Oyster Boy Review 17  
  Fall 2003
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Old Sunflower, You Bowed to No One

Jeffery Beam

Nobody, nothing
      ever gave me
            greater thing

than time
      unless light
            and silence

which if intense
makes sound

Lorine Niedecker (kneedecker), in these lines from "Wintergreen Ridge" one of her last and best poems, condenses the meaning of her whole life. The poem, long and speculative, walks the ridge and brings into one orbit evolution, family and human relationship, and the natural world's fierce and elegant movement from urge-to-be to urge-to-die: "It rained / mud squash / willow leaves // in the eaves / Old sunflower / you bowed // to no one / but Great Storm / of Equinox."

Niedecker's life was reclusive, but not separate. Colored by a shy and cautious personality, she enforced her seclusion with great care. Although not gregarious, she was hospitable, generous, and friendly. What to some might seem exile from living seems in her to have blossomed into a full life and work in which the silence she grounded herself in made for a rich openness to the unsayable. In a letter to Cid Corman, her friend, publisher, and literary executor, she explained, "I don't mourn the lone-ness of it for poetry. In fact, I couldn't do it any other way and I have the presumption to feel that others writing should retire unto themselves deeper than they do."

In another letter to Cid she spoke of her reluctance to read poems aloud, saying, "If your ear is acute you sound your poem in silence." Her ear's fine acoustics prove the dictum. Despite her unwillingness to read her poems aloud herself, readers will find the poems, when read aloud, carry more music and more understanding of the fertility of silence in a poem than seems possible in such minimalist work. Village Voice critic Geoffrey O'Brien commented that her "truly idiosyncratic voice . . . would need some space around it, some silence in which to nurture its distinctive branchings and coilings." Her silences, the unsayable so present in the poems, reveal Niedecker's native, unselfconscious, transcendentalism. She reticently admired the growth in her and Cid's poems of what she called a "conversational—metaphysical," and elaborated thusly: "all our lives we steer away from it but when we do attain it we know there's nothing like it." It is not as if the soul did not exist for her, but the particular revealed the soul in such a way that to speak of it was unnecessary. She observed, and described, without having to announce spiritual relation in the material: "In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock // In blood the minerals / of the rock" ("Lake Superior").

An Asian aesthetic permeates her work, enriched further by her friendship with Corman, who has lived in Japan since the early 60s, but her milieu is not a place of Zen emptiness/fullness, but of "the weather / thru the house / or is it my mother / breathing." In many of her poems, particularly of her last decade (which I'll discuss later), her poems recreate the lively minds of scientists, philosophers, and explorers such as Darwin, Jefferson, William Morris, Marquette, Radisson, and Joliet: "Well he saw man created according / to the motion of the elements. He located / the soul: in the blood" ("Swedenborg").

Niedecker's biography reads as the ideal outsider poet's should. Born May 12, 1903, she lived, except for three short breaks, all of her life in the flood country of Black Hawk Island where the Rock River empties into Lake Koshkonong, near Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin:

I grew in green
slide and slant
      of shore and shade . . .

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

                        ("Paean to Place")

The marshy landscape weathered her poetry into a rigorous clarity. In "Poet's Work" her grandfather advises her "learn a trade" and she "learned to sit at desk / and condense," using the frugality, economies, and sufferings of her life to make something whole and unique.

Lorine's father Henry seined carp and tended a failing summer rental business inherited from his father. Her attendance at Beloit College (1922-24) lasted for only two years. She returned home to nurse her mother Daisy whose progressive deafness deepened into a reclusive bitter silence because of Henry's relationship with a married neighbor. He gave away much of the property to his mistress's husband in payment for silence. In a number of poems, Lorine grieves the empty silence that enveloped her mother:

I mourn her not hearing canvasbacks
their blast-off rise
      from the water
            Not hearing sora
rail's sweet

spoon-tapped waterglass-
descending scale—
            Did she giggle
as a girl?

                        ("Paean to Place")

In 1928, Lorine married a local boy. Within two years they had separated and, once again, she returned home. She held a job as a library assistant from 1928-30, then in 1938 went to Madison to work as a writer/researcher for the Federal Writer's Project, a job which lasted until 1942. From 1944 to 1950, she worked as a stenographer and proofreader at the regionally renowned Hoard's Dairyman. After Daisy died, deaf and blind, in 1951, she quit work.

Old Mother turns blue and from us,
      "Don't let my head drop to the earth.
I'm blind and deaf." Death from the heart,
      a thimble in her purse.

