On June 9-10, 2006, I twice presented versions of this essay at the Wisconsin Writers Conference at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County in Baraboo, Wisconsin. All citations are given in the notes at the end, and I have provided separate "Exhibits" from Niedecker's poetry for ease of reading and immediate reference.
I am interested in how poems get made, so I would pose two central questions for any poet: Of what do you make your poems? And how do you make them?
In approaching the poetry of Lorine Niedecker, I come to it not as a scholar but as a poet. In my remarks here, I am not going to make coherent arguments so much as point at some of the features in her work which interest me as one who writes poetry. I think it is sad when criticism gets in the way of our understanding of the poetry and I hope that is not the case today.
I think we can say that primarily Lorine Niedecker made her poems out of her life and her places in the world, her marshes, Lake Superior, Wintergreen Ridge. And in some instances she made poems out of the lives of others who interested her – I'm thinking of her "folk" poems and the biographical poems about such figures as Thomas Jefferson, William Morris, and Charles Darwin. (Admittedly, she also experimented with surrealism, automatic writing, and dream poems, but I will not speak of that work here.)
Neither when writing out of her own life and the places she loved, nor when writing of the lives of others does Niedecker tell us everything. In the first instance, she was a very private poet and shied away from complete revelation and coherent narrative. And in all her writing she refused the straight telling in favor of what we might call "crooked lines" and, as a result, all her materials retained a certain "granularity."
And how did she make her poems? In Exhibit 1 she tell us: "I learned/to sit at desk/and condense//No layoff/from this/condensery" (1). As Joseph Conte reminds us, Niedecker sat at her desk "for two months on six lines / of poetry" (2).
Early on it was shorter poems she wrote and condensed; these were complete in themselves, yet because of their echoes and assonance and the mutual reflections she tried many of them in various arrangements with each other when sending them to editors and in her little hand-made collections.
In her later years, Niedecker wrote longer poems and condensed them, too. The long poems were not "sequences," but "series." That is, as Donald Davie suggests, the poems are not held together by narrative or thematic continuity nor by the principles of Coleridge's "organic form," but instead we, as readers, are free to discover relationships between the parts and to draw our own conclusions (3). However, not everyone agrees on what Niedecker has achieved with these long poems. Kenneth Cox, for instance, says that Niedecker's "Lake Superior" is "a sequence of short poems varying in verse and style, so that it seems trying not to be the long poem it really is." And on the other hand, he believes, "Paean to Place" is "a bundle of short poems constant in style and stanza, trying to pass itself off as a long one" (4). I'm not sure I agree with him.
From another perspective Morgan Gibson once suggested that each of Niedecker's poems "tends to be a little play" (5). I would say instead that her poems are snippets from a play we don't have the full script for.
In her poem "If I Were a Bird" (6), Niedecker tallied her notes on some contemporaries, and in doing so may have left a trace for us of her own poetics. The characteristics she noticed in those poets, I would suggest, are also facets of her own poetics: a classical coolness and hardness, a "never-museumed" quality, the importance of sound, a "stirred earth/cut sky" renewal, irony, being a little drunk dead sober, and most of all perhaps the quietness and sincerity of Charles Reznikoff.
We should also keep in mind what Niedecker said to Cid Corman: "I've had nothing affect me quite so much since I discovered haiku" (7). I don't know of anyone who has done a thorough examination of Niedecker's poetry in the light of this statement, and I'd like to suggest that the scholars among us might find fruitful work in more fully exploring Niedecker's relationship with oriental poetry. We do know that she kept collections of haiku in what she called her "immortal cupboard," along with work by Louis Zukofsky, Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, and other writers she admired (8).
In examining Niedecker's poetics here, I will touch lightly on her language, on the shape or form of her poems, and on the three M's of "metaphor," "measure," and "music."
But first a word about "granularity." When I speak of "granularity" in Niedecker's poetry, it involves both the ratio of particularity and abstraction in her work, as well as the lack of clear structure and coherent narrative. Especially as a fully-developed artist, she was comfortable setting things together, and leaving them to stand together without much glue, without clear connection, structure, or narrative. She might put things together with things, or things together with ideas. We see what she has built, but not always how she built it. We know the parts are connected, but we don't always know how. According to Lisa Pater Faranda, there is some evidence, late in her career, that Niedecker's sense of the way poems work "approximates the spirit of [Charles] Olson's projective verse" (9). Niedecker herself said that "I like planting poems in deep, silence, each person gets the poems for himself" (10).
