Speaking in Tongues: Poetry and the Residues of Shared Language


Close Writing

Something peculiar is happening these days in the worlds of contemporary poetry and academic scholarship about poetry and poetics: these two domains, so closely linked in many ways, are taking starkly different approaches to the social and political functions of poetry. This divergence is not really a matter of political orientation; much of the scholarship I have in mind, which falls under the rubric of New Formalism, shares with certain highly visible trends in contemporary poetry a commitment to advancing the ends of social justice (in terms of race, class, and gender) and addressing the looming ecological crisis of the Anthropocene. Rather, the disagreement between poetry and scholarship pertains to matters of poetics—that is, to the question of how a poem records and engages with the external world. Consequently, as they set about developing dissimilar models of poetry’s involvement with social and political conditions, poetry and cutting-edge scholarship seem to be heading down different paths, often without acknowledging that this bifurcation is taking place, the latter reviving attention to nuances of form, and the former increasingly preoccupied with matters of diction.

Today, the worlds of contemporary poetry and academic scholarship about poetry and poetics are taking starkly different approaches to the social and political functions of poetry, the latter reviving attention to nuances of form, and the former increasingly preoccupied with matters of diction.

In literary studies today, one can hardly turn around without bumping into the word “form.” Over the past ten years or so, dozens of articles and books have contributed to a growing body of literary analysis acutely attentive to the formal nuances of a text, a loose set of methods often referred to as the New Formalism. Sceptics view certain proponents of this new approach to literary form as facilitating a simplistic return to the category of the aesthetic, as proscribing analysis of social and political conditions–and even resisting altogether the orientation of critique–thereby promoting a doctrine of disengaged “surface reading.” From this perspective, the New Formalism could be seen as attempting to revive the reflexive orientation of modernist formalism: a model of art or poetry that turns away from the world. Yet a good portion of the criticism associated with New Formalism is concerned precisely with getting beyond this reflexive, or solipsistic, conception of literary form—with understanding how form engages directly with external worlds. To this end, some formalist critics today are developing an alternative, transactional model of literary form, often associated with poetry, which presumes direct contact between an artifact’s form and the world that is external to it, between the formal aspect of a poem and “the outside.”

Diction in its barest sense pertains to vocabulary: to the kind, or kinds, of words used in a poem, and how this vocabulary is shaped in certain ways (by syntax, for example). If style conveys traits of an individual author or speaker, then diction transmits distinctive features of collective or shared identity.

For some leading figures associated with New Formalism, “form explains everything.”[1] One could certainly agree that form in poetry pertains to certain basic features of any poem: whether the text is lineated or in prose; the length of lines and their distribution across the page. More technically, form pertains to prosody: stanzaic structures, alliteration, assonance, meter, rhyme. Form could also be said to encompass the juxtaposition of different media, digital textuality, and even modes of textual distribution. These modalities of form are usually evoked by a consistent set of critical tropes, falling within the figurative horizon of terms such as structure, shape, pattern, part, juxtaposition, scale, arrangement. But does this rhetorical constellation really explain everything about the way a poem functions? Can dialect in a poem, for example, be effectively described in terms of its “parts” or “pattern,” slang in terms of its “structure,” or vocabulary in terms of its “shape”? Would it be sufficient to explain the diction of a poem by referring to its formal “arrangement”? The unsuitability of these terms to assessments of diction is confirmed by the inattention to diction commonly found in literary analysis oriented around various conceptions of form. Formalist criticism, though it might claim to explain “everything” about a text, often displays an apotropaic relation to matters of diction, inadvertently leaving essential aspects of the text largely unread in its practice of close reading.

Is it possible that new thinking about form today in academic criticism treats form as if it were style—or, more accurately, as if form possessed the expressive powers of diction? 

Diction in its barest sense pertains to vocabulary: to the kind, or kinds, of words used in a poem, and how this vocabulary is shaped in certain ways (by syntax, for example). If style conveys traits of an individual author or speaker, then diction transmits distinctive features of collective or shared identity, of particular linguistic communities. In this sense, a poem’s diction is more than a matter of word-choice; it also betrays the involuntary, or unconscious, social textures of language associated with various communities. Thus, if we understand diction as a dimension of vocabulary conveying–in contrast to style—the shared residues of social identity, then diction cannot possibly be construed as a specialized or restricted phenomenon. Diction is in fact an elemental verbal platform of every poem or text, but it often subsists in present discussions of poetics only as a kind of unheard, or at least unacknowledged, background music to a poem’s form, style, and possible meanings. From this perspective, diction in poetry functions today essentially as a province of etymology: a forgotten genealogy of meanings, connotations, and historical conditions—a field that is hiding, nevertheless, in plain sight. As a result, the most palpable evidence of poetry’s capacity for social expression tends to operate for many critics today only at a subliminal level of textual analysis—even if poetic practice uses diction as an essential platform for historical expression and experimentation.

As we understand it, diction–conceived simply as word-choice–pertains so broadly to all texts that it may not seem to describe anything in particular about a poem, as if diction were not useful as a critical category: it’s too general, too abstract, too broad. Yet our inability today to recognize or define the nature of diction, to use it as a critical tool to help us understand poetry (or the worldliness of a poem), may stem from certain historical inclinations and ideologies shared both by modernist formalism and by the New Formalism: a longstanding suppression of critical attention to the properties of diction, a tendency to think of “everything” in terms of form. And, with regard to the New Formalism, the neglect of diction is surprising, since much of the work in this new field seeks to illuminate a poem’s relation to the external world. Bearing this lapse in mind, one wonders whether recent attempts to demonstrate how the relative abstraction of form can convey particular features of external worlds might arise from a confusion of critical categories: is it possible that the new thinking about form treats form as if it were style—or, more accurately, as if form possessed the expressive powers of diction?2

The word “diction” serves as the nucleus of a constellation of terms such as prediction, addiction, contradiction, interdiction, but also, dictionary, dictation, predicament—not to mention words such as index, ditto, ditty, and digital.



My intention in this essay is not, however, to explicate the New Formalism, or to analyze at length the present tension between academic formalism and the poetics of diction. Rather, my goal here is to cobble together a working definition of the critical category of diction; to refresh our understanding of how diction operates in a poem: to recuperate a way of treating the language of poetry which has lain dormant in the shadows of modernist formalism for over a century. Diction offers, as I indicated earlier, a vivid index of real-world identities shaping the verbal matrix of a text. The field of words constituting a poem–its diction–is rooted in various social characteristics interpolating a poem’s author and its speaker(s): race, gender, economic class, age, geographical region, vocation, and habits of consumption. And these intersectional identities are signaled by a wide range of verbal clues: vocabulary, syntax, idioms, slang, specialized jargons, spelling, grammatical proprieties (or improprieties). Style and diction contribute to the expressive function of a text—suspended between music and meaning–whether expression pertains to individual existence or to historical identity as collective experience. More narrowly, taking into account the full range of poetry’s powers of abstraction and concreteness, diction falls somewhere between the generality of form and the idiosyncratic signatures of style.

