Jenny Penberthy's 2002 edition of Lorine Niedecker's Collected Works was such a shock that it took me a six years to get my bearings again, and finish this appreciation.
There are two ways to look at Lorine Niedecker’s life. One is to see her as a 20th century John Clare: isolated in a primitive rural backwater, keeping body and soul together through wretched menial jobs, writing poems appreciated by a handful of admirers but otherwise completely unknown. Another way is to see her as a 20th century T’ao Ch’ien: a clear-sighted and earnest literary sophisticate who, disdaining the life of the metropolis, preferred to retire to the farm and send poems about the pleasures of seclusion to less fortunately-situated friends. Niedecker’s poems imply both.
The thought that there was a significant modernist poet living in Jefferson County, Wisconsin when I was growing up an hour south of there is astonishing. Southern Wisconsin has its appeal—and it’s charming to read about Janesville and Glen Elyn and Milwaukee—but I can’t forget Steve Goodman’s joke about “Beloit” being the sound a quarter makes when it falls in a toilet.
Niedecker was born on Blackhawk Island on Lake Koshkonong, where her parents rented vacation cabins. She went to high school in Fort Atkinson. In 1922 she started at Beloit College, but the next year returned home to care for her mother. Her parents lived in separate cottages, as her father pursued an affair with a neighbor. In 1928 Niedecker married and moved to Fort Atkinson, working in the Dwight Foster Public Library, and writing book reviews in the Jefferson County Union (both still extant). Two years later she lost her job; the marriage fell apart, and she moved back to Blackhawk Island.
In 1944 Niedecker began working as stenographer and proofreader for the Fort Atkinson, Hoard’s Dairyman (also still being published). In the early Fifties her eyes went bad and she quit the Dairyman, and tended her ailing, separated parents. She lived in a one-and-a-half room summer cottage without plumbing. After they died she scrubbed floors for a Fort Atkinson hospital. In the Sixties she was discovered by the younger generation (preeminently Ian Hamilton Finlay in Edinburgh, and Cid Corman in Boston and Kyoto) and began to publish regularly. She married a second time. She died in 1970. Her Collected Works, edited by Niedecker scholar Jenny Penberthy, was published in 2002.
The literary event of Niedecker’s life was encountering the February 1931 issue of Poetry magazine. The “special Objectivists issue,” guest-edited by Louis Zukofsky presented poems by himself, Basil Bunting, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and seven others.
Niedecker was moved to write to Zukofsky, who became her life-long advocate, advisor and confidant, and—briefly and disasterously—her lover. In his role as Ezra Pound’s designated networker in America, Zukofsky introduced Niedecker to the Bunting, Reznikoff and others who became her audience and colleagues.
It’s hard not to see the Objectivists as saints of modernism. They had working-class backgrounds and, except for Oppen, lived hand-to-mouth lives. Most lived outside or estranged from mainstream literary or cultural centers. Except for Zukofsky, none of them were professional writers, none lived literary lives: Oppen was a carpenter, Rakosi an social worker, Renzikoff, Bunting and Niedecker did some journalism among other work.
Their models from the older generation were Apollinaire, H.D., early T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Wiliam Carlos Williams. Not Yeats, not the Anglo-Catholic Eliot, not James Joyce, and not—exept for Niedecker—the Dadaists or Surrealists. Their work had a beneficial influence, in turn, on the later work of Pound and Williams.
Their orientation towards the social and political issues of the day was leftist, but they disdained their era’s progressive modes of propaganda, Socialist Realism, and populism.
They all experienced long silences, either deliberate or through circumstances: 27 years separate Oppen’s first and second books. Reznikoff and Niedecker experienced 13 year gaps. For most there was hiatus from the mid-Forties to the late Fifties.
What did Objectivism mean? Zukofksy proposed “Writing … which is in detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody.”
Bunting, Oppen, Rakosi, Reznikoff and Zukofsky, shared certain caracteristics:
Descriptive. They presented “the thing in order to convey the feeling.”
Details. They composed poems of a collection of detailed images, or subtle deployments of simple words.
Local. They wrote about specific situations in specific places. The Americans were American to the point of being parochial.