"It's a long day since last night.
      Give me space. I need
floors. Wash the floors, Lorine!—
      wash clothes! Weed!"

                        ("Old Mother Turns Blue")

Three years later, Henry died, leaving Lorine very little money and two houses (in addition to the house she had built herself on the property). After a period of collapse, she took up work in 1957 as a cleaning woman in the Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital, sterilizing kitchen utensils, and scrubbing cafeteria floors.

Her two room cabin had neither plumbing nor heat and frequently flooded: "O my floating life / Do not save love / for things / Throw things / to the flood" ("Paean to Place"). In 1963, at the age of 60, after the end of another short-lived promising but finally disappointing relationship, she married Albert Millen—a hard drinking man who clearly loved her. She wrote to Cid days before the wedding, "No flood this spring, very unnatural. Unnatural also, my immanent (sic) marriage. At sixty one does foolish things. I hope I'm happy. He's my connection with life." They moved to Milwaukee in 1964 and back to Black Hawk Island in 1968 when Al retired. The marriage allowed her to quit work and the years with Al were her most productive and happiest. The marriage was not without its difficulties. Al's moods changed with the amount of alcohol consumed; and the entry of television, for example, into her life as well as another person in the house, meant sacrifices in privacy and silence:

I married

in the world's black night
for warmth
            if not repose
            At the close—

I hid with him
from the long range guns.
            We lay leg
            in the cupboard, head
in closet.

A slit of light
at no bird dawn—
            I thought
he drank

too much.
I say

            I married
            and lived unburied.
I thought—

                        ("I Married")

Al took Lorine to Minnesota and North Dakota. Except for her trips to New York to visit poet Louis Zukofsky, her mentor, friend, and brief lover, she had never been anywhere and reveled in what she saw. Her long reflective, geological and environmental poems, "Wintergreen Ridge" and "Lake Superior" resulted. During these last years she began to weave together her loosely formed sequences of condensed small poems into serial poems focused on historical figures and evolutionary/scientific themes. She began to formalize verbally what she had spent her whole life evolving. In the summer of 1967, she wrote Gail Roub, a local history teacher and along with his wife, Bonnie, one of her few friends:

Much taken up with how to define a way of writing poetry which is not Imagist nor Objectivist fundamentally nor Surrealism alone . . . I loosely called it "reflections" or as I think now, reflective, maybe. The basis is direct and clear—what has been seen or heard—but something gets in, overlays all that to make a state of consciousness . . . The visual form is there in the background and the words convey what the visual form gives off after it's felt in the mind. A heat that is generated and takes in the whole world of the poem. A light, a motion, inherent in the whole. Not surprising since modern poetry and old poetry if it's good, proceeds not from one point to the next linearly but in a circle. The tone of the thing. And awareness of everything influencing everything. Early in life I looked back of our buildings to the lake and said, "I am what I am because of all this—I am what is around me—those woods have made me . . ." I used to feel that I was goofing off unless I held only to the hard, clear image, the thing you could put your hand on but now I dare do this reflection. For instance, Origin will have a narrow, longish poem, sensuous, begins "My life / in water" and ends "of the soft / and serious— / Water."

The poems born of this awareness represent Niedecker's major contribution to twentieth-century poetics. Lisa Pater Faranda, editor of the Corman/Niedecker letters observes, "Although she had already written long poems, most notably the long, unpublished version of 'For Paul,' the seriality of 'Lake Superior' satisfied her need for a form free of the constraints of the continuous poems and the limits of the short poems. This poem and others in North Central mark a major development in Niedecker's art as it pushes beyond modernism . . . The poems in North Central are 'fields" of experience into which the reader who enters must participate."

I've quoted generously from "Paean to Place" already. It and the other serialized poems of North Central and the posthumously published Harpsichord and Salt Fish, "Lake Superior," "Wintergreen Ridge," "Thomas Jefferson," "His Carpets Flowered," and "Darwin," represent Lorine's most ambitious attempts to create an "awareness of everything influencing everything." Kenneth Cox described "Wintergreen Ridge" as "one of the poems that show what poetry might be." A hymn to the feminine and creative evolutionary force it carries the reader along as Lorine and Al explore and discover the ridge, praising the women who saved the ridge for posterity, hearing her dead mother's cry, awed by the "Unaffected // by man / thin to nothing lichens" grinding "with their acid // granite to sand," and naming the plant life—feeling the life force surrounding them:

