[Wgcp-whc] Willis this Friday; Party for Jean-Jacques Thurs
richard.deming at yale.edu
Mon May 3 23:07:13 EDT 2010
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,
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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