Ordinariness. They adhered to ordinary situations, images, vocabulary, avoiding anything exotic, recherché, bizarre, violent, surreal. They avoided classical mythology, which is practially ubiquitous in 20th century poetry. They avoided myth and ritual to the point of sounding prosaic and trivial.
Sincerity. The writing of the poem was an encounter between the writer and the world in which authenticity was the paramount virtue. Which meant no fudging of the things, their reflection in the writer, or the totality of the situation. The form of the poem came of that encounter directly, not out of application of a preconceived form.
Un-literary. They avoided references to European and Asian languages, literature, theology, and culture. (Contra Ezra Pound, James Joyce and T.S. Eliot.)
Visionary. The point of the focus on the thing and the act of perceiving the thing was was an empirical vision, a vision without anything super-natural. The poem opens the self up to the situation, attending widely and deeply.
Anti-colloquial. The poem for them was an object constructed on paper: it was not speech, not colloquial language. Both the spoken vernacular and the literary vernacular (journalism, the prose and verse of popular entertainment) were seen as obstacles to vision. Syntax was optional. Ezra Pound’s work in a widest range of dialects and languages could be seen as an attempt to demolish the authority of vernacular English. Likewise Pound and Zukofsky’s recourse to intricate antique verse forms was to avoid the vernacular.
The Objectivists were a pretty sober bunch, but somehow what Niedecker initially got out of them was the freedom to be sassy:
There’s trouble with the moon-maker’s union,
the blood-maker’s union, the thought-maker’s union;
but the play could be altered.
(“Promise of a Brilliant Funeral,” 1931)
… Future studies
will throw much darkness on the home-talk.
("Progression V," 1933)
It was as if Dorothy Parker had collaborated with Hans Arp:
not foreign aggression
but world disillusionment
dedicated to the proposition
of an ice cream cone
and the stars and stripes forever
over the factories and hills of our country
for the soldier dead
(“Memorial Day,” 1934)
As the ‘Thirties progressed, probably under the influnce of her new colleagues, her poems became sparer and sparer. In the sequence “Next Year or I Fly my Rounds Temptestuous,” written on the pages of a bi-weekly 1935 calendar, she whittled single lines or phrases, with each syllable weighed for consequence and musicality:
I can always
go back to
They came in sing-
ing and went
out walking. …
I talk at the top
of my white
and what is
it on a post-
She developed the possiblities of the acidic/tender aphorism:
I spent my money
by the ocean
and have not any
to fill a tooth.
O Matchbox, save him, he’s the best timidity we have.
(“The President of the Holding Company,” 1936)
Starting in 1938 she worked as a writer and research editor with the Federal Writers’ Project’s Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State (1941) Individual writers were not acknowledged, but the section on “Plant Life” is suspiciously tangy:
In the thinned woods and long old fencerows grow beaked hazel, chokecherry, northern gooseberry, wild black currant, and bush honeysuckle. In winter the shiny, leathery leaves of the pipsissewa and the delicate needles of the yew and juniper are green beneath the snow. … Early in the spring the hepatica puts forth a small, enamel-like blossom, varying from bluish-lavender to pink; then come the straw-colored Clintonia and the dwarf Solomon’s seal, a mass of white flowerets. Ladyslippers, including the yellow and pink moccasin, grow widely, as do the related rein orchis and saprophytic coral root. … Often the waxy-white golden-centered trillium and purple-striped Jack-in-the-pulpit grow here, and the showy ladyslipper, with purple hood arched over its white spur-like lip. Bellwort, Dutchman’s breeches, violet and purplish-brown ginger blossom in early May. … Spring beauties, which close when a cloud obscures the sun, make solid sheets of pink in the hardwood copses before the trees put forth leaves.
As the Thirties passed into the Forties, Niedecker’s tone darkened. Absurdity ceased being a joke. Her poems became glimpses of selfish, shattered lives, and pointless toil. The beauty of the world was a consolation, but it existed as a fact beside its pain, its stupidity, the contraction and grinding down. The poems of her 1946 collection New Goose took the form of discrete found objects: overheard speech, found texts. They often fall into terse folk-ish rhymes:
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.
