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Jane Augustine reviews

Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works. Edited by Jenny Penberthy

University of California Press, 472 pages, 6 x 8 inches, 2 b/w photographs Clothbound: $45.00 ISBN-0-520-22433-7 £29.95

You can read Jenny Penberthy’s Introduction to this book in Jacket 18

This piece is 1600 words or about four printed pages long.

Cover of Niedecker, Collected Works
Rarely does a single volume of poetry radically change the prevailing view of its author. Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works, superbly edited by Jenny Penberthy, is such a book. It is, at last, the long-awaited necessity: an accurate, reliable, full text of this important modernist writer’s oeuvre. Its value is not to be underestimated. When I mentioned to a well-read younger poet friend that I was writing this review, he said, ‘I don’t know Niedecker’s work well enough.’ I replied, ‘That’s because you didn’t have this book.’ It was clear, yet again, the extent to which knowledge and appreciation of Niedecker have been impeded. During her lifetime, scattered intermittent magazine publications and a few slim small-press volumes, after her death the error-ridden From This Condensery — these sources still remain remote or unworkable. Penberthy, seeing how much Niedecker’s reputation has suffered from inaccessibility and misrepresentation, undertook the prodigious editorial task of creating a trustworthy text.

The editor’s essay at the beginning of the book defines her motives, methods and results: ‘This new edition of Niedecker’s collected work aims to establish her position among twentieth-century American poets. Furthermore, it aims to restore the profile of her writing life. To this end, it dismantles previous attempts at selected and collected poems and presents the work in the sequence of its composition.’ The cause-and-effect logic came out of an underlying moral imperative. Dismantlement had to be the method, because previous editions have blurred and distorted LN’s writing life, with the result that she has not been properly placed among her peers in American poetry. Through persistent hard work, to which the fine print attests,. Penberthy has succeeded extraordinarily well in achieving these aims.

Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works has four great merits. It is lucidly organized, comprehensive, accurately detailed, and beautifully designed. Consistent typography clarifies both the poet’s working methods and the editor’s choices. Penberthy’s initial decision to put the poems in chronological sequence of composition established a solid reference point, a relatively easy plan to conceive and a very hard one to carry out. It took her fifteen years, as long a time as many biographers take, to sort out documents, establish provenance, verify dates, and read relevant letters. But through this meticulous, in-depth research into each poem, broad historical and literary contexts also come clear. The whole volume — poems, prose, plays, notes and apparatus with extensive information, a hefty 471 pages — amounts to a biography of Niedecker’s inner life. The volume opens with the necessary description of the poet’s external circumstances, of where and how she lived, since, as Penberthy points out, the poems themselves are so void of personal clues as to seem ‘authorless’ texts. But it is the writings themselves, collected together, that reveal the complex, evolving poetics on which Niedecker’s true life was centered.

That poetics, nuanced and original, arose out of experience, not out of theory nor out of Louis Zukofsky’s influence. It exemplifies Objectivist practice par excellence. Like H.D., whose early poems enacted the paradigm that Pound declared in his Imagist dicta, Niedecker wrote poems that enacted Zukofsky’s definition of objectivism in A 24: “desire/ for what is objectively perfect/ Inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.” Although Niedecker’s subjects emerged from ‘particulars’ of time and history, often of her home near Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, she sought to transform these within the a-historical, timeless object, the poem. For her the poem existed in eternity, as concentrated and evocative as a brush-stroke in a Chinese painting that never shows a shadow to betray the sun’s passage. This sense of timelessness produced contradictory effects. It fed both her desire to be published, the first step toward permanence or eternity, and an equal desire not to publish anything except those poems she considered to be her best. To arrive at the best, she engaged in a potentially endless perfectionistic process as a self-editor. It verged on self-censorship; she left out too much.

When Jonathan Williams urged her to put together a collected poems, published in 1967 by the Jargon Society, she assembled T&G: Collected Poems (1936-1966). Into its 36 pages, including illustrations, she compressed over thirty years of poetic labor. She had had only two books published previously, many years apart. New Goose appeared in 1946 and My Friend Tree in 1961, but these were not wholly incorporated into T&G. She cut both collections and spliced the poems into a new arrangement. Her 1968 collection, My Life by Water, adds only ten more poems to T&G. Nevertheless, possibly these collections might not have happened at all, if it had not been for the support of Williams and Cid Corman. Much praise and gratitude must go to both for their invaluable help. They championed Niedecker, talked of her to other poets, and encouraged her personally through visits and correspondence, exerting themselves to overcome her habitual reticence which, compounded perhaps by her poor eyesight, had kept her from giving public readings — another factor that inhibited outreach to a larger audience. Corman, her literary executor, tape-recorded her, an inspired move fortunate in its timing just a few weeks before she died, prematurely, on December 31, 1970.

