Lorine Niedecker's "Folk Base" and Her Challenge to the American Avant-Garde

Peter Middleton


* This article first appeared in Journal of American Studies 31.2 (1997): 203-18, published by Cambridge University Press, to whom acknowledgments are made. It was subsequently reprinted in The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain, published by University of Alabama Press, to whom acknowledgments are made.

* * *

What is the effect of placing speech in a poem? What is the effect of placing a poem in a collection of poems by other poets? These ordinary cultural acts of displacement are taken for granted by most writers and readers, but for the Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker they represented highly conscious acts alien to her everyday world. Although her fellow Objectivists were marginalised by the literary world for much of their careers, they mostly lived and worked within the metropolitan cultures where their avant-garde poetry was read. She spent almost all her life in rural Wisconsin in relative poverty, keeping her writing life quite separate from her various working-class jobs and the local community. This essay will read her poetry in terms of its relations with the poetic avant-garde and the acts of displacement required by these connections. Doing so helps make tangible the complexity of a poetic style that can appear to dissolve meaning into a limpid clarity leaving nothing to interpret, especially from the standpoint of the poetic avant-garde that promulgated her work, and had during her lifetime a tendency to make largely unquestioned assumptions about the universal transmissibility of its forms of poetry.

Lorine Niedecker was born in 1903 in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, and lived in this rural area dominated by lakes and rivers until her death in 1970, with only a few spells away, mainly in Madison. She began writing poetry in the thirties, visited New York where she met the young Objectivist poet, Louis Zukofsky, and began a life-long correspondence with him, which formed the basis of her relationship with the avant-garde network of poets who became the publishers and readers of her poetry. After a brief relationship with Zukofsky she returned to Wisconsin, and lived a relatively solitary life devoted to an intensive poetic practice. Unlike the jobs she took to support herself, there was "no layoff/ from this/ condensery" (Condensery 141). After early experiments with surrealism and other modernist strategies, her poetry took as its theme the rural culture and landscape, until toward the end of her career she began to write about historical figures like Jefferson and Darwin. Throughout her career she showed an extraordinary precision in her use of sound in poetry. Only a few books of poetry were published in her lifetime, and those by small presses, so her reputation depended on the continuing support of a few people, notably the editor and poet, Cid Corman, who published her in Origin and maintained a correspondence with her in the latter part of her life. Even after her death her poetry remained hard to obtain, and there is still no reliable complete edition of her poetry available. Almost any brief account of the isolation and poverty of Niedecker's life is likely to give a false impression however, because as Rachel Blau Du Plessis and Jenny Penberthy have both persuasively argued, Niedecker's life should not be read in terms of failure or exclusion1. Her isolation was a deliberate and creative choice that fostered her poetry, whatever its other costs and deprivations.

As a lifelong resident writer of Black Hawk Island, Niedecker lived a long way from any metropolitan or avant-garde culture, yet she was very aware of how her world might look from outside. During the thirties she was employed by the WPA as a research editor on the guide to Wisconsin, for which she would have had to learn some of the skills of the folklorist to record local idioms and anecdotes that could typify a regional culture, and so became that uneasy figure the participant observer. Her relation to advanced literary culture was oddly similar, although in this case she was more observer than participant. The art world was familiar, and yet apart, because contact with it depended largely on one man, Zukofsky, of whose metropolitan art world she had little first-hand experience. Publishing a poem meant alienating it even further from the place and the people where she lived, few of whom even knew she wrote, and placing it within the network of avant-garde publishing. Her poetry's continuance depended upon a small discerning network of editors who recognised the value of her poetry, and would publish it, mostly in magazines, and only rarely in books or anthologies. Her work is still closely identified with certain small presses. The social and subjective distance that her poems travelled would have made her aware of the way this network could take control not only of the general significance of her poetry, but of the very meanings of poems themselves. Her emphasis on "local reality, a fusion of past and personal" (Caddel 282) is in part a poetic strategy for revealing the implications of such necessary appropriation.

What happens when these seemingly fundamental practices, making speech into poems, and placing poems amongst the work of other poets, become self-conscious, awkward and distancing rather than taken for granted? The clarities, themes, address, and intertextualities of Niedecker's poetry insinuate suprising local critiques of such apparently unquestionable practices, and so what might have been merely a phenomenologically astute poetry of place becomes something much more unusual. The tensions between localism and internationalism in much twentieth century American poetry are put to work in Niedecker's poetry to create a new poetics of cultural transmission.

She could have seen a pointed, instructive example of these tensions when soon after the publication of her first book, New Goose, in 1946, Louis Zukofsky chose one of her very short poems, "There's a Better Shine", for his didactic anthology A Test of Poetry (1948), which places a wide range of old and new English poetry into short sets for the purposes of contrast and comparison. In its entirety her poem reads:

There's a better shine
on the pendulum
than is on my hair
and many times
* * * *
I've seen it there. (Test of Poetry 41)

The diacritical stars are an integral part of the poem at several levels, indicating a pause for breath and a break in thought, representing a measure of elapsed time, and forming an iconic image of the beats of a pendulum. This poem's elegant concision, musical control, innovative use of punctuation, and apparent simplicity of theme, typify much of Niedecker's later work. A discussion of the wider significance of its unobtrusive meditation (one wants to say "reflection" until one realises that this is a pun which the poem itself implies) on the relationship between self-image, time and perceptual acts of mediation between subject and object, could review the history of aesthetic argument since Romanticism. Zukofsky pointed the poem in a different direction. He placed this poem in his anthology in such a context that its meaning could be bent into quite another shape too, and in doing so, was acting in accordance with his own acute sense of the need to recognise the genealogical, ideological, and formalist challenges to the value of one's own poetry. In an essay for Poetry written in 1946, he explains that to be a poet means that every poem or potential poem of one's own is placed alongside all the other poems of the past: "The poet may visibly stop writing, but secretly measures himself against each word of poetry ever written. Furthermore....he thinks of others who have lived, live, and will live to say the things he cannot say for the time being" (Prepositions 11). This anxious belief that the poet is engaged in some transhistoric poetry competition depends on the unexplored assumption that poetry is a transferable utterance. A poem begins as a wordless urgency to which the poet is trying to give voice, possibly helped by the utterances of earlier poems, and sometimes hindered by incapacity, while anxious that other poets will develop this capacity first, and so be able to say what the poet had hoped to claim originality for. The material of the poem can move freely from one location or moment to another, and does not inhere in one intersubjective network from where it could only be wrenched away at the risk of an attenuation of significance. His anthology offered a tangible demonstration of this belief in the transferability of poetry across a transhistoric and international network of poetic value.

Recontextualisation is the strategic device chosen to make readers see the poems and extracts afresh, but its effect on Niedecker's poem is much more than an act of editorial defamiliarisation. It transforms a poem that reflects upon self-consciousness and time into a poem which seems to confirm, from the mouth of a woman poet, that women are rightly depicted as dangerously seductive creatures of passion by the male poetic tradition. This is a reading with special resonance given Zukofsky's own history of relations with Niedecker.

"There's a better shine" is displayed at the end of a column of three other poems by Keats, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and Shakespeare, an exalted company of men. This balance of past and present is typical of A Test of Poetry, which is predominantly made up of seventeenth century verse, with some nineteenth century and a few contemporary poets such as Charles Reznikoff, Williams Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky himself. Contemporary poems are therefore placed in a particular literary history that derives particularly from modernist preoccupations. The poems in Niedecker's group appear anonymously with a series of labels, 23a-23d, that refer to a key at the back, from which we also learn that this group appears under the rubric "recurrence". Recurrence is unlikely to be a reader's first association, given the obviousness of two other themes, women and clarity, whose salience is encouraged by the interpretative licence of anonymity and the lack of immediately discernible categorisation. The delayed effect of the knowledge of authorship, especially awareness that the last poem is by a woman, then actually plays into the expectations the group generates poem by poem.

