Lorine Niedecker: "Quiet, Enduring Love"
by Sarah Busse
Introductionn the early twenty-first century we are still learning how to read the poems of Lorine Niedecker. In the 40 years since her death in 1970, Niedecker has been growing in reputation and renown slowly and steadily. Her importance as a poet is revealing itself, and the extent of her reach is a question still debated. Her influence can hardly be calculated: it is only now beginning to be felt.
Lorine Faith Niedecker was born on May 12, 1903, to Henry (Hank) and Theresa (Daisy) Kunz Niedecker, in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. She lived almost all of her seventy years in the same town, on the same river. Her family owned property on Black Hawk Island, just outside of Fort Atkinson. The island (actually a peninsula) was a popular area for summertime vacationers up from Chicago or Milwaukee. She graduated from high school in 1922, and attended Beloit for a single year, coming back to Fort Atkinson as her mother grew less well. In 1928, she married Frank Hartwig, but by 1930 they had permanently separated and she was again living with her parents.
In 1931, she initiated a correspondence with Louis Zukofsky, after reading an issue of Poetry which he had guest-edited. Their correspondence lasted for the rest of her life. In 1934, she went to New York to meet Zukofsky, and briefly moved in with him.
The complex relationship between Niedecker and Zukofsky may never be fully understood. Both poets were intensely private people and destroyed large swaths of their lifelong correspondence. Niedecker during her life referred to Louis Zukofsky as her teacher and mentor and for many years literary scholars and writers were satisfied with this picture. More recent scholarship has begun to gently question Niedecker's emphasis on her own lesser stature in the relationship. What is known of their personal lives at this time is that the two had a brief intimate affair, which resulted in a pregnancy which Zukofsky insisted be terminated. Although she was reluctant and at first tried to convince Zukofsky she could raise the children (it turned out she was pregnant with twins) in Wisconsin, without placing any expectation on him, he remained adamant and eventually Niedecker gave in. She had an abortion. She moved back to Wisconsin. Somewhat incredibly, Niedecker and Zukofsky remained close friends and continued corresponding for the rest of her lifetime. Zukofsky was her primary contact with the larger poetry world for most of her life, and it is the primacy of this relationship, more than anything else, which has caused her to be grouped with the Objectivist school of poets.
She lived and worked for a time in Madison as a writer and then a research editor for the Federal Writers' Project, working on a state guide to Wisconsin history. She had her own radio program for a brief time, for which she wrote the scripts. This period of historical research into her own state was to feed her poems throughout her life. By 1944, she had moved back to Fort Atkinson, where she worked as a proofreader for Hoard's Dairyman. In 1946, her first book of poems, titled New Goose, was published. These poems have their formal and stylistic roots in traditional nursery rhymes and folk ballads and songs. Their subject matter, as in traditional folk poetry and song, is largely concerned with the ways and welfare of the common people, the political scene both locally and globally.
In 1950, weakening eyesight forced her to give up her proofreading job. Her parents died in the early fifties, and Niedecker inherited two small fishing cabins from her father (he had lost most of the considerable estate of her grandfather). These proved more of a headache for her than a boon, and provided very little income. Throughout the fifties, Niedecker was at work on a long sequence of poems titled For Paul, written for, and dedicated to, the son of Louis Zukofsky and his wife Celia Thaew. These poems had difficulty in finding publication, either singly or as a group. Throughout this decade, Niedecker published very little, a situation which frustrated her. Zukofsky's growing discomfort with the personal content of For Paul eventually convinced her to break up the manuscript.
In the mid-fifties, perhaps partly in response to the expansive and personal For Paul poems, Niedecker began to experiment with a briefer, pared down verse form, eventually solidifying into her five-line "Niedecku." Working with a shorter form was also a practical way to deal with severe time constraints and exhaustion. In dire financial straits, Niedecker took a job as a cleaning lady at the local hospital in 1957. She worked at that job until she retired in1963, and time to write was rare. In the 1950s and early 1960s, local friendships with neighbor Aeneas McCallister and Harold Hein were important to sustaining Niedecker.
Publication of another book would not occur until the slim My Friend Tree arrived, published by Ian Hamilton Finlay in Scotland in 1961, reprinting some of the New Goose poems and adding a few more. Interestingly, poets and publishers in Britain were more interested in Lorine than were poets stateside in these years.
Towards the end of her life, in 1963 at the age of sixty, she surprised those who knew her by marrying a handyman and painter by the name of Albert Millen, out of Milwaukee. Although many of Niedecker's readers and fans have painted this as an odd-couple sort of marriage, and even suggested that Lorine (who was physically small and soft-spoken) was dominated by and afraid of her husband, there is much evidence that the marriage was a solace and source of vitality for her. Niedecker called Al her "connection with life" (Faranda 40) and to the larger world and it's clear she and Al enjoyed each other and – if they weren't exactly kindred spirits--they made space for each other. He also taught her to cook.
