J. W. Bonner   •  October 25, 2004

“My Pets, the Grasses”

The Particular Pleasures of Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works. Edited by Jenny Penberthy. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2002. 471 pages. $45 cloth. ISBN 0-520-22433-7.

New Goose by Lorine Niedecker. Edited by Jenny Penberthy. Berkeley: Rumor Books, 2002. 98 pages. $10 paper. ISBN 0-9639321-6-0.

Simpler may be better, but simple, well done, may be as difficult to pull off as abstract philosophy. Nonetheless, think of the satisfactions of well-told folk tales and fairy tales, the few lines of Mother Goose, Emily Dickinson’s terse and mysterious poems. A 20th century exemplar, Lorine Niedecker has written poems as important as any in this tradition. Her work serves as a model for any poet interested in the craft of poetry as a result of her ability to have each word, even the simplest word, serve as purest protein.

For aspiring poets, including my sixteen-year-old daughter, Hannah (whose poem preceding, based on the Jonathan Williams photograph of Niedecker that appeared in the Spring/Summer 2000 issue of Asheville Poetry Review, might well serve as an epigraph to this review), there are few better models than the poems of Lorine Niedecker. Poet and critic Jeffery Beam wrote a compelling essay about her life and poetry in the aforementioned issue of Asheville Poetry Review, so this particular review will provide a general sense of her creative work and attend to the contents and design of these latest publications.

Niedecker’s poems focus on the natural world and history, friends and family, political events and social issues. No subject is above or beneath her poetry. She further serves as model because of her careful paring of extraneous verbiage and images. Every word and line matters in a Niedecker poem. The world is her poetic oyster and subject matter, and the poetic pearls grow from the grit of specific detail and observation. Louis Zukofsky, one of Niedecker’s foremost mentors, in A Test of Poetry writes, “[the] emotional quality of good poetry is founded on exact observation.” On this tenet alone, we may acclaim Niedecker’s poetry.

Niedecker’s work has been praised by a number of luminaries: Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Zukofsky, Cid Corman, Clayton Eshleman, Edward Dahlberg, Jonathan Williams, and Basil Bunting. As James Laughlin, who published Niedecker often in his New Directions anthologies, has written, “Niedecker was an original in the best sense, hoeing her own row in poetry with complete disregard for literary fashion.” Niedecker’s originality is on display in her second published poem, “Wasted Energy,” which appeared in her high school yearbook in 1922. The poem’s first stanza focuses on language: “Refinement of speech is a thing that we preach / All in vain it would sometimes seem, / For this is the age when slang is the rage, / And vocabularies, a dream.” Niedecker’s characteristic compression is already in evidence with the use of the comma for the verb in the stanza’s final line. In the poem’s fourth stanza, the poet moves from the general comment on slang to particular examples: “I tell Tom of the quake that made Mexico shake, ‘Well, ain’t that the berries?’ quotes he. / When describing a quail or a sunset or whale — / They’re ‘wonderful!’ —each of the three.” Slang blurs the object or thing, its image ­“wasted”; this inexact common speech does not differentiate.

Niedecker’s poems thrive on the particular. In one of her best, and most illustrative of her form, we read, “Asa Gray wrote Increase Lapham: / pay particular attention / to my pets, the grasses.” Some house dogs or cats. For Asa Gray, and Lorine Niedecker, Nature is Man’s (and a Poet’s) best friend. Note the particular resonance and the interesting syntax of the final three lines in the following excerpt from an untitled poem: “Love the night, love the night / and if on waking it rains: / little drops of rest.” Rain drops create the rest or the peace, which carries over into the morning, of night’s calm and quiet.

Niedecker, above all, is a poet of verbal distinction. She “con­denses” her poems, their language and imagery, so that each drop or word nourishes, an essential amino acid, or, as Niedecker hinted in her poem titled “Progression,” “we condense all exposition / to a green blood-beat and bleach intact.” Thus, all exposition is condensed to Nature’s beat and rhythm and, hence, rid of excess dross. Though individual poems are often only a few lines — “my friend tree / I sawed you down / but I must attend / an older friend / the sun” — the reduction or titration of syntax and language saturates the poem with meaning. From another angle, compacted as the poems become, they develop a density much like the larger natu­rally-occurring elements.

