"In one place, a poet's every vivid line"

Collected Works By Lorine Niedecker
Edited by Jenny Penberthy.
University of California. 472 pp. $45
Reviewed by John Timpane

from the Philadelphia Inquirer daily magazine
Wed, Dec. 31, 2003

Discovering a new poet is one of life's sweeter pleasures. And the life work of a really fine American poet has just been collected for the first time.

Her name is Lorine Niedecker. She was born in 1903 and died in 1970. Hers is the life story of many American poets: Poor almost all her life, she had to work hard and scrape by, yet she also managed to keep up a modest stream of published poems, mostly in smaller journals. Except in the poetic community, she was never much more than obscure while she lived; her present extensive fame all has happened since her death.

Now we have Jenny Penberthy's collection, and it's quite an event. Penberthy, a professor of English at Capilano College in Vancouver, B.C., has collected and arranged both published and unpublished poems, with helpful notes about Niedecker's life and circumstances. It's a book you can flip through with pleasure after pleasure.

Niedecker's poems are brief, spare, and playful, often very brief, with a hard flicker of language and wit. Here's one I've always liked:

For best work

you ought to put forth

         some effort

         to stand

in north woods

among birch

Hear the American voice there? Niedecker lived most of her life in Black Hawk Island, Wis., and her voice is quite Northern Midwest. "Best work" in what? Good question. Could it be poetry? Work for money? Life itself? Her job is not to answer those questions but to evoke them. Her ear is wondrous: "Work," "forth," "effort," "woods," and "birch" all glance-rhyme off one another, swimming among the lovely t's, r's and o's of this poem.

You may find Niedecker referred to as an "objectivist" poet. That's true and untrue. Objectivism was an ad-hoc movement created in 1930 by Louis Zukofsky. His essays changed Niedecker's direction as a writer. Objectivism was never very well defined, but what Niedecker liked was the luminous clarity of it, its love affair with the properties of words apart from their meanings, its toughness. She and Zukofsky became close associates, trading poems and ideas. At one point, a pregnancy and an abortion were involved. Zukofsky championed her poems to publishers.

But Niedecker was herself more than anything else. Surrealism was an early love, and one of the incredible treasures in this collection is the 27-page work "Next year or I fly my rounds, Tempestuous," which she wrote on the leaves of a pocket calendar. Penberthy prints a photocopy of the very calendar itself, with its wild, quizzical entries, such as this one, for January 1935:

Wade all life

backward to its

source which

runs too far

From 1935 to 1945, Niedecker wrote folk-poems along the lines of Mother Goose, which she published as New Goose. They combine the playful rhymes of the folk form with comments on history, love, war and class:
The land of four o'clocks is here

the five of us together

      looking for our supper.

Half past endive, quarter to beets,

seven milks, ten cents cheese,

      lost, our land, forever.

Not a child's Mother Goose.
Niedecker's characteristic turn came after World War II, when the personal note enters her poetry. Although some poets (including, apparently, Zukofsky) had reservations about that direction, this is where she seems her warmest, most alive to language and her natural and emotional environment. My favorite Niedecker is this one:
Now in one year

   a book published

      and plumbing -

took a lifetime

   to weep

         a deep

Again, that playful, oblique voice. What does she mean by "plumbing"? Niedecker was always worrying about repair bills, but maybe it's not just pipes in the walls. Could be sex. Could also be "plumbing," the work of exploring deep into reality (as poets do). Again, notice the music: "published" and "plumbing" share p, u, l, b, and i; they're musical cousins. So those last three lines return us to the question: Was it life or the pipes in the walls?

Lorine Niedecker, meet Emily Dickinson. From a certain distance, the two share a lot: women who lived little-known lives closely associated with an American place; poems of an American accent that are short, ironic, musical, and wide-ranging. But each is her own woman, her own poet. Having all of Niedecker in one place, as it has never been collected before, is a great moment. I hope this book is available in paperback soon, so that even more readers can get to know this poet for her vivid, brave self: "In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock / In blood the minerals / of the rock."

John Timpane, Commentary Page editor of The Inquirer, is the author of "Poetry for Dummies." Contact him at 215-854-2862 or jt@phillynews.com.