A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
From this naked use of thought, retreating, prolonging, fleeing, or from its very design, there results for the person reading it aloud, a musical score.
That’s from Stéphane Mallarmé’s prologue to the poem “A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance.” He’s explaining the effect he hopes to achieve with his unorthodox use of line breaks, typography, and white space. Page scattered poetry might seem commonplace now, but it was unheard of when the poem was first published in the international literary review Cosmopolis in 1897.
“A Throw of the Dice…” is meant to be read across both facing pages, as if the open book were one big page. Read only one page at a time and it will seem a bit more like the random assemblage of words and phrases that the title suggests. Even read correctly, though, the poem is far from clear cut. It perfectly lives up to Mallarmé’s prologue—a very musical use of language that hints at narrative and lyric, but never leaves us with much more objective meaning than a sonata or a string quartet. I think it’s a great read, and an even greater introduction to modern poetry.
Here’s a two page spread all mashed together in a more traditional stanza to give you some of the sense if not the form of the poem:
A simple innuendo
in the silence encoiled with irony
into an approaching whirlwind of hilarity and horror
hovers over the abyss
neither scattering it
and rocks therein the virgin symbol
Thomas Ford has “A Throw of the Dice…” in English translation in the anthology Poems for the Millenium, and in both the French and English in Mallarmé’s Collected Poems and Other Verse. The quotes above are from the translation in the former. You can also download a PDF of the 1914 French printing for free from Google Books, though anything except a large tablet or laptop will make the facing page format a bit difficult to achieve.
Review by Matthew