on Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, essays edited by Elizabeth Willis (Univ. of Iowa Press)

The great jazz pianist Hank Jones said the following about maintaining artistic control: “There is an extremely important prelude to improvising. Every tune you play has its correct tempo, and you have to find it. When you do, it practically plays itself. It’s not what you think it should be, it’s what the tune demands … It’s difficult not to repeat certain figures and patterns. When you do, it means your concentration is not what it should be. Concentration is the difference between the great players and the players who are not great.” Art, then, simultaneously demands discovery and avoidance, adoration and disdain. Concentration is anticipation of the correct and essential in the not-yet-arrived – and vigilance against the habit of rutted recurrence. But the former is rarely sealed from the dispensable, and the latter is infiltrated by echoes of inbred sounds. Art is hard to make except when, as Hank says, it’s easy.

This was the dream: a flight from signature into the thing itself -- meaning, into the tune telling of the thing. Louis Zukofsky indicted the signature as a sign of “predatory intent” in a poet’s motivation. He demanded more respect for “what the tune demands.” A certain despotic selfhood, an analog and accomplice to the cruel regime itself (take your pick), must be condemned. In 1959 Robert Duncan told his Telegraph Hill neighbors, “The poet Louis Zukofsky writes: ‘God is / but one’s deepest conviction -- / your art, its use.’ Just because it is a use of one’s deepest conviction, I consider Poetry not to be a literary achievement or an affect of gentility … and particularly not a commodity of cultured taste, but to be a process of the Process that is the culture or tillage of souls that there might be and is a spiritual reality.” Such an ambitious scheme, appealing to provocative personalities, was bound to generate lots of new signatures. Self-elected for a more sacred mission, the poets of the Process occasionally neglected the demands of concentration and larded their poems with statements about the nature and value of the mission itself. But that was to be expected and forgiven.

Niedecker2.jpgDivide the world into types of poets if you like, into schools, sects or cells. But there are never more than a few true concentrators in any group you may prefer. The poet discovers and feels a deep affinity for a particular poetic mode, and concentration begins, as Paul Valéry wrote, “when one’s imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in one’s art and not if one’s imagination is dulled by them.” Lorine Niedecker (1903-70) dreamed Zukofsky’s dream and found a conveyance proper to her psyche. But where Zukofsky spent years ventilating his superfluities, Niedecker “affirms both adequacy and deprivation,” as Rachel Blau DuPlessis so aptly notes in her essay “Lorine Niedecker’s ‘Paean to Place’ and Its Reflective Fusions,” a most insightful contribution to Radical Vernacular. Niedecker was the ultimate concentrator, or as she put it, “condenser.”

WHEN ECSTACY IS INCONVENIENT

Feign a great calm;
all gay transport soon ends.
Chant: who knows—
flight's end or flight's beginning
for the resting gull?

Heart, be still.
Say there is money but it rusted;
say the time of moon is not right for escape.
It's the color in the lower sky
too broadly suffused,
or the wind in my tie.

Know amazedly how
often one takes his madness
into his own hands
and keeps it.

Blau DuPlessis says that even the later masterpiece, “Paean to Place” (1968), “is written saturated with objectivist premises and practices … Niedecker takes objectivist poetics as implying a resistance to association, to any streaming of the mind at all levels, to any concentration on an emotional afterimage.” But Niedecker resisted association only when extended beyond its immediate soundprint. In “Paean to Place” she asks about her mother, “did she giggle / as a girl?” About her family she writes, “Dancing grounds / my people had none … solemnities / such as what flower / to take / to grandfather’s grave.” Her mind was stimulated by the difficulty of precision in poetry, the language seemingly a power in itself that would like to go on too long. Niedecker grew up among uncommunicative, solemn people.

The austerity of her chosen poetic model allowed her not just to talk but to talk back to the bare words that had been spoken to her. When she spoke, we heard her side of an imagined conversation with the people she grew up and lived with. The breaks on the page are moments of silent difficulty -- as Paul Valéry specified, the harsh limits of the art accepted by the poet. She spent years slowly tilting away from Zukofsky’s influence. “I used to feel 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 to do this reflection,” she said in 1967. This “reflective” mode at the end of her life yielded a more defined vocal signature. But even “When Ecstasy Is Inconvenient,” written forty years earlier, conveys the magical thought of an unconventional counselor. It’s a poem Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva would have appreciated.

