“American poetry now belongs to a subculture.” So began Dana Gioia’s still-resounding 1991 screed “Can Poetry Matter?” as if “American poetry” were a fetching young ingénue delivered into the puce-gloved clutches of a guardian played by Peter Lorre.
Poetry, Gioia says, is “specialized,” “small,” “isolated,” “invisible,” and “focused inwards.” Gioia underscores that confinement with a simile that describes the typical, back-scratching poetry anthology: “The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage.” The inevitable shelter for this shadowy, close-ranked, immigrant group is, of course, academia; as Gioia explains, “To maintain their activities, subcultures usually require institutions, since the general society does not share their interests.” So damningly has he built his case that even the word “activities” here carries a nefarious taint—pace Joseph McCarthy, what are underground “activities” but un-American? And so, by Gioia’s lights, the un-Americanness of poetry writ from the subculture of academia becomes self-evident. QED.
Many critics—and, of course, the academically employed poets among them—have tried to neutralize Gioia’s essay from various angles. Like any potent advertising slogan, zombie, or venereal disease, however, it is not so easy to shake.
Poet and academic Daniel Tiffany’s new critical work, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance, strikes the surest blow yet, though hardly meaning to. Indeed, Tiffany mentions Gioia only in a passing footnote, and he barely analyzes contemporary poetry at all, limiting himself to one poem by Jorie Graham. Tiffany nevertheless provides an alternative to Gioia’s critique by suggesting that the subculture is not a rejection of a social role but a distinct social position of its own. In Tiffany’s model, the smallness, isolation, invisibility, and inward focus of the subculture establish its distinctive and attractive obscurity and mark a site of exchange with what Gioia calls “general society.” The subculture is the larger culture’s dirty little open secret that both can and cannot stay that way.
While this model of the subculture has ramifications for contemporary poetry, as indicated by Tiffany’s title and elaborated in his introduction, it is a model built up from an attractively varied set of trans-historical and cross-disciplinary examples, mentioned in his subtitle. “Substance,” in Tiffany’s hands, refers to metaphysical substance, historically construed, and his argument depends on a lengthy examination of this concept:
Physical matter becomes metaphysical substance when it becomes the sole insensible ground of all Being (a model exemplified by the doctrine of atomism). Metaphysical materialism (only bodies exist) envisions material bodies composed of a substance that lies beyond the reach of our senses.
It is metaphysical substance’s paradoxical nature—existing as the basis of all visible and invisible matter, yet itself beyond the reach of human senses—from which Tiffany draws his theory of the constitutive obscurity of the subculture, both detectable and undetectable at once.
His model of the subculture, defined by such obscurity, is drawn from Gottfried Leibniz’s 1714 philosophical text Monadologies, which proposes a unit of metaphysical substance called the “monad.” In their bare form, these monads exhibit “neither extension, nor shape, nor divisibility—that is, [they are] without sensory or material properties.” Despite the basic, isolate status of the monad—they “have no windows through which something else can enter or leave”—monads are ubiquitous and work in concert to produce phenomenological reality. Though they do not interact with each other, monads are correlated by harmony, correspondence, aggregation, and design.
Such design is provided, in Leibniz’s model, by God. In Tiffany’s secular model, monadic correspondence may be found in the non-idealistic, non-progress-oriented, non-utopic “social hermeticism” best exemplified by nightclubs, undergrounds, and the like.
I use the phrase “the like” advisedly, because analogy—or, in monadological terms, “correspondence”—is important to Tiffany’s method, and it is by correspondence that we move from the constitutive obscurity of all matter to social subcultures. Tiffany builds his case for lyric obscurity, which describes both nightlife and literary subcultures, from sources as diverse as the tenth-century Exeter book, the ancient Greek literary forms of rhapsody and riddle (both exemplified in the legend of the Sphinx), siren songs and beggar songs, thieves’ Latin and peddlars’ French, nursery rhymes and Jacobin tracts, and even, most fascinatingly, the manic rewrites of Mother Goose developed by Stéphane Mallarmé as schoolroom exercises.
Poets, Daniel Tiffany argues, must lay claim to the stigma of the subculture, with all its insularity and blurby gang signs.
Tiffany’s readings are wittily written, closely argued, and charismatically virtuosic in their attention to the occult powers of etymology. Though the textual examples are addressed in roughly linear historical order, they make their case, powerfully, through analogy and/or arcane contiguity rather than historical causality. In this sense, Infidel Poetics typifies Tiffany’s special breed of criticism, which might be called “alchemical” in that it attempts to derive epistemological transformations by setting a seemingly inapposite selection of materials in contact with each other.
