Rhetoric of the everyday
Lorine Niedecker's 'Lake Superior'
In “Lake Superior,” a poem of historical rumination on the Great Lakes region, derived by Lorine Niedecker from a 1966 vacation journal, there is a brief critical turn amidst appreciations of the landscape and compact accounts of seventeenth-century explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson, who called Lake Superior “a laborinth of pleasure.” Niedecker draws the reader’s attention to “Iron the common element of earth” as well as “basalt the common dark / in all the Earth.” She features the commonwealth as a geologically coherent reality: “In every living thing,” she writes, “is stuff that once was rock // In blood the minerals / of the rock.” But her salvo, a judgment of human actions on the wild depiction of that landscape, darkens the mood of the poem, and shifts the scale from natural processes of land formation, observed in vivid descriptions of retreating glaciers and “peaks of volcanic thrust,” to that of moral consternation. The brief segment I refer to is simply called “Wild Pigeon,” and it goes like this:
Did not man
maimed by no
mash the cobalt
of that bird
“That bird,” the now-extinct passenger pigeon, enters the poem as an attitude of explicit irony, judging the features of what Niedecker called a commonwealth next to shared mineral distinctions of the region. The mood, more precisely, indicates a morose acknowledgement of human intrusion on natural processes that include millions of years of earthy, geological compression.
I want to discuss this poem because I’m interested in how mood and emotion so often inform or prepare judgments, offering stances toward the world. The language game of Niedecker’s poetry, to borrow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s term for the uses of language in ordinary contexts, takes the experience of the everyday as ground for attention. The Objectivist tradition of writing inspired by William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and others, along with contemporary authors like Lyn Hejinian and Joanne Kyger, continues this use of poetry as a “language of inquiry” into the everyday experiences that compose society. The mundane and our many moods in it sustain frameworks of attention in rhetorical encounters that underlie values, or that challenge us to amend certain attitudes or worldviews. Rhetoric, far from being a mere use of figures and tropes as it is often assumed, shapes inquiry and determines modes of truth seeking. By truth I mean the dynamic actions that make the world known. Poetry, similarly, in this Objectivist mode, and in Niedecker’s exemplary “Lake Superior,” shows how individual values and beliefs can be contained within the larger criteria of history and natural science.
Niedecker delivers an enthusiastic concentration of language on objects of everyday experience. Her work suggests not only the temporal and spatial scales that defined the geographic regions of her investigation; it also shows how attitudes, enthusiasms, values, beliefs, and worldviews can be conveyed in everyday language. So much of our communication is informed by phatic utterances, gestures, confirmations or denials of feeling, and occasions to disclose worldviews by way of specific attitudes. Poetry, as Walter Jost argues, “makes evident a way of life.” And a way of life often can be messy, unstable, careless, even as in some of the best poetry we find evidence of persuasion, challenge, and acknowledgement of new positions toward the world. A kind of critical flexibility is required to purchase a hold on any given poem. An author like Niedecker challenges us to measure our personal interests and concerns within what Douglas Crase calls the “evolutional sublime,” a temporal scale that is vast, and in which the meaning of our beliefs and values remains to be discovered.
Niedecker also affords an opportunity to consider the guiding force of mood in everyday experience. I take mood as an extensive presence of an attitude, or conveyance of a belief system or worldview that connects more largely to pathos. From neuroscientific studies we discover that emotion, broadly, can be defined as “episodic, relatively short-term, biologically-based patterns of perception, experience, physiology, action, and communication that occur in response to specific physical and social challenges and opportunities.” Martha Nussbaum in her recent work on political emotions refers to “cognitive appraisals” as important disclosures of emotive capacities, and she considers how they are shaped, invited into participation through the emotional experiences of public life. Nussbaum looks closely at literature and other arts to understand political emotions because poetry is especially important as a mode of inquiry; it accepts the necessity of mood to make sense of experience. Mood establishes a particular kind of bond between author and reader. It conveys how we accept more dominant attitudes or worldviews, or how we deny their influence on our lives. Emerson, as far back as 1832, observed how moods “attend me through every sentence of my writing, & determine the form of every clause.” If, as Jeffrey Walker argues, “rhetorical transactions are immanent in the way things are,” it is often our feelings that first inform how we respond to, and give body to, the various worldviews we encounter.
In his essay “Thinking of Emerson,” Stanley Cavell describes how “moods must be taken as having at least as sound a role in advising us of reality as sense experience has.” Mood negotiates “the ways in which human experience is always already mediated by interest, value, and physical embodiment.” The significant presence of mood in the physicality of experience shifts attention from metaphysical ideals to “everyday life, and the medium of its appearance in ordinary language.” Whether we use terms like Wittgenstein’s “language games” or Kenneth Burk’s dramatistic notion of situated discourse, ordinary uses of language often are shaped by compelling moods that can determine spontaneous forms of judgment expressed in the many facets of the everyday. Quotidian experience, moreover, consists of concepts, arguments, evaluations, and decisions that are negotiated in a practical discourse (phronesis) that often “shows forth,” Jost’s translation of “epi-deixis.” Such showing forth in poetry can instruct attitudes and guide judgments in the condensed play of intellect and mood that heightens understanding of rhetoric’s practical uses.