The set begins with a tantalisingly brief phrase. Keats's "Ode to Autumn" is represented in minimalist fashion by just three words, "hedge-crickets sing", an allusion to the final celebrations of nature before the death of the year. In the poem, autumn is a "close bosom-friend of the maturing sun", a personified figure whose gender is not identified, but closely associated with many feminine qualities, such as plumpness and ripeness, and is also a pastoral figure, the personification of a landscape about to be transformed into the wintry absence of feminising presence. The hedge-crickets could be minor poets singing the imminent demise of mature sensuality. In the next extract, Lord Herbert of Cherbury asks Love to divide the properties of glass between himself and the woman he loves so that there will be "clearness for me, frailty for her" (the poem is called "In a Glass-Window for Inconstancy"). The request is full of delightful ironies, since the apparent impossibility of separating these qualities of glass could lead to the inference that the man's clarity of thought may itself fracture, or alternatively suggest that love will always be a mix of rationality and passion, for men as well as women. Whatever its ironies however, the poem's ground is a strongly gendered division of the faculties into reason and emotion. This stereotypical rift is picked up even more strongly in the next extract from Shakespeare's Pericles:

Fair glass of light, I love you, and could still,
Were not this glorious casket stored with ill:
But I must tell you, now my thoughts revolt;
For he's no man on whom perfections wait
That, knowing sin within, will touch the gate.
You are a fair viol and your sense the strings,
Who, finger'd to make man his lawful music,
Would draw heaven down and all the gods, to hearken,
But being play'd upon before your time,
Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime.(Test of Poetry 41)

Pericles makes this aside when he realises that Antiochus and Antiochus's daughter are lovers and the king has no intention of letting Pericles or anyone else marry her. By juxtaposing these allusions to perverse love with Niedecker's poem, Zukofsky makes the passage say things he perhaps cannot, both of the more general kind his essay endorsed, and the most intimate. He himself had had an affair with Niedecker that was premature and not "lawful", at least in the religous sense. Whether consciously, or more likely, unconsciously, he has chosen a passage that would say what he feels about what had happened, and in doing so also takes over its gender assumptions as if to justify his attitude. Women are instruments upon which men make music, not makers of music themselves. With the reinforcement of the two previous extracts this becomes a powerful coded statement in sharp tension with the evidence of a woman making music in the final extract.

The Pericles passage ends on the word "chime", which is then echoed both by the sound of the word "shine" and the image of the pendulum in Niedecker's lyric. The clever use in the last line of a pronoun whose antecedent is ambiguous, and the visual pun on the movement of the pendulum that represents time passing, reframe the appealing self-deprecating admission of the poet's lack of beauty. Instead of simply an amusing, idiomatic exaggeration of drabness, the poem becomes a meditation on the reflexivity of identity over time. By placing Niedecker's poem at the end of this set of poems, Zukofsky overshadows such interpretations, first by creating a private historical relevance projected as the motivation for his selection, which makes her poem into an admission of complicity with perverse desire, and then, through its placement as a late example of a topos with a long history, into an avowal of female narcissism that endorses the poetic tradition. For the few readers who knew of Zukofsky's relations with Niedecker, this sequence, far from universalising their poetic relevance, would have actually demonstrated that the metropolitant art world could be a highly local place.

The sequence also produces another, potentially misogynistic, semantic drama about poetic vocation. The derogatory idea of woman as a mere instrument for the generation of music by a skilled male creator, is reinforced by this thematisation of male clarity, since clarity was a guiding preoccupation of the Objectivist nexus, and a concern of Niedecker herself, although less explicitly so. To understand how this drama is constructed, it is necessary to consider the importance of the concept of clarity for Objectivist poetics.

George Oppen wrote:

Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful
         thing in the world,
A limited, limiting clarity
I have not and never did have any motive of poetry
But to achieve clarity. (Collected Poems 185)

The vehemence of this assertion is a tacit recognition of the difficulties of attaining clarity, both according to his theories of the relation between language and the world, and in his poetry, which often presents manifest difficulties, conceptual and syntactic, to the reader. Zukofsky too, aspired to clarity as an ideal that his poetry might only gesture at. The belief that rationality depends as much upon visualisation and sound, as it does upon words, which he attributes to Wittgenstein, C.S. Pierce and of course Spinoza, leads him to an even stronger celebration of clarity: "the eye cannot look so that it cannot look. The wholeness it sees in looking is its inexpressible ethics" (Bottom 89). To lack the "clearness" of glass, or to be a "fair glass of light" that is corrupted within, is to lack an ethics entirely. Perhaps even to admit that the "wholeness" one sees when looking at oneself in a simultaneous act of visual and cognitive self-reflection is also dependent on a concern with the success of one's feminine appearance, is an act of ethical weakness. By placing Niedecker's poem in such company, the anthology makes possible a reading of her poem that questions whether a woman can ever be a poet, particularly a poet striving for the highest ideals of claritas, like the Objectivists.

Tempting as it is to imagine Niedecker decoding these meanings and taking them to heart, this is not the conclusion we can draw from the existing evidence. We don't know that Niedecker ever consciously made any of these connexions, nor whether she registered the fact that she and Marianne Moore were the only women poets in the collection. She went on liking "There's a better shine", and referred to it as one of her five best poems (along with "Old man who seined", "Paul", "I rose from marsh mud", and "The clothesline post is set") in a letter to Cid Corman in 1960 (Faranda 24), so Zukofsky's use of it doesn't appear to have dimmed her attachment to it, and there is no evidence that the anthology itself affected her in any way. We cannot treat it as a trauma that generated a subsequent reaction formation in her poetics. What we can say is that throughout her career she was presented with plenty of evidence of the way in which the Objectivist version of avant-garde ideals could make poems speak in new ways, even running counter to one's aims, by treating poems as part of an international, transtemporal language of poets, irregardless of their initial "webbing of relations" (DuPlessis in Penberthy, Lorine Niedecker109) to a locality of readers and history. A Test of Poetry is simply an example that particularly rewards a critical archeology looking for enduring traces of such transformations. The question then is whether her poetry offers any challenge to, and investigation of, such appropriation.

Niedecker was certainly chary of the distortions produced by the contextualisation of poetry by school or group. Near the end of her career there are distinct signs in the letters that she wanted to distance herself from Objectivism, notably concerning the Objectivist issue of Contemporary Literature because it seemed to encourage a superficial set of relationships between poets: "there is the talking about each other's poetry that bothers me a little....it's literary criticism but all the same a little also like gossip!" )Faranda 193). In a letter to Gail Roub, one of the few people outside the avant-garde network she could discuss poetry with, she says she is "much taken up with how to define a way of writing poetry which is not Imagist nor Objectivist fundamentally nor Surrealism alone" (Faranda 9). This negative poetics leads her to a redefinition that has a phenomenological ring to it as it tries to separate itself from simple clarity. "The basis is direct and clear---what has been seen or heard etc...--but something gets in, overlays all that to make a state of consciousness [...] 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". Instead of a choice between clarity and frailty, the choice is between mere perceptual clarity and the complexities of reflective consciousness. Looking in the pendulum is an act of daring.

