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Gloria Frym

Lorine Niedecker’s Plain (Language)

Introductory note: Delivered at the Lorine Niedecker Centenary Conference, Woodland Pattern Book Center, Milwaukee Public Library, October 9, 2003, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Section 1

Asked by Gail Roub, neighbor and close reader of Lorine Niedecker, “Lorine, who are you?” Niedecker answered “William Carlos Williams said that I am the Emily Dickinson of my time.” [1]


Certainly Niedecker and Dickinson each use, in their writing trajectory, the model of the nursery rhyme and the Protestant hymn. Each wrote individual poems as well as poems in series, which, due to posthumous editorial handling, has sometimes obscured the chronology of their lyric. Surely they share antinomian antagonism towards organized religion. There are personal comparisons, perhaps—such as their preference for solitude. However, their poetic practices are unique and disparate.


I would like to challenge the notion that Lorine Niedecker was the Emily Dickinson of her time. It has been more than inferred by too many readers (and passed on to students), who I suspect partly rely on the grand Dickinson myth to correlate her life and work with Niedecker’s. Even the critic Marjorie Perloff unwittingly helps perpetuate the distortion. Perloff, speaking to the issue of underrepresented avant garde woman poets, declares:


“In February 1931 Poetry Magazine published the “Objectivists” issue and Niedecker discovered the work of Zukofsky, who was to become this Emily Dickinson’s T.W. Higginson . . .[2] (italics mine)


Zukofsky helped Lorine Niedecker’s poetry get published; they exchanged and commented upon one another’s work. However, Thomas W. Higginson, an editor at the Atlantic Monthly circa 1860, adamantly discouraged Dickinson from publishing, and then set about after her death to normalize her poems and their reception. He himself barely understood what she was doing.


While Niedecker’s early work demonstrates an idiosyncratic tendency toward surreal imagery, her tutelage under Zukofsky, her reading of Pound, Williams, Creeley, et al., changed the nature of her poetic production and style. When Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Higginson, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”[3] her letter back to him infers that he replied with suggestions to alter the four pieces she enclosed and to refrain from publishing. Dickinson changed nothing in her poems as a result of their correspondence! It was only after her death, when consulted (by Mabel Loomis Todd, one of her early well-meaning editors and defacers), that he insisted that many poems be reformatted or altered. One of the most famous examples is Dickinson’s #333, written circa 1862. The original reads (and serves many purposes in analyzing Dickinson’s poetics):


The Grass so little has to do—
A Sphere of simple Green—
With only Butterflies to brood
And Bees to entertain—

And stir all day to pretty Tunes
The Breezes fetch along--
And hold the Sunshine in its lap
And bow to everything—

And thread the Dews, all night, like Pearls—
And make itself so fine
A Duchess were too common
For such a noticing—

And even when it dies—to pass
Like Odors so divine—
Like Lowly spices, lain to sleep—
Or Spikenards, perishing—

And then, in Sovereign Barns to dwell—
And dream the Days away,
The Grass so little has to do
I wish I were a Hay—


“I wish I were a hay!” Mr. Higginson insisted, “It cannot go in so (meaning the 1890 edition). Everybody would say that hay is a collective noun requiring the definite article. Nobody would call it “a hay”! (And it was Thomas Higginson who first began to assign the poems titles, some in Latin, like Resurgam, Numen Lumen; some in French, such as Rouge et Noir. And Higginson also divided the initial batch of 200 poems into groups called Life, Love, Nature and Immortality.) [4]


Unlike Dickinson, Niedecker’s chosen isolation did not obviate her involvement in the world, nor her direct commentary on the issues of her era. She was born, as we know, into a modest lower middle class background; she worked menial day jobs until nearly the end of her life. Her poems and letters contain deep, cogent references to current politics and wars, and demonstrate an overt identification with social reform.


from New Goose

A country’s economics sick
affects its people’s speech.

No bread and cheese and strawberries
I have no pay, they say.

Till in revolution rises
the strength to change

the undigestible phrase.[5]


To my ears, this sounds more like reversing Emerson’s contention that “the corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language.” [6]


Or Niedecker, again:


The number of Britons killed
by German bombs equals
the number of lakes in Wisconsin.

