Showing posts with label Lorine Niedecker. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lorine Niedecker. Show all posts

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sunday, December 29, 2002

It was a bad dream that we were at war. I was involved with a company that held some support function, not involved directly in the fighting. But then I was near the front lines at night, crouching in a field of stones near barbed-wire. To our left were some buildings. Behind me, “our side” sent missiles into the distance – explosions briefly illumined the horizon. The “other side” sent their missiles in our direction. We watched them sail overhead, some further, some closer. Then I remember watching one the way, as a boy, I would watch a fly ball coming in my own direction, aware of just how little time remained before it arrived, realizing it would be very close, so close that I could not tell which way to duck. Something struck me at the base of my neck. “I’m hit!” I shouted. But there was no damage. I can still move. There’s no blood, no pain.

Then a large airplane appeared overhead. “There they are,” someone shouted, as though we’d expected this. The plane’s belly opened and a missile rocketed down into the complex of buildings just on the far side of the barbed wire. An explosion went up on its far side. In its windows now, I could see a young man in his twenties, surrounded by small children. Their aspect looked “vaguely Asian.” He opened the window to let some of the smoke billow out. “Get out” I yelled as did the others I heard around me. “No,” he hollered in return. Then the fire reached a flashpoint & they all disappeared.

I woke, feeling ragged after a night such as that, & went down to my study. At first, I read through the latest issue of Overland, an Australian journal the likes of which we no longer possess here in the U.S. of A. It’s a quarterly, devoted in large part to politics, but with a healthy dose of fiction, cultural criticism and, in the brief period I’ve read it, poetry. The poetry editor is, or has been, Pam Brown, a fine poet herself and a woman at ease with all modes of post-avant writing. This is her last issue in this capacity – she has a “farewell” note, as in fact does Ian Syson, editor-in-chief, who is himself stepping down.

What I read this early in the morning is a “lecture” by Bob Ellis on “The Age of Spin,” focusing on Australia’s culpability in the broader, US-led assault of Islamic peoples, on the use of such terms as “weapons of mass destruction” and the convenient ways in which we defined them, or “chemical weapons” & the relationship of that concept, say, to the cocktail administered to prisoners at execution. “We live in Orwellian times,” Ellis concludes.

His essay reminds me of my dream, or of the sour way I characterized the Bush administration at a Christmas party the other day – “taking the neo- out of neo-fascist.” My own sense of depression at the state of the American polis seems limitless these days. Even as I’ve lived long enough to know that things will eventually swing “back” again from the current reactionary state of affairs, I have to recognize that each swing of the pendulum over the past 30 years has always been part of a larger rightward course. Bill Clinton was in many respects a Nixon Republican when it came to domestic policy – and that was the “progressive” portion of his platform. “When does it become Germany? Will we recognize when it’s 1933? When do we have to choose exile?” a friend asked at dinner last night. She’s an official in the Democratic Party, her husband a well-placed corporate lawyer. They have a son about to graduate college – these are not “kids” posing such questions.

I thumb through the remainder of Overland. It’s the “bumper summer” issue – but I have to remember that it is summer there right now. The issue is rich & I only touch on a few pieces at the moment. It has, for example, some fine poems by one Eric Beach, whose work I know not at all, plus a good deal of other poetry. There are several reviews of poetry and a large essay by John Kinsella – listed on the masthead as a correspondent – on the shifting relations between the city and “the bush” that touches on the relation of urban poetics to those of rural communities, citing everyone from Wordsworth to Les Murray. Kinsella’s essay touches on the work of Dorothy Hewett, an Australian poet, playwright & essayist who passed away earlier this year. That is her image on the cover of Overland, looking quite grand at the age of 79 – her life and work are the subject of three other pieces in the issue. I make a mental note to look for her poems.

Overland makes me realize just how much we lack a magazine of its obvious impact in the United States. The tendency toward weeklies in the U.S. bespeaks our restlessness & the progressive journals range between silent (The American Prospect, to pick one) to reactionary (The Nation) when it comes to their general approaches to literature & the radical idea that it might be incorporated into the American experience. The great irony of a weekly in the age of the internet, is that it will always be “out of date” whenever it arrives. Instead, what we get are publications like The Atlantic, so poorly conceived & edited that they serve as their own parody, issue after issue.

