“Little, Barely Audible Poems”
In the early 1930s, Lorine Niedecker left her home in rural Wisconsin for New York, to visit her friend and mentor, the poet Louis Zukofsky. During her stay, she met George and Mary Oppen. Mary Oppen described her impressions of her guest: “New York was overwhelming, and she was alone, a tiny, timid, small-town girl . . . her poetry emerged from a tiny life.” Thirty years later, in 1963, George Oppen mentions the visit in a letter to a friend: ”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.”
Lorine Niedecker has long been something of an enigma within American poetry. Her elusiveness lies, in part, in the tremendous economy of her poems. What Douglas Crase calls her “immense concision”—or what Niedecker calls “condensery”—can make her work feel inscrutable. This practice of condensation was influenced by her ties to an “Objectivist” group of poets writing in the 1930s and 1940s: Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Charles Reznikoff, among others. Influenced by the writings of Ezra Pound and the early Imagists, the Objectivists valued concision and exactness; and they emphasized an objective, de-personalized view of things; Zukofsky, in particular, loathed a too intrusive poetic voice, which he described as “imperfect or predatory or sentimental.” It was the Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine—guest-edited by Zukofsky in 1931—which pushed Niedecker into a period of intense artistic development. Much of her work was written according to Zukofsky’s often exacting imperatives.
Compounding Niedecker’s elusiveness is a geographical distance she kept from her contemporaries. While Zukofsky and Oppen lived and wrote in New York, Niedecker lived on Black Hawk Island, near the town of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Here she remained for most of her life, working various jobs—a writer for the Federal Writer’s project, a proofreader for the Fort Atkinson local journal, Hoard’s Dairyman, and, when her eyesight got worse, a cleaner at the Fort Atkinson memorial hospital.
Niedecker’s minimalism, her lack of money, and her physical isolation, have led to a sometimes facile construction of a narrative of drabness: critical neglect, a timorous disposition which finds expression in the tentative and the “tiny,” and a creative ambition thwarted by extreme poverty and meek health. It is a portrait which does little justice to her extensive output, her long, intense communication with a community of poets, and the breadth of her concerns.
Niedecker, in fact, spent most of her life writing poetry. She was recognized and praised by her contemporaries: Basil Bunting, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and Zukofsky. She took her correspondence with poets and publishers in New York—Zukofsky, Cid Corman, and her publisher Jonathan Williams—as seriously as her writing. Her influences were wide ranging—from Wordsworth to Wallace Stevens to Marx; although she wrote about domesticity, rural life, and the class tensions embedded in the community of Black Hawk Island, she also wrote about history, nature, the bomb, and global politics. Why, then, does Niedecker remain elusive?
Lorine Niedecker was under-recognized in her own life, and her audience today remains predominantly scholarly, and small. But careful study of the body of her work suggests that—while she was highly ambitious—she was also in charge of her own lack of visibility, more than has been supposed. As the poet and academic Rachel Blau DuPlessis has argued extensively in her essay “Lorine Niedecker, The Anonymous,” Niedecker—both in terms of her immediate social and cultural context, and in her approach to her occupation as poet—was conscious of her own marginality. Her work reveals an unwillingness to accept conventional female roles, and she is distinctly critical of materialistic values and American consumerism. These attitudes are expressed in an emphasis on the collective, a practice in which she maintains a focus on the local and low—the life and language of rural, working-class Wisconsin—bringing into poetry the vernacular and vitality of the people she lived among.¹
One of the most arresting works made visible by Jenny Penberthy’s recent, invaluable edition of Niedecker’s Collected Works appears in a sequence previously unpublished poems written before New Goose. The poem contains a series of elliptical references to the author of Frankenstein: “Who Was Mary Shelley? What was her name / before she married?” Niedecker’s attentiveness to the forgotten, female writer (“Who Was Mary Shelley?”) underscores an obvious connection between Shelley’s anonymity and Niedecker’s anticipation of her own.
