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Green, Prickly Humanity

Rural Wisconsin’s exhilarating, lost poet

Karen Volkman


Collected Works

Lorine Niedecker
Edited by Jenny Penberthy
University of California Press, $45 (cloth)

8 In the introduction to this new collection of Lorine Niedecker’s works, editor Jenny Penberthy states that the book’s ambition is to establish Niedecker’s rightful place in twentieth-century American poetry. Niedecker’s problematic publication history, rife with delays and disappointments, and a personal life that kept her isolated in rural Wisconsin (far from the metropolitan centers so crucial to the work of the Objectivist poets with whom she is commonly grouped), have conspired to make her a strangely marginalized figure. No small part of this strangeness is the beauty of her wry, precise, often exhilarating work; far from the writings of a hermetic recluse, Niedecker’s lines are full of calls, invitations, addresses, a poetry of connection soliciting its responsive, articulate other. Penberthy’s volume seeks to give full scope to this restless imagination, presenting poems as sequenced in Niedecker’s manuscripts before the truncations and re-groupings of actual published volumes, as well as including her radio plays, short prose, and sequences of uncollected poems from different periods in the poet’s long writing life.

In terms both of circumscribed geography and thwarted dissemination of her writing, the obvious analogy is with Dickinson. Born on 12 May 1903, Niedecker spent little time outside the Wisconsin marshland of Black Hawk Island where she grew up and, after a year at Beloit College, returned to care for an invalid mother. Like Dickinson’s New England, this landscape becomes almost a collusive subject within the poems, with its birds, fishes, trees, and talking waters. And as Dickinson used hymn structures to provide a communal cadence to her very personal idiom, Niedecker in much of her work echoes folk speech and rhythms to anchor her odd acuity in very short, mostly untitled poems. Emphatically unlike Dickinson, however, she struggled with financial burdens until late in life, working as a proofreader, researcher, and hospital room cleaner while desperately trying to maintain the land and houses inherited after her father’s death. Her relationship to nature is intimate and verbal, ranging from rapture to despair to exasperation:

What cause have you
to run my wreathed
rose words
off

you weed
you pea-blossom weed
in a folk
field

As Penberthy points out, Niedecker’s wide reading and avid ear attuned her to a range of language use, from historical documents and literary letters to overheard conversations, matter she readily recast in the poems’ diverse voicings. Early poems show her interest in dreams and the unconscious, irrational connectives, and multiple planes of perception, as in the three-columned “Canvass.” Linking these early writings and her mature work is a persistent investment in what might be called the sound of sense. Her first published poem, “When Ecstasy is Inconvenient” (grouped by Poetry editor Harriet Monroe with “Promise of Brilliant Funeral” and given the dubious title “SPIRALS”) already rings with slant aphorism: “say the time of moon is not right for escape.” An affection for the blunt speech of brute common sense often gives her poems the plain poise of wisdom literature, lanced with slides and swerves that leap from her alert musicality. In the early experimental piece “next year or i fly my rounds tempestuous,” pasted into a 1934 appointment book offering a dose of biweekly good sense, small fragmentary poems are superimposed over the wholesome homilies: “If you circle / the habit of / your meaning, / it’s fact and / no harm / done” and “Good deed, my / love. The ele- / ment of folk- / time. Nerves / are my past / monogamy, / said her arms / going farther. / Rock me out.” The sequence bridges what Penberthy characterizes as Niedecker’s surrealist period and her growing interest in aphoristic concision; and importantly, it is a graphic document of her elidings of plain speech and improvisational energies.

This preoccupation with wedding public possession to a fierce intimacy makes for fascinating tensions in Niedecker’s work. New Goose, a project spanning 1935–1944, marks a conscious turn in crafting “folk poems,” many full of scenes and voices of lives unraveled by the Depression. Often as brief as four or five lines, these poems offer quick, mordant glimpses of their figures’ exhausted circumstances:

Seven years a charming woman wore
her coat, removed the collar where it tore,
little warmth but honor in her loose
thin coat, without knowing why
she’s so. Charming? Well, she’s destitute.

Scarcity of means is made material in this poem’s strict economy of sound: with the recurrence of “coat” and “charming,” its mutually implicated terms, the scene circles to its acrid close on the one attention-grabbing word, “destitute,” not only the lone three-syllable word, but a distanced and analytic label for the woman’s poverty. The t sounds of “coat” and “destitute” crack sharply amidst the long open vowels and wash of m’s and w’s, with the poem’s close a brusque break from the numbing circularity. The last word snaps reader, implicit viewer, and even the speaker from any seductive figure of ennobling poverty and complicates the central term of “honor.” The poem becomes an honoring only when the woman’s condition is named accurately, in its harshest term, as humiliation. The stumbles and re-orientations of the last line, signaled by period, question mark, and comma, reveal the effort required to complete this contradictory act: stripping the “charming” qualifier, a garment of false dignity, to permit the ethical act of accurate seeing.