With regard to poetry in particular, the concept of diction pertains to a register of language associated specifically with a historical model of the presumedly heightened experience of lyric poetry. More concretely, poetic diction can be equated with an evolving vocabulary of particular words and phrases appearing occasionally but consistently in countless poems throughout the history of lyric: the category of a specifically poetic, or lyric, diction. The belief that the heightened experience, emotion, or reflection associated with lyric should find expression in a correspondingly heightened register of language has produced over time a reservoir of lyric diction (rooted in the language of prayer, hymns, and scripture, but also in the verbal legacy of classical antiquity), which is characterized, variously, by a taste for unusual words, circumlocution, abstract nouns, figures of speech, archaism, adjectival enrichment, and sentimental phrasing. A few lines from “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats (whose verse often echoes Spenser, Shakespeare, and other canonical voices) exemplifies the flowery sort of diction we associate with canonical lyric—an especially vivid indication of the way poetry has historically set itself apart from languages of conversation and prose: “O what can ail thee, wretched wight, /Alone and palely loitering? /The sedge is withered from the lake /And no bird sings.” The influence of this sort of poetic diction can be found across the entire lyric tradition, well into the twentieth-first century, enveloping poets from many different backgrounds, as this brief “epitaph” by the African American poet Countee Cullen (entitled “For John Keats, Apostle of Poetry”) attests: “Not writ in water nor in mist, /Sweet lyric throat, thy name, /Thy singing lips that cold death kissed /have seared his own flame.” Nor does this genealogy of heightened poetic language end with the apparent anomaly of a twentieth-century African American poet adopting Keats’s diction (itself a synthesis of countless lyric “voices”): some poets today–even poets associated with the vanguard–are adopting a curatorial stance towards this sort of artificial diction, disfiguring but also repurposing it, and mixing it with other sorts of diction (as I will discuss in a moment).

For poets and critics writing in English, lyric diction first became a distinctive problem in the eighteenth century, when controversies arose in the context of the so-called ballad revival, concerning the introduction of dialect, folk songs, and vernacular language into the lyric tradition. 

For poets and critics writing in English, lyric diction first became a distinctive problem in the eighteenth century, when controversies arose in the context of the so-called ballad revival, concerning the introduction of dialect, folk songs, and vernacular language into the lyric tradition. The paradigm of this debate—first articulated by Aristotle and continuing to the present day–centers on the question of whether the language of poetry should involve the use of “strange” words and phrasings (from a variety of sources) in order to continue to maintain a distinctively poetic diction, or whether poetic diction should generally echo a more “common” language associated with conversation and prose. Because the verbal materials at the center of the earliest controversies in Britain derived from various marginal communities (illiterate peasantry, for example, or the demimonde), these historical debates served as the starting point for the hypothesis that poetic diction could be associated not only with the lyric tradition, but with the speech of various obscure communities and their social histories—that is, with collective social identities.



The hazy borders of the territory of poetic diction shift continuously over time, but once the social textures of vernacular languages began to make permanent inroads into the domain of lyric diction (through the influence of “border ballads”), one could detect a continuous and volatile struggle between the habits of lyric diction (with its own submerged connotations of social identity) and numerous sources of vernacular expression, which reveal more explicitly the capacity of poetic diction to serve as a vessel of collective identity. In the African American tradition, for example, one witnesses major poets code-switching—even within individual poems—between high lyric diction and black dialect (itself a variegated and evolving language). One finds a poem such as Paul Dunbar’s “When Malindy Sings” (with lines such as “G’way an’ quit dat noise, Miss Lucy– /Put dat music book away”) juxtaposed with another poem of his (“Dawn”) which betrays (like Cullen’s writing) the influence of Keats: 

An angel, robed in spotless white,

Bent down and kissed the sleeping Night.

Night woke to blush; the sprite was gone.

Men saw the blush and called it Dawn.

Juxtapositions of lyric diction and vernacular expression can be found as well in individual poems, as in these lines from “Strong Men” by the African American poet Sterling A. Brown:

       They huddled you spoon-fashion in filthy hatches,

       They sold you to give a few gentlemen ease.

You sang: 

          Bye and Bye

          I’m gonna lay down dis heaby load....

Or in these stanzas from “After Winter” by Brown:

       He thinks with the winter

       His troubles are gone;

       Ten acres unplanted

       To raise dreams on....


      “Butterbeans fo’ Clara

       Sugar corn fo’ Grace

       An’ fo’ de little feller

       Runnin’ space....”

The African American poetic tradition offers, as these passages suggest, one of the most enduring and complex genealogies of relations between lyric diction (sometimes aligned in ways with Standard English) and vernacular expression, between diction as a verbal signature of the dominant lyric tradition and as a turbulent emblem of social and collective identity. Similar transactions between dominant and vernacular languages have developed as well, of course, in many historical “scenes” of absorption or resistance (often shaped by colonialism) within the poetic tradition.

The incorporation of vernacular speech and “vulgar” diction into the elite poetic tradition is a historical process every bit as turbulent and consequential as the earlier incorporation of classical languages, yet seemingly endless in its manifestations and effects.

Transactions between lyric diction and vernacular expression continue to evolve in many kinds of poetry today. I want to offer some examples of this kind of contemporary writing, along with a few comments, but this work deserves much closer attention than the framework of the present essay will allow. For instance, the admixture of verbal “mongrelitude” in Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s poems (and Jos Charles’s more recently) combines elements of archaism, slang, and deliberate misspelling–a feature of what one might call the orthographic imagination—as a way of modeling the turbulence of “trans” and mixed-race identities (including Native American).3 Brolaski calls this poetic practice “the act of transing.” In a poem that reflects on the alienated conditions of this verbal trance, Brolaski offers a lengthy, prose divagation (and confession) about “banned poetry words”–an embargo on high lyric diction–embedded in a poem that is also bewitched by what Brolaski calls poetic “kitsch”—the very sort of diction condemned by the poem:

       slip up and get creped like suzette

       travelong to thir erstwhile milieu

       steeped in toxins

       ever flushing xem out....

       so many telltale infernal tickings

       I knew I had to stop writing nonsense.

And the poem confesses its disgust for some of the language it uses to build its own voice:

       and I used a poem w/ all the banned poetry words, poetry, angels,

       filament (fear of saying ’thread’), aperture (fear of saying ‘hole’)

       rococo, chiaroscuro

       especially fucking aperture, most banned poetry word.

One should note that the list of “banned poetry words” here includes the word poetry.

