Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of responses to Daniel Tiffany's "Cheap Signaling." Read the rest.
In Plato's dialogue, Socrates tries to determine whether Ion has learned anything from studying and reciting poems. Ion, one of Socrates's most guileless and accommodating interlocutors, readily agrees that poems know nothing about cooking, medicine, or the construction of a chariot's wheels. Poems mention these subjects, but the relevant passages would be of no help to anyone who wished to handle a chariot.
There is a sticking point where accommodation ceases. Ion thinks he knows how a general should address commands to soldiers. Thus poetic wisdom could be the same as military strategy. His serious study of Homer's poems might make him both the greatest rhapsode and the greatest general. Socrates finds this conclusion distasteful, and pressures Ion to admit that whatever military knowledge may be expressed in poems could not belong to poets or rhapsodes, but must be the result of divine inspiration.
Now imagine a new Ion, where Socrates interviews Daniel Tiffany. Here the sticking point would be class warfare.
—Is knowledge of poetic diction the same as knowledge of conflicting class affiliations?
—It certainly seems so, Socrates.
—What? Is Ion the self-destruction of the working class?
But Tiffany is really Socrates, not Ion. He discounts the value of the explicit class analysis that contemporary poetry sometimes performs, and replaces it with inspiration. Conflict between classes appears not in what poets say about it, but rather in their diction, where impersonal forces speak through them.
To the poets who say that their greatest ambition is to end the material conditions that make their work legible, Tiffany seems to say: Hold on. Not so fast. Do you really think that your work is legible?
Now imagine a new Ion, where Socrates interviews Daniel Tiffany.
Fortunately for the poets, Tiffany does not seem to hold legibility in high regard. He is far more interested in the value of poetic obscurity. In Infidel Poetics, his first treatment of the subject, he finds a neglected source of poetic obscurity in the cant language of the criminal underworld. Not Latin but thieves' Latin.
In My Silver Planet, he turns his attention back to elite literary language, and makes an even more surprising discovery: the heart of kitsch is the very idea of poetic diction, the modernist idea that a poem is nothing more than its list of words. Purest kitsch would be words that show up only in poems.
In "Cheap Signaling," Tiffany puts these arguments together. He borrows the phrase "cheap signaling" itself from Prageeta Sharma's great poem, to identify a trope belonging to diction whereby the occult sources of poetic obscurity, the cant language of the criminal underworld and the kitsch language of elite literature, make class conflict apparent in their convergence.
I honor "Cheap Signaling" both for the discovery of a new trope, and for the further development of Tiffany's study of poetic obscurity. My question is whether diction can be separated from style. Tiffany distinguishes diction from form in that it can be faked, and from style in that it is impersonal rather than personal. He may be a little hasty in making the second move.
Let me illustrate the problem with a line from "Animal Voices," a poem in Hello, the Roses by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge.
Here's Raphaela Pope and her gray parrot Dax, who told me Elmo from Sesame Street loves him.
Some of the lines in this poem are lists of names of people and their pets. In this census of the population, Elmo the Muppet creates a mild disturbance. How did his name get into Berssenbrugge's dictionary? The provenance seems clear. The speaker got Elmo's name from Raphaela's parrot Dax, who got the name from children's television. Only I don't think we are supposed to understand that Dax bothers to keep track of his sources: "Elmo (from Sesame Street) loves me." His line, repeating Elmo's line, would simply be, "Elmo loves me"; any scruples about the citation belong to the speaker. Which is to say that Dax is not the only fan of Elmo in this poem. The speaker recognizes the allusion, and annotates it for the benefit of readers who may not have been watching Sesame Street.
Berssenbrugge writes a remarkably pure, clear diction. But her purity of diction is not especially poetized. In this regard, the diction of Hello, the Roses differs from that of her earlier collection Empathy, where the romance of place-names such as Texas gives the lines a Marlovian sonority. Here—and note how many of the lines in Hello, the Roses begin with that deictic gesture, "here"—are none of the poetic words, the "eglantines" and "chaunts" that caused Ford Madox Ford to roll on the floor, clutching his head and moaning; none of the inverted syntax that Samuel Johnson denounced in Thomson's poetry ("'gray evening' is common enough, but 'evening gray' he'd think fine"); and, with the possible exception of Elmo, none of the signals by which, as Tiffany shows, vernaculars can be synthesized.
Class, and particularly the social role of poets, is one of the concerns of the poems in Hello, the Roses. For example: "Early poets, half shaman, half sibyl, spoke for this flow of our transformation into animals." As this example suggests, the classes of beings that concern Berssenbrugge are not limited to economic categories. She is also interested in the evolution of a new male species ("The New Boys"), and, most of all, in talking to and listening to animals and plants. The animal and plant voices recorded in this collection are remarkably similar to those of Berssenbrugge's other speakers in their pure, clear diction. They are distinct as voices, but they use the same dictionary.
Elmo's voice is a cheap signal not because it costs nothing to synthesize his vernacular, but because his diction is equally pure. Elmo's line, "Elmo loves you," is not just easy to translate into Berssenbrugge's idiom, but exactly the kind of statement her speakers were already making. Her book of selected poems is titled, with her usual clarity, I Love Artists. Such expressions are even more common in her writing than the ubiquitous "here" statements. "I love transformations in the outline of a tree in strong wind." "I like when his sweater hangs below his jacket like a tunic or a dress."
Berssenbrugge's speakers are similar to Elmo in their diction, but utterly different in style. It would make a difference if Berssenbrugge's poems were read in Elmo's throaty, brassy voice. This difference may support Tiffany's claim that diction and style are separate categories. If Berssenbrugge helps to exemplify Tiffany's implausible argument, perhaps he can return the favor and exemplify hers. In other words, if we open up diction to include impersonal forces, would that include plants as well?