Although she lacked the range of opportunity available to even a poet as marginalised as Zukofsky, Niedecker was quite capable of intervening in the politics of recontextualisation herself, within the limited fields offered to her, as a discussion of George Oppen in one of her letters reveals. In this letter she seems suprisingly rude about Oppen, describing him as a latter-day grasshopper, as if obliquely recalling those "hedge-cricket" poets from Keats, and thereby acknowledging Zukofsky's other acts of poetic displacement. It is also an example of just how the nexus could represent itself through the transfer of images and phrases. "George Oppen---yes, there's something intriguing there. However, there are times I've felt he's down in the grass as an insect (singing from his knees), all angular, a kind of constipated grasshopper" (Letter to Corman Jan 30, 1968 [Faranda 149]). Almost certainly she would have had in mind his most recent book This In Which, and perhaps was conflating images from the poems "Seated Man" and "The Occurrences". In the first he imagines a man alienated from the everyday world by his experience of war---

The man is old and---
Out of scale

Sitting in the rank grass. (Collected Poems 108)

---an experience which the poem goes on to equate in Whitmanic fashion with the world. Grass in "The Occurrences" is a trope which makes a Romantic appeal to the vitality of living things in the shadow of the sun "In which the bugs crawl/ At the roots of the grass" (126). It is a place which might teach even God and certainly any father conscious of his minimal role in the creation of human beings, about the more fundamental male act of creation, "the creating/ Now that tremendous/ plunge", which makes temporality about as phallic as possible, and then projects it as an implicit poetic ideal. This is a polar opposite to the restrained, openly gendered awareness of temporality in Niedecker's pendulum poem.

Both Oppen and Niedecker write with an awareness of one of the best known Objectivist poems, Zukofsky's ""Mantis"" (All 73), in which the praying mantis lost in the hostile urban landscape of the subway stone evokes the plight of the poor. The highly formal version of the sestina Zukofsky used provoked in turn a second companion poem ""Mantis," An Interpretation" (74), a defense of the poetical language of the first. The quotation marks in which the insect's name is set are explained in this second poem as a reminder that to turn a human being into a symbolic insect may violate their humanity (78). Niedecker's remark about Oppen could be taken to mean that alongside Zukofsky's mantis, Oppen is merely a grasshopper, and more significantly, to imply that what she does to Oppen, turn a human being into an symbolic insect, he does to his urban denizens. But even Zukofsky comes close to admitting that he is doing this, saying at the end of the poem that the poor are a more constant memory than the poetic tradition, represented by the phrase "com' huom pietra sott' erba". (80). ""Mantis"" imagines the flourishing mantis hiding on a stone in the grass in its proper habitat, and still finding a base in the inhospitable stone architecture of the subway, where it preys symbolically on human life. (74). Pity, disgust, and economic cannibalism are so hopelessly entwined in the world depicted in the formal sestina that the following "interpretation" becomes a near-admission of failure in the conviction that it is nothing but a chaos within attempted order (79).

The poem succeeding "Seated Man" in Oppen's Collected Poems, "Street", also considers poverty, but in a manner which contrasts with both Zukofsky and especially Niedecker. Indeed it makes one aware that even the idea that there is an underclass of people who could be designated the "poor" rarely surfaces in her poetry despite the evident poverty of her community. Oppen steps away from the people whose impoverished lives are easily visible on the street with an apodictic gesture, "Ah these are the poor", whose exclamatory particle expresses the moment of inarticulate sympathetic recognition when attention registers their existence and his own distance from them. Furthermore, the emphatic interjection somewhat showily demonstrates a deep feeling that resists language, for which reason modern poets have been wary of its possibly presumptuous Romantic claim to such inner depths (Prynne). The poem stumbles, with an engaging honesty, through a series of responses that might well have irritated someone like Niedecker. By saying "I want// An end of poverty/ As much as anyone", he risks dismissing the culture of the dispossessed along with their economic condition, and when he arrives at a climactic image of the human cost of poverty, the effect is compromised by his readiness to sentimentalise ethical violation as a fallen woman:

It is terrible to see the children,

The righteous little girls;
So good, they expect to be so good... [ellipses in original] (Collected Poems 109).

The avant-garde poet is out of place, reduced for a moment to the semantic void of a phatic interjection, when he finds himself with the people Niedecker called the "folk". She herself was poor, and frequently referred to the folk as both spring and swamp for her ambitions, but she would never have been so willing to speculate whether these anonymous girls could grow up into some kind of goodness, nor would she have allowed herself such a distancing emphatical sigh, understanding from the inside as she did that ethics might vary according to one's class perspective. Sympathy like Oppen's might be more conservative than its apparent concern for the children's future would suggest.

Could Oppen's poetry also be acting as a screen memory for Zukofsky's poem from the thirties? At the beginning of the letter which morphs Oppen into an insect, Niedecker refers to a poem about a dragonfly she had recently sent to Corman:

                to see the lake
                the still sky
                out for an easy
                the dragonfly. (Granite Pail 61)

This subtle poem offers the sexualised metaphor of the landscape in an ironic frame that invites the reader to both enjoy the slight absurdity of this naughty trope, and to see its explanatory power, before teasing the reader with a change of scale from lake to dragonfly. It too is out for conquest, although whether as mate or hunter is deliberately ambiguous, as if to confirm the universality of sex. Mantis, grasshopper and dragonfly---the subtle permutations on these almost heraldic insects signify another distinction. The dragonfly is described in terms that derive from "folk speech", a local humour about the landscape and its fauna that reveals the preoccupations of the indigenous people as much as the character of the place.

Placing everyday folk speech in poetry was something else that divided Niedecker from Oppen. Her momentary impatience with Oppen may also have had roots in her awareness of his criticism of poets who attempted to "reproduce common speech" in poetry. Such practices smacked of a suspect "populism" to Oppen. Asked by an interviewer what he meant by populism he refers to the poem "The red wheelbarrow", saying that Williams appears to believe in "the greater reality of certain kinds of objects than of others" (Contemporary Literature 167), citing the wheelbarrow and chickens as an example. In the wider context of such differences between the Objectivists, it is as if Niedecker is saying that Oppen approaches American numerousness, the grass, with a predatory outsider's objectivity that results in a droning poetry's automatism of sound (the singing grasshopper that recalls Keats' hedge-crickets perhaps). His willingness to see the American masses as grass resembles the transformation of the dragonfly into a philandering male by the initial playful trope in its attempt to grasp the beauty and interpenetration of sky and water. Local playfulness redeems the imposition, whereas the greening of the people in Oppen's tropes appears to confirm a metropolitan aesthetic superiority. It turns out therefore that Niedecker herself is adept at this business of intertextuality and recontextualisation, making arguments with layers of allusions to the work of the poets she knew and read. She can triangulate precisely her shared preoccupations about the poet's relation to society, the use of people and the natural world as symbols, and the pragmatics of their discourse, and in doing so measure her differences from her Objectivist associates Zukofsky and Oppen.

