- 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
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
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
Niedecker’s work emphasises proportion, line, simplicity. The spaces between words and lines, usually emphasised in the typography, lineation and enjambments, functioned for Niedecker as a reminder of the silence from which the poems emerged, by which they were pervaded, and to which they returned. Despite their distinct musical effects, the poems were designed for the page, not to be read aloud. As her letters make clear, she was most decided in this matter.
ever gave me
which if intense
makes sound . . .
Niedecker claimed in her 1966 letter to Kenneth Cox (the punctuation is hers) that
without the Feb. ‘31 issue of Poetry edited by Louis Zukofsky I’d never have developed as a poet – I literally went to school to William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky and have had the good fortune to call the latter friend and mentor. Well – there was an influence (from transition and the surrealistes that has always seemed to want to ride right along with the direct, hard, objective kind of writing. The subconscious and the presence of the folk, always there. New Goose . . . is based on the folk, and a desire to get down direct speech (Williams’s influence and here was my mother, daughter of the rhyming, happy grandfather mentioned above, speaking whole chunks of down-to-earth (o very earthy) magic, descendant for sure of Mother Goose (I her daughter, sits and floats, you know).
It is tempting to think of Niedecker as a naive or primitive artist. This would be a very large mistake. When she arrived in New York City in 1934 to meet Zukofsky, she had been familiar with Ezra Pound’s work, along with assorted strands of Modernism, for more than a decade. She was 31 and had studied literature at Beloit College, a small liberal arts college not far from Fort Atkinson, for two years (1922-23), worked at the Fort Atkinson public library for two years (1928-30), and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, one of the best state universities in the country, with enormous resources, was close at hand. She had also married in 1928, although barely two years later she was back living with her parents.
The Objectivist issue of Poetry of February 1931 had among its contributors Zukofsky, Carl Rakosi (another Wisconsiner), Charles Reznikoff, Basil Bunting, John Wheelwright, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert McAlmon, George Oppen, William Carlos Williams and Whittaker Chambers, a friend of Zukofsky’s from Columbia who, among other things, later translated Bambi from the German. Quite a diverse lot, although most of them incorporated key elements of the Modern: speed, compression, resistance to closure, obliquity, fragmentation, collage, surprise in transition and juxtaposition, polyvalency, and blocks of description, narrative or emotion reduced to the telling image or detail. They didn’t like Tennyson very much.
Just the mix to excite a brilliant, intellectually restless gal from rural Wisconsin. Niedecker initiated a correspondence with Zukofsky and two years later went to New York to meet him. It may have been her first time any distance from home. Here is George Oppen’s wife, Mary, on meeting Niedecker in New York in 1934:
We invited her to dinner, and after waiting for her until long after dinner time, we ate and were ready for bed when a timid knock at the door announced Lorine. ‘What happened to you?’ we asked.
‘I got on the subway, and I didn’t know where to get off so I rode to the end of the line and back.’
‘Why didn’t you ask someone?’
‘I didn’t see anyone to ask.’
New York was overwhelming, and she was alone, a tiny, timid, small-town girl. She escaped the city and returned to Wisconsin. Years later we began to see her poems, poems which described her life; she chose a way of hard physical work and her poetry emerged from a tiny life. From Wisconsin came perfect small gems of poetry written out of her survival, from the crevices of her life, that seeped out.
Mary Oppen gets Niedecker all wrong. Even indelicate, middle-aged New Jersey boys arrive late for dinner in New York after losing themselves in the subway system. According to Zukofsky’s best friend, Jerry Reisman, Niedecker arrived in New York already in love with Zukofsky. Shortly after introducing herself, Niedecker began unpacking and, to Zukofsky’s distress, produced an iron and ironing-board. She had every intention of staying for a while. Zukofsky lived in a one-room apartment. An affair between the two began. According to Reisman, Zukofsky went to Dr William Carlos Williams for birth-control instructions, which he somehow got all wrong: Niedecker became pregnant, with twins. Zukofsky was determined that she have an abortion, and she reluctantly acceded. After this, she began an affair with Reisman, and was back in Wisconsin a few months later.
By the time she went to New York Niedecker had been an energetic Surrealist for five years, influenced, as she told Kenneth Cox, by Eugène Jolas’s transition magazine, already up and running in Paris by 1927, which was devoted to the experimental and what Jolas called the ‘vertical’ in writing. The seventh point in Jolas’s statement about poetry, published in the 21st issue of transition, went: ‘The transcendental “I” with its multiple stratifications reaching back millions of years is related to the entire history of mankind, past and present, and is brought to the surface with the hallucinatory irruption of images in the dream, the daydream, the mystic-gnostic trance, and even the psychiatric condition.’
