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Gareth Twose

Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works. Edited by Jenny Pemberthy. pub. University of California Press. 2002.

For a poet, finding a style takes time. A style is not ever obvious or inevitable. The classic model for mapping a poet’s style is a developmental process one, so that poetic style is described using the metaphor of evolution. Poets, like all artists, have periods, they grow, they ‘evolve’. Typically, too, early work is described as apprentice work. This is often ‘derivative’ or ‘imitative’. Then the poet develops, finds his or her voice, and moves into a ‘mature’ phase of writing. This is when s/he produces work on which his/her critical reputation rests, work that is ‘original’ and recognisably distinctive. Often this is followed by ‘late’ work, which doesn’t quite match the intensity of the earlier work, and therefore represents a relative decline. This developmental model is underpinned by psychoanalytic thinking about emotional development. In a sense, the poet or artist is like the rebellious adolescent: s/has to overthrow his/her strong precursors. This is the Bloomian idea of the anxiety of influence. The poet has to learn to be himself/herself and in doing so becomes more adult as an artist, a grown-up. A typical articulation of this idea comes from the American critic Helen Vendler:

To find a personal style is, for a writer, to become adult. Much in the formation of style takes place relatively unconsciously: in both random and directed reading, the young poet is insensibly drawn to some predecessors, finds others uninteresting, is unaware as yet of one soon to be discovered, rejects others as unappealing. But the ultimate style of a poet is partly chosen (often in rebellion against available discourses)…(2003:2)

If we take a feminist perspective, however, we can see that the model needs to be gendered. For in the case of the woman writer, it is possible to argue that artistic development is more complicated because of social constraints, the greater difficulties in breaking free of social conventions. Feeling confident enough to be ‘yourself’ in public is often harder for women. Therefore, if we apply the developmental model to a female poet’s career trajectory, we can see that typically the early period lasts much longer and the mature period is very late arriving, if indeed it arrives at all. This was certainly the case historically. Think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She wrote very derivative subMiltonic poetry early in her career, stuff that included a thirteenth book of Paradise Lost (making her reliance on a male literary model absolutely explicit). The poetry on which her critical reputation rests, e.g., Sonnets from the Portuguese, Aurora Leigh, was produced relatively late in her career, by which time she was happily married and was financially secure. Christina Rossetti wrote devotional and children’s verse early in her career, it could be argued, as a respectable, acceptable alternative to being herself. Think also of Sylvia Plath, to take an extreme twentieth-century example. She only produced her best stuff – in Ariel – when in a sense she was free to go for broke. Just before her suicide. With women, then, there’s a case for arguing for a revised model, one in which relatively delayed or completely thwarted development is the ‘norm’. The smooth and somehow automatic progression implied by the male model of development is absent.

This developmental model of a writer’s career is particularly interesting to consider in the case of the still under-recognised but now important American poet Lorine Niedecker. Niedecker, (1903-1970), first publicly championed in this country by Donald Davie, who bracketed her with Bunting and the Objectivists, has been compared to Emily Dickinson: she was a great poet who apparently came from nowhere and apparently had an uneventful life. She lived on an island in the middle of a river in rural Wisconsin. However, as the introduction to
Collected Works makes clear, she had two very powerful literary mentors, both fairly major poets in their own right, Louis Zukofsky (with whom she had a short-lived sexual relationship) and Cid Corman. Both men acted as critics and readers of her poetry. This last fact is not incidental, I feel, when tracing her stylistic development.

Reading Niedecker’s
Collected Works in their entirety, one realises that the poetry for which she is widely known, namely the anthologised stuff, represents a relatively small proportion of the whole. The second thing one is struck by – and it is related to the first – is just how many different styles Niedecker had, how much stylistic variation is contained within the single oeuvre. As a poet, Niedecker has at least three styles - and these are different to an unusual degree.

First there is the early period, containing poetry which is quite consciously surreal. Witness the beginning of an early poem,
Promise of Brilliant Funeral:

Travel, said he of the broken umbrella, enervates

the point of stop; once indoors, theology,
for want of a longer telescope, is made
of the moon-woman passing amid silk
nerve thoughts in the blood.
(There’s trouble with the moon-maker’s union,
the blood-maker’s union, the thought-maker’s union;
but the play could be altered.)

A man strolls pale among zinnias,
life and stain sleeves renounced.
He is intent no longer on which direction herons fly
in hell, but on computing space in forty minutes…

It is difficult to know how to read this. This is clever, playful (but without the wit of, say, Ashbery). It is designed to be self-referential and non-representational. It doesn’t ‘mean’ in the conventional sense. You almost feel as if this is a writer deliberately keeping the reader at bay. The poem is the sort of thing she might have written to impress smart, arty friends. During this period, Niedecker wrote poems that simultaneously evoked different levels of consciousness, that could both be read vertically and horizontally on the page. This is poetry that could be accused of pretentiousness.

