Photo courtesy of The Operating System
Remember to join our online book club on #ForgottenTLW on Wednesday 28th February, 7pm – 8pm, on Twitter.
This week’s Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women blog focuses on the North-American modernist poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-70) who, towards the end of her life, established a number of vital creative connections with British-based writers and publishers.
It is worth pointing out, first of all, that although Niedecker’s poetry was little published during her lifetime, and often undervalued by her peers, it has since been the subject of extensive critical reassessment, and has been exhaustively excavated and collated, most notably by Jenny Penberthy for her authoritative Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works (2002). In this sense, Niedecker is perhaps more of a famously forgotten writer than a forgotten one, but the story of her life and work remains fascinating, as does that of her long-term struggle to find an audience for her work, and of its late but enthusiastic reception amongst poets and publishers based in Britain: Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press, Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Society, and Roy Fisher’s Fulcrum Press.
As Jenny Penberthy notes of Niedecker’s biography, “[h]er life by water could not have been further removed from the avant-garde poetry scene where she also made herself a home” (1). Born and brought up in Black Hawk Island, a marshy area of rural Wisconsin where she remained for most of her adult life, Niedecker described her childhood as filled with “twittering and squawking noises” (Penberthy, 2). The sensitive musicality of her work – comparable to that of two of her British friends, Basil Bunting and Ian Hamilton Finlay – may channel the sound-world of her upbringing:
I rose from marsh mud,
algae, equisetum, willows,
sweet green, noisy
birds and frogs
After dropping out of a literature course to tend to her sick mother, Niedecker married in 1928 and became a librarian, publishing a small number of poems during the late 1920s informed by the imagism of writers like H.D. (a fellow transatlantic woman writer), and early Ezra Pound. From the early 1930s onwards – the depression having cost her both her job and her marriage – she was inspired by Objectivism, beginning an intense correspondence with Louis Zukofsky from the parental home to which she had returned. In 1933, Niedecker visited Zukofsky in New York and they became lovers. She fell pregnant with twins, but Zukofsky pressured her to abort. Niedecker’s long poem-sequence “For Paul”, written mainly across the 1950s, is addressed to the son whom Zukofsky went on to have with Celia Thaew, and seems shot through with a subdued grief to any reader familiar with Niedecker’s life (she died childless):
now six years old:
this book of birds I loved
I give to you.
I thought now maybe Paul
growing taller than cattails
around Duck Pond
between the river and the Sound
will keep this book intact,
fly back to it each summer
(“For Paul”, Penberthy 137)
Niedecker’s first collection, The New Goose, had been published semi-privately in 1946. Contra her reputation during her life as a naïve, rural savant, it incorporates pithy responses to national and international politics. However, these are filtered through a modernist-folk idiom owing as much to the vernacular speech-rhythms of her local community and the anonymous proletarian poetry of the “Mother Goose” songbook as the modernist literary collage of Pound, Zukofsky and Marianne Moore; it is also acutely sensitive to local as well as global events:
The brown muskrat, noiseless
swims the white stream,
stretched out as if already
a woman’s neck-piece.
In Red Russia the Russians
at a mile a minute
pitch back Nazi wildmen
Expanding on these forms and motifs, by the end of the 1950s “For Paul” had grown into a projected second collection, “For Paul and Other Poems”. But Niedecker struggled to find a publisher, perhaps because her most regular creative advisor Louis Zukofsky was deeply uncomfortable with some of the content, perhaps simply because of the pressures of the various day-jobs – including hospital cleaning – through which Niedecker was forced to support herself. A marked note of solitude and frustration creeps into these poems:
What horror to awake at night
And in the dimness see the light.
Time is white
I’ve spent my life on nothing.
At the same time, the poet Hannah Brooks-Motl suggests that in its formal ambition, “For Paul” represents “a turning point for Niedecker”, taking her from the minute, incidental poems of The New Goose to “the open-ended sequences such as Lake Superior that mark her late period.”
