Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance

Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance

by Daniel Tiffany

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Poetry has long been regarded as the least accessible of literary genres. But how much does the obscurity that confounds readers of a poem differ from, say, the slang that seduces listeners of hip-hop?  Infidel Poetics examines not only the shared incomprensibilities of poetry and slang, but poetry's genetic relation to the spectacle of underground culture.

Charting connections between vernacular poetry, lyric obscurity, and types of social relations—networks of darkened streets in preindustrial cities, the historical underworld of taverns and clubs, the subcultures of the avant-garde—Daniel Tiffany shows that obscurity in poetry has functioned for hundreds of years as a medium of alternative societies.  For example, he discovers in the submerged tradition of canting poetry and its eccentric genres—thieves’ carols, drinking songs, beggars’ chants—a genealogy of modern nightlife, but also a visible underworld of social and verbal substance, a demimonde for sale.

Ranging from Anglo-Saxon riddles to Emily Dickinson, from the icy logos of Parmenides to the monadology of Leibniz, from Mother Goose to Mallarmé, Infidel Poetics offers an exhilarating account of the subversive power of obscurity in word, substance, and deed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226803111
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/15/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 432 KB

About the Author

Daniel Tiffany is the author of five books of poetry and literary criticism, including Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric (named one of the "Best Books of 2000" by the Los Angeles Times) and the forthcoming Dandelion Clock. In addition, he has published translations of works from French, Greek, and Italian. His poems have appeared in Tin House, Boston Review, and the Paris Review, and his critical essays on poetry and poetics have been published in Critical Inquiry, PMLA, and Modernism/Modernity.  He has held residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Karolyi Foundation in France and been the recipient of a Whiting Fellowship. He teaches at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

Infidel Poetics

Riddles, Nightlife, Substance

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-80309-8

Chapter One

The Spectacle of Obscurity

    Hark! hark! the dogs do bark,
    The Beggars are coming to town.
    Some in rags & some in jags,
    And some in velvet gowns.

When one of the warriors in The Iliad finds himself in mortal danger on the battlefield, a god will sometimes rescue him by making him invisible. Homer describes these disappearances by saying that the god "hides" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) the warrior in "thick mist" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or "darkness" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The German critic and philosopher G. E. Lessing identifies these tropes as examples of the special effects of which poetry alone—in contrast to painting—is capable: "concealment by cloud or night is, for the poet, nothing more than a poetic expression for rendering a thing invisible." Further, he explains, "it was not because a cloud appeared in the place of the abducted body, but because we think of that which is wrapped in mist as being invisible" (69). Hence, the reader comprehends the effects of the verbal emblem of darkness. Lessing, for this reason, declares, "the cloud is a true hieroglyphic" (68): the dark mist becomes an index of disappearance. Since the substances—air and obscurity—enveloping the endangered mortal in the trope of disappearance may be understood as figures for the meteoric phenomenon of the poem itself—for the rhapsodic "air" and its rhetorical darkness— one must conclude that the obscurity of poetry in general is likewise a "hieroglyphic," a substance, to be deciphered (not for its content, but for its expressive and pragmatic effects). Further, the device of the Homeric mist, a luxurious accessory of the gods, offers a thesis concerning the task of poetic obscurity, an image of its aesthetic function: obscurity is a way of making things disappear with words. At the same time, disappearance becomes a legible, material event through the verbal craft of obscurity. Indeed, crafting obscurity in a poem perfects the palpable art of disappearance.

Every secret, however deep or dark, produces what Eve Sedgwick, for example, in her study of the homosexual closet, calls "privacy effects," a revelation of "unknowing as unknowing, not as a vacuum or as the blank it can pretend to be but as a weighty and occupied and consequential epistemological space." Thus, the figurative absence characterizing secrecy, privacy, or obscurity presents itself as a spectacle to be consumed, deciphered, judged: "'Closetedness' itself is a performance," she contends, "initiated as such by the speech act of a silence—not a particular silence, but a silence that accrues particularity by fits and starts" (3). The "clear but confused perception" attributed by Leibniz to monadic substance may be regarded as a metaphysical analogue for the clear signature of the unknowable, for the spectacle of obscurity, for the transitivity of the sublime. Every phenomenon characterized by secrecy, privacy, or obscurity makes an appearance in the world and can therefore be comprehended by the unmistakable features of its putative absence.

Surveying what she calls "topologies of privacy," Sedgwick (like Simmel) analyzes "the projective potency of the open secret" (145) principally as a formal structure. Thus, because the secrecy of the closet, which Sedgwick describes as a "riddle," can be reduced to a purely formal operation, she understands that "the establishment of the spectacle of the homosexual closet as a presiding guarantor of rhetorical community ... extends vastly beyond the ostensible question of the homosexual" (250). That is to say, the dialectic of "privacy effects" pertains to a variety of communities structured along the axes of secrecy/ disclosure, obscurity/ transparency, privacy/ publicity. Any type of hermetic phenomenon thus produces an array of privacy effects.

