Who Was Lorine Niedecker?

Written by

Elizabeth Willis
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Year

2006
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It's hard to write about Lorine Niedecker without using the terms that have, in part, kept her in critical obscurity. Her poems are plain styled and folk driven, wryly in love with the negative economy of poetic labor. Their wit and precision sneak up on you with quiet inevitability. They are proud of themselves and subtly self-mocking, consciously combining high modernist and homespun aesthetics. They can move deeply and laterally, engaging the alternate realities of history, geology, botany, politics, aesthetics, and sociology through brilliant wordplay and juxtaposition.

Niedecker herself was rich with complications—an ambitious poet who chose to live almost entirely outside professional networks; a localist fascinated with Lawrence of Arabia; a Marxist who owned property; a folk mannerist, setting the literary within the equally complex beauty of the commonplace. Beyond the work of her fellow Objectivists—Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and George Oppen—Niedecker clearly knew, and played on, the writing of William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, W. B. Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and on the political economy of Karl Marx, John Ruskin, William Morris, Thomas Jefferson, and John and Abigail Adams. In the relative isolation of rural Wisconsin, this was her company.

But who was Lorine Niedecker? To follow her own aesthetic practice of tracing phenomena to their sources, let's say that she was born in 1903 to Daisy Kunz and Henry Niedecker, their only child. She grew up and lived most of her life on marshy Black Hawk Island, near the town of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, 35 miles from Madison. Daisy's side of the family was the source of some property, which was gradually lost to the Great Depression, bad luck, and Henry's poor business sense and drinking habits. Lorine grew up around her father's carp-fishing and cottage-rental business. She went to Beloit College to study literature in 1922 but was called home less than two years later to take care of her ailing, deaf mother. In 1928 she found work as an assistant at the nearby public library, placed her first poems in national magazines, and married Frank Hartwig, an employee of her father's whom she divorced two years later.

Niedecker traced her poetic beginning to the discovery of the Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine, guest-edited by Louis Zukofsky and published in February 1931. She immediately wrote to Zukofsky, who had recently taught at the nearby University of Wisconsin, and so began their life-long friendship and correspondence. In 1933 Niedecker's poems appeared in Poetry, and she visited New York where she and Zukofsky became lovers for a time. The same year, Niedecker returned home to Black Hawk Island, devoting the rest of her creative life to her poetry and correspondence, often filling both with descriptions of local geography and overheard social commentary—much as Wordsworth, at about the same age, returned to his Lake District to find poetry in common speech. Having read Wordsworth and the Shelleys in her youth, she was conscious of the historical resonances between landscape and literature, the "traces of living things" imprinted on both. As a teenager, she took Wordsworth with her onto Lake Koshkonong, and in the magnificent late poem "Paean to Place" she notes with wonder that "Shelley could steer as he read." Niedecker lived most of her life by water, eventually married again, earned her living by manual labor, and wrote well over 400 pages of poetry, fiction, and drama before she died in 1970.

Niedecker's association with Objectivism continued throughout her life. But with the nationalist ethos of World War II and the Red scare that followed, the loosely affiliated group, with its communist associations and explicitly intellectual and working class concerns, fell into obscurity in the 1940s and 50s. It wasn't until the late1960s that it had its brief renaissance, with George Oppen winning the Pulitzer in 1969 for Of Being Numerous. This was the period of Niedecker's renaissance as well. After working through the1940s and early 1950s as a proofreader at the local paper, Hoard's Dairyman, and taking care of her aging parents, her poetic production increased dramatically, and her poems again found their way into print.

It's also in this period that folk became acknowledged within American popular culture as a significant influence and aesthetic with a distinctly counter-culture, anti-capitalist agenda. As the project of American expansion and global control began to fail abroad in the late 1960s, grassroots resistance flourished, bringing about a political and poetic concern with the local. Niedecker's repeated critique of American consumerism had rural and writerly distrust behind it: "Civilization is an immense ad: Go to hell and be happy."

Until recently civilization seemed content to let Niedecker's work drift into obscurity. Three individual volumes of her work were published in her lifetime: New Goose (Prairie City, Ill: James Decker, 1946), My Friend Tree (Edinburgh: Wild Hawthorn, 1961), and North Central (London: Fulcrum, 1968); and two versions of her collected poems appeared just before her death: T& G (Highland, NC: Jargon, 1969) and My Life By Water (London: Fulcrum, 1970). Other small collections have appeared and disappeared, but for years the only widely available edition of Niedecker's work has been the slim but beautiful selection The Granite Pail edited by Cid Corman, published in 1985 by North Point and recently expanded and reprinted by Gnomon. In 2002, an expanded reprint of New Goose was published by Listening Chamber and the University of California Press released the long-awaited edition of Niedecker's Collected Works, meticulously edited and annotated by Jenny Penberthy.

Apart from her poems, Niedecker's letters—of which, two volumes have been published—let us know she's an ambitious artist. While they include buoyant descriptions of the plights of country life, complete with aches and pains, job searching, plumbing troubles, and weather, they also recount her reading and document her quest for hard-to-find titles like Mina Loy's Last Lunar Baedecker. But the undercurrent of all her correspondence is her indelible sense of herself as a poet, in spite of the frustrations of being largely unpublished, unread, misinterpreted, overlooked.