Photographers like Lange, Shahn and Evans of the Farm Service Administration were also at that time focusing on the squalor and waste of rural life. Not that Niedecker has any optimism about reform:
My daughters left home
I was job-certified
to rake leaves
in New Madrid.
Now they tell me my girls
should support me again
and they’re not out of debt
from the last time they did.
In a letter to Zukofsky in November 1947, she made the rawness of her situation clear, but with a touch of pride:
Was shoveling snow the other morning at 5:30 when big round moon was almost setting—just like night, bright moonlight, lovely … . I burn my trash (waste from flood) on path to river in a spot bare of snow. Nights I hang over the porch filling my small oil can to fill oil heater. I go to folks for my drinking water as my own well water isn’t clear yet—I’m not home enough to pump it to the stage fit for using. Drafty errands in becky, sharp but fair—love it all. An egg froze for me in my box on the porch but ate it anyhow. A bit of life in the country, wut? How’s your oil heater now? Why shd it refuse to work?
To the extent that she permited herself escape, it occurred in the in the form of nostaglia for the days of the early pioneers, admiring their tollerance:
Witnesses judged him as good as the average
for humanity, honesty, peace.
The court sent him home to his children,
his dogs, his gun, and his geese.
And admiring the intimacy with nature of the early naturalists:
Asa Gray wrote Increase Lapham:
pay particular attention
to my pets, the grasses.
Tried selling my pictures. In jail
twice for debt. My companion
a sharp, frosty gale.
In England unpacked
them with fear:
must I migrate back
to the woods unknown, strange
to all but the birds
Dear Lucy, the servants here
There are outburts of ominous Objectivist clear-sightedness:
A monster owl
out on the fence
flew away. What
is it the sign
of? The sign of
But she doesn’t entirely shy away from the mythic, especially when dealing with her family:
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 neighbors’ eyes;
raise their hands from ground to sky,
and hang or fall by the whiteness of their all.
The museum man!
I wish he’d taken Pa’s spitbox!
I’m going to take that spitbox out
and bury it in the ground
and put a stone on top.
Because without that stone on top
it would come back.
And Europe intrudes in the form of news of the war:
The brown muskrat, noiseless,
swims the white stream,
streched out as if already
a woman’s neck-piece.
In Red Russia the Russians
at a mile a minute
pitch back Nazi wildmen
The number of Britons killed
by German bombs equals
the number of lakes in Wisconsin.
But more German corpses
in Stalingrad’s ruins
than its stones.
(from the New Goose manuscript, circa 1945)
(The 1941 Guidebook reported “8,500 counted lakes.”)
She began to combine individual units into cinematographic sequences:
Well, spring overlows the land,
floods floor, pump, wash machine
of the woman moored to this low shore by dearness.
Good-bye to lilacs by the door
and all I planted for the eye.
If I could hear—too much talk in the world,
to much wind washing, washing
good black dirt away.
Her hair is high.
Big blind ears.
I’ve wasted my whole life in water.
My man’s got nothing but leaky boats.
My daughter, writer, sits and floats.
In the ten years after the war the darkness often overwhelms. Her poems speak of the pain of loneliness and isolation:
In the great snowfall before the bomb
… I worked the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else.
… 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
There are also doubts:
What horror to awake at night
and in the dimness see the light.
Time is white
I’ve spent my life on nothing.
The thought that stings. How are you, Nothing,
sitting around with Something’s wife.
Buzz and burn
is all I learn
I’ve spent my life on nothing.
I’m pillowed and padded, pale and puffing
lifting household stuffing—
I’ve spent my life in nothing.
Now when she describes her homelife to Zukofsky it's more exasperated than boastful:
I arrived home against a 50 mile icy west wind with a scarf tied over my face to find my oil barrel almost dry … and my cistern pump in the kitchen frozen. I looked in my drinking water pail and hardly a drop there so I turned around and went to the folks with two pails, one for soft water and one for hard. Coming back the water splashed out and it was like standing up on the deck of a ship in a storm. My house was 46 and I turned up the heat. I went out to tip the barrel and turn on the faucet and hold the oil can under it all three things with two hands in the wind and squeezed enough oil for the night. Supper was partaken with boots and scarf on. (March 6, 1950)
And there is the end:
The death of my poor father
and two small houses.
