Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Today is the birthday, in 1842, of French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Mallarmé was a wildly innovative writer who believed in erasing any lines that separated poetry from other art forms. He constantly explored the relationship between content and form, and experimented widely with the appearance of text and with different arrangements of words and spaces on the page. His work, which gave raise to the symbolist movement, anticipated and inspired many of the revolutionary artistic movements of the early 20th century, including Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism. He also famously held salons - gatherings of poets, painters and philosophers - at his Paris home every Tuesday. The salons were considered the heart of Paris intellectual life for many years, with such regular visitors as W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Stefan George, Paul Verlaine, and many others.

Mallarmé is famously difficult to translate, owning both to his distinctly French sense of word play and his refusal to be constrained by anything resembling the normal rules of punctuation, spelling, or even page sizes. This printed page is just one of hundreds of examples of the challenges his writing poses to the translator. However, it hasn't stopped folks from trying.

Sea Breeze

The flesh is sad, Alas! and I have read all the books.
Let’s go! Far off. Let’s go! I sense
that the birds, intoxicated, fly
deep into unknown spume and sky!
Nothing – not even old gardens mirrored by eyes -
can restrain this heart that drenches itself in the sea,
O nights, or the abandoned light of my lamp,
on the void of paper, that whiteness defends,
no, not even the young woman feeding her child.
I will go! Steamer, straining at your ropes
lift your anchor towards an exotic rawness!
A Boredom, made desolate by cruel hope
still believes in the last goodbye of handkerchiefs!
And perhaps the masts, inviting lightning,
are those the gale bends over shipwrecks,
lost, without masts, without masts, no fertile islands...
But, oh my heart, listen to the sailors’ chant.

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