Throughout the New Goose poems, polyphony builds in a swift shifting of voice and scene, a commonality based on these spare tellings, but one that emphasizes separation and accretion, not concordance. Language becomes an outered excess available to all, the single shared possession, but muteness and invisibility are more powerful opposers and possessers. Circumscription governs these glancings into the inarticulate, with an awareness of borders and boundaries and the wide histories that lie beyond them, renewed at every line’s turn: “Black Hawk held: In reason / land cannot be sold, / only things to be carried away, / and I am old.”

Initially imagined as an updating of Mother Goose reflecting contemporary folk speech, Niedecker’s project echoes that collection’s eclecticism. The terse puzzling pieces that make up the nursery rhymes of Niedecker’s model are believed to have been passed down orally over hundreds of years, often with little change, from sources as workaday as a street vendor’s cry and as inflammatory as a war song. Mother Goose herself first appeared in France in 1697 as the fictional source of Contes de ma mere l’Oye and was co-opted and anglicized for Mother Goose’s Melody or Sonnets for the Cradle, an assemblage of traditional rhymes appearing in England about 1765. The nursery rhymes every child knows extend back through histories few adults can imagine. Such uncertainty of authorship and ownership appealed to Niedecker, whose own avid appropriations and adaptations complicated the poet’s role as sole proprieter and source. The book’s “New” appellation is itself complicated by the poems’ frequent drawing on historical documents; Niedecker worked as a researcher for the WPA, compiling materials for a Wisconsin guidebook. Her sense of place as presence finds expression in the sounds of colloquial speech, as well as in the traces of historical voices left in letters and oral histories: “Asa Gray wrote Increase Lapham: / pay particular attention / to my pets, the grasses.”

While New Goose cedes aphoristic utterance to a series of shifting scenes and speakers, making wisdom a communal production, the poems of “for paul,” written between 1949 and 1953, present a more unified though distanced speaker and a precise goal: the “further instruction” of a young child. The child in question was Louis Zukofsky’s son, born in 1943, a violin prodigy of whom Niedecker was passionately fond. In 1931, Niedecker read the Objectivist issue of Poetry edited by Zukofsky, a discovery she credited with the course of her later development. In writing to him, she initiated a 35-year correspondence as well as a complex relationship; Niedecker’s place in Paul’s life was certainly complicated by her becoming pregnant by Zukofsky in 1933 and, at his insistence, aborting the child. The two poets maintained their friendship and a close exchange of work and mutual critique. Zukofsky sent Niedecker books and journals and assumed a role in the disposition of her work; he first referred her to Harriet Monroe at Poetry and promoted her early work and the New Goose poems to influential editors. But the poems of “for paul,” some incorporating quotations from Zukofsky’s letters or scenes of a not unconflicted family life, could draw his sharp and sometimes preemptory critique; it is questionable to what degree he may have been responsible for their scant publication. Even in the poems collaging quotes from letters and Niedecker’s reading, a shadowy speaker is palpably present, assuming the role of a sibylline aunt instructing the boy in the complexities and powers inherent in “the three virtues / knowledge, humanity, energy.” Much of the sequence concerns the legislation of such potencies; the figure of the young prodigy possessed of powers beyond his understanding or full ability to articulate and delimit is strangely conflated with an image of the child-like Einstein, whose questionable governance of his genius unleashes nightmare:

Einstein, you know, said space
is what it’s made up of.
And as to the human race
“Why do you deeply oppose its passing”
you’ll find men asking
the man with the nebular hair
   and the fiddle.

The sequence feels the child’s private world as apart and essentially amoral: “he’s been true to himself, a knife / behaved.” Between the honoring of this privacy and the compulsion to offer guidance through a cultural geography of peril, possibility, and postwar vulnerabilty, a strange music forms. Niedecker is more than ever the shrewd aphorist—“Green, prickly humanity— / men are plants whose goodness grows / out of the soil, Mr. Stinkweed / or Mrs. Rose” and “Generator boy, Paul, love is carried / if it’s held.”—but at the same time, even more acutely tuned to musicality and nonsense sound: “Hi, Hot-and-Humid / That June she’s a lush / Marshmushing, frog bickering / moon pooling, green gripping.” In an inversion of hierarchy typical of Niedecker, the child becomes a diminutive muse authorizing rich dimensions of disciplined play:

If he’s not peewee wafted
   tiny glissando
   in deep shade
or a newspaper
he’ll attack exercises ever calculated
to float the ear in beauty.

