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Erasing Mallarmé

March 9, 2011

by Lynne Shapiro

My initial interest in erasure was in the practice itself; I wanted to “white out” or unravel a poem to experience the unique feel of simultaneously reading and writing. I was, curious about how the process differed when working with a short poem (this one) or a far longer poem such as John Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. (The Ashbery poem led to a larger, on-going project.) As well, I was interested in exploring the difference between “whiting out” and “crossing out” from both the standpoint of process and the visual effect, the presence of marks and the absence of marks/the presence of space. This led to my choice of “whiting out” a Mallarme poem because of his revolutionary use of blank space and careful placement of words. I am struck by the visual variation, created by chance, when the erasure and its translation (by Peter and Mary Ann Caws, from Stéphane Mallarmé’s Selected Poetry and Prose, New Directions Paperbook, 1982) are placed side by side; an illustration of the difference between language structures less obvious in the original.

Some consider Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), French poet and critic, to be the most difficult French author to translate. I first encountered his work in a Surrealist Literature class in college. My interest in his work and the relationship between artists and writers continued into my graduate studies and beyond.


Autre Éventail

  pour que je plonge
                  sans chemin

                       dans ta main

                  de crepuscule



Sens-tu le


               des         roses             
             sur les soirs d’or
Ce blanc
Contre le feu

Her Fan

                  that I may plunge



          the horizon


Can you feel

       the corner

            on golden eves is
against             fire.

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Lynne Shapiro lives and writes in Hoboken, New Jersey, not far from the Community College and Charter School where she currently teaches. Her poem “Replenish” was published in qarrtsiluni’s Water Issue. She drinks her morning coffee from a qarrtsiluni cup.

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  1. March 10, 2011 at 1:30 am

    so interesting, to see the two languages / versions next to each other. i learned French in school, and back then was both irritated and fascinated by all the connecting systematic: “L’horizon”, “sens-tu”, the way whole sentences merge into conglomerates of words, like the simple question “what is this?” – “qu’est-ce que c’est?”
    which might be a key to this translation: what did Mallarmé mean with each word. “des roses”, it also could refer to roses, for example.
    thanks for this poetic “plonge” into language and translation.

    • Lynne Shapiro
      March 13, 2011 at 2:50 pm

      You are right about “des roses” – that’s precisely what makes translation so interesting and complicated. We might hold several ideas/meanings at one time when reading in a specific language but that richness may disappear in the translation. That’s why I try to buy only bilingual editions; that way I can read the native language – even when I don’t really know it – because I can hear the nuance and can,nonetheless, pick up a certain depth to the words. I don’t speak German, but I love to read Rilke with German and English side by side, for example

  2. March 12, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    “Erasing” is an interesting artistic decision, one which has a precedent in the visual arts. DeKooning and Brice Marden experimented with erasing or covering up “marks” leaving ghostlike traces of underpainting. This process gives a painting significant depth and soul. It also adds a wonderful energy that a completely so-called resolved piece of art lacks. It would be interesting see if the same is true with writing/poems. How would partially erased words add to a piece? Would they have a similar effect? Has a writer already attempted this effect?

    • Lynne Shapiro
      March 13, 2011 at 2:44 pm

      I’m sure partially erased words have been done. In visualizing this, I imagine a one-of-a-kind piece, more an artwork than a poem, not easily typed – scanned, yes.

  3. March 12, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    In something like these Altered Books, the strategy of letting the original text show through is often used. But these seem to be genre novels — fan fiction even. At any rate, prose. And besides, they use the strategy of “crossing out.” The idea of starting from a poem is very intriguing. And when you add in the idea of translation, the project becomes very complex.

    Most interesting.

    • Lynne Shapiro
      March 13, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      Thank you for sending the Altered Books link. I am familiar with these kinds of visual poetry and they are fun; they are, for me, a kind of writing exercise. If not for the translation element I don’t think I would have submitted the piece. I also checked out your website. Lovely poems, I need to spend a little more time on the site, reading. Thanks.

      • March 15, 2011 at 10:29 am

        Thank YOU, Lynne Shapiro.

      • March 15, 2011 at 10:54 am

        I should add that you and Dave have given me much food for thought in my practice. I am interested in the idea of shape & space in what you might call “page poems.” My own published poems I tend to write for the voice and I tend to write in tight boxy forms.

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