[Wgcp-whc] Willis this Friday; Party for Jean-Jacques Thurs

Richard Deming richard.deming at yale.edu
Mon May 3 23:07:13 EDT 2010

Dear All,

first some news of a party: everyone is invited to Jean-Jacques  
Poucel's fond adieu to the French Department: Wine and Cheese  
Reception, Thursday May 6, 3pm,  Romance Languages Lounge, 82-90 Wall  
Street, 3rd floor.

And this Friday, May 7 from 3-5 in rm 116 of the Whitney Humanities  
Center the poet Elizabeth Willis will be joining us to discuss her  
poetry and poetics. Below I will paste the text of questions culled  
from last Friday's generative and lively discussion of Elizabeth  
Willis's collection Meteoric Flowers.  As is our usual process, these  
questions are prompts that will give this Friday's session some  
initial structure.  As ever, the session should be a free flowing  
conversation with our visitor.  Below the questions I'll paste a brief  
essay Willis has written about Lorine Niedecker. And as a cods to last  
week's discussion (and as an epigraph to this week's) I offer these  
lines from Willis's essay "Art against the State; Or What I Lived  
for."  She writes:

"At times, another’s words seem to gather the energy one is unable to  
gather for oneself. 'We gather our energies in order to make this  
intolerable world endurable.' Such a sentence signals the relief in  
understanding that the battles we fight individually may be  
nonetheless shared. "


Our sessions are open to any and all guests, so be sure to spread the  
word to anyone who might be interested.  This will be our last session  
of the academic year, so it is especially celebratory.

Richard Deming, Co-conspirator

ELIZABETH WILLIS is the Shapiro-Silverberg Associate Professor of  
Creative Writing at Wesleyan University. She is the author of four  
books of poetry, Second Law, The Human Abstract, Turneresque, and  
Meteoric Flowers.  Her work has been selected for the National Poetry  
Series and her awards include the Boston Review Prize, an award from  
the Howard Foundation, a Walter N. Thayer Fellowship for the Arts, and  
a grant from the California Arts Council.  As a critic, she has  
written on 19th- and 20th- century poetry, and she has edited a  
collection of essays entitled Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and  
the Politics of Place.


Questions for Elizabeth Willis
When we discussed the work of Lorine Niedecker a few years ago, we  
noted the emphasis in her poems on the domestic as a countervoice to  
the monumentalism and even hypermasculine tendencies of modernism.  
While one wouldn’t see your poems as domestic, is there a way that you  
conceive of the feminine within poetry—or specifically your own work.   
To further contextualize this, your discussion of identity with  
Charles Bernstein could be made to speak directly in part to your  
being a woman—how does that aspect inform (rather than explain) your  
sense of poetics or the perspective of your poems?  Or, to quote one  
of your poems, “What form do women take?”

At our recent session, the fact that the majority of the poems in  
Meteoric Flowers are prose poems raised the question of why prose is  
becoming more and more present in contemporary poetry.  Do you see  
this a kind of acquiescing to prose as the more dominant mode  
(culturally and commercially within our present moment)?  Is it a way  
of employing a mode that disrupts the categories of prose and poetry?   
What might such a disruption offer?

In terms of the structure of Meteoric Flowers, do the poems interrupt  
the prose poems, or do they set up the prose that follows (with the  
poems acting as “proems”)?

In what ways did the tropes of flowers and botany provide principles  
of organization for you in the writing of the poems and in thinking  
about the collection as a whole?

In Turneresque you found a correlation between the painter J.W. Tuner  
and Ted Turner’s Turner Class Movies channel. Is there a contemporary  
analogue to Erasmus Darwin.  In other words, is there a way that the  
Enlightenment thinker is re-inscribed culturally in the present?  This  
would speak to how the collection of poems escapes nostalgia or  

One question that came up often had to do with the role of  
intentionality in your work.  How do you think of intentionality  
within readings of poems in general? To what extent does the author’s  
intent guide readings of the poems? Since your poems disrupt linearity  
within and between sentences, it would seem that intention is a hard  
thing to determine—yet does that end up suggesting that meaning has no  
place within your act of writing.

