A little too little: Re-reading Lorine Niedecker--by Jenny Penberthy
Since the 1960s, studies and accounts of the
Objectivists have, almost without exception, included Niedecker. Unlike Oppen, Rakosi,
Reznikoff, and Zukofsky -- the male poets to whom the Objectivist label has stuck --
Niedecker was not represented in the Objectivist issue of Poetry 1931, nor was she
included in The Objectivist Anthology of 1932. But her work has nonetheless come to
be seen as Objectivist, even quintessentially Objectivist. Carl Rakosi has written of her
as Objectivism's most representative practitioner: "With her the external world, the
object is primary, it is most out front, and the subjective is most subsumed, so
Objectivist is appropriate for her." Even the pattern of her publishing resembles
that of Oppen and Rakosi: a first book published early, New Goose in 1946; and the
next book much delayed -- North Central in 1966 can be considered the second,
independent volume given that My Friend Tree in 1962 was essentially a reprint of
selected New Goose poems. A gap of 20 years though for quite different reasons from
those of Oppen and Rakosi. More of this later. Niedecker had an ambivalent connection to
Objectivism. She certainly read and was excited by the original Objectivist statements but
she did not regard herself as an Objectivist. At the time of Larry Dembo's Objectivist
interviews for Contemporary Literature in the 1960s, she showed no trace of
retrospective belonging to that particular avant-garde, no sense that Dembo ought to be
interviewing her too.
If anything the interviews recalled for her an entirely different and un-Zukofskian phase of her 1930s literary practice, what she referred to as her "surrealism." Here's a letter she wrote to her friend Mary Hoard after her encounter with the Objectivist issue of Poetry : "I had spoken . . . about Louis Zukofsky and the Objectivist Movement . . . . Objects, objects. Why are people, artists above all, so terrifically afraid of themselves? Thank god for the Surrealist tendency running side by side with objectivism . . . ." Not a whole hearted endorsement of Objectivism though she was able to find in it points of overlap with her own independently forged surrealism: for instance, Objectivism gave priority to the non-referential, material qualities of the word; it also valued a "non-expressive" poetry, rejecting the too present, too prominent poet described by Zukofsky as the "imperfect or predatory or sentimental poet." Clearly her enthusiasm for an object-based poetics was limited. She was drawn more compellingly towards abstraction. I think of Eliot's remark that Mina Loy "needs the support of the image . . . [or] she becomes abstract, and the word separates from the thing." Like Loy, Niedecker didn't want the support of the image. She wrote to her friend Mary Hoard, "My problem at the moment is to reconcile energy with unrecognizability." In response to this statement, Zukofsky had apparently countered: "energy when fully present dissipates unrecognizability." But Niedecker insisted that "there must be an art . . . somewhere, somehow entirely precious, abstract, dehumanized, and intense because of these [qualities]."
Niedecker's surrealism was not a poetics of the image of dream and hallucination but a pursuit of the non-expressive, a shift beyond the personal, lyric voice towards a patterning of sound and rhythm. It was a surrealism based in language and in the capacity of language to register objectively different levels of consciousness. She had been reading Virginia Woolf 's 1930s novels and was busy exploring the poetic compass of what she called the "monologue tongue." A depersonalized study of the self, of what Carl Rakosi would identify as the antithesis of Objectivism: "the streaming consciousness."
In these early years she seems perhaps closest to Gertrude Stein whose "background of word system" blocks access to the object. Stein uses language not as a means of referring to a world of objects but as a medium of consciousness.
Two poems have surfaced recently, both dated 1934. The first, found by Burton Hatlen in the Ezra Pound papers at the Beineke Library, is called "Progression," a 5-page poem in 8 numbered parts. It is a long poem, written in long lines. Margy Sloan places it first in her anthology of innovative women poets, Moving Borders. Here's Part VII of the poem:
I must have been washed in listenably across the landscape
to merge with bitterns unheard but pumping, and saw
and hammer a hill away; sounds, then whatsound, then
by churchbell or locomotive volubility, what, so unto
the one constriction: what am I and why not. That
was my start in life, and to this day I touch things
with a fear they'll break. A cricket and poplar tradition
has me standing instead of running. Of course, no one cares
about my troubles except those who let themselves fall
into the determinism I've been so careful to create.