Where the arrows
      of the road signs
            lead us:

Life is natural
      in the evolution
            of matter

"Lake Superior," Lorine's first attempt at a long poem, struggles to find the balance "Wintergreen Ridge" achieves. The poem's geologic and historical images work to manifest a sense of dominion, not by the explorers whose lives she celebrates in the poem, but by the rock which rests eternal and marks the living land. She creates a terrifyingly beautiful sustained poem of transgression and commonwealth. Whereas "Wintergreen Ridge" moves us on foot and asks up to participate fully in discovery, "Lake Superior" requires the reader to embrace larger paradoxes, to suffer our dominion's sins, and be redeemed. Through its focus on Wisconsin, it tells of America's achievements and loss:

Did not man
      maimed by no

mash the cobalt
      and carnelian
            of that bird

                        ("Wild Pigeon")

Throughout her work, Lorine used her wide-ranging reading in history and science to create poems. In "Thomas Jefferson," "Darwin," and "His Carpets Flowered" she reveals the inner life of her subjects through details from writings and historical facts:

He bowed to everyone he met
and talked with arms folded

He could be trimmed
by a two-month migraine

and yet
      stand up

                        ("Thomas Jefferson")

Perhaps less successful than the other longer poems, nevertheless, they impart the abiding presence of others' biographies in her own self-discovery:


sailed out
            of Good Success Bay
                  to carcass—

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

to the working of chance
            "Let each man hope
                  and believe
      what he can"


Despite the poverty and dysfunctional family situation in which she grew, she still, in a number of elegiac poems such as "Paean to Place," celebrates her mother, father, grandfather, and their stark life along the river. In letters and poems she paid homage to her "Happy outdoor grandfather who somehow somewhere had got hold of nursery and folk rhymes to enchant me," a mother "speaking whole chunks of down-to-earth magic," and in the poem "He lived—childhood summers" praises her father who gave "her a source / to sustain her— / a weedy speech, / a marshy retainer."

The annual floods saturate her poems, "born / in swale and swamp and sworn / to water" ("Paean to Place"). Nevertheless, despite the inconvenience and annoyance, water appears over and over as friend, as teacher, and as guide into the self:

Along the river
      wild sunflowers
over my head
      the dead
who gave me life
      give me this
our relative the air
our rich friend

                        ("Along the river")

Counterpoint, such as this, figures prominently in Niedecker's poetics. The poems refuse narrative impulse—their goals are larger and purer—to evoke life experience as much as to reveal it, and to use reflected particulars to be a life rather than to tell one. Although it was only in Lorine's later life that she was able to verbalize her intents, it's apparent, even in her early work, that her talent as a poet, her native intelligence, was to write a poetry in which the movement between seemingly unrelated objects reveals oneness and verity. Her "condensary" demanded the excision of anything superfluous that got in the way of the "human immediacy" she sought. No symbols. No ornament. Juxtaposition, sincerity, circular rather than linear movement, intersection, sound, rhythm, playful use of language, and precise description enabling song—these were her tools.

Niedecker's modes owe much to Objectivist principles, but she never forsook her early experiments with socialist-inspired surrealism. In a 1967 letter to Clayton Eshleman, she declared, "I went to school to Objectivism, but now I often say There is something more." Her own life lived close to the bone, and the people among which she lived and worked, nourished her concern for the peripheral and neglected. Her early poems engage a deeply felt literary impulse with a fascination for the "folk." Here's an excerpt from a poem about her job at Hoard's Dairyman:

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,
well-oiled protection.

I heard their rehashed radio barbs—
more barbarous among hirelings
as higher-ups grow 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
of poetry?

                        ("In the great snowfall before the bomb")

Throughout her life, Lorine kept her writing secret from the locals, and when she died many were surprised to hear she was a well-known poet. In a letter to a friend during her time at Hoard's she declared: "folks might put up a wall if they knew . . . and I have to be among 'em to hear 'em talk so I can write some more!" Her letters oftentimes contain colloquialisms as if testing her ability to use folk speech convincingly. Niedecker viewed folk speech and folk mentality as springing from an unconscious response to the world—her mother's "down-to-earth magic." She once described poetry as "the folk tales of the mind and us creating our own remembering." Her resistance to pure Objectivism was necessitated by her belief in folk energies, including Mother Goose. These streams revealed psychological and emotional states not allowed in Objectivism's more male and scientific approach to the poem. One of her major achievements is this blending of Objectivism, folk, and surrealism.

