ONE TOSS OF THE DICE by R. Howard Bloch


The Incredible Story of How a Poem Made Us Modern
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The creation and influence of an iconic modernist poem.

In 1897, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) published a 20-page poem in a British magazine, daring in its syntax, typography, and spatial design. “One Toss of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance” was meant to be read across an open double page; large blank spaces separate verses of different lengths; some lines contain a single word. In French and a translation by poet J.D. McClatchy, “One Toss of the Dice” appears in a central section of this volume. Jarring and visually and verbally bold, the poem, argues French scholar Bloch (French/Yale Univ.; A Needle in the Right Hand of God: The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry, 2006, etc.), “dramatizes the difficulty of making sense of a world in which truth, meaning, and order are no longer given, and are constantly changing.” The difficulty of the poem is amply proven by Bloch’s attempt at explication. Like others among his contemporaries—including Verlaine, Valéry, Baudelaire, Whistler, Manet, Dégas, and Renoir—Mallarmé sought ways to reinvent and invigorate art. In 1866, he experienced a “state of altered consciousness,” from which he felt transformed into a “vessel of truth” that channeled the “spiritual Universe.” Nevertheless, he supported himself and his family by teaching high school English and, for a time, writing the entirety of The Latest Fashion, a ladies’ magazine that celebrated elegance and gracious living. His larger project, however, was “to make life rhyme” by “investing the world with poetry.” He tried, Bloch astutely observes, “to reclaim for poetry what poetry had lost to music” and to visual spectacle. Bloch is strongest on Mallarmé’s effervescent artistic context and his centrality to a protean group of artists and writers who frequented his evening salons. He is less persuasive, though, in defending the extravagant claim that Mallarmé’s poem “blazed” the way to modernist movements in art, music, literature, science, and technology.

A deeply informed investigation into a radically innovative poet.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-87140-663-7
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Liveright/Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2016


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