Sanctioning the word “poetry” here equates poetry with the high lyric diction alternately deployed and condemned by the poem itself but also, by implication and by contrast, with the enigma of the “plain style” in poetry (an emblem of the poetics of “ordinary” language): the nondescript standard of contemporary lyric diction against which Brolaski’s charivari sets itself. And between Brolaski’s mongrel diction and the so-called plain style one finds the entire historical spectrum of lyric diction (a topic for another essay). In fact, because of its lengthy genealogy and its popularity today, the category of the plain “style” actually denotes a primary zone of poetic diction. One could offer countless examples (by many different poets) of the plain style in poetry, but here is a characteristic example of it in a poem by Matthew Zapruder: “I almost hear/ a silent bell/ low voices/ I brought us here/ to this old city/ the port connects/ to the world/ where everyone/ pretends to know/ they live/ on an island/ waiting for/ the giant wave/ in some form.” The manufactured simplicity, or neutrality, of the plain style (as much a fabrication as the variegated textures of high lyric diction) coincides with the fact that the communal identity of the speaker seems to be wiped clean, even masked by the ruse of individuality. The plain style imagines itself, quite magically, as operating without the social characteristics of race or class: a blank voice. But the plain style is an enigma only to itself.

The ancient debate about the complexion of poetic diction continues today in conflicts between poets of the “plain style” (or “ordinary” language) and poets advocating a more variegated and even motley diction.

By contrast, as I have indicated, variants of the mongrel diction exemplified by Brolaski’s writing can be found in the work of many poets today. For example, the spangled pidgin synthesized by Cathy Park Hong becomes what she calls a kind of “Desert Creole”: 

       De ebening es mine, starry as himbo’s

       bubble, de evening wit stars en grid, starry ya?

       Stars ideation en dome, me vocal twills in dome, listen—


The solitude of the echoing voice here evokes the communities that shape the patois uttered by the speaker, but the mongrelitude of the voice also appears to be situated in the middle of nowhere, or at the crossroads of many worlds. By contrast, the pidgin used by Lois-Ann Yamanaka in her poems stems directly from the working-class Hawaiian/Japanese community of her upbringing:

       and Laverne Leiloha calling us snipe

       cause us Japanee and we get rice eye

       she say. Then her and her friend write

       S-N-I-P on the road with white chalk

       they wen’ steal from school.


       Us dunno is he teasing us

       SNIPE for Japanee or

       SNIP for our boy hair.

Yamanaka’s recording of her girlhood patois is triangulated between Japanese, Hawaiian, and the dominant White “talk,” which she frequently transcribes as well: “Hello, Richard? How are you?/ Oh, I’m just fine. How is school?”

The cross-currents of the poetic vernacular are also intrinsic to a much larger body of work, to the bilingualism of many Latinx poets, as in this garbled dialogue by Rodrigo Toscano:

           Excuse me?

           Tha’ vahnahnah    …    go-een to keel joo.

       I’m sorry, I don’t understand.

       O’ káy. Sô    …    vahnahnah haf sostahnence, nô?

       Uh —

       O’ káy. Ees troo if  joo haf sostahnence, joo problee leev anothe’ thay?

       I suppose so, look —

       Alrigh. If  joo ee tha’ vahnahnah, joo weel be leeving ôp a-hed, righ?

       Yeah alright, so?

Or this Spanish/English tableau by Natalie Scenters-Zerpico:

       we are muy lejos de dios, but we love

       los united estates. I don’t wash laundry with cakes

       of Jabón Zote, because my macho

       takes care of me good. I bring my macho

       Nescafé, American made, because he’s a citizen

       de los united estates.

Here the warp (and weft) of languages produces a patchwork diction capturing a precise moment in the evolution of a community.

One might conclude that the primary function of diction, or hybrid dictions, in these poems is to record a vernacular rooted in the past. Perhaps even more important, however, are the prospective functions of diction in poetry: its ability to rework languages at risk of being lost to the homogenization of media and education—and even to invent new synthetic tongues. These complex functions can be found in the contrast between Hong and Yamanaka, but it also underlies the astonishing brio of Latasha Diggs’ palimpsest of idioms and languages:

       Where’s your flying rug, homie?

       Yama-uba bored, my agents gonna reward nada.

       I shuffleboard smooches in the land of the rising sun’s cosplay, papa.

Or the weave of Shane Book’s proverbial and many-tongued sampling:

       Mama said for safety we wander.

       I remember different lands...

       Put a notch in a lion.

       I learned serum full a fool that’s large:

       how to wield bladed 

       phrases, bang 

       the proverb stick.

       Higher abhorred words weirdly near inured

       me from getting bashed, an “um”

       so dense shimmer designed

       could brain the louchest tête.

The gap between the levels and provenance of dictions shuffled in Book’s poetry is especially dizzying—an indication not merely that disparate idioms can be mingled in expressive ways, but that poetic vernaculars are at once indigenous and performative, drawing their materials from many sources.

Regarding the subtlety of its expressive powers, diction falls somewhere between the generality of form and the more idiosyncratic signatures of style.

The complex sedimentation of diction evident in the writings of poets of color assembled here documents the basic social conditions of verbal expression within such communities, which inevitably involve switching back and forth between different registers of language. At the same time, similar experiments with disparities of diction can be found across the entire spectrum of social and poetic identities, including many white, or Anglo, poets. For instance, vigorous poetry continues to be written in various forms of Scots, or mixtures of Scots and English, by Tom Leonard, Jackie Kay, W. N. Herbert, Tom Scott, among others. In addition, one finds efforts to recover Anglo-American immigrant voices, framed by a heightened awareness of class conflict and white supremacy, in Linda Norton’s attention to working-class Boston/Irish speech, or in Abraham Smith’s hash of white Southern dialects. In narrower frequencies, one hears Frederick Seidel’s vicious mimicry of the lingo of the 1%, or Susan Wheeler’s ventriloquism of white, Midwestern, suburban idioms. The poetics of diction also provides an indispensable framework for thinking about the tonal “inequalities” and mottled vocabularies invigorating the sounds of whiteness in British poetry over the last half century (centered in Cambridge or London, or Northern England): Bill Griffiths, John James, Veronica Forrest-Thompson, Tom Raworth, Geraldine Monk, John Wilkinson, Steven Rodefer; as well as younger poets such as Drew Milne, Andrea Brady, Sean Bonney, Keston Sutherland, and many others. 

 Many of the disparate references I offer here—with inadequate attention to their many nuances!—involve not only multiple registers of diction within a single language, but multiple and distinct languages (as is the case with certain strands of Latinx poetry, noted above, which may be the most far-reaching practice of hybrid diction in contemporary American letters). Multilingualism in poetry today is entering a period of vigorous experimentation and theoretical amplification–often associated with renewed commitments to the practice and theory of translation–as one finds in the writings of poets such as Erin Mouré, Cia Rinne, Christian Hawkey, Uljana Wolf, Henk Rossouw, Sawako Nakayasu, Caroline Bergvall, and M. NourbeSe Philip.



