.  Emily Dickinson was one of the first to choose this unfortunate way forward, several of her poems being almost riddle-like, wherein we must guess what she’s talking about.  Dickinson did not take this too far, and one usually gets her meaning without much brow-furrowing–  but later lesser poets obfuscate their descriptions to the point of turning poetry inside out—achieving a dark, fuzzy confusion that is basically the opposite of what poetry has always striven for as its ideal:  namely, to be the best, deepest, clearest possible expression of the world.  To describe something without describing it –instead of a pitfall to be avoided— became a goal of, and badge of honor for, modern poets.

Some poets veering into the murk handled it better than others.  During the twentieth century, this turn away from the waterfall and toward the mud puddle (“muddle”) would take a more and more idiosyncratic twist— until, to truly understand what a poet was trying to say, one had to know intimate or trivial details of the poet’s personal life.  Sometimes, even that wasn’t enough, for poets could hide meritless work behind the facade of hidden meanings and “deep” mysteries.

Obscure language was the dirt shoveled atop poetry’s grave.

Rest in pieces, poetry.  It was a good run—well, til the end.

[In my next post, I’ll expound upon what was GOOD in Mallarme.]


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