Sunday, June 7, 2009


Repost from my old blog: originally published May 15, 2006



An anecdote re Mallarmé (quoted from Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin, Volume 4, p. 117-18):
"The closest friends of the poet knew that he owned a working instrument for poetry in the form of a card file. It was made up of little slips of paper. No one knew what was written on them, and questioning him achieved nothing. One day, Viélé-Griffin entered Mallarmé's study and surprised the poet consulting one of his slips. Mallarmé's gaze lingered on it briefly, then he murmured pensively to himself: "I no longer dare tell them even that. Even that would give too much away." Viélé-Griffin stepped closer. Peering over the poet's shoulder, he saw a single syllable written on the paper: quel [which]."

Here's Selden Rodman, from the introduction to his 1949 anthology, One Hundred Modern Poems, briefly pondering the future of poetry: "Whether the future belongs to the Brechts or the Rilkes is a question beyond the scope of this preface. . . ." Earlier in the intro he cites Brecht as "the one poet. . . whose contribution to the poetry of collective faith may be as momentous as that of Rilke at the opposite pole."

The question then as today seems to be, what "faith" should one aspire to "contribute" one's artistic efforts toward the furtherance of: individual (spiritual) or collective (socialist)?

Well, we're in Rodman's future: does it belong to the Brechts or the Rilkes? Has Adrienne Rich ever bared her thoughts about Ashbery? Great poets don't waste their time on the other great poets of their time, it's only we minor hacks who worry our time with these questions. Great poets are elephants; they don't scratch that itch: they don't even feel it.

Benjamin (op. cit., page 169): "The elaborate theorums with which the principle of "art for art's sake" was enunciated—not only by its original proponents but above all by literary history (not to mention its present devotees)—ultimately came down to a specific thesis: that sensibility is the true subject of poetry. Sensibility, by its nature, is involved in suffering. If it experiences its highest concretization, its richest determination, in the sphere of the erotic, then it must find its absolute comsummation, which coincides with its transfiguration, in the Passion."

This is what Paz calls "the religious temptation." Poesie pure. Autotelicism. The poem as an end in itself. The absolute poem. Flaubert's dream of writing a book about nothing, sustained only by the virtuosity of style; Cezanne's apples; Williams' wheelbarrow.

No, the apples and the wheelbarrow are not nothing, but are they ancillary to the artist's quest? They're objects along the way, not the sought-for prize, unless. Gustave Moreau painted the Grail, the golden cup held up high enough to dazzle any streamlight. Will Moreau's content ever be seen as more important than Cezanne's form? Will the individualistic hero of form recede before the collective craftwomanship of content? Capitalism depends on the stubborn stylist, the ego-Van-Gogh, the andro-Cezanne whose myth can be marketed beyond its intrinsic value, hyped to the heights. Consumed.

"Individual faith" versus "Collective Faith." Capitalism (Religion/Fascism) versus Socialism. Or: Style versus Content. I don't have the exact quote, but Alfred Hitchcock said that critics who complained about the trivial or tawdry low-brow content of his films were like a museum-goer wondering whether Cezanne's apples were sweet or sour. They miss the point, he insisted. It's not content that's important, it's style. Any old apple or wheelbarrow or pistol poking out of a pocket will do for a subject. Content is irrelevant, or should be: the viewer or reader must focus first and most on the artist's stylistic choices and methods. WHAT the artist says or shows is secondary to HOW he or she does it. In fact, in this dispensation, in this scale of esthetics, the more insignificant the ostensible subject is, the better. Better because we can't be absorbed in apples or wheelbarrows for very long, their intrinsic lacks the sake we seek in art, they can't in and of themselves hold our interest for any length of time: and therefore when the framed thrust forward work bristling with certification confronts us with such inferior drab objects, we must of necessity look for something beyond the bare fact of them, and our attention shifts away, is shifted away from its initial focus on content, toward the stylistic mannerisms of the presentation. The more boring the content, the more intriquing the form (theoretically).

To retroactively backtrack and try and view the artist's hand in its decisive motions, before it has completed its act. There is no completed act, no boundwork of art in which the present might find its face, there is only the retrospect, the beforemath: as Lowell put it, "my eyes have seen what my hand did."

