Paper $32.00 ISBN: 9780226803104 Published October 2009
Cloth $82.00 ISBN: 9780226803098 Published October 2009
E-book $10.00 to $32.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226803111 Published October 2009 Also Available From

Infidel Poetics

Riddles, Nightlife, Substance

Daniel Tiffany

Infidel Poetics

Daniel Tiffany

264 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2009
Paper $32.00 ISBN: 9780226803104 Published October 2009
Cloth $82.00 ISBN: 9780226803098 Published October 2009
E-book $10.00 to $32.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226803111 Published October 2009

Poetry has long been regarded as the least accessible of literary genres. But how much does the obscurity that confounds readers of a poem differ from, say, the slang that seduces listeners of hip-hop?  Infidel Poetics examines not only the shared incomprensibilities of poetry and slang, but poetry's genetic relation to the spectacle of underground culture.

Charting connections between vernacular poetry, lyric obscurity, and types of social relations—networks of darkened streets in preindustrial cities, the historical underworld of taverns and clubs, the subcultures of the avant-garde—Daniel Tiffany shows that obscurity in poetry has functioned for hundreds of years as a medium of alternative societies.  For example, he discovers in the submerged tradition of canting poetry and its eccentric genres—thieves’ carols, drinking songs, beggars’ chants—a genealogy of modern nightlife, but also a visible underworld of social and verbal substance, a demimonde for sale.

Ranging from Anglo-Saxon riddles to Emily Dickinson, from the icy logos of Parmenides to the monadology of Leibniz, from Mother Goose to Mallarmé, Infidel Poetics offers an exhilarating account of the subversive power of obscurity in word, substance, and deed.


Introduction: Lyric Substance and Social Being

1    The Spectacle of Obscurity

In the Vernacular



Def Rhapsody

Thick as Thieves

The Riddle of Being

2    Riddlecraft

In the Parlance of Things

Black Wonder

Orpheus and the Backwardness of Things

Darkness Visible

The Metaphysics of Dust

Counterfeit Gloom

3    Lost Laboratories of the Sphinx


Rhapsodic Measures


Ransom in a Voice

Elegiac Questions

Fetters, Jinx, Logic


4    Lyric Monadologies

Genetic Obscurity

Ariadne’s Thread

The Infinity of Small, Hidden Springs

Lucifer’s Element, or the Secrets of the Sublime

Logic, Expression, Harmony

Clockwork of the Infidel

Infinity, Inc.

Sleeper Cells and Slumbering Monads

5    Infidel Lyric: The Rhymes of the Canting Crew

Flash, etc.

Strange Navigation

Sparrow Language

The Spy’s Lexicon

Ragpicker, Dandy, Apache

6    Flash Crib: A Genealogy of Modern Nightlife

The Infidel Sublime

Tavern Talk

The Brands of Cupid

The Politics of Nightlife

Infidel Culture


Fairies and Infidels


The Nightspot and the New Chanson


Smash Palace

Shades of the Avant-Garde

7    Mother Goose and Mallarmé

Afterword: The Art of Disappearing

Notes      Index
Review Quotes
Boston Review | Joyelle McSweeney
"Tiffany’s readings are wittily written, closely argued, and charismatically virtuosic in their attention to the occult powers of etymology. Though the textual examples are addressed in roughly linear historical order, they make their case, powerfully, through analogy and/or arcane contiguity rather than historical causality. In this sense, Infidel Poetics typifies Tiffany’s special breed of criticism, which might be called 'alchemical' in that it attempts to derive epistemological transformations by setting a seemingly inapposite selection of materials in contact with each other."
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