Lorine claimed she "literally went to school to William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky." The Zukofsky/Niedecker story is complicated and central to her life. In February 1931, Zukofsky edited what was to become known as the Objectivist issue of Poetry. Encouraged by Ezra Pound, Harriet Monroe's invitation constellated a group of poets around Zukofsky. At her behest Zukofsky coined the term "Objectivist" and wrote its "manifesto." Objectivism moved beyond Imagism, to which it owed much, to the object itself. Its character was of multiple focus, demanding fidelity to the object or idea viewed, precision, music, and sincerity in its drawing. By nature, Objectivist poetics placed itself "outside"—refusing traditional methods of symbol and ornament in exchange for a poem rich in intellectual, psychological, and descriptive collage using seriality, disjunction, history, sound, and silences. Objectivism, a destabilizing poetics, itself never stabilized. Its poets disagreed on and ignored its principles as much as they followed them. Nevertheless Objectivism, more than any other American twentieth-century poetics, even the poetry of the Beats, has influenced post-modernist poetics.

Lorine's early surrealist experiments were not entirely satisfying. She found in Zukofsky's Poetry issue the focus and purpose she lacked. It took her six months to get up the courage to write Zukofsky, but the correspondence continued for 40 years, with letters oftentimes more frequent than once a week. Their meeting in New York in late 1933 quickly led to romance. From 1933 to 1939 she visited often and for lengthy periods of time. Zukofsky visited her on Black Hawk Island in 1936. An accidental pregnancy, and the abortion of twins, complicated the relationship, and must have contributed to Lorine's eventual permanent return to Wisconsin. The depth of their mutual feeling, despite the heavy editing of the extant letters, is apparent. They remained close. She visited the Zukofskys (he married Celia Thaew in 1939; son Paul was born in 1943) in 1953. The Zukofskys visited her in 1954. Ultimately both of them benefited from the friendship—criticizing each other's poems, borrowing frequently from letters and playing poems off of each other. A woman weaker or more restrained by social conventions would have kept her place, but Niedecker's formidable talents and intelligence could not, would not, play second fiddle, despite her public protestations to the contrary. In her letters to Zukofsky, Corman, and others, she boldly asserts her own opinions and makes her own way.

Lorine invokes her own difficult life of the woman-wife-writer in this poem:

Who was Mary Shelley?
What was her name
before she married?

She eloped with this Shelley
she rode a donkey
till the donkey had to be carried.

Mary was Frankenstein's creator
his yellow eye
before her husband was to drown

Created the monster nights
after Byron, Shelley
talked the candle down.

Who was Mary Shelley?
She read Greek, Italian
She bore a child

Who died
and yet another child
who died

                        ("Who was Mary Shelley?")

and creates a fairy-tale of her own of the sacrificial female in this one:

I rose from marsh mud,
algae, equisetum, willows,
sweet green, noisy
birds and frogs

to see her wed in the rich
rich silence of the church,
the little white slave-girl
in her diamond fronds.

In aisle and arch
the satin secret collects.
United for life to serve
silver. Possessed.

                        ("I rose from marsh mud")

Gender plays a strong role in this work, even as she refuses linear polemics for condensation. She plays with syntax, she puns, she poses with childlike Mother Gooseness to subterfuge and subvert. On the surface cool, folksy, light with quiet simplicities, these poems reveal a darker vision and deep song—intensely questioning, observant, critical, articulate, and self-defining. She does not write what Rae Armantrout has described as "the conventional or mainstream poem . . . a univocal, more or less plain-spoken, short narrative often culminating in a sort of epiphany," but rather "another kind of clarity which doesn't have to do with control, but with attention, one in which the sensorium of the world can enter as it presents itself," poems that are "dynamic, contrapuntal systems in which conflicting forces and voices (inner and outer) are allowed to work."

