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.

Originally Published: December 27th, 2007

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...

  1. December 28, 2007

    And thank you, Ange, for all your posts, which have been wonderful and thoughtful, and, most of all, have brought poets and writers I want to know better to light. Sigizmund Krzhizhanosky (along with Daniil Kharms) were stocking stuffers thanks to your posts.
    Etymology: always catnip for poets, since they obsess over words and such anyway. Business comes from anxiety, dwell comes from to mislead, etc. Middleton's speculation may be compelling given that language is a social game and the game changes over time.
    Walter Ong: …a poet can serve up his words in a medium where very many meanings, or even every common meaning which the words may have in the language he is using can be taken out of his words, and any meaning seems to make sense, or to keep our thoughts moving in the direction he desires. We are driven to the question whether words can be used in this way, and to further question whether it is necessary for a poet to have always one definite meaning (“denotation”) in what he says. The answer based on much of what is best must be a simple No. Even in ordinary conversational usages, which, it is true, are often more poetic in function than scientific, the denotations and connotations of words shift with varying contexts, and there can be no good reason assigned why I cannot use words even in conversation which may be assigned with equal validity to any of various meanings, simply serving them up to see what you can do with them. All the more is this true of poetry. If I thereby fail to attain scientific accuracy, this is far from de-intellectualizing poetry. Rather it is demanding a greater intellectual exertion, calling on your mind, as it does, to work actively about in shifting meanings and giving it occasion to take pleasure in this very activity itself.
    Once again, thank you, Ange. And tante bella cosi.

  2. December 28, 2007
     Aaron Fagan

    Ange, your posts are wonderful and always inspire further investigation. I highly recommend The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language by Christine Kenneally.

  3. December 28, 2007

    I haven't read the Middleton, so perhaps he touches upon this, but – isn't it of some interest that the word "thing" (which I always thought came down from Old Norse; is that wrong?) passes through an intermediate phase ("thyng") where it means a deed for a piece of land? This usage appears in Chaucer. It mediates rather clearly between the village assembly (which devotes much of its haggling to matters we'll later call real estate) and generalized objecthood, and is a usefully explanatory moment in the word's history, I think.

  4. December 28, 2007
     Laura Carter

    I have enjoyed your posts! I hope you will consider reviving Bachelardette? Just a thought....
    Happy New Year!

  5. December 28, 2007

    And what does it say about over-commodification that love is a "thing" in countless popular songs?
    Thanks Ange -- sorry they're not taking you on permanent around here.

  6. December 28, 2007

    "...("thyng") where it means a deed for a piece of land?..."
    Totally! Middleton doesn't make the point outright, but it's implied in his account of property and individual consciousness. Just hours after I posted that, I came across the word "bolshy" twice -- in British media -- and wish I had had that word to throw around when I talked about Middleton, Pickard, et al. -- what a great word! Can't believe I never noticed it before -- counterpart to "bougie," of course.
    Bachelardette -- we shall see. I think I need a little vacation from the internet! xo to all

  7. December 29, 2007
     Emily Warn

    Your post, interesting as usual, made me break my vow to steer clear of the Internet until New Year's. We hope that after your Internet hiatus you'll often chime in on Harriet. We're going to miss you!
    Did you know there's a thing called "Thing Theory" invented by Bill Brown, a cultural theorist at U. of Chicago? He edited a special issue of Critical Inquiry about it. Unlike your thinking, his is focused on the relation between thing, object, and sign, and not on the etymology of "thing."
    Below is a bit from his "Thing Theory" essay from the Critical Inquiry issue:
    "For even the most coarse and commonsensical things, mere things, perpetually pose a problem because of the specific unspecificity that 'things' denotes. Mind you, for Ponge, objects may seem substitutable for things, and by 'siding with things' (le parti pris des choses) he meant to take the part of specified objects-doorknobs, figs, crates, blackberries, stoves, water. But the very semantic reducibility of things to objects,coupled with the semantic irreducibility of things to objects, would seem to mark one way of recognizing how, although objects typically arrest a poet's attention, and although the object was what was asked to join the dance in philosophy, things may still lurk in the shadows of the ballroom and continue to lurk there after the subject and object have done their thing, long after the party is over. When it comes to Ponge, in fact, the matter isn't so simple as it seems. Michael Riffaterre has argued that the poems, growing solely out of a 'word-kernel' (mot-noyau), defy referentiality. Derrida has argued that, throughout the poet's effort 'to make the thing sign,' the 'thing is not an object [and] cannot become one.' Taking the side of things hardly puts a stop to that thing called theory."

  8. January 3, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    I have really enjoyed thinking about "things", thanks to this post. In Greek, the word for thing is "pragma"--an action--from prasso, to bring about, accomplish. I was thinking about the Latin "res" also, which is such an all-purpose word. I am intrigued to learn that its roots have to do with "assembly" or assemblage--and likewise with joining and numbering. It is cognate, evidently, with the English "rime" (rhyme), which also originally had to do with counting, numbering rather than the chime of endings. Nifty!