To settle this estate
a thousand fees arise—
I enrich the law.
Before my own death is certified,
recorded, final judegment
I shall own a book
of old Chinese poems
to probe the river
But the poems also speak of the redemption of solitude, freedom, intimacy with nature:
In summer silence moves
Fall pheasants’ cry:
over us wax-leaf poplars shine and shudder
as my mother,
continue after the mind is blown.
she now lay deaf to death
She could have grown a good rutabaga
in the burial ground
and how she’d have loved these woods
One of the pallbearers said I
like a dumbfool followed a deer
wanted to see her jump a fence—
never’d seen a deer jump a fence
the way she runs.
Along the river
over my head
who gave me life
give me this
our relative the air
our rich friend
They often take the form of letters, letters from the country. Her life was intensely local, but her poems are not overburdened with local color. She was not attempting a natural history or a guidebook. She felt too intensely about her home to think it was unique. Her specificities are not tied to Jefferson County.
During this period she also wrote rhymed stanzas. Ezra Pound’s translations of the Confucian Odes were published in 1954, and perhaps he influenced her, and she influenced him:
In moonlight lies
the river passing—
it’s not quiet
and it’s not laughing.
I’m not young
and I’m not free
but I’ve a house of my own
by a willow tree.
Around 1957, the year all biographies point to as a personal nadir (she became a hospital charwoman), Niedecker returned to a more aphoristic form, her syntax loosened up, punctuation fell away, and humour resurfaces:
Van Gogh could see
No matter where you are
you are alone
and in danger—well
And landscapes become more benign.
How white the gulls
in grey weather
My friend tree
I sawed you down
but I must attend
an older friend
(Both of which have been set to music by by Harrison Birtwistle.)
Kindness, friendship, and love appear, both present-day and historical:
Old man who seined
to educate his daughter
sees red Mars rise:
Cold water business
now starred in Fishes
of dipnet shape
thru his arms.
You are my friend—
you bring me peaches
and the high bush cranberry
you water my worms
you patch my boot
with your mending kit
nothing in it
but my hand.
The wild and wavy event
now chintz at the window
was revolution …
to Miss Abigail Smith:
You have faults
You hang your head down
like a bulrush
you read, you write, you think
but I drink Madeira
and you cross your Leggs
How are the children?
If in danger run to the woods
Evergreen o evergreen
how faithful are your branches
From 1963 to her death in 1970, she explored new scenes and forms. The poems became longer: collages of observation, reflection, overheard or found words, all juxtaposed. She wrote about married life:
in the world’s black night
if not repose.
At the close—
I hid with him
from the long range guns.
We lay leg
in the cupboard, head
A slit of light
at no bird dawn—
and lived unburied.
She wrote about city places, highways, campuses, radio voices:
gone by hot noon
(“Chicory flower on campus,” 1964)
Last night the trash barrel
smoked from lighted paper
from sun burning
I have to fly
wit Venus arms
I found fishing
then back to Univers of Wis
where they got stront. 90
to determ if same marble
as my arms
(“So he said on radio”)
The poems took on more history, geology and natural history, both as a connection and a symptom of dis-connect:
In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock
In blood the minerals
of the rock” “Radisson:
‘a laborinth of pleasure’
this world of the Lake
Long hair, long gun
Fingernails pulled out
(“Lake Superior,” 1966-7)
The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
the leaf beside it
once was stone
Why should we hurry
Unsurpassed in beauty
this autumn day
The secretary of defence
knew precisely what
the undersecretary of state
was talking about
Where the arrows
of the road signs
Life is natural
in the evolution
than rock …
ever gave me
which if intense
thin to nothing lichens
grind with their acid
granite to sand
These may survive
the grand blow-up
(“Wintergreen Ridge,” 1968)
After she died, Basil Bunting wrote:
Lorine Niedecker … will be remembered long and warmly in England, a country she never visted. She was, in the estimation of many, the most interesting woman poet America has yet produced. Her work was austere, free of all ornament, relying on the fundamental rhythms of concise statement, so that to many readers it must have seemed strange and bare. She was only beginning to be appreciated when she died, but I have no doubt at all that in 10 years time Wisconsin will know that she was its most considerable literary figure.