This Condensery

August Kleinzahler

  • Collected Works by Lorine Niedecker, edited by Jenny Penberthy
    California, 471 pp, £29.95, May 2002, ISBN 0 520 22433 7
  • Collected Studies in the Use of English by Kenneth Cox
    Agenda, 270 pp, £12.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 902400 69 X
  • New Goose by Lorine Niedecker, edited by Jenny Penberthy
    Listening Chamber, 98 pp, US $10.00, January 2002, ISBN 0 9639321 6 0

Well, I’ll start with where born which is no doubt where I’ll end – a section of low land on the Rock River where it empties into Lake Koshkonong, all near Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Nature is lush here, I feel as tho I spent my childhood outdoors – redwinged blackbirds, willows, maples, boats, fishing (the smell of tarred nets), tittering and squawking noises from the marsh, a happy outdoor grandfather who somehow somewhere had got hold of nursery and folk rhymes to entrance me – all near Beloit College which I attended and in the other direction Madison where I worked for a time in the university’s radio station. Other jobs: library assistant and when eyes went a bit bad hospital floor washer, dining room helper etc … Retired now at 63.

As with Lorine Niedecker’s poetry, much has been left out, but these few words written to the critic Kenneth Cox in 1966 provide us with the biographical gist. This Collected Works should succeed, at long last, in establishing Niedecker as one of the most important and original poets of this past century and in bringing her work into the mainstream, where it belongs. Jenny Penberthy, a professor at Capilano College in Vancouver and the editor of Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet (1996) and Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-70 (1993), devoted nearly ten years to this project, sorting through the formidable confusion of drafts, sequences and chronology that rendered a previous attempt at a complete poems (From This Condensery, Jargon, 1985) so unreliable and bewildering as to be next to useless. Niedecker spent nearly all of her life on Black Hawk Island, three miles from Fort Atkinson, a town in the rich dairy country of south-central Wisconsin with a population of around eight thousand. The state capital, Madison, is 34 miles north-west and Milwaukee about 60 miles away, east-northeast. Jonathan Williams, of Jargon Press, visited Niedecker in 1962, a year before her second marriage to Albert Millen and subsequent move to Milwaukee:

Miss Niedecker, I guess in her fifties by now, lives in a tiny green house out at Black Hawk Island . . . Right out in back is the sparkling Rock River, on its way to Lake Koshkonong. No phone, almost no neighbours . . . The river is a major fact in her life – lying there sparkling and running, often flooding and worrying the people. It’s in the poems. The October day I stopped for lunch I found her reading some of Lawrence’s letters, which she compares with Keats’s. Miss Niedecker lives in terms of the communications from Zukofsky and a few others. Besides her writing and her extensive reading, she works at the local hospital for support. She is a frail person, like the poems, but sturdy as they also are.

Williams might have added that Niedecker had no indoor plumbing. Only those who’ve wintered in this part of the world will fully appreciate that particular hardship. At that point in her life Niedecker lived near the edge of poverty; although during her growing up she would have known reasonable comfort. Her father seined for carp in the lake and rented out a couple of small houses to fishermen:

He could not
– like water bugs –
stride surface tension
He netted

This is from a long poem, or series, entitled ‘Paean to Place’, written in 1968. Hank Niedecker, an amiable but loose character, mismanaged his business and when he died in 1954 left his only child some land and the two small houses, which were a nuisance but provided her with a modest income. Of her mother, who became deaf shortly after Lorine’s birth and was described by Niedecker’s friends as taciturn, embittered and difficult, the daughter wrote in ‘Paean to Place’:

I mourn her not hearing canvasbacks
their blast-off rise
from the water
Not hearing sora
rails’s sweet

spoon-tapped waterglass-
descending scale-
Did she giggle
as a girl?

Twenty-two years earlier, in her first tiny collection, New Goose, Niedecker writes:

The clothesline post is set
yet no totem-carvings distinguish the Niedecker tribe
from the rest; every seventh day they wash:
worship sun; fear rain, their neighbours’ eyes;
raise their hands from ground to sky,
and hang or fall by the whiteness of their all.

The elements of Niedecker’s mature style are evident here, an amalgam of Mother Goose (viz. the book’s title) and what she called ‘folk poetry’, which incorporated certain characteristics of local speech – diction, cadence – along with the terseness and flatness of tone common to the American rural Midwest: Protestant, stoic, of necessity valuing thrift above other virtues. Niedecker doesn’t seem to have had any interest in God or religion, at least in its institutional manifestations, but there is, probably unintentionally, something of the Shaker austerity in her work, what Jonathan Williams describes in this poem, circa 1959, as ‘a lovely sound, put together with hand-tooled pegs’:

My friend tree
I sawed you down
but I must attend
an older friend
the sun

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