Which is too much. Content/subject/intent are excrescences that burden the work with extraneous matter. Meaning and message must be wiped away like dust that accumulates on the canvas. The Louvre even if it had only one painting in it would be too much; ergo Hitler's orders to burn Paris. (Marinetti: "Let us burn down the museums.")

In the NYTimes of March 12, 1999, Grace Glueck reviews the show "Painter's Poet: Stephane Mallarme and His Impressionist Circle'' (Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery of Hunter College), and says of the poet: "His closest friends were painters: Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and James Whistler. He defended their work in his critical writings, and they did portraits of him and illustrations for his books. Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Odilon Redon, Auguste Rodin and Felix Vallotton, among others, also produced Mallarmean images and tributes." Glueck goes on for several paragraphs about the poet's connections and interactions with his Impressionist contemporaries. But she doesn't mention Puvis de Chavanne once, even in passing. (I didn't see the show, so I don't know if Puvis was included in it. . . .)

Mallarmé wrote a sonnet to honor Whistler, but he also wrote a "Hommage" to Pierre Puvis de Chavanne. Not his "close friend" Manet, not Degas, not Renoir etcet, but Puvis.

Glueck: "Mallarme wrote in praise of Manet's work and in 1874 produced a clever defense of the artist when the government-chosen jury for that year's Salon turned down two of four paintings—three oils and awatercolor—he had submitted. After subtly mocking the jury's conservatism, Mallarme predicted that public taste for Manet's work would eventually prevail. Two years later he published a more important discourse, ''The Impressionists and Edouard Manet,'' an eloquent paean to the new painting and the man he saw as its master."

Yes, but the fact remains that Mallarmé wrote a poem in praise of Puvis de Chavanne. Isn't there a distinction evident here? Doesn't his choice to praise Puvis in verse indicate the depth of his feeling for and his affinity with this overlooked and neglected painter? Art historians or journalists like Glueck who toe the party line, who confine their interest to the canon of established names, must wince and feel embarrassed for Mallarmé when (if) they read the following:


Toute Aurore même gourde
À crisper un poing obscur
Contre des clairons d'azur
Embouchés par cette sourde

A le pâtre avec la gourde
Jointe au bâton frappant dur
Le long de son pas futur
Tant que la source ample sourde

Par avance ainsi tu vis
O solitaire Puvis
De Chavannes jamais seul

De conduire le temps boire
À la nymphe sans linceul
Que lui découvre ta Gloire.

Form versus Content: Impressionism versus Symbolism.

Form vs. Content. Was it Robert Creeley who wrote: "Form is never more than an extension of content."

Form is never more than an extension of breakfast. As shown in this poem by Jacques Prévert, trans. by the forgotten poet Selden Rodman:


is the soft sound of a hardboiled egg
cracking on a zinc counter
and terrible is that sound
when it moves in the memory
of a man who is hungry
Terrible also is the head of a man
the head of a man hungry
when he looks at six o'clock in the morning
in a smart shop window and sees
a head the color of dust
But it is not his head he sees
in the window of 'Chez Potin'
he doesn't give a damn
for the head of a man
he doesn't think at all
he dreams
imagining another head
calf's-head for instance
with vinegar sauce
head of anything edible
and slowly he moves his jaws
slowly slowly
grinds his teeth for the world
stands him on his head
without giving him any comeback
so he counts on his fingers one two three
one two three
that makes three days he has been empty
and it's stupid to go on saying It can't
go on It can't go on because
it does
Three days
three nights
without eating
and behind those windows
paté de fois gras wine preserves
dead fish protected by their boxes
boxes in turn protected by windows
these in turn watched by the police
police protected in turn by fear
How many guards for six sardines . . .
Then he comes to the lunch counter
coffee-with-cream buttered toast
and he begins to flounder
and in the middle of his head
blizzard of words
muddle of words
sardines fed
hardboiled eggs coffee-with-cream
coffee black rum food
coffee crime black blood
A respectable man in his own neighborhood
had his throat cut in broad daylight
the dastardly assassin stole from him
two bits that is to say
exactly the price of a black coffee
two slices of buttered toast
an a nickel left to tip the waiter
is the soft sound of a hardboiled egg
cracking on a zinc counter
and terrible is that sound when it moves
in the memory
of a man who is hungry.