English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

December 17, 2009

A Throw of the Dice…

Filed under: Uncategorized — jeremiahm @ 3:02 am

Johanna Drucker, in her analysis of Mallarmé’s seminal avant-garde poem “un Coupe de Dés,” argues that the poet paradoxically attacks the visual style of the poem in order to get beyond what Mallarmé considered our tendency to get buried under textual form and into something more purer and metaphysical which is Mallarmé’s contention of what poetry attempts or should attempt to do.   To me this is a bit like looking at binary opposites which often appear in poetry but more specifically in prose fiction both in short and longer forms.  Of course when we talk about binary opposition as literary critics we are referring more to thematic elements and not generally to structure, although I’m sure someone can bring in a fair argument that this isn’t always the case.   The point here is that when we look at the opposites of an issue we get a deeper understanding of the big picture than if we look at say one part or another, or even look at the middle of a situation, if such a thing is even possible.

What is nothing more than a sheer stroke of brilliance with Mallarmé’s work is that he is taking the poem out of the staid constrictive lines and stanzas and breaking up visually, not just to present them as a more visceral, aggressive aesthetic (which art should always strive to do anyway) which shakes us out of our comfort zone, but he goes a step beyond by making us consider the implication that textual confinement present, because he is not attacking convention, he is attacking the very method by which poetry is presented.  I am not sure if anything more revolutionary has been presented since someone first thought it might be wise to take pen to paper and attempt to convert oral forms of poetry in order to present it visually.

Mallarmé’s point is that poetry has physical confining limits which are also visual, that all convention; line stanza, punctuation etc., are meant to portray or duplicate–present a facsimile of the oral nature of the poem but overlook the fact that the poem has visual affect as well, which is neglected and which is by that nature confining.

I relate this to when I was a child and was transitioning from books that were primarily picture based with some text at the bottom, to books that had very few illustrations and involved chapters.  Every chapter was anchored to an image, or if I was lucky two that hinted at what that chapter would be about and aided the imagination, giving more life to the characters, etc.  I remember greedily jumping ahead, despite my best efforts of restraining myself from doing so, when I was nearing the end of one chapter (or if the chapter was particularly long, doing this somewhere about the middle or so) to see what the illustration for the next chapter would look like.  I always rewarded myself, before starting the next chapter, by scanning that chapter’s contents for its trove of images.   I think this behaviour to be perfectly natural, and my reason for bringing this up as it relates to my overall point is that we are very much a visual animal and that an image quickly conveys a lot more information than text does (as we have read, studied and argued up to this point on this blog and in our class).  So images are primary and text is a secondary use of that as we must decode the words first in context individual, then in the form of a sentence and finally those thoughts that those sentences convey are then pieced together in our minds as descriptions of a visual image.  The advantage of text is that it can accurately portray abstract thoughts that images cannot clearly define.

So Mallarmé decided it was time to put those two together and we can more easily convey very complex themes and that is the “purity” to which he refers.

When Drucker says it is a paradox that Mallarmé wants to get beyond the textual confines of poetry by manipulating that very element of it, she is only on the surface correct.  What the poet wants to do is not do away with the form but use it to its full potential.  This is where Drucker’s analysis of how text has been changed from its basic visually bland and predictable repetitive format into one of balanced spatial format (such as in newspapers) that is more engaging.  It is natural that poetry should after this take a visual form and attempt to use it in a much more “holistic” way.

My question is, where does the form go from here?  Has poetry done anything new in the past several decades, or have we come to an end of the form?  Does any particular art form truly end?   At the beginning of the semester I snidely wrote on the blackboard, “PRINT IS DEAD.  WELCOME TO THE NEW MEDIA.”  After a semester long immersing myself in the phenomena of printed text, and even writing two long research papers on the subject, I really haven’t found any reason to believe that there is still any innovation today in printed media, but I am more than willing to be proven wrong.


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