The January issue of Poetry goes live next week, along with my essay-review of new books by Mary Kinzie and Robert Pinsky. There was a bit that took me too far afield, so I excised it from the final draft. Still, it might hold some interest for someone somewhere! Readers of Pinsky’s Gulf Music know the book meditates at length on the etymology of the word “thing.” He even includes the dictionary definition as a sort of found poem, lingering on the irony that “thing” used to mean something more along the lines of an assembly, an address, and even a “giving voice to,” rather than “a concrete object, a physical or bodily thing.” This movement from thing as process to thing as object fueled the meditations of another poet—thirty years ago.
I've written about Christopher Middleton several times during my tenure on Harriet, and you may surmise that I find him a compelling poet in the tradition of Modernism, albeit one who eschews the formal stylization of some of my other models (Ashbery, et al.) “Reflections on a Viking Prow,” an essay written in 1978-79 (I blogged about it when I first read it, here ), anticipated Pinsky:
Horrendously rugged proto-Germans may have had some such word as “dinc.” By “dinc” their successors meant “assembly,” possibly too the common concern, focusing event or crisis, which might occasion the elders of a group to reason together. The Latin “res” had originally the same sense.
Pinsky registers awe that a word should travel so far from its meaning that it ends up on the shore of opposite sense, for now “thing” means “a concrete object, a physical or bodily thing.” But Middleton offered a plausible, if pessimistic explanation. “Perhaps there was no non-specific word,” he says, for prehistoric speakers.
Only, perhaps, with the accumulation of spare things, in a world that had marched away from subsistence economy, a world with power-centralization and property, a world that had shifted from right hemisphere to left hemisphere thinking, a world with a grammar that arose with the neural shift away from magical thinking toward cortical or subjective thinking, did a term as non-specific as “thing” in our sense enter ancient man’s vocabulary.
In other words, “one might speculate, the concept ‘thing’ is already to be linked with diversification, economics, alienation, and finally reification.”
Thanks to Jeremy Green who commented on this post , I was turned onto the Stan Smith essay “Pregnant Carrots: The Poetry of Christopher Middleton.” It explores the ways in which Middleton’s 1969 book Our Flowers & Nice Bones disinters the buried relations of our ordinary commercial, industrial things and their origins, their makers. In effect, by bringing these relations to light, Middleton reverses the process by which the “thing” hardened into its current meaning. And Middleton does the same for the concept of self: the self is not an object, he avers. It is a nexus of relations.
Compared to Middleton, Pinsky just doesn’t go far enough. He might well believe in the account Middleton offers—tinged as it is with Marx and shamanism—but at this late date may think it seems wacky, or tedious, or impolite, to muck around in those 20th-century rhetorics. But Middleton’s wide-ranging essay goes deeper into the concept of “thing” than Pinsky does. And the poetry that springs from it is more difficult, but also more joyful: what I say about delight vis-à-vis Kinzie’s book was inspired by this passage in “Reflections on a Viking Prow:”
Perhaps a text in all its singularity, as a dematerialization of thing into sign, as a structured but not rigid event in consciousness, with a design as fine as that of an artifact, but not identical with any artifact or thing, might show you a way toward an otherwise shuttered world of infinite delight that you carry around with you, gnash your teeth as you may. … I have proposed that you can talk back to a text which you have experienced with delight.
So you see there’s an underlying debt to Middleton in my forthcoming Poetry essay. My thinking on Our Flowers and Nice Bones owes a debt to Stan Smith’s essay, and Jeremy Green who sent it to me. I can hardly discharge my debt to my all readers who commented and backchanneled, aided and abetted me, for the past six months. You kept me sane when I was jolting awake in the middle of the night trying to remember if I had written something utterly foolish on Harriet. Thank you, thank you.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...