The Mary Shelley poem focuses on her obscurity—an obscurity that seems to be consequent on her loss of identity (“What was her name before/she married?”). In contrast, Niedecker’s resistance to marriage and a conventional idea of femininity grants her creative freedom. This understated feminism is evident in her later collection of poems, composed in the early 1950s. For Paul and Other Poems—addressed to Zukofsky’s son—is a formal mix, comprising ballad, blues song, and epigraph. In “I rose from marsh mud,” Niedecker’s detachment from marriage and the trappings of traditional femininity intersect with a criticism of materialistic values. The poem’s speaker “rises” from mud to watch a bride marry—“to see her wed in the rich/rich silence of the church.” The guile of Niedecker’s concision becomes clear in the transition from “rich” to “rich silence.” The line break upends the bride’s appearance of affluence—her dwelling “in the rich”—and the meaning of “rich” shifts instead to the silence of the church—and the capacious emptiness of the marital agreement. Niedecker’s depiction of the bride also redefines wealth as a kind of dearth. Niedeceker refers to her as a “little white slave girl.” She possesses “diamond fronds,” “satin secret,” and “silver,” but she is ultimately “slavish” in her exhibition of ownership.
Niedecker’s disowning of the spiritual emptiness of wealth and marriage couldn’t be more patent. Alongside the critique, however, the poem suggests another—very different—idea of possession and partnership. In this, the poet is so dedicated to observing her immediate natural environment that she is subsumed within it: “I rose from marsh mud.” Where the bride wears material things, the poet is arrayed in matter—”algae, equisetum, willows / sweet green, noisy / birds and frog.” “Rising” from mud in the first stanza, she is literally rooted in nature—made of and emerging from the earth. This fascination with the physical world—its vast mutability in relation to human life—is evident in Lake Superior, a late poem which concentrates on the immense, rocky terrain of Wisconsin’s great lakes region.
“New Goose,” Niedecker states in a letter to Zukofsky “is based on the folk—and a desire to get down to direct speech.” New Goose turns its attention to Black Hawk Island’s immediate social and political realities—American ownership, the labor movement, the Depression, and the effects of industrialization. Throughout, Niedecker associates herself with members of the local community she lives within by adopting their voices: “What a woman!—hooks men like rags”; “The street’s bare-legged young girls in my eye.” Meanwhile, she consciously uses “folk” forms and genres: nursery rhyme, folk melody, and native ballad. For instance, nursery rhyme’s bold, trochaic rhythms inform the music of the little poem titled “Remember my little granite pail.” And, in the final two lines, we see a familiarly misleading sense of closure: “Think what’s got away in my life / Was enough to carry me thru.” The ending line is vague in its allusiveness; and, despite its seeming solidity, the poem’s final line resonates with uncomfortable uncertainty.
Niedecker’s appropriation of folk form and language didn’t mean she advocated for what she saw to be the primitivism and brutality of folk culture. Both Blau DuPlessis and Elizabeth Willis note that she distinguishes herself from the culture whose speech acts she records, and whose poverty was her own.² The tension is played out in her World War II poem “In the great snowfall before the bomb”:
I worked for the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else
“Right down among em.” Niedecker’s pointed assumption of local speech situates her—economically—alongside the laborers, but then comes the scathing “And dreadfully much else.”
I heard their rehashed radio barbs--
more barbarous among hirelings
as higher-ups grow more corrupt.
But what vitality!
The poem acknowledges the “dreadful” hostility of the “barbarous” workers, often misguided in their anti-authoritarian positions, along with their simple, ignorant complaints: “their rehashed radio barbs.” And at its close:
What would they say if they knew
I sit for two months
On six lines of poetry.
Niedecker contemplates her vocation in a stand-alone stanza, visually echoing the position of outsider which that vocation grants her. The near-undetectable rhyme of “six” with “sit” further sets her apart by emphasizing—with a trace of humor—how painstaking is her work, particularly in comparison to the slapdash pace of the print shop. Her occupation as poet allowed Niedecker to stand apart from the culture to which she belonged, a distance which allowed her to see the culture—and its language—clearly.
“The folk from whom all poetry flows.” Often at odds with Zukofsky’s minimalist, pared down standard was Niedecker’s surrealism. As Jenny Penberthy puts it, Niedecker’s surrealistic impulses constituted “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.” Though Niedecker would explore this more fully in later work, her concision in New Goose is such that it allows her observations of language and incident to reverberate with something more abstract—something more like mood: “My galoshes /chopped the cold . . . And now my stove’s too empty to be wife and kid.” In so doing, Niedecker was able to register a level of feeling “beyond” the surface of daily life in order to access the natural energies, aggressions, and impulses that flowed through it. “But what vitality!”
