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Kenneth Cox

Lorine Niedecker’s Poetry

(Previously unpublished)

To begin with an enigmatic little poem touching on Niedecker’s conception of poetry:

Unsurpassed in beauty
this autumn day

The secretary of defence
knew precisely what

the undersecretary of state
was talking about

The first two lines evoke a state of nature declared to be one of supreme beauty. The absence of reference to speaker or listener leaves the pronouncement untried. The triple-beat opening is followed by three words trailing fragrance and colour, they too independent of any action. Firm in verbal impact the lines are weak in material sense-data. At superficial literary level the style is lofty, emphatic, hyperbolic. Features like these are felt to accord with the nature and function of what is called poetry.

The four other lines are the very opposite of the first two. So far from being poetry they are official in subject, unpretentious in content and quiet in its expression. Speakers are identified by their status, contact between them frames a set as yet empty but predicated by the formal precisely. The medium is that of conversation. A nicer contrast to loose construction and unpeopled situation could scarcely be imaged.

It’s not quite clear whether a perfectly exact counterpart was intended or, if intended, accomplished. The slight differences apparent are perhaps mistakes but they could be deliberate. In the poetry lines beauty in the absolute sense sits comfortably close to the superlative reading also required. In the prose lines precisely jars on its referent knows what he is talking about, a colloquial expression possibly hinting at the possession of esoteric knowledge. Or is it a prosy low-level ability equated yet contrasted with high-level poetical enchantment?

Beauty as the word is commonly understood is not the most obvious objective of Niedecker’s writing. Most of the readers would rather suppose her aim to be simplicity, or perhaps honesty, or something like rigour. Yet beauty is also the term technicians employ to acknowledge perfection of craftsmanship and this Niedecker achieves.

More difficult is the word poetry. In proper usage confined to the domain of language it not only lacks definition, it tends to spread whatever meaning it carries further than the real world. As such it can be used of anything Niedecker tried to do, including some things she did not understand and others she took on trust. She was accustomed to say she heard some poetry in dream, as though she had not conceived it herself. It’s possible of course she had not been conscious of it at the time.

Her early experiment Progression, though printed as free verse, is composed of uninhibited prose. Empty words marking shifts of relation exchange places with load-bearing words of material meaning. The result is a matrix of sense without sense itself, mocking the devices of sanity. Adolescent wordplay of this kind she kept to amuse herself and occasionally others.

Among the elements of language she liked to reduce to essentials were the compounds produced by collision or transformation in sandhi. Some, like the voicing of internal dental stops, are regularized in American practice, others remain dialectal oddities or slips of an educated tongue. At length her versification came to consist of nothing but syllables placed one under another at different angles and different distances.

She saw her poems on paper before she heard them in sound or could chew them in the mouth. Increased particularity of writing also enhanced interest in the mechanics of its reproduction. By shortening or lengthening lines of verse, by varying the spaces between them and by selecting or abandoning punctuation she guarded her poetry against false interpretation.

When a promising sexual relationship failed to come up with a proposal of marriage she made a poem about it ending

No marriage
no marriage

The withholding of any indication of tone, and thereby of any sign of reaction, characterizes her work. Equivocal indefinites veil intention. Veiling is not a fault.

Such reticence does not prevent certain readers from supposing they know what she felt and contriving an expression to describe it. These tell us more about themselves than about Lorine Niedecker. Her silences derive from an intellectual conviction that art, like science, demands total concentration on the object of attention. The limpidity of intellect she enjoyed for most of her wretched life was inborn. Zukofsky’s influence helped her but his “objectivist” movement never came into being.

Care for her own exactitude of attention and delicate differentiation of others extend all through her writing. It appears at its subtlest in her love of wordplay. This includes not only double meanings but also visual puns, strained allusions, hidden references. Clarity of view and constant attentiveness prompt an unspoken undercurrent of observation, criticism and even satire.

October 2005  |  Jacket 28  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |
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