Elizabeth Willis



*This article was originally published in Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics No. 9 (2001) and in French translation in Action Poetique (Paris), No. 163 (2001).


Some of you may be wondering what Lorine Niedecker has to do with the major concerns of the 1960s.1 What could such a minimalist, domestic writer with such circumscribed concerns as keeping the wind and water out of her small marshy house and making her own clothes have to do with the monumental political and intellectual concerns of the Vietnam war era, the civil rights movement, free love, and the increasing stylization and popularization of an American counterculture? Objectivism was, after all, a movement of the 1930s, associated with populist concerns and communist politics. But with World War II, the red scare, and pervasive blacklisting in the arts, it wasn't until the 1960s that objectivist poetry had its long-awaited afterlife.

The reasons for the resurfacing of objectivist poetics are, of course, historically and philosophically complex. But if we look even at the surface of 60s popular culture, the style of the 1930s-particularly the presence of folk and labor concerns and their representation within popular media-is everywhere manifest. In politics an increased belief in the efficacy of political protest fueled a grassroots politics of resistance; in women's fashion, there was the "peasant" blouse; in music it was Arlo rather than Woody Guthrie, and folk-based musicians from Bob Dylan to The Band to Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio were appearing on TV. The 60s was the era of Niedecker's renaissance, too; it was the period of nearly all her book publications, the repeated re-editing and re-arrangement of her poems, and the development of her longer serial works. While it would be valuable to consider the ways in which Niedecker's poetry embodies the major concerns of the 1960s-and it does touch upon those I've mentioned-I want to focus primarily on Niedecker's notion of "folk" and its relation to the commodity status of the poem, her conception of poetic composition and possession, and her relation to her cultural sources.

To look at Niedecker as a kind of folk poet is, of course, not to suggest she was a naive, unschooled in the world beyond her Black Hawk Island. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis points out in her essay on "Niedecker, Gender, & Class," and Jenny Penberthy notes in her introduction to the Niedecker/Zukofsky correspondence, Niedecker distinguishes herself very early on from the culture around her.2 Her first published poem, "Wasted Energy" is a recasting of folk material, focusing on differences in class- and culture-based language usage.3 In schoolish sing-song, Niedecker reports on her environment like an anthropologist; the poet-reporter is clearly set apart from the subjects whose speech-acts she records.
Her World War II poem "In the great snowfall before the bomb" also explicitly displays and elaborates on the poet's cultural position. In it, the speaker is separated from the "folk" as writer and as woman, though they provide her with "material":


I worked the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else...." (GP 21)

Here, the print shop setting foregrounds our awareness of the object status of letters, words, and syntax, as the physical stuff of poems. The fact that she worked "right down among em" and in fact needed this work for her survival keeps her from seeming like management to their labor. The "folk" merely provide her with the raw material which it becomes her equally labor-laden job to condense into poetry. The poem's ending points to the difference in her labor as a difference in time frame. Compared to the frenetic pace of the print shop, the poem appears to develop almost geologically; or to reiterate the place of the poem as an embodiment of gender difference, like an egg that it takes a lot of sedentary labor to hatch:


What would they say if they knew
I sit for two months on six lines
of poetry? (GP 21)

The poem is a way of compressing world into word: as Marianne Moore wrote poems out of the material of travel brochures and electric bills, Niedecker found poetry in the gossip that flowed through the offices of Hoard's Dairyman in the 1940s as much as in her research on Wisconsin history and geography for the Federal Writers' Project.

By virtue of her love for and detachment from the culture within which she lived, she was able to collect and compress folk material, hearsay, gossip, and regionalisms as material for poetry in much the way that Charles Reznikoff shaped documentary reportage within Testimony. The mature work of both writers behaves according to the key poetic principles extolled by Zukofsky: objectivity and sincerity. The combination of these two terms meant giving up the romanticism inherent in high modernism-particularly its positioning of the subjective self within the poem-without becoming too detached from the subject per se as a vehicle for human content. The poem instead could be viewed as a product of collectivity, a fossil-like record of the pressures of the culture that shape the individual rather than an investment in the mythology of the poet's ability to legislate the culture. From this perspective it is easier to see modernism, with its mythologies of genius, as an extension of romanticism-and objectivism as a greater break from modernism than it might initially appear.

