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New Mallarmé translations from Peter Manson

By Harriet Staff

Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems and Poetics features today two new Stéphane Mallarmé translations from the UK poet Peter Manson, who has been working with Mallarmé’s posthumously published (1899) Poésies for over ten years (his first Mallarmé translation effort was, however, in 1992). Manson, a contemporary Scottish poet, is most recently the author of Between Cup and Lip (Miami University Press, 2008) and For the Good of Liars (Barque Press 2006). Rothenberg also notes: “Between 1994 and 1997, [Manson] co-edited (with Robin Purves) eight issues of the experimental/modernist poetry journal Object Permanence, which led in turn to a later series of innovative poetry pamphlets under that logo. In his current Mallarmé project, he restores a sense of poetic power and dis-ease often missing in other works of translation—a reminder too of Mallarmé’s central place among the poètes maudits of the later nineteenth century.”

We won’t excerpt or post the poems here, as it seems somehow, yes, to contribute to ease and sans permission, too. Needless to say, it is always exciting when Manson offers up a portion of his Mallarmé project, a complete version of which is (here’s hoping) to engage us in book form in 2012, as he notes in the post. As for the translation work itself, Manson writes:

There’s something magical about French verse, the way in which a sequence of words like these from Mallarmé’s ‘Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire’:

Contre le marbre vainement de Baudelaire

might be counted as eight syllables of prose, or twelve of verse (where the ‘e muet’, the silent or elided e, is artificially given full syllabic force). This feeling for verse as something which has been breathed into, inflated or made effervescent by the sighing of the mute e, lies behind the famous opening line of the Poésies,

Rien, cette écume, vierge vers

(Nothing, this foam, a virgin verse),

and, remembering that the only thing which makes a poet a poet (in Plato’s Ion) is that she has been breathed into by the gods, the line of French verse comes to seem remarkably poet-like, more human than material. In ‘Don du poème’, Mallarmé emerges from one of his own insomniac nights with a helpless newborn poem which he invites his wife to breast-feed. In any event, it means that a line of French verse is a remarkably chimerical thing, with a semantic yield more variable than any fixed English line could hope to match. I’ve played it mostly by ear, hoping to make my English lines as short as they can be and as long as they need to be, while trying as far as possible to keep the integrity of the line as a sub-unit of the whole. I didn’t even consider using rhyme: I know that rhyme is an essential feature of Mallarmé’s verse, but that is only true of his rhymes. Mine would not be essential, and I didn’t want to distract.

Though the Poésies were written over a period of thirty-five years, there’s a remarkable density of echoes sounding from poem to poem and back across the decades. Late Mallarmé doesn’t sound much like early Mallarmé, but similar turns of phrase and repeated gestures of piercing, hollowing, digging, drowning, languor, flight, sterility, balancing, burgeoning, fanning, unrolling, contempt, exaltation, fragmenting, hairdressing, mirroring, struggling, frolicking, consecrating, silencing, sailing, enlacing, gestating, extending, stifling, foaming and negation lend the book the almost (but not quite) consistent structure of a flawed crystal. And this structure extends out as far as you care to explore in Mallarmé’s other work (‘Un coup de dés’ sometimes reads to me like a cento constructed from the exploded remains of the Poésies; it also works the other way round).

You can find the two poems, “The Jinx” and “The Windows”, as well as the more complete notes from Manson and Rothenberg, here.


Posted in Poetry News on Friday, May 20th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.