Marriage provided Niedecker with the means to retire and focus on her writing. It also provided her mobility (her eyesight was too poor to drive). Lorine and Al lived for a few years in Milwaukee before moving permanently back to Fort Atkinson and her home on Black Hawk Island. She enjoyed the stimulation of city life, but the island was her home. Also important, she and Al traveled around the upper Midwest by car, which led to two of her major poems, "Lake Superior" and "Wintergreen Ridge." Marriage to Al allowed Niedecker to stretch herself as a writer. In the last years of her life, she was wrestling almost exclusively with longer poetic forms, finding new ways to bring her abbreviated, condensed lines and stanzas into relation with each other.
It was not until the very end of her life that Niedecker knew real success with publishing. In 1968, Stuart Montgomery at Fulcrum Press brought out North Central, which included her two long travel poems, "Wintergreen Ridge," and "Lake Superior." One year later, after many years' delay due to financing difficulty, Jonathan Williams of the Jargon Society finally published T&G, Niedecker's own collected edition. Also in 1969 the manuscript for My Life By Water was accepted, to be published in 1970. Her final manuscript, Harpsichord & Salt Fish which contained her last poems "Thomas Jefferson," "His Carpets Flowered," and "Darwin," was unpublished at the time of her death.
Isolated as she was for most of her life from immediate contact with other writers, correspondences were of primary importance to her. Although it is easy and tempting to think of her as a hermit in the backwoods of Wisconsin, she carried on active exchanges not only with Zukofsky, but also fellow Objectivist Charles Reznikoff, Cid Corman, who regularly featured her work in his magazine Origin, and the poets Basil Bunting, Jonathan Williams and Ian Hamilton Finlay. She also had an active interaction with the poets on her bookshelf, particularly the Transcendentalists, and the Japanese poets from whom she took the haiku and created her own successful form, which she playfully called the Niedecku. She lived a life of deep engagement. In considering whether Niedecker was really "isolated," it is appropriate to quote Elizabeth Willis at length, from her introduction to Radical Vernacular:
In terms of her literary context, consider also that Poetry magazine--then aesthetically progressive under the direction of Harriet Monroe--was based in nearby Chicago, that Ezra Pound's grandfather came from Chippewa Falls, a town on the banks of yet another Wisconsin tributary of the Mississippi, and that Basil Bunting married a woman from Eau Claire and considered moving to Black Hawk Island to go into business with Niedecker's father. Consider that among artists of Niedecker's own generation, the filmmakers Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray both came from Wisconsin towns, as did Frank Lloyd Wright, who set up his utopian workshop Taliesin in Spring Green, west of Madison. Consider this region's tradition of self-taught and "outsider" sculptors and rural landscape artists like Fred Smith, Herman Rusch, and Nick Engelbert. Consider the historical context of Niedecker's home, down the street from a surviving Native American earthwork intaglio and surrounded by what may be the highest concentration of Native American earthworks on the continent Consider these facts as troubling the terms center and periphery, and beyond them the constructions of nation, region, and self. (Willis xviii-xix)
There is a tendency, still, to see Niedecker as victim of circumstance, to overlook the role she played in choosing her own life. We meet the biographical facts too often with a boggled incomprehension: why would she have possibly chosen to live as she did? Not understanding, we assume she did not choose. But it's important to remember that she had choices. She went to New York multiple times. She lived and worked in Madison for a few years and could have remained there. Niedecker chose small town life in Fort Atkinson and lived on remote Black Hawk Island, her childhood home. She realized that it was there her poetic vision and voice would find focus. This is not to claim that her subject matter was limited by, or to, her rural location. It is simply to remember that she was the agent of her own life, and she was a tough cookie.
Niedecker suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in late 1970, and died in the hospital on December 31 of that year, at the age of 67. Only a few months before she died, she said to Cid Corman, "I think lines of poetry that I might use--all day long and even in the night." (Penberthy, Collected 10)
1. A New Goose
Much of the critical attention Niedecker has received has been focused upon her longer, later poems. Scholarly efforts find much reward in unpacking her densely allusive, highly constrained and abbreviated stanzas stuffed with quotations, notations, wordplay and references. I would like to reserve space here to appreciate one of the early poems of New Goose, as masterful a modern nursery rhyme as the twentieth century produced.
First, it should be clear, in case we are nervous about such things, that the content of this rhyme is quite adult. It's gossip. Her use of rhyme and accentual stress is consistent with nursery rhyme and the oral tradition, and we can hear the voices as we read through the poem. The first line is perhaps the storekeeper, with that polite "Mr. Van Ess," and the proper term "washcloths." Immediately into the second line, we hear another voice repeating in a more common vernacular, substituting "washrags" and using the man's first name (no respectful title here). There is a tone of disbelief to both speakers, as they question the fact. Then, the third line we find speaker two (or maybe three?) supposing Ed will give the washrags away (apparently he doesn't keep himself very clean). Note the compression of this line, and the lovely pause that naturally falls between lines three and four, mimicking a momentary pause as the speaker casts about for where, on earth, Van Ess might donate washrags to.
