The Fiction of the Poet: In the Post-Symbolist Mode


Addressing all readers who value the beauty of language, Anna Balakian examines the work of five twentieth-century poets--Yeats, Valry, Rilke, Stevens, and Guilln--to show how the linguistic richness of the symbolist tradition continued well into the modern period. These writers, all of whom learned the poetry of language from Mallarm, compensated for the disappearance of metaphysical inclinations in early twentieth-century poetry by instituting a poetic fiction. Balakian finds the immersion of the "I" and its ...

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Addressing all readers who value the beauty of language, Anna Balakian examines the work of five twentieth-century poets--Yeats, Valry, Rilke, Stevens, and Guilln--to show how the linguistic richness of the symbolist tradition continued well into the modern period. These writers, all of whom learned the poetry of language from Mallarm, compensated for the disappearance of metaphysical inclinations in early twentieth-century poetry by instituting a poetic fiction. Balakian finds the immersion of the "I" and its altered reflection in the work of art to be a common feature of their poetry, and explores how they replaced the conventional meaning of signifiers grown stale, such as the abused word "poet," which became musician, artist, dancer, acrobat, mime, tapestry weaver, rider of the earth and the skies. In the works of these poets, the symbol evolved into a selective system of communication that identified implicitly the realms of human dilemma in regard to time, space, place, and reality in an indifferent universe. Balakian explains how the poets made language posit the major problems of existence and survival through metaphors of transition and, with the polysemy of their discourse, spoke to each reader on his or her terms. Like a serial musical composition, this literary interpretation interweaves leitmotifs from one writer to another, creating a basic cohesion while revealing variations and transformations in their poetry.

Originally published in 1992.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691069463
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 5/5/1992
  • Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
  • Pages: 230
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 0.86 (d)

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The Fiction of the Poet

From Mallarmé to the Post-Symbolist Mode

By Anna Balakian


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06946-3



The symbolist movement that some critics declared to have died at the end of the nineteenth century has survived in many forms. It was a determining factor in the era when it filled an aesthetic and spiritual need. Subsequently it turned art into a constant among variables vis-à-vis the increasing relativity of our perceptions of reality. After the sorting out that time and distance bring about, what indeed remains of the dogma and the epistle of the Symbolist chapel? What really caused the proselytism of the moment and the extended catalytic effect? The search for the answer to these questions motivates my reading of these postsymbolist poets.

Symbolism triggered, first of all, a poetics of language to replace the language of poetry. Through the maze of debates and theories about versification, synaesthesia, correspondences, and the spirit of decadence, there emerged a central problem: what, in the twentieth century, constitutes poetry, in view of the fact that the boundaries of versification and the propriety of subject matter to poetic treatment have been totally eliminated? None of the major features proposed and embodied by the Symbolist group at the end of the nineteenth century have carried over as matters of primary consequence into the twentieth century.

What makes Symbolism and its avatars of interest in current poetics are, then, the elements related to semiotics and hermeneutics inherent at the source and appropriated by the major poets who distinguished themselves from the vast group of adherents. Among the survivors who have gained prominence with time are Paul Valéry, Rainer Maria Rilke, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Jorge Guillén. They will be viewed here in the perspective of their direct connection with Mallarmé. I am cognizant of the fact that hermeneutic and semiotic criticism has taken renewed interest in the symbolist mode but not in its historical context. Philosophically oriented and linguistically trained critics have approached literary symbolism with a pejorative attitude, and they have reached Mallarmé via a more express route to modern concepts of poetics. Their responses to Mallarmé, perceptive as they are, overlook the factors of continuity and the episteme that connected those who were in the process of rethinking the concept of poetry. Their perceptions of Mallarmé as well as of Valéry support many of the aesthetic issues explored here, but the broader views comprise the connective factors responsible for the greater stature of those whose work contained a slice of the symbolist experience they shared at a certain moment in time.

What strikes me in the progression of the symbolist mode is the passage from allegory (unilateral correspondences) to symbol, from metaphoric closing to the open-ended metonymy, and finally to the evocative power discovered in the single word serving as a prism for associations and significances. We can see in the écriture of these major poets a mastery of language that surpasses the skills of rhetoric but becomes instead a low-keyed deployment of the resources of the imagination in direct contrast to the divestment of these same powers from narrative prose.

When so-called postmodern novelists declare the demise of analogy in a universe that offers no correspondences to human goals and desires, the art of representation can no longer be expected to open vistas for the correction of an unsatisfactory reality. Instead, it keeps narrowing the distance between what any person can ascertain and what the "fiction" writer is supposed to illuminate. Zola, as a supposed "naturalist," brought powerful light to the darkest pits he unearthed. But since his time, fiction has passed out of the novel, which is becoming more and more the graphic processing of an assortment of data, resembling a police file, a psychiatric case study, or a slightly altered autobiography. A handful of novelists who still maintain both in the U.S. and abroad the art of finding the luminous in the opacity of the human clay are grossly underread and undervalued in the critical arena.

