- Incipit:On Poetry and Crisis
For the next installment of this dialogic series, the journal asked Thomas C. Connolly (Yale University) and Liesl Yamaguchi (Boston College) to reflect on Stéphane Mallarmé's fleeting glimpse of a world without poetry, offering the following citation from "Crise de vers" (1897) as a prompt: "Seulement, sachons n'existerait pas le vers: lui, philosophiquement rémunère le défaut des langues, complément supérieur." They composed their initial essays without knowing the content of their interlocutor's essay; the ensuing exchange, by e-mail, took place in the order presented below.
If, in his earlier writings, Mallarmé often turns to the preposition "après," his later writings are frequently inflected by the modifier "presque." I show how "presque" is a key instrument in Mallarmé's "jeu de la parole," a word that enables the "Glorieux Mensonge" that is literature, and that, in the case of "Crise de vers," appears to undermine central statements on language, Hugo, and vers libre. As a device that makes believe, as much as it removes the veils of illusion, "presque" is not unrelated to the roles played by magic and mysticism in Mallarmé's concept of rhyme, as well as the historical role of religion in French prosody, explored here, alongside a close reading of the central pages in "Un coup de dés." A signature term in Mallarmé's poetics, "presque" reminds us to return to notions of "play" and the "game," even where Mallarmé claims to speak of "crisis." (TC)
The broad strokes of literary and art history offer a portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé as the author of "Un coup de dés": the poem that pivoted poetry away from metrical forms and toward visual ones. But how does rhyme figure in this narrative? An indispensable component of French verse from its medieval origins through the late nineteenth century, rhyme was as central to Mallarmé's conception of verse as it was to his process of composition. This essay investigates rhyme's role in Mallarmé's thinking about le vers at the moment of its crisis, finding the poetic structure to bear a peculiar capacity to mirror the mind. The essay proposes that critical attentiveness to this capacity—which is also identified as poetry's condition of possibility in "Crise de vers"—might point the way to a more coherent account of the crise, Mallarmé, and indeed the whole of modern poetry. (LY) [End Page 1]
"Une exquise crise": Rhyme in Crisis
Seulement, sachons n'existerait pas le vers: lui, philosophiquement rémunère le défaut des langues, complément supérieur.– Stéphane Mallarmé, "Crise de vers"
What would it take for poetry not to exist? Mallarmé omits the dependent clause on which his conditional sentence hangs, evading the syntactic structure that would have obliged him to name it ("Only, be aware [that if X were the case], poetry would not exist").1 At the same time, his italicized warning seems to assert that such a clause could be formulated. It is indeed possible to conceive of conditions under which poetry would not exist.
It would therefore also seem possible to identify poetry's condition of possibility. As the paragraph preceding this quotation establishes, this condition is an absence: the absence of a supreme language in which human beings would be able to express themselves in words whose material forms would coincide perfectly with thought. Were such a language to exist, Mallarmé warns, poetry would not; poetry makes up for this fault, or failing, of languages. Poetry, then, is born of the friction between thinking and saying, between thought and linguistic expression. The possibility of poetry thus emerges as our compensation for the frustrating condition of never being able to say just what we mean.
This is a rather different conception of poetry from the one generally associated with Stéphane Mallarmé. The broad strokes of literary and art history offer a portrait of the poet as, first and foremost, the author of "Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard": the poem that propelled verbal art onto the printed page...