For all the acclaim for her poems of the natural world, she writes as poignantly and succinctly of the deepest human emotions as any poet of this past century. All of our sense of beauty and of being fully human may reside in the locus of the face, but hear Niedecker: “Ah your face / but it’s whether / you can keep me warm.” Pretty boys (and men) are only as good as their loving warmth (and sexual heat?). In “Thomas Jefferson Inside,” she writes “Love is the great good use / one person makes of another.” “Good use” is the operative phrase; otherwise, it’s mere sexual — or worse — manipulation. Only if the intentions are good and honorable will there be love attached and deepened.

One of the pleasurable reminders of this compact volume is the energy and vitality of Niedecker’s prose. She was writing “experimental” plays in the 1930s, pursuing directions hinted at in Gertrude Stein’s work and only recently more fully explored by Russell Edson or language poet-playwrights such as Kit Robinson. Niedecker’s eleven-page radio adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying deserves immediate production by some adventurous theater company or radio station. Niedecker makes the novel work as theater drama — hers — while maintaining fidelity to Faulkner’s language.

Jenny Penberthy, editor of the reviewed volumes, is creating a Niedecker cottage industry. She has edited two previous volumes connected to this Wisconsin poet: a collection of the poet’s correspondence with Zukofsky and another of critical essays about the poems. These two more recent publications are very different from each other in design and intent. The Rumor Books edition of New Goose is an attractive pocket-style design, the contents organized as an “alphabet book.” Each (mostly) short poem sits on its own page. These poems, written in the 1930s and 1940s, represent Niedecker’s “Mother Goose-influenced period,” a social and folk poetry influenced by and commenting on the Depression, socialism, war, class stratification, poverty, and economic policy — as well as depicting her beloved watery Wisconsin landscape at Black Hawk Island. Pleasures abound: “Remember my little granite pail? / The handle of it was blue. / Think what’s got away in my life! / Was enough to carry me thru.” Her poem about the historical Johnny (Chapman) Appleseed sings sweetly as the planted fruit: “He was the early American apple / who changed the earth by dropping seeds.”

Collected Works pulls together all of Niedecker’s surviving poetry, plays, and creative prose in the sequence of their composition. (Her very fine critical essays, published in the Jargon edition titled From This Condensery of the complete writings, are missing from this version of the collected works due to space constraints.) Penberthy’s critical apparatus, almost 100 pages of notes, makes up over twenty percent of the book’s total. In a critical note concerning this California publication, Penberthy states baldly the aim of this edition: “to establish [Niedecker’s] position among twentieth-century poets. Furthermore, it aims to restore the profile of her writing life.”

Certainly, the reader of this handsome edition is able to follow the sequence of Niedecker’s composition, the historical evolution of themes and forms. But in addition to the omission of the critical writings, keeping this collection from being able to serve as the complete, and therefore definitive, set of Niedecker’s works, the page design feels too crammed. Probably for space and therefore cost considerations, the poems, including short poems, are stuffed several to a page. Too many very short poems break at the bottom of one page to the top of the next.

Penberthy’s notes provide fascinating reading. She sets an engaging context for the reader of these poems. Another design suggestion: rather than printing the explanatory introductory material as the heading to the notes, I wonder if those notes might have been better printed on the section pages within the book proper or as an italicized section that would serve as a heading prior to beginning the reading of the first poem in the section. The reading process would then be made more seamless and allow the hyper-curious to look at the notes for specific poems in the back.

It may have taken Niedecker a “lifetime / to weep / a deep / trickle.” Fortunately, that “deep / trickle” provides refreshment and sustenance for long study and deep appreciation. The poems and creative prose collected in the pages of these two books offer abundant rewards to those aspiring poets and to readers of all styles of poetry willing to “pay particular attention” to Niedecker’s creative use of language, syntax, and forms. As Hannah Bonner implies in the final line of her poem, these are poems to carry in one’s “letter sack” and distribute across the world. Penberthy has served as Niedecker’s Janie Poetry-seed, planting these sweet poems across the literary wilderness. May these poems bear fruits that would bring more beauty to American — and world — poetry.