In 1957, after yet another delay in the production of her eventually aborted manuscript, For Paul, she writes to her publisher Jonathan Williams: "Poetry is the most important thing in my life but if sometime someone would print it without asking me for any money I'd feel it would be important to someone else also." As if to cover for her own directness, she goes on to explain, "Then too at the moment I'm involved in hot water heaters for my cottages, in drilling for a flowing well and in job hunting, the last named the greatest nightmare of all even when I find the job." After her stint at Hoard's Dairyman, she worked through the 1960s as a cleaning woman at a local hospital, struggling to supply the money and labor needed to maintain the cottages inherited from her parents.

In her geographical seclusion, Niedecker depended on her reading and correspondence for a sense of poetic context, and when her work wasn't being published, she sent out handmade books to her closest compatriots. In 1964 she writes to her friend, fellow-poet, supporter, editor, and now-executor Cid Corman: "I somehow feel impelled to send you the product of the last year, just to keep in touch. I know you're not printing (Origin). . . . I wish you and Louie and Celia and I could sit around a table. Otherwise, poetry has to do it. . . ." But the intensity of her connectedness to other poets was often misunderstood. The Zukofskys were at times overwhelmed by her friendship, and even the valiant Corman tellingly wonders if Niedecker's handmade book had been sent "to celebrate her marriage, her home-making?" Having established a community through the exchange and discussion of books, why not a celebration of her poetry?

Like Whitman and Oppen, Niedecker saw herself as multiple, a manifestation of geological and biological evolution, a being composed of vocabularies and iron and water and leaf matter, having inherited the job of speaking for, rephrasing, recombining and condensing the phenomenal world into art. She was acutely aware of the interconnectedness of things, masterfully mixing the universal with the regional. Even in defining her own poetic process, she would localize Pound's sweeping command that the poet "condense" by translating it into the economy of Wisconsin creameries ("Poet's Work").

Niedecker's poems sometimes function as glosses to her reading, reintegrating biographical and historical elements with the literary, tracing a thought or poem back to its sources in living things, whether it means acknowledging, as Erasmus Darwin did, the metaphorical links between animal and vegetable existence, or invoking the life-context of another writer as a "source" of his or her work. Literary sources receive the same treatment as oral text and hearsay. The title of her collected poems T & G is a condensation of Lawrence Durrell's "tenderness and gristle," and throughout her poems one finds acutely condensed references to the biographies and works of major writers—as in the deceptively simple phrasing of "Who Was Mary Shelley?" with its phenomenal attention to the periphery, to what is left out, the historical invisibility of women's work.

This art of elision can bring about stunning combinations of terms ("dangerous parasol") and wonderfully stretched slant rhymes ("...jumped me / ...country"). Her poems coax subtle tonal shadings from even a commonplace term like "friend"; she wrote poems to "My Friend Tree" and "To my Small Electric Pump," but the word is also charged with sexual innuendo and restraint. At times Niedecker's art seems to rest on the delicate hinge of a single line break which can overlay syntactical logic with other meanings, as in "Wintergreen Ridge," when the end of one grammatical clause abuts the beginning of another to synthesize both lines within a single metaphor: "let's say of Art / We climb." And there are often surprisingly weighted reversals—say, the quick inversion of looking and being looked at: "you are lovely / you have seen"; or the wry aside that "future studies will throw much darkness on the home-talk"; or the paradoxical juncture of inspiration and ownership: "I'm possessed and do possess."

The ambitious scale of Niedecker's poetic address is clearest in her long poems, like "Wintergreen Ridge," where we witness a transformative movement from mineral to animal, from a fashion reference to a comment on the nature of memory, to the awareness of plants as parts of oneself, to a reference to flower children and social protest, to a comment on rural vs. urban church architecture, to T. S. Eliot, to Henry James, to the Beats, to a murder-dismemberment in Madison, Wisconsin, to the Vietnam War, to differences between human and bird grief. One thinks, here of the scale of Reznikoff's poetics of witness in Testimony and Holocaust, Oppen's metaphysics in Of Being Numerous and Primitive, Zukofsky's attenuation of sound, Pound's subject rhyme, Moore's use of textual collage.

Elsewhere, there is the simple beauty of poetic tautology: "If I am fernal, it's fern country, then. . . ," where one can hear the infernal hovering between "I" and "fernal," the dark energy behind creative generation, the primitive self speaking within the fern, the "I" as metaphor in the ancient stroke of self-definition. We find the building of metaphor through the invention of precise verbs—"Orioled" and "owled"—poetry infused with the originary power of naming. We find the shock of honesty around which a poem resonates: "I forget my face."

There's a tendency when writing about an underacknowledged writer to try to set her up as a kind of hero, but Niedecker is inspiring less in her heroism than in her perseverance—the perseverance of a poet who would not be separated from her cultural and aesthetic sources. It's as if she learned the lesson of Mary Shelley's self-immolating promethean mythology. Her perceived humility seems to stem less from midwestern decorum than from the modern acknowledgment that we live and work in a reality as much evolutionary as creationist, where the poem is a fossil-like record of both individual genius and the pressures of the various histories into which we are born. Where would Niedecker tell us to go from here? "Here in the lush wash, you go back to the exuberant source and start over." With her Collected Works now published, we can do just that.