(Having fallen, cease to care -- blue jay variants
have their own mode of call.) But who am I to observe
myself? Dynamist for being out of dream?
It's what comes of looking way back on the upper right
shelf of the lower cupboard; never be witty
with any finality. From here, it takes so many stamps
to post the most modern researches.
In this and many of the subsequent poems of the
early period, the sentence predominates, as both syntactic and rhythmic unit. She
explores, for instance, how far the imprint of syntax can be traced into the further
reaches of the mind. Dream, she finds, is full of syntax. She wrote to Harriet Monroe:
" . . . certain words of a sentence -- prepositions, connectives, pronouns -- belong
up toward full consciousness, while strange and unused words appear only in subconscious .
. . . in dream the simple and familiar words like prepositions, connectives, etc. are not
absent, in fact, noticeably present to show illogical absurdity, discontinuity, parody of
sanity." She's drawn to threshold states, to boundaries between the familiar and the
alien, between the facilitating contours of syntax and an alien content. In other poems
where the hold on syntax loosens, she pushes further into pre-discursive language, into
the non-expressive, into the abstract. "I have said to Z," she wrote to Mary
Hoard, ". . . that the most important part of memory is its non-expressive,
unconscious part . . . . We remember . . . a nerve sense, a vibration, a colour, a
All of this suggests a spirited, ambitious, independent engagement with the new. She said to Mary Hoard, "this would be of course what no one else has written -- else why write." Amongst her papers is a note transcribed from Eliot: "It is as wasteful for a poet to do what has been done already as for a biologist to rediscover Mendel's discoveries." As a reader of poetry, she says in her letter to Pound, "one seeks an extension of one's own wit to comprehend"; "the head . . . has no business to do anything but reel." She made a similar point for Mary Hoard, "I know that for myself, what is deeper than I understand is often the most pertinent to me and the most lasting."
These are all statements made in the mid-1930s, early in her career when she showed her greatest willingness to articulate her ambitions as a poet. Within a few years she began to profess an aversion to speaking about her own poetry. Later, in the 1960s, she would recover the interest; in fact, her 1960s experimentation in poetry is paralleled by her attempts to elucidate her poetics in prose.
The second recent find is another 1930s poem "Next year or I fly my rounds Tempestuous," dated Xmas 1934. I found this filed with Zukofsky's miscellaneous papers at the University of Texas at Austin. It is handwritten on small pieces of paper pasted into a 27-page pocket calendar, 4 1/2" x 3 3/4", two weeks per page. Lines such as " I can always/go back to/fertilization,/kimonos, wrap-/arounds and/diatribes" obscure "The favorite Sunlit Road Calendar's" own text, platitudes such as "True bravery is/shown by performing/without witness what/one might be capable/of doing before all the/world." The poem makes no explicit reference to the pasted-over homilies, but the aleatoric nature of the palimpsest exudes parody. See Sulfur #41 for the full text.
Williams liked the poem and told Zukofsky that he would have published it if he had had a press. Pound's response to the earlier poem, "Progression," has not survived, though he did edit the first eight lines of the poem, mostly compressing them. A year earlier Niedecker had sent a version of the poem to Harriet Monroe, but she rejected it. Although Stein or Williams might have been more sympathetic to the project, Niedecker chose to write to Pound. Zukofsky was just home from visiting Pound in Rapallo, so he may have encouraged her to write to him. She would have known about Pound's endorsement of the Objectivist Program and Pound must have seemed accessible to her as the women poets she read closely apparently did not. At the time she was reading HD and Marianne Moore and also the prose fiction of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. Niedecker addresses Pound with ease, as a kindred poet likely to respond to her enterprise. Pound's modernism, however, leaned in another direction, towards the "arid clarity" of Marianne Moore and Mina Loy, and he conveyed to Zukofsky his distaste for Niedecker's surrealism and for surrealism in general, a distaste which Zukofsky came to share. Objectivism, with its curious affinity with her self-styled surrealism, had offered Niedecker an obscure means of inscribing herself within Pound and Zukofsky's modernist aesthetic. But with her surrealism under fire, she began to shed its long-lined, associative forms and to move towards a more overt Objectivism and the smaller, tighter forms that we take to be her hallmark.