At a certain moment in time, fiction passed from the practitioners of the narrative genre to poetry as the poet tried to provide, as in the examples given here, what I like to consider a semantic transcendentalism to compensate for the waning of metaphysical yearnings. If we cannot overcome physical barriers to our spiritual needs, and if religions as the traditional escape mechanism are found ineffective, then language becomes the recourse, the mainstay of those adept in its uses, serving the imagination with its capacity to provide runways and exits to its manipulators.

Beneath the fundamental precept of Mallarme lay an episteme, a collective perception of a philosophical climate affecting a certain time in aesthetic development. Why his famous dictum that the poet must no longer narrate? Narration implies a certain continuity, a sequence, which structures the reality by which Man3 lives. The opposite of measured time is discontinuous time, dead time, or archeological time—as in the case of Mallarme's Hérodiade—or suspended time—as conveyed by Samuel Beckett, who comes very close to being neither a novelist nor a dramatist but simply a poet.

Thus it comes to pass that fiction, which is normally associated with narrative, takes on an opposite sense in postsymbolist poetics: fiction becomes the totality of the conditions that a poet can control in a universe where nothing can be foreseen or determined in the natural context, and where, according to Guillén, the supreme enemy is "accident."

Rejecting both the natural and supernatural correspondences, the generations of neosymbolists go beyond what Rilke called "the interpreted world," usurping the place of heaven as the site of survival in an augmented parameter for the arts. To do this, they perform a mutation of the known tropes. They do not seek to offer representation, but look for fresh presentations in what Guillén called "the absolute moment" in time that can never again be duplicated. A substitution technique replaces the suggestive one. The word "poet" disappears from the lexicon and is replaced by referents internationally recognizable in the readings of the poets in this study. A destructive approach to connotations occurs, and also a return to denotations or an advance toward new connotations that are understood beyond the linguistic barriers separating these poets. A system gradually emerges of which we are not immediately aware. It seems as if the poet, sickle in hand, were demolishing the signifieds not to eliminate the established sociopolitical codes, but rather to destroy the existential meanings, to revise the role of Man, the artist, and beyond that the function of just plain Man as the receiver of the artist's communication. Probably the most important discovery of symbolists throughout the world is that true and deep communication does not occur through the simple process of uniting the thought of the writer with that of the reader. Instead, there occurs an exploration of the possibilities of prismatic dissipations in the path of communication in the form of objects, sites, people. Finally, naked words used in isolation generate a scale of ambiguities that increase the range and depth of communication. One might even suggest that poetic communication as developed in the symbolist mode contains a subversive intent. Indeed, it is often implicitly persuading the reader of a truth diametrically opposed to the obvious meaning of the words employed.

Through these tactics, poets provide us with much enlightenment on the very nature of communication as it ceases to be the receiving of information or the sharing of a specific emotion. Instead, language in the new poetic sense becomes a place of encounter for analogies that are to the enrichment of personality what an interlining is to a simple cloth garment. Communication between the poet and the reader is composed of those images that are proposed by the poet and those generated by the reader to whom the author has given the responsibility of creating implicit rather than explicit interpretations.

The position assumed, historically, by the neosymbolists all over the world was an intermediary step between a form of art in which cryptograms were presumed to be decipherable and that ultimate and transparent void that is being declared by certain writers of our own end-of-century, who no longer tolerate any kind of analogical pact, whether it be between God and Man or between the poet and his readers.

Situated between two extremes, the writers selected here as representative of postsymbolists did not choose to interpret that enigma; they created it in freeing the signifier from its commitment to any particular signified, by a return to the etymological source, or by the destruction of clichés and the substitution of one referent for the other. There are no limits to the horizons of expectation for works that surpass the possibilities of preordained representation.

We see emerging here a selective system of communication that relates directly to the philosophical preoccupations of the critical mind. Without expounding any particular philosophy, and indeed without intent at clarification, it identifies the realms of human resistance to spiritual annihilation. The poets signaled here are among the most prominent of a vast constellation of which many are lost to critical recognition because they belong to unfamiliar literatures. Engrossed as these poets all were with the powers of language, they did not use it as a pretext for word games, but rather to posit the major problems of existence and its survival.

The factors relating to affiliation are much more complex than the pursuit of direct and avowed influences. There are exterior elements that bind writers and artists together, such as prevalent mentalities (the trembling of the veil in this instance, the last whimpers over the loss of the anthropocentric universe, the impact of sociopolitical events).

There are also strata formations from parallel intellectual developments among individual writers of separate national cultures. Certainly this is true of poets who all read Baudelaire without necessarily reading one another's writings or read Mallarmé, Freud, or Marx; and to go beyond common readings, how many are the books we talk about and think we know about without ever having read them! What we call an intellectual climate is this collective assimilation of ideas that predominate in a given moment in time.

