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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This interview is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

An Exchange with Daniel Tiffany/Fall 2020 Joshua Weiner
Joshua Weiner: I’m excited to have this opportunity to talk to you, Daniel, because more than any other poet-critic of my generation you’ve pushed at my own thinking about poetry the hardest, mostly by revealing to me the histories of poetry’s materiality. What I think of as a kind of trilogy – Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric (2000) and Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (2009), and My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry & Kitsch (2014) – is really a whole new history of modern poetry, moving in the latter volumes towards an exploration and revival of the concept of diction, which you extended in your recent essay on lyric for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia (2020).

That essay was particularly useful this fall for how it foregrounded some of my initial thinking around Louise Glück receiving the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, which also fed into my reposting of an opinion piece about Glück after the Nobel announcement, that appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (9 October). The piece ran under a startling banner: ‘Kitschalarm, Stufe: Rot’ (Kitsch-alarm, Level: Red). Actually, I found it kind of funny. The subheading reads, ‘In Germany she is almost unknown, in the USA she has received all the important awards. Louise Glück is now receiving the Nobel Prize for her conservative poems. Could there not have been any stronger poets?’ My posting this (on my FB page, October 11) prompted a range of responses, first from you (after I tagged you) and followed by some other poets and artists, in the US and Germany.

I thought maybe we could start there. The opinion piece (not mine) was easy to dismiss because the writer, Tobias Lehmkuhl, a noted critic in Germany, skates journalistically in his cursory attention to the surface of style and motif. He finds Glück’s poetry to be quietist, an apolitical ‘Confessional’ poetry of psychological conflict (albeit with little cathartic process), written in a style characterised by its elemental simplicity and pureness, but without the surrealism that we find in Charles Simic, for example; or she reaches for Classical topoi, but without working it through an experimental approach of a kind that we find in Anne Carson (these comparisons are Lehmkuhl’s). What Lehmkuhl finds objectionable in her work most of all is what he calls ‘gedanklichen Kitscha kind of ‘mental Kitsch’ that is also a sign of ‘Gespreiztheit’ or ‘affectation’. The pique comes to a head with a quote from The Wild Iris (for which Glück won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and is one of the two books of hers – Averno is the other – translated into German, both by the poet Ulrike Draesner).

Of course, there are curiosities to chew on for anyone interested in cultural differences between European and American attitudes towards literature and society and other kinds of freshman seminar subjects. But Lehmkuhl’s piece, however limited it is by its occasion, implies questions that go to the core issue that you’ve been thinking about lately, about diction in relation to form and style; the submerged histories of that tension, between notions of purity and impurity (monstrosity); and as you suggest in one of your responses on FB, to the current culture of writing poetry, its predominant institutional setting, and the kind of reading that is part of an ‘apprentice’ poet’s training curriculum in the various traditions, mostly of lyric.

Thinking about Louise Glück’s poetry in terms of its diction in relation to what we’re hearing elsewhere in the various constellations of diction that light up the contemporary poetry world, are we in a new place in the poetry culture – if so, how would we describe it, how would we recognise it for its difference from the past; if not, in what ways do you find that it’s essentially the same?


Daniel Tiffany: Thanks so much for your comments about my critical work and for drawing attention to this German critic’s sounding of a ‘kitsch alarm’ in relation to the poetry of this year’s Nobel Prize winner. I should probably start by noting that the attribution of poetic kitsch feeds directly into my thinking about diction, as you suggest, an aspect of language integral to any poetic text, but also a critical concept which has lain dormant during a century dominated by formalism (and formal experimentation) in the arts. My evolving attention to matters of diction in poetry of the past and the present has led me to wonder whether we may be in the midst of a prolonged and confusing transition – in the context of poetry – from a century pre-occupied with form to an emergent period grounded in the phenomenology of diction.

The widespread experimentation with diction in poetry today is occurring, disconcertingly, just as academic literary criticism aims to re-assert the importance of literary form as a means of accessing and recording the world outside the poem. Thus, at the very moment when a new generation of literary scholars is seeking to elaborate and extend the premises of modernist formalism in new ways, contemporary poetries in English are vigorously engaged in exploring the ontologies of diction in texts and spoken word, casting new light on questions of diction in earlier periods (an aspect of literary language that is not often acknowledged or examined in the latest models of poetic form).

Ultimately, the elaboration of New Formalism in academic literary criticism today may be less important as a revival of formalist principles than as an energetic but inscrutable memorial to the primacy of form in poetry and poetics of the last century. By contrast, the emergent preoccupation with the expressive powers of diction in poetry anchors a massive interrogation, recovery and documentation of social identity, intersectional identities and even nonidentity. More specifically, the priority of diction in matters of social expression and identity finds its central paradigm in the historical experiments of African-American poets shifting between standardised and vernacular expression – a process of code-switching that continues to distinguish and invigorate that tradition. (The counterpart in the UK would be the history of poets writing in English and Scots or, more recently, English and West Indian dialect.) In addition, more perplexingly, the correlation between diction and social expression resonates with the vocabularistic orientation of computational ‘distant reading’, even as the problem of diction also makes it possible to ask new theoretical and historical questions about the alienated substance of poetic kitsch (with its burgeoning online presence) – and about the manufacture of synthetic vernaculars.