The first consistent appearance of a smaller form occurs with the New Goose poems. With these she retains her early insight into "Poetry [as] the folk tales of the mind." The poems have the cryptic content of many of the Mother Goose originals, the same use of nonsense, the same subtextual jostling beneath a strong surface of syntax and rhythm. Between 1935 and 1944 she wrote at least 80 of these poems, full of rhymes, full of quoted rhythms -- the strong trochaic rhythms of nursery rhymes (what Peter Nicholls calls "the mnemonics of childhood").
She had tumult of the brain
and I had rats in the rain
and she and I and the furlined man
were out for gain
( From This Condensery 6)
They are continuous with her experiments in both
notating and evoking the workings of the unconscious. She sent them to editors suggesting
they choose any number and combination they wished: a pragmatic gesture of a poet eager to
be printed or a deliberate release of authorial control from a poet still exploring the
aleatoric. She had told Pound that she was close to Tristan Tzara.
Increasingly, Zukofsky urged her to move away from her surrealism and to adopt a poetry based in the idiom of her Black Hawk Island/Fort Atkinson community. Here's Zukofsky writing to her late in the 30s: "Don't read French Surrealistes, nor Carroll, nor etc -- lemme tell you. Read the newspaper, talk more to people, . . ." The later New Goose poems move towards the incorporation of local speech.
Mr. Van Ess bought 14 washcloths?
Fourteen washrags, Ed Van Ess?
Must be going to give em
to the church, I guess.
He drinks, you know. The day we moved
he came into the kitchen stewed,
mixed things up for my sister Grace--
put the spices in the wrong place.
( From This Condensery 25)
The selection of poems published in the volume
called New Goose includes many of these local speech poems. Zukofsky's endorsement
is printed on the back of the dustjacket: "These poems are among the best in the
New Goose was published at the end of an immensely productive twelve year period, 1934-1946, during which Niedecker's relationship with LZ was perhaps at its most intense. There was the documented pregnancy and subsequent abortion which she reluctantly agreed to, Louis's courtship of and marriage to Celia, the birth of Louis and Celia's son, Paul, and so on. Along with the affirmations of the period had come a very complex friendship with Zukofsky, spokesman not only for realism but for a lean, trim poetry -- Jonathan Williams called it "sabre-toothed" -- where condensation is more than half of composition.
An aesthetic of condensation was not, I believe, a natural or easy choice for her; it was one that she adopted under Zukofsky's sway. Among her papers there are a number of references to her ambivalent acceptance of a condensed mode: "I'm going back to the Imagists, to the wordy ones and the strange rhythms, I have suppressed myself too long." Her copy of HD's Heliodora (1924) has a bundle of typed HD poems -- long, wordy poems rather than imagist miniatures. And yet, towards the end of her life she recalled, "I went to school to Objectivism." But it was a hard-won discipline, a corrective, its stern strictures an embodiment of her difficult friendship with Zukofsky. Indeed, the convolutions of that friendship may well account for her later citing of a debt to Objectivism. "I went to school to Objectivism," she said. And she also added, "but now I often say, 'There is something more'." By the end of the 1930s she may seem to have abandoned her wish to probe the unarticulated "something more," but this self-defining ambition was to reappear in the 1960s once her ties to Zukofsky had eased.
George and Mary Oppen met her in New York in the 1930s. After recalling Lorine's visit to their New York apartment, Mary Oppen writes,
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 decribed 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 into poems.