She left behind various groupings of poems, arranged in sequences for possible magazine submission and in larger sections for proposed collected volumes. These groupings contained duplicate poems, sometimes with textual variation. Penberthy faced complicated problems: how to preserve the groupings as much as possible while eliminating duplications, and how to determine which version of a poem the poet preferred, presumably the latest, if that could be known. Chronology had to take precedence over the groupings, but the titles in these are given in the contents lists at the back of the book. The preferred texts come from the last collection Niedecker herself proofread, My Life By Water. In it, however, many poems that appeared in earlier collections were substantially revised.

One dramatic example is ‘Dear Paul,’ a 198-line poem in the ultimately unpublished collection ‘For Paul and Other Poems,’ which is condensed to 33 lines in My Life By Water. In this and similar cases, the later version is placed by Penberthy in the time sequence of first composition, while the earlier version appears in the notes so that readers can compare them — a compromise, she recognizes, but one that must serve until a future electronic edition permits seeing all versions in order of revision. Every poem has a note, keyed to the main text page number, that lists, in chronological order, the dates of composition and publication, if any, and frequently adds relevant comments by Niedecker or others. These notes with details of compositional circumstances follow the contents lists to round out the volume and complete the profile of its author. The volume is thoroughly workable. The scholarly machinery doesn’t get in the way. One may simply read uninterruptedly, concentrating on the poems themselves, knowing one sees the poet’s mind at work, but at any point turn to the back of the book to learn more. The orderly editing honors both the timeless product that Niedecker sought and a portrait of the artist in process within time and history. It is the definitive base and reference point for further study and appreciation.

How then does it change the prevailing view of Niedecker? That view, roughly speaking, has  projected her as a writer of small perfect gems, but one obscured by her rural surroundings and personal self-effacement. It came originally, I think, from Jonathan Williams’ blurb on the flap of T&G, published in 1967. He praises her there in superlatives as ‘the most absolute poetess since Emily Dickinson’ and compares her to Ono no Komachi and Sappho. He admires her because she ‘shuns the public world, lives very quietly,’ close to nature, and writes ‘in the best realist tradition’ using a ‘plain rustic line....She is as faithful and recurrent, as beautiful and homely as my favorite peony bush.’ Corman in 1976 in his introduction to Blue Chicory similarly stresses her connection with the natural world and compares her to the trees planted by her father: ‘She planted words... I leave you in her flowering shade.’

To see Niedecker as tree or flower is lovely and not inaccurate. It reflects the influence of haiku on her short forms and the Asian use of the natural object as ‘always the adequate symbol,’ as Pound noted. But the suggestion of limitation and feminine stereotype, ‘woman’ equals ‘nature,’ does not do her justice. Now that her oeuvre is laid out comprehensively, a larger view appears. The editorial process itself has fittingly extended the objectivist principle by bringing into sharper focus ‘the direction of historic and contemporary particulars’ and Niedecker’s technical means of rendering them. Here in outline are a few newly emergent aspects that extensively redefine her position in American poetry:


  • the surrealist poems, with their long lines, coinages, and violated syntax, that she had largely suppressed by 1936, but whose influence was not entirely lost;
  • the photo-reproduced ‘concrete’ experiment of 1935, NEXT YEAR OR I FLY MY ROUNDS TEMPESTUOUS, handwritten poems on pages of a small desk calendar;
  • the whole ‘folk’ project that comments on the impact of the 1930s depression on mid-America;
  • the effects of her wide reading. The power of words to reach her through books fed the power of the words she put into poems. Darwin, Jefferson, Audubon are key figures among numerous explorer-adventurers and thinkers who speak to and through her;
  • her fascination with ‘voices,’ the waywardness and oblique truth in words spoken or overheard, her use of the persona structure and the relation of ‘voices’ to the earlier surrealism;
  • the sequencing of short poems that produces, in effect, a long poem;
  • the historic and ethnic contextualization of her prose. Her teutonic background matters.
  • the qualities and textures of an actual American woman’s life, whose realities go deeper than stereotype even when occasionally conforming to it;
  • the overall vigor, wit, hidden playfulness, even a satiric edge to her language heightened by sharp perception and her characteristic condensation.

This is a beautiful and important book that belongs on your shelf next to other modernist and objectivist classics. Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works is indispensable to every serious reader and writer of poetry.


Photo of Jane Augustine


Jane Augustine is a poet, critic, and scholar of women in modernism. She edited The Gift by H.D.: The Complete Text (University Press of Florida, 1998) and published two books of poems in 2002, Arbor Vitae (Marsh Hawk Press) and Transitory (Spuyten Duyvil). She lives in New York City.


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