Oyster Boy Review 20  
  Summer 2012
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Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place

Jeffery Beam

  Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place.
Elizabeth Willis, editor.
University of Iowa Press.
307 pages, $39.95 (hardcover).
ISBN: 1587296985

In 2000, when I wrote an essay, "Old Sunflower You Bowed to No One" on Lorine Niedecker for the Asheville Poetry Review's special issue on the ten most neglected poets of the century (reprinted in Oyster Boy Review in 2003), Niedecker's life and work were already being recovered, first by The Jargon Society's complete works (1985), followed by Jenny Penberthy's Collected Works of 2002. But there were also already selected poems, a posthumous book of poems, two collections of letters, and a collection of Penberty edited essays. Penberthy's Collected opened the way to a sustained Niedecker investigation. A major biography is also now in the works to join the couple of personal biographies that have been published.

Niedecker's appearance in the Norton Anthology of Poetry during that time demonstrated that Niedecker was no longer a poet of poets, but also a poet of the mainstream. This was made somewhat easier by generalizations about her work's relation to folk poetry and minimalism, and a misunderstanding of her "backwoods" life. Radical Vernacular is the first major collection of essays to correct those misunderstandings about Niedecker's work, but also to investigate the extent of her interaction with the literary world, the complex explorations that were taking place in that world, and her place in them. Niedecker's vernacular roots fed as she said a "deep vein" in her work, but she relished their collision with improvisation, surrealism, and disturbance. The title of her earlier Jargon selected, T & G, for "tenderness and gristle," explained more than just the contrasting sharpness and simplicity of her lines and images. It also reflected the tightrope she walked between experimentation and accessibility in her work, and the eagerness to share her work with others while protecting her privacy.

The essays in Radical Vernacular are wide-ranging and predict a significant future for Niedecker studies. Understanding the relationship between geography (Niedecker's as well as her subjects, such as William Morris and Samuel de Chaplain), folk/common speech or linguistic and imaginal experimentation, silence and sound, and family and poetic family, provide fertile ground for Willis, and the critics and poets Michael Davidson, Eleni Sikelianos, Jonathan Skinner, Lisa Robertson, Patrick Pritchett, Elizabeth Robinson, Ruth Jennison, and Ann Waldman. Mary Pinard's "Niedecker's Grammar of Flooding" traces the language of flood, the flow and overflow of river and thought, in Niedecker's work in which "river life becomes a touchstone for reportage and discussions of poetic form." Penberthy ferrets out Niedecker's writing practice, research, and note-taking in making "Lake Superior" observing "much of the poem is given to silence. While its provenance lies in journeying, it dwells in a kind of awed stasis, an arrested momentum, an unbreathing verticality, all of which evokes the great lake at the center."

A whole section of essays is devoted to Niedecker's "Sounding Process," including Rae Armantrout's sensitive exploration of the "darkinfested," or depressive characteristics in the work. Du Plessis continues her intelligent exploration of Niedecker's complex relationship to Objectivism, as displayed earlier in her The Objectivist Nexus. Eliot Weinberger's essay, less an exercise in critical thinking, but like Niedecker's own way of writing critically, is a celebratory appreciation of the commonalities between the work of Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff who Weinberger sees as a more kindred spirit poetically than Zukofsky. In the same "Niedecker and Company" chapter, Glenna Breslin recounts her visit with a close friend of Niedecker's, Aeneas McAllister—a friendship until now mostly neglected in Niedecker studies. Peter Middleton's "The British Niedecker" poses interesting questions about why Niedecker in Britain, but I feel many of these questions could have been answered with more thorough research. After reading it I found answers to many of his questions by communicating directly with Thomas Meyer, and doing some research in the library. But I'm grateful that the essay spurred me into looking at histories of this period of American / British poetry cross-fertilization. Peter Quartermain never disappoints and his "Take Oil / and Hum: Niedecker / Bunting" is a perfect ending to the illuminating feast of Radical Vernacular.

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