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This article is taken from PN Review 89, Volume 19 Number 3, January - February 1993.

The Shaping of Modern French Poetry: Sign and Line Roger Little

IN CECI N'EST PAS UNE PIPE, Michel Foucault writes: 'Signe, la lettre permet de fixer les mots: ligne, elle permet de figurer la chose. Ainsi, le calligramme prétend-il effacer ludiquement les plus vieilles oppositions de notre civilisation alphabetique: montrer et nommer; figurer et dire; reproduire et articuler; imiter et signifier; regarder et lire.' The shift away from fixed forms of verse has allowed the development of different kinds of spatial shaping, and with it has come the realization that traditional verse can in fact accommodate elements of spatial awareness. We have seen how it can apply to the Mallarmé of the sonnets. If his foregrounding there of the phonetic contributes to the appearance of necessity created out of the largely arbitrary conventions of language, it acts as a reminder that hypotyposis (or imitative visualization) can legitimately be made to participate in the poem's broader purposes and be converted in sophisticated hands from the linear to the spatial.

With almost mathematical precision, Valéry places the word 'temple' in 'La Jeune Parque' in such ways as to trace a parallelogram which not only gives the outline of the metaphorical poetic 'temple' he is constructing but over-determines the production of its shape by incorporating a specialized meaning of the word: 'template'. In his fascinating book Mimologiques: voyage en Cratylie, Gérard Genette notes Valéry's scepticism of imitative harmony and asks 'que peut être au juste une harmonie non imitative?' Because he asks the wrong question, he inevitably reaches the unacceptable conclusion ...


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