Sunday, October 5, 2008
by Lorine Niedecker
edited by Jenny Penberthy
Who is Lorine Niedecker? Or, who is the Lorine Niedecker privy to contemporary readers such as us through material that has only recently been made easily available? The Niedecker we read today is a remarkably better illuminated one than the shadowy glimpse readers were given of her years ago. Remember, this is a poet who wrote in 1962, “Now in one year/ a book published/ and plumbing…” with genuine incredulity. This is a poet whose final manuscript, the great “Harpsichord and Salt Fish” was rejected by James Laughlin and New Directions the very year she passed away. The comforts of a published life and a financially secure one materialized infrequently for Niedecker, and when they did, they were met with both wonder and awe. It is only now, hopefully, that a wider readership can begin to acknowledge this innovative and important American poet.
Niedecker was born into a family of well-off Wisconsin landowners in 1903, but by the time of her passing in 1970, she had seen her parent’s estate dwindle to nothing. Following her first failed marriage, she struggled for years in various menial jobs. Throughout her life, Niedecker was a regular correspondent with poets such as Louis Zukofsky and Cid Corman, but she struggled to see her work in print and spent decades neglected and unknown. When the Jargon Society issued “T & G: The Collected Poems (1936-1969)” in 1969, the book totaled a slender 70 pages. 70 pages! We had to wait until 2002 for our great poet of place and the ecstatically condensed moment to finally receive her critical due, as Jenny Penberthy’s lovingly annotated “Collected Works” positively explodes our notions of Lorine Niedecker. The book contains close to four hundred pages of her writing alone, not including the copious notes and excerpts from her correspondences in the back. Marianne Moore famously wrote “Omissions are not accidents,” but the until now unpublished and unknown omissions from Niedecker’s oeuvre are a tragedy only now amended.
What we here, then, is a great big book that will hopefully contribute to our reappraisal of the neglected, subterranean streams of American poetry. In recent years, we have been lucky, in addition to Niedecker, Ron Silliman, Jackson Mac Low and Robin Blaser have all enjoyed comprehensive reissues, and collected editions of Jack Spicer and George Oppen (in an affordable soft cover with an accompanying audio cd) are on the way. The works still difficult to acquire: Zukofsky’s “A,” (which remains one of our great poems), the works of Charles Reznikoff and those of John Weiners, their absence is a mark against contemporary publishing, but hopefully these glaring omissions will not remain indefinitely so. At the very least, Penberthy’s “Collected Works” allows us to revise and expand our understanding of American poetics.
Niedecker writes for the most part in precise, highly condensed sequences of short poems, often five lines long. An appreciation of her laborious revision and condensation is further enriched reading through Penberthy’s annotations; look at how Niedecker pared the poem “Dear Paul” from five pages down to one. That her revisions only heighten the poem’s efficiency indicates her superior intuition. An even better example is found in “Thure Kumelien,” which is condensed from thirty-nine lines down to twelve. While this reduction is not as drastic as the one seen in “Dear Paul,” here we see the editing service the poem to a greater degree. The earlier draft of “Dear Paul” worked, even in its most sprawling expansion, and the condensing might be due more to Zukofsky’s reticence regarding the poem’s intimate portrayal of his family than any issue of quality. The original manuscript of “Thure Kumelien” begins “I’d like to tell you about a man/Of a hundred years ago./ He was here while the wild white swans/ were still afloat. Bigwigs wrote/ from Boston…” It’s a decent enough opening, though it creates an abstracted distance uncommon for Niedecker. Yes, she often writes in abstractions – but they are abstractions of immediacy, and her the abstraction slackens the poem, instead of tightening it. The successful revision of “Thure Kumelien” is a puzzle of abstracted reduction. The poem thrives in Niedecker’s crystalline sparseness: “Bigwigs wrote from Boston: Thure,/ we must know about the sandhill crane,/ is it ever white with you/ and how many eggs can you obtain?” These lines are both direct and mysterious, all the while retaining that element of song and sound so important to Objectivists such as Zukofsky, whose influence is a strong presence through much of her work.