In balancing the objective and the sincere, Reznikoff documents the violence within American culture without reducing it to political message-making. Its "objective" presentation is the very cause of its perceived sincerity, opening the way for a motive as well as emotive-empathic and political-response. Similarly, Niedecker celebrates the richness of folk language while acknowledging the brutality of the culture it supports. Collecting found usage as material for her poetic condensery, Niedecker asserts the aesthetic value of working class, non-literary readings of the culture from which she emerges-without suggesting that it is in any way superior to, say, a more conventionally literary culture. Like Testimony, her poems vibrate with both celebration and deep-seated criticism. While the folk quality of her poems makes them appear accessible, they often narrate a meaningful resistance to cultural assimilation. A good example is the shifting power dynamic embodied within the "great snowfall" poem in which the guys down in the print shop "called me Blondie." This nicknaming can be read as an endearment, a sexual slur, and/or as wryly ironic and self-mocking; if we read Niedecker herself as the antecedent of the poem's I, one can see the richness in assigning a bespectacled proofreader with a college degree the status of a dumb-blonde pin-up or balloon-breasted comic-strip character. The act of writing the poem is, among other things, a way of literally capturing her verbal opponents on her home turf. By recording the interchange with terse and critical humor, Niedecker responds in a folkway that is entirely in keeping with her "place" in more than a geographical sense.

Clearly, Niedecker herself is not excluded from this critical voice. In fact, her simultaneously proud and self-denegrating commentary drives her poetic style, keeping her poems unsettled and unsettling. This critical stance also appears in a letter she writes to Zukofsky, in which she quotes directly a letter she received from Ian Hamilton Finlay who tried to get her to record her poems on cassette for a "folk" recording: "I know this man who plays a guitar: he actually leads a folk group which is having its first disc made at present in USA, and I showed your poems to his wife, she was enthusiastic about my idea, which is that you somehow get the loan of a tape machine, and TALK these poems onto some tape, then post it over, and I'll get this man to add guitar....." (NCZ 329) Later Niedecker writes: "Mebbe I shdn't ever have gone to NY to meet the real writer but shd. have stayed in my little country patch and written country ballads to be sung with a geetar. (FTC 326) The passage is typical of Niedecker's tone; she manages at once to chide Zukofsky for staying in New York (thus he's a "real writer," but one without great courage) while she mocks her own public image and relative obscurity. Beyond its perceived authenticity, Niedecker would have seen "folk" as ideal material for the objectivist ethos for several reasons: its populist stance and approachability; its focus on a collective rather than an individual process of making; its interest in non-specialized access to meaning; and in Niedecker's case especially, its blurring of ownership boundaries by engaging in anonymous and temporally-layered multiple-author composition.
In fact, ownership-literary and otherwise-was one of the central concerns of Niedecker's poetry. Her biographical relation to property was conflicted. Her grandmother was the first woman on record as owning property in the state of Wisconsin. But most of the family property was eventually lost, and the burden of owning and maintaining property-and of possibly having to evict someone who couldn't make his mortgage payments-is voiced as an oppressive concern in both her letters and poems of the 1960s. (NCZ 328) She writes to Zukofsky in December 1962: "the nation's wealth might be in the hands of women but they're having a hell of a time" (NCZ 326)

In her correspondence with Zukofsky, it is clear that a certain sense of intellectual and poetic property abides between them as well-and is occasionally violated. At one point Niedecker reports an anecdote to Zukofsky while warning him not to use it, as she's "got a lien on it." (NCZ 15) In her later poems, her preoccupation with ownership becomes more intense. It complicates her relation to the Zukofskys, as she clearly considered Paul part of her communal life and not merely the property of Louis's nuclear family. In her quest for literary collectivity her poems become increasingly enthralled with the physical, geological, historical world, the objective unownable world-a sensibility akin to that of Black Hawk specifically and of the native American presence generally, which informs her later poems about place.