But what exactly is diction? In the most general sense – a reference that can seem impossibly vague at first glance – diction concerns the kinds of language used in a poem and, more precisely, the scope and textures of vocabulary as a general feature of all texts. Typically, we notice the effects of diction only when we read or hear language that originated in a time or place remote from our own (while naturalised diction, or vocabulary, often goes unnoticed). But even ‘standard’ diction, which remains undetectable to its own speakers, will eventually come to seem odd or strange – and may be revealed instantly as such to listeners outside the mainstream. Diction thus becomes evident to us most commonly through varying degrees of incomprehension, obscurity or estrangement. Anachronism, or the use of dialect, or new jargons and lexicons, for example, betray the effects of diction. While poetic diction is formulated under conditions analogous to diction as a general feature of language, poetic diction has historically maintained some degree of separation from larger territories of social diction. But poetry’s renewed preoccupation with diction today is marked by the erosion of this distinction between poetic diction and varieties of social diction. Mallarmé locates this transformational shift in poetic language at the core of a modern ‘crisis of verse’: ‘There is verse as soon as diction calls attention to itself.’

As a vector of poetic crisis, the emergent grounding of diction today might, in contrast to the discourse of formalism, be understood best as a revival of the orientation of philology. Not as an academic method or disciplinary technique, but as an approach to poetry and poetic texts defined by a feeling for language (as Vico reminds us), by desire for language, attraction to language, but also caring for language, in its broadest sense. Yet Friedrich Schlegel’s jarring translation of the term philology as ‘logical affect’ (adjacent to his concept of ‘chemical wit’) points towards a more polarised relation (combining attraction and repulsion) between language (or thought) and feeling. More specifically, as theorists ranging from Norman O. Brown to Werner Hamacher contend, the philological ‘chemistry’ between desire and language takes root in the matrix of poetry: ‘Poetry is prima philologica’ (Hamacher). At the same time, philology, as a longing for language, can only be fully grasped in contrast to the dangerous movement of logophobia: a fear of language, a hatred of language. And yet the fear of language in our own time may be inextricable – via conditions of exile, fugitivity, estrangement and translation – from the wellsprings of philology.


JW: Thanks for slowing me down a bit, Daniel. You’re right to back up and reframe this in terms of diction as a critical problem and to situate it historically. My own introduction to thinking in this way, though, as far as it had an influence on my awareness in trying to write poems is, I’d say, pretty old school: Barfield, Empson and Jo Miles – back in the day Miles put grad students to work counting and tabulating poets’ word choices and frequency of use across historical periods. Those books (Poetic Diction, The Structure of Complex Words and Eras and Modes in English Poetry) helped me understand diction, as such, by critically removing poetic words from the immediate context of sentences in poems and the formal rhythms of verse, which are enchanting and transporting, and sometimes brain-scrambling. Yet each of those critical works had a kind of humanistic touch. The new ‘distant reading’ promoted by Moretti, enabled by computers, hasn’t been much help to me. It seems ‘out of touch’, you could say, with how poems actually work on us. I know that begs a question, but okay.

I hear you making a point that a renewed critical attention to diction distinguishes itself by collapsing differences between poetic diction and other kinds, and that historically this has been a concern situated in modernism: that verse happens with a certain awareness, intention and use of words, regardless of whether or not those words sound as if they belong to the world of lyric poetry. What was a crisis was also a difficult but exciting renewal of a verbal art form by virtue of new words flooding into the poetic field. Poetry as grounded primarily in a love of words calls forth that longing for language you describe.

Turning back round to Louise Glück’s poetry, it’s been helpful for me to think about what American poet I would place opposite her in the uni/verse. Maybe Hart Crane? They’re both quite complex, but in different ways: Crane’s diction is a little decadent; he favors ‘rare’ words; he’s keenly sensitive to diction in its synesthesic values – volume, for example, weight, density, scale: there’s a real sense in his poetry of language as material, and often the sense of the meaning of the poem is very much circumscribed by style itself, which can be opaque: the meaning of the poem is the language of the poem, the holistic experience of the language of the poem. Well, he is a modern Romantic, you could say: meaning is just beyond reach, but you can feel that you’re almost there.