Niedecker’s next style is what I will call the jingly, social realist style. For the first time in this poetry there is a direct connection with a real world, an external world that contains poverty. These poems are referred to in the introduction to
Collected Works as ‘folk poems’. The following appears in the manuscript of the thirties collection New Goose:

My daughters left home

I was job certified

to rake leaves

                         in New Madrid

Now they tell me my girls

should support me again

and they’re not out of debt

from the last time they did.

The rhyme here receives visual underlining because of the lay-out. It could be argued that the rhyme, of a type associated with comic verse, has an undercutting effect, making the poem sound a bit twee. In another example, the poetry sounds like Stevie Smith:

Seven years a charming woman wore

her coat, removed the collar where it tore,

little warmth but honor in her loose

thin coat, without knowing why

she’s so. Charming? Well, she’s destitute.

Here, the effect is oddly both disarming and disturbing. It sounds like a nursery rhyme. Yet the poem seems really to be discussing cross-class attitudes to poverty. Charming is a patronising put down and is exposed as such. In Paul and other Poems (a forties collection), a nakedly personal note is struck. (Paul was the name of the child of former lover, Louis Zukofsky.) The poems are full of direct address to a six-year-old boy.

Finally, in the 1950s and sixties, Niedecker starting producing the poetry for which she won lasting critical recognition, poems like
Paean to Place and Lake Superior, poems which brought her to the attention of Bunting and Davie and others. These are written in short-line stanzas and are intense and electric. It is minimalist verse at its best. – and full of rich water imagery, embodying a view of life at or below sea-level.


                       Water lily mud

My life

in the leaves and on water

My mother and I


in the swale and swamp and sworn

to water

This – the opening of Paean to Place, a kind of poetic autobiography – is poetry that really gets results out of compression. It’s a kind of free verse that splinters into fragments to achieve a minute focus on details that might otherwise be lost. Visual prosody is used to suggest utterances interspersed with silences.

The magnificent opening of the poem, consisting of three visually layered noun phrases, does what the Objectivist Zukofsky, in his essay
An Objective, admired: it achieves ‘the isolation of each noun so that in itself, it is an image’. Via associational meaning, the words also make the poem sound biblical. The phrasal movement is key. At first, it is not clear what the relation between all the noun phrases are: the reader is required to consider them all in isolation as distinct entities. Then, as the reader comes to the phrase, my life it becomes possible to read all the NPs as being in apposition to my life. In other words, fish fowl flood are constituent parts of my life. It is a part-whole relationship. My life, which initially looks like a self-contained phrase, is then revealed as part of a larger structure: my life in the leaves and on water. This, then, is a life that has been shaped and defined by living at the side of a river. The connection with nature is not incidental; it is integral. The phrasal movement, the lay-out, allows the reader to experience this from the bottom up, as it were.

The movement of ideas between sections of this poem is really subtle. A page or so later, the speaker starts to create a portrait of an artist as a child:

I grew in green

slide and slant

                      of shore and shade

                         Child-time – wade

thru weeds

Maples to swing from





Grew riding the river


                  at home-pier

                     Shelley could steer

as he read

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 the sea-air rhythm

“We live by the urgent wave

of the verse”

Here the loneliness and the cultural isolation of the artist in the country is evoked via the solitary plover metaphor. Yet the rural environment is also shown as feeding the art. All the materials and imagery for the young artist’s art are drawn from the landscape, the very shape and structure of her poetry is dictated by her watery environment. The pencil with which she writes is likened to a wing-bone, subtly conveying the idea of art as flight. The river she rides is a book for her, (an idea created via the enjambment of river and books). The poetry’s very rhythmic structure is that of the sea, the water around her, creating a sense of constantly shifting movement. Visually, the correlate of this is the irregular line lengths, the ebb and flow of phrase and broken half-phrase. A highly variable rhythm is created, one that quickens and slows, slows and quickens, literally enacting the idea of the ‘wave of the verse’.

As Donald Davie has noted, this poetry is underscored by a strong musicality. All sorts of sound echoes are created here via alliteration and assonance and rhyme. But, in contrast to that in the earlier ‘folk’ poetry, the rhyming is much less obvious. Sound symbolism is surely exploited here through the use of the consonant cluster
sl to suggest smooth movement, (unpleasant) wetness. The dying fall of a bird-song is cleverly evoked through the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables on the page in the second section. The rapid movement of pewee-glissando is followed, in the next lines, by a sequence of stresses, the second syllable of sublime and slime. This is followed by a relatively unstressed syllable, because it is part of a compound noun, on song. Rhythmically, then, the poem dies at this point, like the plaintive bird-song. The linebreak after slime, halfway through a word, slowing the pace, signals the way the speaker’s attention is fully captured by the song. The rhyming emphasis on slime – linking with sublime - perhaps captures the speaker’s sudden perception of the paradoxical way beauty can be found in unlovely environments.