In no area did they differ as much as on the question of folk speech and its place in poetry. Niedecker's commitment to what she called the "folk" led to a different sense of career, a curious resistance to publicly reading her poetry, and an active interest in folklore that creates a radically innovative form of poetry. Despite her unofficial membership of the Objectivist nexus, Niedecker's own position in relation to the avant-garde is unusual. Although she was published by some of the most prestigious avant-garde poetry presses, she lived more outside the urban centres of radical literary practice than almost any other poet one can think of. She never became a professional writer or teacher as almost all of her contemporaries did, and this refusal to professionalise her poetry was both an economic and an aesthetic decision, for since the late nineteenth century aestheticism has helped provide an ideology for the emergence of professionalism in America, with its claims to special expertise. By rejecting professionalism she was also rejecting the longstanding claim that the work of literary practitioners could evince a special kind of expertise or "cultural knowledge" and its accompanying role of teacher to initiates (Freedman 55), which is so evident in a text like A Test of Poetry. Her own employments were not career jobs, and her everyday life put her entirely outside even the romantic models of the outsider who is able to use the position as a cultural position ahead of the more conformist artists who lag behind the scouts of the avant-garde. She simply wasn't outside in the sense that other poets and novelists who lived on the margins have been. She was inside the life-world where she was born despite her own differences and distances from it which made her relations to the locality sometimes uncomfortable.

Her refusal to tour and give public readings of her poetry even extended to her resistance to the idea of recording herself on tape. Cid Corman tried to record her, but the result was a failure because she would not project her verse in the impersonal manner required ("I fell over one of the stanzas and nearly squashed it") as she explained in this letter to Kenneth Cox written November 23, 1970:

I got to thinking as I read how one can write for print and it means one thing and let it out of the mouth and into a listener to become something else e.g.: my Darwin commences:

           His holy
                     mulled over

from the mouth is it holy or wholly or holey???? And in the Thomas Jefferson I have:

Martha (Patsy) stay

so aloud it calls for a bit of explanation perhaps---e.g. "Patsy, that is" (not spoiling anything really)....For me poetry is a matter of planting it in deep, a filled silence, each person reading it a silence to be filled---he'll have to come to the poems---both writer and reader---with an ear for all the poems can give and he'll hear that as Beethoven heard tho deaf. (quoted in Dent, Full Note 41)

She wants an aural reception but doesn't want an oral means of creating it. As she explained to her friends the Roubs afterwards, in what was probably her last letter, "a person conscious of a listening audience would write just a tiny bit differently" (Faranda 241). Her reference to Beethoven betrays her awareness of the apparent contradiction of what she is saying. A composer denied the opportunity to hear his own music except in the auditory imagination is in a sorry state, and seems a poor parallel for what she wants. Her examples are perhaps at first sight unconvincing, because the written text is also ambiguous, but in both examples what she highlights is the problem of what philosophers call "implicature" (Grice), the necessity for the auditor to decide what is the probable shape and meaning of the word. In the second case she imagines being able to interject an aside, in other words to create a momentary intersubjective relation in which its relevance will be made apparent. In the first she is imagining the lack of such an intersubjective world for the utterance, so that its significance goes begging. She describes it as a problem created by the translation of poem from text to speech, but it is really a problem created by her loss of control over the intersubjectivities within which her poetry is located. Niedecker's idea of the silence of the reader waiting to be filled is evocative because it underlines the importance of sound to her poetry, and her lack of the recognition onto which poets can project relations between poem and reader from within the poem itself. In a letter she wrote to Cid Corman three years earlier on May 3, 1967, she described the audience at a reading as an audience "mixed and nerve-crossed...somewhat inattentive", and said she would only be able to manage if she could find a way that "the silence could be governed among the people" (Faranda 121). The silence is an absence of dialogue, of conversation, due to the distance between poet and reader. Her poem begins there, with this silence, this absence of intersubjectivity, rather than immediately appealing to the universalising languages and frameworks of modern art and the avant-garde. This is why in the letter to Corman she is explicit about the intimate scale of the intersubjectivity with which her poetry aims to work: "Poems are for one person to another, spoken thus, or read silently". This is poetry conceived within a network of local relationships with a known history, a poetry that refuses the blandishments that promise it can be placed anywhere in public culture without loss, and does not believe that it can always put other people's thoughts into words without attenuation.

Niedecker's willingness to describe the foundation of her poetry as a "folk base" stems from this resistance to the idea that poetry should be an infinitely transmissible utterance, and helps explain why she might think of herself as located within another quite different literary tradition to that of Objectivism, and even come to believe that this was what made her work distinctive. "I probably show a folk base and even LZ knew it many years ago, and that so far as I see it might actually be my only claim to any difference between most poets and meself", she wrote to Jonathan Williams in August 1970 (Penberthy 4). "Most poets" are presumably the poets she read in magazines like Origin. The self-conscious emphasis on her folksiness created by the idiomatic spelling of the last word of this sentence gives some ground for Jenny Penberthy's interpretation of this and other similar statements as typical of a deceptive self-deprecation that has helped maintain the image of Lorine Niedecker as someone to be remembered largely for "her folk poetry and her poems of place" (Penberthy, Niedecker Correspondence 4). Occasional references to the folk in her letters and poems suggest that she was conscious of this element long before she wrote to Jonathan Williams. She calls Group III of the poems in "For Paul", "the folk group, the American group", acknowleding the way she uses a deliberate mix of folk humour and avant-garde technique. The result is a mixture of poetic styles which includes "What horror to wake at night" with its painful refrain "I've spent my life on nothing", the mock ballad "Jesse James and his brother Frank", and the short poem about the other James brothers, "May you have lumps in your mashed potatoes". This latter poem juxtaposes an anecdote from the childhood of Henry and William James, with Henry's consoling letter to Grace Norton (of July 28, 1883), in which he extols the "illimitable" power of consciousness and counsels her not to "melt too much into the universe but be solid and dense and fixed" as she is able, in other words, to be a lump in the mashed potato of the universe. The humour of the absurd parallel between the two sets of James brothers created by juxtaposing these two poems, brings the great writers back from the thin air of transcendental concerns to an everyday domestic world of cooked vegetables. The opening line is actually a mock curse uttered by the brothers "to those who stood up to them in argu/ ment" (Condensery 61). Neidecker's poem could be asking what happens when a reader stands up to the argument made by Henry James in the letter to Norton, or to the similar themes to be found elsewhere in his writing.

Penberthy also cites another more complex reference to the folk element in Niedecker's poems in the sequence "For Paul", which Niedecker made when a selection was published in The New Mexico Quarterly Review. Good poetry, she says, is the "outcome of experimentation with subconscious and with folk---all good poetry must contain elements of both or stems from them---plus the rational, organizational force", and Penberthy comments: "Her use of 'folk' refers, I suspect, to folk speech, the common currency of routine interactions" (Niedecker Correspondence 60). This could make Niedecker sound very like William Carlos Williams, who also valued ordinary speech highly as a source for his work. In the preface to The Wedge (1944) he said that a poem is made individual by the specificity of "the character of the speech from which it arises" (Collected Poems 2: 54). This meant letting the syntax and vocabulary alone during the process of arranging them into a composition: "When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them---without distortion which would mar their exact significances---into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses". Although Williams stresses that found speech or folk idioms must not be tampered with as they are carefully placed within the structure of the poem, he is perfectly willing to impose a new framing syntax around them, so that now they become a revelation of the poet's own perceptions and desires, just as Zukofsky did in A Test of Poetry. Williams, one might say, developing Penberthy's metaphor further, takes the currency of speech out of circulation and celebrates its value independently of the exchange represented by its "interrelations". Its revelation is a result of putting it on display in the poem. Niedecker's practice is oriented in a reverse direction. Instead of producing a revelation from this withdrawal from circulation she actually intensifies the poem's immersion in those same "routine interactions".

