- Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics by Marjorie Perloff
By Marjorie Perloff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021.
Marcel Duchamp coined the adjective infrathin —in French, inframince —as a unit of measurement for the smallest, barely perceptible, but essential differences. Duchamp claimed that he could not define infrathin, and that it could only be understood via examples, including the “warmth of a seat (which has just been left)”; the “whistling sound (in walking) by brushing of the 2 legs” of someone wearing velvet trousers; and the “detonation noise of a gun (very close) and the apparition of the bullet hole in the target” (qtd. in Perloff 2). His parenthetical elucidations are themselves further examples of infrathin details; they make the finest of distinctions.
Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics is the title of Marjorie Perloff’s new book. In its seven chapters, she reads—very closely—texts by Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Susan Howe, John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and others. Perloff attends to the “microlevel” in which “every phoneme, every morpheme, word, phrase, rhythm, and syntactic contour has been chosen with an eye to creating a brilliant verbal, visual, and sound structure” (2). What the “telling difference” tells, Perloff writes (6), gives her book “a twin purpose: (1) to show that an ‘infrathin’ reading of particular Modernist works—many of them very well known—can remind us what it is that makes poetry poetry, and (2) to engage in revisionist history regarding the poetry in question, placing it in new contexts and suggesting unexpected alignments” (18).
Her arguments depart from and arrive at discussions of experimental aesthetics. This is familiar ground for Perloff and readers of her extensive oeuvre : her long career has centered the zeitgeists, milieux, and motivating ideas of the American and European avant-garde. And her focus has centered on the avant-garde because she’s long claimed that there’s a deep rift between the romantic/post-symbolist tradition and the avant-garde. For example, in [End Page 115] “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” Perloff wrote about forty years ago, “The split goes deep, and its very existence raises what I take to be central questions about the meaning of Modernism—indeed about the meaning of poetry itself in current literary history and theory” (New Literary History, Spring 1982, p. 486). Twenty years later, in the pages of this journal, in “‘Pound/Stevens: Whose Era’ Revisited,” Perloff watered down her previous argument somewhat, but stood by the basic point: “If neither Pound nor Stevens can be said to dominate our ‘era,’ their differences, I would argue, remain real enough” (The Wallace Stevens Journal, Fall 2002, p. 140). Is her newest book, then, “‘Pound/Stevens: Whose Era’ Revisited” revisited? Here, Stevens and Pound are actually likened, and there seems to be no rift at all. If this is “revisionist history,” it’s her own history she’s revising. How does this work? In Infrathin, Perloff sketches out three activities—participating in the avant-garde, investigating what makes art art, and infrathinly “paying the closest possible attention” (206)—and suggests that they are different facets or aspects of shared aesthetic commitments. So, when a poem rewards “super-close reading” (xii), it’s a reflection of a poet’s honed skills by means of which they investigate what counts as art, and therefore that poet counts as avant-garde, or at least a fellow traveler.
Perloff might say that I’m mischaracterizing her career by describing it as committed to the avant-garde; she reminds us that her first book, published in 1970 and based on her dissertation, was on Yeats (Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats). In this book’s final chapter, Perloff argues that Beckett correctly recognized Yeats as not just a fellow modernist, but a fellow avant-gardist due to the older poet’s “startling ‘verbivocal’ structures, meant to be heard as well as read” (207). She writes that Beckett, “who had once lampooned his eminent precursor [Yeats], came, in his later years, to understand that real innovation was not a matter of writing free...