And here's George Oppen writing to a friend in 1963:
[LN] came to New York for a few days in 1930 or so, and we met her. She must be 60 now; a tiny little person, very, very near sighted always. She had graduated from Wisconsin but was too timid to face almost any job. She took a job scrubbing floors in a hospital near the run-down farm she inherited, and is still living in that crumbling farm house and scrubbing floors. Someone in Scotland printed a tiny little book of her poems, which are little barely audible poems, not without loveliness. . . and so on in the same vein.
These views of Niedecker are so inaccurate that
they're comical. Before I talk about this response to the poems, I should correct the
errors about her living conditions. My recent visit to Fort Atkinson and Black Hawk Island
taught me that until Henry Niedecker's carp fishing business failed in the late 1930s, the
Niedecker family lived a comfortable middle-class existence. In the course of her first
forty years, they owned large amounts of property on the island, including the Fountain
House Inn, several houses on the island, and a house in Fort Atkinson. The family money
was quickly depleted by the failure of Henry's fishing business and by his notoriously
reckless management of his property. By the time of his death in 1954, he had little to
leave to his daughter.
The Oppens' comments about the poems, however, are an understandable response to the Niedecker in print by the mid-1960s. Mary and George Oppen are referring to the Niedecker who had published a small format book New Goose in 1946, 4 1/2" x 6", 50 pages, the average length of the poems 4 lines. Tiny little poems. The volume that the Oppens would next have seen was My Friend Tree published in Scotland in 1961. A really tiny selection of tiny poems reprinted from New Goose. The Oppens can't be blamed for overlooking the large body of unpublished writing that would certainly have challenged their views of her. In the twenty years when no new book of poems was published, she was writing steadily, far more productively than her legendary "six lines in two months."
I want to fill in the gap between 1944 and 1962, the period between the completion of New Goose and the appearance of My Friend Tree, the period of no book publication. Between 1944 and 1949, she appears to write very little -- certainly few poems are traceable to this period. Late in 1949, she begins the "For Paul" project which will last until 1953 -- occupying five years of freedom from employment outside of the home. She produced poems steadily through these five years.
In its original form, "For Paul" is a 51-poem sequence divided into 8 groups. The 8 group whole, as it survives in the Zukofsky Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, appears to be unfinished. The only published trace of it, in her lifetime, appears in her collected poems, T&G and My Life By Water, pared down to a 13-poem "For Paul" section. The eight groups included poems addressed directly to Paul Zukofsky, 6 years old when she began the project, plus others such as "In the great snowfall before the bomb," "What bird would light," and so on, that have no apparent bearing on Paul. Groups 1 and 2 were published in magazines immediately after their completion, but the brisk pace of publication fell off dramatically from Group 3 onwards. She finished Group 8 in Dec, 1953 after which there is no further record or mention of the 8 groups. We next see the poems in 1955 lifted out of their groups and rearranged within a much larger manuscript, "For Paul and Other Poems."
She entered the "For Paul" project with great energy and ambition. The ambition can be measured in part by the extraordinary concentration of forms and styles: there are quotation-based poems, persona poems, ballads, blues songs, Mother Goose riddling rhymes and games, nonsense ephemera. There are poems ranging in length from 4 to 204 lines with line lengths and stanzas equally varied. There are rhythms that range from skipping, nursery rhythms to flat, halting prose rhythms. The lightweight abuts on the serious; the lyrical on an unyielding prose -- placements that must surely have been made deliberately.
Here are two examples of self-conscious placements: the long-lined, prosaic narrative, "I'd like to tell you about a man" is followed by the compressed and elided, "Shut up in woods." Both poems share a source in the writings of and about naturalist Thure Kumlein and his life in the mid-west. There's a similar kinship between two other adjacent poems: "Keen and lovely man" and "He moved in light." The first is what she calls "a blues song" -- a narrative account of a job interview; the second is a radically compressed version of the same experience. And both pairings mark a shift from the discursive towards the abstract.