Many of Williams's poems certainly acknowledge their source in such ordinary relations. His poem "This is just to say" holds up for scrutiny an extremely familar act of communication, the written note to an absent intimate (Collected Poems 1: 372). The poem uses the metalinguistic opening line knowingly, for this apparent kitchen note is not just an occasion to say something about plums, this is now also a poem, which will have what Niedecker described in Zukofsky's poetry in a letter from 1951, "a supersense, not meaning in the ordinary sense" (Penberthy, Niedecker Correspondence 175). It works very similarly to some of Niedecker's, except that the disingenuous opening disavowal signals to the knowing reader in a way that withdraws the poem from its immediate intersubjective drama, and diverts attention away from its traces, through a mutual recognition of an aesthetic value that overrides any unsubsumable particularities. Niedecker's appeal to the "folk base" as the element which makes her poetry most innovative takes her poems in a different direction. Her poetry challenges the way avant-garde poetry is ordinarily read, by demanding an alteration in the stance taken in the process of reception.

Is it sufficient to locate this folk element of her poetry in her interest in reproducing everyday idioms? The contrast with Williams suggests that more is involved. One way of clarifying its significance for her work would be to trace the vicissitudes of this now largely defunct term, which earlier in the twentieth century enjoyed widespread credibility, both in academic studies and in politics. I can only sketch this history here. For the many immigrants from Germany to the northern states, the idea of the "volk" was a powerful, evocative image of immemorial tradition in proximity with the land which had been at best disrupted, and for many simply lost, by immigration. Back in Germany it came to have a more sinister appeal as part of the new code of Aryan nationalism under National Socialism. Because of this taint, the term was dropped by socialists in the thirties in favour of other terms like "the masses", itself a concept which socialists after the war also came to mistrust. Niedecker's adoption of the term folk needs to be understood within this political history. When she refers to working class people like those at the print shop where she worked as "the folk from whom all poetry flows/ and dreadfully much else" (Granite Pail 21), she does not utter a sigh like Oppen, nor does she give way to romantic populism. As the ambivalence of these lines indicates, she oscillated between immersion and alienation from the local community, and the term "folk" itself is a measure of this instability.

From her reading, politics, possibly her college studies, and certainly from her WPA work, she must have been aware of other more anthropological uses of the term "folk" which register the doubleness of participant observation amongst a people that are also "one's own". Academic study of folk culture, especially dance, song and poetry which had apparently survived over long periods of time by oral transmission amongst ordinary people, was a long established field by the time she became a poet herself, and it was usually considered then to be the field most appropriate for those interested in features of rural or pre-modern Western culture. Another better known writer of the twenties and thirties turned to folklore studies for similar reasons to Niedecker. Zora Neale Hurston studied anthropology with Franz Boas in order to be able to research her own African-American culture, and in doing so encountered many similar contradictions to Lorine Niedecker. Hurston collected folk tales and other examples of black American speech in the Florida where she was born, and used the material for both documentary and fiction. She said that "folklore is the arts of the people before they find out that there is such a thing as art...folklore does not belong to any special area, time, nor people...It is the boiled down juice of human living" (quoted in Johnson 161). Hence culture is a form of knowledge: "culture is a forced march on the near and the obvious....The intelligent mind uses up a great part of its lifespan trying to awaken its consciousness sufficiently to comprehend that which is plainly there before it". Barbara Johnson, who cites these comments on folklore, concludes that Hurston's aim in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was to use her knowledge of folklore to challenge the "seduction of a universal language through a progressive de-universalization that ends in the exclusion of the very protagonist herself" (172).

Niedecker also used such ideas about folklore to challenge the universalization implicit in the internationalised languages of modernity, by positioning herself as much as a folklorist as one of the folk, even though she had only a limited academic training compared to Hurston. Her main experience of folklore studies would have been as part of the WPA project to write the guide for Wisconsin. Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State, is typical in the way it plays the folklorist with a sometimes sentimental or humorous twist. It tries to epitomise the culture of the town of Peppin with this example of folk speech: "Their speech draws many images from the great river. Seeing a drunken man staggering up the street in early spring, an idler remarks, 'He's sure goin' up the river' and his crony replies, 'Yep, he's gonna burn all the ice out of Lake Pepin'" (436). These WPA guides had ethnographic pretensions beyond mere description of architecture, topography and history, although in the eyes of professionals the result was a "relative failure" because the amateurs had "little idea as to what they were seeking" (Thompson 256). Although the results of such a survey of the states might disappoint professionals, for a poet like Niedecker this undertheorised research into the way people might draw images from their locality as a means of creating local knowledge, was an invaluable training for the writing of poetry, and the WPA project could be called her department of anthropology.

When Niedecker refers to the source of a poem as "folk speech", she is saying more than that the words are those of a local person. She could have said the speech was working class, or idiomatic, or even old-fashioned and quaint. Instead she invokes a way of considering communities and their history which has considerable implications for what she is trying to achieve in her poems. Consider this poem:

The museum man!
I wish he'd take Pa's spitbox!
I'm going to take that spitbox out
and bury it in the ground
and put a stone on top.
Because without that stone on top
it would come back. (Granite Pail 8)

This is a record of her mother's voice, and could be read simply as a memorial to her, a poetic stone with her mother's words inscribed on it, set firmly in the ground of modernist poetry. It could be read as the kind of populist appeal to the value and wisdom of ordinary, found speech made in the Wisconsin guide in its treatment of examples of local idiom like that collected in Peppin, which Oppen criticised in poetry. It could also be read as an amusing instance of the spirit shown by women who use their verbal dexterity to maintain their dignity in the midst of an impoverished life, manifested most immediately by the disgusting habits of their working men, who too readily give way to tobacco and drink in the face of the pressures of poverty. Doing so makes the spitbox metonymically represent a whole way of life. Or it could be taken to symbolise the father, and more generally patriarchy, a revenant that will not stay buried whatever the women do, because the dead father remains pivotal to the entire signifying system. At this point in our interpretations the anachronism of a Lacanian reading begins to gleam in the box, yet I do not want to simply dismiss this more psychoanalytic direction as a seduction that the poem never intended, nor to treat the other possible interpretations as too biographical to be persuasive engagements with its textuality. The poem deliberately offers multiple possibilities of interpretation, but they are embedded within a more complex relation to the reader that depends upon what is understood by folk poetry, and the intersubjective relations within which it works. To ignore this is to become a museum man, to put the spitbox too readily alongside the other exhumed memorials of different cultures on display in the museological culture of metropolitan modernity, which exhibits objects, including poems, as if their meaning resided in a discrete objectivity open to interpretative strategies which presuppose a generality of motivation and affect. The poem can sit on the desk all ready to be understood. Yet local cultures don't necessarily think of objects in this way at all. Their artefacts may be entirely embedded in relational networks would never make possible the anonymous hermeneutic perspective on a distinct object, and by being so immanent within the culture would never have those necessary boundaries presupposed by these modernist methods of interpretation.