But more German corpses
in Stalingrad’s ruins
than its stones.[7]


Dickinson was not disposed to direct expression. The closest she gets is in poem #832, a rare quatrain that speaks to colonialism, but looks inward:


Soto! Explore thyself!
Therein thyself shalt find
The “Undiscovered Continent”—
No Settler had the Mind.[8]


Niedecker treated historical figures with a crystalline outward gaze:[9]


Three Americans
John Adams is our man
but delicate beauty
touched the other one—

an architect
and a woman artist
walked beside Jefferson

(Long face horse-named)
cheese maker

chicken raiser
wrote letters that John
and TJ could savor


“George Washington, the father of our Country, George who?” “War,” Dickinson writes to Thomas Higginson , “feels to me an oblique place.”[10] This of course emanates from the same poet who writes, ‘My Life Stood as a Loaded Gun,’ and ‘What is each instant but a gun?’ Dickinson’s greatest outpouring of poems parallels the Civil War, which produced untold thousands of amputations of wounded limbs. She is certainly not unaware of the chaos outside her antebellum life in her ‘father’s house,’ but she disguises and relies on trope to locate her world. ‘Revolution is the Pod/Systems rattle from’, (#1082). ‘My Country is truth,’ she says metaphysically. ‘It is a very free Democracy.’[11]


The no-nonsense Niedecker, again from New Goose [12] offers the devastating:


They came at a pace
to go to war.

They came to more:
a leg brought back
to a face.


An argument could be made that a hundred years of women enabled Niedecker to aggress aggressively towards her desires, and seek out an appropriate mentor, since her class and living situation could not put her in contact with one. Yet Dickinson had every opportunity to do so; Emerson and other prominent men of letters were frequent visitors to her parents’ home. But temperament and pride prevented her from calling upon anyone other than her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, for aesthetic assistance.


In the arenas of mentorship, politics, syntax, diction, and publication, Niedecker and Dickinson are oranges and apples.


It is probable, that soon after the first publication of New Goose in 1946, Louis Zukofsky put this “Emily Dickinson” notion into Williams’ mind. In two unpublished Zukofsky letters to Niedecker, Zukofsky mentions that he’s read New Goose to some poet friends by the “Emily” of their day, and adds that his audience was impressed. And perhaps Williams had independently read a handful of Niedecker’s small, compressed poems. Apparently, he wrote her two notes, the contents of which we cannot know; according to Jenny Penberthy,[13] they would have been destroyed, lamentably, by Al Millen after Niedecker’s death.


Niedecker’s diction and syntax are plain and simple, deriving from her desire to condense the poem into a spare, intense, brief object. As we can see from most of Dickinson’s mature work, while her poems are intense, her syntax is complex and laced with exotic diction.


Perhaps it is the sense of condensation that struck Zukofsky and Williams; perhaps they had not read their Emily Dickinson quite so well, confusing the subtle differences between compression and condensation, which is somewhat akin to misidentifying perfume as essence.


We know that in a condensery, milk is concentrated by evaporating some of its water. Niedecker tells us herself that there is no layoff from this. In a letter to Cid Corman, she writes:


… . I get for the first time that meaning has something to do with song—one hesitates a bit longer with some words in some lines for the thought or the vision… And the thing moves. But as in all poems written everywhere, depth of emotion condensed… ..[14]


To split semantic hairs:[15]


Condense: to make more dense or compact; to reduce (sentences, paragraphs, or larger literary units); to abridge; to subject to condensation, as atoms; to reduce what one says or writes to a concise form. [I’m assigning Condense for Niedecker, for obvious reasons]


Compress: to reduce volume, size, duration, density, or degree of concentration of by or as if by pressure [I pick compress for Dickinson’s volcanic metaphors—see #1146]; to make an opening smaller; to press together (his lips were pressed by thought—Thomas Hardy); to make hard or solid; to restrain.


ED #1705

Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography—
Volcanoes nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb—
A crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home.


These distinctions may not, in the end, matter, for each poet’s work is dense and compact in its own way. It is on the level of syntax and diction where the comparison truly diverges. Niedecker is a minimalist; Dickinson, though nativist in her desire to “see New Englandly”, is almost baroque.