Disregard for the poetic and social ontologies of diction in the shadow of Modernist formalism has been so pervasive for so long that the existing vocabulary for assessing the nuances and effects of diction has become shockingly primitive. A similar forgetfulness shrouds the phenomenon of verbal tone. Thinking about diction (and tone) in poetry is largely dormant today (even when a poem’s diction is loaded with expressive clues). Aside from Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction and Donald Davie’s Purity of Diction (along with brilliant outliers such as Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral, Susan Stewart’s Crimes of Writing, and Jeff Dolven’s Senses of Style), the most important work on diction in poetry has been done by literary historians of the eighteenth century, a period when poetic experiments with vernacular languages, operating as a counterpoint to the evolving standardization of English, disrupted the continuity of the lyric tradition (a process shaped as well by “alien” verbal infusions triggered by colonialism). For example, Janet Sorensen’s book, Strange Vernaculars (focusing on “eighteenth-century slang, cant, provincial languages, and nautical jargon”), examines a formative, historical debate about whether folk and marginal languages—assimilated in bits and pieces through intersecting experiments in 18th-century poetry and lexicography–should be viewed as the hidden springs of native English, or as something alien to Standard English.

If diction can be faked–if, in other words, it can become the object of harmful appropriation– should a poem’s diction still be regarded as an emblem of authenticity in the poetic formulation of identity?

The more pointed question of whether vernacular or “mongrel” languages can retain their verbal and political alterity, or whether they risk being incorporated (as commodities) into the hegemonic structure of Standard English, and hence politically neutralized, remains vital to the analysis of the poetic vernaculars of any historical period. The dangers of verbal fetishism and political neutralization are not, however, always acknowledged by the few contemporary theorists working on the problem of poetic diction today. By contrast, Juliana Spahr’s treatment of multilingualism in vernacular poetry in her critical study, Dubois’s Telegram, remains boldly attentive to complex registers of diction—and to the failure of vanguard poetry to maintain its autonomy in the face of insidious nationalism. Yet, the term “diction” never appears in her book, a symptom perhaps of the Modernist repression of the topic—even in scholarship aiming to probe the poetic, social, and political valences of diction.


Pointing, Signing, Overhearing

Thinking about the concept of diction can be enriched by careful attention to the word itself, which first entered the vocabulary of poetics in 1586, when Philip Sidney described diction, curiously, as the “out-side” of poetry (a term that could be placed in dialogue with Foucault’s notion of “the thinking of the outside”—but also with the status of “outsider” language and “lawless” expression). In Sydney’s model, diction therefore exists at the edge of a poem, on its borderlands–the medium of poetry’s extremities–but also as something that is intrinsic to the poem: an aspect of exteriority that is always already inside the poem. Hence diction, as poetry’s “out-side,” maintains a tangential relation to what falls literally outside the poem: diction “touches” the world, and vice-versa, even incorporating it over time, converting it into an element of poetic interiority.

More broadly, the word “diction” serves as the nucleus of a constellation of terms such as prediction, addiction, contradiction, interdiction, but also, dictionary, dictation, predicament—not to mention words such as index, ditty, ditto, and digital. The core word “diction” derives from the Greek deixis, referring to the action of pointing, or “pointing to” (hence digit and index finger). The theorist Francesco Giusti claims that deixis constitutes the irreducible act of a lyric poem: the simple gesture of pointing to something outside itself (thereby hypothesizing a relation between a poem and the outside).4 From this premise, we might conclude that diction, as a primary expression of deixis and the gesture of pointing, corresponds at some level to the activity of manual signing–that is, to “mute speech” (borrowing Rancière’s phrase)–which suggests that the deixis/diction axis may provide a key to understanding how the practice of deaf signing involves some of poetry’s most basic functions (thereby opening a dialogue between poetics and disability theory). At this conjunction, we discover that diction (the elaboration of the social textures of language) sustains an unbroken yet perhaps inscrutable link to silence—a silence existing both inside and outside of language. In addition, the ongoing transactions between saying and doing, speech and action, become manifest through diction, through deixis, thereby disclosing an affinity between poetic diction and speech act theory, emphasizing not only what a text means, but what it does.

Illuminating this axis of enhanced but also restricted communication, “index” has been used at times as a word meaning spy or informant. From this perspective, the function of diction, and poetic diction in particular, pertains to gathering or producing “intelligence” about a distant object–however close it may be–a world that is out of range, or behind a wall, though not perhaps unknowable. Deixis thus operates at the crossroads of the seemingly contradictory actions of signing and auditing, addressing and spying, of drawing near and withdrawing. Sounding the expressive powers of diction, what one might call the indexical turn in poetry today oscillates between these two axes, between the close at hand and the remote, between concreteness and abstraction.

The vocabulary of semiotics also helps to isolate and amplify a crucial aspect of diction. As a foundational term in linguistics, and as an emblem of proximity, the indexical sign (”index” in the terminology of Charles Peirce) appears to collapse the distance between sign and referent (between the poem and the outside). An index is a type of sign with an unequivocal, physical relation to its referent—a relation so close that the sign is actually a material residue of its referent, a relation hinging on the exteriority of a word, but also disclosing its substance. The indexical sign thus bears direct evidence of the thing to which it refers: the mark of a tire tread on the road, a gunshot, cigarette ashes in an ashtray, or a photograph (in its most rudimentary, haptic operation). From the vantage point of linguistics, the use of explicit verbal “deictics” (“here,” “there,” “now”) seeks, by gesturing towards objects, to situate them more emphatically in the context in which they are uttered, thereby enhancing the immediacy of the object. Accordingly, poetry, in its capacity for “indexing” things in the world, sometimes claims (as it does today concerning expressions of collective identity) to possess a special authenticity and immediacy. Increasingly, lyric poetry likes to think that it wields certain indexical powers through the medium of diction. If one is searching for poetic evidence of the world possessing the immediacy of gunshots, cigarette ashes, and tire marks, the diction of a text–its indexical aspect–is a good place to look.

Viewed, however, from the perspective of auditing or spying–in contrast to the axis of nearness and proximity–to index poetry implies that one is overhearing it (not hearing it directly or immediately)—and, indeed, overhearing the world. Overhearing something (in the complex ethics of listening) suggests that one is listening without the permission, or even awareness, of the speaker (almost spying, one could say). Yet, for poetry, the predicament of indirection is less inhibiting than one might suppose, since one of the most enduring definitions of lyric poetry (at least since the early 19th century) equates it with the experience of overhearing: Northrop Frye’s famous dictum that poetry is “utterance that is overheard” echoes John Stuart Mill’s assertion of 1833 that “eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard.”5 Hence, from this perspective, conceiving of poetry as language that is overheard bears a surprising correlation, as I’ll explain in a moment, to lexicography and the functions of various indexical tools, which produce bodies of intelligence by surveying words at a distance. 


