Monday, April 19, 2010

Middle Niedecker

from the Collected:





Stay tuned for an assignment from Radical Vernacular.


  1. There is not, as yet, an assignment from Radical Vernacular so I'm going to roll with just the poems.

    So when reading through early Niedecker I was consistently struck by her resemblences to Dorothy Parker.

    Take these two poems:

    News Item by Dorothy Parker

    Men seldom make passes
    at girls who wear glasses.

    Lady in the Leopard Coat by Lorine Niedecker

    Tender spotted
    hoped with care
    shes coming back
    from going there.

    A combination of both the sing-songy rhyme and the sort of tongue in cheek commentary that regularly accompanies Parker's poems seems to appear also in the early work of Niedecker. (Not the earliest early work, but 'round the 1936 section it picks up.)

    Both the tongue in cheek commentary and the sonic awareness appears later... but it seems to often transcend the earlier sing-songiness and move into different forms.

    On page 183 she writes:

    No matter where you are
    you are alone
    and in danger-- well
    to hell
    with it.

    The commentary in rhyme still exists, but she chooses a specific moment to heighten the experience rather than letting the rhyme carry all the way through the poem.

    And the sonic quality gets even more subtle as you go. On page 225

    Lisp and wisp
    of dry leaves
    "Put me wise
    to what a tree toad is"

    whose little son
    now walks
    "Starless nght"
    brings to mind the stars
    those glimmering talks

    Outside of the first line, rhyme doesn't really occur. But the assonance of mind/night and stars/talks in the last three lines is there when read aloud. So I find it interesting to see how, through later years, the poems seem to swallow and transform the same qualities of earlier poems.

    But that's not all, she also seems, at one point, to become more "objective" in the way that Reznikoff was objective. Take the following poem:

    pp 184
    How white the gulls
    in grey weather
    Soon April
    the little

    The small poem with an objective observation (the way Niedecker seemed to view objectivism) is present in "How white the gulls in grey weather" highlighting the contrast between the sky and the birds, and moving on to recognize oncoming spring and what that will mean. It's concise and pure observation in the way many of Reznikoff's tiny poems were.

    But it also isn't, somehow. In the last three lines she also seems to be providing commentary in the observation-- what it is, I'm not sure. What the yellow is-- sun? flowers? both?-- leaves an openness that wasn't usually there with Rezi.

  2. On page 147-148:

    What horror to awake at night
    and in the dimness see the light.
    Time is white
    mosquitos bite
    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 -
    carpets, dishes
    benches, fishes
    I've spent my life in nothing.

    Again, the sing-song. Again a tongue and cheek attitude. But what I like about these poems is the density, both of the images and of the ideas. I've been on a real nothing kick (residual Oppen), and I think for someone so connected to the domestic (both as a subject and as a trope) I like the evaluation that happens in the last stanza that the particulars of the domestic sphere amount to the same as the buzz of thought: nothing.

    What I think is also very good about these poems, which we can see in the earlier and later poems, is the truth-telling she does.

    People, people--
    ten dead ducks' feathers
    on beer can litter...
    will change all that

    The terrible is never really that terrible. The wonderful is never really that wonderful. Even her small poems operate on the scope of the whole world and how it functions.

  3. While a lot of this week’s Niedecker really fits into the idea of rested totality, I think she is also integrating Oppen’s concept of clarity. Take the following poem:

    Fog-thick morning-
    I see only
    where I now walk. I carry
    my clarity
    with me.

    Oppen’s idea of clarity had more to do with the moment of perception than the object being perceived. His poems had holes, the object was not always so apparent. Oppen’s poems, especially those in the Discrete Series, seem a little foggy as if the image is obscured by the person looking at it. These poem by Niedecker seems to be doing a lot of similar things, and is a direct comment on this clarity.

    “Fog-thick morning-” a pretty substantial image, sets us up for the fogged perception that seems to follow. The line break in the second line feels especially poignant to me, as if to says that sight is her only sense, but the enjambment lets us know that what she is able to see is only what is right in front of her. This is simultaneously just the clear perception that Zukofsky valued (after all, that is all you can see in a fog), and an undermining of it because what is perceived is by nature unclear. The last phrase seems to suggest that her clarity is not based on what she perceives, but is something intrinsic in her. If that is the case, could she return to her clarity whenever, much like how Oppen was able to return to his poems and re-experience that moment of perception?

    For me, this is the magic of Oppen and Niedecker, often it seems like their vision is foggy, and that fog is what makes it more accurate. It seems like, even in a formal way, part of the image is illusive. Often, especially in this later work, it seems like part of the poem (perhaps the part that would “clarify”) the image is missing. Much like memory, these poems appear inconsistently with bits “missing.”

    I think that would be seen in the poem you brought up Amber. The first phrase gives us a clear- “rested”- image. The white gulls against the grey sky. But the “clarity” of the image is undermined by the looseness of that last line. Like Amber asked, what are these little yellows? From a color perspective, they seem to brighten the image, a sort of experience instead of a thing. I think Oppen would argue, and perhaps Niedecker would agree, that the clarity of these poems lies within the how they capture of the moment of perception- the occasional striking image mixed with more vague feelings of memory.

  4. Yeah--that poem Genna (Amber, the poem with the gull comes out of this section as well) is quoting is from the 1957-59 section that is quite short and I really enjoyed the poems that were contained within it.

    The poem you mentioned and it's moment when it appeared in the movie, with the fog hovering over Rock River

    In fact, this section seems to contain a high % of poems that were shown in the film, they are these highly contingent small sets of words that seem only contingent upon themselves.

