September 17, 2021
  • September 17, 2021

Making poetry from Mallarmé’s mistakes

By on August 28, 2021 0



In 19th century French literary circles, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) was celebrated as the high priest of the Symbolist movement, craftsman of complex musical lyrics of a sonorous and dizzying obscurity. For his day job, however, he taught English at Lycée Condorcet, one of the most prestigious lycées in Paris – although in many ways he did so in less than impressive ways. As reported by his principal in 1876, “it appears that Mr. Mallarmé is not very good in English and that despite the friendly warning he received last year, he did absolutely nothing to acquire this. which is necessary for him to be up to his duties. ”

His English may have been far from fluent, but that didn’t stop Mallarmé from translating Poe, Tennyson, and James McNeil Whistler; it also didn’t stop him from writing some textbooks on the language. One of them, English themes for all grammars (probably composed in 1879, but published for the first time in 1937), constitutes the starting point of the work of Ellen Dillon Morsel May Sleep: Poems from Mallarmé’s Class (Éditions sublunaires, 2021), a fascinating, powerful and often very funny book that surfs the changing relationships between languages ​​inside and outside the classroom and explores the often difficult processes of teaching and learning . Dillon herself is a French teacher in a secondary school in Ireland, and therefore well qualified to assess Mallarmé’s teaching text. His verdict? Quite trembling.

The English themes provided students with sets of English proverbs (translated into French) illustrating various grammar points, which the students had to translate back into English. Some of the proverbs are familiar; others (“The nightingale and the cuckoo both sing in one mouth”, for example) are obscure oddities, in Dillon’s words, “dispatches from an extraterrestrial dialect that Mallarmé seems to have conceived for himself. even to hang up his lessons ”. “The thought of sweaty teenagers going over these translations searching for the hidden secrets of English grammar,” she writes in her “Process Note,” “filled me with the excruciating fatigue that often overwhelms me when I think too much about teaching and the often absent twin, learning.

In Morsel can sleepThe first section of “Remakes”, Dillon creates “airy” poems from the words of the proverbs, drawing attention to the strange typos littering the book – “wisdow in age”, for example, which oscillates between ” widow, “window” and “wisdom.” These fading poems, according to Dillon – who took up his teaching post just after completing his doctorate, his “head a ferment of poems and children’s lesson plans and “footnotes – are” the kind of cleaning that a poet whose brain is fried from four years of trying to do too many things at once can handle.

Returning to these found poems, Dillon adds prose “after the fact” at the foot of each page. These often respond to the details of the Mallarmean texts: D ‘”un humble homme”, taken up by the French to illustrate the silent “h”, writes Dillon “un humble?” only on the lips of Eliza Doolittle. The typo “un nad [for “nod”] pour un homme sage ”begins his reflection on the“ storms of double hear ”that plague the teenagers in the class:“ years after the rules of grammar and mitochondria fell into oblivion, the biology teacher says that the orgasm is etched in memory forever. “Empty vase[l]”(In Mallarmé as” vesse “) gives rise to a chain of associations on the impossibility of learning when one needs to pee (” what kind of test is a bathroom break? “), And the notion outdated pedagogy as filling empty receptacles with knowledge: “it was the wrong thing, more and more wrong. yet here we are in our classrooms to regulate the dynamics of filling and emptying, fluid or not.

After going through 22 of Mallarmé’s exercises in this manner, Dillon returns to her original found poems to produce a series of “Versions,” in which she maintains sentence spacing, but fills in the words around them to produce what is equivalent to prose. poems. It’s a fascinating procedure – Dillon compares it to “Take an object.” Do something to him. Do something else for him ”- and it is captivating to see how Mallarmé’s words draw Dillon’s imagination through the spirals of classroom / learning experience, the challenges of everyday life in as a parent and head of the family, and in the dizzying shift between languages ​​and between language and thought.

The book’s title, Morsel can sleep, illustrates such a slippage. To illustrate the definite article, Mallarmé provides the proverb “Between the hand and the lip, the piece can sleep” – a little-known Franglaise version of “there is a lot of a twixt cup and lip slip”. (The editors of Mallarmé’s prestigious Pléiade edition hilariously fail to recognize “sleep” as a mistake.) In the poem “Remake,” Dillon holds back “his hand his lip the song can sleep.” In his “afterthought”,

the pieces do not sleep. like rust, they always crumble…. our words can only dive where they can and attach themselves to a current. the pearly foam anoints our being stranded on the shore, crowns us with a stiff meringue of the sea, fills our mouths with words like sponge and salt. the silver aftertaste lingers, a residue of privilege leaving passwords tinged with bitterness.

The corresponding, prose-like ‘version’ further explores this feeling of drowning among languages:

poisedunderthelipthemorselmaysleep,
		totally oblivious to its coming
tumble. We know this should be a slip. Tongues,
	all fast in their way , 	slip up and leave us
adrift between meanings. They think      mind is the man but
we know it is body and tongue is the rudder. Our steering
implements are slipping up though and the navigational
instruments need recalibrating.

Mallarmé himself was very fascinated by the imagery of the ocean. The dedication sonnet (“Hail”) beginning his collected poems depicts him and his literary comrades on a boat, crossing “the winter tide, struck by thunder” (Peter Manson translation); we can say that his work culminates in the “visual” poem “Un coup de dés” (“Un coup de dés”), in which the language itself, and the dream of logical certainty, is spread over the openings of page like the broken wrecks of a metaphysical shipwreck. For Dillon, Mallarmé’s maritime imagery captures the meaning of pitch and drift when navigating between languages; but it also captures the feeling that one often has – in the everyday worlds of work, education, relationships – of trying to progress against an overwhelming force: an oar in each the wave won’t stop them from breaking and the boat drifts as I paddle with short-lived intent.

Morsel can sleep is really two books in one, a perfectly bilingual text: Dillon associates each poem in the “Remakes” section with a parallel poem in French (using Mallarmé’s own words), which she follows with “après coup” prose in French – entirely different from the corresponding English section. It is the same with “versions”: English poems face French poems, built on parallel frames but entirely different in lexicon and syntax.

The final section is made up of two separate lined poems, “Melt Song” and “Chanson Roussie” (Singed Song), each of which is interspersed with phrases by Mallarmé. Themes, revisiting the thoughts the text evoked – the challenge of how the poet grapples with the words of others, the paradoxes of teaching and learning (“the disorder / of the hormone and of the ritual / obstruct the air in / the rooms where we / go for schooling “), of the kind, class relations that extend into the classroom. (” Impossible for all of us to live oatmeal for a yearDillon comments of a proverb, “Yet here we are all alone guilty of not breaking even in this system designed to break us.” “)

I think it’s highly unlikely that Mallarmé, whose class Dillon requisitioned, ever gave much thought to the questions of pedagogy and class that she pondered so deeply. But his textbook, in all likelihood as much a lucrative speculation as some of his other endeavors – including a book on English words, a textbook on classic mythology, a short-lived fashion magazine – provided the provocation for a haunting series. of Songs:

swarms of paper-
wasps haunt
these roiling plains,
copper-coloured live ones,
come in pudding time
to feed on molten sugar
& sting us
into singing.

Morsel May Sleep: Poems from Mallarmé’s Class by Ellen Dillon (2021) is published by Éditions Sublunaires and is available online and in bookstores.

The mind is working desperately to fill in the gaps in these lost stories.


It depends on who is doing the subversion.


While funders prioritize participatory public art processes and creative engagement, we might view George Rhoads’ corpus as an instigator of engagement.




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