The eight groups of "For Paul"s amount to a kind of Test of Poetry -- a sampling of how poetry is made, of what poetry can do in her hands. Zukofsky's Test of Poetry had been published in 1948 and she refers to the British edition of the book in Group 5 of the "For Paul"s. There is something of a didactic character to the 8 groups -- A Test of Poetry written for Paul. But "For Paul" was also for Louis and this Test of Poetry may have been rather pointedly addressed to Louis. Despite their surface allegiance with Zukofsky, the poems bristle with resistance. She ignored his successive warnings about the intrusive personal content of the poems that refer to Paul. We can register the poignant Paul content but we can also see that content -- a decade and a half after the abortion -- as a stubbornly claimed and asserted right -- a personal claim and an aesthetic claim. It occurs to me that up until the "For Paul"s, her writings had been meticulously ungendered. A 1930s letter of Zukofsky's quotes poet Robert Allison Evans's reaction to her poetry: "Now what do you think of that! That's good! You say she's a woman, I never saw a woman with a mind like that." The "For Paul's," however, are clearly the poems of a woman and a woman devoted to a child. There's a parallel assertion to be found in the reappearance of Niedecker's early surrealist practice that Zukofsky put pressure on her to abandon in the late 1930s. Several of the poems that refer directly to Paul, use the familiar long-lined, associational method. William Carlos Williams's prologue to Kora in Hell discriminates between true and false values: "The true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the false. Its imposition is due to lack of imagination, to an easy lateral sliding." The "For Paul" poems can be seen as a project that asserts her right to an alternative aesthetic, to an embrace of the lateral. The poems are expansive and disclosing -- conditions which compression polices.
Here are some comments Niedecker made to Zukofsky during the writing of the "For Paul"s: "I've put back say and said -- you can't condense this kind of thing -- it's either this or nothing." "You see, this thing of changing a poem means a different thing, different rhythm and pretty soon the whole original idea and movement in the mind of the writer is gone and the whole thing will have to be done over. However, I'll keep your suggestions." Zukofsky's suggested revisions are always condensations. There's her much quoted statement to Cid Corman in the 1960s, "You and Jonathan have thrown off the shackles of the sentence and the wide melody. For me the sentence lies in wait -- all those prepositions and connectives -- like an early spring flood. A good thing my follow-up feeling has always been condense, condense." And then there's this to Clayton Eshleman also in the 1960s: "I know that my cry all these years has been into - into - and under -- close your eyes and let the music carry you -- And what have I done? -- cut -- cut -- too many words . . ." The famed practice of the condensery. The longest of the "For Paul" poems, 5 pages long, eventually appears in print eighteen years after its composition, condensed to half a page.
The "For Paul and Other Poems" manuscript, prepared in 1955, was intended to be her second volume of poems, ten years after the first. She sent the manuscript to Zukofsky who, because of the Paul content of the poems, was allowed a greater than usual proprietorial role. He showed the poems to Jonathan Williams who was willing to publish a selection with financial help from Niedecker. According to Zukofsky, Williams and Creeley disliked the Paul content and they made suggestions about which poems should stay and which go. Edward Dahlberg wanted some of them for an anthology, but he bewildered Niedecker by selecting single stanzas or even single lines from the poems. More evidence of the mania for compression. "For Paul and Other Poems" was never published and through the 1960s she gradually dismantled the collection, publishing some of the poems in magazines, but important poems such as "What horror to awake at night" and "Sorrow moves in wide waves" had to wait 18 years for their first publication in T&G.
In the mid-1950s, after the expansive, disclosing "For Paul"s, she moved to the astringent and miniature haiku. Theodore Weiss of the Quarterly Review of Literature rejected some of these subsequent poems saying "Perhaps you have cut away too much from these, at least we miss in them some of the cross-grained snazzy detail we enjoy in your work."