Poetry, by analogy, may be said to produce certain obscurity effects. One could also contend that these "obscurity effects" betray a model of expression mirroring the inexplicit relations among individuals forming a secret society—a world apart from the world—but also the occult relations between discontinuous worlds. The anonymity and anarchic relations of such communities would help to explain Simmel's contention that "secrecy is thus, so to speak, a transitional structure between being and not being"—between identity and namelessness, order and anarchy.

Strictly speaking, however, the "obscurity effects" generated by poetry must be distinguished from obscurity, per se, a verbal "substance" defined by a lack of understanding, communication, and external relations. Though not unrelated to the phenomenon of obscurity effects, the problem of lyric hermeticism requires more careful consideration of the solipsistic nature of verbal substance, as a precondition of lyric sociability. A model of negative sociability, a lyric monadology distinct from the obscurity effects—the verbal fetishism—generated by the poetic enigma, therefore arises from the conditions of lyric discontinuity and solipsism. For the nature of metaphysical substance presumes, by analogy, an absence of sensory relations between "being-in-language" and the physical world, between substance and phenomenon, Being and "not being" (to invoke Simmel's hypothesis about secrecy).

The hypothesis of obscurity effects nevertheless raises the question of whether secrecy, privacy, or obscurity is possible in any rigorous, or authentic, sense. Accordingly, the permeability of the secret must be assessed directly in relation to lyric poetry, especially as it pertains to the riddle, which openly stages the problematic of obscurity. One must bear in mind the riddle's double origin in antiquity as oracular utterance and as a congenial form of wit. For the puzzling words of the oracle, which neither hide nor reveal, are at once genial and congenial. The riddle reminds us of the abysmal nature of words by displaying its obscurity, by turning secrecy into an event and making a spectacle of incomprehension. Indeed, what is remarkable about the structure of the riddle—about any closed structure—is its inherent openness, its presupposition of exposure, its apocalyptic nature. The privacy of the closet, as Sedgwick reminds us, is only its most obvious—and misleading—feature; its permeability and expressiveness remain concealed, unacknowledged. The common secret, never more than an open secret, nevertheless maintains the illusion of absolute secrecy.

In the Vernacular

Lyric obscurity, like any commodity, is a volatile substance. Historically, the cultivation of literacy, inconceivable without the binding measures of poetry, spells out the affinities of grammar, glamour, and grimoire, yet grade- school teachers do not ordinarily give writing assignments with the prescription "Be obscure!" (Diderot's notorious exhortation to poets—perhaps the earliest programmatic call for obscurity in poetry). Nursery rhymes are cherished at once for their pedagogical value and their nonsensical charm, while modern poetry—catching up with Diderot's advice—is simply condemned for its obscurity. These fluctuations in the prestige and the allure, not to mention the usefulness, of obscurity help to sustain the perceived gulf between the ode and the nursery rhyme, between literary and vernacular poetries.

Lyric obscurity may also serve, however, as a medium linking vernacular poetry to its literary counterpart. Stéphane Mallarmé, for example, whose verse represents a kind of gold standard, one might say, of lyric obscurity, toiled as a young writer in one of poetry's frivolous underworlds, the topsy-turvy realm of Mother Goose, converting 141 English nursery rhymes into veritable prose poems. One would want to mention that Mallarmé was sampling Mother Goose at about the same time he first began translating the verse of Edgar Allan Poe, but it is more important to stress that he produced these nursery rhymes for his day job as an English teacher, as grammatical exercises for a classroom of chattering ten-year-olds. Mallarmé discovered in the verbal prosthetics of the classroom, comprising mnemonic phrases, philological jargon, and antiquarian kitsch, a sort of glamour akin to the netherworld of his own poetry.

Indeed, one of Mallarmé's songs from the nursery discloses the contagious effect of the rhyme's illogic on the translator. Mallarmé adopted the practice of presenting the English song followed by his prose rendering of it in French (which I translate below):

    Hey! diddle, diddle,
    The cat and the fiddle,
    The cow jumped over the moon;
    The little dog laughed
    To see such sport
    While the dish ran after the spoon.

What a strange scene! Look at the cat with his violin—and that's not all: there's the moon, and a cow jumping right over it! I act like the little dog, laughing hard to see such foolishness. And then it seemed to me, as I contemplated this spectacle, that my ideas ran away with themselves, one after another, just as—in the words of the song—the dish runs after the spoon. Hey! diddle, diddle.