Kitsching the Canon

The indexicality of the remote and the overheard pertains to questions about poetry’s relations with the world, but it also characterizes a certain type of artifact, or poem, which abandons entirely the immediacy of the verbal particular: poems whose diction compels the distance between the artifact and the world to become absolute, without contact of any sort between the two (approaching the inwardness, or solipsism, of form). Poetry of this sort–certainly the most common type of poetry, one must acknowledge–is unoriginal, stereotypical, and therefore hyper-generic; its formulaic diction, imagery, and sentiments epitomize the lyric tradition, but tell us nothing about the particularity of the world or about the interior life of individuals. Poetry of this sort, which is characterized in every instance by its hyper-lyrical diction, may be described as poetic kitsch: a distillation of countless clichés deployed at once by the greatest and the meanest of poets; an artifact so thoroughly conventional in its diction that it defies particularity and nuanced analysis. In its complete withdrawal from actual experience of any sort, poetic kitsch produces a sense of unreality comparable to the rarified and nebulous abstractions of Symbolist poetry: a mysterious domain—a social mystery in the case of kitsch—exposed by token language. 

Trying to make sense of the generality of poetic kitsch, when style and diction lose all specificity, one is confronted by an artifact whose diction—to return to the boundary of form and style—approaches the abstract powers of form. When poetic diction begins to act like form, it becomes a language without qualities, a language that turns its back on the world, on the details of individual experience. Perhaps this is what Baudelaire had in mind when he declared that his ultimate poetic ambition was to “invent a cliché”—a goal that Walter Benjamin aligned with “the condition of every future poet.”6 The perverse, totalizing inclination of these comments suggests that the most typical lyric poem issues not from the swerve of originality but from the echo chamber of language that is twice-made. In the tedium of the formulaic one discerns the objective (and thoroughly alienated) condition of lyric poetry. The equation of mediocrity and lyric substance extends, and indeed pushes to its breaking point, T.S. Eliot’s already shocking thesis of minority, which holds that minor poetry is the very essence of the lyric tradition (precisely because of its lack of originality).7  


The Indexical Turn

To review briefly the model of diction that I’ve been sketching here, the indexical turn now reshaping the horizons of Anglophone poetry (and even some literary criticism) oscillates between the axes of the heard and the overheard, the close-up and the remote, expression and surveillance. The first axis (pertaining to the indexicality of proximity and expression) is oriented around contemporary commitments to sociality, mutuality, and solidarity—an inclination seeking new relational models of immediacy and circulation amongst individuals, but also between divergent communities and even between species (or other entities). One discovers at the core of the indexicality of closeness a paradigm of what could be called close writing, pertaining both to social relations and to the artifact’s proximity to actual experience. The indexicality of nearness looms behind the contemporary fascination with archives—and, especially, the subcategory of the intimate archive. In the context of the archival, the drive to find new ways of presenting evidence of various social identities can occur through the representational tactics of narrative and testimony. But the poetic manifestation of collective identities (and their history) also takes place, crucially, as an expressive act anchored directly in the speaker’s language–at once idiosyncratic and communal, producing a sense of immediacy that lies beyond the more abstract powers of poetic form. By using, adopting, adapting, and even inventing certain words and phrasings, groups bound by shared historical conditions produce distinctive verbal fields and networks. Traces of collective experience rub off on these words and locutions. Social being thus produces indexical signs, in a quite literal sense, leaving direct, material traces of its operations on certain words.

A powerful inclination to focus on diction as the expressive substance of social identity is emerging at the same time that new quantitative methods of distant reading–fixated on words and phrases–are being developed in computational methods of literary criticism. 

The second primary axis of the indexical turn, aligned with the phenomenology of the remote, is discernible in new computational models of reading, which reconfigure the elements of primary texts–of poems or novels–through applications of detached or isolated attention (a development aligning poetry with the tools of positivism in unprecedented ways). The computational methods of the digital humanities–what Franco Moretti calls “distant reading”–demonstrate a structural affinity with the vocabularistic ontology of diction.8 Distant reading engages with texts, or large data sets of texts, primarily through the properties of diction. The emergence of powerful new technologies of reading also draws attention to the submerged correlation between artifacts and tools, between primary and secondary sources. The expressive modality of diction–a dimension of the poetic text operating at the level of individual words and combinations of words–is thus markedly responsive, structurally, to quantitative methods of distant reading, a development marking the convergence of the indexicalities of proximity and distance, expression and surveillance. 

Understanding the correlation between computation and the expressive turbulence of poetic diction requires that one identify the historical grounds of the standoff between poetics and positivism (a topic so thoroughly polarized that it has been cast into the shadows of scholarship and theory). The historical confluence of rationalism and linguistic turbulence can be traced to the eighteenth century, where the problem of poetic diction coincided historically with growing public interest in native vernaculars but also with the birth of modern lexicography. It’s not surprising then that the present meaning of the word “diction” (which can be traced to Dryden’s use of the term in 1685 to mean a particular “choice of words” in a poem) arose just prior to the convergence of the Enlightenment invention of standardized dictionaries and the colonialist conditions of Anglophone English. In addition, the revival of native, archaic ballads spurred the poetic incorporation of obscure dialects and jargons (often propelled by scandalous incidents of literary forgery). And this appropriation of “vulgar” or folk diction flourished alongside the invention of new kinds of dictionaries–indexical tools of unprecedented power–which sought not only to standardize English vocabulary and spelling, but to document these native vernaculars, both archaic and living. And the word “lexicography” stems, we should recall, directly from the term used by Aristotle to refer to diction and poetic language: lexis.



As a rationalized tool of distant “surveillance,” the eighteenth-century dictionary indexed and disseminated (as a companion to poetry) the expressive materials of marginal languages, even as it functioned as the primary disciplinary tool in the formation of a standardized national language. The incorporation of vernacular speech and “vulgar” diction into the elite poetic tradition—an event every bit as turbulent and consequential as the earlier incorporation of classical languages, but also seemingly endless in its manifestations—found in the dictionary a rationalized apparatus of popular consumption and mediation. As a result, the appropriation of archaic (and invented) dictions in countless ballad imitations, which introduced a new expressive immediacy to lyric poetry, cannot be isolated from the dictionary’s remote monitoring of various registers of the English language (and primary texts). Simultaneous demonstrations of rationalism and poetic expressionism therefore became contingent on one another, providing a vigorous historical template for transactions today between indexical surveillance and verbal immediacy, distance and proximity.

A paradigm recalling the eighteenth century’s integration of lexicography and the poetics of diction, of rationalism and expressionism, appears to be taking hold in the twenty-first century.

New kinds of dictionaries and glossaries appeared throughout the eighteenth century, offering a vivid record of the entanglement of lexicography and the poetics of diction. Lexicons became more comprehensive and structured to enhance their “searchability” (as an aid to research). Rationalist priorities gradually transformed archaic “word books”—random, or sometimes topical, collections of words—into more rigorous and comprehensive lexicons organized alphabetically. This period saw the publication of early dictionaries of Standard English–culminating in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1755–but also an array of innovative and popular glossaries surveying “vulgar” languages: slang, vocational jargons, and provincial vocabularies. In addition, the Enlightenment paradigm of research, anchored in the very structure of these new tools, dictated that construction of marginal identities in poetry would involve experimentation with the resources contained in these new glossaries—just as, today, the construction of identity in documentary poetry sometimes involves uncovering (through archival research) historical vocabularies which become the basis of an autobiographical lexicon, or the inverse: personal speech becoming a symptom of collective, impersonal utterance–a linguistic matrix for historicizing the subject. 

The structural effects of rationalism on these new tools were profound and unmistakable, yet even the most highly organized lexicons of the eighteenth century found it virtually impossible to resist arranging, quite promiscuously, different “languages”–both vulgar and polite–in a single lexicon. In addition, these corrupt lexicons often tendered fanciful commentary on archaic, or little-known, “internal” cultures (peasant life, for example, or the demimonde), explaining their connection to the expressive potency of obscure vocabularies. What’s more, the sudden appearance of marginal languages in new glossaries was accompanied by poetic experimentation with canting vocabulary and old ballads (sometimes involving forgery), seeking to incorporate these “strange vernaculars” into the precincts of elite poetry. In today’s world, the mainstreaming and commodification of hip hop vocabulary replicates this complex relation between elite and marginal cultures–or the inversion of such hierarchies–not to mention the incorporation of vernacular speech into a wider spectrum of lyric (like the examples of contemporary poetry that I offered earlier).

Concerning the popular consumption of lexicons in the eighteenth century, it is crucial to emphasize that, although one might suppose that they were employed as secondary texts, as reference tools, to aid in reading primary texts in various marginal languages, this is not at all the case. Because the popular reader did not often have access to actual editions of canting lyrics or “border ballads,” these eccentric glossaries of folk vocabularies were avidly consumed as primary texts—at once highly accessible and unprecedented in their hybrid forms. From this perspective, readers consumed these unorthodox texts (similar to the “word books” antedating the modern dictionary) by simply dwelling on curious collections of obscure words, garbled definitions, and fanciful commentary—a new kind of readership which assimilated the presumed rigor of lexicography to more familiar habits of reading lyric poetry. The lyricization of the lexicon thus reciprocated the influence of new glossaries on lyric poetry, revealing a genuinely transactional structure in the evolving discourse network of the eighteenth century. 

These eighteenth-century experiments in diction—at the intersection of lexicography and poetics, of rationalism and expression—frequently became the occasion for bitter disagreements and even scandal, especially concerning a constellation of spectacular poetic forgeries produced in the 1760s: the notorious and influential Ossian hoax (giving voice to a fictive Gaelic bard); the first edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies (a spurious collection of folk “lullabies”); and Thomas Chatterton’s literal fabrication of medieval manuscripts of poetry (a scandal precipitating the suicide of their teenage forger in 1770). Even Percy’s monumental anthology, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, was plagued by rumors of invented sources. Although each of these works (along with others) were embroiled in accusations of forgery, their archaic (or archaicized) diction was often derived from materials made available by the new lexicography.


Fabrication & Appropriation

These “crimes of writing” raise questions about whether diction can function reliably as an index of collective social identity. If diction can be faked—-if, in other words, it can become the object of harmful appropriation–should a poem’s diction still be regarded as an emblem of authenticity in the poetic formulation of identity? Curiously, the practice of fabrication, potentially marked by the taint of fraudulence, only enhances the social expressivity of diction. The susceptibility of diction to forgery, or appropriation, is in fact a basic feature of its capacity for exposing patterns of social conflict and shifting priorities in the spectrum of identity. The possibility that the expressive substance of diction can be faked–demonstrating the performativity of the vernacular–actually confirms its potency as an index of social identities, conflicts, and desires, setting it apart from the generality of form. Poetic form, unlike diction, cannot be faked; earlier references to the danger of confusing style and form help to explain why this is so.  The abstract nature of form precludes the social and stylistic “fingerprint” that makes forgery possible. One could no more fake the form of a sonnet than produce a forgery of the number 2. Only the style and diction of a particular sonnet—which possesses specific personal and social characteristics—can be faked.

Diction may serve as evidence of authenticity in the presentation of identity, but it can also operate, even when it is faked, as a powerful register of social fears, desires, exchanges, and conflicts.

The idiosyncratic vocabularies of particular communities can indeed be appropriated by outsiders and presented fraudulently as the verbal matrix of a poem’s speaker (a practice revealing the performative aspect of the vernacular and inciting new controversies today about cultural appropriation). But, instead of undermining the correlation between diction and expressive potency, the possibility that diction may be faked or appropriated only enhances its function as an index of submerged social identities–and conflicts of identity (between the forger, for example, and the community in which the prized verbal medium originally developed). Diction may serve as evidence of authenticity in the presentation of identity, but it can also operate, even when it is faked, as a powerful register of social fears, desires, exchanges, and conflicts. In other words, whether diction is authentic or fabricated, it always expresses real social relations and transactions occurring in society (which encompass the forger’s particular motives).

Having introduced entirely new and even “alien” sources of diction to lyric poetry, the transactions between lexicography and poetics in the eighteenth century ultimately focused on the question of whether poetic language should be like, or unlike, “ordinary” language (which can be defined in various ways)—that is, whether it should, or should not, employ a mixture of common and “foreign” words (what Philip Sydney calls “monsters” of diction)—often stemming from dialect or slang.  Augustan poets like Pope and Johnson scorned the intrusions of the vernacular, advocating what Donald Davie calls “purity of diction,” associated with a newly formulated conception of “common” language. Thomas Gray, by contrast, seeking to aggregate the newly fashionable resources of the vernacular with elements of a more elevated lyric diction, declared that “The language of the age is never the language of poetry.”9

The terms of this eighteenth-century debate about poetic diction fed directly into the earliest formulations of Romantic poetics, contained most famously in Wordsworth and Coleridge’s volume of Lyrical Ballads—a title encapsulating and advancing eighteenth-century impulses to integrate the folk and vernacular materials of the ballad revival into the lyric tradition. Even so, in the celebrated “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth (unlike Coleridge) ridiculed Gray’s “inane phraseology,” in contrast to his own commitment to a poetry grounded in “a selection of the real language of men” (a position echoing the preferences of the Augustan poets). 

Wordsworth’s statement reminds us that the fight over the nature of poetic language was also a fight over control of the emergent formation of the poetic vernacular: should the diction of poetry be regarded as a purified version of the everyday language of the middle classes? Or as an assemblage of eclectic tongues combining elite diction with the archaic resources of folk songs, along with the Anglophone residues of linguistic colonialism? This ancient debate about the complexion of poetic diction continues today in conflicts between poets of the “plain style” (or “ordinary” language) and poets advocating a more variegated and even motley diction, layering disparate registers of language drawn from idiomatic speech, literary phrasing, dialect, pop culture, slang, high theory, and specialized jargons of all sorts: an amalgam of common and unfamiliar words (as Aristotle described the ideal–and idiosyncratic–diction of poetry).

A paradigm recalling the eighteenth century’s integration of lexicography and the poetics of diction, of rationalism and expressionism, appears to be taking hold in the twenty-first century. A powerful inclination to focus on diction as the expressive substance of social identity is emerging at the same time that new quantitative methods of distant reading–fixated on words and phrases–are being developed in computational methods of literary criticism. Although the correlation between these two developments is not yet clear—they seem to be quite isolated from one another at the moment—both exhibit, as I noted earlier, a preoccupation with diction and vocabularistic approaches to textuality. 

Efforts to describe and comprehend these new approaches to poetic diction (and their uneasy relationship) sometimes fall back, however, on existing formalist paradigms, thereby impeding more accurate assessments of these developments. Marjorie Perloff, for example, argues that the procedures of textual appropriation integral to Conceptual Poetry today (which are pertinent as well to archival and curatorial methods in contemporary poetry) essentially recapitulate and revise the experimental forms of modernist poetry by adopting new digital practices. This kind of attenuated formalist analysis only obscures, however, the fact that the procedures of appropriation are best understood not as experiments in form, but as disruptions and expansions of poetic diction (which revive anxieties about forgery and identity theft).11 To similar effect, Franco Moretti misconstrues his own computational models of distant reading by characterizing them as products of “quantitative formalism”—when in fact the various projects he sponsors, and the data sets they produce, rarely describe or interrogate the form of a text, per se (focusing instead on vocabulary and word usage).12 The heightened susceptibility of diction (unlike form) to computational reading and indexical surveillance is structurally related, one must emphasize, to diction’s innate susceptibility (again, unlike form) to appropriation and forgery.



In poetry these days, by contrast, one is less likely to find the poetics of diction, close writing, or distant reading equated with formalism.  The shivaree of online appropriation and constraints associated with FLARF poetry, for example, deliberately tracks the ellipsis of the indexical turn, even as it calls to mind a long history of experimentation involving lexicography and lyric poetry.12 One such project, Harryette Mullen’s book, Sleeping with the Dictionary, loosely adopts the apparatus of the dictionary in order to convert it into a primary text: a garbled, poetic lexicon–an assemblage of syllables–recording the sleep of reason. Mullen conducts her playful experiments by activating correspondences between poetic alliteration and the alphabetic organization of the dictionary. Arranged in alphabetical order, her poems frequently push the lexicographical sequence into a stutter, even as she breaches the authoritative confines of the dictionary by mixing “standard” English with African-American idioms and contemporary slang. One can therefore hear the title of her book gesturing towards a more profane ethos of fucking with the dictionary—coupling with it, but also toying with it, messing with it. In contrast to the lexical digitalia of FLARF poetry (which could be described as sleeping with the internet), Mullen’s performance of close writing (and too-close reading) adumbrates a specifically African-American lexicology.

The sampling techniques used by FLARF poets, which mine new territories for their scavenger aesthetic, expand the poetics of diction by re-purposing (and deliberately mishandling) digital resources, but poets have always been involved in developing new techniques of literary concordance and the “tabling” of words. For example, the procedures of distant reading and network mapping associated with Franco Moretti’s Literary Lab point to word-counting and analytic methods first explored by the poet and literary scholar Josephine Miles and her student collaborators at UC Berkeley in the late 1930s.  These innovative verbal tabulations stemmed from the collaborative (and tactile) labor required to produce index-card concordances and quantitative descriptions of poetic language. One contemporary critic described Miles as approaching poetic language (and the external world) from the perspective of “the middle distance”–the basis for what one could call a “tabular view” of poetry.13  In addition, poet and prosodist Adelaide Crapsey’s early-twentieth century tabulations of monosyllabic and polysyllabic words in English poetry contributed to mappings of word-length which revealed secrets about diction as well as metrics.14 To similar effect, Miles’s counting of “major adjectives” in English poetry uncovered, for example, a submerged genealogy (entirely at odds with received ideas) of what could be called Gothic diction, tracking “Coleridge’s ballads of night and strangeness” into the congeries of Pound’s Cantos.15 

The historical process of indexing poetry, or lyricizing the lexicon, veers from poetry to scholarship to technology and back again. A tabular view of the poetic tradition anticipates not only the “pamphlets” issued by Moretti’s Literary Lab (on topics such as “style at the scale of the sentence”), but innovative projects today in a more popular vein, such as concordances to the vocabularies of hip hop or heavy-metal or emo lyrics.16  Complementing historian Mike Chasar’s attention to what he calls the “everyday reading” of poetry–on billboards, matchbooks, and TV, for example–these non-scholarly lexicons of popular song lyrics begin to approximate–with their flamboyant mixture of tabulation, meme aesthetics, and curatorial mapping–the eccentricity of eighteenth-century glossaries of marginal languages.17 Like the earlier lexicons, these pop concordances function at once as secondary tools and as eccentric primary texts, read by fans for pleasure, by critics for diagnostic purposes—and prized by poets as word-hoards of unorthodox diction.

Trying to make sense of today’s convergence of technological rationalism and poetic expressionism from the standpoint of diction requires attention to the historical but seemingly unavowable correlation between poetics and modern positivism.


Magical Positivism

Trying to make sense of today’s convergence of technological rationalism and poetic expressionism from the standpoint of diction requires attention, as I have noted, to the historical but seemingly unavowable correlation between poetics and modern positivism. In recent poetry, this dialectic shapes, for example, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s collection, Travesty Generator, where lyric and vernacular dictions are shuffled into refrain-like structures by digital algorithms, which become manifest textually as well in the “diction” of computer code—a medium of typographical obscurity working alongside the conventional filters of lyric and vernacular obscurities. From this perspective, the oscillating indexicalities of distance and proximity, abstraction and concreteness, reason and expression, operate “at the crossroads of magic and positivism” (Adorno’s contemptuous phrase for Walter Benjamin’s critical methods of deliberate superficiality—an approach vehemently denounced by Adorno: “That spot is bewitched”).18 More narrowly, the vectors of poetic indexicality point towards a model of post-rationalism outlined in Leszek Kolakowski’s conception of the “alienation of reason”— a moment when positivism dismantles itself, transformed by a radical and indeed interminable self-critique, converting all knowledge into unknowing, thereby offering a glimpse of what a productive poetics of rationalism might actually look like.19

One detects the index of magical positivism as well in the logical fairy tales of Lewis Carroll, especially the scene in Through the Looking-Glass where Humpty Dumpty tries to explain to Alice the poetics of the portmanteau word that serves as the focal point of Carroll’s most famous poem: “Jabberwocky.” More precisely, since the poem is written in ballad stanzas (and sometimes uses archaic spelling as a clue to its garbled etymologizing), its title–the name of a monster which becomes a synonym for the poem’s nonsense–can be viewed as an emblem of the expressive obscurity of the vernacular languages curated and distilled from the garbled echo of lyrical ballads (which served as a historical catalyst for experiments in poetic diction). Even more surprising, the opacity of Carroll’s false balladry—the poésie pure of jabberwocky—autocorrects at some point (via the mechanism of tradition) to the maddening transparency of poetic kitsch: the ultimate distillation of the lyric genre. What’s more, the phraseology of poetic kitsch actually arrests the language of poetry, becoming a language without qualities, thereby offering a vulgar reflection of the incommensurable verbal substance underlying the particular wording of countless individual poems.