How does one decide the measure of allusions? Do you imagine your  
reader ought to go read Erasmus Darwin to understand your work? Do  
readers who catch the allusions throughout your work read a different  
and perhaps “more authentic” poem than those who do not catch those  
allusions.  Is it the reader’s responsibilities to track these down?

We discussed very intensely the question of lyric subjectivity.  Is it  
voice or style that creates a field of expressivity within and between  
the poems?  What is the difference between voce and style in terms of  
what lyric poems express?


Who Was Lorine Niedecker?
by Elizabeth Willis

It's hard to write about Lorine Niedecker without using the terms that  
have, in part, kept her in critical obscurity. Her poems are plain  
styled and folk driven, wryly in love with the negative economy of  
poetic labor. Their wit and precision sneak up on you with quiet  
inevitability. They are proud of themselves and subtly self-mocking,  
consciously combining high modernist and homespun aesthetics. They can  
move deeply and laterally, engaging the alternate realities of  
history, geology, botany, politics, aesthetics, and sociology through  
brilliant wordplay and juxtaposition.

Niedecker herself was rich with complications—an ambitious poet who  
chose to live almost entirely outside professional networks; a  
localist fascinated with Lawrence of Arabia; a Marxist who owned  
property; a folk mannerist, setting the literary within the equally  
complex beauty of the commonplace. Beyond the work of her fellow  
Objectivists—Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and  
George Oppen—Niedecker clearly knew, and played on, the writing of  
William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, W. B. Yeats, William  
Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and  
on the political economy of Karl Marx, John Ruskin, William Morris,  
Thomas Jefferson, and John and Abigail Adams. In the relative  
isolation of rural Wisconsin, this was her company.

But who was Lorine Niedecker? To follow her own aesthetic practice of  
tracing phenomena to their sources, let's say that she was born in  
1903 to Daisy Kunz and Henry Niedecker, their only child. She grew up  
and lived most of her life on marshy Black Hawk Island, near the town  
of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, 35 miles from Madison. Daisy's side of  
the family was the source of some property, which was gradually lost  
to the Great Depression, bad luck, and Henry's poor business sense and  
drinking habits. Lorine grew up around her father's carp-fishing and  
cottage-rental business. She went to Beloit College to study  
literature in 1922 but was called home less than two years later to  
take care of her ailing, deaf mother. In 1928 she found work as an  
assistant at the nearby public library, placed her first poems in  
national magazines, and married Frank Hartwig, an employee of her  
father's whom she divorced two years later.

Niedecker traced her poetic beginning to the discovery of the  
Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine, guest-edited by Louis Zukofsky  
and published in February 1931. She immediately wrote to Zukofsky, who  
had recently taught at the nearby University of Wisconsin, and so  
began their life-long friendship and correspondence. In 1933  
Niedecker's poems appeared in Poetry, and she visited New York where  
she and Zukofsky became lovers for a time. The same year, Niedecker  
returned home to Black Hawk Island, devoting the rest of her creative  
life to her poetry and correspondence, often filling both with  
descriptions of local geography and overheard social commentary—much  
as Wordsworth, at about the same age, returned to his Lake District to  
find poetry in common speech. Having read Wordsworth and the Shelleys  
in her youth, she was conscious of the historical resonances between  
landscape and literature, the "traces of living things" imprinted on  
both. As a teenager, she took Wordsworth with her onto Lake  
Koshkonong, and in the magnificent late poem "Paean to Place" she  
notes with wonder that "Shelley could steer as he read." Niedecker  
lived most of her life by water, eventually married again, earned her  
living by manual labor, and wrote well over 400 pages of poetry,  
fiction, and drama before she died in 1970.