The challenge of Glück’s poetry is not in its diction – which is often elemental, monosyllabic, recognisably lyric – and not in its syntax, either, which is easily graspable: the challenge is in reading the implications of the sentences, the way one sentence opens to the next, and the power of the unsaid, what’s felt in the movement or leap between lines and sentences as much as what’s in them. If you atomised a poem by Crane, and made a collection of his words, thereby removing them from their poetic formal relation to each other, you’d still have some sense of what a poem by Crane might be like; if you did that with a poem by Glück, I don’t think you’d have any idea. In other words, in the first example, focus on diction would maybe rearrange your awareness regarding the experience of the poem, but not remove you from it; in the second case, it really would. Crane’s poetry is vatic and symbolist; Glück’s is psychological. Neither of these poets, however (one a living poet, the other a poet of last century, firmly situated in its history of modernism) comes across as vernacular in their diction; and maybe that’s what my earlier question was driving at. Is current vernacular as it enters, you could say, the vocabulary of poetry, significantly changing the forms of poetry that we’re reading and hearing today? And is a contemporary vernacular a priori not kitsch, whether it comes, for example, from a world of street living or a world of machine language? The question underneath this question has to do with the life of poetry, and what renews it at the level of diction, and how that process happens, which may be a social process, but also a process of intense and wide reading – to not write kitsch, you have to really know what it is, and what it was before it became that. It requires study as well as instinct.


DT: Josh, I’m eager to respond to the particulars of your comparison of the dictions of Crane and Glück. Your opening remarks allude to an article sounding a ‘kitsch-alarm’ at the highest level on the occasion of Glück’s Nobel Prize, and your description of Crane’s diction (decadent, rare, synaesthetic) can be aligned with the common judgment that Crane’s diction is hyperlyrical and therefore susceptible to the vapours of high kitsch. Challenging implicitly the kitsch alarm sounded by the German critic, you find the diction of Glück’s poems to be ‘elemental’ and so conventionally lyrical (or naturalised) that scrutiny of her diction in isolation would (in contrast to scrutiny of Crane’s diction) reveal little about the poems themselves. While it may be true that Crane’s diction contains more eccentric words (which, though they may distinguish Crane’s diction from Glück’s, can still be easily situated within the historical territory of lyric diction), it’s entirely possible that their poems share a matrix of diction that’s quite recognisable – from a different perspective. If we view Glück’s lyric diction in contrast to the diction of other modes of poetry, it becomes quite clear that Glück’s diction is not neutral – and could indeed tell us a great deal about the poems and their social matrix. Compare, for example, two data sets (or concordances) of the ten most common words in hip-hop lyrics in contrast to the least common hip-hop words, and one can detect immediately the distinctiveness of Glück’s diction:

Most Common
hip-hop words
1. Chopper
2. Stunting
3. Flexing
4. Mane
5. Trill
6. Trapping
7. Homie
8. Balling
9. Realest
10. Snitch
Least Common
hip-hop words
1. Sailed
2. Emptiness
3. Sigh
4. Desire
5. Sea
6. Broken
7. Heart
8. Cried
9. Mountain
10. Alone


From these two sets (compiled by ‘distant’ computational reading), we can hear that the least hip-hop words belong – not coincidentally – to the territory of lyric diction as it is employed variably by Glück and many other poets. Hence what first appear to be distinct varieties of diction in Crane’s and Glück’s poems also belong quite obviously to a shared matrix of diction – a pool of language that is rich in social and historical significance (as is, of course, the diction of hip hop).

It is crucial here to note that the scale of vocabulary in hip-hop poetry is vast compared to data sets of other song genres. For example, using data sets of 35,000 words derived from songs by individual poets, the number of words unique to a given hip-hop poet is significantly larger (and sometimes several times larger) than the number of words unique to poets in data sets of songs in the genres of pop, country, or rock songs. In other words, hip-hop poets employ much larger vocabularies than songwriters of any other variety.

And, of course, one wonders what might be revealed by comparisons between hip-hop and lyric poets. At the very least, the seemingly frivolous remark by Kenneth Koch that John Ashbery’s greatness lay in part in the gargantuan scale of his vocabulary takes on new (and puzzling) significance. Should we acknowledge that Ashbery’s historical significance as a poet may be rooted primarily in his renovation of poetic diction? Or, more boldly, should we entertain the possibility that certain correspondences between hip-hop poetry and Ashbery’s sprawling lyrics may be divulged by considering them in light of the territories and tectonics of vocabulary? Thinking about vocabulary might also disclose certain verbal morphologies, or meridians, shared by hip hop and poets such as J. H. Prynne and John Wilkinson, for example, whose vocabularies are especially copious and variegated. At the same time, the framework of diction might lead one to consider the effects of poets whose vocabulary is extremely narrow or limited – a verbal economy which could sustain a discussion about minimalism, but might also lead to consideration of the strangely arrested vocabularies of poetic kitsch.


JW: This is helpful because it raises a confusion of mine. This trend in academic ‘New Formalism’ (not to be mistaken for the old New Formalism in the US that was the expression of a reactionary poetics in the 1980s that sat, in an ideologically overdetermined way, opposite Language Poetries) – this trend in thinking seems to get it totally wrong, in my view. Well, maybe kinda wrong? I mean, form and diction are not the same thing; but is the latter not an attribute or element of the former? Form stands as a kind of holistic notion, in my view, about all the qualities of shape and correspondence and historical meaning of words, associative interactions, tissues of allusion and other kinds of binders, echoes and lexical qualities that contribute to the sense we have of a poem being a verbal object that is powerfully kinetic in initiating apprehensions of fluid material processes that take up space and duration in the mind.