At the start of the second stanza, the pitch lowers immediately, becoming more intimate. We learn now Ed Van Ess's reputation is not just for uncleanliness, but that he's a drunkard too. The speaker claims firsthand knowledge of this, stating that the day "we" moved, he was too hammered to put things in their proper places. How exactly Niedecker pegs the double entendre of traditional nursery rhymes in this second stanza: what does it really mean that Ed Van Ess "mixed things up" for the speaker's sister, and "put the spices in the wrong place"? Do we exactly know? We think we do (and that's how gossip works, by innuendo). Of course the sister is named Grace, which reminds us vaguely of the church in stanza one which is about to receive the donation of washcloths. Possibly Ed Van Ess is trying to make amends and help clean up some mess he is responsible for? Niedecker leaves all our questions unanswered, in true Mother Goose fashion. All we have for sure is a brief moment of gossip between two people, a story of one man's apparent folly, and the town's reaction, somewhere between bemusement and censure.
2. The Objectivist, the Surrealist
Niedecker was always interested in and concerned with issues of form. As Lisa Pater Faranda notes, Niedecker's "poetic forms are not generally traditional or conventional, yet she is always concerned with structure." (Faranda 8) Indeed, Niedecker understood her own project, at least some of the time, as a formal one, writing to Cid Corman in 1961, "I wish I weren't so obsessed in my writing with form, a set form, sometimes it helps, and then again it hinders." (Niedecker to Corman, January 23,1961) In trying to understand her poetic project, it is as helpful to consider her as a "formal" poet as it is to continue to label her "Objectivist." The term "objectivist" itself is problematic, as this school was not terribly coherent, even from the start. The label has proven no more helpful than labels usually are in understanding Niedecker's work. Instead of blindly pledging allegiance to a movement, Niedecker found it helpful to use the term "objectivist" to think about aspects of her own practice; the word was for her coded. It was her way of reminding herself to condense, cut out personal referents…to cool it, more or less.
The cool, hard "objectivist" condensery was twinned to a second strand, for which she used another charged word: "surrealist." Again, the way she uses the term must be disengaged somewhat from its literary/historical context, to denote a stream-of-conscious, more emotional tendency, present from the very beginning of her praxis. As early as the mid-thirties, she wrote to a friend
Objects, objects. Why are people, artists above all, so terrifically afraid of themselves? Thank god for the Surrealist tendency running side by side with Objectivism and toward the monologue tongue….It is my belief objects are needed only to supplement our nervous systems….the most important part of memory is its non-expressive, unconscious part." (Niedecker to Hoard, undated (mid-1930s))
And in 1934, she wrote to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe, of a poem she was submitting, "…the whole written with the idea of readers finding sequence for themselves, finding their own meaning whatever that may be, as spectators before abstract painting." (Niedecker to Monroe, February 12, 1934) Niedecker was interested in the gaps between two disparate images or impressions, the leaps a mind can make.
Both her "objective" and "surrealist" strains were strongly flavored by her perennial interest in and ear for the folk rhythms of speech around her, and her delight in old nursery rhymes and songs. She was well aware of this. In a 1950 contributor statement she sent to New Mexico Quarterly, she wrote "Like to think of [the poems] as outcome of experimentation with subconscious and with folk--all good poetry must contain elements of both or stems from them--plus the rational, organizational force." (Faranda 197) It isn't hard to figure out that the "rational, organizational force" is a synonym for her objectivist side.
It took a lifetime for her to bring these three strands together into a seamless poetics she was comfortable with, but throughout her work, we see the various tendencies juxtaposed in ever new and surprising ways, creating a rich and evolving oeuvre. Niedecker stretched herself throughout her working life, never satisfied to stay in a groove. It is in the various interplay between folk vernacular, objective condensery and surrealist leap that Niedecker achieves her particular voice.
"In the great snowfall before the bomb" is a poem which is atypically narrative, but shows evidence of all three qualities. In the very first stanza, we see some of the joy of run-on language her surrealist influence gave her. Without line breaks, how would we map this first stanza? "In the great snowfall before the bomb colored yule tree lights windows, the only glow for contemplation along this road…" Myriad possibilities co-exist: did the snowfall occur before "the bomb" that ended WW II? Or were the yule tree lights "bomb-colored"? Or is "lights" a verb, acting upon the windows? As is often the case with Niedecker, the answer to these questions is "Yes, to all of these." Multiple realities co-exist, thanks to her condensery, her use of line-breaks, and her leaping mind.
