Much, perhaps too much has been written about Lorine Niedecker’s relations with Louis Zukofsky — her friend, colleague, lover, commiserater, and 40-year obsession — but the curious thing is that if one knew no biographical details, it would be difficult to put them together as poets. Only rarely in their writings do they resemble each other, usually in those moments when they resemble William Carlos Williams. In contrast, almost nothing has been said about Niedecker’s true kindred spirit in poetry, Charles Reznikoff.
Take a blindfold test on two short poems from around 1950:
One of my sentinels, a tree
sent spinning after me
secret on a leaf:
the summer is over —
Two old men —
one proposed they live together
take turns cooking, washing dishes
they were both alone.
His friend: “Our way of living
is so different:
I don’t spit.”
The first is quintessential Niedecker — a tiny moment of nature communicating to a first-person narrator and at least three unexpected musical changes in six lines and twenty-one words — but the poem is by Reznikoff. The second is quintessential Reznikoff — the flat narration pared to the minimum necessity, the lives of ordinary people captured with a gentle humor by a bit of real speech — but the poem is by Niedecker. Flipping through their respective collected works, this game can be played endlessly.
What we know about the relationship between the two is very little, and there may well be little to know. They met in the 1930’s when Niedecker was living off and on with Zukofsky in New York. Reznikoff sent Niedecker his books for thirty years. She does not appear in the very badly edited selection of his letters, but Niedecker, writing to Zukofsky in 1946, quotes his reaction to New Goose: “I picked it up when I was tired and dispirited and put it down quite refreshed by the words and music.” (Niedecker notes with amusement that “good, quiet, cautious Rez” had added the word “quite” as a correction.) After her death, Reznikoff, unlike the bilious Zukofsky, contributed a short poem to Jonathan William’s Epitaphs for Lorine. And that is as far as the Reznikoff paper trail goes.
On the Niedecker side, there is a little more. In the 1951 poem “If I were a bird,” which pays homage to her poetic contemporaries, Reznikoff appears with H.D., Williams, Moore, Stevens, Zukofsky, and cummings. In a 1959 letter to Zukofsky, she wonders who could help Reznikoff. She writes: “You get the idea he leads a lonelier life than I do but freer of trash?” And: “I have always felt he was writing my poems for me only better.” In a letter to Reznikoff at the same time — she sent a copy to Zukofsky — she says, “I often find a kinship between us in the short poem. And if you are my brother-in-law then we have Chinese and Japanese brothers.” [Yet another example of her weird family drama: Reznikoff is a “brother-in-law,” and not, say, a cousin, presumably because he is Zukofsky’s symbolic brother.] Also from the same letter: “Hard to write and then get it printed. I try to along with scrubbing floors in a hospital. Every now and again, tho, there’s a chink where a poem comes thru. Altogether life is not really too hard — I gather this is what you say too.”
Niedecker tended to route all things poetical through Zukofsky, and whenever she mentions Reznikoff in passing it is always with reference to Zukofsky’s essay from the 1931 “Objectivists” issue of Poetry — an issue she largely copied out by hand — “Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff.” (Zukofsky, characteristically, cut out all mention of Reznikoff when he reprinted the essay for the first time in the 1967 Prepositions.)
That essay, the Magna Carta of Objectivism, while sharp in certain particulars, is generally vague to the point of meaninglessness, was interpreted in contradictory ways by its supposed fellow travelers, and has been largely misremembered, blurred with the Imagistic ideal of emotion expressed through concrete details. [I, for one, will never understand why Reznikoff’s one-line poem “The ceaseless weaving of the uneven water” is sincerity, not objectification, but his three-line poem on the death of Gaudier-Brzeska, “How shall we mourn you who are killed and wasted, / Sure that you would not die with your work unended — / As if the iron scythe in the grass stops for a flower” is objectification but not sincerity.]
Niedecker always associates Reznikoff with the word “sincerity,” and it’s a safe guess that she was thinking of that aspect of the word defined by Zukofsky as writing “which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody.” But there was something else in that essay, and in Reznikoff’s poetry, which Niedecker never acknowledges (at least, in the published letters) and the critics never mention, but which surely came as a revelation to her.