Maybe that’s too broad an understanding to be of much critical use, though; I don’t know. But, for example, it’s this sense of form which seems very much alive in your own reading (in My Silver Planet) of Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’: the way the haunting Dantean image of that first line (‘The apparition of these faces in the crowd’) can join the kitsched out haiku-ey second line (‘petals on a wet black bough’) to constitute a genuine living poetic form. Maybe what really excites me, actually, is the drenched artifice of it; maybe it’s more akin to David Lynch’s kitsched-out Twin Peaks (which I love) than Heraclitus…

But, how do you talk about diction in this instance (crowd; bough) without talking about rhyme (crowd; bough); without talking about form (two accentual trimeter lines and monosyllabic end rhyme to make a couplet; or: Dantean hell image in first line plus Asiatic nature image in second line to create a transhistorical-cultural perceptual complex realised in a flash of intuition (an intuition that is grounded, you could say, in reading the classics)? Is diction here not an aspect of form?

More pressing to me is the question: why might this distinction (between form and diction) be an important understanding with consequences for the reading and writing of poetry? Or: Is this an academic question that really has little bearing on how poetry is experienced?

Maybe I’m being a little snickety here, if not too persnickety. If so, it’s in contrast to how I feel about those hip-hop word sets, which really light my fire! Those columns are so suggestive, and they demand that I entertain the ‘distant’ analysis I was, well, distancing myself from a moment ago. But the experiment is not really fair, either; because you’ve taken words from one conglomerate source (hip-hop lyrics) and sifted that source for two categories, most and least common: but the source is the same for both, and the least common words only imply the character of Glück’s lyric diction. What if we narrowed it down. Here’s the prominent diction from a well-known poem by Glück:
Nouns
moon
flowers
yard
sex
mouth
body
cry
premise
union
mind
tonight
question
answer
sound
selves
antagonisms
scent
orange
window
odor
world
Verbs (minus
    copula)
tell
lighting
hate
sealing
escapes
hear
fused
mounts
see
drifts
rest
Adjectives
paralysing
low
humiliating
pursuing
old
tired
mock
Adverbs
these
always
still

You’re right! Glück’s diction in her poem ‘Mock Orange’ clearly belongs to the column of words least common to hip-hop. Okay, hold on. What if I broaden the sample, not with another poem by Glück, but with a poem by a poet she admires intensely and one we would never associate with the idea or experience of kitsch.
Nouns
beauty
forest
deer
eyes
lips
teeth
grass
roots
mouths
earth
woods
paths
fields
leaves
distances
sun
nouns
faith
Verbs (without copula)
bedding
nuzzle
tear
dangle
scattering
nibbled
shade
hang
crying
startle
stare
Adjectives
small
wild
effortless
soft
alien
small
strange

So, I picked this poem, ‘Psalm’, by George Oppen, because if we set Glück’s poem against his, we might bring a different set of textual evidence to bear on the tension you identify between a lyric vocabulary that exploits the power of an expert minimalism, as you posit, and where I feel you going, in your next step, towards characterising a vocabulary of poetic kitsch. To front load it, my immediate thought is that diction alone cannot really create a kitsch effect; isn’t it diction and syntax together that generates the affect that we identify as kitsch?


DT: Josh, I think I should begin to respond to some of your queries and remarks here by addressing your comment about distinctions between form and diction. Diction could conceivably be regarded as an element of a poem’s form, but only if ‘form’ were understood as encompassing, or equivalent to, all the material aspects of a poem (from prosody and syntax to diction and even spelling or typography). The term ‘form’ would thus simply become a synonym for the poetic artifact in its entirety. This happens to be the model of form adopted (often unwittingly) by many proponents of academic New Formalism – though their ‘descriptions’ of poetic form rarely encompass the features of diction in a text. In this case, what’s called the variegated ‘form’ of a poem has nothing to do with iterability or the possible replication of certain patterns from one poem, or poet, to the next. This holistic, material conception of poetic form is thus entirely at odds with the conception of ‘form’ enabling the history of poetic forms, in which form is conceived as a general model of which there may be infinite examples or versions (a sonnet, for instance, or a terza rima stanza, or iambic meter, or the counting of syllables in tanka and cinquain forms). Form, in this traditional sense, is not equivalent to the material artifact of a poem – indeed, it is not a material thing at all; it is an abstraction, a general model.

A changing modern conception of poetic form has indeed pushed beyond this idealist model of form (a ‘crisis’, as Mallarmé noted, which makes it impossible to say what sets poetry apart, in a material sense, from other genres and media). Poetry in this case becomes whatever ‘form’ a text assumes, encompassing all of its material features. When the term ‘form’ is used in this way, poetry can no longer be identified generically by certain material characteristics (e.g. a text not written in prose). From this perspective, anything can be poetry, or at least poetry’s name can no longer be withdrawn from any sort of textual, performative or graphic production. At present, the tensions between idealist and materialist conceptions of poetic ‘form’ remain entirely unresolved, contributing to a persistent – and productive – incoherence at the very heart of our most basic ideas about the nature of poetry.