The spitbox poem could be read as a demonstration of museological skills, because it takes the folk speech and puts it on display. It also offers something more. "The museum man!" is an expostulation whose value is hard to assess, since it could be placed almost anywhere on a spectrum between a curse and a cry of delighted realisation at the answer to a problem. Its speaker imagines the act of conferring value on the spitbox as one in which the box is taken out of its local context and placed in a museum where it would become an object that helped create an image of the material past. The only alternative appears to be burial, as if burial were somehow the cheap equivalent. This could be read as a parable of the problem faced by the poem itself, either burial in the locality of Niedecker's world, or the museum of international poetry publishing. The poem knows that the poet will have to become "the museum man" and put the spitbox on show, but doing so will not solve the problem, because the object will be untouched and still disgusting. Some of this disgust is not directly communicable, so it excludes the stranger reading the poem because the speaker hopes to create common cause against the father with those who have witnessed the intrusive habits and presence, especially the way he uses his mouth, the physiological site of the oral, folk speech in the poem, for spitting. The spitbox is therefore an image of a degraded source of poetry, an image of the repressed that will insist on returning, because the unconscious, Yeats' "foul rag and bone shop of the heart" (392), is the only source of poetry. This folk speech knows something of psychoanalytic truths, and it also knows that its knowledge is going to be put on display. What it can do is anticipate such recontextualisation, and it does so by using folk speech as both medium and theme. Niedecker's language for ways of avoiding the ideology of the museum man was folklore studies.

Seven years after the publication of Niedecker's principal collection of what she called "folk" poems in New Goose (1946), a short essay appeared in the journal Western Folklore, entitled "What is a folk poet?" by T.M.Pearce. This essay is a useful indicator of what was meant by folk poetry at the time that Niedecker was composing her own folk poems. The most striking feature of the discussion is that despite the currency of the name "folk poetry", there is according to the author no agreement about what the role and definition of a folk poet is, despite the wealth of studies of folk poetry. This indeterminacy probably helped make the term attractive to Niedecker. One reason for the uncertainty was the relative neglect of poetry in favour of other genres like songs, tales and drama, and another was the methodological difficulty of dealing with printed material in a field that took as axiomatic that folk culture was orally transmitted. Writing in 1952, Stith Thompson, author of a multi-volume tabulation of the structures of folktales, is emphatic that "folklore is transmitted by oral tradition" (266), but as Pearce and others recognised, oral poetry is almost always found alongside written counterparts in western cultures. Eric Havelock has more recently argued that we still don't fully understand the relation of written texts to their oral counterparts, whether they are texts gathered in the field, or texts formed from oral materials, like Homer or the New Testament. Folk poetry highlights these problems.

Given these dilemmas, Pearce avoids abstract debate and offers a specific case study of a Spanish American folk poet living in a small town near Albuquerque, who has been writing poems for both sacred and secular occasions for many years, without publishing them in the ordinary sense. Lack of publication doesn't matter because these poems do circulate in the local public sphere. They are regularly sung and read in public in the town where he is very well known, and he keeps a written record of them in a ledger. Some poems celebrate the visit of important people, others murders and fatal accidents, and a few his own personal experiences, but the common element is the degree of specific relation to the community, "the sense of solidarity belonging to a homogeneous group dwelling in one community neighborhood, of one religous faith, united in a common activity, speaking the same language about it, in both literal and figurative senses" (245). The poet entirely lacks the alienation that is often taken as the starting point of modern art, and already implicit in the very term "avant-garde": "the poet is one of them: his words are their words and their thoughts are his" (246). This description sounds idealised (an idealisation often heard in earlier folk-lore studies), because its measure of such continuity derives from an unexamined contrast with a modernity in which such pure intersubjectivity is no longer possible.

Some twenty five years after Pearce's essay, Roger DeV. Renwick, in his study English Folk Poetry, echoes most of Pearce's definitions. Renwick emphasises that folk poetry is intended to have immediate local effects amongst the people known directly to the poet, so each poem is designed to "inform, to persuade, to manipulate", and more generally to help sustain community ties (3). Folk poetry nurtures active local intersubjectivities.

Pearce sums up his findings in a manner which unconsciously assumes a modernist role for the true poet, saying that for this Spanish American writer, "identity as an author is not suppressed, but his individuality as a poet is submerged in the stream of group or community feeling which animates all his compositions" (248). Thompson also relies on this distinction between individuality which is the mark of literary authorship, and the anonymity of the folk artist whose work is authored by a "common milieu"(254). This opposition of author and poet assumes that poets are literary figures whose standpoint is not only necessarily distinct from the community, but conforms to an aesthetic that transcends local historical circumstances, rather than emerging from them. Authors live in the stream of feeling that makes the more alienated role of the poet impossible.

This "stream of feeling" demands comparison with another image of collective sentiment, Raymond Williams's concept of the structure of feeling, which he first articulated at about the same time, and went on using throughout his career in a series of changing theories. Individual literary achievement emerges from the social experience of new literary movements which take shape first as "structures of feeling", or common ways of thought that are still at "the very edge of semantic availability" (Marxism 134) as qualitative changes in a general form of life encourage artists to register "changes of presence" in "meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt" (132). The resulting art is therefore not wholly determined by existing traditions, forms and institutions. It is to some extent entirely new, and so the field of cultural practice only gradually reaches conceptual, cognitive and linguistic realisation. One of the best known forms of such structures of feeling in modernity is the sequence of avant-gardes, which come into being as a metropolitan network of individuals who are commonly immigrants to the metropolis, and therefore "share no common language but that of the metropolis and whose other (including visual) received sign-systems have become distanced or irrelevant" (Culture 84). This makes their work especially relevant to the developing urban culture itself, which in the modern period shows a marked tendency to agglomeration in a few metropolises, to an internationalisation of its horizons, and "a correspondingly high cultural mobility". Williams' account of the phenomenon of the avant-garde is only partially accurate, as the case of the rural avant-gardist, Lorine Niedecker, shows. Too many poets and artists have lived outside the metropolis for this generalisation to stand, and other groupings that fulfil all of these criteria have not been avant-garde. What makes this formulation useful is the way that it adopts the standpoint of the metropolitan avant-garde and then identifies problems of communication, circulation and locality as central to its self-identity in terms that mirror the distinction between such a network and the situation of the folk poet as described by the folklorists.

These two images of the poet's social relations as either the emergence from a stream of feeling or a structure of feeling (climbing out of the river or leaving a building perhaps) are apparently antithetical. In one case the stream of feeling suppresses the alienating development of artistic self-consciousness and avant-garde ambitions, and in the other it actually fosters such development in the absence of ordinary community. But the supposed difference between them does not bear close examination. Both images are dependent upon similar idealisations of a social life which is more heterogenous, and more conflicted than either image suggests. Pearce's poet actually sounds more detached from his community than Pearce wants to recognise, and artists of the avant-garde often have more powerful local ties and ethnic connections than Williams acknowledges. Pearce and Williams, despite their different fields of enquity, both assume that alienation and immersion in a community are mutually exclusive, and that the former is the necessary predisposition for innovative art. Niedecker's work can be read as an attempt to show that this assumption is wrong. Her interest in folk culture can be interpreted as an attempt to give the stream of feeling a structure, and to make the structure of feeling more fluid, as she becomes both the avant-garde poet who has undergone reverse immigration from the metropolis, and the small town folk poet whose audience is an emergent cultural group in the metropolis.

And yet Niedecker is not a folk poet by the definitions of the folklorists. She kept her poetry secret from the local community, she avoided the cliches and the stereotyped forms that folk poets tend to use, and she was published in the most prestigous avant-garde journals. She is closer to Pearce and Renwick than to the poets on whom they report. It is as if Niedecker is both folk poet and folklorist in one. She believed her poetry was best transmitted "from one person to another, spoken thus, or (perish the thought, I suppose?!) read silently" (Faranda 15), a conception of the circulation of poetry which seems close to the folk tradition as the folklorists describe it, but in making this demand what she was doing was to propose a new set of relations between poet, poem and reader to the sophisticates of the avant-garde in order to draw attention to ways in which words and forms of literary address operate within actual modern social structures. She takes the simplest structures and show that they have a whole other dimension of meaning that the avant-garde sometimes misses because of the way its constitutive social structures necessarily form its reading practice as well.