Niedecker and Reznikoff are kindred spirits in their difficult lives of isolation; their dedication to condensation and the excision of superfluity as the prevailing aesthetic; their preoccupation with the local — a local they almost never left; their perfect lyrics that often turn on a rhyme or a musical phrase; their sweet ironic humor; their personification of the natural world; their first- and third-person anecdotal narratives of ordinary people (the former, direct descendants of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology — which, like it or not, is, with The Waste Land, the century’s most influential book of American poetry); and in their pathological self-effacement. These are matters of sensibility and personality and aesthetic comradeship. But there was also an idea that Niedecker got from Reznikoff — as important as anything she learned from Zukofsky — and that was the way to incorporate history into the poem.
Pound, in the early poems and in the Cantos (that ‘poem with history”) and Williams in In the American Grain had used two techniques: first-person invented monologues by historical characters in the manner of Robert Browning, and the verbatim importation of historical documents. Reznikoff invented a third technique: the severe condensation of actual documents into first-person monologues or third-person narratives. It was a new way of performing poetry’s traditional and largely lost function as a re-teller of tales.
He had begun — in the 1927 Five Groups of Verse and the 1929 “Editing and Glosses” series (which Zukofsky mentions) — by condensing passages from the Old Testament. In 1930, he first applied the technique to American history, using the diaries of Captain John Smith to write “The English in Virginia, April 1607,” a poem that was included in An ‘Objectivist’s Anthology. Further poems were written soon after out of Spinoza, Marx, the Mishnah, more passages from the Bible, Jewish historical documents, and a book called American History Told by Contemporaries. He also began work on a series of prose poems based on a range of American documents, from ships’ records to court cases. Originally called My Country ‘Tis of Thee (parts of which are also in An ‘Objectivist’s Anthology) it was published in 1934 as Testimony — a wonderful book that has never been reprinted). In the 1960’s and 1970’s, he returned to condensing court cases, this time into poems, for his American anti-epic, also called Testimony, and for the devastating Holocaust, based on the Nuremberg trials.
In “Sincerity and Objectification,” Zukofsky writes that “Interested in craft, Reznikoff has not found it derogatory to his production to infuse his care for significant detail and precision into the excellent verbalisms of others.” Describing the Biblical versions, and anticipating the charges of ‘impersonalness’ or ‘anyone could do it,’ that later dogged Reznikoff, he notes: “The narrative has been rendered concisely in emphasized cadence and given the condition of Reznikoff’s mental bearings and literal art.” And, surprisingly, in a passage that is rarely cited, he says, “It is more important for the communal good that individual authors should spend their time recording and objectifying good writing wherever it is found. . . than that a plenum of authors should found their fame on all sorts of personal vagueness.”
Niedecker first experimented with the method in 1945, with “Crèvecoeur,” a condensation of Letters from an American Farmer into 45 long lines in the first person. The poem was unpublished, and she later condensed it further into two short, third-person poems in the “For Paul” sequence. These were followed by very short first-person poems taken out of the writings or letters of Kepler, the naturalist Aimé Bonpland, Linnaeus, John Adams, T. E. Lawrence, and Santayana , and third-person tiny capsule biographies of Margaret Fuller, Mary Shelley, and Swedenborg. Finally, in the 1960’s, in her last years, more than half of her work was devoted to historical condensation: the great long sequences, “North Central” (out of Radisson, Joliet, Schoolcraft, and other explorers), “Thomas Jefferson,” “His Carpets Flowered” (out of William Morris), and “Darwin,” as well as short poems from or on Jefferson (again), John and Abigail Adams, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Michelangelo, and Wallace Stevens.
This was a return to one of poetry’s primary traditional roles, as the repository for what a culture has known about itself. A role explored by only a handful of the American modernists: Pound, Williams (in American Grain and Paterson), Eliot (in The Waste Land), Reznikoff, Rexroth, Rukeyser, Olson, Duncan and, these days, perhaps only Susan Howe and Ed Sanders. Niedecker, among them, was the most extreme and the most crystalline. In her history poems, she was an intense lyric poet with epic content, and she has neither peers nor followers for her “holy / slowly / mulled over / matter.”
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