I spoke recently with Michel Pierson, resurrector of the unique picture-poem “Un coup de Dés” (“A Throw of the Dice”) by French Symbolist luminary Stéphane Mallarmé, about how he reconstructed the poet’s original intentions in print and online.
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TeleRead: How difficult was it to recreate the author’s original plan for the poem, both in print and online?
Michel Pierson: We worked in 2002 from photographs of one of the last sets of proofs of the Vollard edition project held at the Bibliothèque nationale. Reconstruction of the missing Didot font and the layout (or “staging, ” in Mallarmé’s terms), was very time-consuming, and nothing would have been possible without the assistance of Denis Péraudeau, meticulous graphic virtuoso. This work has been both long, difficult and exciting.
Printing of the book was then made possible in 2004 with the generous help of two friends: Jorge Camacho, painter, graphic artist and poetry enthusiast, who made an original etching from the text, and Mike Abrams, talented London designer, who arranged and supervised the work of the printer in Colchester.
Compared with the printed edition (on vellum, in the large format envisaged by Mallarmé and Vollard), the online edition, made six years later from the computer file used by the printer, was relatively easy to produce, quickly, using the services of an inspired designer, Alexandre Bruno, and a local artisan webmaster.
Other than those mentioned above, relatives or friends, under the umbrella of the the Ptyx Association, also gave me their support and advice. We must therefore consider this edition as a collective work, which many people, starting with myself, have spent an inordinate amount of time on.
TeleRead: How different is this to previous versions?
Michel Pierson: I think I can say without boasting that our edition is, as of today, the only one to follow, as closely as possible, what Paul Valéry called “the physical aspect of the poem.” This is because we are the only ones to have taken care to redraw the missing fonts or unusual characters and scrupulously reproduce the layout of the author. Hence the difference from other editions claiming to replicate Mallarmé and Vollard’s project.
For more details, visit: http://www.coupdedes.com “About the editions of the Coup de Dés. ”
TeleRead: How much do we gain in understanding of the poem and in aesthetic value from this recovery?
Michel Pierson: From the purely “aesthetic” point of view, it is obvious that the typesetting designed by Mallarmé is infinitely superior to all the distorted versions that have been brought out, from Gallimard’s on. Anyone can confirm that by comparing our edition to others.
As for the understanding of the poem, I think we should distinguish two levels. That of word by word comprehension, which answers the question: “What does that mean?” and which corresponds, for example, to the work of Gardner Davies (see” Towards a Rational Explanation of the Coup de Dés “). From this point of view, the restoration work does no more than any other edition, and we could stick with the version from the magazine Cosmopolis.
A second level of understanding stems from the fact that the prose poem must be deciphered or seen both as a musical score and as an album of drawings or “prints”, as per Mallarmé’s intention. To reach that level of understanding and penetration of the work, it is obviously necessary to refer to an edition that does not betray the intentions of the author. It is a matter of understanding, and also respect for a masterpiece that was very badly handled by many casual publishers.
TeleRead: How important is the typographical and visual aspect in the poem?
Michel Pierson: Mallarme was extremely demanding about the typographic design of the publication of his poems—not just for the Coup de Dés, but for every poem of his, even in a more traditional format, that was to be published. You can read all about this in his amazing correspondence with Deman the publisher.
In this respect, as in many other ways, his teaching is still relevant. Poetry is inseparable from the typography in which it is presented to the reader. There exists a spirit of the letter, and the art of the typographer must try to correspond as best as it possibly can to the spirit of the poem it represents, to be in affinity with it, in the same way that the art of the instrumentist must offer the most respectful possible interpretation of the composition which he or she is playing.
It is to be hoped that online editions of poems proliferate. And hopefully this will also give the best typographers, or graphic-typographic artists, the opportunity to compete in their esteemed discipline.