Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jeff Dolven reviews Dictionary Poetics

Craig Dworkin. Dictionary Poetics: Toward a Radical Lexicography. New York: Fordham University Press, 2020. 259 pp.

Review by Jeff Dolven

4 August 2021

The dictionary is a powerful abstraction: it is often invoked to limit the language, as in, that’s not in The Dictionary. But a dictionary, any given dictionary, is most particular book, organizing the contents of The Dictionary, and incarnating the procedures, in idiosyncratic ways. If you were to drive a pin through the pulp of it, you would transfix an unprecedented series of words.

Craig Dworkin’s study is concerned with such particular dictionaries, as they were read and rewritten by poets whose works borrow their texts and procedures and exploit the accidents of their physical construction. His intertextual method is not allusion hunting, though it seeks dictionary traces wherever it turns; nor is it surface reading, though it is resistant to figures of depth or concealment; nor is it distant reading, for its compass is narrow, mostly two books at a time. What Dworkin pursues instead are “networks of signifiers laced across the surface of texts themselves and bearing the imprint of their origins,” networks defined by associations of semantics, sound, and typography (p. 8). He patiently articulates the processes by which Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Meyer, Tina Darragh, and Harryette Mullen ring their changes on, respectively, Funk & Wagnalls Practical Standard Dictionary of the English Language, Webster’s Collegiate, the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s New Collegiate, The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, and Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang. He discovers a wide variety of avant-garde techniques of reading and writing alike—and alike is the word, for one of the book’s ambitions is to blur the difference between reading and writing. Its aims are nonetheless familiar to literary criticism: “Learning to read in the way the avant-garde writes can yield significant interpretive payoffs, [and] open otherwise unavailable critical insights into the formal and semantic structures of a composition” (p. 2).

Dworkin earns the reader’s trust from the start, presenting a difficult page of Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, and demonstrating that its “'bop prosody’” is produced by reading Webster’s New Standard, which is printed in columns, straight across the page (p. 3). It is almost a magic trick, how the interpretive conundrum of “'flat part of an oar or calamity’” becomes transparent as a compositional process (p. 2). Such revelations happen again and again over the ensuing chapters. Semantic patterns in Oppen’s Discrete Series, such as those that gather around the word “'rim,’” turn out to be generated by a canvass of the word’s definitions in the OED, from lip to caul to a film upon the eyes (p. 86). Coolidge’s geological handling of language carves out dictionary passages as though he were excavating the page. When Coolidge writes the line, “'as edge or the inside curve or turns indoors,’” Dworkin shows how the words come “from the inside, gutter-curving edge of the prose block defining inside in a move that can only be known to insiders with access to his desk dictionary" (pp. 116–17). Darragh offers wordscapes that represent the view of a dictionary, as though the reader were standing on the margin of the page, looking across a field. Mullen harvests words from Juba to Jive to build networks that depend on specific entries, as when the line “'lemon melon melange’” activates the definition of yellow as “'light-skinned Afro-American; mulatto,’” and also, by affinities of sound, the word mellow, “'a light-skinned African-American woman or girl’” (p. 170). In every case the dictionary is not simply brought aboard but interpolated into patterns shaped by the poem’s sound, sense, and etymological curiosity. The result could never be mistaken for a dictionary itself, but Dworkin shows how much we could neither see nor hear without the dictionary, the specific dictionary, to hand.

Which is not to say that Dworkin’s poets are altogether pure in their process. Zukofsky’s Thanks to the Dictionary derives each section from a single page of Funk and Wagnalls, but Dworkin takes a special interest in cases that break the rule. Darragh sometimes moves words around her page-prospects for resons sonic and thematic. Dworkin too allows himself some license. The chapter on Zukofsky’s A wanders away from the dictionary to a wide variety of other sources, from newspaper advertisements to period configurations of elevator buttons, elaborating the extraordinary network of homologies and homophonies to which he is attuned. The line between what he finds in the dialogue between his texts and what he makes up can blur in these technical reveries. (See his polyglottal pursuit of Stéphane Mallarmé’s “ptyx,” which becomes a poem in itself [pp. 28–31].) But one of the book’s arguments is, that to read these poems is to reenact their compositional processes—readers are licensed to write the poem, by the poem's own rules, in reading it. Some of those readers may ask if the elaboration of networks offers the promised “interpretive payoffs” (p. 2). Dworkin prefers the articulation of process to the declaration of meaning, or at least the kind of meaning that would abstract from the language to state what the book is about or what the process is for. Dictionary Poetics mostly puts how in the place of why, and that is its humane wager—that we need new ways of being with language more than we need new explanations; or at least, that we don’t need the latter to enjoy the former.

There is a dizzying openness in the range of procedures that Dworkin entertains. Just as important is its strategic limit. As some people carry a Bible in their pocket to stop a bullet, Dworkin, one suspects, carries a dictionary to deflect the internet. Dictionary Poetics does not expand the ambit of intertextuality. On the contrary, it narrows and concentrates that range as a dialogue between the poem and its specific reference, its specific refernce book, allowing the reader to recognize—and enact—a virtuoso dialogue, based on emergent rules and codes. The internet is too big, too unruly a field, for such games, too punishingly big, and anyway all the connections are made in advance by the search engines. If Dworkin's Dictionary Poetics is a materialism, in its insistence on the physical book, it is also a kind of humanism, like the other humanisms that generously focus attention on the dialogue between a modern text and its classical forbears. Will people who have read Dworkin’s book go on to read the way that he teaches us to read? It is demanding to ask each reader to track down that one book that is the poem’s prime lexical interlocutor. It might be a better question, Will people write as he teaches us to write? Looking, listening, transcribing the cat’s cradle of signifiers stretched between two books—two real books, that we can hold in our hands? As critics, and as poets? If we do, and we would do well to try, may we write as well as Dworkin does.