“I know that for myself, what is deeper than I understand is often the most pertinent to me and the most lasting.” — Lorine Niedecker

It’s her birthday today.

I had not heard of Lorine Niedecker, until 2010, when I took the Norton Anthology out to Block Island with me, in the hopes it would help me get back to reading again. It worked. And it was fun to re-read things like “The Waste Land” and also struggle through some of Pound’s Cantos, stuff like that. It was a tough time for me and so I needed tough stuff to read. And somehow, I came across Lorine Niedecker. There is a brief introductory note for her, not a long one, since she lived in the same place her entire life, not many “events” to speak of, but her poems are incredible.

I am so glad I encountered her.

She was born in 1903 in Wisconsin and spent her whole life on Black Hawk Island. She lived with her parents, and took care of them when they became elderly. She went to college briefly. She had many jobs, some menial, some not. Somewhere along in here, she started writing poetry. In 1931, she read Louis Zukofsky’s “Objectivist” issue of Poetry magazine, and traveled to New York to meet him. They ended up carrying on a long correspondence. The “Objectivists” wanted to create poems that were not sentimental or ornamental – simple, clean, clear. Lorine Niedecker is a classic example of an Objectivist poet, although she had some ambivalent feelings about the movement became so associated with. Her poems have no “needless words”, they almost feel like haikus: miniature little sketches, with minimum subjectivity. There were a couple of Objectivist anthologies published in the 30s, and her work was not included. Her first volume was published in the 1940s.

“Condensery.” — Lorine Niedecker’s term for poetry

There was another side to her, though, a surrealist side, an expressionist side, where she experimented with language, with what it could do and express. She admired Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein. She was pulled towards their experiments, how reality itself broke down in the language, attempting to express something else beyond the literal surface of things, of OBJECTS, again. How about the inner life of objects? Gertrude Stein wrote a whole book attempting to do that (Tender Buttons: Objects).

She was a well-read curious intellectual woman, and her poems are not about flowers, and leaves, and emotions. She wrote poems about Darwin, the Chinese poet Li Po, the North American explorers, and in this way, she is an heir of Ezra Pound, whose poems have a similar collage effect, full of references to existing material.

While I was out on Block Island, I read all of her work anthologized, the first one being her long poem on Thomas Jefferson. To get into Niedecker, you need at least a baseline knowledge, reference points in history. She expects people to be familiar with the events of Jefferson’s life (or Darwin’s life, or whoever), and her references come fast and furious. She doesn’t slow down for people who didn’t pay attention in school. There are footnotes in the Norton Anthology: with Niedecker, at times, you really need them.

But Niedecker waits for no one.

Niedecker uses quotes and fragments from the letters of Thomas Jefferson in order to create the poem (if you’ve read his letters, you’ll recognize a lot of this).

Thomas Jefferson

My wife is ill!
And I sit
for a quorum

Fast ride
his horse collapsed
Now he saddled walked

Borrowed a farmer’€™s
unbroken colt
To Richmond

Richmond How stop
Arnold’s redcoats

Elk Hill destroyed—
carried off 30 slaves

Were it to give them freedom
he’d have done right

Latin and Greek
my tools
to understand

I rode horse
away from a monarch
to an enchanting

The South of France

Roman temple
€œsimple and sublime

Maria Cosway
on his mind

white column
and arch

To daughter Patsy: Read—
read Livy

No person full of work
was ever hysterical

Know music, history

(I calculate 14 to 1
in marriage
she will draw
a blockhead)

Science also

Agreed with Adams:
send spermaceti oil to Portugal
for their church candles

(light enough to banish mysteries?:
three are one and one is three
and yet the one not three
and the three not one)

and send slat fish
U.S. salt fish preferred
above all other

Jefferson of Patrick Henry
backwoods fiddler statesman:

“He spoke as Homer wrote”
Henry eyed our minister at Paris—

the Bill of Rights hassle—
he remembers . . .

in splendor and dissipation
he thinks yet of bills of rights”

True, French frills and lace
for Jefferson, sword and belt

but follow the Court to Fontainebleau
he could not

house rent would have left him
nothing to eat

. . .

He bowed to everyone he met
and talked with arms folded

He could be trimmed
by a two-month migraine

and yet
stand up

Dear Polly:
I said No no frost

in Virginia—the strawberries
were safe

I’d have heard €”I’m in that kind
of correspondence

with a young daughter
if they were not

Now I must retract
I shrink from it

Political honors
“splendid torments”
“If one could establish
an absolute power
of silence over oneself”

When I set out for Monticello
(my grandchildren
will they know me?)