Consider her poem "Remember my little granite pail" (which Corman singled out for the title of his selection The Granite Pail as if this object could be metonymic of an entire body of work) within a contextualisation that Niedecker herself might have approved of, a comparison with William Carlos Williams' poem "The red wheelbarrow". In a letter to Corman of February 11, 1965 she speculatively discussed a possible anthology of short poems, and named names : Mother Goose rhymes, haiku, Keats, Herrick, Dickinson, Blake, Donne, Dante, Hopkins, Burns, Shakespeare (her joking comment, "We might let Shakespeare in!", could be read as a resistance to the kind of bardolatry that Zukofsky indulged in), and amongst contemporaries she mentioned Corman himself, poems from Origin, and poems by Reznikoff, Zukofsky and William Carlos Williams notoriously sybilline poem "The red wheelbarrow" (Faranda 51).

Niedecker's poem is a series of short end-stopped sentences which appear very simple:

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. (Granite Pail 7)

Williams' poem is more gnomic:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
chickens (Collected Poems 1: 224)

Williams' poem, although brief and articulated in a simple vocabulary, will probably strike most readers as more complex because of the way it moves in a column down the page without punctuation, isolating words and phrases with what appears to be portentous emphasis whose significance is not initially evident. Oppen, as we saw, singled out this poem as the symptom of a populist sentimentality afflicting modern poets. Both poems evoke an ordinary utilitarian object and then by a sudden twist of conceptual perspective invite the reader to speculate on much larger issues. Both poems use colloquial speech ("so much depends upon"; "was enough to carry me thru"). We have confirmation that folk idiom was uppermost in Niedecker's mind from a letter in which she told Zukofsky that she would have written "Was enough to have carried me thru" instead, "but folk don't say that, they slur it over into simply what I did say" (Penberthy, Niedecker Correspondence 290). Folk speech is the final court of appeal, so that what she says in the poem can be taken as a reliable guide to the actual phrasing used by "folk".

Williams' poem knowingly invokes the Romantic tradition that would invest a landscape with emotional and spiritual meaning, and then challenges a reader to repeat the process with this nugatory scene. Her poem initially refuses such intertextual challenges to the literary tradition. Instead it insists upon its specific reference to her situation by its opening and excluding line which invites its reader to do the impossible. Only she (and perhaps a few intimates), can perform this act of recollection. The poem's address effectively delineates a reader too precisely, so that readers who are not from this locale cannot make the initial imaginative act that will enable them to fulfil the demands of the poem. The pail remains out of reach of the reader's effort to give fully realise its significance. Contrast this with Williams' poem which actually affirms a common relation between writer and reader to the literary tradition, and so universalises this relation in the process. The specificity of the red wheelbarrow remains only as a symbol of sensuous particularity that cannot be subsumed into conceptual thought, because the distinctiveness of this singular wheelbarrow disappears in the process of exemplification.

Charles Taylor argues that this kind of procedure is evidence of a persistent Romantic strategy for creating something that cannot be simply subsumed into a large conceptual framework. He traces the avant-garde back to the Romantic ideal of epiphanic art: "the aim is not just to portray but to transfigure through the representation, to render the object 'translucent'" (419).. Modernist art has shifted focus from the representation of external objects to the making of the work of art itself but remains expectant of the same form of response. Even for Romantic art, however, "we can't understand what it is qua epiphany by pointing to some independently available object described or referent. What the work reveals has to be read in it"(420). An epiphany is defined by Taylor in a way that reveals the degree to which its registration of an otherwise inarticulable experience is both paradigmatically "local" and yet paradoxically also a moment when the significance of the experience becomes transferable into other terms. An epiphany is "the locus of a manifestation which brings us into the presence of something which is otherwise inaccessible, and which is of the highest moral and spiritual significance". Williams' poem about the red wheelbarrow registers a moment which the reader is invited to interpret as an epiphany without any supporting discourse. Not just anyone can testify to such moments. To be sensitive enough to recognise these moments the avant-garde artist has to be an exceptional being, experience exceptional suffering, live an isolated life, and one that is somehow ahead of bourgeois society (423). This claim to be exceptional, implicit for example in Zukofsky's desire to measure himself against all other poets, was rejected by Niedecker.

"Remember my little granite pail" insists that the sensuous particularity of experience depends upon the specific social relations in which it occurs. Her poem also implies that art should avoid the universal if universality means the complete fungibility of value exemplified by commodities. Her literary art insists on the absolute difference made by the relations in which the work is received, to the meaning of the poem. The reader's inevitable failure to recall the granite pail is a reminder that this poem has or had readers for whom the intimate local reference gave it other significances unavailable to the outside, abstract audience. What the poem does is to insist that what it means depends upon the relations between writer, poem and reader. The meaning of the pail will differ according to one's intersubjective relation to the history from which this poem emerges (as relative, neighbour, someone brought up with similar utensils, or a reader remote in time and space from it who might not even know that a granite pail is a pail or bucket which has a characteristic, granite-grey finish). This tacit insistence that the reader's specific relation affects the poem directly, rather than through some free act of interpretative choice, is the poetic at work here, which therefore does finally make a countervailing move away from the utterly personal and local history of the relation to the pail, to this more general aesthetic point. In making a general move it is recognisable to the reader of the Williams poem, but only by inviting the reader to reflect on the kinds of assumptions that enable "The red wheelbarrow" to be at once red and read.

Niedecker's strategy can be described in another way. The answer to the question of what happens to an utterance when it is placed in a poem will depend upon what theory of the aesthetic we have. Niedecker's poetry questions fundamental assumptions about what constitutes the aesthetic, and can be placed within a quite different set of debates than those of the avant-garde poets. For poets, aesthetics is largely a matter of practice and pragmatic discourses on method, value and insight, but philosophers trace their arguments directly back to a founding synthesis of englightenment thought in Kant's Critique of Judgement. Kant effectively argued that knowledge, morality and art were independent realms of experience, and a work of art therefore could not be judged for its truth in the way a scientific theory about the boiling point of liquids could. Once the folk speech is in a poem its significance changes utterly. This categorial separation of spheres has been the element in which the avant-garde flourished and fought to claim its importance, but is art really independent in the way that modern culture largely assumes (even if some poets struggle against this enfeebling autonomy)?

