Late in her life, Lorine Niedecker collected several dozen of her poems in handmade books that she gave to three friends. One poem common to all three books is “Who Was Mary Shelley?,” a Gothic ballad in which the author of Frankenstein dwells not in possibility but anonymity. “What was her name/before she married?” Niedecker wonders. What was she thinking when she “Created the monster nights/after Byron, Shelley/talked the candle down.”
When Niedecker died in 1970 at the age of 67, her work was shrouded in mystery as well. During the half-century she spent writing poems, Niedecker published in the best little magazines and earned the praise of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. Nevertheless, opinion of her poetry remained dominated by hearsay and caricature. The view of George Oppen, who had met Niedecker just once, during her stay with Zukofsky in Manhattan in 1933, is typical. Niedecker was “a tiny little person, very, very near sighted always,” Oppen told a friend in 1963, adding that she “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.” In a similar vein, the Jargon Society published Epitaphs for Lorine in 1973, and several contributors memorialized Niedecker with the diminutive “poetess.”
The portrait of Niedecker as the Grandma Moses of American verse can’t be attributed entirely to the provincialism or paternalism of the avant-garde poetry world. When Oppen wrote to his friend, Niedecker had just two books in print (the second being a redaction of the first), and both books contained, well, poems rarely longer than four lines. But Niedecker didn’t write just “little” poems, and access to the rest of her oeuvre improved in 1985 with the publication of Cid Corman’s The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker and Robert Bertholf’s From This Condensery: The Complete Writing of Lorine Niedecker. The problem was that Corman and Bertholf presented contrasting Niedeckers. Corman’s text contains less than half of Niedecker’s poetry, and it emphasizes her lyrics about nature and domestic life on Black Hawk Island in south-central Wisconsin, her home for all but a few years of her life. Bertholf’s volume includes those lyrics plus Niedecker’s poems about history and politics, but it teems with textual errors (misattributions, mistranscriptions), and so its emphasis on the Niedecker who probed the world beyond Black Hawk Island is useless.
“Isn’t it glorious? Let’s trim green thought in one place and let it grow wild in another,” says a character in “The Evening’s Automobiles,” one of two short stories that Niedecker wrote in the 1950s. Jenny Penberthy has let Niedecker’s green thought run wild by restoring poems that either went unpublished in books or periodicals during Niedecker’s lifetime or were trimmed from or mangled in posthumous editions. Collected Works includes Niedecker’s two published collections, New Goose (1946) and North Central (1968); three complete unpublished manuscripts, “New Goose” (a collection of twenty-nine poems in the same style as the forty-one poems in New Goose), “For Paul and Other Poems” and “Harpsichord & Salt Fish”; the gift-book poems; uncollected poems, both published and unpublished; and published and unpublished fiction and radio plays. Though one regrets the exclusion of essays Niedecker wrote on Zukofsky and Corman, the range of forms and ideas is still electrifying. Not since the appearance of the facsimile version of The Waste Land in 1971, which clearly established how T.S. Eliot’s poem had been transformed by Ezra Pound’s editing, has a new edition of an American poet’s work shattered the prevailing sense of that writer’s art. Niedecker may have lived in a marshy backwater, but thanks to Penberthy’s meticulously edited volume she can no longer be treated as an unintellectual pastoral miniaturist. Isn’t it glorious?
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“The old words have reached the age of retirement. Let us pension them off! We need a twentieth-century dictionary!” This is Eugene Jolas, writing in the pages of transition in 1932. With contributors like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, Jolas’s transition crackled with Surrealist-tinged linguistic experiment. It was also one of several little magazines that Niedecker read faithfully in the early 1930s. The standard story of Niedecker’s career is that she became a disciple of Zukofsky after reading the Objectivist issue of Poetry he edited in 1931. Collected Works opens with several dozen poems from the early 1930s–all previously unpublished in book form–and they reveal Niedecker’s preoccupation with a surrealism at odds with Zukofsky’s focus on the affectless object. Typical is the beginning of “Synamism”: “Berceuse, mediphala/and the continent. German and therefore unidentified./Cricket night, seismograph and stitch. All tongues backed/by a difference.” Absent from Niedecker’s early poems are Surrealism’s heroic sadism and insane hallucinations. Instead, she prefers a surrealism of language, a poetry that takes root in neologisms and portmanteau words and swirls into an aural collage of illogical but syntactically sound phrases. “Close the door and come to the crack quickly./To jesticulate in the rainacular or novembrood//in the sunconscious…as though there were fs/and no ings, freighter of geese without wings,” she writes in “Progression.” By mixing the abstract and discursive, Niedecker sought to create a poetry capable of evoking different levels of thought and feeling. She sought the “rainacular,” a nonsense not without sense because it records its own kind of testimony–a fluid vernacular, lived speech.