I should mention one other assertion of difference that occurs in the "For Paul"s and that is not saved for publication. The 8 group structure is a compendium of detail about her home. The tale of the tribe that we get is of one that is hostile to art ("here they kick the book of poetry open"), certainly hostile to the high art espoused by the Zukofskys. The poems directed to Paul are full of references to Shakespeare, the James family, Mozart, Chopin, etc. But there is in adjacent poems an awareness of cultural forms closer to home: the country ballad, the advertising jingle, the blues. The content of these poems addresses the reality of the changing Black Hawk Island community. There is domestic violence, crass materialism, the culture of the automobile, youth violence, and so on -- all unflinchingly present in the poems. But very little of the tawdry side of life on Black Hawk Island survives among the poems which she saved for publication. We read her as a poet of a different sort of place, a place of water, marsh, silence, birdsong, trees. The "For Paul" project registers the actual place. The poem is an ambivalent "Paean to Place," a claiming of territory, a recovery of a complex poetics and poetic landscape, but one that didn't ever get beyond the manuscript stage.
She spent the rest of the decade experimenting with a minimalist haiku form while hoping to find a publisher for the manuscript of "For Paul and Other Poems." Her hopes for it are mentioned as late as 1960. In 1961 Ian Hamilton Finlay in Scotland read her 1946 volume New Goose and the folk poems struck an immediate chord with him caught up as he was in the Scottish folk poetry revival. He wrote to Niedecker with lavish praise for the poems and offered to re-print some of them. Within a year My Friend Tree was published. It reprinted 9 of the original and less surreal New Goose poems and added 7 new ones. Reviews, both local and Scottish, praised the poems as perfect miniature gems. Buoyed by the sudden interest from a publisher, Niedecker began to think of herself as a folk poet and she made the sad and resigned comment to Jonathan Williams that her folk poetry may be her only claim to difference between herself and other poets.
It took her a while to return to the strength of the writing of the "For Paul" period. I should say that while I question her status as a minimalist, I do believe that she brings great skill to the practice of condensation. And she finds ways to make it serve her early intentions of reaching towards the abstract. As her ties to Zukofsky loosened during the 1960s, she recovered her earlier ambitions. She ignored his disparagement of abstractionism: "What's empty is empty and who wants it?" She also ignored the complaints from Cid Corman over her stated interest in the metaphysical and pursued her probings of the abstract against a background of disapproval. When her poems allude directly to the metaphysical, they tend to be framed with humour, often self-deprecating humour. Or she resorts to automatic writing to distance herself from her production.
She compiled her two volumes of collected poems -- T&G published by Jargon in 1969 and My Life By Water published by Fulcrum in the UK in 1970 -- with an awareness of her immediate audience. Her 'collecteds' were in fact 'selecteds' and she chose the best samples of her condensation poetics. She comes across as a minimalist, a realist, a practitioner of an object-based poetics. The volumes present some of her most accomplished work but not always her most interesting or provocative -- many poems are excluded and their thematic arrangement obscures some of their original intention. A poetics of condensation is rigorously applied within the individual poems but also within the body of work that she puts on show. So much is excised, so much of the record is missing -- lost or deliberately destroyed -- that we are left with a lean and partial view of her enterprise.
At about the time of George Oppen's comment about Niedecker's tiny work, she was engaged in researching the poem that would be called "Lake Superior." Her notes for the poem number close to 300 typed pages; the poem itself is condensed to five. Aside from offering access to a honed compositional method, the notes go further to present a Niedecker of extraordinary range. Once she's done with some rather dutiful stretches of encyclopaedic note-taking and a prose travelogue account of her journey around Lake Superior, she begins the process of extracting quotations and observations, assembling and re-assembling them alongside each other, testing the chemistry of adjacent words and phrases. Of course, only a small fraction of this work is preserved for the poem. Among the notes are a half dozen handmade booklets of cross-referenced names and terms -- a highly resonant mnemonics, baffling to the reader unless the booklets themselves are seen as instances of an experimental poetics. Only by sheer chance has the collection of notes survived to give us an expanded view of the "condensery."
from How2 1:1 (March 1999). Online Source
Jenny Penberthy lives in Vancouver, Canada. She is currently editing Niedecker's collected poems for the University of California Press. Her publications include Lorine Niedecker: Woman & Poet (National Poetry Foundation, 1996), Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), and an edition of Niedecker's Harpsichord & Salt Fish (Pig Press, 1988). She is also preparing an edition of Niedecker's "Lake Superior" notes.
Return to Lorine Niedecker