Niedecker's association with Objectivism continued throughout her  
life. But with the nationalist ethos of World War II and the Red scare  
that followed, the loosely affiliated group, with its communist  
associations and explicitly intellectual and working class concerns,  
fell into obscurity in the 1940s and 50s. It wasn't until the  
late1960s that it had its brief renaissance, with George Oppen winning  
the Pulitzer in 1969 for Of Being Numerous. This was the period of  
Niedecker's renaissance as well. After working through the1940s and  
early 1950s as a proofreader at the local paper, Hoard's Dairyman, and  
taking care of her aging parents, her poetic production increased  
dramatically, and her poems again found their way into print.

It's also in this period that folk became acknowledged within American  
popular culture as a significant influence and aesthetic with a  
distinctly counter-culture, anti-capitalist agenda. As the project of  
American expansion and global control began to fail abroad in the late  
1960s, grassroots resistance flourished, bringing about a political  
and poetic concern with the local. Niedecker's repeated critique of  
American consumerism had rural and writerly distrust behind it:  
"Civilization is an immense ad: Go to hell and be happy."

Until recently civilization seemed content to let Niedecker's work  
drift into obscurity. Three individual volumes of her work were  
published in her lifetime: New Goose (Prairie City, Ill: James Decker,  
1946), My Friend Tree (Edinburgh: Wild Hawthorn, 1961), and North  
Central (London: Fulcrum, 1968); and two versions of her collected  
poems appeared just before her death: T& G (Highland, NC: Jargon,  
1969) and My Life By Water (London: Fulcrum, 1970). Other small  
collections have appeared and disappeared, but for years the only  
widely available edition of Niedecker's work has been the slim but  
beautiful selection The Granite Pail edited by Cid Corman, published  
in 1985 by North Point and recently expanded and reprinted by Gnomon.  
In 2002, an expanded reprint of New Goose was published by Listening  
Chamber and the University of California Press released the long- 
awaited edition of Niedecker's Collected Works, meticulously edited  
and annotated by Jenny Penberthy.

Apart from her poems, Niedecker's letters—of which, two volumes have  
been published—let us know she's an ambitious artist. While they  
include buoyant descriptions of the plights of country life, complete  
with aches and pains, job searching, plumbing troubles, and weather,  
they also recount her reading and document her quest for hard-to-find  
titles like Mina Loy's Last Lunar Baedecker. But the undercurrent of  
all her correspondence is her indelible sense of herself as a poet, in  
spite of the frustrations of being largely unpublished, unread,  
misinterpreted, overlooked.

In 1957, after yet another delay in the production of her eventually  
aborted manuscript, For Paul, she writes to her publisher Jonathan  
Williams: "Poetry is the most important thing in my life but if  
sometime someone would print it without asking me for any money I'd  
feel it would be important to someone else also." As if to cover for  
her own directness, she goes on to explain, "Then too at the moment  
I'm involved in hot water heaters for my cottages, in drilling for a  
flowing well and in job hunting, the last named the greatest nightmare  
of all even when I find the job." After her stint at Hoard's Dairyman,  
she worked through the 1960s as a cleaning woman at a local hospital,  
struggling to supply the money and labor needed to maintain the  
cottages inherited from her parents.

In her geographical seclusion, Niedecker depended on her reading and  
correspondence for a sense of poetic context, and when her work wasn't  
being published, she sent out handmade books to her closest  
compatriots. In 1964 she writes to her friend, fellow-poet, supporter,  
editor, and now-executor Cid Corman: "I somehow feel impelled to send  
you the product of the last year, just to keep in touch. I know you're  
not printing (Origin). . . . I wish you and Louie and Celia and I  
could sit around a table. Otherwise, poetry has to do it. . . ." But  
the intensity of her connectedness to other poets was often  
misunderstood. The Zukofskys were at times overwhelmed by her  
friendship, and even the valiant Corman tellingly wonders if  
Niedecker's handmade book had been sent "to celebrate her marriage,  
her home-making?" Having established a community through the exchange  
and discussion of books, why not a celebration of her poetry?