Niedecker fell hard for this phantasmagoric geology lesson, precipitating years of experiment with a brand of Surrealism inclining more towards automatic writing and disjunct language formation than dream imagery. Zukofsky tried to wean her away from this, but she remained stubbornly attached to the ‘subliminal’, and managed over time to incorporate inflections of the surreal into her most objective, folksy poems. This may be her most remarkable and singular achievement. The ‘subliminal’ elements are embedded in cadence and sound; there are subtle shifts in movement, alterations of conventional syntax, wordplay and unpredictable rhymes, establishing closure where one doesn’t expect it:
My life is hung up
in the flood
Don’t fall in love
with this face –
it no longer exists
we cannot fish
* * *
Our talk, our books
riled the shore like bullheads
at the roots of the luscious
large water lily
Then we entered the lily
built white on a red carpet
the circular quiet
glass stems to caress
We stayed till the stamens trembled
* * *
Remember my little granite pail?
The handle of it was blue.
Think what’s got away in my life –
Was enough to carry me thru
Zukofsky and New York were invaluable experiences, but like a number of brilliant American provincials – Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty come to mind – Niedecker took what she needed and returned home. She made several further trips to the city in the mid-1930s to visit Zukofsky and Reisman, and they made a pilgrimage to Black Hawk Island in 1936, but Niedecker essentially stayed put in Wisconsin for the rest of her life. Those who argue, groundlessly I think, that Niedecker and Zukofsky were not lovers cannot deny that he remained the most important person in her life, intellectually and emotionally, over the nearly forty years of their correspondence. The relationship began as an epistolary love affair (at her end, at least) and continued in that vein.
Over time the Objectivist label came to refer to four poets: Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi and Charles Reznikoff. Somewhere along the way Niedecker got tacked onto the group but she was always clear that she didn’t consider herself a member. Although Zukofsky admitted that the term never really meant anything, there are unmistakable affinities among the original four. All urban Jews, three of them first generation, they were affected, in different ways, by Pound’s Imagist principles, emphasising exactness, simplicity, sincerity, no superfluous word or sentiment. By sincerity they meant the honest use of subject matter, without poeticising or altering it to suit the argument, tone or shape of the poem. All four were Marxists or Marxist-friendly, socially and politically committed men who came of age during the Great Depression.
Zukofsky was the intellectual of the group. Oppen thought him the most intelligent man of his generation, to whom he ‘owed everything’. Basil Bunting placed Zukofsky, with whom he enjoyed a long, close friendship, as the contemporary, along with Pound, from whom he learned the most. When not offering Zukofsky birth-control advice, Williams regularly showed him his own poetry before it went into print, without ever really getting what Zukofsky was up to in his poetry; still, he was drawn to what he called Zukofsky’s ‘word-stuff’. This entailed a radicalising of the Williams line, whose chief characteristic is fragmentation of the pentameter. Zukofsky introduced further fragmentation and disruption of syntax, in the service of compression and density. The caesura was also radicalised, creating abrupt stops and extreme transitions. The enjambments became more loaded, incorporating a device from the ancient Greek, apo koinu, in which the end-word of a line ends one statement, but unpunctuated also starts the next, acting as a pivot on which the next line turns. Prepositions and other particles took on the weight of nouns and verbs; every word, every syllable, contingent on every other. There was a rejection of metaphor. Along with compression and density, Zukofsky wanted to keep the whole thing in motion. Kenneth Cox, in his concise, alert collection of essays, stresses the importance of Pound’s ‘insistence on brevity of expression’ to Zukofsky and Niedecker.
Learn a trade
to sit at a desk
Niedecker always regarded Zukofsky as her mentor, a role he doubtless encouraged. And there should be no question about how much she learned from him and how useful he was in the formation of her mature style and its development. His comments on the poems were invaluable, and though not always taken up, always seriously considered. But it was a two-way street, from the very beginning. No one better understood Zukofsky’s own difficult poetry, a poetry that usually operated beyond the ‘edge of meaning’, to use Cox’s words. And Zukofsky knew it. They freely cannibalised each other’s letters throughout the 1940s for their own poetry, and not just the ones each had received from the other. Niedecker, at least, mined her own letters to Zukofsky for useful bits.
Zukofsky married Celia Thaew in 1939 and they had a son, Paul, in 1943. This didn’t put a damper on Niedecker and Zukofsky’s correspondence; Paul’s development became a source of fascination for Niedecker, resulting in an important sequence entitled ‘For Paul and Other Poems’, much of it addressed to the child and rooted in things Zukofsky had written to her about his son. It is particularly problematic for any Niedecker editor: there are many versions, she changes the order on several occasions, and so on. The sequence was intended to make up her second collection, but it was never published. Zukofsky, at a certain point, felt his privacy was being invaded and decided to be unhelpful. The collection was dissolved and individual poems published here and there.