The philosopher J. M. Bernstein argues that modern post-Enlightenment philosophy separated off the arts from cognitive truth and ethics because it believed that the concepts which organised rational thought were independent of the context in which they were used. They were believed to be what he calls "topic-neutral", unaffected by the context in which they were placed, just as logical operators are not altered by the elements on which they work. He argues that most concepts are not like this. "Actual inferences, and hence patterns of inference, are dependent upon the practices in which concepts are employed" (168). The statement "all bachelors are married" is supposed to be logically contradictory, yet it is actually falsified not by the law of non-contradiction but by social practices. It might be possible for bachelors to be married if our social habits changed, and it is certainly the case that unmarried men are not necessarily bachelors. In Niedecker's poem, it is not just the pail that is specific to her world, but also phrases like "what's got away" and the concept of something being able to "carry" one through. Put these concepts into another context, another mouth, another poem, another collection of poems, and their meaning may alter. They are not "topic-neutral". Neither Niedecker nor the dictionary create the meanings of these terms. "Intersubjective practice", as Bernstein calls it, is what does the work. This intersubjective practice may be a metropolitan network "who share no common language but that of the metropolis" in Raymond Williams words cited earlier, or it may be an epistolary friendship like that between Niedecker and Zukofsky, or it may be the everyday world of Blackhawk Island. If it were only a matter of setting up a network or locating oneself within a strongly established geographically defined one, the problem would be largely a matter of choice, but unfortunately the entire process of modernisation is moving against this. The economic doctrine of the "market place" for example, treats objects as all equivalent according to the one scale of monetary value. Many modern discursive and procedural frameworks turn fields of our lifeworlds into systems, "rendering various objects and practices effectively intersubjectively meaningless" (169). Even something as benign as a didactic poetry anthology actually works by setting up a procedural structure of comparisons that is supposedly independent of the poems it organises. Bernstein has a particularly useful linguistic metaphor for representing this process whereby a syntax seems to overwhelm the individual sensuousness of words. He says that frameworks like power and money "trump" the intersubjective world by placing their objects and concepts within a syntax which dominates them: "with the notion of....syntactical trumping, empirical predicates are subsumed within a structure that detaches their potential for meaning from both intersubjective practices and their referential objects" (169). Another way of saying this is that modernisation, the rationalisation of everyday life, works by replacing the kind of judgement associated with art in Kant's system, the "reflective judgement" which tries to respond to what is unique in an experience, with another form of judgement which instead subsumes the experience under an abstract category that then makes it recognisable to the methods of science or other kinds of formal knowledge which investigate general and invariant conditions. Such rationalisation has brought enormous benefits. The problem lies in its undiscriminating sweep.

Poets have had to negotiate their own relation to these developments, and the avant-garde poets have tended to accept the seeming benefits of such rationalisation as a means of placing their work alongside the other great intellectual developments of modernity, and therefore resisting the modern tendency to sideline it in an aesthetic museum, away from all possibility of active intervention in affairs. Zukofsky assumes that poems speak for all poets, and demonstrate an ability to use the framework of the anthology as a syntax for transforming the local meanings of poems into units that then speak in both a universal and more suprisingly, a personal voice (making Pericles a comment on an old affair). Oppen believes that the use of folk speech depends upon the assumption that the reader will interpret its very use, not the content of the speech itself, as a general claim about the virtues of populism. Both poets imagine that a reader will make these metadiscursive moves as part of the practice of art. By contrast Niedecker's poetry resists such incursions at a level which recognises some of the implicit assumptions made necessary by the move to "supersenses" or aesthetic meta-discourses that affect the avant-garde practices of all these poets. According to Bernstein, the history of modern art is a story of increasingly hectic strategies aimed at keeping art local by using ever-changing methods (like resisting the reader's rush to interpretation by making the surface of the poem opaque in some way) so that the work cannot easily be assimilated by being subsumed into some exemplary narrative or universalising commentary that would trump the art and neutralise its specificity. Niedecker's poetry suggests that the avant-garde has been too ready to accept the conditions of modernity, and that re-examining the relations in which poems circulate may be as radical as other more striking forms of linguistic innovation. Her poetry shows that she was extremely aware of a problem that Bernstein's history does not go on to explore, the countervailing need for art to find networks of readers who probably do not share the local life-worlds which might provide ordinary contexts of intersubjective meaning. It is within this space of conflicting demands that Niedecker's poetry operates, and this is why she seems oddly suspended between the apparently incompatible worlds of the avant-garde and folk poetry. The complexities of Niedecker's work arise from the way it challenges these features of the avant-garde which usually operate below the horizon of awareness to constitute its reception and institutionalisation.

The consequences of Niedecker's resistances to appropriation are especially evident when she is seemingly engaged in just the same practice that Zukofsky promulgated in A Test of Poetry. Her poem "I rose from marsh mud" (Granite Pail 24) has a close textual relation with Emily Dickinson's poem "She rose to his requirement", which was originally published with the title "The wife" (Selected 47). Niedecker would only have known this heavily edited version at the time she wrote her poem, because the later version with dashes as punctuation had not yet appeared at the time she wrote2. In Dickinson's poem the woman's marriage is narrated in a remarkably double voice, which seems to endorse entirely the conventional standpoint on marriage, yet gradually allows an ironic distance from it:

She rose to his requirement, dropped
The playthings of her life
To take the honorable work
Of woman and of wife.

Only by becoming a wife does she become a woman according to the discourse reproduced here. The first line puns on the "rose" that the woman is often likened to, and also plays with the idea of rising and falling. In the following stanzas the wife's virtues are imagined as pearl and weed at the bottom of a sea of her husband's enveloping patriarchal presence, through a concealed pun on "sea", which emphasises the degree to which the ocean represents concealment, not being able to see anything except the husband. Not only is he all that can be seen, but his honourable words have largely taken over the poem as well.

The poem's feminist irony seems at odds with a troubling passivity in the wife, and it is this that Niedecker considers in her poem. Dickinson's poem is written from outside the marriage by someone who admits not knowing what the wife misses or possesses in herself anymore because all that this observer can witness is the veiling sea. Niedecker displaces the verb "rose" to a first person narrator who reports first hand observation of the marriage of a "little white slave-girl" in church. This narrator actually emerges out of the mud where pearls and weeds might hide, but her element is marsh not sea, a careful, precise "de-universalization" that relocates the scene to the exact place where she lives:

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

By listing the fauna and flora the narrator almost becomes one of them, a willow, or a bird, or perhaps a "marsh rose". The word mud clogs the rhythm, emphasising dirtiness and fertility at once. But the most striking shift is the move into the first person, as if Dickinson's poem had been written about Niedecker (or more precisely the narrator of the poem). This is a strong act of appropriation. The drowned spirit of the married woman in Dickinson's poem has returned in Niedecker, who rises out of the weeds into the world of poetry.

"I rose from marsh mud" makes itself a daughter, or at least claims kinship with the earlier poet, so that its correction is not an overthrow in a fit of anxiety of influence, nor a homage to an enduring cultural monument, but something else. It wants to "inform, to persuade, to manipulate" Dickinson's poem, as if she were part of the poet's community, because it recognises that the poem is, in Hurston's words, part of the "boiled down juice of human living" that needs to be recirculated to readers. By inhabiting Dickinson's opening phrase "she rose", Niedecker demonstrates an extension of the folk relations that her poetry inscribes within its practices of meaning. The apparent lucidity of Niedecker's poetry is like the sea in Dickinson's poem. Its significances, its virtues and its limitations, can easily remain unacknowledged, a poetics of weed and pearls within the sea of a largely masculine modernism, unless readers learn to recognise that this poetry is also capable of arising from the marsh mud to provide a disturbing witness at the marriage of false unities, the bride and groom "United for life to serve/ silver" in the high temples of culture. Then the poetry's remarkable exploration of the poetics of cultural transmission, and what happens when a poem is placed alongside the poems of other poets, or when speech is placed inside a poem, will be able to play its part in the shaping of new understanding of the cultural dynamics of literary modernism.


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1 Information about Niedecker's life is relatively limited. For a very helpful account of the relations between Niedecker's life and work see Jenny Penberthy Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970. The discussion of Niedecker's career as a choice is in the essay by Rachel Blau Du Plessis. Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet also contains a wide range of material on Niedecker's life and work.

2 It was published in 1955. "She rose to His Requirement" was slightly altered by the early editors in addition to the omission of dashes, primarily in the final stanza which now reads---"It lay unmentioned - as the Sea/ Develop Pearl, and Weed,/ But only to Himself - be known/ The Fathoms they abide -" (359).


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