Though Niedecker doesn’t exhibit the clear and didactic communism Zukofsky displayed at periods of career, she is intimately concerned with economics and the reality of the working life. These are aggressively political poems. She writes how “Grandfather/ advised me: Learn a trade/ I learned/ to sit at desk/ and condense/ No layoff/ from this/ condensery.” Ok. This is a wonderful poem. On one hand, I hear echoes of Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Desk,” where the Russian poet writes of “…thirty years/ of union truer than love/ I know every notch in your wood./ You know the lines in my face.” Poems intimately observe the actual labor of the craft – its exhausting and sedentary obligations. Tsvetaeva’s poem notifies the reader how many years have passed sitting behind a desk by deftly mentioning the lines of Tsvetaeva’s face. Niedecker establishes a corollary between time in service of craft and the long hours spent at a thankless job. This connection elevates Niedecker’s poem. There is no lay off from such work. This is affirmative on one hand; her work doesn’t share the instability of employment Niedecker herself observed during the Great Depression. The work is alternately suffused with a great weariness. This condensing, the insurmountable work of the poem, is never finished. I am reminded of Thomas Ligotti’s story “My Case for Retributive Action,” where an office supervisor tells a new hire “The hours are irregular…Did I say irregular? I meant to say indefinite.” Niedecker’s dedication to her craft is just such an extended and indefinite labor. Elsewhere, she writes “A tough game, art,/ humanity’s other part.” Poetry for Niedecker is a dedication to the transformative word, the affirmation of poetry’s ability to rejuvenate those exhausted in mind and body. It can be ecstatic, but it’s a lot of work.
Niedecker is aware of language’s intrinsically political nature. “A country’s economics sick/ affects its people’s speech./ No bread and cheese and strawberries/ I have no pay, they say./ Till in revolution rises/ the strength to change/ the indigestible phrase.” In her “New Goose” collection, Niedecker uses vernacular and conversational language to craft a series of progressive folk poems. The influence of William Carlos William’s conversational blank verse is apparent, but Niedecker’s explorations of folk dialect is all her own. The language is clear, as she writes “A monster owl/ out on the fence/ flew away. What/ is it the sign/ of? The sign of/ an owl.” Lineation destabilizes the conversational clarity of the poem. What to make of a line as mysterious as “of? the sign of”? The strangeness of everyday language is here displayed in all its beauty, with no need to employ an artificial elevated lyricism. The lyricism is implicit in the poem’s very nature.
Niedecker’s adoption of a condensed clarity is revelatory, approaching both Basho’s abstraction of image and his profound sense of place. But as much pleasure is found in her mature style, it is Niedecker’s earliest work that I want to draw special attention to. It says much about the neglect Niedecker suffered through the majority of the previous century that she was omitted from Jerome Rothenberg’s great anthology “Revolution of the Word.” She would have fit perfectly in that anthology, and provide much illumination regarding Objectivism’s integration of surrealism in progressive American poetics.
I attended a lecture with Derek Walcott last year, during my final semester as an undergraduate. In response to a poem by a peer of mine, Walcott stated, in what was to me baldly arrogant generalization that surrealism does not “work” in English. I agree that uprooting a style or process from one country and haphazardly grafting it upon an entirely different cultural context is bound to fail. Surrealism as explicitly practiced by Breton or Aragon is not viable in English, but the integration of its aesthetic lessons is of course possible. The hipster cult of personality sprung up around William S. Burroughs may cause us to forget it, but his utilization of surrealist process proves Walcott’s statement wrong. There are countless other Americans who have learned their lessons well from surrealism. And then, of course, there is Niedecker herself.
The early poetry and prose work of Lorine Niedecker is as strong a case for the successful integration of surrealistic techniques into the American idiom as any I have encountered. Just look at the knotted turns of though in passages such as “Last lines being sentimental, reaction/ is in the first of the cold. The contemporary scene is,/ said the green frog by the charcoal wood, false/ in every particular but no less admirable for that,/ and isn’t it humorous to designate at all?” The reader enters this passage at a destabilization; we are instantly thrown off by a discussion of last lines, last lines the reader is not partial to. Sharp images of a “green frog” and “charcoal wood” both narrow the focus of the passage and explode its possibilities with mysterious ambiguity. The severe and bewildering words on which Niedecker enjambs her lines, “is” or “false,” maintain the terseness. The passage ends with a question; the poet informally addresses the reader and points to the conversational direction her future work would take. This early writing helps me understand the relationship of later poets such as Rae Armantrout to Niedecker. The words themselves are a physical reality. Niedecker writes “I should like the poem to be seen as well as read,” but the difficulty of the work and its physicality does not hinder the poem’s taut lyricism – a lyricism actualized without the crusty images and formal tropes so often utilized in the name of the “lyric.”
Lorine Niedecker is not only a great poet, but also an important poet to consider within the tradition of American poetics. Her concern for the transcendental possibilities of the abstracted image, the lyrical possibilities of memory, and her progressive attention to song within the word itself places her in the proud American lineage of Emerson, Dickinson, Henry Adams and Lyn Hejinian. This is an indispensable book, and poems such as “Paean to Place” and “J.F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs” are as great as any American poetry yet written. Let’s hope that this superlative collection helps to familiarize Niedecker with the wider audience she deserves.