So, looking for respite, I pick up Niedecker’s Collected Works & find myself immediately at this juncture:

J.F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs

To stand up

black-marked tulip
not snapped by the storm
“I’ve been duped by the experts”

and walk
the South Lawn

Thirty-odd years later, there is still debate as to whether or not Kennedy was, in fact, “duped by the experts” – the implications concerning his hold on the executive branch are, after all, damning – or merely used this explanation to distance himself from the political fallout that attended the Bay of Pigs fiasco. So here is Niedecker using a natural image – the tulip – as a metaphor for political activity.

But I don’t think of Niedecker as a “political poet,” and on the facing page starts one of her longest poems, “Wintergreen Ridge,” which includes an account of a visit from Basil Bunting:

      When visited
             by the poet

From Newcastle on Tyne
      I neglected to ask
             what wild plants

have you there
      how dark
             how inconsiderate

of me
      Well I see at this point
             no pelting of police

with flowers

There is no escaping it.* Even a poet as removed from the daily life of cities as Niedecker, Objectivism’s one true “poet of the bush,” cannot get away from the politics of the 1960s as they enveloped the nation. Any more than we can the misdeeds of our own “elected” officials at the cusp of 2003.

* “What Western peoples might find strange, Kawhlānī tribesmen taken for granted, namely, that politics and poetics are inseparable.”  Stephen C. Caton, in “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemini Tribe (University of California Press, 1990): p. 155.

Sunday, September 29, 2002

In 1969, Jonathon Williams’ Jargon Society published a volume of Lorine Niedecker’s poetry entitled T&G. The book’s subtitle was The Collected Poems (1936-1966). Unpaginated, the text ran all of 60 pages, a number of which were devoted to A. Doyle Moore’s plant prints. Thirty-three years hence, it seems stunning that we can now have a book entitled simply Collected Works (University of California, 2002) whose gathering of Niedecker’s poems and prose totals 362 pages, with over 100 additional pages of notes and indices to lend the volume heft.

In my mind, I had linked Niedecker with Besmilr Brigham, connecting the pair to a larger Dickinsonian tradition of women writing in isolation. But now I think that the parallel feels forced. Brigham & Niedecker share two important dimensions:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Each lived precariously on the economic margins at a considerable geographic distance from major literary centers
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Both held a visible relation to the Pound/Williams tradition – more to Williams than to Pound – and connected to the scene primarily through the mail. 
Beyond that, though, they are profoundly different poets. Part of it may just be generational – Niedecker was ten years older, having been born in 1903, with her earliest poems have been written in the 1920s and her connection to Zukofsky and the Objectivists dating from the early 1930s. Brigham may have been a late starter by comparison – her first publication in El Corno Emplumado in 1966 occurs when she is 53 (although apparently telling people that she was ten years younger).

It’s worth considering what the curious history of the Objectivists meant not just to Niedecker but to all of the writers usually associated with that rubric – active and working together in the early 1930s, but not quite jelling in terms of public response, followed by an erasure from public view in the 1940s & ‘50s, only to return again, this time triumphant, in the 1960s. For one thing, Niedecker’s own position vis-à-vis the participants in the famous February 1931 issue of Poetry & subsequent anthology had changed by the mid-1960s. Fully mature as a poet, she was in no way outside the circle by the time of their collective re-emergence.

Furthermore, Niedecker had benefited from the long silence as did several of the Objectivists as they became a far more disciplined and cohesive group of poets than they had been in the early 1930s. Without any wider audience for so many years, the Objectivists had only themselves and a few others as readers for nearly 20 years.* The work that came out of the long silence was more spare than that which had gone before. Consider the florid tone of this passage by Carl Rakosi, which actually led off the Objectivist issue of Poetry, the first stanza from a piece entitled “Orphean Lost” from a larger serial poem called “Before You”:

The oakboughs of the cottagers
descend, my lover,
with the bestial evening.
The shadows of their swelled trunks
crush the frugal herb.
The heights lag
and perish in a blue vacuum.

