Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Virginia Jackson reviews Radium of the Word

Craig Dworkin. Radium of the Word: A Poetics of Materiality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 250 pp.

Review by Virginia Jackson

What is “a poetics of materiality”? The subtitle of Craig Dworkin’s Radium of the Word is deceptive: what looks like a propositional statement turns out to be a virtuoso performance by a literary critic who has devoted his career to working “against the tendency of literary criticism to subsume the strangeness, non-sense, opacity, artifice, and material patterning of poetic language into the comforting, unchallenging, naturalized, and familiar thematics of semantic reference” (p. 20).  Dworkin has a gift—really, a passion—for keeping poetry weird.  The value of this critical talent at the present time is hard to understate. At a moment when claims for the thematic achievements of poetic language (cognitive mapping, climate graphing, racial and sexual tracking, worldmaking, self constructing, cultural undoing, consciousness raising, history transcending) are even more extreme than they were two years ago when this book came out, we have never needed Dworkin’s weird lens on poetry more. What he is uniquely qualified to teach us is something that most literary critics don’t want to learn, since the consequence of agreeing with him about the many ways poetry can make minds and environments and fictions of race and sex and communities and cultures stop making sense is that most of us working in poetics will need to change our ways of doing business.

How can any critic possibly avoid the “familiar thematics of semantic reference” on which the discipline of literary criticism (and especially the discipline of poetry criticism) depends? Radium of the Word explicitly “proposes a methodology” for reading the strange, nonsensical, artificial, opaque arbitrariness of the signifier, a methodology that multiplies rather than diminishes significance (p. 1). Suddenly a lion becomes a Black Panther, a set of quotation marks becomes a civil rights riot, the erratic spacing of a typeset line becomes an ode on houselessness and addiction, opera-queen gossip leads to a meditation on the use of the electric chair.  As it turns out, resistance to what Dworkin calls “the metabolizing abstractions of semantics” yields more rather than less to think about (p. 187). But the biggest thing this book gives us to think about is the category of poetry itself. When I just made that category an agent by writing that a single entity called “poetry can make” something happen, I was doing what Dworkin wants us to stop doing, since this book “broadens, complicates, and diversifies what we think of as poetry” (p. 3). To be sure, the inspiration for doing so emerges from contemporary and avant-garde poetics, but the claims here are not restricted to any one era or set of texts.

That is why this book on poetry begins so cannily with a chapter on prose. The point is obvious, but not often brought home so well: while even sophisticated literary critics call poetry a genre, no one would call prose a genre. When I tell my students that poetry is not a genre but a set of many different genres, I often tell them to think about prose. They immediately acknowledge that novels and essays and blogs are genres and prose is not. Dworkin’s strategy is different. He points out that like the word genre itself, prose proves “too various and indiscrete to helpfully serve any simple self-evident taxonomy” (p. 21). While my pedagogical gambit is to make prose recognizable, Dworkin’s first chapter does a great job of making prose unrecognizable—and he does that by showing how entangled ideas about prose are with ideas about poetry. 

Not only can prose texts contain poetic language, but poetry can of course be printed in the format of prose. To agree with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick that “‘what poetry has that prose does not have is line breaks’” (p. 24) may make intuitive sense, but that sense is so often violated that even John Stuart Mill called the equation of poetry with metrical composition “a wretched mockery of a definition” as early as 1833.[1] What follows for Mill (though not for Sedgwick) is that poetry defies definition, and Dworkin’s insight is that prose defies definition, too. Because “the structural dynamics that define prose—fluidity and containment, strict rectilinear geometry without hard outlines, uniform stratification, chance distribution and determinate placement—permit prose to be enlisted in the service not only of those genres with which it is popularly associated, such as the novel and the essay, but also of those its very presence would seem to forefend” (p. 47). Namely, poetry. But what’s in a name?

Characteristically, Dworkin’s second chapter, “The Onomastic Imagination,” poses that question quite literally, asking how and why early twentieth-century modernists like Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, and Mina Loy loosened naming from the named, so that, as Loy wrote of Gertrude Stein, the poet might expose “the radium that she crushes out of phrased consciousness” (p. 75). If names signify just one of the ways we are made of language, then the beautiful phrase “phrased consciousness” emphasizes the way in which our linguistic formation precedes thought—which does not mean that thought stops there. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters of Radium of the Word offer bravura readings of the many ways in which Peter Inman, Russell Atkins, N. H. Pritchard, and Andy Warhol demonstrate just how gorgeously thoughtful variously poetic versions of explicitly phrased consciousness can be. In the Pritchard chapter especially, Dworkin makes apparently meaningless typographic idiosyncrasies into hadron colliders of racialized significance—radium of the word indeed. Dworkin’s critical methodology may require an expert on phrased consciousness as skilled and imaginative as Dworkin is himself, but if we were to follow his endlessly suggestive examples, who knows what weird energies poetry (of all things) might be coaxed to generate, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


[1] John Stuart Mill, “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties,” The Crayon 7 (Apr. 1860): 93.