What's Good About Obscurity

Ed Park on the so-called minor poets:

Though I am no scholar of Symbolism in any language, and indeed wasn’t familiar with nearly all of the forgotten figures whom Caples resurrects, I found myself responding so strongly to the spirit of his project that I wondered if the whole thing had been executed entirely for my benefit. (Caples loosely defines Symbolism here as “a broad poetic tendency of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” consonant with work dubbed “decadent” or “fin de siècle.”) I read it in three gulps and kept peppering the margins with check marks of delight. With a supply of thumbnail biographies that read like the most improbable fiction, and a leisurely but learned style, Caples makes the minor seem major.

I’m not a poet, but like Caples I’m drawn to minor writers, particularly fiction writers, and to minor works by major authors, often over their more famous achievements. I’m attracted to minor forms as well: the book I happened to be reading alongside “Quintessence of the Minor” was Wonders in the Sky, subtitled Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times. I don’t want to go overboard—I devoured Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, as major a book this year has produced in terms of quality, sales, and public recognition—but whole months of my reading life can go by in which I pick up only the out of print and out of favor. The challenge can be in the idiosyncratic language, or in the unusual structure, or in just getting a copy of the thing: a major book from, say, the mid-’70s (Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary) becomes the minor book of today.

More at the Poetry Foundation.

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