Another strength of the mature Niedecker is her ability, in accordance with Objectivist objectives, to suggest the materiality of words, to evoke the thingness of things. In her poetry, words become objects. This is strikingly illustrated in the following section from her poem
Lake Superior:

Ruby of corundum

lapis lazuli
from changing limestone
glow-apricot red-brown
carnelian sard

Greek named

kicked up in America’s

you have been in my mind

between my toes

The names of rocks become things here. The individual syllables of the Greek and Latin names are emphasized here, so that they appear as objects in themselves. But more than this, the poem as a whole is trying to illustrate the paradoxical idea that rocks are living things. The close connection between bodies and rocks, between animate and inanimate, is made in the above section by the intimate observation of agate (all three syllables foregrounded) being between my toes. An image of rocks as non-static, travelling across continents and always being on the move, is created by the phrase kicked up in America’s/Northwest. Reality is de-familiarized.

If we apply the developmental process model to Niedecker’s poetic career, then, we can see that the poetic maturity exemplified here is late arriving, achieved really in the last decade or so of her life. We see, too, that the early period is prolonged and difficult. Moreover, the achievement of maturity could only be by achieved by breaking free of at least one of her male literary models or mentors, namely Zukofsky. Whereas Niedecker’s early surreal poetry can be seen as an unconscious attempt to win favour with Zukofsky, the then avant-garde author of ‘
A’, the poetry she wrote in For Paul and Other Poems marked a break with Zukofsky (partly because it contained sensitive personal material). It was never published as a collection and, according to Jenny Pemberthy’s introduction to Collected Works, Zukofsky’s ambivalence about the collection was a major obstacle to its publication.

Yet rather than seeing the early styles as stuff that Niedecker had to get out of her system, it is perhaps more useful to see the earlier styles as preconditions of the later style. Niedecker could not have arrived at the later style without having tried the earlier styles. The late or ‘mature’ poetry represents a reaction against both her early surreal poetry and her folk poetry. The late poetry is personal and economical in a way the surreal poetry isn’t. And, as discussed earlier, the late poetry represents a modification and consolidation of the rhyming strategies employed in the folk poetry. In the same way, at an earlier stage, the folk poetry represented a reaction against the surreal poetry in its more direct engagement with external reality. Therefore, each new style is defined in relation to an earlier style. It is the ‘other’ implied by the earlier style. Moreover, the different styles should be seen as mutually reinforcing and complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Each style feeds off the other insofar as it negatively differentiates itself from the other. All of which is a caution against seen authorial style generally as monolithic. No author ever has a single style: styles are multiple.

Collected Works, because it presents the poetry in chronological order for the first time, as far as I’m aware, allows the reader to see the different stages of stylistic development very clearly. It makes an assessment of Niedecker’s entire output possible in a way seeing anthologised individual poems does not. And because it also includes Niedecker’s prose it gives the reader a new sense of her range as a writer. A tantalising glimpse is given of a style altogether different from the any of the poetic styles so far mentioned. In the piece, Uncle, an affectionately satirical portrait of Niedecker’s own relative, ‘Uncle Babe’, there is a relaxed chattiness. It is full of different and competing voices gossiping and airing views, often about politics. This is language that is ‘doubly oriented’ or ‘dialogic’: it contains many voices. Uncle Babe is shown as having the kind of idealism that in his rather closed rural community makes him a bit of a loser. He has his savings wiped out in the Depression years. In the following extract, things are going well: he is running for high office in a labour union. In terms of narrative technique, the piece slides easily between pure narration and free indirect thought and free indirect speech:

Uncle Babe retained his determination for public service through the years he was shunted from committee to committee, and then finally he was placed on the ticket. Quite well known by this time, men began coming to take even suppers with him. Matty had spells oftener.

To escape there were his acres and his radio. He liked to turn on the negro spirituals, the melting deep…Christ, how they could sing…the blackbirds settling down…he could forget about government. If he were asked about negroes he said they should be treated well but implied they shouldn’t be given the upper hand. Matty had no time for radio. Was getting so all people wanted to do was sit and listen in. She didn’t understand radio really – just foolish this guesswork pulled out of the air. She went on baking with luck, washing with an electric machine, sewing with the old tread – still made her summer dresses. Her broom in the kitchen would sweep on ceilings and sidewalls as well as floor in loud complaint of existing conditions, or she’d balance it against her, both arms going free.

The piece switches from the point of view of Uncle Babe to the point of view of Matty. What is interesting here is how the high political purpose of Uncle Babe is ironically undercut by the voice of Matty, his older sister, who does all the housework on the farm. In her own way, Matty makes her own political statements, her disguised protests.

This suggests Niedecker could have been no mean prose writer. If so, there is also a suggestion of thwarted development about her writing career, a sense of a road not taken, a stylistic possibility closing down just as another one opens. Niedecker’s
Collected Works, then, are haunted by the ghosts of other types of writers Niedecker could have been. Her writing career illustrates very powerfully the idea that writing styles are multiple and various. In Niedecker’s case, style was something that was always changing; she was permanently in between styles, always discovering and rediscovering her selves.


Vendler, Helen (2003)
Coming of Age as a Poet. London: Harvard University Press.

Copyright © Gareth Twose, 2005