I think Niedecker was not particularly concerned with "meaning" in the denotative sense. She was concerned with the thing, and with "something else" beyond that, but it doesn't seem to me that she was intent on making unequivocal and definitive statements. I'll venture that for Niedecker, poetry was closer to painting than to philosophy. The painter dabs color onto the canvas just so, but what do color and shape and line mean? What does a dab of cobalt put here mean? That's not a question Niedecker would ask.
Even as I say that, I recognize that we do always have to deal with her pull towards abstraction. Yes, she focuses on particulars, but sometimes we see them lead her away to ideas. In this sense she is not an Objectivist poet. In "Paean to Place", she speaks of "sublime/slime-/song..." (11). This rhyming of "sublime" and "slime" is more than coincidental, I think, and is indicative of the tension between idea and thing throughout her work. The opening of "Wintergreen Ridge" (Exhibit 2) is another case in point; in the first stanza, we are given specific road signs, with arrows; in the second stanza, "life" and "evolution."
I think there is similar tension between the particular and the abstract in the fifth section of "Lake Superior" (Exhibit 3), yet in it – as, ultimately, throughout her work - she finally nails the idea into the thing; beauty is forever wedded to the rock.
William Higginson has noted that, for disciples of the Japanese poet Basho, a poem, to be genuine, "must contain the spontaneous feeling that comes from the object itself. In effect, the poet's first job is to share in the essential nature of the thing written about..." (12). To some degree, this was also true for the Objectivists. And it was an integral part of Niedecker's poetics. Niedecker paid attention. A strategy of careful observation is part of her poetics just as much as her intention to record what she sees as exactly as possible. The "object," yes, and the context of the object, and the process the object is part of. And in later years, struggling to get beyond Objectivism, she wanted to suggest what it all means; she wanted "something else." In a letter to Cid Corman on February 14, 1968, Niedecker admitted: "I've been going thru a bad time – in one moment... I'd have thrown over all my (if one can) years of clean-cut, concise short poem manner for 'something else' (still don't know what to call it)" (13). Then in her letter to Corman on May 2, 1968, she nods agreement with Francis Ponge's remarks in Corman's magazine, Origin, exploring "the difference between the expression of the concrete and visible, and the sense, or expression of the idea, of the exact, differential quality compared with the subject..." (14). Then Ponge spoke specifically about a poem of "sun in the pine woods," and said, "I employ – after having found them – the most precise words to describe the subject. But my intention is not that: but the sense of the pine woods; i.e., the releasing of the inherent quality of these woods, and its lesson as I was saying. This seems to be two quite different things, though ordinarily at the limit of perfection of both one and the other they should meet and merge..." Niedecker told Corman she thought Ponge was right, saying: "there's a sense as well as and above precise dictionary meanings" (15).
Indeed, at the heart of Niedecker's work we might find this struggle to merge the inherent quality of the thing and its lesson, that which is "as well as and above precise dictionary meanings." It is, I think, a struggle that to some extent marked her work throughout her career, but it was only late in life that she was able to articulate her need for "the something else I know exists in poetry – that I've been wanting for a couple of years if I could bring myself to the style it needs" (16). While I have said that Niedecker's poetry is about her life, her places, and the lives of those who interested her, in a fuller sense her work might always be about this struggle to merge the thing and the larger lesson of the thing.
Niedecker uses language, then, to create a bridge between the thing itself and its lesson, the something else, and between the actual and the idea of it. Donald Davie argues that Williams's dictum "No ideas but in things" gets re-worked by Niedecker to become "No ideas but in things as named, in the names of things; that is to say, in words" (17). Because nearly all poetry is "in words," I'm not certain what Davie is suggesting unless he is referring to those instances when we find lists of nouns such "Fish/fowl/flood/water lily mud/My life." Yet even here we have more than mere litany. It may be that Davie is simply recognizing the preponderance of nouns in preference to verbs in Niedecker's poetry.
Examining all six opening stanzas of "Paean to Place" (Exhibit 4), among the nouns we find "life" and "weight," which are abstractions; and "cold" and "land," which lean towards becoming abstractions. The other twenty-four nouns are very specific and actual elements in Niedecker's world.
What about the verbs Niedecker uses in the same passage? There are thirteen and they depict quite specific actions. Most are in common use, although three of them seem to belong especially to Niedecker and her experience: "sculled down," "seined," and "turn deaf." Using these verbs together with such nouns as "swale," "swamp," "marsh fog," and "carp," Niedecker re-creates the very specific world that was her life. Now the abstraction, "life," takes on specific color and shape and texture.