Like Whitman and Oppen, Niedecker saw herself as multiple, a  
manifestation of geological and biological evolution, a being composed  
of vocabularies and iron and water and leaf matter, having inherited  
the job of speaking for, rephrasing, recombining and condensing the  
phenomenal world into art. She was acutely aware of the  
interconnectedness of things, masterfully mixing the universal with  
the regional. Even in defining her own poetic process, she would  
localize Pound's sweeping command that the poet "condense" by  
translating it into the economy of Wisconsin creameries ("Poet's Work").

Niedecker's poems sometimes function as glosses to her reading,  
reintegrating biographical and historical elements with the literary,  
tracing a thought or poem back to its sources in living things,  
whether it means acknowledging, as Erasmus Darwin did, the  
metaphorical links between animal and vegetable existence, or invoking  
the life-context of another writer as a "source" of his or her work.  
Literary sources receive the same treatment as oral text and hearsay.  
The title of her collected poems T & G is a condensation of Lawrence  
Durrell's "tenderness and gristle," and throughout her poems one finds  
acutely condensed references to the biographies and works of major  
writers—as in the deceptively simple phrasing of "Who Was Mary  
Shelley?" with its phenomenal attention to the periphery, to what is  
left out, the historical invisibility of women's work.

This art of elision can bring about stunning combinations of terms  
("dangerous parasol") and wonderfully stretched slant rhymes  
("...jumped me / ...country"). Her poems coax subtle tonal shadings  
from even a commonplace term like "friend"; she wrote poems to "My  
Friend Tree" and "To my Small Electric Pump," but the word is also  
charged with sexual innuendo and restraint. At times Niedecker's art  
seems to rest on the delicate hinge of a single line break which can  
overlay syntactical logic with other meanings, as in "Wintergreen  
Ridge," when the end of one grammatical clause abuts the beginning of  
another to synthesize both lines within a single metaphor: "let's say  
of Art / We climb." And there are often surprisingly weighted reversals 
—say, the quick inversion of looking and being looked at: "you are  
lovely / you have seen"; or the wry aside that "future studies will  
throw much darkness on the home-talk"; or the paradoxical juncture of  
inspiration and ownership: "I'm possessed and do possess."

The ambitious scale of Niedecker's poetic address is clearest in her  
long poems, like "Wintergreen Ridge," where we witness a  
transformative movement from mineral to animal, from a fashion  
reference to a comment on the nature of memory, to the awareness of  
plants as parts of oneself, to a reference to flower children and  
social protest, to a comment on rural vs. urban church architecture,  
to T. S. Eliot, to Henry James, to the Beats, to a murder- 
dismemberment in Madison, Wisconsin, to the Vietnam War, to  
differences between human and bird grief. One thinks, here of the  
scale of Reznikoff's poetics of witness in Testimony and Holocaust,  
Oppen's metaphysics in Of Being Numerous and Primitive, Zukofsky's  
attenuation of sound, Pound's subject rhyme, Moore's use of textual  

Elsewhere, there is the simple beauty of poetic tautology: "If I am  
fernal, it's fern country, then. . . ," where one can hear the  
infernal hovering between "I" and "fernal," the dark energy behind  
creative generation, the primitive self speaking within the fern, the  
"I" as metaphor in the ancient stroke of self-definition. We find the  
building of metaphor through the invention of precise verbs—"Orioled"  
and "owled"—poetry infused with the originary power of naming. We find  
the shock of honesty around which a poem resonates: "I forget my face."

There's a tendency when writing about an underacknowledged writer to  
try to set her up as a kind of hero, but Niedecker is inspiring less  
in her heroism than in her perseverance—the perseverance of a poet who  
would not be separated from her cultural and aesthetic sources. It's  
as if she learned the lesson of Mary Shelley's self-immolating  
promethean mythology. Her perceived humility seems to stem less from  
midwestern decorum than from the modern acknowledgment that we live  
and work in a reality as much evolutionary as creationist, where the  
poem is a fossil-like record of both individual genius and the  
pressures of the various histories into which we are born. Where would  
Niedecker tell us to go from here? "Here in the lush wash, you go back  
to the exuberant source and start over." With her Collected Works now  
published, we can do just that.

© 2010, Academy of American Poets. All Rights Reserved.
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