In this poem, a portrait of the artist as very young prodigy, we find a marvelously compressed catalogue of the contradictory forces in artistic making, laziness and distraction prominent among them; the making of music comes about only “if he’s not” rapt in competing forms of action. Inseparable from his sensory world, the child is expressed as pure music and movement: lines 2 and 3 sound a rapid run of shifting long and short vowels, while “wafted” and the rippling “glissando” lighten into motion—then the abrupt rhythmic counterpoint of line 4’s heavily stressed monosyllables momentarily suspends the poem before the comic deflationary dailiness of “a newspaper.” Temptations lurk at all levels of diction. The final lines echo and vary this opposition of rhythm and sound; the child’s discipline and fierce focus are felt in the sharp syllables of “attack,” “ex,” and “calc,” mental actions far from the dreamy wafting a few lines before, but the attack’s aim is the sonorous “to float the ear”; it is the cerebral abstractions of calculated exercises that allow the listener’s sensual connection, that in effect make the listener a listening, entirely ear. Economies of pleasure, with the completion of the artistic act not simply a mediation of spontaneity and design, but a transaction of energies that finds completion in engaging the audience in the dynamic relational network. Music as a mode of thought recurs in this frail pastoral:

Paul
   when the leaves
      fall

from their stems
   that lie thick
      on the walk

in the light
   of the full note
      the moon
playing
   to leaves
      when they leave

the little
   thin things
      Paul

What constitutes knowledge? A sound, a glinting quickness, a branching of relations. In a later poem, Niedecker adapts a famous quote from Hopkins’s journals, his search for “the law of the oak leaves.” The leaves’ law is an intricacy of pattern, a material intelligence articulating its relational interdependencies; in this poem, as eminently in Hopkins, sound pattern makes the poem a material analogue to natural profusion and its ceaseless self-expression. Relations of sound leap across divisions of line and syntax, multiplying pattern and annulling hierarchical subordination. As pastoral, it enacts a radical merging of nature mediated in language and language assuming the material complexity of an organic form: the poem as a mobile, thinking body. For the child prodigy whose intuitive grasp of pattern outpaces his power to extend these relational acts, instruction resides in a modeling of that motion; the moon’s note is the resonant music linking leaf-strewn walk and lunar orbit and is the round radiating sonic center of the poem’s torque.

Niedecker’s later writings found themselves more broadly on the shared spaces of nature and history. Folk poem and “for paul’s looser movements give way to haiku-like tautness. The haiku tradition and its presumed objectivity would have appealed to her, as would its sometimes overt questioning of that distance. Many haiku contain a turn toward the personal, a sometimes comic rupturing of the illusion of non-mediation revealing the observer-transcriber’s investment and implication in the moment’s assembling. Issa’s “Fleas in my hut / it’s my fault / you look so skinny” (in Robert Hass’s version) places man democratically in the ecosystem and teases the implicit hierarchy of the food-chain. “Plainness and oddness are the bones of haikai,” wrote Bash<0x00AF>o, a formulation Niedecker could not not have loved. In her adaptation of the form, haiku’s compression and swiftness are married to her sound-play:

Lights, lifts
parts nicely opposed
this white
   lice lithe
pink bird

In another instance, “People, people— / ten dead duck’s feathers / on beer can litter . . . / Winter / will change all that,” the subtle malevolence of the speaker afflicted by marauding tourists gives the haiku convention of seasonal flux a palpably personal and local application.

Such extreme compression carries over into the final collections, where terse fragments gain resonance by their contiguities within longer sequences. Always concerned with place and how it permeates, Niedecker in North Central (1968) maps a geological genealogy, “‘a lovely / finite parentage / mineral / vegetable / animal’” linking the human to the greater complex: “A man / bends to inspect / a shell / Himself / part coral / and mud / clam.” Acutely aware of the material, the sequence sometimes abandons syntax for meticulous catalogues of substances, textures, and sinuous names, from the rocky presences of the opening sections—“Ruby of corundum / lapis lazuli / from changing limestone / glow-apricot red-brown / carnelian sard”—to the sly, profligate flora of “wintergreen ridge”: “laurel in muskeg / Linnaeus’ twinflower / Andromeda / Cisandra of the bog / pearl-flowered / Lady’s tresses / insect-eating / pitcher plant / Bedeviled little Drosera / of the sundews / deadly / in spaghum moss.” In this longer poem, with its winding associational movement, Niedecker is the poet of profuse and riotous nature, one not excluding politics as local as a don’t-pick-the-flowers sign and as global as the Bomb. Here nature calls the poet to a consciousness of larger relational systems, a reminder of multiplicity and mutual implication, but as always with Niedecker an awareness of delineation and limit.

