Thoughts on Stéphan Mallarmé

In the “Crisis in Poetry,” Stéphan Mallarmé states, “We desire a word of brilliant splendor or conversely one that fades away; and as for simple, luminous alternatives . . . But, we should note, otherwise poetry would not exist: philosophically, it is poetry that makes up for the failure of language, providing an extra extension” (NATC 737).

Reading this paired with the constant analogy of music that Mallarmé uses, I found myself remembering a quote that I have come across numerous times. Imagine yourself as a teenager again: After an argument with your parents about whether you could go out on Saturday night, you storm into your room and find solace with your computer. You blast “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and vow that you are not gonna take it anymore. You open up AIM and enter your new away message, “Where words leave off, music begins,” which was probably the same away message as half of your contacts. This overly cliché saying seems to be extremely similar to Mallarmé’s assertion that poetry is an extra extension of language as it bridges the gap between what is desired to be said and the limits of language.

Through reading the rest of the excerpt of “Crisis in Poetry” as well as researching Mallarmé’s theories, I found myself growing fond of him. Mallarmé was interested in the relationship between content and form, between text and the arrangement of words and spaces on a page as well as the notion that words were more than just representations. I feel like this was echoed through Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas.” When the poem is read aloud, it sounds like everyday language, or in Mallarmé terms: “divagations.”  The poem is filled with italicized words such as: “blackberry,” “justice,” “pine,” “hair,” “woman,” “you,” and “I,” placing an extra emphasis on these particular terms (10, 15-6). Now it may seem that these words (when re-arranged) produce a secret message of some sort (I pine justice, you blackberry hair woman), which it does, but not to the effect that you may think. In a poem that challenges the old notion that words are meant to represent things, the emphasis on the listed words are important. Initially it may appear as if the meaning is important – yet Hass is arguing that words are things in and of themselves, so this is not enough. It is the sound that each word creates. This is observed in the conclusion of the poem: “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” (31). This is further elaborated in A New History of French Criticism in which the author claims that for Mallarmé, “language is more like a prism than like a window” (800). This is because the intended message does not pass through language undisturbed, as light would through a window. Rather, language takes shape of the message, as light would be refracted differently through the opposite end of prism.

Now that we understand how words operate through Mallarmé’s perspective, we should turn our attention to the other aspects: form and structure. “In Mallarmé’s writing, the blank spaces are just as significant as the words” this is because he played with “the dual meaning of blanc – both ‘white’ and ‘blank’ – Mallarmé created a scintillation between presence and absence, between paper as material whiteness and paper as mere spacing” (New History of French Criticism 800). As a huge, self-titled because of my thesis, comic studies (dare I say) theorist, I found myself drawn to this statement. Comic books as a medium are known for its portrayal of the unseen and the seen, as what is not seen in a comic is just as important as what is pictured. There is a huge emphasis on blank space and gutters as the reader is expected to determine what occurs. One example of this, although it is not a comic, is Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are.

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In the beginning of the book we are met with a huge amount of blank space, and this is not because Sendak is a lazy illustrator. As Max’s imagination grows and he becomes more immersed into the world of the wild things, the blank space begins to disappear. Through this, Sendak uses the material whiteness of paper “as mere spacing” (New History of French Criticism 800). Just as Mallarmé’s view of language resonates with an AIM away message, his emphasis on blank space is one that rings true for several mediums.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to re-activate my AIM account to change my message to, “poetry that makes up for the failure of language, providing an extra extension.”

Works Cited:

Hass, Robert. “Meditation at Lagunitas.” Praise. New York: Eco Press, 1979. Print.

Hollier, Denis, and R. Howard. Bloch. A New History of French Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.

Mallarmé,Stéphan. “Crisis in Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Lietch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 734-740. Print.

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