With the second stanza, she moves us to a new view. From trudging along the snowy road, looking through windows, she remembers herself, Blondie, next to Larry the Lug, and "right down among em." Throughout the poem we hear the wonderfully vital vernacular of the people, with its nicknames and slang, the "rehashed radio barbs." She draws the language out and savors it:
I'd never had suction,
Among 'em, but not of them, as the close of the poem suddenly admits. "What would they say…" The focus swerves from the almost aggressively vital townswomen to herself, alone, with her poems. There in Fort Atkinson, she lives out the Original Puritan dilemma, how to be in the world, but not of it.
pull, you know, favor, drag,
3. Pulling Against the Image
As noted above, Niedecker was always interested in the motions of the mind, and worked at how to encourage the reader to follow the poet's mind in action through the poem. One of her strongest tools was silence. Her poems invite the reader to leap the gaps that she carefully leaves for us. How does a writer make room for silence? As Michael Heller notes in his essay "The Objectified Psyche" Niedecker used silence in her poems as "a compositional element, a way of forcing the reader's attention toward the precision and subtlety of her verse." (Penberthy, Woman and Poet 238) Her five-line form, the "niedecku," emerged out of this pressure of quiet. Another essayist, Peter Nicholls, points to an important aspect of Niedecker's short poems and their silences in "Lorine Niedecker: Rural Surreal" when he writes "the pull of [Niedecker's] writing is frequently against the image, with attention very deliberately focused on the texture of the medium." (Penberthy Woman and Poet 193-4). Niedecker wanted her readers to enter into direct experience with her, and it was through a dance of silence and language that she achieved this possibility, in poems such as "Hear/ where her snow-grave is" and "Lights, lifts."
It is difficult, on reading Niedecku poems such as these, to want to say much in the way of parsing out "how" the poem works. Scholarly commentary and explication seems misplaced. However, to risk it: the effect she reaches for is almost never a lyrical, linear progression of line. Rather, if I may use a musical comparison, Niedecker juxtaposes moments vertically, plucking of two or more tones at once, as though she was playing a chord and letting it ring in our ears, rather than a melody. For instance, the "you, ah you" of the mourning doves is both an almost exact transcription of their literal song, and an evocation of complex emotion which can't be resolved into only grief, only regret, only acceptance or even bemusement, but is an amalgam of all these and more. Likewise, the lines "this white / lice lithe / pink bird" both visually evokes the bird for us, and also cause us, reading it, to feel the physical lift in our sternum of flight.
Perhaps it's best to let Lorine speak for herself at the end, from a letter to Cid Corman in February of 1968, she writes
why set fire to page after page, why not arrest it at moments into quiet, enduring love? (I dared to say this) Also that there is such a thing as silence--and the great, everpresent possibility that our poems may not get read. Art is cooler than he thinks. (Niedecker to Corman, February 14, 1968)
Now, at the start of the twenty-first century, we may have hope that Niedecker's poems will get read, and contemplated, interpreted, and internalized by generations of poets to come.
Crase, Douglas. "Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime." Penberthy, Woman and Poet 326-344. Rpt. of "On Lorine Niedecker." Raritan 12.2 (Fall 1992.
Faranda, Lisa Pater, ed. Between Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986.
Heller, Michael. "The Objectified Psyche: Marianne Moore and Lorine Niedecker." Penberthy, Woman and Poet 229-243.
Nicholls, Peter. "Lorine Niedecker: Rural Surreal." Penberthy, Woman and Poet 193-217.
Niedecker, Lorine. "To Cid Corman." January 23, 1961. Letter 5 of Faranda. 27.
---. "To Cid Corman" May 13, 1963. Letter 14 of Faranda. 39-40.
---. "To Cid Corman" February 14, 1968. Letter 63 of Faranda. 152-154.
---. "To Harriet Monroe" February 12, 1934. Rpt. Penberthy Woman and Poet 181-182.
---. "To Mary Hoard" undated (probably mid-1930s). Rpt. Penberthy Woman and Poet 87-88.
---. "Editor's Corner." New Mexico Quarterly 20 (Summer 1950): 208-9. Rpt. Faranda 197.
Penberthy, Jenny, ed. Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
----, ed. Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet. Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation, 1996.
Willis, Elizabeth, ed. Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place. Iowa City: The University of Iowa Press, 2008.
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.
In the great snowfall before the bomb
colored yule tree lights
windows, the only glow for contemplation
along this road
I worked the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else.
I was Blondie
I carried my bundles of hog feeder price lists
down by Larry the Lug,
I'd never get anywhere
because I'd never had suction,
pull, you know, favor, drag,
I heard their rehashed radio barbs--
more barbarous among hirelings
as higher-ups grew more corrupt.
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
where her snow-grave is
of mourning doves
parts nicely opposed