The sequence includes one of the finest Zukofsky poems Zukofsky never wrote:
when the leaves
from their stems
that lie thick
on the walk
in the light
of the full note
when they leave
My guess is that this poem is directed to the father, a tribute of sorts, as well as to the child. It has all the characteristic sound-patterning and delicacy of Zukofsky’s finest poems.
Another of the poems, not related to Paul but ostensibly autobiographical, illustrates something of Niedecker’s range:
In the great snowfall before the bomb
coloured yule tree lights
windows, the only glow for contemplation
along this road
I worked the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else.
I was Blondie
I carried my bundles of hog feeder price lists
down by Larry the Lug,
I’d never get anywhere
because I’d never had suction,
pull, you know, favour, drag,
I heard their rehashed radio barbs –
more barbarous among hirelings
as higher-ups grow more corrupt.
But what vitality! The women hold jobs –
clean house, cook, raise children, bowl
and go to church.
What would they say if they knew
I sit for two months on six lines
As Jenny Penberthy observes in her introduction to Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky: ‘Looked at as a whole, her work has little of the clean-lined detachment of the core Objectivists. It is shot through with personality, but this is almost always the personality of others. Her own place in the poems remains carefully mediated.’
Niedecker’s isolation and reading habits played a part in the personae adopted in her work. In a letter to Cid Corman, her friend, champion, literary executor and chief correspondent in the last decade of her life, Niedecker writes, appreciatively, on receiving a copy of a new Corman book: ‘You now inhabit a corner of my immortal cupboard with LZ (especially the short poems), Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius, John Muir, bits from Santayana, D.H. Lawrence, Dahlberg, William Carlos Williams, and haiku. These knew “when/ to listen/what falls/glistens now/in the ear.”’
After the deaths of her mother in 1951 and her father in 1954, to both of whom she was uncommonly close, and before her marriage in 1963, she kept to herself. She had a friend or two, at least one serious romance; otherwise she worked, wrote letters, the occasional poem, and read. Her education was through reading and her correspondence with Zukofsky. She never had or hankered after any institutional association:
the elegant flower
my blue chicory
at scrub end
of campus ditch
Letters were her social element: there were the letters from Zukofsky and, later, Corman, but her reading, too, consisted primarily of letters and biography, especially the former – Lawrence, Henry and William James, Morris, Darwin. When Bunting visited her in 1967 she was thrilled and wrote to Jonathan Williams: ‘Basil Bunting came to see me and it was a high point in my later life. I think in my afterlife I’d like T.E. Lawrence to come. And the Jameses – Henry, Wm & Alice.’ In some sense, Bunting appeared in her life as William Morris might have, materialising from the bookshelf, visiting for a bit and then returning to the shelf. The membrane between life and letters was more permeable for her than it is for most of us, and this condition encouraged a plasticity in her own literary persona, a breadth of voice, a large collection of masks, the favourite being timid, little, self-effacing Lorine. ‘Lorine was shy and unworldly,’ Jerry Reisman wrote, ‘but she was lively and talkative when with people she liked. Her sense of humour sparkled in conversation as it does in her poetry and sometimes she was surprisingly uninhibited.’ But she would certainly have known what she was worth as a writer; anyone writing at that level of sophistication understands very well what she’s bringing off.
Niedecker died on New Year’s Eve, 1970. She had been unwell for some months. Basil Bunting was in the area at the time, visiting family by his first marriage. He had been planning to make a second visit to Niedecker: ‘One of the finest American poets of all, besides being easily the finest female American poet . . . Lorine Niedecker never fails; whatever she writes is excellent.’ A former newspaperman himself, Bunting went to the two local Madison dailies and beseeched them to run appropriate obituaries. Predictably, they had no idea what he was going on about. On 2 January 1971, the Capital Times ran this obituary:
FORT ATKINSON – Funeral rites for Mrs Albert Millen, 67, a well-known Wisconsin poet, who died Thursday in a Madison hospital after a brief illness, will be held here Sunday . . . she wrote under her maiden name, Lorine Niedecker, and had written a number of books of poetry that were published internationally . . . Mrs Millen had been a contributor of poetry to many newspapers in the United States.
Jonathan Williams relates the reaction to this news of one of Fort Atkinson’s prominent citizens: ‘Hell, I didn’t even know the woman. But I heard she had kind of a negative personality.’