What nouns do we find in the first four stanzas of "Wintergreen Ridge" (Exhibit 2)? Arrows, road signs, life, evolution, matter, supra-rock, butterflies, rock. Here we find particulars bracketing the abstractions. And we find that the verbs are also very plain: lead, is, are. By and large, this is not the language I think of when I think of Lorine Niedecker. And yet this is the simple stuff of which her poems are made.
When she places her unusual and very precise words side by side with more ordinary ones, I think Niedecker is salting common language in order to bracket the abstract with reality, forcing a bridge across that gap; to create a quite palpable and distinct reality out of an otherwise mundane run of materials; and to create an arresting aural texture in which sound contributes to meaning.
Where does the poet stand in relation to her language? There is not much direct expression of the poet's feeling in Niedecker's words, is there? This is not a language that goes sentimental by telling us what to feel. Instead, it is cool, crystalline, removed, flatly-stated, sometimes ironic. The poet is observer, not participant, even in relation to the materials from her own life. She is an artist creating a mosaic out of carefully chosen pieces. In a sense, she shows us only what a camera would pick up, nothing in the way of interior monologue. Yet there is feeling here, and we get at it, and get at the "something else," by the way Niedecker has arranged the materials.
When I speak of the shape or form of the poem, I am talking about where and how the poem happens. Basho's frog has to jump, and the poem happens at the moment the frog jumps. Metaphorically-speaking, there's a frog in every decent poem that has to jump. In oriental poetry, this is sometimes referred to as the moment the poet looks up. The poem happens in the moment of the leap, when we are not here nor there, but flying between.
In "Depression years" (Exhibit 5), the poem happens starting at the word "debt" and into the final line.
In the fifth section of "Lake Superior" (Exhibit 3), the poem happens in the leap across the stanza break, from "cross" to "beauty," and again when beauty gets driven into the rock.
In the first part of her poem about her marriage (Exhibit 6), the poem happens at the last word of the stanza: now we see. It is as if a flower has opened. Even in her longer work, Niedecker creates this oriental feel to the poetry; she brings us to moments of revelation, and to sudden understanding.
In structuring her long poems, Niedecker may have learned something from the oriental poets' tradition of linked poems: from the renga, which is without narrative progression (18); from the rensaku, in which the individual haiku function as stanzas of the whole and are not independent (19); and from the gunsaku, in which a group of poems on a single subject illuminate the subject from various points of view but can be read independently (20).
The descriptions of these linked poems bear some similarity to Lisa Pater Faranda's description of the structure of Niedecker's Thomas Jefferson poem, and other of her long poems. Faranda says that Niedecker is using "the principle of collage, the accumulation of 'jigsaw gists' through a principle of organic connection" (21). I tend to agree with that assessment, but would add that in the poems about Jefferson, Darwin, and Morris, Niedecker has selected specific details or "jigsaw gists" to express her own particular sense of those men, and as she does elsewhere she uses parts to represent the whole. Think of the way that we remember Radisson in "Lake Superior" – "fingernails pulled out/by Mohawks." What may be different from her earlier poems is her sense of freedom in manipulating her materials.
In both her short poems and the longer poems, Niedecker selects and fuses into place those things she considers to be elemental; she sets these together to make the poem, which they can do because they seize and fill the moment to become what is. "Fish/fowl/flood/water lily mud" – there is nothing else, because these push out anything else.
Metaphor is about associations. It is about seeing one things in terms of another thing, and in the moment of seeing, in that instant, we make a leap. We have to ask ourselves: What associations does Niedecker make? What gets set together? And what leaps does she make?
In "The smooth black stone..." (Exhibit 7) the associations are: stone and leaf and we. The poem becomes a poem at the stanza break, where it makes the big leap from stone and leaf to we. This is where we recognize we are like stone and leaf.
Sometimes simple description becomes metaphor, as in "Club 26" (Exhibit 8), where walking into the club is like entering a flower.
In "Get a load..." (Exhibit 9), we start with slang language and once again the thing itself leaps to metaphor, from "frog rattle" to "lowland freight cars."
Or consider the metaphor within a metaphor in these, some of her most familiar lines:
I was the solitary plover
for a wing-bone
If we read it literally, she is a bird with pencils for wing-bones. Yet Niedecker doesn't seem to invite a literal reading, and we stay caught in the image of "the solitary plover," at least I do.