roger horrocks

a throw of the dice

2022 has seen the creation of a number of experimental artists’ books to mark the 125th anniversary of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (‘A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance’), whose non-linear pattern of words has continued to inspire visual artists as well as writers. Among the many re-workings of Un Coup, one of the most inventive has been by New Zealand poet and artist Sam Sampson. It has attracted international attention as part of the ‘Books On Books’ exhibition now touring galleries, libraries and artists’ book fairs in the UK, yet so far remains under the radar in our country.

Mallarmé’s text first appeared in the London-based magazine Cosmopolis in 1897 with its words spread forth in different forms of type like “constellations” in the sky across ten double-page spreads. The poet was preparing a deluxe version with the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon but died in 1898 before it was completed. The text alone was published as a large-page book by Gallimard in 1914. Separated from its earlier Symbolist context, it was hailed as an icon of modernism, controversial and much-discussed like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” or Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles.” There were references to it in Cubist paintings and it inspired a film by Man Ray and later homages by André Masson, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Spoerri, Dan Graham, Ellsworth Kelly, Imants Tillers, and dozens of other artists and writers.

The book held plenty of personal resonance for me after I discovered a copy in 1962 at the Book Centre, a fondly-remembered bookshop which imported French publications, in Queens Arcade, Auckland. Behind its elegant cover I encountered a poem in fragments which evoked visually as well as verbally a storm-tossed ship, the sweep of waves, a whirlpool, a frantic helmsman. It culminated in the line: ‘Every thought emits a throw of the dice’.  Mallarmé was not only creating literal word-pictures, as some poets had done before, but also playing complex language games in which staying afloat referred to high-risk intellectual or artistic activity.

In those pre-internet days, the news of modernism travelled slowly, and we all had to do our own research. Often there were no translations. I could navigate this hurricane of a poem only word by word with the help of a French dictionary. Still, the extra effort added to the aura of our discoveries.

About four decades later, I noticed a young man engrossed in a poetry magazine in the Ponsonby shop Magazzino, and I struck up a conversation. This was Sam Sampson, whose first collection of poems Everything Talks won a national book award in 2009, and was co-published in the UK. Sam is one of the most ambitious and experimental poets in our vicinity, but many members of the local literary audience are still inclined to regard his work as too challenging. He has had a warmer welcome from the visual arts, and he has collaborated on exhibitions and publications with artists Peter Madden and the late Harvey Benge.

A few years ago I lent Sam my 1962 copy of Un Coup, and he resolved to add his own version to the long tradition of reworkings, collages and conceptual spinoffs.  He completed it just in time for the 125th anniversary. It gained the attention of Robert Bolick, a curator whose exhibitions “explore the evolution of the book— from the centuries-long movement of orality into literacy to tomorrow’s ongoing development of the codex offline and online.” He included Sam’s book in his exhibition of artworks in homage to Un Coup which is now touring galleries, libraries, and art-book fairs in the UK. In Cambridge the show was entitled ‘Casting Letters: Art, Books, Chance’, and in Bristol  it became ‘A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Appropriation’. At the end of the tour, all the works in the exhibition will go to Special Collections at the Bodleian.

Bolick wrote a detailed essay on Sam’s version for his influential Books On Books website, noting that ‘The aim for union of text, sound and graphic image is central to Sampson’s poem’ and ‘The frequency of achieved union may be what puts Sampson’s homage in the front rank’. Following Mallarmé, Sam’s book focuses on the sea and the themes of language and chance. He begins with an original, linear poem that is soon interrupted by collaged fragments of Un Coup in dynamic bursts of words and letters. There are also patterns of lines which conform to the length of lines in the original poem.   

Sam writes: ‘I wanted my poem to somehow capture, as Mallarmé had described it, “the invitation of the great white space [of the page]”, and the successive, incessant, back-and-forth motions of our eyes travelling from one line to the next, and beginning all over again’. His version heightens the dynamics of the original poem in its collisions between typefaces, languages, his own words and those of Mallarmé, and the overall tension between the verbal and the visual. There is also a juxtaposition of different times, including 1914, 1962, and the present. Like a six-sided dice, the basic elements are constantly re-cast.

That the pages look like visual scores echoes Mallarme’s own suggestion that he was composing music as well as visual and verbal patterns. Sam’s subtitle of ‘(((SUN-O)))’ is related to a discussion I had with him about a Seattle experimental rock band in which I was interested – ‘Sunn O)))’ – which took its name from the Sunn sound amplifier. Sam had recently been writing ‘O Poems’ which explored the sound of ‘O’ and the concept of zero. He transferred those interests together with the expanding brackets to Un Coup.

The first publication of the book was a limited edition by No Press in Canada. Sam yearned for a larger page size, and so produced his own limited edition with dramatic new visual aspects such as covers with die-cut shapes. To produce this deluxe version in Solander boxes, he was assisted by Jacinda Torrance of Verso Visual Communications for design, the Centurion company for printing, and Louise James of The Binding Studio for hand-sewn binding. 

Producing his own edition (which has ‘Waitakere Ranges, New Zealand’ as its imprint) was an expensive business – a risky throw of the dice. Sam says: ‘I pitched the project to a few NZ collections and galleries, asking whether they’d be interested in acquiring a copy for their collection or possibly exhibiting it at some point in time. To date I’ve received only one reply’. Fortunately Sam has now sold enough copies to overseas collectors and collections to cover his costs.


Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (((SUN-O)))

Photos: Sam Hartnett

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