Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Last of the Niedecker

Please read the rest of Lorine's poetry, and the essays in Radical Vernacular titled "Darkinfested" by Rae Armantrout (pg. 91) "Niedecker, Morris, and the Art of Work" by Elizabeth Willis (pg. 223) and "Take Oil/and Hum: Niedecker and Bunting" by Peter Quartermain (pg. 271).

If anyone would enjoy a study/work night, please let me (Katherine) know, I love to hear Niedecker read aloud. Good luck with your papers/projects!


  1. I wasn’t sure why, but when reading the Niedecker Collected I was given pause when coming upon this small poem:

    The man of law
    on the uses
    of grief

    The poet
    on the law
    of the oak leaf


    I drew a line next to “on the law/of the oak leaf”—it made me consider what the law of the oak leaf might be… something related to the natural world, obviously, but what demands the oak leaf might make and why I knew it was significant, that it mattered.

    It wasn’t until coming upon this poem that I realized, more fully why—

    Gerard Manley Hopkins

    Dear friend: If the poem
    is printed few
    will read and fewer scan it
    much less understand it
    To be sure

    the scanning’s plain
    but who will veer
    from the usual stamp and pound
    Other work?—I’ve not yet found
    the oak leave’s law…

    pp 284

    By writing to Hopkins, Niedecker draws a relation between her and him, between her poem and his poems, between her previous poem of the oak leaf and her current poem and the oak leaf, and thus, the oak leaf and Hopkins. But still, I don’t know what this law is, why it matters. And apparently this is because Niedecker hasn’t found it.

    So I go to Gerard Manley Hopkins: “I have discovered the law of the oak leaves. It is of platter-shaped stars altogether; the leaves lie close like pages, packed, and as if drawn together to. But these old packs, which lie at the end of their twigs, throw out long shoots alternately and similarly leaved, looking like bright keys. All the sprays but markedly these ones shape out and as it were embrace greater circles and the dip and toss of these make the wider and less organic articulations of the tree.”

    In her essay in Radical Vernacular, Elizabeth Willis writes:

    “The practice of borrowing biographical material from other writers was for Niedecker not a simple turning away from her own materials but a broadening of their field of reference, foregrounding the interconnectedness rather than the individual genius of literary enterprise and, beyond that, the common ground of the human record with its complex narrative variations and ongoing struggles for expression.”

    In some ways, one could argue that Hopkins and Willis are saying the same things. That some how, unknowning, Niedecker had found the law of the oak leaves and was enacting them in her own poems. She creates these relationships and those relationships build more and more outward creating all of the poem. Until we get to the last collected poems:

    the universe
    not built by brute force
    but designed by laws
    The details left

    to the working of chance

    pp 299

    Here she’s talking about Darwin, but it resonates with the previous poems, and to Hopkins’, “law of the oak leaves”—this naturally occurring tree that spirals outwards, interconnected details. They seem to be the work of chance, and they are, living under the laws of nature.

    And these seem to be ways of describing Niedecker’s poems. At the center, tightly woven—perhaps the sound, the scansion—but the referentiality leads outwards towards the “less organic articulations”—those she designs for the poems. Or perhaps some other arrangement of the same qualities. Still, in the end, we get an oak tree.

  2. Paean to Place seems like a transgression against the rest of the "objectivist" program, including some of the things we've seen before from Niedecker. It's centered on images like many of our poets, but it's so directly about herself and the history of her life it seems almost unsettling by comparison. The two moments that really hit it for me involved a sort of self-mythologizing metaphor and highly abstract subject, but writen in such beautiful ways that they had their effect without requiring the rigor of "reality" or the disapproval of the abstract. First was:

    I was the solitary plover
    a pencil
    for a wing-bone
    from the secret notes
    I must tilt

    upon the pressure execute and adjust
    In us sea-air rhythm
    "We live by the urgent wave
    of the verse"

    Seven year molt
    for the solitary bird
    and so young
    Seven years the one
    for town once a week
    One for home
    faded blue-striped
    as she piped
    her cry

    A conceit on her work as a poet; the conceit is not a very "objective" device, because it's directly removing the thing being discussed from what it is: Niedecker is not a bird, does not molt. Instead, Niedecker molts "as a matter of speaking." Yet this is still a great way to look at herself, and she's expressed it in a way that's brilliant and fun to read.
    Next was:

    O my floating life
    do not save love
    for things
    Throw things
    to the flood

    by the flood
    Leave the new unbought --
    all one in the end --

    Flood and water are what would be called the images of this passage, but what is going on in it is far more, and it's centered in a pair of words who could not be more abstracted: Love and Things. The italics on "things"(which I could not provide for you) might displace us for a moment as to what the fragment is speaking to (we might say it is about commodification, for instance), but it's in the more abstracted things, objects, nouns, that which we have fensed into discrete parcels, that we must not save love for. It is love with a force like a flood that obliterates all things (the physical and otherwise).

    The "Objective" has been a useful way to look at these poets, and in each of them, their early work certain reflects the original "Objective" program. But as we have seen from each poet, it is only one tool, one guide to perception, amongst a great deal of other tools that we need in order to engage and enjoy these poems.

  3. You mention “the objective” as a way to read these poets, but it seems just as relevant to talk about this set of poets in terms of biography. It seems a window so often to impress meaning upon the poems; perhaps we were a little thrown in that direction because we were reading Zukofsky’s biography from the start, but it still seems relevant. In this week’s case specifically wonder then (it seems continually), about the forgone conclusions about Neidecker’s biography. Armantrout, as well as (it seems) every other critical author we’ve investigated save Scroggins, operates with Neidecker’s biography firmly behind her analysis. Consistently, Neidecker is this jilter lover victim of a forced abortion; and I’m using the term “victim” rather poignantly. There seems to be, I’d say, a rift between what the critics in Radical Vernacular imply about Neidecker’s work and what Neidecker’s work actually implies, the former of the two operating under the conceit of Neidecker’s victimhood—which, as I’m getting to roundaboutly, strikes me as unjustified.