Her early poem "When Ecstasy Is Inconvenient"-generally seen as a more rhetorical, message-driven poem than most of her later work-points to the liminal experience of lyric possession, of brushing up against the unknown force within language, which it is the work of the poem to transmit. And yet it too comes into focus around the issue of containment-that is, the invention of a story to explain away the very "ecstasy" of composition which it presents.


When Ecstasy 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. (FTC 5)

Implied in this decisive closure is the notion of the poem as a container for the uncontainable, a way of possessing possession. Published in the pages of the magazine in which she first encountered Zukofsky, we might also consider the ways in which it presages her relation to him, including the sense that a moment of "gay transport" could end by "containing" its progeny through abortion or that it could be transformed into an intense written correspondence-both acts that involve taking things into in one's own hands.4

While this poem is generally seen as an early aberration in Niedecker's opus, representing her surrealist phase, her later work often resonates with a similar combination of mysticism and high gothic drama, though it tends toward a more comic tone and focuses more on worldly effects rather than supernatural sources. On a practical level, overheard fragments of conversation, gossip, anecdote, and epistle, all bear the traces of previous owners and lend themselves to a displacement of subjectivity. Such folk forms are perfect media for hauntings and enactments of possession. At the same time, their ownership, their status as possessions, is complex.

While acquisition was and is the most obvious preoccupation of American life, Niedecker seems to suggest alternatively that one could be possessed by (absorbed with) an objective observation of the movement of things, an awareness that as subjects we are all just passing through. Think of "Traces of Living Things," "Paean to Place," etc., which, for all the unified voicing of Niedecker's poems-especially the "folk" poems-demystify and de-emphasize the position of the speaker as the maker of reality. The condensery that kicks out poems is a site for material transformation, not concoction.

So it is useful to look at Niedecker's poems for what they say, often in deflected as well as condensed ways, about the process of making. "I rose from marsh mud" has been discussed as an enactment of biological and social Darwinism: the human descends taxonomically from the muck, through the steady transformation of the geological earth itself.


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

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

In aisle and arch
the satin secret collects.
United for life to serve
silver. Possessed. (GP 24)

But here the origin and descent of the species is reversed; it becomes a rising up, with its resonance of class struggle intact and with its contradictory working-class dream of social ascendency through one's profession as a writer. The I in the poem can be read as both the poet and the poem-a statement of poetic and biographical process. The poem arises-a living object that evolves into being, rather than being "made"-from base raw materials (like the iron in the blood in "Lake Superior"). Rather than being a triumphal ascent, the social ascendency witnessed in the "rich rich silence of the church" is a mockery of the evolutionary/creative process itself.5 In contrast, the poem's contrapuntal I comes out of dead organic matter, like the creature from the Black Lagoon-or to be more literary about it, Frankenstein's monster-patched together cast-off material that brings with it the "traces of living things." In this poem that asserts an evolutionary reality rather than a creationist mythology, the poet's "hideous progeny," like Mary Shelley's, comes to stand in the place of both the created and its creator, author and poem. Like Frankenstein's monster, the objective poem comes back to haunt and even argue with its maker-not to mention, embarrassing her with the mud still clinging to its shoes.6

In this way, Niedecker's opus seems less about place in a geographical sense (she certainly disliked the notion of being a "regional" poet) than it is about knowing one's place: that is, about where the poet fits into the culture and how one travels through and within the interstices of class and regional identity-owning up to one's debased roots, whether they lead back to colonial explorers or the "natives" who pull out their fingernails, or both. ("Lake Superior," GP 64-65)


The interlocking concerns of creation, artistic "possession," class consciousness, marital strife, monstrous birth, and the prospect of abject poverty linked Niedecker with Mary Shelley as well. While Penberthy rightly points out the danger in reading poems with too steady an eye on Niedecker's biography, Niedecker herself performs a combination of biographical, autobiographical and literary-historical readings of Mary Shelley in her poem "Who Was Mary Shelley?" Placing the poem in a section of "ballads," Niedecker seems to point to both an unauthorized folk source and a sense that even great women's lives tend to be remarked in oral narrative and hearsay; that they appear in history as ciphers, as monsters, or as the bearers of monsters, their identity formed by the biological confluence of life and death.

Poetically speaking Niedecker arose, by her own account, with her discovery of the objectivist issue of Poetry in 1931, the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's revised Frankenstein and the year in which it was released as a major motion picture in the US.7 Thirty-one years later, in September 1962, Niedecker writes to Zukofsky of reading Eileen Bigland's biography of Mary Shelley (she had also read Trelawny's Last Days of Byron and Shelley) and uses it to calibrate and reassess the scale of her own woes, which shrink in comparison. A week later she writes him a postscript about Jonathan Williams's review of her own collection My Friend Tree: "I wdn't know how to write poetry without Zukofsky and J. wdn't know how to review me without Zukofsky." (NCZ 321-2) A study of the jacket copy and reviews of Niedecker's books and of the Niedecker/Zukofsky correspondence shows this is far from an isolated occasion. She repeatedly receives praise that is qualified by considerations of gender and location; her poems are often eclipsed by the biographical, and by the identification of Zukofsky as her male mentor. To complicate things further, she writes an entire collection of poems for Zukofsky's son Paul, partly "condensed" of anecdotes shared within their correspondence. Their problematically fluid negotiation of literary ownership and identity resonates easily with Mary and Percy Shelley's conflated and conflicted personae: the first edition of Frankenstein appeared anonymously with Percy's ghostwritten introduction in 1818; subtitled "a modern Prometheus" the novel appeared two years before Percy's Prometheus Unbound, though he had announced his desire to rewrite the Prometheus myth as early as 1816.

Niedecker's American gothic treatment of gender and marriage also resurfaces in the poem "I married" in which the coffin-like claustrophobia of the semantic box where the couple lies together is reiterated at the end of the poem by the suggestion that the speaker has become-or sees herself as-a zombie, undead:

I married
in the world's black night
for warmth
             if not repose,
             At the close-
I hid with him
from the long range guns.
             We lay leg
             in the cupboard, head
in closet.
I say
             I married
             and lived unburied.
I thought- (GP 107)

So, at the other end of her career, Niedecker returns thematically to the concerns of "When Ecstasy Is Inconvenient" with its anticipation of-and voiced resistance to-other-worldly possession. In the later poem it seems Niedecker has taken to heart the imperatives of the early poem; what could be a more convincing manifestation of "feigning a great calm" than playing dead in one's coffin-like house, surrendering up one's subjectivity entirely? The shift belies a further extension of objectivist thinking: not only is the poem an object but so is the poet. In classic Niedecker style, though, the underpinnings of this "rich" meaning are tongue-in-cheek and evoke the low source material of pulp horror.

Disturbing the gothic content of the poem with comic, Mother Goose-like phrasing ("head in the closet," etc.), the whole is turned around one last time with the final line "I thought," introducing the possibility that the entire poem may be read as a fiction, or merely attributable to subjective emotional processing, or even as the product of paranoia. The accuracy of the poem's content is called into question by pointing to the slippery nature of reality and consciousness itself, and so the claustrophobic physical space of the poem can be explained as a phantasm, a problem of perspective or of mind, of being too self-absorbed-a quality that would grate against her midwestern pragmatism as well as her objectivist poetics.

