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?