Mallarmé alters the original verse considerably, identifying the speaker of the poem with the laughing dog, while acknowledging that the "spectacle" of illogic he is witnessing replicates itself in his head, in the realm of ideas. We might also regard the strange scene (curieux tableau) he contemplates as the verbal "spectacle" of the nursery rhyme itself, so that the poet finds reproduced in his head a spectacle of obscurity made of words. Mallarmé does indeed repeat the nonsensical invocation, "Hey! diddle, diddle" at the end of his prose poem (which does not occur in the English verse), suggesting that the poet has adopted the magical phrase for his own purposes, intending perhaps to reprise the "spectacle" of the nursery rhyme.

Mallarmé's transactions in lyric obscurity—between the illogic of Mother Goose and his own, evolving Symbolist doctrine—demonstrate a particular orientation between literary verse and vernacular poetry, which may be deduced from the etymology of the term itself. The Latin root, vernaculus, of the English word "vernacular" means "pertaining to slaves," yet the Latin term verna designates more precisely a domestic, or house, slave. Thus, the speaker of vernacular language occupies an ambiguous position that is at once within the master's house—or the "house of poetry," to refashion a concept of Heidegger's—and fundamentally alien to the dwelling of the dominant tradition. One could argue, with Hugo Friedrich, that modern poetry (of the literary sort) develops a programmatic rationale for obscurity consistent with a genealogy of literary precedents; yet Mallarmé's dalliance with Mother Goose suggests that vernacular poetry as well, with its diverse repertoire of masking techniques and deliberate obfuscation, might be viewed as an inscrutable model, or catalyst, for certain kinds of obscurity commonly associated with literary modernity. More boldly, as the etymology of the term suggests, one should perhaps regard the vernacular (to paraphrase Hermann Broch's definition of "kitsch") as a foreign body lodged in the system of literary poetry.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "obscurity" refers not only to "lack of perspicuity in language, uncertainty of meaning," in a verbal sense, but to certain modes of social identity. In reference to social being, the term "obscure" means "of persons, their station, descent, etc.: Not illustrious or noted; unknown to fame; humble, lowly, mean." This definition suggests that being enveloped by obscurity in a social sense—a kind of social death, one might say—resembles the act of erasure, the partial disappearance, produced by verbal obscurity. Indeed, the general "uncertainty of meaning" associated with verbal obscurity may well be derived originally, not from certain kinds of texts, but from the speech habits of commoners or marginal social classes—viewed from the vantage point of the dominant, or literate, social class. Thus, the general notion of literary obscurity would be contingent on a social misunderstanding of the material and historical features of demotic speech: dialect, jargon, pidgin, slang. The principle of lyric obscurity, in the abstract, would therefore always refer obliquely to the impression made on the uninitiated listener by the siren song of the vernacular. From this perspective, the atavistic trait of lyric obscurity would be traceable to a dark repertoire of infidel forms: riddles, thieves' carols, beggars' chants.

The social definition of "obscurity" yields other nuances pertaining to a verbal and social underworld of lyric obscurity. Persons of "obscure" origin who are "humble, lowly, or mean" are at the same time "not illustrious or noted; unknown to fame." That is to say, in the eyes of the dominant, literate class, the "obscure" strata of society are—or should be—inconspicuous, all but invisible. "Obscure" in this sense is therefore essentially a synonym for "anonymous," a form of identity with a direct bearing on the sources of vernacular literature and—more specifically, as it pertains to poetry—on the historical construction of authorship and publication.

For lyric poems have historically been published, from the poetry miscellanies of the early seventeenth century until the late nineteenth century, under the nameless signature of "Anon." While the practice of anonymous publication was common with prose texts as well, it began earlier, lasted longer, and was generally more prevalent with poetry. Most poetry in literary history has indeed been published anonymously or under a pseudonym, and the adjective "anonymous" (abbreviated to Anon) was used solely in relation to nameless, or unnamed, authors until the appearance of the noun "anonymity" in the middle of the nineteenth century. Thus, the formulations of modern subjectivity and social identity associated with the term "anonymity" are inescapably linked to the curious signature of "Anon," a kind of accessory to poetry for centuries, marking the ambiguous act of publication. "Anonymity," like "obscurity," is therefore a mode of social identity directly linked to lyric poetry: a form of social obscurity modeled on the uncertain and epiphanic appearance of poetic language. Furthermore, just as lyric obscurity is a verbal property alternately prized and shunned in various contexts, so anonymity is, as Virginia Woolf observes, a kind of "possession" used strategically by authors for centuries to diverse effect.