One fact clearly emerges from all the comparative readings I have done, which, I believe, justifies the network I have established here: Symbolism slipped out of France both as a direct imitation and as a more creative transformation, and the cluster of poets who loom as major voices a century later are those who bypassed the technical innovations and discarded the congealed meanings of the collective paradigms to extract their gold from the source—that is, who made their personal applications of the basic theories and works of Mallarmé. In most instances the symbolist écriture became one of many arteries of nourishment for a poetry that created a mosaic of dense and complex works. Each unique in his way, these solitaries, here viewed in serial readings, possesses a common interface—the symbolist mode.


A Serial Approach

The major critical phenomenon in late twentieth-century criticism has been the practice of far-flung intertextuality that juxtaposes distant literary realities and at the same time demonstrates a traumatic fear of seeking out influences. In that light the current study of poetic proximities will appear conventional. In my previous critical scholarly writings, my primary objective has been the straightforward and pragmatic task of unfolding information about unfamiliar or neglected texts, focusing on survivals of value out of the indiscriminate miscellany of literary movements; I have used geographical and temporal distance to gauge qualities that have prevailed beyond the historical moment of first reader perception. I have aimed for a delicate balance in the case of both Symbolism and surrealism between poetic intentions and critical responses. Above all, my own methodological approach has been historical and texts have been read in context.

Sometimes my objectivity has been questioned, though I have never used the personal "I" or qualified any mode or person with superlatives. But I suppose that choice is in itself a symptom of predilection. Seldom do critics choose to write about an author they detest, or even for whom they have no empathy. I must admit that my choices have been marginal to the popular scholarly preferences. I have highlighted what I considered the neglected authors—that is, those who were neglected at the time that I ventured to write about them. Even the Symbolists, who had enjoyed much popularity in the 1920s, had slipped into the purgatory of temporary oblivion when I chose to reappraise the movement some years ago. On the whole, time has been supportive of my choices. I never wrote about Flaubert, Joyce, or even Virginia Woolf, and attempted only one essay on Proust because I felt that scholarship was overloading those writers, and it was especially heavy on the novel in general. I felt that I could be more useful if I focused my responses on poetic writings. Because the subjects of my scholarship were among the less familiar literary outputs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I adopted the informative style and developed techniques of synthesis to cover vast bodies of writing within few pages as an alternate current to the specific textual probes in which I engaged. I saw no purpose in presenting analyses of restricted texts that often were not available to my readers, or, in the case of foreign literatures, not available in translation. As justification for my work, I felt that sometimes it is more useful to the noninformed reader to gain a general sense of the work and its spirit through the eyes of a critic who has absorbed the total body of the writing than through a speedy or inaccurate translation. If with this secondhand knowledge interested readers will later approach the translation, they will be in a better position to deal with it, as it were, with a grain of salt. I have tried to be that grain of salt for those whose first experiences with Symbolism and surrealism have been through my writings. We talk of the Work of a creative writer as a totality. I think that the questions I have probed and tried to answer in the course of my long career as a scholarly essayist have, in establishing a continuity between these two major literary movements that have spanned a century, given my own work a certain unity.

Now, in the postmeridian stage of my critical studies, I will indulge in the critical "I" and deal with some of the same materials I have previously approached historically, but this time from a serial point of view, from which continuity is no longer considered merely a product of chronology but as consortial elaborations and transformations, demonstrating the fact—which I proposed many years ago—that the connotation of the word "influence" has gone awry, confused with the word "imitation." Many studies on the impact of Symbolism and of Mallarmé on the major poets of various nations have either treated the subject in a defensive manner, categorically proclaiming the absence of such influence, or assumed a subservient attitude vis-à-vis the original in an effort to prove that the unknown poet strictly belonged in the league. True influence is transformation, in my view. It is not subjected to some kind of psychological repression, but is contingent on the inevitable exhaustion of the original model, or on the evolution of forms, both organic and semantic. These changes or avatisms of models are not necessarily assumed to be improvements over the originals even as we know now, in view of recent scientific studies, that in the case of biological evolution the changes that occur are not presumed to follow a code of progress.


Excerpted from The Fiction of the Poet by Anna Balakian. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Introduction 3
Ch. 2 A Serial Approach 11
Ch. 3 The Fictions of Mallarme 25
Ch. 4 Valery and the Imagined Self 53
Ch. 5 Rilke and the Unseizable 79
Ch. 6 Yeats and the Symbolist Connection 103
Ch. 7 Stevens and the Symbolist Mode 133
Ch. 8 Jorge Guillen: His Battle with the Crystal 159
Ch. 9 Conclusion 187
Index 193
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