ED #855

To own the Art within the Soul
The Soul to entertain
With Silence as a Company
And Festival maintain

Is an unfurnished Circumstance
Possession is to One
As an Estate Perpetual
Or a reduceless Mine


Niedecker, from “Musical Toys”[16]


Van Gogh could see
twenty seven varieties
              of black
                            in cap—


Niedecker’s vocabulary reads straightforward, less mysterious than Dickinson’s; her syntax highly recoverable; whereas Dickinson’s syntax and vocabulary is often unusual, neologistic, and Latinate—deriving from her particular love of exotic modifiers and nouns, her constructing nouns from adjectives, her metaphoric even symbolic constructions, her penchant for aphorism and riddle, as well as her peculiar and beautiful guile and coyness as a poet. Hers is a poetics of slant. Feminist criticism considers these elements as necessary strategies of obliquity and subterfuge for the Victorian era—but these strategies contribute greatly to the stunning ambiguity of many of her finest poems:



A nearness to Tremendousness—
An Agony procures—
Affliction ranges Boundlessness—
Vicinity to Laws

Contentment’s quiet Suburb
Affliction cannot stay
In Acres – Its Location
Is Illocality


Regarding this poem, critic Cristanne Miller, in Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar argues that:


the redundantly polysyllabic abstraction of the claim,[ that agony brings us close to or procures boundlessness]… leaves the speaker’s relation to the claim uncertain. It is unclear… just what agony or affliction does procure. … we know what near, tremendous, and boundless mean. Made substantive, however, the meanings are less clear… .polysyllabic circumlocution describes a place that is neither here or there and has substance only as insubstantial qualities might be imagined to have… ..emphasizing aurally the poem’s general compression.[17]


Polysyllabic strategies were not Niedecker’s forté. Her ellipses can be ferreted out and are largely “recoverable.” Her poems read often as a shorthand, demonstrating a temperamental and unequivocal distaste for saying more than needs to be said. Her language is American Plain Speak. Her images are presented in an uncluttered foreground, with a use of language more literal than figurative, and a disinterest in the exotic.
This from “Paean to Place”[18] :


Dancing grounds
my people had none
       woodcocks had —
       backland —
       air around

such as what flower
       to take
       to grandfather’s grave

water lilies—
he who’d bowed his head
       to grass as he mowed
       Iris now grows
on fill
for the two
and for him
       where they lie
       How much less am I
in the dark than they?


Dickinson said less in more obtuse, tropic imagery than her correspondents would have preferred. She relies heavily on personification:


ED #1146

When Etna basks and purrs
Naples is more afraid
Than when she shows her Garnet Tooth—
Security is loud—


Niedecker, again from “Paean to Place”


Effort lay in us
before religions
              at pond bottom
                            All things move toward
the light

except those
that freely works down
              to ocean’s black depths
                            In us an impulse tests
the unknown


Dickinson’s poetic obsessions with time, space, consciousness, perception seem closer to the Metaphysicals. She uses the term “Circumference” variously, to investigate and proclaim her poetic sovereignty as well as her spiritual battle with a Christian God. Niedecker had no struggle with the gods. Hers was with secular form, and condensing her observations of the natural, social, and historical world into the fewest number of words, with space on the page an important component. And for Niedecker, the visual experience of the words on the page is almost as important as the music and thought they evoke.[19]


Williams, Pound, Eliot, Frost and most Modernists, did not reckon with Niedecker, nor did they really reckon with Dickinson. Were it not for Zukofsky, they would have not likely reckoned with Niedecker at all. The analogy to Dickinson seems part of an attempt to construct some sort of meta-genealogy of “women poets,” potentially distancing Niedecker from historical context and lessening her relationship to those Objectivists with whom she may rightly claim association. Carl Rakosi summed up the difference between Dickinson and Niedecker: “Of course, Lorine was absolutely objective, whereas Dickinson dealt in subjectivities.”[20] This was not meant as a disparagement of Dickinson, as Rakosi continued at nearly 101 years old to identify distinction with pinpoint sharpness.


Dickinson had no poetic guidance or reliable publisher. Even when offered (by Helen Hunt Jackson), she refused both. Her publication enterprise was almost entirely self-directed. Susan Howe and others have made the case that both her hand-sewn fascicles and her letters, often rife with embedded poems, were her method of self-publication and distribution. Her radically solitary position allowed for no compromise. She had been burned a few times with misprints and rewriting of her few published poems, and thus took her fire off the flame, so to speak, permanently, during her short lifetime.