    They reminded me immediately of a moment out of For Paul that made me really laugh, on page 142,

    "What would they say if they knew / I sit for two months on six lines / of poetry?"

    Immediately I saw the the happy lady and heard the shy reading for her first time, though these things seem to be morphed for me and not specific to this time--to her age.

    I can't help but wonder if these Musical Toys are practices in honing the approach she was making toward, what Genna mentioned, a sort of totality.

    The three poems on 185 are especially great toward this--especially,

    clean-smelling house
    sweet cedar pink
    flesh tint
    I love you."

    The displaced space seems to almost allow I love you a visual space to live, yet these are poems for a blind child, that space would only exist if the poem was received audibly and perfectly. "pink flesh tint," the only visual image received is following these smells that I can perceive as coming off a person--the smell of sawdust, of a clean house, of a sort of tree in the late fall as it seems to fall onto our bodies.

    The body is a temple? Or the body is a house?

    The I love you at the end makes itself known:

    who will take it? It is given to the house, I want to grab it though.

    The same way as I want to touch the beautiful girl who is given the ability to hit the kill switch on bombs, or the elusive man doing his perpetual duty.

  5. I've just finished the first essay by Pinard, and I find the "grammar of flooding" very interesting, both because of Niedecker's poetry, and also my own. Writing about the river in the town where I grew up is something I've been focused on for a while, and to see the river play such a defining role in N's poetry is reassuring to me. I'm nowhere near as articulate and talented as N, but I do grasp the idea of how central the river can be to your thinking. While my river rarely does anything so dramatic as flood on a yearly basis, it is the only major river in the middle of the high desert of eastern Oregon; low water is constantly an issue - like N says in one of her letters, marsh fires are a worry. Fires are always a worry in eastern Oregon in the summer, because there's just not enough water, in the river or anywhere else, to keep fires contained.

    I think this is one symptom of writing regional poetry, the constant attention to surroundings, rivers in this case. The river shapes what you write and how you write it. Though N is obviously doing something more with her writing, she is still very much a regional poet, influenced by the region in which she lives. The sounds of the poetry change depending on the sounds from the river. Sometimes assonance, sometimes alliteration, sometimes rhyme are important to her poems, it just depends on her subject. Pinard cites N's letters about the geese, but the poem that comes to mind from the collected is about other birds:

    Bird singing
    ringing yellow

    My friend made green
    -his painting-

    the sweet bird
    flew in

    In this poem we can hear the assonance of all the "ing" sounds in sing, ring, green, paintING, in. Somewhat like birdsong, perhaps? And I can't help thinking of all the times she talks about singing frogs, though I can't seem to find one of those poems at the moment, though I seem to remember that she employs a similar technique.

    Those of N's poems that seem most Objective to me center around her experience of the river and the marsh, those tiny moments of poetry that are so self-contained and brilliant. In just a few lines she conveys the emotion and experience of the river at that one moment.

    I like the comparison drawn by Pinard between N's poetry and flooding. If the flood represents the sentence in all its destructive potential to the poem, then N is curbing and controlling the flood, creating order (cleaning up the mess, in other words) after the chaos of the flood.

    The idea that the river has some influence over shape in N's poetry is also fascinating. "Shaped but not limited by its form" (Pinard 26). There are so many connections to be drawn and so much to think about, it's like I have finally found someone writing all the kinds of poetry that I want to write.

  6. While it seems Zukofsky and Neidecker’s relationship ends up described by correspondence and an alleged affair, Neidecker and Zukofsky correlate poetically with ideas of perceptions, what perception really affords, and how to engage that in a poetic work.

    Genna’s idea of the foggy image not only draws straight, bold lines to Oppen’s “clarity” (or fogginess in some cases), but also to one of our seminar’s favorite buzz words: sincerity, as defined by Zukofsky’s essays. I’m most prominently thinking back to Zukofsky’s “Mantis,” especially as he wrote the follow-up explanation such that it was the pure experience of the narrator (in this case Zukofsky himself) rather than constructing some absolute fidelity to the scene itself. For example, Zukofsky’s observation of the mantis was not a metaphor, so much as a prompt to thought, and it was vital to Zukofsky to make the distinction of that experience, such that it was more sincere. It was clearer.

    Furthermore, they are the two poets we’ve encountered this semester most concerned (and most prevalently engaged with) the rhyme, and in turn, perhaps the poem as song, and I’m not just saying this because of Zukofsky’s incessant music metaphors or Neidecker’s set pieces in “For Paul...”

    That said, I’m intrigued by Pritchett’s assertion comparing Neidecker’s poems directly to blues, especially because blues seems so integral to the poetic history of the pastoral and in turn the lyric, in brief, the call by the shepherd to revel in the suffering in order to gain consolation, which seems to what Tony Hoagland wants us to return. Applying Neidecker’s sing-song type rhymes to this engagement, it seems like a conscious pull on poetry’s roots in the lyric, literally coming from “lyre.” Sounding out, pulling specifically on Neidecker’s rhymes, a rhythm comes out that sounds, as we touched on last week, like folk poetry, something rooted in memory, passed down. Even that conscious maneuver seems as though Neidecker wants to invent a history or actively take part in it. On a very root level, Neidecker’s poems want to be remembered.

    From that, I want to pose the question as to how we value memorability in writing process. Where do we stand on pulling on the song in this way? It’s incredibly hard to find blunt rhymes like Neidecker’s or Zukofsky’s in contemporary poetry; do we want to participate in the “poetry of forgetting,” as Paul Hoover described, break off from the history Neidecker seems to tug on?

  7. Kate, you might want to keep your comment from this exchange for later use in the poetics statement of your thesis!