How are my young
chestnut trees—

Hamilton and the bankers
would make my country Carthage

I am abandoning the rich—
their dinner parties—

I shall eat my simlins
with the class of science

or not at all
Next year the last of labors

among conflicting parties
Then my family

we shall sow our cabbages

Delicious flower
of the acacia

or rather

Mimosa Nilotica
from Mr. Lomax

Polly Jefferson, 8, had crossed
to father and sister in Paris

by way of London—Abigail
embraced her—Adams said

“in all my life I never saw
more charming child”

Death of Polly, 25,

My harpsichord
my alabaster vase
and bridle bit
bound for Alexandria

The good sea weather
of retirement
The drift and suck
and die-down of life
but there is land

These were my passions:
Monticello and the villa-temples
I passed on to carpenters
bricklayers what I knew

and to an Italian sculptor
how to turn a volute
on a pillar

You may approach the campus rotunda
from lower to upper terrace
Cicero had levels

John Adams’ eyes
Tom Jefferson’s rheumatism

Ah soon must Monticello be lost
to debts
and Jefferson himself
to death

Mind leaving, let body leave
Let dome live, spherical dome
and colonnade

Martha (Patsy) stay
The Committee of Safety
must be warned€

Stay youth—Anne and Ellen
all my books, the bantams
and the seeds of the senega root


Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960s:

You and Jonathan have thrown off the shackles of the sentence and the wide melody. For me the sentence lies in wait — all those prepositions and connectives — like an early spring flood. A good thing my follow-up feeling has always been condense, condense.

Lorine Niedecker, letter to Mary Hoard:

I had spoken about Louis Zukofsky and the Objectivist Movement…Objects, objects. Why are people, artists above all, so terrifically afraid of themselves? Thank god for the Surrealist tendency running side by side with objectivism.

Mary Oppen:

New York was overwhelming, and she was alone, a tiny, timid, small-town girl. She escaped the city and returned to Wisconsin. Years later we began to see her poems, poems which decribed her life; she chose a way of hard physical work, and her poetry emerged from a tiny life. From Wisconsin came perfect small gems of poetry written out of her survival, from the crevices of her life, that seeped into poems.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

It is one of the great ironies of modern literary history that Pound, an anti-Semite, living in and supporting Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, inspired the left-wing Objectivist American Jews–Oppen, Zukofsky, and Charles Reznikoff–as well as Bunting, the one prominent British member of the Objectivist group, and the American Lorine Niedecker, the only woman.

Carl Rakosi:

With her the external world, the object is primary, it is most out front, and the subjective is most subsumed, so Objectivist is appropriate for her.

Louis Zukofsky, letter to Lorine Niedecker:

Don’t read French Surrealistes, nor Carroll, nor etc — lemme tell you. Read the newspaper, talk more to people.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Niedecker did not appear in [Louis] Zukofsky’s 1931 issue of Poetry, but when she read it, she traveled to meet him in New York. Niedecker’s free verse, like Oppen’s, exhibits precision and compression, silence and riddling ellipses. Some of her crystalline poems are about nature, while others are made up of “found” materials–collagelike sequences that fit together quotations from historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin.

Lorine Niedecker, letter to Harriet Monroe:

Certain words of a sentence — prepositions, connectives, pronouns — belong up toward full consciousness, while strange and unused words appear only in subconscious…in dream the simple and familiar words like prepositions, connectives, etc. are not absent, in fact, noticeably present to show illogical absurdity, discontinuity, parody of sanity.

Lorine Niedecker, to Clayton Eshleman, 1960s:

I know that my cry all these years has been into – into – and under — close your eyes and let the music carry you — And what have I done? — cut — cut — too many words…

Lorine Niedecker, note to herself:

I’m going back to the Imagists, to the wordy ones and the strange rhythms, I have suppressed myself too long.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Niedecker is a second-generation modernist whose aesthetic can be traced back through Objectivism to Ezra Pound’s Imagism, and beyond that to the wit and cryptic asceticism of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Like other Objectivists, she aims at precision, compression, and hard, clean images–images unclouded by authorial sentiment.

Lorine Niedecker, letter to Mary Hoard:

I have said to Z that the most important part of memory is its non-expressive, unconscious part…We remember. A nerve sense, a vibration, a colour, a rhythm.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Sometimes abandoning the sentence, she juxtaposes images, phrases, and words in parataxis. Like Imagist poems and East Asian haiku, Niedecker’s poems are exercises in miniature, whether at the level of poem or of strophe.

Lorine Niedecker:

There must be an art . . . somewhere, somehow entirely precious, abstract, dehumanized, and intense because of these [qualities].

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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3 Responses to “I know that for myself, what is deeper than I understand is often the most pertinent to me and the most lasting.” — Lorine Niedecker

  1. Los Angeles! says:

    I am glad to see LN honored even if I am truly left reeling by some of her long poems, inc. “Thomas Jefferson.” (Darwin is beloved by poets: LN, Eliz Bishop, James Schuyler, prob others.) So much of her work was reconstructed in posthumous editions, including a little book called “New Goose” with many lyrics from the ’30s. I really loved that book, edited by Jenny Penbernethy (sp?) who also edited, & to some extent created, the big “Collected Poems.” Anyway, I loved “New Goose” so much I gave it to a friend & now I can’t find a used copy. Thanks for the assemblage of quotes, especially for Mary Oppen’s which I assume is from “Meaning A Life,” a powerful memoir that dwells on the 20s & 30s.

  2. Mike Molloy says:

    I guess I missed or skipped this last year, glad you reposted, always love to encounter these posts on poets I haven’t heard of. Gonna try to read some of her work, though the pickings are a bit bare at amazon. As Los Angeles said last year, “New Goose” is hard to come by.

    • sheila says:

      Mike – yeah, she’s not really well-known at all – she’s not taught in high school curriculums (or at least she wasn’t when I was in school) – I came across her in one of the anthologies I have and I fell in love with her stuff.

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