Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven still causes a shiver to flow through my body now, re-reading it many years after I first heard it. This is poetry of feeling. There is a sense in which one is there, doomed forever to consider what the raven means with his incantation ‘Nevermore’. In this version, Poe’s near hallucinatory intensity is combined with a translation into French by the great poet Stéphane Mallarmé and stark images by Edouard Manet to form a magical combination.
Mallarmé and Manet, fountainheads of modern poetry and painting, were good friends in Paris in the 1860s and 70s. There were many points where their lives touched – indeed they lived in the same street and met almost daily. Mallarmé’s house was a kind of early social network node – the meeting point for a group of artists and poets called Les Mardistes who met on Tuesday evenings. We see in this work, a rare example of a great poet and great painter working in true confluence – both responding to another work and in the process, both honouring and transforming it. In many ways, this work seems to me to be a milestone – in advance of Mallarme’s later work – which broke with conventions of form and presentation in deeply significant ways. The influence of Mallarmé in terms of his dissolution of form, breaking down of the poetic into its essential parts and core components, sifting out sound, silences, analogies and tonal clarities has been acknowledged by many great 20th artists – from May Ray to Pierre Boulez and John Cage. His singular experiments which beautifully combine abstraction with performativity appear ever more significant over time as we look today at the emergence of software code and machine language as drivers of 21st cutural expression. His experiments with form exploring and revealing underlying latencies may be seen as a linguistic and poetic decoding. These were exciting developments that led directly to many of the most important aesthetic and cultural innovations of the 20th century and preceded the emergence, in particular, of serialism, concretism and forms of machine/computer art. We trace these experiments into process-based and open works of the 60s including Computerized Haiku, computer poetry devised by Margaret Masterman (with Robin McKinnon-Wood) of the Cambridge Language Research Unit as well as earlier tense exchanges between Boulez and Cage on the importance of otherwise of chance in composition and performance. Now, in the 21st century, when remix and recombinant processes are accepted as mainstream and hypertext is common we can only imagine what it might have been like to take those first steps, to reorganise the order of things and shift a cultural modality forever.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was an American writer and critic, famous for his stories of the macabre, and often credited as the creator of detective fiction.
Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) was a French poet and critic, perhaps best known for his typographic experimental poem, Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard.
First Published in 1875
Sourced from Project Gutenberg