In the late 1930s, Niedecker recalibrated her explorations of language’s subliminal texture. She started to use idiomatic phrases, casting them into the hey-diddle-diddle artifice of Mother Goose: “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.” Though not hermetic, Niedecker’s “New Goose” poems still create an aura of deceptive lucidity, due in part to the unwavering march of their trochaic rhythms. In poem after poem the ephemeral suddenly turns serious, but one isn’t exactly sure why. “Scuttle up the workshop,/settle down the dew,/I’ll tell you what my name is/when we’ve made the world new.” Niedecker had tapped the cryptic sounds of Mother Goose, but she wasn’t writing bedtime verses. In the late 1930s, she was employed by the Federal Writer’s Project, working as a research editor on Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State. In New Goose and its many corollary poems, Niedecker extends the study of local speech and lore she had undertaken for the guide:
What a woman!–hooks men like rugs,
clips as she hooks, prefers old wool, but all
childlike, lost, houseowning or pensioned men
her prey. She covets the gold in her husband’s teeth.
She’d sell dirt, she’d sell your eyes
fried in deep grief.
Many of the New Goose poems are ballads that distill a specific local incident to its pungent emotional essence. Together they tell the history of an old, weird Wisconsin, a place of desire and Depression, betrayals and bombs, politics and privations. What’s remarkable about New Goose is Niedecker’s ability to blend a surreal aesthetic with a documentary impulse without diluting local character or dulling her sometimes caustic attitude toward it. Had Niedecker used a camera instead of a typewriter to make her art, her photographs would have resembled the early work of Walker Evans. Like Evans, Niedecker conveys the abstract textures of everyday life without reducing everyday life to an abstraction. “There’s a better shine/on the pendulum/than is on my hair/and many times//I’ve seen it there.” New Goose is Niedecker’s rainacular.
Several years before New Goose appeared, in 1946, Niedecker began a job as a proofreader for a local trade journal, Hoard’s Dairyman. Deteriorating eyesight forced her to quit Hoard’s in 1950. Seven years later, amid financial difficulties, she started a job as a cleaner at the Fort Atkinson Hospital. (Niedecker’s poor eyesight and floor scrubbing are the two facts Oppen got right in his letter to his friend.) Until she retired from the hospital in 1963, when she married Al Millen, Niedecker had little time for writing poetry, or at least for further refining the variety of forms and styles of “For Paul and Other Poems,” which she composed in the early 1950s. Addressed to Zukofsky’s son, “For Paul” includes persona poems, ballads, quasi epigrams and blues songs. They are written in brisk free verse or stanzas bristling with riddling rhymes and range in length from four to 204 lines. Niedecker developed a new style during her six years at the hospital: a concentrated five-line stanza in which lines of one to six syllables are organized more by sonic stresses than syntax. The role of sound as the poem’s organizing force is intensified by ellipsis, with verbs and transitions being the most frequently omitted words.
The virtues of such compression are apparent in one of Niedecker’s most remarkable poems, “Lake Superior,” which she wrote following a road trip through Wisconsin, Canada and Minnesota that she and Millen made in 1966. “Rock creates the only human landscape,” W.H. Auden told a friend in 1948 while he was writing “In Praise of Limestone.” Auden was speaking figuratively, for in his poem he uses the limestone terrain of the Italian island of Ischia as an allegory of the human body. Some of the oldest rock in North America is exposed around Lake Superior. That azoic rock is the core of Niedecker’s poem, and her approach to it isn’t allegorical.
In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock
In blood the minerals
of the rock
Niedecker sustains this taught, unpunctuated equilibrium through the next six sections, as she considers the fate of several explorers who have preceded her. Among them is the fur trader Pierre Esprit Radisson, who in the mid-seventeenth century became the first European to traverse the lake. “Radisson:/’a laborinth of pleasure’/this world of the Lake,” Niedecker writes, “Long hair, long gun//Fingernails pulled out/by Mohawks.” Niedecker’s estimation of the cost of wonder–for humans and the landscape–is interrupted in the eighth section of the poem by an eruption of sensuality.
