At one of his weekly salons, Stéphane Mallarmé is reported to have said: “There is only one man who has the right to be an anarchist: me, the Poet, since I alone make a product that society does not want, in exchange for which it does not give me anything to live on.”
From this bit of hearsay, I draw a negative definition of the poet’s activity: that which society does not want. What it does want is not poetry, for society wants our interest in itself; it is self-interested. In such a society—where “money alone wields power and therefore is the sole guarantee of truth” (Julia Kristeva, “The Revolt of Mallarmé”)—it is unthinkable to provide for the poet whose subversive activity of “pure expenditure” calls into question the very basis of society’s justice and ironizes its laws, for they cannot put poetry on trial.
Society would likely prefer us to tell our stories, so they may be subsumed and consumed, traded and sold—and our potential for change (thinking of Arendt and DuBois) along with them—in order to conjoin individual experience to its (so-called) grand narrative. (Mallarmé thought it his duty to fight the conspiracy to “confine [literature] to daily chronicles.”) Poetry, to paraphrase Anne Boyer’s essay “No,” resides in a refusal of requirements: in turning away, it turns the world upside down: “It is a no to the wretched arrangements of history and the greed-laminated earth” (Boyer). The resounding “no” of Mallarmé’s anarchism echoes for me in Amiri Baraka’s “Black Dada Nihilismus.”
I am of course aware of just how unfashionable, indeed how shameless, it is to be interested in literature, in poetry, above current affairs, and—in fact—it is that shamelessness that fuels my interest in one over the other. “It’s probably just as well,” Mallarmé wrote, “for politics to get along without Literature and decide its fate with guns.” He also said, “I know of no bomb other than a book.”
With regard to certain recent demagoguery, I find it grounding to recall that Nicanor Parra, as long ago as the late 1940s, remarked, with an admirable lack of hesitation, that “Truth, like beauty, is neither created nor lost / And poetry is in the things themselves.” And in this I hear an echo of Mallarmé: “Things already exist, we don’t have to create them; we simply have to see their relationships.”
Of course, in writing poetry, I too place my pen, in my own way, “at the service of the Revolution,” as Kropotkin asked us to do so long ago (“Words of a Rebel,” 1885). Otherwise, no one will know whether or not we wanted a perfect world.
*Translators whose words are used above: Louise Burchill (Mallarmé, Kristeva); W.S. Merwin (Parra); Charles D. Minahen (Mallarmé’s quip)
Matvei Yankelevich's books include Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (Black Square) and Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook).