David Nowell Smith


It would appear that Daniel Tiffany is on a one-man mission to resuscitate the category of ‘diction’, and for this I salute him. Where poetic ‘form’ would abstract away from the lived texture of speech into prosodic pattern, and ‘style’ describes the distinctive idiom of an individual authorship, diction allows us to trace the ways in which poems articulate, and negotiate, plural, intersecting identities. Diction, in short, is the index of social being, the site of poet and poem’s contact with the world around it.

For what it’s worth, I’m not entirely persuaded that poetic form is simply an abstraction—and similarly, am not sure that the abstraction of the social texture of language into prosodic pattern is quite as analogous with the abstraction of the poem away from social praxis as Tiffany implies. But rather than gripe about definitions of form or formalism, I would like to pursue what seems to me the essay’s most alluring suggestions. Firstly, that diction, and in particular the axis of diction/deixis/index, provides a way of thinking through the social situatedness and indeed social efficacy of poetry. And secondly, that diction thus conceived allows us to reorient poetics (to follow Tiffany’s apparently throwaway but surely far-reaching definition) as ‘the question of how a poem records and engages with the external world’. 

If diction is the meeting place of individual idiom and the social textures of language, then one result is the subjectivities operative within poems are themselves plural. It is striking how many of the contemporary poems Tiffany cites have pointedly heteroglossal dictions. On the face of it, these might seem to rework the montage/splicing techniques of modernist and post-modernist poetics, from The Waste Land or Flarf. Yet the result is a far cry from a poetics of impersonality, or any broader political-metaphysical project that would dismantle the subject. Rather, the collision and intersection of vernaculars, idiolects, languages, becomes a means of figuring the internal plurality and provisionality of the subject itself, dispersed across collectives, identities, modes of sociality. Part of this provisionality lies in what Tiffany calls diction’s ‘prospective functions’: the fact that, as diction works language, it reworks it. The ‘index’ of diction is double: both its source and its destination, not just to be recorded, but also to be engaged with, created and recreated anew.

However, given this is the focus, I am a little perplexed by the definition Tiffany gives of diction: ‘in its barest sense ... vocabulary’, to be ‘conceived simply as word-choice’. Firstly, because it seems so capacious: following the wellworn Mallarméan dictum, a poem is made of words. But secondly, and inversely, because it is too restrictive in its account of how poems mean, and what they do with words.

To take one of the most canonical examples Tiffany cites: the archaic, Spenserian diction of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. To a degree, the diction is signalled by its lexical field: ‘ail’, ‘wretched wight’ (itself a replacement for the less archaic ‘knight-at-arms’), ‘sedge’, and so forth. But surely its particular deployment of ‘diction’ also arises out of its vocative case, a word order full of inversions, even the choice of ballad form... and indeed the cumulative linguistic texture characterised in particular by the interweaving of tropic and prosodic vectors across the poem, such as in the rhyme of ‘ail’, ‘pale’, and ‘lake’, the accumulation of /l/ consonants (ail, Alone, palely, loiter, lake) or the three strong stresses of ‘no bird sings’. In fact, this latter places most expressive force on a word hardly associated with elevated lyric diction: no. The poem’s great power lies as much in the way it endows the humble determiner with such emotional and aesthetic intensity: this, as much as its archaisms, characterises the poem’s ‘diction’. 

Tiffany’s full quote runs: ‘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).’ While he does thus mention the question of ‘how’, what these ‘certain ways’ are is never broached in any depth. To do so, I’d suggest, would involve confronting a category antithetical to much of Tiffany’s subsequent argument, a category intimately linked with diction: voice.

By ‘voice’ I mean both its ‘literal’ sense of the physiological sound production and the figures of voice and voicing that galvanise and haunt poetry, whether through the deployment of tropes of apostrophe and prosopopoeia, or through voice’s metonymic range, where it signifies presence, authenticity, embodiment–or alternatively absence, ventriloquism, spectrality. The lines from Keats display voice in all its breadth as concept for poetics, and as resource for poetry: from its prosodic patterning and the apostrophic address (punning on the ‘O’ as opening of the mouth and excess of speech), to the ‘Belle Dame’ who sang in ‘language strange’, the programmatic absence of birdsong, and the ‘death-pale’ kings, princes, warriors whose ‘starved lips … gapèd wide’ (again, punning on the ‘O’ now as opening of mouth as sign not of breath, sustenance, and creativity, but deathliness and endless repetition).

Throughout ‘Speaking in Tongues’, voice is the category that dare not speak its name. It is nestled there in the punning title, and in the imageries of vernacular and creolised speech, those ‘social textures of language’. It is there in the fascination with fakes and hoaxes, those appropriation of ‘authentic’ speech made possible by new lexicons of slang and dialect (where technologies of writing threaten to uncouple vernacular vocabulary from vernacular speech, making voice into a signifier of a now-lost authenticity). And it is there when Tiffany charts different poems’ attempts to recreate vernacular rhythms and accent on the page as ‘the orthographic imagination’—although the term, revealingly, foregrounds the tensions immanent to writing over those between text and speechsound. Most importantly, voice and voicing are, it seems to me, integral to the poetic thinking operative in many of the poets Tiffany cites as mining a ‘mongrelised’ diction (Cathy Park Hong, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, and Rodrigo Toscano). As he says of these poems, they produce a ‘patchwork diction capturing a precise moment in the evolution of a community’—but, I would suggest, this patchwork operates through competing and intersecting vectors of rhythm and accent, as they converge, collide, combine, in the single vocal line of the poem itself. Theirs is a poetics not simply of multilingualism or heteroglossia, but also of polyphony.

But voice is also surely central to the axis of diction/deixis/index at the crux of Tiffany’s essay. Diction is indexical as it points back to its social texture; it is deictic as it points outwards to the world it addresses. Deictic pointing, it is worth noting, is constitutively self-reflexive: deictic markers such as ‘now’ or ‘this’ or ‘that’ point back to their own moment of utterance, and indeed depend on this moment of utterance for their intelligibility. Deixis thus invariably implies a scene of interlocution: it operates both through literal acts of voicing, and through tropes of vocal contact.

So the question I am left with is: why this silencing of voice, and voicing? In the quantitative lexicology Tiffany outlines, lexemes are, in one and the same gesture, both (a) taken to be indexes of social texture, and (b) extracted from that texture into new concordances, bringing with them new potential combinations. Leaving aside the apparent contradiction here (outside their social texture, does their indexicality even survive?) the aim, Tiffany writes, is ‘a language without qualities ... offering a vulgar reflection of the incommensurable verbal substance underlying the particular wording of countless individual poems.’ By contrast, voices and voicings are tied to a messy embodiment that can’t sublimate into ‘substance’ of this kind. Their indexicality is ineluctably tied to localised social context; but more broadly, their units of meaning are not the individual lexeme, but the intonation contour, the phrase, even the breath... everything that this verbal ‘substance’ would deem insubstantial. 

At one level, my concern is that a diction without voicing becomes untethered from those precise textures and identities which shape diction, and which make diction such a potentially compelling means of reading poems as ‘a linguistic matrix for historicizing the subject’, as Tiffany puts it. But I also wonder what its ramifications are for Tiffany’s aim to reorient poetics around poems’ recording of, and engagement with, the world around them. For verbal substance seems, ultimately, to disengage: indeed, it seems as much based on abstraction as any formalism. To trace in diction the textures of speech it records, but also the modalities of speaking and sensing it opens up, requires less a lexicology than a pragmatics attuned to the micro-gestures through which subjectivity is generated, and complicated, in language.
David Nowell Smith is Senior Lecturer in Poetry/Poetics at the University of East Anglia. He is author of Sounding/Silence: Martin Heidegger at the Limits of Poetics(Fordham, 2013) and Of Voice in Poetry: The Work of Animation (Palgrave, 2015), as well as the co-edited collection Modernist Legacies: Trends and Faultlines in British Poetry Today (with Abigail Lang, Palgrave, 2015), and is currently completing a project on WS Graham: The Poem as Art Object.