Finally I want to suggest that in her "folk" method of reprocessing pre-owned material, particularly her reworking of 19th-century literature (Charles Darwin, William Morris, John Ruskin, Mary Shelley), Niedecker is a great poet of lateness. That is, she finds her poetic ground in looking back rather than forward, down rather than up, by embracing the imperative to condense and eschewing the notion of the new with its attendant commodification of the avant-garde. Recontextualized as "late," Niedecker embraces the anticonsumerist collectivity of folk retellings, even if it means appearing with algae and equisitum on her boots, jello in her fridge, and lowdown culture in her poems.



1. This essay was originally presented at the conference "The Opening of the Field: North American Poetry in the 1960s" at the National Poetry Foundation, June 28-July 2, 2000.

2. See DuPlessis 113-137; Penberthy, NCZ 3-118.

3. 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.

It's amazingly queer, but from all sides we hear
Of the "crooks" and "tough birds" in our town,
Of "wild women," of "guys," many "I wonder why's,"
Juicy tales and requests to "pipe down."

Any brains do you say? You may put them away
By this modernized method of talk.
An argument clinch? Say, "Oh yes, that's a cinch,"
"Absolutely" is still better-less thought.

The American tongue is found lacking by some,
So they take a few words from afar.
But "Pas auf" and "trez bean" are as common, 'twould seem,
As Uncle Joe Cannon's cigar. (FTC 3)

4. For more on Niedecker's relationship with Zukofsky in the 1930s, see Penberthy's account in NCZ 3-47.

5. The reiteration of "rich" here of course mirrors the excess it conveys, but it also implies a shift to a more ironic tone: this rich silence is "rich" in that it is, as Webster's puts it "pregnant" with significance.

6. See Warren Montag's essay on "the workshop of filthy creation" for more on the Marxist implications of Frankenstein. Many critics have associated the monster in its motley assembly of thieves and animals as a figure of the working class and its political struggle.

7. Also released as a movie that year was the Joan Crawford/Clark Gable vehicle Possessed, which may reflect on Niedecker's poem "I rose from marsh mud." Both films deal with identity, class consciousness and mobility, creativity, matrimony, and procreation, issues which resurface throughout Niedecker's work and which come together in an interesting way in the 1964 poem "Who was Mary Shelley?" In Possessed, Crawford plays a worker in a paper box factory in a Great Lakes industrial town who rejects the local lug who loves her in order to rise socially and economically from her own marsh mud to the glamour and wealth of being a rich man's mistress in cosmopolitan New York. There are many puns on rising in the film, often framed by elevator scenes with the predictable "Going up?" Part of Crawford's morally monstrous "rise," however, involves seeing others married, while she remains "outside" the social order of the church. Crawford rises culturally too, from speaking an awkward midwest slang to singing in several languages and ordering the proper wine at the proper temperature. Her rise is marked cinematically by repeated frames of her pulling years off a wall calendar, each time with an additional diamond bracelet-looking increasingly like a manacle-on her wrist.

While Zukofsky was hardly Gable either in looks or financial assets, he did possess enormous cultural cache for Niedecker and one can't help but see a similarity in their power dynamic, particularly in the way she "plays" folk with him while distinguishing herself from it. Both her visits to New York in the 1930s and her decisive return to Black Hawk Island were acts of self-determination. Recognizing the problematic of "rising" from marsh mud to culture, from folk to avant-garde, and the subtle betrayals they imply, she embraces her origin and identity as a poet who, among the "dreadful" folk can possess her own possession.



Du Plessis, Rachel Blau. "Lorine Niedecker, the Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre and Resistances." In Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1996).

Faranda, Lisa Pater, ed. Between Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1986.

Montag, Warren. "The Workshop of Filthy Creation: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein." In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism, eds. Ross C. Murfin and Johanna Smith (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991).

Niedecker, Lorine. From This Condensery. Ed. Robert Bertholf. Highlands, North Carolina: The Jargon Society, 1985.

- The Granite Pail. Ed. Cid Corman. Frankfort, Kentucky: Gnomon Press, 1996.

Penberthy, Jenny, ed. Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

- Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1996.