ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Mallarmé's Advice to Smokers and Poets: Sonnet, Translation, Response," by Sarah White


Toute l’âme résumée is my favorite Mallarmé poem. Less forbidding than the labyrinthine Coup de dés or the occult sonnet du ptyx, this 1887 sonnet baffles just enough.  Addressed to a poetic beginner, it is pleasantly puzzling at first, then discloses its intent: to pack important aesthetic advice into fourteen lines (exactly140 syllables) on How to Smoke a Cigar:

Toute l’âme résumée
Quand lente nous l’expirons
Dans quelques ronds de fumée
Abolis en autres ronds

Atteste quelque cigare
Brûlant savamment pour peu
Que la cendre se sépare
De son clair baiser de feu

Ainsi le choeur des romances
A la lèvre vole-t-il
Exclus-en si tu commences
Le réel parce que vil

Le sens trop précis rature
Ta vague littérature.


Here is my very free translation, a playful hommage to Mallarmé’s sophisticated music rather than a reliable guide to its literal meaning. In my approximation of the closing rime riche, (rature/littérature), I venture especially far from the literal.

The whole soul summed
as slow we exhale it
in several smoke rings
undone in other rings

attests a cigar
burning sagely as long
as the ash falls
from its clear kiss of fire

This way the choir
of romances flies lip-
ward Beginner avoid
the real because base

preciseness effaces
your shadowy phrases.


What does the poet mean by asking his disciple to exclude “the real”? I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s counsel: Tell the Truth but “slant” it. Cultivate an indirection that leaves the poem open to interpretive possibilities. Refuse to build a prison of actuality around it.

I wasn’t satisfied with translating the cigar poem. I had to paraphrase it in an Ars Poetica of my own.


After Mallarmé

Gather your fans
and handkerchiefs.
Smoke. Hold
your lips in an O.

Exhale several zeroes.
As the volatile soul
blows by, you’ll hear
a choir of romances.

Let ash fall off
the cigar, freeing the fire.
If a spark survives  
you can start. Still,

leave the Real behind you.
Don’t let it blind you.


Vase by Sarah White
"Vases" by Sarah White

Sarah White's poems appeared in Offcourse #44, "You mean you are allowed to do that?", "The Devastation of the Indies", in #45 "Nabokov Writes His Wife From Coker College" in #46, Victoria de los Angeles in Issue #48 and Paris Notebook in #50 and "Introduction to Purgatory" in #52.
Her web site is 



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