It seems clear that she never got over her affair with Zukofsky. She always deferred to his genius as a poet and perhaps sublimated her intense feelings for him (heightened by her awe of his poetic skills) toward the whole Zukofsky family. One of her finest and subtlest poems comes from a loosely sequenced group of poems called "For Paul," for Zukofsky's son. The poem entitled "Paul" is a good example of how elliptical, musical, witty, and plangent her poems can be—rooted in an utter silence that carries grief, bliss, and reticent unresolved questionings:

      when the leaves

from their stems
      that lie thick
            on the walk

in the light
      of the full note
            the moon

      to leaves
            when they leave

the little
      thing things


Like many of Lorine's best poems, "Paul" rejects explanation, and yet centers itself insistently in the reader. Its stillness seems impertinently moving. It is elegant, yet plain—ecstatic, yet melancholy. It grows organically. Rich and multi-layered in its economies, Niedecker's poetry is the work of a woman—not woman's work—meaning work well aware of, and willfully contradicting expected limitations, with sureties brought to fruition. Critic Michael Heller states the case thusly, "What Miss Niedecker has achieved . . . is not to become the poet-victim of her condition, but its agency, singing the song of her world and herself through herself." Her work accepts the evolutionary rise and fall of the earth and of a human life with ease and even splendor:

Something in the water
like a flower
will devour



                        ("Something in the water")

I'm hard pressed to call Niedecker a neglected poet. A review of the literature reveals scores of articles in major publications, many by notable modernist and post-modernist scholars such as Michael Heller, Kenneth Cox, and Marjorie Perloff. Her books were well reviewed during her life, and even more since the publication in 1985 of The Granite Pail (North Point Press) a selected poems edited by Cid Corman, and the flawed complete works From This Condensary (The Jargon Society) edited by Robert Bertholf. Five books were published by small, but mostly notable, presses while she was alive, among them a British (1969) and an American (1969) selected poems. Another book appeared six years after her death. Since the 1985 collections, two volumes of letters have been published; a play has been produced about her life; in 1991 a major critical volume and another unpublished volume of poems was published; and she has figured importantly in a number of critical volumes on Objectivism. Rumor has it that the University of California Press will publish a corrected complete works and a full-length biography soon. Niedecker is now considered a central poet in the lately more studied Objectivist tradition. Since the fourth edition of the longer Norton Anthology of American Poetry, Niedecker has been included. I suspect within ten years we will see a journal dedicated to Niedecker studies. Neglected? Hardly. We don't know who the neglected poets are. They write in utter obscurity, possibly never to be known, despite the quality of their work.

But we need our Niedeckers. In a way, she's our poster-woman of neglected women poets (note she's only one of two female poets included in this issue). It's a sad commentary on the state of literature for poets working in unorthodox forms, particularly if they are female, queer, or otherwise alternative. But celebrating her work is something and it's well deserved. Her life and work struggle to assert themselves beyond the romanticized stereotypes of the reclusive, shy, spurned lover of Louis Zukofsky writing simple eastern-inspired minimalist poems—our "20th century Emily Dickinson" as William Carlos William called her.

The marginal, but important, attention Lorine's work received during her life is owed to some powerful men in the forefront of the modernist avant-garde. Louis Zukofsky's actions on her behalf are legion. In the early years he guided her as she sought her way as a poet. Then, and later, he promoted her tirelessly. Jonathan Williams, Stuart Montgomery, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and in the last decade of her life, Cid Corman, made sure Lorine's work was printed, and after she died, that she was not forgotten. Marianne Moore, through Zukofsky's attention, gave important assistance. In addition to the books that these men helped in one way or another to publish, she published well, though relatively little, during her life in notable magazines such as Poetry, Origin, New Directions, Quarterly Review of Literature, and Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. In letters to Cid she even complained of not being able to produce poems fast enough for all the solicitations she received from literary journals.

On December 1, 1970, Lorine suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died on December 31. Why should we remember Lorine Niedecker, and why declare her one of the century's great poets? She wrote some of the most singular work of our time—perhaps Basho reborn, but with the fascinating proclivities of a woman chastened and then enlarged by her experience. Her poems' tender accessibilities and enviable music; their folk roots and rhythms and universal themes; their striking experiments in form rooted in an honest conservatism and inquiring avant-gardism; their wide-ranging themes prefiguring feminism, ecology, and social commentary; the fascination of Lorine's personal myths; the scholarship, hard work, and compassion revealed in her historical and scientific works; all frame a literary achievement constructed with the same graceful care as a Shaker chair. Such metonymic poetics, which communicates through enlightened, yet restless, associations, rarely makes for accessibility. I can promise you—spend a day reading her work and you will find yourself repeating lines to yourself afterwards over and over. They settle in the mind and float up when you least expect it:

My friend tree
I sawed you down
but I must attend
an older friend
the sun

                        ("My friend tree")

. . .

First published in Asheville Poetry Review's Special Millennial issue, "Ten Great Neglected Poets of the 20th Century" [7.1 (Spring/Summer 2000): 72-83].