Lorine Niedecker and the Obstinacy of the Particular
Lorine Niedecker and the Obstinacy of the Particular
I want to think about Lorine Niedecker and her 1967 poem "Wintergreen Ridge" apropos the idea of the obstinacy of the particular.
First, though, I believe I need to say something about the question of the particular. Obviously the problem of the particular, and of language's tendency to universalize and lose the particular, is addressed throughout the history of philosophy. Some philosophers speak of words that, like the index finger, point at the thing, without providing significant influence on the thing in and of themselves; in poetry of course we know it is not so simple, and that every word provides its own texture and sound to shape the thing named… which may of course be a way of further particularizing it. Certain philosophers suggest something even stronger. In one of the early chapters in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit the problem is perhaps stated with the greatest pathos. This is the moment of sense-certainty, when consciousness seizes on the particular in order to name it: say "this tree", which becomes subsumed under the generalizing category of "tree", or "this night" which quickly becomes day. Words it seems will not permit us to tarry with the particular for long, because words always assert universalizing categories. In this way the assertion of the particular ends up proving the contrary: the truth of the general. So the dialectic wheels off in search of its satisfaction in something other than raw relation to the particular, consciousness needing to overcome its alienation in the other moments and modalities that constitute the history of the mind.
Of course many writers would suggest that there is much more than the word "this" to put in front of the word "tree" in our effort to grasp the sensuous particular; there are poets who feel that language has means to ecstatically hold onto the night. Amidst our varied strategies, the phrase "the obstinacy of the particular" is one I found myself first uttering about the writing of Marguerite Duras, most specifically about her prose work "The War". A kind of diary she kept after the liberation of Paris while waiting, in almost unbearable anguish, to see if her husband, a resistance fighter, would return alive from a Nazi concentration camp, Duras is obdurate concerning the particular. Her husband does return, in a state of starvation on the verge of death: "If he had eaten when he got back from the camp his stomach would have been lacerated by the weight of the food. Or else the weight would have pressed on the heart, which had grown enormous in the cave of his emaciation." (56) The specificities of his state, the thingness of the thing which is also the body of the beloved, are presented on the basis of a feeling so deep it expresses itself as perception: "You could see the vertebrae through it, the carotid arteries, the nerves, the pharynx, and the blood passing through: the skin had become like a cigarette paper. So, he excreted this dark green, slimy, gushing thing, a turd such as no one had ever seen before. When he's finished we put him back to bed…For seventeen whole days that turd looks the same. For seventeen days it's unlike anything ever known. Every one of the seven times he excretes each day, we smell it, look at it, but can't recognize it"…(58) In its extremity this particular is "unlike anything ever known". It cannot be comprehended, only apprehended. Duras refuses any consolation of religion or humanism that might round out the thing. She even refuses an idea of time that would connect the damaged part to the whole of a life, or to a life renewed. As a writer what must be recorded is this body like no other, such that it cannot be contained by the idea of "body", and yet persists as one, unique. The particular sears. Part of the power of this extraordinary text is that the individual that is her husband does survive, and Duras divorces him; her brute honesty in believing that for her he will always ever be the sufferer described here, which is unbearable, is searing in and of itself. (In Duras's script for Hiroshima Mon Amour, the lovers fail to maintain their particularity, and lose one another instead to the universals "Hiroshima" and "Nevers", from where each is from.)
Marguerite Duras is not the only writer to broach the possibility of the obstinacy of the particular, in either grim or rapturous circumstance. In American letters Imagism emphasized the particular, as H.D. and Pound saw it, by way of a technical commitment to phanopoeia, "the power of language to cast visual images upon the screen of the mind". Their idea of image also has mythic reverberations if we understand myth itself as particularizing a thing, as opposed to working with an idea of myth that converts everything into recognizable patterns (Jung, Campbell, etc). Rather, a myth offers a particular identity to the sparkle of this river as opposed to that one, that tree's nymph as opposed to this one's. (Pound's ideas on the Chinese ideogram famously attempted to closely knit the calligraphic character and the thing named as well, in a desire to trump the language/thing binary). Similarly Objectivism, the movement we associate most readily with Lorine Niedecker, is noteworthy for its literary project of forging linguistic relationships with things, of emphasizing the materiality of words. Louis Zukofsky - paramount Objectivist, Niedecker paramour and influence, but also disciple of Pound - helps us link Niedecker back to Imagism, phanopoeia, and H.D's texts (one of LN 's most important readings) as they participate in this active sense of myth as particularizing: clearly, Niedecker is a practitioner in a lineage. However, rather than generalizing further about Imagism and Objectivism, how does Niedecker, after all at a real remove from the both groups geographically, age wise, and gender wise, work the ruses of the particular in her master poem "Wintergreen Ridge", without ending up in a terminal vision of the body, as in Duras?
Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), a fixture in the town of Fort Atkinson, in Southern Wisconsin – she made her stand as a poet of the local – apparently wrote "Wintergreen Ridge" while away from the home front a little ways, on a trip to Door County Peninsula, in Northeastern Wisconsin. Perhaps this familiar slightly defamiliarized is important. Let's consider above all the opening to "Wintergreen Ridge":
Where the arrows
of the road signs
Life is natural
in the evolution
on this stone perch
in creation here
as in the center
of the world
the limestone cliffs
my skirt dragging
an inch below
Clearly, compared to the Duras, in this poem there are certain concessions to generalization built into the approach to particulars. Certainly, throughout her work Niedecker was interested in abstraction. I want to suggest that poetically one needs to appear to concede to the general in order to persist in the garden of the particular, or to reach the wilds of "this"…and that this happens in Niedecker (Fake right, go left, in basketball terms, though Taoist texts state this more artfully). As in Duras, and many other writers, there is an interest in description and in lists: in the course of "Wintergreen Ridge" Niedecker names perhaps 15 different variety of flower, enlisting the naturalist's tool kit for differentiating and reading the landscape, which is important. More memorably in terms of writing, however, at one point in the poem she rapid fire unveils three names for a single plant: "evergreen", "pipsissewa, and "grass of parnassus", allowing us to hear the same plant through the soundings of a Greek myth (parnassus) , a native American word (pipsissewa), and of course "evergreen", with its own wide set of associations. Such verbal display as a way of arriving at the particular works a different ground than does description, serving to elevate the poem beyond description – description, which not always but very often threatens to reify the object named, shunting language into a second order relation to some "real" thing outside itself. Here each radically different word modifies the other word as all three bear in on "the thing".
This kind of verbal display is most present in the opening section of the poem. One quality that is striking about the quoted passage is its willingness to accept the presence of "universals" of language in order to move past them, as I've already claimed. For example in the very first line of the poem there is the abstraction of a literal sign, "the arrows/of the road signs", which is to suggest we must navigate indexicals, signs, and abstraction in order to then work our way into the back country of the sensual thing, as if it would be naïve to assume at the start an immediate relation to immediacy. Once we follow the sign, whether road sign or language itself, we can approach the rock.
But then we quickly learn that the particular moves… "butterflies/are/quicker than rock". This is a beautiful moment in the poem, as the particular becomes animate and eludes our net. This is anything but a butterfly mounted with a pin in a display case. In fact only the butterfly of skill allows a poet to catch such an instant of language, without caging it in the wrong kind of bestiary, zoo, or museum.
It is true that in "Lake Superior", the companion piece to "Wintergreen Ridge" in her book North Central (1968), Niedecker writes: "In every part of every living thing/is stuff that once was rock//In blood the minerals of the rock"… This implies that for the poet the distinction between the animate and the inanimate is not absolute, just as in myth and perhaps in the natural sciences. It is also true that there are generalizations here ("Life is natural", "Man//lives hard"). These ecological or philosophical generalizations create a necessary linguistic tension between categories and butterflies, allowing for a bright obstinacy of the particular in sharp contrast to the truth-claim: butterflies quicker than rock, mariposas made of minerals locatable in the rock, papillons which metamorphose as both hard and soft bodies. (Perhaps I won't here offer the ear the German name for butterfly, schmetterling.)The poem makes of art (and the flight of butterflies) the central climb, but the climb is also literal limestone cliff, porous to water and light, a body (her own) with knees and skirt amongst beings and things. Later in the poem Niedecker writes" "We are gawks/lusting after wild orchids" (…)
The bright obstinacy of the particular resists generalization by engaging with the multiple functions of language, inclusive of generalization, making of universalizing statements one particular moment in the movement of the composition. Moreover, "My skirt/dragging an inch/below the knee" brings the lyric I's own body and dress in beside the butterflies as a sensible thing tensed between universals. Perhaps there is sometimes something of the Sapphic in Niedecker's poems. Certainly the "I" particularizes itself through the image, as in early H.D, suggesting an alternative lineage from Sappho to H.D. to Niedecker, the body that is hard and soft, mineral and flesh, central to the poetics. Not only is myth at work in this poem, in the sense of myth I enlisted earlier that makes specificities sparkle, but so too is an evolution of language towards nature. The triadic dance of the quick moving strophes helps to assure this:
grass of parnassus
As the poem swiftly enacts its rhythms the particularizing words become more than just descriptors, in favor of a brisk but confident tarrying with what is. Famously, Niedecker once wrote about Black Hawk Island, near Fort Atkinson, her home: "The Brontes had their moors, I have my marshes." Certainly this attention to nature and to the local is important for reading Niedecker. Perhaps night cannot hold onto day or day carry night; however, for Niedecker, "Nobody, nothing/ever gave me/greater thing// than time/unless light and silence//which if intense/makes sound/Unaffected…" In "Wintergreen Ridge", a little ways away from home, we also locate an involved epistemology.
Marguerite Duras, The War, The New Press, 1994
Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, Edited by Jenny Penberthy, University of California Press
Blake Butler on Mark Baumer’s MEOW
The following introductory essay by Blake Butler is reprinted from MEOW (Burnside Review Press), the posthumously published poetry collection by the writer and activist Mark Baumer. Baumer was struck and killed by an S.U.V. in January 2017 as he walked barefoot across the U.S. to raise awareness of climate change and other issues.