In the astonishing poem, Lake Superior, Niedecker’s “condensery” is practiced with unprecedented ambition. Inspired by a trip Niedecker took through Wisconsin, Canada, and Minnesota around the Great Lakes region in 1966, the six-page poem becomes far more than a set of observations about the region’s rocky terrain. These rocks bear the historical imprint of an immense collision of cultures and languages. For instance, Niedecker references the fur-trader Pierre Esprit Radisson, the first man to cross the terrain in the seventeenth century:
“a laborinth of pleasure”
this world of the Lake
Long hair, long gun
Fingernails pulled out
Lake Superior sets its sights not just on the landscape’s cultural and historical resonance, but also on its physical essence. The six-page poem is itself the product of slow, expansive work. Its thoughtful republication of by Wave Books this year allowed us an indispensable glimpse at the extent of work and research that has gone into any one poem, however small it may appear. Niedecker’s fleeting poetic fragments are accompanied in the book by the following materials: a thorough set of notes from her journey around the region, a prose account of the terrain, a lyrical-cum-critical essay on Niedecker’s “Evolutional Sublime” by Crase, letters from Niedecker to the poet Cid Corman, several pages of her typed notes complete with hand-written edits and, finally, examples of her sources, including Aldo Leopold’s elegiac, crotchety, and altogether marvelous essay “On a Monument to the Pigeon.” Wave’s gathering of Niedecker allows us to excavate the source material of Niedecker’s work. It shows us how her “condensery”—a precision that speaks volumes—incorporates qualities of the landscape she observes: compact rocks in which inhere thousands of years of geological change.
What we are led to is a clearer understanding of how Niedecker conceives of poetic language in relation to landscape: “In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock / In blood the minerals of the rock,” she writes in the opening poem of the collection. Three pages after Niedecker’s tranquil tracing of the source of human life back to the mineral source within rocks:
Ruby of corundum
From changing limestone
Kicked up in America’s Northwest
You have been in my mind
Between my toes
As we saw in “I rose from marsh mud,” Niedecker is fascinated by the landscape to the extent that she merges with it: “You have been in my mind / Between my toes / agate.” Her contemplation of the immense power of the place (“You have been in my mind”) is magnificently—physically—localized: “Between my toes / agate.” At the same time as she experiences a physical connection to the region, her concision gives her language a new tangibility: “Lapis Lazuli,” “Carnelian sard,” “Glow-apricot red-brown.” In the odd word blends and sudden sonic shifts, the language feels chiseled, refined.
Niedecker has continued to trace elements of her culture and environment back to its origins: from folk language to the roots of folk culture, from the discovery of Lake Superior to its vast geological changes, and from geology to the mineral core of rock—and language itself, which is here shed of metaphor until it assumes substance. Rather than feeling eclipsed by her acknowledgement of the epic interconnectedness and variability of all things, Niedecker ultimately finds a firm and final sense of place within it.
Years of half-forgotten letters and stripped-down poems, of slim volumes and scant attention: in Lake Superior, the poet’s mind and the poet’s words are compressed together and revitalized. Niedecker’s position at the peripheries of society and literary culture was a position of which she was conscious; it was integral to her politics and poetic ambitions. However demanding, elliptical, and “tiny” Niedecker’s poetry, the extensive body of her work offers an extraordinarily singular, courageous, and radical poetics. She should be honored by a wider audience.
Alice Whitwham is the events coordinator at McNally Jackson Books, and has written for The White Review, BOMB, and Time Out.
¹ Du Plessis, Rachel Blau. "Lorine Niedecker, the Anonymous: Gender, Class, Gender and Resistances." In Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1996). p. 96- p.107; p. 110-111.
² DuPlessis, Blau, p. 106-7; Willis, Elizabeth, “Possessing Possession: Lorine Niedecker, Folk, and the Allegory of Making,” in Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics No. 9 (2001)