Let me now say a few things concerning your remarks and questions about reading the diction of particular poems. A comprehensive analysis of a poem requires, of course, attention to all of its possible features: syntax, prosody, rhyme, imagery, vocabulary and form (in a more restricted sense) – not to mention its possible meanings. But this requirement does not imply that one cannot consider a poem’s diction in isolation: Pound’s slant rhyme of crowd/bough, for example, can be evaluated solely in terms of its diction. The anachronism of the word ‘bough’ clearly marks it as a feature of high lyric diction, while the word ‘crowd’ (animated by controversial theorising about crowds – Gustave Le Bon, for example – during the period of the poem’s composition) introduces (like the word ‘Metro’) elements of contemporary diction into the poem. Indeed, one could say that the incipient and transitional modernism of the poem stems in part from this admixture of diction.

In a corresponding way, examining in isolation solely the diction of poems by ostensibly divergent authors – as you do with texts by Glück and George Oppen – can yield surprising insights, which scramble conventional readings and genealogies. Who would have expected the Objectivist Oppen’s diction – when viewed in isolation – to correspond so closely to Glück’s high lyric diction? This unexpected alignment is precisely the sort of jarring revelation exposed deliberately by the tabulations of words on index cards (a precursor of computational distant reading) carried out by Josephine Miles and her graduate student helpers in Berkeley. Who knew, for example, that Pound’s ostensibly ‘modern’ vocabulary is closer to Coleridge’s diction (as Miles revealed) than to the vocabularies of his modernist peers? But, then again, perhaps the diction of Pound’s modernist peers may not be as modern as it is presumed to be.


JW: I think I hear what you’re saying about diction as an element of style, and the difference between a strong style – by which I mean a strongly individuated feeling for language that indicates something like authorial intention and identity, ‘one’s way with words’ – and form, which is abstract, replicable and shared – shared as practice and shared for being recognisable as such. You and I share the same form of human male body, but you have a recognisable style of standing and moving and speaking that I don’t have. We share a physical form but not a physical style.

The idea of poetic form being essentially formless is appealing because it covers the ground of possibility! I can’t disagree. At this point, for a thing to be a poem, in terms of form, requires, to begin with, at least two people – one person to make it and call it a poem, and another person to agree. There is no essential grounding.

I’m glad you raised the example of the sonnet; that’s really helpful. If you said to me, ‘I just read some sonnets from the English Renaissance’, I’d have a good idea of what the poems you read were like, in terms of their form. Although a sonnet by Wyatt, and another by Sidney, would be stylistically very different, they would be formally very similar; and if I added Spenser and then Shakespeare, I’d still have a range of formal qualities or aspects which would create an instantly recognisable field of form in which each sonnet would have its place. But if you said, ‘I just read some American sonnets written in the past five years’, I’d have no idea of guessing what they might be like, in terms of their form. Because the tradition of the sonnet at this point also includes something like the anti-sonnet, and because ‘the sonnet’ is also an abstraction or concept of form that poets play with, subvert, extend and in other ways experiment with. Basically, you could title anything you might write ‘Sonnet’, and no matter what it was like, stylistically or formally, by virtue of establishing a conceptual relationship to the idea of sonnet as a form, it would be that thing. I see how true that is.

Let me try it. Here’s a poem I’m making up on the spot that let’s pretend someone else agrees is the thing it claims to be:

Sonnet

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose
times fourteen
equals a poem that you cannot think of / not / in relation to the idea of the form.

Works for me! It actually really does. I grabbed the famous line of Gertrude Stein’s (from her 1913 poem, ‘Sacred Emily’) because what word is more saturated with lyric symbolism than the word ‘rose’? It screams Kitsch Alarm. But that’s precisely why Stein grabs it – in order, in a sense, to refute it.

One does feel this kind of tension in Renaissance poems, too, of course; they are modern also in that sense. When Donne opens Holy Sonnet 14, with ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’, he is clearly thinking hard about diction as a way to awaken the form of the sonnet as profane love poem to sacred love poem. And he does it by bringing together the diction of warfare (batter) with the diction of love (my heart) with the diction of Christian theology (three-person’d God).