At this point, Niedecker’s biography starts to intersect with those of various poet-publishers based across the Atlantic, and we sense the emergence of what Peter Middleton calls “the British Niedecker.” Her most significant contacts in this regard were the Edinburgh-based poet Ian Hamilton Finlay and Jonathan Williams, a native of North Carolina whose Jargon Society imprint operated, as Ross Hair states, “from two remote locations: Highlands, North Carolina and Dentdale in England’s Yorkshire Dales” (2). Both Williams and Finlay operated at the geographical and artistic fringes of what is now called the British Poetry Revival, a period during the 1950s-70s when younger British poets turned against the conservatism of the Movement poets (Philip Larkin et al) and embraced early twentieth-century literary modernism, emulating its development by their North-American contemporaries, poets of the neo-objectivist, Black Mountain College and New York schools.
This transatlantic dynamic has often been described with reference to the esoteric, high-modernist aesthetics of poets such as J.H. Prynne. But it was the vernacular, folksy aspects of Niedecker’s idiom that appealed to Finlay and Williams, both of whom thought of themselves, in certain ways, as outsiders in this new modernist poetry scene. Niedecker’s My Friend Tree (1961), illustrated with faux-naïve woodcuts, was one of the first publications of Finlay and Jessie McGuffie’s Wild Hawthorn Press, Finlay having been enraptured by The New Goose after receiving a copy in 1961. Though My Friend Tree was a different and far smaller publication than the one Niedecker had envisaged, she was buoyed by the attention, and embraced her status as ‘folk poet’ with a newfound confidence. She seems to pay homage to her new friend and correspondent in “Letter from Ian”:
a castle on the rock
in the middle of Edinburgh
They floodlight it—
big show up there
with pipe bands
Down here along the road
open your door
to a posse of poets.
Across the remainder of the 1960s, interest in Niedecker’s work finally grew. In 1965, Williams offered to publish the manuscript of “collected poems” that Niedecker had prepared, although the chaotic state of Jargon Society finances held back the publication of T&G: The Collected Poems until 1969. In the meantime, the London-based press Fulcrum, operated by the South-African poet Stuart Montgomery, and the most financially solvent and ambitious of the new British modernist poetry presses, published another collection, North Central (1968); in 1970, Montgomery would bring out an expanded collected poems, My Life by Water: Collected Poems, 1936-1968.
In 1963 Niedecker had married again, moving with her new husband to Milwaukee. Her financial security allowed her to dedicate the last seven years of her life to writing full-time, and to travelling more widely. Her work began to appear in magazines with increasing frequency, and to take on more expansive and ambitious forms. Late, extended sequences such as “Lake Superior”, “Wintergreen Ridge”, and “Paean to Place” enfold biographical detail with precisely conveyed botanical, geological, and cultural awareness of place and landscape, all with Niedecker’s distinctive, lithe musicality. It would be wrong to depict the last ten years of her life as a period of final, unmitigated success. She remained, as her poems suggest, on the outside of things during the 1960s: “I see no space-rocket/ launched here/ no mind-changing// acids eaten” (“Wintergreen Ridge”, Penberthy 255). But she did develop a network of intense creative friendships, becoming the benign matriarch of what Ross Hair calls an “avant-folk” community, linking up the rural peripheries of North America and Britain. By the time of her death – of a cerebral haemorrhage, on New Year’s Eve 1970 – Niedecker was just beginning to establish herself as one of the most original poets of the late-modernist era.
By Greg Thomas. His forthcoming book on Concrete Poetry in England and Scotland is being published by Liverpool University Press.
Hannah Brooks-Motl, “The Lives of Lorine Niedecker.” Poetrysociety.org, originally published 2013.
Ross Hair, Avant-Folk: Small Press Poetry Networks from 1950 to the Present. Liverpool University Press, 2017.
Peter Middleton, “The British Niedecker.” In Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, edited by Elizabeth Willis, University of Iowa Press, 2008.
Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works. Edited by Jenny Penberthy, University of California Press, 2002.