Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Peter Schwenger reviews Infrathin

Marjorie Perloff. Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021. 240 pp.

Review by Peter Schwenger

23 February 2022

The title of Marjorie Perloff’s Infrathin comes from a series of paper scraps on which Marcel Duchamp tried inductively to evolve a concept that he called inframince. His examples included the interface between a liquid and its container; the shift of colors at a single point on an iridescent surface; the differences between two objects produced from the same mold. The concept is intriguing enough to deserve a book to itself. In this book, however, the phenomenological aspects of inframince fall away; the word eventually becomes equivalent to small or subtle, or the “micro” in the book’s subtitle, An Experiment in Micropoetics.

Micropoetics is a practice, Perloff explains, “based on my own sense of what a super-close reading . . . can do for us” (p. xii). What it can do is explain why certain lines of poetry haunt us, staying in our memory with a power beyond the information they contain. Such an effect is the product of many minute choices made during the poem’s composition. These involve resonances between the sounds of words; the associations or etymologies of those words; the implications of line breaks; and rhythms understood as emotional sequences. Attention to such details has informed the study of literature almost from the moment it became a discipline. Yet this “close reading” resists codification, and so is most effectively taught by example. Indeed, a good close reading is always an experiment, in that you cannot know beforehand what tensions, patterns, leaps or uncertainties such a reading will reveal.

Perloff’s attention to detail works best with her analyses of modernist poets—including, unexpectedly, Samuel Beckett. Her method is less well suited to a poet like John Ashbery, who minimizes the kind of effects she has been bringing to the fore. His is a poetry, she admits, “whose verbivocovisual temperature is intentionally low, all but precluding memorability” (p. 151). She therefore shifts her approach to underscore the possible associations in a reader’s mind and—a different sort of association—Ashbery’s influence on other poets, notably Charles Bernstein and Rae Armantrout. This kind of placing, or fruitful displacing, is a secondary purpose of her book. Perloff discloses unexpected links between Gertrude Stein and Duchamp, Beckett and William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ian Hamilton Finlay. In the last case, she suggests that the author of the “Auditory Imagination” can be viewed as a precursor of Concrete poetry, in that both regard language as material to be worked with. She reinforces that point visually: letters/sounds that repeat at intervals in lines by Eliot are laid out on the page in spatial intersections reminiscent of Concrete poetry. This striking move reflects her commitment to close readings that include the visual effect of the page.

Through such refocusing, Perloff makes us see what was always literally before our eyes. She does so with an evident passion, informed by a long saturation in the poets she analyzes. Super-close reading is perhaps not so radically different from close reading; but this book reminds us how rewarding that perennial practice can be.