I guess that’s why I turned to Oppen’s ‘Psalm’, as well. I see your point, that looking at the diction, as we’ve isolated it, in Oppen’s poem and in Glück’s ‘Mock Orange’, is startling for what it suggests that these two poets, so different from each other, share in terms of their relation to lyric kitsch. But there’s one word in the Oppen list that perhaps disrupts the poem’s constellation of lyric diction; it’s the least lyric word in his poem, and the most mysterious, in how it’s used: the word is ‘nouns’. ‘The small nouns’, he writes, ‘Crying faith’. In a way, the poem is a song that evokes the sacred (‘Psalm’) and the idea of the divine in relation to our language, our poetic language, our ‘nouns’, our awareness of the words as words. In a way, it’s the perfect poem for thinking about diction because it seems, on at least one level, to be a poem about diction. My point is that the value I’m discovering in the attention to diction, per se, that you’re advocating, highlights precisely how Oppen’s awareness of the lyric register is very much a part of how he complicates conventional lyric form, and escapes kitsch. (Does he escape it? I want him to escape it!) Thinking about diction in this isolated way, through the experiment of putting the poem’s words into function sets, returns me to the more holistic reading of form that I was gesturing towards earlier. Or at least I’d like to think so. Maybe I’m wrong about that though. I guess my big question here is, how do we practice the lyric in a way that recuperates a diction that, after all, are the words available for signifying our most elemental existence?


DT: I do agree that the word ‘nouns’ points Oppen’s diction, at least for a moment, away from the more lyrical diction he shares with Glück (which is what triggers the ‘kitsch alarm’ noted by the German critic). And your reference to the correlation, and differences, between style and diction helps us to return to the task of bringing the category of diction into clearer focus. It’s reasonable to suggest, as you do, that diction is an ‘element of style’, but only if diction can be directly shaped and manipulated by an individual – that is, if it possesses a performative dimension. But it’s crucial to emphasise the basic difference between the two: diction pertains to a collective and therefore trans-personal dimension of language, whereas style is more commonly associated with distinctive features of an individual author. The nonsubjective character of diction provides a matrix for the most nuanced and immediate expression of collective social being in a poetic text.

Diction may become visible, or even influenced, by individual performance – as when a poet experiments with received diction (African-American vernacular, for example), or adopts speech that is entirely outside his/her own social history (an act now associated with cultural appropriation) – but the verbal substance of diction always derives originally from collective experience. More precisely, diction becomes manifest in particular vocabularies arising over time from shared, but also isolated, historical experiences: the contours of diction may be determined by race, class, geography, age, gender, vocation, level of education, media exposure or any restrictive domain of sociality.

Even something like poetic diction – a mutable vocabulary associated with lyric poetry – comes into being through a similar process of social accretion. Lyric diction is cultivated and preserved by the circulation and recirculation of canonical poems over centuries amongst poets who form an evolving, generic vocabulary rooted in those poems (hence the poetry workshop’s function as an institutional site for the inculcation of poetic diction). This echo chamber of reading, in which poets of diverse backgrounds acquire, both deliberately and unconsciously, a generic ‘poetic’ vocabulary, helps to explain why poets as ostensibly different as Oppen and Glück use language in ways that exhibit the habituated effects of lyric diction. At the same time, by contrast, this model helps to explain how poets who, by circumstance or by deliberate evasion, develop outside this echo chamber may introduce vocabularies that deviate from the pool of lyric diction – and may come to alter significantly the characteristics of that reservoir.

From this perspective, poetic kitsch can then be defined quite precisely as issuing from an extreme concentration of lyric diction in an individual poem: a distinct verbal texture – easily detectable – which accounts for other properties often associated with kitsch but usually described in psychological or rhetorical terms: generality, sentimentality, superficiality and even stupidity. The lyric diction of poetic kitsch becomes so stereotypical, so formulaic, so clichéd, that the distinction between style and diction, between the individual and the collective, simply collapses. Poetic kitsch engenders a verbal matrix where the guise of subjectivity harbours its opposite, where the personal becomes impersonal – and where style truly becomes, strictly speaking, an element of form.

In this sense, the language of kitsch is genuinely monadological (to use Leibniz’s paradigm) – windowless – an instrument of solipsistic perception which can offer knowledge of the world (or personal interiority) only through the reverberations of a language which has no relations with either the external world or the inner life of subjectivity. The language of poetic kitsch is thus a language without qualities; it emerges from the echo chamber of lyric diction, distilling that vocabulary to the point of maddening redundancy – kitsch is a broken record – in order to describe feelings, experiences, histories which, although familiar, become strangely unreal, unfamiliar, through the hyper-lyrical diction of kitsch. From this perspective, kitsch – the most common form of poetry, we must admit – appears to resemble in its effects and even at times in its verbal posture the insular and enigmatic precinct of Symbolist poetry.

The fact that the aesthetic problem of kitsch first arose in the context of poetry in the early eighteenth century (and not in the visual or decorative arts, as one presumes today) marks kitsch as a problem associated with the genre of poetry in particular – a crisis of generic insularity and enclosure. One could even say that lyric poetry fell into a lengthy, troubled sleep during the eighteenth century, eclipsed by the manufacture of its sinister double, poetic kitsch. More specifically, the toxic profile of poetic kitsch – tautology, fraudulence, sentimentality, meaninglessness – emerged in the context of lyric poetry’s troubled incorporation of ‘vulgar’ languages (under the guise of the so-called ballad revival) and through a series of spectacular forgeries of ‘folk’ poetry (the ‘lullabies’ of Mother Goose, for instance). The enduring correlation between the falsehood of kitsch and the actual forgery of ‘strange vernaculars’ means that the problem of kitsch continues to be implicated in poetry’s ongoing incorporation of marginal languages – in its fabrication of synthetic vernaculars (reminding us that all vernaculars may, to some degree, be synthetic). In this sense, poetic kitsch could be regarded as the archetype of a modern paradigm of corrupt ‘minstrelsy’ and even – absent the parodic and murderous intent – as the forecasted blackface of lyric poetry.

