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Infidel Poetics

Riddles, Nightlife, Substance

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.

264 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, British and Irish Literature


“The ambitiousness of Tiffany’s argument is exceeded only by the dazzling success of it . . . At once meditative, exhaustive, and elegant…”

Michael Snediker | Rain Taxi Review of Books

“As a preliminary model of the communal being of the lyric reader . . . Tiffany offers us the initiate whose relation with another is routed through shared contact with a dense sociologically subterranean language. Infidel Poetics would have been an important book had it done nothing more than to trace this figure’s surprising centrality across literary and vernacular poetries. But the book’s true urgency for contemporary criticism lies in Tiffany’s exploration of the second mode of lyric collectivity, which he defines, somewhat forbiddingly, at the book’s outset as ‘A constellation, or mass, of expressive relations between entities which are essentially solipsistic.’ . . . In Tiffany’s hands, the lyric’s confused reflection of the whole looks less like an opportunity for knowledge and more like a place to live.”

Michael Clune | Criticism

"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."

Joyelle McSweeney, Boston Review

“Daniel Tiffany is brilliant about the obscure, illuminating poetry and thinking where they are richest: on the boundaries of understanding. There, riddles remain impenetrable, substance remains impermeable, and the heart of life itself remains just outside the space clearly illuminated by reason, in what Tiffany splendidly terms ‘nightlife.’ Tiffany exemplifies what the best critics since Coleridge have understood:  that literary reflection is a spiritual discipline on the boundaries of methodological enlightenment, demanding enormous erudition, but also, indispensably, an openness to thinking as event. The delightful elegance and unpredictability of Tiffany’s writing reminds me of one of the great seventeenth-century thinkers Coleridge admired, Sir Thomas Browne. If you think ‘theory’ is dead or that criticism in the grand style can no longer speak to our times, you must read Infidel Poetics.”

Gordon Teskey, Harvard University

“Can we learn about the substance and the powers of poetry from the history of nightclubs, of urban lighting, of mathematically-inclined philosophers, of urban pickpocketry? Is lyric poetry obscure by nature, a road to nowhere, an open secret, a conspiracy, a counterfeit? Yes, says Daniel Tiffany, and he means it: his account of the substance, or darkness, of poetry stops in Shakespeare’s England, in Mallarme’s France, in Holderlin’s Germany, and in more obscure locations, to build up its case that poetry has been, can be, perhaps even ought to be a turncoat, a creature of thieves’ cant, and of the dance floor: from the pre-Socratics to Villon’s jargon to a Vorticist cabaret, ’Orpheus could not turn his back on the underworld.’ Here is the rare work of ’theory’ and history that might inspire, not only the making of more theory, and the reading of more history, but the creation of new poems.”

Stephen Burt, Harvard University

“Obscurity in poetry is often seen as a failure of meaning or, worse, an elitist riposte to mass culture. Daniel Tiffany turns the concept of poetic obscurity on its head by seeing it as constitutive of community and social relations. And where literary historians trace the cultivation of obscurity to the Romantic poets, Tiffany looks back to a far longer history of lyric obscurity as a symptom of social alienation and epistemological obscurity—from Parmenides’ fragments to Leibniz’s monads to the Jena romantics to Heidegger’s logos to queer theory. In this superb book, Tiffany studies ‘infidel poetries’—riddles, nursery rhymes, signifying rituals, curses, chants, and the canting songs of the underworld—as an often unacknowledged, demotic vein in poetics. The breadth of scholarship in poetics and philosophy is dazzling and the larger implications of the book for the ideology of literary form are profound.”

Michael Davidson, University of California, San Diego

“Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics is a thrillingly original series of essays on the interrelation of seemingly disparate realms that turn out—under Tiffany’s quirkily brilliant eye—to be essentially related; it will be important not just to readers of the particular texts under discussion (Emily Dickinson, say) but to readers of a range of literature, from Classical Greek to contemporary avant-gardes, who will see their own subjects in revealing and surprising new light. Tiffany takes his place next to Virginia Jackson and Marjorie Perloff in setting a new direction for the entire critical discourse in the field.”

Craig Dworkin, University of Utah

“Among the many contributions to the recent revival of interest in Leibniz’s writings, none is more searching, none more scintillating, and none more consistently disorienting than Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics, which not only shows how the idea of the monad illuminates certain forms of hermetic poetry but also gives insight into the rationale—the infinitely fine ‘logic’—that governs the production of poetry as such.”

Peter Fenves, Northwestern University

“Daniel Tiffany is a rarity in our times: a thinker’s thinker who writes with the grace of a poet and the clarity of a scientist. Daring, lyrical, and insightful, Infidel Poetics will change the way you think you see the world.”

Chris Abani, author of Virgin of Flames

Table of Contents

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

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