Excerpted from Infidel Poetics by DANIEL TIFFANY Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Lyric Substance and Social Being

1    The Spectacle of Obscurity

In the Vernacular



Def Rhapsody

Thick as Thieves

The Riddle of Being

2    Riddlecraft

In the Parlance of Things

Black Wonder

Orpheus and the Backwardness of Things

Darkness Visible

The Metaphysics of Dust

Counterfeit Gloom

3    Lost Laboratories of the Sphinx


Rhapsodic Measures


Ransom in a Voice

Elegiac Questions

Fetters, Jinx, Logic


4    Lyric Monadologies

Genetic Obscurity

Ariadne’s Thread

The Infinity of Small, Hidden Springs

Lucifer’s Element, or the Secrets of the Sublime

Logic, Expression, Harmony

Clockwork of the Infidel

Infinity, Inc.

Sleeper Cells and Slumbering Monads

5    Infidel Lyric: The Rhymes of the Canting Crew

Flash, etc.

Strange Navigation

Sparrow Language

The Spy’s Lexicon

Ragpicker, Dandy, Apache

6    Flash Crib: A Genealogy of Modern Nightlife

The Infidel Sublime

Tavern Talk

The Brands of Cupid

The Politics of Nightlife

Infidel Culture


Fairies and Infidels


The Nightspot and the New Chanson


Smash Palace

Shades of the Avant-Garde

7    Mother Goose and Mallarmé

Afterword: The Art of Disappearing

Notes      Index

What People are Saying About This

Peter Fenves

“Among the many contributions to the recent revival of interest in Leibniz’s writings, none is more searching, none more scintillating, and none more consistently disorienting than Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics, which not only shows how the idea of the monad illuminates certain forms of hermetic poetry but also gives insight into the rationale—the infinitely fine ‘logic’—that governs the production of poetry as such.”

Craig Dworkin

“Daniel Tiffany's Infidel Poetics is a thrillingly original series of essays on the interrelation of seemingly disparate realms that turn out—under Tiffany's quirkily brilliant eye—to be essentially related; it will be important not just to readers of the particular texts under discussion (Emily Dickinson, say) but to readers of a range of literature, from Classical Greek to contemporary avant-gardes, who will see their own subjects in revealing and surprising new light. Tiffany takes his place next to Virginia Jackson and Marjorie Perloff in setting a new direction for the entire critical discourse in the field.”

Michael Davidson

“Obscurity in poetry is often seen as a failure of meaning or, worse, an elitist riposte to mass culture. Daniel Tiffany turns the concept of poetic obscurity on its head by seeing it as constitutive of community and social relations. And where literary historians trace the cultivation of obscurity to the Romantic poets, Tiffany looks back to a far longer history of lyric obscurity as a symptom of social alienation and epistemological obscurity—from Parmenides’ fragments to Leibniz’s monads to the Jena romantics to Heidegger’s logos to queer theory. In this superb book, Tiffany studies ‘infidel poetries’—riddles, nursery rhymes, signifying rituals, curses, chants, and the canting songs of the underworld—as an often unacknowledged, demotic vein in poetics. The breadth of scholarship in poetics and philosophy is dazzling and the larger implications of the book for the ideology of literary form are profound.”

Stephen Burt

“Can we learn about the substance and the powers of poetry from the history of nightclubs, of urban lighting, of mathematically-inclined philosophers, of urban pickpocketry? Is lyric poetry obscure by nature, a road to nowhere, an open secret, a conspiracy, a counterfeit? Yes, says Daniel Tiffany, and he means it: his account of the substance, or darkness, of poetry stops in Shakespeare's England, in Mallarme's France, in Holderlin's Germany, and in more obscure locations, to build up its case that poetry has been, can be, perhaps even ought to be a turncoat, a creature of thieves' cant, and of the dance floor: from the pre-Socratics to Villon's jargon to a Vorticist cabaret, 'Orpheus could not turn his back on the underworld.' Here is the rare work of 'theory' and history that might inspire, not only the making of more theory, and the reading of more history, but the creation of new poems.”

Chris Abani

“Daniel Tiffany is a rarity in our times: a thinker’s thinker who writes with the grace of a poet and the clarity of a scientist. Daring, lyrical, and insightful, Infidel Poetics will change the way you think you see the world.”

Gordon Teskey

“Daniel Tiffany is brilliant about the obscure, illuminating poetry and thinking where they are richest: on the boundaries of understanding. There, riddles remain impenetrable, substance remains impermeable, and the heart of life itself remains just outside the space clearly illuminated by reason, in what Tiffany splendidly terms ‘nightlife.’ Tiffany exemplifies what the best critics since Coleridge have understood:  that literary reflection is a spiritual discipline on the boundaries of methodological enlightenment, demanding enormous erudition, but also, indispensably, an openness to thinking as event. The delightful elegance and unpredictability of Tiffany’s writing reminds me of one of the great seventeenth-century thinkers Coleridge admired, Sir Thomas Browne. If you think ‘theory’ is dead or that criticism in the grand style can no longer speak to our times, you must read Infidel Poetics.”

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