Jeff Dolven’s second collection of poems makes use of grammatical errors to imagine new poetic worlds.
The poems in *A NEW ENGLISH GRAMMAR begin from the bad sentences in traditional grammar, the ones marked with an asterisk in the handbooks. They are experiments in making a new language where the counterexample—*he had had gone, *we’ve got any milk, *he was recognizing her—can be exemplary, and therefore also experiments in imagining new worlds. Each poem is accompanied by an exacting, authoritative, intermittently slant facing-page explanation of the rules it breaks. A theory of poetry as the confusion of mistake and premise develops from the conversation between them. No book can hope to reform all the systematic constraints on English usage, nor to redeem all the foreclosed possibilities of syntax and idiom, but this one makes a start.
“In Wittgenstein’s later writing, he proves the dependence of grammar on context. The strangest sentences make sudden sense in the right context, while the most familiar phrases—on investigation—sound suddenly strange. *A New English Grammar undertakes the same transformation in a lyric context. ‘Grammar tells what kind of object anything is,’ Wittgenstein proposes, and here it tells us the object is poetry. For the philosopher, being alert to grammar saves us from being misled into error; for the poet, it seduces us into reverie. ‘Not empiricism and yet realism in philosophy,’ Wittgenstein learned, ‘is the hardest thing.’ The same could be said for poetry, and Dolven makes it look easy.” — Craig Dworkin
“A philosophical poetics, an excursus and dithyramb, a riddling undoing of rule and prescribed rightness, Jeff Dolven’s *A New English Grammar swims deep into beautifully distressed, surprising waters. I was about to about to about to about to say it is unlike anything else, and I am saying it. Dolven has the peculiar capacity to rewire your brain. ‘A-wandering somewhere’ and a wondering through and with grammar, this book shows how error spurs the poet’s errand, grammar births lyric glamour, and the apparently wrong sponsors a new kind of song. This is brilliant mindfuckery and tender art.” — Maureen N. McLane
Poetry. Poetics. Literary Criticism. Hybrid.
Jeff Dolven is a poet and a scholar of poetry in no particular order. His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Yale Review, The New Yorker, and elsewhere, and in a collection, Speculative Music; his books of criticism include Senses of Style and In Other Words. He teaches at Princeton University and is an editor-at-large at Cabinet magazine.