Poetry News

The Guardian Favorably Compares Peter Manson's New Mallarmé Translation to Ashbery's Rimbaud...!

By Harriet Staff

We've shared our enthusiasm with you before about Peter Manson's new and long-awaited translations of Mallarmé's The Poems in Verse (Miami University Press 2012), which have just been reviewed at The Guardian. David Wheatley writes: "This is an exceptional translation, ranking alongside John Ashbery's Rimbaud, Mark Ford's Roussel, and Michael Hofmann's Durs Grünbein." High praise! More:

Poems are not made out of ideas, they are made out of words, Mallarmé told Degas, but there is something chilling as well as gaudy and florid in his embrace of words alone. The omnipresent "azur" of his empty skies is a precursor of, among other things, Larkin's "deep blue air, that shows / Nothing". Jean-Paul Sartre makes an unlikely devotee of Mallarmé, but saluted the poet's "terrorisme de la politesse", his ability to cancel bourgeois reality by putting the world "en parenthèses". The sonnets for Poe, Baudelaire and Verlaine apply this apocalyptic vision with eerie precision, though for all the skill of his free-verse versions, Manson is unable to evict the chime of "death" with "breath" at the end of "Tombeau for Verlaine". As life shrinks to an "abolished bauble inanely echoing", something like the music of the spheres begins to resound in its place, amid unearthly and impossible complexities:

Here almost always if the ring dove coos
this immaterial mourning oppresses with many
nubile folds the future ripened star
whose scintillation will silverplate the crowd.

Yet even Mallarmé had his lighter side. The illustrations accompanying the "Chansons Bas" are a particular delight, as is these quatrains' reminder of the workaday side of Mallarmé's inspiration. As he writes in "The Roadmender": "You level these cobbles / and there is, as a troubadour, / a block of brains I too / must open up per day."

In his own translations Mallarmé spurned the convention of parallel texts, and Manson too fears imprisoning his originals in structures of false equivalence. In his afterword, he writes of the "interference-pattern" he has tried to set up between the French alexandrine and the English pentameter: the gaps and pauses between the two languages breath the meaning in and out across the pages. Where another key element, rhyme, is concerned, its very centrality to Mallarmé's aesthetic is what decided Manson against it. These are brave and austere choices, but there is no arguing with the results. Copious and intriguing notes or "scholia" explore "what I hope is a permissible minimum of pareidolia", as Manson puts it with a Mallarméan flourish.

Read it all here; and find the book here.

Originally Published: June 20th, 2012