Friday, May 31, 2024

39 Books: 2022

"Hölderlin...asked only that we accept silence as the one meaningful syllable in the universe."

This line from Paul Stubbs' remarkable essay collection The Return to Silence is not an epigram to Marjorie Perloff's Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics, but it might have been.

After being invited to talk about Eliot's Four Quartets, about which she is not overly keen except for parts of 'Little Gidding', Perloff wonders what accounts for their continuing popularity. She rejects their 'musical' structure as the reason because other modernist poets wrote fugues and quartets without such acclaim, and she rejects the Christian symbolism as not being especially original or memorable. Instead:

It is, I would submit, at the microlevel that the brilliance of ‘Little Gidding’ manifests itself. As an examination of the revisions bears out, every phoneme, every morpheme, word, phrase, rhythm, and syntactic contour has been chosen with an eye to creating a brilliant verbal, visual, and sound structure.

She asks us to consider the famous opening line "April is the cruellest month":

Suppose it were ‘April is the darkest month’ or the ‘harshest month’ or the ‘worst month of the year’? Would the effect be the same? And if not, why not?
The questions are disconcerting because while we can answer the second with ease, the third is impossible, and impossibility of definition leads to the title of the book. It comes from Marcel Duchamp's neologism he said can be defined only by example. Here is a handful:
  • The warmth of a seat (which has just been left) is infrathin.
  • Sliding doors of the Metro—the people who pass through at the very last moment/infrathin.

Others, Perloff says, "raise larger issues about time, space, and especially language": 

  • In time the same object is not the same after a one-second interval.
  • The difference (dimensional) between two objects in a series (made from the same mould) is an infrathin one when the maximum (?) of precision is attained. [sic]

In each case Perloff says "the case is made for difference, however minute". So the difference of 'cruellest' is another example of infrathin. This may sound like a variation of New Criticism's close reading, but Perloff distinguishes micropoetics from that practice because for the most part New Criticism concentrates on a larger meaning conveyed by "metaphor, irony, and paradox" and ignores "rhythm, sound structure, visual patterning, etymology". Eliot is relevant here again as he criticised Matthew Arnold "for being insufficiently sensitive to the 'auditory imagination,' namely,"

the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back.

In the same passage Perloff quotes Eliot in a letter to Stephen Spender: "My theory of writing verse is that one gets a rhythm, and a movement first, and fills it in with some approximation to sense later."

Rather than go any further and address more of the content, which in addition to Eliot includes exceptional studies of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Beckett, and John Ashbery, I wonder if infrathin goes some way to help me understand the uncertainty in my experience not of poetry, which as mentioned in the entry for 1992 I tend not to read anyway, but prose works. Why is there a profound distinction between my experience of some works that are nominally the same, in the same genre, as others that leave me indifferent, wondering whether I should give up reading novels? Is it the rhythm and movement of a long prose work that connects those writers I return to despite differences in overt form and content, because they penetrate "far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling", that is if rhythm and movement of micropoetics can be applied to the macro level, a level that Perloff says cannot explain what makes Four Quartets so "intensely memorable", in which repetition and echoes invigorate a constrained and relentless attention across hundreds of pages, and which demand to be reread, as Perloff says of poetry that "can’t just be read and deleted like the most recent Instagram"? 

In my personal canon, Proust, Beckett and Bernhard, obviously, but also Gabriel Josipovici, in Migrations among many others, Rosalind Belben already cited in this series, and in Aharon Appelfeld's novels, which survives translation. A micropoetics then of sentence and paragraph, and more;* works that sink below the surface of habit, of genre, enabling us to hear one meaningful syllable.


*If so, this would also explain why those works described as poetic, promising a narrative seasoned with meticulous nuance, are invariably unreadable, clogged with arcane and fussy word choices.

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