Dictionary Poetics: Toward a Radical Lexicography
Fordham University Press, NY, NY, 2020
272 pp., illus. 8 b/w. Paper, $35.00
Modern poetry, as Roland Barthes famously claimed in Degree zero of writing (1953), is no longer a matter of lines, sentences, and discourses, but of the word, that is the singular lexical item as it detaches itself from the normalizing order of natural language, establishing a new and radically nonnatural, asyntactic, nonsequential, and politicized way of writing. From this point of view, it is not only syntax that is challenged by poetry, but also the cultural institution of the dictionary, the strongly institutionalized instrument that helps cultures to select, structure, display, teach and transmit the words they consider relevant, necessary and acceptable.
The relationship between dictionaries and writing is diverse, oscillating between the purely pragmatical (poets use dictionaries when they search for words) or overtly activist (they can also try to change their dictionaries by using them in new ways). The tradition of poetic writing that Craig Dworkin examines in this book is a combination of both approaches (the dictionary as a writing tool, the dictionary as the place to discuss certain language policies). Yet it is also an attempt to stretch and supersede each of these strategies by a totally new use of the dictionary. What Dworkin is interested in is a materialist take on the dictionary, no longer as an ordered list of items referring to a certain number of denotations (in short: everything in the world outside the dictionary that can be labeled with the help of words), but as a material object, both 2D (the page) and 3D (the volume): words have formal features, their presentation on the page obeys or produces visual patterns, the definitions they offer bring together verbal and nonverbal elements in sometimes very strange ways, they open a given language to its history, but also to other languages and a large set of possible contexts. Writers who take such a materialist stance toward the dictionary do not only change the traditional use of the dictionary, they also enable totally new forms of writing that tie in with the most radical forms of avant-garde art.
The question asked by Dworkin throughout the whole book is very simple, but its consequences are far-reaching: what happens when authors (not all examples given by Dworkin belong to poetry in the narrow sense of the word) start writing by taking the dictionary as their raw material and create their text by manipulating and reshape the verbal data of the dictionary in noncanonical ways? For instance, to give a very simple example, by literally copying the complete page of a dictionary line by line while ignoring the fact that the page in question lists its elements in two columns and thus activating a cut-up effect that the normal use of the dictionary does not allow us. This is exactly what Jack Kerouac is doing in the opening of one of the chapters of his 1965 Desolation Angels and it makes a perfect starting point for Dworkin’s argumentation.
The techniques and devices that Dworkin discloses in this book are very diverse. Some authors simply copy what they find inside a given dictionary –and it is important to stress that most works are based on the interaction with one specific dictionary. Others rely on these materials as triggers or building blocks, reshuffling, extracting, complementing, or replacing elements or parts of elements in order to build their text. Thanks to the stylistic and historical variety of his examples, logically but not exclusively built around the poetry of the Objectivist and L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E periods in US modern writing (1920s and 30s, then 1970s and 80s), Dworkin succeeds in disclosing an important strand within the avant-garde, where the material features of the dictionary appear as the fundamental constraint of what is now called “conceptual writing” (the adjective “conceptual” refers to the fact that these texts are not based on the twin notions of self-expression and representation but on the use of self-chosen and predetermined rules that engender and elaborate the writing process). Each chapter of the book, after an excellent theoretical and methodological introduction, is devoted to the extreme close-reading of a specific author and her or his use of a specific dictionary in one or more texts: Funk & Wagnalls Practical Standard Dictionary of the English Language in Louis Zukofsky’s Thanks to the Dictionary, Webster’s Collegiate for the same author’s “A”, The Oxford English Dictionary in George Oppen’s Discrete Series (my favorite chapter of the book), Webster’s New Collegiate in the collaborative work of Clark Coolidge and Bernadette Mayer, The Random house Dictionary of the English Language in the writing of Tina Daragh, and Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang in Haryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge.
I have read all these analyses with open mouth (of admiration). A longtime specialist of “unreadability”, a term provocatively used to criticize our unwillingness to abandoned old ways of reading refusing to acknowledge the difference between the materiality of literature on the one hand and meaning-oriented forms of verbal communication on the other hand, Dworkin demonstrates how certain very difficult texts acquire new types of meaning and coherence provided one can relate them to their lexical sources and tries to understand the hidden rules that govern the reshaping of this material. At the same time, Dworkin also highlights the more than formal or material aspects of radical conceptual writing, for what is at stake is not just writing as a form of sophisticated scrabble, but writing as an attempt to make a statement on language and the role and place of languages policies as they are materialized and controlled in dictionaries.
Obviously, such a way of reading is only possible if one knows –and has access to– the specific dictionary that constitutes the “primer” of a give work. Dworkin is perfectly aware of this problem and he carefully examines the tactics and strategies to follow when looking for the lexical tools of the writers he is close-reading here: internal or external allusions or references, but also historical evidence such as the larger social and cultural debates on the publication or revision of this or that dictionary at the time of writing (in this sense, his book can also be read as a contribution to the methodology of intertextual reading, more specifically to the questions raised by the work of Michael Riffaterre). Dworkin also has the great elegance to admit the limits of his own radical reading. The dictionary constraint may prove capable of explaining texts that seem “unreadable” without this clue, but no dictionary ever explains the complete form and meaning of a literary work. Moreover, Dworkin is not afraid of stating that nobody should feel obliged to enter the dictionary trail if one feels more attached to or challenged by other ways of reading. Nevertheless, the quality of Dworkin’s close-readings is such that it should become difficult not to include it from now on as an important feature in the general reflection on conceptual writing and avant-garde as well as in the broader debates on verbal art and more traditionally institutionalized practices of language policy.