Super-Close Reading: On Marjorie Perloff’s “Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics”

IT ALL DEPENDS, writes Marjorie Perloff, echoing Wittgenstein, on what questions one chooses to ask. In Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics, the superb new book written for a nonspecialist audience by one of America’s most engaging, irreverent, and original literary critics, Perloff returns to some of the main questions that have preoccupied her during her more than five decades of writing on 20th- and 21st- century poetry and poetics. She likewise returns to some of the poets who have been important to her and whom she has written about in her acclaimed books, essays, and reviews over the years — Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, TS Eliot, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, and WB Yeats, among others. “What is it,” Perloff asks, “that makes poetry with a capital P so captivating and indispensable?” What is the bedrock of poetry? What is and what isn’t poetry? What is it that makes poetry poetry?

From Yeats to Stein to Ashbery, the Anglophone poets studied in this book are canonical and often so familiar that Perloff chooses to go back and read them as if for the first time, against the grain and with brilliant auditory imagination, applying a highly personal exercise. in methodology—her micropoetic perspective (on which more in a moment)—in order to provide a renewed understanding of modernism and its contemporary heirs.

Perloff’s approach reminds me of the wonderful warning Primo Levi offers in The Periodic Table (1975) when he talks about the difference between the elements sodium and potassium: “[O]ne must distrust the almost-the-same […] the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch points.” Perloff is interested precisely in these smallest of differences, in what Marcel Duchamp refers to as the “infrathin” (undermining) — a concept that is at the heart of Perloff’s micropoetics, though Duchamp actually declared it was not a concept and could not be defined. For Duchamp, infrathin could only be sketched by means of examples, such as the warmth of a seat that has just been vacated or the whistling sound made by velvet trousers when walking or, more significantly, the difference between two or more objects in a series made from the same mould. Perloff’s book is an exercise in attention to such difference, to the smallest, subliminal variations that give a particular poetic passage its texture. In fact, poetry might be defined, Perloff claims, as the art of the infrathin: “[T]he art in which difference is more important than similarity.” The practice of micropoetics, then, involves a “super-close reading — a reading for the visual and sonic as well as the verbal elements in a text, for the individual phoneme, or letter as well as the larger semantic import” — and in which the context (history, geography, culture) of a poem’s conception and reception plays a crucial role.

Perloff’s method proposes to open up new readings of particular modernist works by exploring the unexpected verbal, visual, and sonic relationships that create new constructs and new contexts. For instance, in the essay “A Rose is a Rose is a Rrose Sélavy: Stein, Duchamp, and the Illegible Portrait,” Perloff studies the close verbal relationship between Duchamp and Gertrude Stein, showing that, as different as their artistic productions were, they drew upon each other’s work in ways that have often been ignored. Justifying the Brazilian poet Augusto de Campos’s description of her de ella as “the expert in deciphering undecipherable texts,” Perloff reads Stein’s seemingly nonsensical 10-page poem “Sacred Emily” as a playful and erotic love poem. Perloff’s analysis of Stein’s opaque portrait “Next. Life and Letters of Marcel Duchamp” reveals an intriguing and elaborate portrait of the artist. And when she examines one of Stein’s abstract Stanzas in Meditation, Perloff forensically explores Duchamp’s curious translation of the stanza, foregrounding the significant changes he introduced in his version, his choice of pronouns and surprising implications. Stein’s poetics, Perloff concludes (joyfully puncturing here as in other chapters many cherished assumptions), was not so much influenced by Picasso as has often been presumed but rather by Duchamp. As for Duchamp’s famous female alter ego Rrose Sélavy, Perloff suggests that she was largely based on Gertrude Stein.

Another “stein,” Wittgenstein, is never far from Perloff’s mind. The central Wittgensteinian question hovering over this book is, “But isn’t the same at least the same?” The various chapters of Infrathin illustrate, each in its own personal and precise way, why the answer for Perloff is always no. In the chapter on “Eliot’s Auditory Imagination: A Rehearsal for Concrete Poetry,” Perloff examines what makes the language of Four Quartets so intensely memorable. For one thing, she doesn’t think it is the distinctive imagery of the poem. It is always the work on language that interests Perloff most, the poem’s material form, the sonic and visual structure of word, syllable, morpheme, phoneme, letter, and etymological wordplay. Thus, beyond the choice of genre — elegy, ode, pastoral, dramatic monologue, or quartet — it is the infrathin differences, the minute rifts distinguishing same from same, that achieve the particular texture of poetic passages in Eliot. And not only in Eliot: all poetic language — language made strange and extraordinary by means of verbal, sonic, and visual design — can best be grasped, according to Perloff, by exploring the infrathin. Her refreshing readings of the complex openings of Little Giddingof Pound’s “The Coming of War: Actaeon,” of Rae Armantrout’s “Close” are only a few examples among many offered in this book of the critical value of a micropoetic perspective.

Perloff makes a strong argument that influence never moves in a straight or predictable line. “We need,” Perloff declares, “to rethink the poetic alignments of the late century as they look to us in the 2020s.” Accordingly, several chapters engage in revisionist history, not only placing the poets and their work in new contexts but also proposing unexpected alignments. “Eliot,” writes Perloff, “has never, so far as I know, been considered a precursor of Concrete poetry.” Yet that oversight is, she explains, only the result of looking for the Eliot legacy in the wrong place: the true heirs of Eliot are to be found in the poets of the postwar era — in the American Objectivists and Concretists, from Lorine Niedecker to Ian Hamilton Finlay to Susan Howe and Craig Dworkin, all concerned with the poetic how, “experimenting with sound figures, visual constellations, paragrams, and etymologies so as to emphasize the infrathin of poetry rather than its larger themes and topoi.” Likewise, the genuine heirs of Ashbery should be reconsidered in the light of micropoetics, his reliance on what is not said — a vision also expressed in the work of such seemingly unlikely heirs as Armantrout and Charles Bernstein. And as for Pound’s afterlife, Perloff thinks it too should be looked for further away, in the Brazilian Concrete poets in whose work “the ‘high temperature’ of the Poundian Canto complex was carried to its logical conclusion.” But how did this happen? How does Pound’s highly particularist collage mode turn up in the poetry of Haroldo and Augusto de Campos in the 1950s? Translation — transcreation, transculturation — plays a major role in this nonlinear movement.

Translation is probably the eminence grise in Infrathin. Poetic inheritance, with its unexpected nonlinear movements, is inextricably linked to the practice of translation in ways I cannot develop here. I would like to suggest, however, that folded into this fascinating book there might be another one on translation. In the words of Ashbery, the topic of translation is present (and absent) in Perloff’s book “[s]sometimes and always, with mixed feelings.” Translation surfaces at several junctions in Infrathin — as a critical tool, for instance, in the analysis of Stein’s stanza mentioned earlier or when Perloff compares three English translations of Baudelaire’s famous “Le Voyage” to illustrate the infrathin shades of the original French. What is the role of translation, then, in a micropoetic perspective? Translation might be precisely that “interval we experience as we recognize that even the same is not the same.” And not because the infrathin would be, à la Frost, that which gets “lost” in translation, or because the illusion of “equivalence” in translation is often hard to resist, but rather because translation is a privileged space where the infrathin may be revealed, reflected upon, and recreated.

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Tal Goldfajn is assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese Studies at the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at UMass Amherst. She is the author of, among other works, Word Order and Time in Biblical Hebrew Narrative (Oxford University Press), and is a practicing translator (Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, Hebrew).

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