In a nutshell, the vocabulary of kitsch is therefore integral to lyric poetry – from the meanest to the most exalted lyric – and can easily be detected in the matrix of lyric diction (though it may remain inscrutable to most eyes). As a purely verbal phenomenon, kitsch is thus the alienated essence of lyric diction, converted into a verbal substance that is at once toxic and beguiling. This genetic relation between high lyric and poetic kitsch helps to explain the submerged ‘family resemblance’ linking the poetic diction of Glück, or even Oppen, to the wellsprings of poetic kitsch.

From this perspective, the attribution of kitsch in poetry can never be a simple term of disapproval or contempt – referencing an isolated sphere of degraded lyric – since the verbal substance of kitsch is inseparable from the vocabulary of the most exalted lyric poems. The language of a poet like Keats, for example, or Glück, oscillates between profundity, or subtlety, and fakery, since it teeters on the divide between high lyric diction and poetic kitsch. Indeed, the toxic substance of kitsch is detectable, to varying degrees, in all lyric poets.

The relation of high lyric to poetic kitsch may therefore be described as homeopathic – a cure that is a residue of the disease it seeks to eradicate. Or that dynamic could, in a more scandalous sense, be inverted: poetic kitsch aims to ‘cure’ high lyric of its hagiographic self-regard. This dreadful and unacknowledged genetic relation helps to explain why kitsch remains an object of excruciating shame and disgust in the context of poetic evaluation and why the attribution of kitsch still retains a savage vigour in defense of ‘serious’ poetry (while kitsch has been provocatively ‘turned’ and subtly incorporated into the context of other arts). That an artifact often associated with indulgent and childish pleasures should be regarded by poets as utterly contemptible reveals that kitsch may be the prototype of art that elicits a fatal ambivalence, which Sianne Ngai attributes to a new set of disorienting ‘aesthetic categories’, each of them teetering between affection and disgust. From this perspective, kitsch may even be, as Adorno woundingly suggests, the future of art.


JW: But I love that adverb stuck to Adorno – it speaks to the ugly affect connected to kitsch. And yet that shame and disgust – I’ll cop to those feelings! My teeth were cut on a modernism for which kitsch was derided and its presence suppressed – that affect seems dated now, too, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t one sense of the post-post-post-of whatever it is we’re in, an absence of that affect? That kitsch becomes just another quality, a kind of thread to be worked into the weave of a singular style, or a modality of montage? Still, I feel that Adorno is wrong about the future of art, though his future may already be our immediate past: within the bell jar of a theoretical projection, the teleology is delectable; but in fact the resourcefulness of writers, especially poets, responding to the world, is continually replenished in practice by the language, because the language is always in a state of change. ‘For last year’s words belong to another language,’ as Eliot writes, ‘And next year’s words await another voice.’ (‘Little Gidding’). The texture of poetry’s upper limit, of music, is determined in part by its lower limit, of speech (Zukofsky). That’s why I keep coming back round to the question of vernacular, which you’re also alluding to in those poets who deviate from that diction pool of lyric.

But here I am skating over the surface of my deep dis-ease, which is what you’ve put your finger on and pressed hard: that the lyric – let’s call it the genuine lyric – often contains that toxic substance of kitsch. Your mention of Keats brings me to that awareness; because there is often something faintly ridiculous in Keats – for example, the presence of ‘faerie’ in ‘Nightingale’ – that is, for me (as much as I adore Keats) like a fingernail on the proverbial chalkboard. (I think Jane Campion captures this duality in Keats quite well in her film.) Please allow me to make a jump here and press forward by tagging back to a preoccupation, split into two parts: 1) if the vocabulary of kitsch is integral to the lyric, and persists over time, what do you think is the future of the lyric – how will the lyric continue to thrive (rather than lapse into total kitsch)? and 2) considering Lehmkuhl’s criticism of Glück, how do you think translation interacts with the apprehension of kitsch?


DT: Let’s start with the important question of whether the modernist conception of kitsch (if not the term itself) may already be outdated, irrelevant. The possibility that kitsch – since the term itself first came into circulation during the 1920s as an indispensable counterpoint to modernist priorities – may now be an anachronism, as you suggest, depends on what art form one is considering and, more specifically, on that art’s relation to popular culture (that is, whether kitsch continues to function as an illegitimate relay between high and low culture).

As a specifically modern aesthetic category that often functions like a necessary but ill-defined placeholder – however familiar the term may be – the shallowness and latency of kitsch continue to produce certain kinds of mental ‘cramps’ or blind spots in our thinking (especially about poetry). For the visual and decorative arts have incorporated the affective and curatorial pleasures of kitsch to a degree that kitsch may indeed in those contexts be received in a post-critical manner – as one possible style among many.