    Really, what I’m trying to get at is the way we (the royal “we”) read poets and impress their biography upon them. In the introduction to “Radical Vernacular,” Willis tackles the Emily Dickinson analogy that’s incredibly prevalent when poets describe Neidecker. Ultimately the equation she makes is that of biography, and not that their biographies are similar beyond a surface level, but in that their biographies may be intrinsic to each of their bodies of work. It always seems to bleed through; however, at the same time, I wonder how much we impress upon their work via biography (or at least the more intriguing hearsay).

    Also: I’m incredibly attached to the conceit in Willis’ essay, that Neidecker’s poems are consciously attached to labor, that is to say that art and labor are “inseparably bound” (223). In a sense, this essay feels like a redux of certain conversations we had in workshop; poetry is an active labor. Building a poem becomes equivalent to some kind of craft labor. Nevertheless, Willis considers (or perhaps concludes) that Neidecker viewed poetry outside of capitalism (especially in America, but that seems across the board contemporarily). I wonder then about the possible conflicting relationship of these two ideas; is there a conflict of poetry simultaneously existing outside of capitalism and functioning as a form of labor. Perhaps this is simply a way that we organize our terms, the way we associate labor, but that in mind, how are we then to take poetry AS labor? Labor has too many associates (at least for me—please speak out if you feel otherwise) with wages and, essentially, capitalism.

  4. A little further on in the Willis essay past the excerpt Amber focuses on, she dwells for awhile on a definition of “art-work” put forth by John Ruskin: “…”art-work” signified a direct confluence of art and labor—the kind of collective enterprise required in the making of great architecture—whereby designers, masons, laborers, and craftspeople could collectively make something more significant than any one of them would have been capable of individually” (228-9). I think this quote is especially important when talking about the sense of appropriation in Niedecker’s work that Amber brings up, and the emotional legitimacy of the practice in poetry of “borrowing” from others’ biographies, thoughts, experiences, what have you. On first thought, I tended to be of the same mind as Willis, that “Niedecker’s use of personal material outside her own life…[seemed] at times disconcertingly appropriative…” (226). Niedecker’s use of biography outside her own experience can be troubling when said source material belongs to those with whom she has a (somewhat) intimate relationship. All rumor-mongering aside in regard to whatever relationship Niedecker and Zukofsky may have had, in Niedecker’s For Paul and Other Poems, the speaker strikes a clear yet surprisingly motherly tone in speaking of the son of Louis Zukofsky:

    silence, time to be alone
    and Paul’s growing up—
    baseball, jabber, running off to neighbors
    and back into the Iliad— (138)

    Ten o’clock
    and Paul’s not in bed!
    He’s reading Twelfth Night
    all Viola said.


    Wash and say good night
    to variants and quarto texts,
    emendations, close relations.
    Let me hear good night. (151)

    As Niedecker appropriates sections of Paul’s childhood (real or imagined) for use in these and other sections, she makes no reference to Celia Zukofsky, the boy’s real mother, and instead (I believe it appropriate here to conceive of the speaker and Niedecker as one in the same) steps into the role herself, becoming a surrogate mother for the boy, watching him at play (“baseball, jabber, running off to neighbors”) and at his studies( “and back into the Iliad—”). She also takes the opportunity in the poem to imagine putting Paul to bed, and in this section something very troubling occurs: “Wash and say good night / to…close relations. / Let me hear good night.” This passage expressly states (where other sections merely hint at) Niedecker’s wish to be a “close relation” to Paul. It isn’t difficult to read “Let me hear” as an entreaty, as Niedecker’s desire to be accepted as the boy’s mother. I try to imagine Celia’s reaction to this poem.

    At the same time, however, the positive aspects of appropriation in some cases can’t be denied. As Willis suggests through Ruskin’s metaphor of “art-work” as architecture, and as Amber similarly puts to use Hopkins’ image of the growth of a tree, poets subsist on each other. One’s experiences, questions, ideas, images can and do fuel another’s inquiries, in exchanges Willis describes as “celebratory and communal, based in elective affinity and aesthetic kinship—the family one forms as an adult, not a child—” (226)

  5. Jonn,

    I really enjoyed Paean to Place and precisely because of the reasons that are unsettling. The idea of it being a process of self-mythologizing seems to have resonance with the moments of conversation between the self about her own past.

    Even the unexplained epigraph that becomes more and more frequent resides in the the images of “passage,” – And the place / was water.

    The beginning poem of Paean to Place follows the trail of the river to the float and works as a sort of autobiographical catch-up to where she was at the time.

    The last few poems in the collection seem to be disjointed and have little place, what I felt was interesting was that in some of these pieces it focuses more on that which is outside of her, rather than the pieces that seem to be more self-focused.

    I think this ties in to what Charles brought up in the conversation regarding the “victimness” that is given to her through the created biography that seems to be taken on face value. The really intriguing moment for me was the beginning, the flow created and starting from the swamp seems to mold her and the history of her family in the poem. It is compelling and continuous, moments in praise of her father and mother, the man who “kept [them] afloat,”

    The pointed question of her mother, “did she giggle / as a girl?” To listen to her write about her life is something more revealing than the experience of her writing about the swamp and her life around the island.

    But, at the same time—these two acts seem inseparable, all one in the end-- “water”

    And the place / was water.