When Niedecker sent poems to magazines, she often provided clear instructions on how they should be printed, line breaks and all, as evidenced in her letters.[21]


Lastly, it would be unjust to ignore Niedecker’s great desire, while muted at times, to be included in and published among the “milieu” or “school” in which she both rightly belongs and transcends individually. As early as the mid 1930s, in a letter to Mary Hoard, she writes:


“I had spoken to Phyllis I think about Louis Zukofsky and the Objectivist Movement—this book opens up ideas I should have known long ago. Objects, objects.[22]

“I work so hard these days—I can hardly sit down long enough to enjoy those two reviews of MFT in Kulchur 7 (My Friend Tree). Tonight I read them for the third time and I still laugh and blush a bit, but with some pride, of course![23] (1962)

“Cid ------feel perfectly free not to print me---------tho saying that I feel lost . . .[24] (1967)

“… As you know, I’d be happy if a book of my own poems could come out by some publisher somewhere before I die . .[25] (1965)


Cid Corman writes: “She was embarrassed at being compared to Sappho and Dickinson. Her own words make it clear that she prized her work, but was disinclined to exaggerate merit.” [26] Dickinson stood alone, as a 19th century American poet; no matter her physical isolation, Niedecker cultivated and developed her poetic comrades in language.


From this viewpoint, we could deduce a kind of evolution in female poetic assertion: Lorine Niedecker exercises a modern desire to speak publicly and associate with a distinct, if loosely knit group of peers. Perhaps this is a truer genealogy at work.


[1] Gail Roub, “Getting to Know Lorine Niedecker,” Wisconsin Academy Review, June 1986, 38.

[2] Marjorie Perloff, “Canon and Loaded Gun: Feminist Poets and the Avant-Garde”, from Poetic License: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Lyric, Northwestern University Press, 1990.

[3] Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), The Letters of Emily Dickinson, Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1958, letter dated April 15, 1862.

[4] Millicent Todd Bingham, Ancestor’s Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson, Harper & Brothers, NY, 1945.

[5] Lorine Niedecker, New Goose, edited by Jenny Penberthy, reprinted by Steve Dickinson, Rumor Books, SF, 2002, 13.

[6] Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Nature,” part IV “Language”

[7] Niedecker, New Goose, 80.

[8] All Dickinson poems from Thomas Johnson (ed.), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Harvard University Press, 1955.

[9] Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, Jenny Penberthy, ed., University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002, 285.

[10] Thomas Johnson (ed.), The Letters of Emily Dickinson, Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1958.

[11] Johnson, Letters.

[12] New Goose, Reprint, Rumor Books, 84.

[13] In email conversation with Jenny Penberthy, May, 2003.

[14] Truck 16, Lorine Niedecker issue, from a letter to Cid Corman, July 2, 1965.

[15] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged.

[16] Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, ed. Jenny Penberthy, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002, 183.

[17] Cristanne Miller, Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1987, 43.

[18] Niedecker, Collected Works, 266.

[19] Roub, 38-39.

[20] In a telephone conversation, March 2003.

[21] Jenny Penberthy, ed., Lorine Niedecker, Woman and Poet, National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, Orono, Maine , 1996, 175.

[22] Penberthy, 87.

[23] “Knee Deck Her Daisies: Selections from Letters to Louis Zukofsky”, ed. Jenny Penberthy, in Sulfur ?, Sept 26, 1962.

[24] Cid Corman, “With Lorine,” in Truck #16, Summer 1975, letter to Corman, Oct 13, 1967.

[25] Corman, June 17, 1965.

[26] Corman, 76.

Gloria Frym; photo by Ruth Morgan.

Gloria Frym; photo by Ruth Morgan.

Gloria Frym has a chapbook, The Lost Sappho Poems, from Effing Press in Austin, Texas. Her most recent book of poems is Solution Simulacra (United Artists Books, 2006). A previous collection, Homeless at Home (Creative Arts Book Company), won an American Book Award in 2002. She is also the author of two critically acclaimed collections of short stories — Distance No Object (>City Lights Books), and How I Learned (Coffee House Press) — as well as several other volumes of poetry. She is Associate Professor of Writing & Literature at California College of the Arts in the Bay Area.

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