But this tolerance and affection for kitsch is nowhere to be found in evaluations of contemporary poetry, where the term ‘kitsch’ is one of the most derogatory (and condescending) things one can say about a poem. The only exception to the virulent hatred of poetic kitsch among poets today – aside from the massive wave of Instagram poets, who don’t even recognise their work as kitsch – may be found in the poetry and manifestos of Johannes Göransson and amongst poets sympathetic to his polemic. Precisely because the unremitting hatred of poetic kitsch harbours a vulgar repertoire of taboos and verbal anathema, Göransson and other poets of the rhetorical abyss subject the bane of kitsch to a relentless process of transvaluation. Yet this process fails to escape the snare set by kitsch, which continues blithely to exercise its maddening allure, at once cuddly and contemptible.

One of the most despised properties of kitsch stems from the fear that poetic kitsch arrests language, as you suggest, making it impossible for the diction of poetry to develop and incorporate new words and phrases, to remain historically engaged. Kitsch is the final stage of the reification of lyric vocabulary. In this sense, poetic kitsch is often equated with a kind of verbal stupor – and even with intellectual, emotional and poetic stupidity. Indeed, conceived as a state of unknowing, stupidity continues to be essential to models of the poet as a nonreflective or neutral platform (ranging from Romantic to documentarian profiles). To examine and exploit the perversion of kitsch necessarily involves, then, addressing plainly the conceptual trap of stupidity (attempts to understand stupidity induce stupidity) and its volatile resources.

By arresting language, however, kitsch exercises a subversive power that is easily obscured or misunderstood –
but essential to some of the most basic social and aesthetic functions of language. The social isolation and circulation of certain words and phrases within a specific context – arresting language so that it may be repeated – finds a poetic analogue in the lyric refrain. And the logic of the refrain therefore supports the emergence and continuity of social identity, of the tribal bonds of community: distinctive vocabularies or phraseologies (anchored in the experience of race, class, place, age, vocation and so on) whose iterability helps to hold communities together over time. In fact, the stereotypical modality of poetic kitsch, with its capacity to manufacture clichés and insinuate them into common speech, may also reflect poetry’s most concrete political aptitude, the production of mottoes, axioms, battle cries and slogans: ‘Black Lives Matter’, the ‘#metoo movement’, the ‘99 per cent’ – not to mention the frequently violent verbal tags and memes of right-wing online culture.

More narrowly, the diction of lyric poetry is, as I have indicated, a historical formation of arrested, or stilled, language. This concentration of language, at once specialised and generic, gradually becomes a kind of interruption – which may function as a social or political tool, a speech act, or even as a kind of event. Under these conditions, language interrupts itself, alluding to the encroachment of silence (as a refuge of critique, reflection, or even disengagement) into the verbal matrix of poetry. Adorno’s glancing remark about kitsch as the future of art (testing the dialectical wisdom of the philistine) echoes Walter Benjamin’s promotion of the poetics of the cliché, which gives priority to the social expressivity of kitsch (in terms of collective identity) and, also, to poetry’s narrow but forceful capacity to operate on a mass scale. At the same time, the prospect of arresting language through kitsch resonates with the militant refrain of a general strike, a linguistic and political caesura, evoking a phenomenological bracketing of experience inherent in the structure of paradise.


JW: I like the idea of ending our thinking here together on the word you land on, paradise. It returns me to two poems that are linked historically, both of which I rather adore – Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ and Ralegh’s ‘The Nymphs Reply to the Shepherd’ (1600) – and I wonder if it suggests an antecedent tributary to the eighteenth-century stream of kitsch you map out with such startling detail in My Silver Planet? Ralegh’s nymph in a sense gives the lie to Marlowe’s shepherd by identifying his kitsch diction, a pastoral fantasia of ‘valleys, groves, hills, and fields / and woods’ (and oh, don’t forget the ‘steepy mountains’), all of which she knows is crap, and which she flings back in his face: those ‘coral clasps and amber studs’, ‘belt of straw and ivy buds’, ‘finest wool gowns’, ‘slippers’ and ‘buckles of the purest gold’ – all that stuff that Marlowe’s shepherd tries to seduce her with, she knows it’s all fake and she calls him out. But at a meta-level, it’s Ralegh who knows that Marlowe’s pastoralism, caught in that diction, is really what’s fake. And he’s calling out the whole tradition. Well, that didn’t stop poets from imitating Marlowe, again and again, through the decades and centuries (maybe Day Lewis finally ended it with his parody of 1935). For Ralegh and his disabused nymph, joys – the joys of the body and the joys of a particular diction, perhaps, as well – do have due dates, just as she argues: they don’t last forever, and only a fool would think otherwise. But our desire to stay in the garden of the lyric doesn’t seem to die, even when we stumble on a human skull.

This interview is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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