Tiffany reserves special enthusiasm for sites of social hermeticism, particularly the “orphic subculture of nightlife.” He traces the development of nightlife from the taverns of sixteenth-century England, to the early nineteenth-century Jacobin inns that doubled as covert publishing houses, to the emergence of a modern nightclub culture at the turn of the twentieth century. Each manifestation is examined with persuasive depth and revealing historical detail, construing the nightspot as a public but obscure place where illicit goods and services are indistinguishable from illicit languages. Both goods and argots are traded among classes and eventually recommodified and sold to the outside world, whether in the form of informants’ reports to police, literary spies’ forgeries of demotic ballades, or canting dictionaries.
This account soon delivers us to the more familiar precincts of the modern nightclub in Paris or Harlem, in which obscurity
became a mode of publicity. Quite remarkably, the sentimentality of modern nightlife made it available as a staging ground—a counterfeit underworld—for the incipient avant-garde, which deliberately casts itself in the model of the cultural infidel. Indeed, the first modern nightclubs in Paris, Berlin, and London, which opened in the late nineteenth century, provided a theater of indigence and infidelity for launching the historical avant-garde.
Again and again throughout Infidel Poetics, Tiffany emphasizes the class divisions implicit in his model, the ways in which monetary and linguistic exchange substitute for (or, in Tiffany’s parlance, counterfeit) one another, with demotic language moving from the demimonde to “the world” through literary retrieval at the hands of an author such as Villon or Pound. Intriguingly, Tiffany does not deliver the standard criticism of appropriation—that it represents the exploitation of one class by another—nor does he spend any time on close readings of work by the “usual suspects”—authors who incorporate the demotic into high- or post-modernist works. Instead, his examination of the lingoes of nightlife and lowlife—including nursery rhymes, cant, ballads, spells, hexes, and tracts—ultimately creates a rambunctious, infectious demotic tide, parasitical upon the high-brow interlopers.
The resulting mutual exploitation is reflected in the terms Tiffany substitutes for what is more casually called “appropriation”: “slumming,” “spying,” “forgery.” These terms propose an ethical parity between literary thieves and the literal thieves, whose “Latin” the writers record and carry off. The “bad faith” of this exchange takes place in (and as) the “spectacle of counterfeit relations” that is the demimonde, with its lyric obscurity, its stew of illicit activity, and its commodification of the “new substance” of the infidel.
What, then, does Tiffany’s examination of subcultures and their argots portend for that most despised of subcultures, academia? Tiffany’s theory of metaphysical substance is also a theory of language. If only bodies exist, then thoughts and words are also material bodies, and at the most basic, monadic level, beyond the senses: obscure. This line of thought necessitates a revision of materialist literary criticism, one that views the textual object not as an insignia of economic and cultural relationships in an extant world but as participating in a shadowy underworld, one with occult or alchemical properties. Tiffany holds:
Unless the critical methodology is strictly empirical—an orientation fundamentally alien to literary criticism—the reality of matter must always remain uncertain, always a problem that needs to be taken into consideration. Hence, the study of material cultures, for example, should never take for granted the material integrity of its objects.
It is thrilling to envision this second, through-the-looking-glass version of materialist criticism, one invested in the invisible and spectral properties of objects and texts.
The implications of Infidel Poetics for poets, academic and otherwise, are still more thrilling. It would be a mistake to reduce Tiffany’s argument in defense of the social obscurity of literary subcultures to a defense of stylistic obscurity, what is commonly called “difficulty” by its detractors or “complexity” by its defenders. Nor does Tiffany, in defending literary subcultures by analogy to other subcultures, wish to provide fodder for self-congratulation or for the preservation of a status quo. Instead, he seems to be calling for an alteration in how the precinct of the literary subculture is viewed. In the final sentence of the book, he insists,
Just as the phenomenological epoché of the riddle condemns real things to verbal annihilation—a verbal apocalypse—in order that they may be revealed by words, so must individuals craft the inaction of social death to produce a society of inverts, to find new substance in the spectacle of counterfeit relations.
In other words, rather than aspire to escape the seedy, incestuous ghetto of contemporary poetry for the more wholesome bosom of the general audience, as Gioia might have it, Tiffany challenges poets to embrace the model of the monad. Poets must lay claim to the stigma of the subculture, the obscurity and social hermeticism that aligns contemporary poetry—with all its insularity and blurby gang signs—with the bathhouse, the nightclub, and the closet, with isolate but not necessarily desolate zones of contemporary society, areas of disempowerment, non-productivity, invisibility and “social death.”
It is here that Tiffany construes a “sociological sublime” associated not with height, but with declivity. And it is here, amid the slangy, vernacular, peanut-chewing, but not Pulitzer-toting crowd, in small or large numbers, off high culture’s official map, that obscurity’s spectacular alchemy takes place, forging “new substance”—not to fill a void, but to reveal the would-be void’s murkily substantive nature.