Like the sequences of North Central, the strongly autobiographical “paean to place” employs a longer associative structure, here in five-line stanzas. “Place” serves as a meditative ground encompassing geographical rooting, class, circumstance—the social conditions of family—and even artistic vocation as interwoven placings that determine the speaker’s trajectory and range of imaginative motion. In contrast, Harpsichord & Salt Fish, the last manuscript Niedecker completed before her death in 1970, subsumes authorial presence almost completely; its central poems assume the voices of historical personae—Jefferson, Darwin, William Morris—visionary precisionists caught in contradiction. In her essay on the first twelve sections of Zukofsky’s A, Niedecker describes his model of Shakespeare as “a chart of learning to be taken lightly,” and her own sense of the learned and received seems a process of brushings and slight shadings and sensations. Her personae assume presence in their relations to ephemera, the momentary flashing-out and releasing of the historical figure from his flat continuum, disrupting the false coherence imposed by time and distance. Sensory immediacy bridges and breaks in, often captured in the speech cadences of letters quoted or adapted:

Political honors
   “splendid torments”
“If one could establish
   an absolute power
of silence over oneself”

When I set out for Monticello
    (my grandchildren
   will they know me?)
How are my young
   chestnut trees?
(“THOMAS JEFFERSON”)

These lines are concerned not least with different possibilities for scoring voice, the range of modulations possible in quotation marks, parentheses, question marks, the launching into motion of a “when” or “how.” Jefferson’s concern with frost on the strawberries, Darwin “ravenous / for the sound / of the pianoforte”: these luminous instants take their place in the reader’s imaginative structuring of an historical consciousness—in this case, of builders of elegant structures—and in the formal structuring of a poem. The phrase “harpsichord and salt fish” is nearly a poem in itself, a type of the kinetic contiguity at which Niedecker excelled, launching a range of opposing textures, motions, and systems: the musical and mute, the metallic and fleshy, instrument and product, drawing-room and dock, sound and taste, leisure and commerce, dactyl and spondee.

Penberthy’s edition aims to replace the 1985 From This Condensery: The Complete Writing of Lorine Niedecker, which she disparages for rampant inaccuracies, and to provide a complement and counterpoint to two different volumes of Collected Poems (T&G, prepared in 1965 and published in 1969, and the 1970 My Life By Water), for which Niedecker arranged her work in categories such as “Home / World” and “In Exchange for Haiku.” Penberthy presents instead a chronological arrangement, restoring the dismantled manuscripts of projected books and ordering the uncollected work often falling between projects, but observing Niedecker’s final revisions to individual poems as prepared for My Life By Water. This is a bewildering history, which Penberthy takes care to clarify by providing contents pages for the previous volumes and cross-references to the poem’s prior groupings. Her meticulous notes on revisions are intriguing reading and at times take on their subject’s voice—“The spelling of ‘Einsteind’ is consistent in all appearances” has an unmistakable Niedeckerean deadpan. In her zeal to replace a Niedecker appreciated largely for her folk poems with a language-centered poet whose early experiments are crucial to her exploit, Penberthy at times employs the expectable excess of a revisionist reading. But her extraordinary efforts to bring to light Niedecker’s importance are utterly invaluable, including editorship of the correspondence with Zukofsky, the unearthing of early poems, and the sustained archival scrutiny leading to this sadly belated—and, as she notes, still partial and speculative—realization of the poet’s intents.

Among poets, the appearance of this volume, and the recent selected poems of Rae Armantrout and Fanny Howe, may point to a curious, circuitous winding of a subtle minimalist tradition, Dickinsonian slantness tensed in spare speech. With its range of tonalities and mobilities, Niedecker’s work explodes the standard cliches of minimalism as quiet or modest. The poet who ends an elegy rejecting “Heaven? / No, restore / my matter, never free from motion / to the soil’s roar” is not quiet or modest, but an expansive, essential intelligence who must be read. <


Karen Volkman is author of two books of poems, Crash’s Law and Spar. She is currently poet-in-residence at the University of Chicago.

Originally published in the December 2002/January 2003 issue of Boston Review



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