Niedecker.jpgRadical Vernacular joins Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet (essays edited by Jenny Penberthy, National Poetry Foundation, 1996) as the two most insightful books available on Niedecker. Penberthy is also the editor of Niedecker’s impeccable Collected Works (University of California, 2002). Wishing to rescue Niedecker from a narrow reputation as a regional poet, the earlier collection of essays focused mainly on her background and personality, the relationship with Zukofsky and the greater poetry network, the elements of gender and class in her work, and the making of her sequences and serial poems – but also took up her connection to her community and its ecology. Radical Vernacular looks more squarely at location in the poetry, but has other preoccupations as well. Willis writes in her introduction:

“The misperception that Niedecker worked in isolation and that her work was unmediated by cultural forces beyond the local has, of course, delayed critical recognition of some properties of her poems more than others – namely, the extent of their engagement with collage, their attention to the semantic depths of words, the international and transhistorical qualities of their address, the intricacy of their engagement with biography, biology, politics, popular culture, canonical literature, and even a critical sense of regional identity itself. Meanwhile, the compensating impulse to link Niedecker exclusively with international modernism obscures other aspects of her work.”

As Michael Davidson says here in an essay on Niedecker’s critical recognition, “For Niedecker, human and natural history form a continuum in which to comment on one is to invoke the other.” But there is no discursive impulse in Niedecker who is driven by, as she put it, an “awareness of everything influencing everything.” This is why Mary Pinard’s essay on “Niedecker’s Grammar of Flooding” is so interesting: how did this poet, so taken with everything experienced, remembered and retold, select from the flood of imagery and fact, using her observance of seasonal flooding to create a flow between the personal and the public, the natural and the human?

Some other high points: Eleni Sikelianos writes, “Niedecker’s poems are testament to a mind keenly interested in the relational and the particular, the political, environmental, and social aspects of world” and show us “how to include the political and horrific in the most subtle of manners.” Jonathan Skinner “approaches Lorine Niedecker as a poet of the field guide and of natural history.” Jenny Penberthy covers Niedecker’s poem “Lake Superior”: “A scientific account of the past and present gave her access to poetry and a paradoxical release into the metaphysical.” Rae Armantrout’s essay “Darkinfested” speculates on Niedecker’s presumed depressiveness: “The depressive’s view of self and world could be conceived as merciless realism. Niedecker is a consummate realist. She often presents troubling facts almost flatly (except for her singing vowels) as if she had little sympathy for humans in general or herself in particular.” (Willis describes "the blend of humility and audacity" in Niedecker which, combined with "merciless realism" above, suggests a link to Louise Glück, an association most of the essayists here would probably howl at.)

There are seventeen essays in all. One of my favorites is Eliot Weinberger’s short and sharp piece, “Niedecker/Reznikoff,” mainly because Weinberger represents the avid reader, as opposed to the polemicist, who can love Niedecker’s radically vernacular work as an exceptional performance in America’s poetry tradition. But also, he makes a convincing point about the affinity between the two poets. “There was also an idea that Niedecker got from Reznikoff -- ,” he writes, “as important as anything she learned from Zukofsky – and that was the way to incorporate history into the poem.”

niedecker4.jpgBlau DuPlessis begins her essay by mentioning that when Larry Dembo, a University of Wisconsin professor of English, interviewed the major Objectivist poets in Madison in 1968 for a special issue of Contemporary Literature, he spoke with Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff and Rakosi – but not Niedecker, who lived just twenty miles away in Fort Atkinson. My friend Jim Stephens, a poet who has lived in Madison since those days, told me that during Dembo’s poetry festival, it was Robert Creeley, about to begin his reading, who acknowledged the presence of a prim woman in her mid-sixties sitting at the back of the room: Lorine Niedecker. This segment is from “Florida” (1962):

My life is hung up
in the flood
a wave-blurred
portrait

Don’t fall in love
with this face –
it no longer exists
in water
we cannot fish

[Published September 15, 2008, 334 pages, $39.95 hardback]