Advancing the poetics of diction, nonsense, and kitsch one step further–and applying Carroll’s magical positivism to recent thinking of Sianne Ngai’s–one might ultimately wish to characterize the poetics of indexicality as a blueprint for what she calls a gimmick: a thing whose operation is at once too easy and conspicuously labored.21 In this sense, the concept of the aesthetic gimmick developed by Ngai exposes the disparate aspects of poetic diction: the fraudulent allure of expressive immediacy harnessed to the gadgetry of computational reading and writing—to the unwriting of lyric.




1 Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian, “Form and Explanation,” Critical Inquiry, 43:3 (Spring 2017), p. 650.


2 A lively debate on the dangers of confusing form and style can be found in a public exchange of views between Frances Ferguson, “Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form,” Modern Language Quarterly, 61:1 (March 2000), pp. 157-180; and D.A. Miller, Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 17, 53, 57-60. Frances Ferguson, “Now It’s Personal: D.A. Miller and Too-Close Reading,” Critical Inquiry, 41:3 (Spring 2016), pp. 521-540.  Miller also coins a phrase—“close writing”—that I allude to in my argument. See Aaron Kunin’s review of this debate in his book, Character as Form (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), p. 19, and following.


3 The materials and techniques evident in Brolaski’s book, Of Mongrelitude (Wave, 2017) first began to appear in his book, gowanus atropolis (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011). A year earlier saw the publication of Caroline Bergvall’s Meddle English (Nightboat, 2010) as well as Daniel Tiffany’s The Dandelion Clock (Tinfish Press, 2010), a volume of “pocket rhapsodies,” in which each short poem begins with sampled lines of Middle English lyric, which in turn summon phrasings of vernacular speech from Huckleberry Finn and other sources.


4 Francesco Giusti, “Temporalità liriche. Ripetizione e incompiutezza tra Dante e Caproni,

Montale e Sanguineti,” California Italian Studies, 8:1 (2018).


5 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 249. John Stuart Mill, “What is Poetry?” (1833), Essays on Poetry, ed. F. Parvin Sharpless (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), p. 36.


6 Charles Baudelaire, “Fuseés,” Oeuvres completes, ed. Claude Pichois (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), p. 662. Walter Benjamin, “Some Motifs on Baudelaire,” Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1979), p. 98.


7 T.S. Eliot, “What is Minor Poetry?” (1946), On Poetry and Poets (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1967). See also his essays on Dryden and Marvell.


8 Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013).


9 The Works of Thomas Gray, ed. Edmund Gosse, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan, 1903), p. 108.


11 Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), pp. 12-14.


12 Moretti, working with four co-authors, first uses this phrase in the inaugural pamphlet of the Stanford Literary Lab to characterize the general project of distant reading. Sarah Allison, Ryan Heuser, Matthew Jockers, Franco Moretti, Michael Witmore, “Quantitative Formalism: An Experiment” (2011):  https://litlab.stanford.edu/LiteraryLabPamphlet1.pdf


13 See Craig Dworkin’s new book, Dictionary Poetics: Toward a Radical Lexicography (New York: Fordham University Press, 20202). And, on the correlation of lexicography and recent experimental poetry, see, for example, Giles Goodland, “Long Poems About Everything: Dictionary as Subject and Model for Poem, 1974 – 2016,” in Poetry & the Dictionary, eds. Andrew Blades and Piers Pennington (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019).


14 Robert Beloof, “Distance and Surfaces: The Poetry of Josephine Miles” Prairie Schooner, 32:4 (1958-1959), p. 276. Cited in Rachel Sagner Buruma and Laura Heffernan, “Search and Replace: Josephine Miles and the Origins of Distant Reading,” Modernism/Modernity, April 2011, https://modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/search-and-replace


15 See essays and poems by Crapsey in Adelaide Crapsey: On the Life and Work of an American Master, eds. Jenny Molberg and Christian Bancroft (Warrensburg: Pleiades Press, 2018).


16Josephine Miles, Eras and Modes in English Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957, 1964), p. 107. Cited in Buruma and Heffernan.


17 Matt Daniel and The Dataface, “The Language of Hip Hop” (2017), https://pudding.cool/2017/09/hip-hop-words/  Elsewhere, Iain Barr tabulates the diction of heavy metal lyrics: “Heavy Metal and Natural Language Processing” (2016), http://www.degeneratestate.org/posts/2016/Apr/20/heavy-metal-and-natural-language-processing-part-1/  And Matt Daniels spreadsheets the diction of Emo lyrics: “Quantifying Emotional Lyrics in Emo Rap vs. Dashboard Confessional” (2018),  https://pudding.cool/2018/08/emo-rap/


18 Mike Chasar, Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).


19 T.W. Adorno, letter to Walter Benjamin, November 10, 1938. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940, eds. Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 582.


20 Leszek Kolakowski, The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought (New York: Anchor Books, 1969). One could also begin to think through a model of the relation between rationalism and poetics by considering Daniel Heller-Roazen’s treatment of the correlation between the negative particle, non–the expansive and destablizing effects of negation in language–and what he calls the condition of “infinite naming.” Daniel Heller-Roazen, No One’s Ways: An essay on Infinite Naming (Cambridge: Zone Books, 2017).


21 Sianne Ngai, “Theory of the Gimmick,” Critical Inquiry, 43:2 (Winter 2017), pp. 466-505. My wording here is channeling several of Ngai’s own descriptions of the gimmick concept.




Daniel Tiffany is a prize-winning poet and theorist based in Los Angeles and Berlin. He is the author of five volumes of literary criticism (from presses such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Chicago) and five collections of poetry, including (under the signature of Blunt Research Group), The Work-Shy, published in the Wesleyan Poetry Series in 2016. His latest project, a book-length poem entitled Cry Baby Mystic, will appear in the Fall of 2020. He is a recipient of the Berlin Prize, awarded by the American Academy in Berlin.  danieltiffany.com