- Lyric Poetry as Society
Critics have recently renewed the assault on the lyric, this time in the name of restoring poetic texts to social contexts. In the most accomplished work to emerge from this latest assault—Virginia Jackson’s Dickinson’s Misery—the poem is prized from its lyric isolation and read as a communication between members of a historical community.1 From its exile as the overheard speech of a vaguely ideological solitude, the poem is led out into a robust sociability. This kind of criticism is beyond plausible; it fairly glows with hearty good sense. Poems do not exist in vacuums; they exist in communities! And the idea of community on which critics such as Jackson rely is hardly eccentric. We all know what a community looks like before we ever read a lyric.
Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics demolishes this common sense by showing us what a community looks like from the lyric’s perspective. For Tiffany, this perspective is shaped by lyric’s basic feature: obscurity. Lyric obscurity is not obscure. The central paradox of the lyric is that obscurity is its most obvious feature, its “open secret.” Obscurity is the first thing that the student exposed to lyric notices. This seems to supply a ready role for the professor. He or she is the person who will lead us from darkness to illumination; the professor will decipher the symbol and show us the human face, the trace of real relationship, hidden behind the curtain of a line. [End Page 159] The enigma of poetic language is course precisely what the new commonsense critic seeks to dispel by placing the works in the historical loam of letters, conversations, newspapers, advertisements, speeches, and preaching from which they arise. For Tiffany, by contrast, obscurity is the key to lyric’s distinctive modes of community. He asks us to linger with the obvious mystery of the poem, to remain, in the phrase from Milton that Tiffany repeatedly quotes, before the “darkness visible” of lyric language.
Two models of community emerge from this reading practice. The first is a collective mode constituted by “obscurity effects . . . generated by the poetic enigma” (9). In his exposition of this model, Tiffany develops Georg Simmel’s and Eve Sedgwick’s theories in order to read examples of the lyric incorporation of subcultural speech from early English canting songs to contemporary rap. Simmel’s sense that secretive speech is a “communicative event” apart from its decodable content (4) and Sedgwick’s analysis of the way the “spectacle” of the closet constitutes a source of social fascination (15) furnish Tiffany with a flexible frame for showing how lyrical patois or cant draws us in. The collectives maintained by such lyrics “remind us of the possibility of communities that defy the seemingly inexorable logic of transparency and continuity implicit in the social imaginary of the internet” (11).
As a preliminary model of the communal being of the lyric reader, then, Tiffany offers us the initiate whose relation with another is routed through shared contact with a dense sociologically subterranean language. Infidel Poetics would have been an important book had it done nothing more than to trace this figure’s surprising centrality across literary and vernacular poetries. But the book’s true urgency for contemporary criticism lies in Tiffany’s exploration of the second mode of lyric collectivity, which he defines, somewhat forbiddingly, at the book’s outset as “A constellation, or mass, of expressive relations between entities which are essentially solipsistic” (9).
As we shall soon follow Tiffany’s criticism into the dark heart of philosophical counterintuition, it is worth stressing that his argument starts with, is founded on, and never loses contact with obvious features of poems recognizable to any reader. He begins his delineation of the second model of community projected by the lyric with a description of riddles, classic exempla of poetic enigma. Viktor Shklovksy’s comments on riddles provide an instructively contrasting preparation for Tiffany’s approach. Shklovsky, like Tiffany, rejects the cryptographic method of reading riddles. When...