So how does Lorine Niedecker discover a particular kind of language game in her poem “Lake Superior”? Her interest in geology, history, and geography enables a “showing forth” of Lake Superior that does more than merely document a vacation: it examines cultural and regional history, reflects on relationships between human perspective and geologic time, and enacts judgments that clarify positions established by guiding moods of travel. Such moods are established through objective encounters with “great granite / gneiss and the schists,” and by her reading of Pierre-Esprit Radisson (“long hair, long gun // Fingernails pulled out / by Mohawks”). Niedecker’s relation of the road trip detours from the high modernist investment in “epiphanic events”: instead, her writing compels curiosity, deepening a reader’s capacity for observing the “the centrality of ‘attunement’ and ‘voice’” in an experience of the ordinary. This shift from the modernist notion of epiphansis, a unique and personal manifestation, toward epideixis indicates Niedecker’s rhetorical appreciation for the persuasive and tactile delivery of poetry: the focus is not located in the profound experience of the individual, but on the persuasive social presentation and invitation to a community of readers who encounter the domain of individuality established through poetry.
In this attunement, Niedecker uses what Kenneth Burke called a “qualitative formal progression.” That is, her writing proceeds by way of echo, compression, foreshadowing, and densely refined sequences of linguistic exchange. Lake Superior and its environs mediate a profound discovery between the poet and her words, and between the industrial stresses of 1966 with the abundance of life forms that had proliferated throughout the region. She writes:
Iron the common element of earth
in rocks and freighters
Sault Sainte Marie — big boats
coal-black and iron-ore-red
topped with what white castlework
The waters working together
Gulls playing both sides
Niedecker’s language, like the mineral world, shifts, hardens, transforms. A sense of the impermanence and constantly changing features of landscape pervade “Lake Superior” with what Lyn Hejinian describes as “the measure of felt thought.” A sense of fluidity navigates Niedecker’s attention to land as well as words, and human activity moves through the larger duration of this geologic time. The Canadian Shield on the north side of Lake Superior reveals some of the most ancient rock to be seen in the world. Three-million-year-old granite is exposed there. On this the French traders and Friars established European ways of plunder and prayer. Niedecker does not praise these acts as heroic deeds; nor does she critically revise the ventures of France in the New World: instead, she observes the features of religion and statecraft as they absorb into these geological realities. She writes:
Through all this granite land
the sign of the cross
Beauty: impurities in the rock
And at the blue ice superior spot
priest-robed Marquette grazed
azoic rock, hornblende granite
basalt the common dark
in all the Earth
And his bones of such is coral
raised up out of his grave
were sunned and birch bark-floated
to the straits
Later in the poem, Niedecker moves attention from historical activity to the action of language use, following etymological next to geological nomenclatures. She writes
Ruby of corundum
from changing limestone
kicked up in America’s
you have been in my mind
between my toes
Niedecker’s love of rock is evident in the accompanying journal she kept of her 1966 vacation. The mood is more matter-of-fact, and conveys the curiosity and liveliness of travel. “The agate,” she says in an early entry, “was first found on the shores of a river in Sicily and named by the Greeks. In the Bible (Exodus), this semiprecious stone was seen on the priest’s breastplate.” Between her poem and the accompanying journal, we can see how Niedecker’s communicative practice cohered as if it were a kind of sedimentation: her everyday is absorbed with history, science, literature, and language. In her enthusiasms for place and words we encounter judgments and attitudes that inform our own relationships to notions of commonwealth, and what we value in our personal holdings as well as our public surroundings.
Let me conclude with Davida Charney’s observation of how poetry conducts relationships and performs personal crises in public. If, as Jost argues, there is “an ‘epideictic’ rhetorical disclosure that underlies all argument and that invites us to identification in the first place,” then poets like Niedicker, and the authors of the Psalms Charney discusses, perform strategies of discovery and embody relationships between persons and the environments that give them shape. The strength of the persuasive appeal is carried through dominant moods and attitudes that orient language to worldviews that may instruct future actions in the world. If nothing else, we are readied by our attunement to poetry to bear words and judgments that enhance our capacities with what Burke called “equipment for living.” Niedecker’s exemplary poem to a regional landscape provides insight into the importance of epideictic discourse that gives shape and shows forth “truths” and values that distinguish our convictions and enlarge our abilities to experience the possibilities of discovery belonging to the everyday.
21. I take this insight from statements presented by Davida Charney (Sixteenth Biennial Rhetoric Society of America Conference, San Antonio, TX, May 23, 2014). See also Charney’s book chapter “Taking a Stance toward God: Rhetoric in the Book of Psalms” in Jewish Rhetorics: History, Theory, Practice,ed. Michael Bernard-Donals and Janice W. Fernheimer (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014), 1–15.