Ruby of corundum
from changing limestone
kicked up in America’s
you have been in my mind
between my toes
Instead of possessing the landscape’s mineral wealth, Niedecker is mesmerized and possessed by it. But that wealth is linguistic too, for Niedecker’s description vividly echoes her early Surrealist poems. “Corundum” is a mineral that crystallizes into ruby and sapphire, but it might very well be a corruption of “conundrum.” “Sard” is a type of quartz but could also be a fusion of “snarl” and “bard.” It’s as though the rainacular had percolated through fissures in Superior’s limestone. “The North is one vast, massive, glorious corruption of rock and language,” Niedecker remarks in her notes from the 1966 trip, and in her poem she portrays Superior as a Precambrian compost pile, a place where words and things are pulverized and transformed, where North American rocks acquire Greek names, where “Sault Sainte Marie” becomes “the Soo.”
In the poem’s penultimate section Niedecker synthesizes these issues.
The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
the leaf beside it
once was stone
Why should we hurry
These lines, and their uncharacteristic surfeit of verbs, would be unsettling if they opened the poem, but coming at the end, after Niedecker’s geological meditations, they are soothing. Niedecker has found a home, in both an eschatological and epistemological sense. The stone may preordain her end, but it also is the product of a profound creative pressure, which “Lake Superior” answers in kind. Niedecker acknowledges the stony transformation that awaits her and her reciprocal desire to compress and recompose that fact ever so briefly into the sensuous, fleeting order of her poem.
“Lake Superior,” like much of Niedecker’s late poetry, expresses a fundamental Modernist idea: All ages are somehow contemporaneous. “‘The ancient present. In me the years are flowing together,'” as the narrator of “The Evening’s Automobiles” explains. Niedecker, however, never overlayed her lyrical historicism with an epic mythology. She drew a map of the world but never pretended that it was anything other than her own. Consequently, despite the riches of its localism, “Lake Superior” is unlike, say, Williams’s Paterson because it does not seek to be a perfect, absolutely metaphorical America.
This is most clear in “Darwin,” Niedecker’s final poem. Her Darwin is neither the avid reader of Shakespeare nor the eccentric who played the trombone to his French beans. He has the intellectual bearing of the Darwin in Auden’s 1940 “New Year Letter,” who “brought/Man’s pride to heel at last and showed/His kinship with the worm and toad.” But unlike Auden, Niedecker doesn’t portray Darwin as a dark angel of intellectual cataclysm. Instead, her Darwin suffers doubts and frustrations as he struggles to reconcile his understanding of the animal appetite for survival with the precarious pleasures of human intelligence. The struggle consumes him even on his sickbed. Stricken by a fever in the Andes, he writes to his wife, “‘Dear Susan…/I am ravenous/for the sound/of the pianoforte.'”
In fact, the person whom Darwin most resembles is the Niedecker of “Lake Superior,” the poet mesmerized by the geological remnants of lava, glacier and sea. The naturalist’s and poet’s temperaments are blended through the very form of “Darwin”–a collage of elliptical quotes from Darwin’s writings that gain the tincture of Niedecker’s voice as they are recast into stepped four-line stanzas. Just as when Niedecker catalogues Superior’s minerals in a melodious trance, Darwin’s senses open his mind to matters beyond his mastery.
I remember, he said
those tropical nights at sea–
we sat and talked
on the booms
Tierra del Fuego’s
shining glaciers translucent
blue clear down
(almost) to the indigo sea
Darwin stands not against the world but within it, conscious of its awesome mutability as well as of the need to understand that force on a human scale so as not to be philosophically annihilated by it. (The possibility of nuclear annihilation was on Niedecker’s mind at the time as well. In “Wintergreen Ridge,” from 1968, she writes: “thin to nothing lichens/grind with their acid//granite to sand/These may survive/the grand blow-up/the bomb.”) Like Niedecker, Darwin realizes the world is something he knows but can’t control or own. Yet he still possesses an idea, and it encompasses more than the fact of his kinship with the worm and toad:
not built by brute force
but designed by laws
The details left
to the working of chance
“Let each man hope
what he can”
“Darwin” is a defense of the individual task of imagination and understanding, and Collected Works allows one to appreciate how passionately and carefully Niedecker took up that task. Like Darwin, Niedecker felt at home even when she was away from home, her subtle and sensuous words disclosing her belief that the actual earth is often fantastic enough.