This overwrought text, which initiated a revolution, is not to be found in Rakosi’s Collected Poems.** If anything, the text reflects a love-hate relationship with surrealism that shows up both in Poetry, which included two Rimbaud translations by Emanuel Carnevali as well as a little symposium on the “gratuitous and arbitrary” poetry of Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford, and in the anthology where Zukofsky literally rearranged the lines of a Kenneth Rexroth work in seemingly random order, to the latter’s considerable vexation.

All that deliberate excess is gone by the 1960s. Thus we can identify a second factor separating First and Third Phase Objectivism*** – a new emphasis on a spare, unadorned style not always evident during the 1930s. This was reinforced by the return to writing of George Oppen, who had had the most austere aesthetic during that first decade.+

Niedecker may have been isolated geographically, but she was integrally part of this literary cabal and it is this community that created the foundation for her broad acceptance, especially after her death in 1970. Brigham never had this – the poets with whom she is said to have corresponded, Duncan & Creeley, were already famous by the 1960s. Older than either of them, Brigham never made the transition from correspondent to peer. While the work of those two men was associated with Black Mountain College, where each had taught, they had always been completely different poets and, by the 1960s, each was evolving according to impulses and demands that had little to do with one another, regardless of their mutual admiration. So it turns out that it is Brigham far more than Niedecker who was truly the Outsider poet.

This is true in other ways as well. Place is important to both of Niedecker & Brigham, but Niedecker inhabits the Wisconsin of her poems with a sense of its presence, very nearly its omnipresence++  compared with the far more tentative landscapes the peripatetic Brigham confronts in Mississippi, Texas, Mexico & Arkansas. I sense Niedecker truly in her environment whereas Brigham carries the perspective of someone who appears to have been an observer more than a participant, regardless of the context…just passing through, taking notes.

My impression of this is heightened by the fact that Brigham is a poet of the eye, whereas Niedecker thinks and proceeds by ear. A distinction like that is simply a part of one’s human chemistry – it’s not a question of right or wrong decisions – but the distinction plays out in important ways for poetry.  There is a tonal logic in Niedecker’s work, as there is, say, in the poetry of Larry Eigner, which is extraordinary to read. The poetry as a result possesses a cohesion that communicates as total life prosody – you are never in doubt that you’re in the presence of a major poet with Niedecker. Brigham’s poems are no less intense or intelligent, but tonally they’re more diverse – the range is from straightforward narrative, rather like the piece I quoted on September 25, to highly enjambed. You can see & feel all of her directions, but never quite sense that presence of an overwhelming unifying force.

On the other hand, a true Collected Poems of Besmilr Brigham might tell as different a story as Niedecker’s Collected Works does from T&G: The Collected Poems (1936-66).

* & even this overstates the case. Oppen had dropped out almost entirely, working as a political organizer, fight in the Second World War, then choosing exile in Mexico during the McCarthy era. Bunting, more of a sporadic than a prolific poet, was off in the Middle East occupied with espionage.

** Two of the four sections of “Before You,” have been preserved: “Fluteplayers from Finmarken” and “Unswerving Marine,” both of which show up in the section of the Collected entitled “Amulet,” albeit not in the order they appeared in 1931. All four sections can be found as separate poems in Poems 1923-1941, Andrew Crozier’s admirable excavation of Rakosi’s work from Objectivism’s First Phase.

*** See “Third Phase Objectivism,” Paideuma, Vol. 10, No. 1, “George Oppen Issue,” Spring, 1981, National Poetry Foundation, Orono, ME, pp. 85-89.
+ The noteworthy exception to the austere style is Zukofsky. To a significant degree, the commitment to “A” pushed his own poetry in different directions than the rest of the Objectivists, although his shorter pieces often reflect the stripped-down aesthetic of his cohort.  A test of my thesis about the impact of “disappearance” of Objectivism in the 1940s can be seen in the work of the two younger poets from that issue of Poetry who continued to write and publish: Rexroth and Ted Hecht. Their poetry evolved in ways different from the core Objectivist group as well as different from one another – neither adopted anything like a spare style.

++ Interestingly, when Niedecker turns to place as Other, in the four-part poem “Florida,” she too emphasizes the eye – both opening and closing sections focus on the visual aspects of the state – the birds, the older women wearing slacks.