Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) was an American poet of huge gift and little renown, who lived almost her entire life surrounded by water in rural Wisconsin. Wisconsin is famous for outsider art. You can travel the state visiting shrine-like installations made by unschooled sculptors or pull up at the beautifully preserved workmen’s hall the Painted Forest and view the transcendent murals that coat its interior. Niedecker, who survived on menial labor after completing two years of college, is in some sense another Wisconsin artist outside the mainstream. Her cultural milieu was mostly herself and her reading matter. Yet she forged a connection with New York poet and editor Louis Zukofsky, published books in both the U.S. and in England, and saw her work as similar in spirit to that of Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams. She was a singular talent, now the subject of a recent biography and increasing critical attention to her work.
Why can’t I be happy
in my sorrow
my drinking man
(This and other Niedecker poems from Collected Works, University of California Press, 2002)
ANGELA: Cooper, I find it really hard to write about a poem this compressed. Often with very short forms, I think they work by how much is left out. A whole world is inferred by a few gestures. A few sketched lines become a horizon, a life wasted, misery. Niedecker, though, seems to take us down really small, where the few lines are the whole world enclosed. There’s a sense of coming down to the microbe level, the instant.
But it’s not as simple as that. What is the little world in “Why can’t I be happy/in my sorrow”? It’s not a scene. I don’t read it as particularly palpable. I’m not sure whether the drinking man is the speaker, or a man observed. I take the poem in as the distillation of a particular mood, one that slips across the brain so quickly. It’s a kind of self-communion, the capture of that question, the realization that the sorrow could be happy because it’s such a presence. It’s a sliver of a mind alone, connecting to its inner signals. A sense of completeness comes from the rhyme, these magical twins, sorrow, tomorrow. They also propel the double sense of this mood, the happiness with the sorrow. While the poem might be about loneliness, that drinking man, there’s a companionship in the words with each other, and with the mind’s ability to reflect on itself.
She’s called an Objectivist, as this was the school or movement in New York that drew her out of her isolation in Wisconsin. My expectation from that label is that I’ll be able to see some concretely described object in her poems. That’s not what I’m getting, though. She had really bad eyesight, was almost blind from a young age, and had to read through a magnifying glass. But her tiny worlds in her poems are not fly wings, details of physical things shrunk down and studied. There’s instead an inner concentration, an ability to condense a few disparate strands into an emotional oomph.
Try this one:
screwed to the wall
over a hole
so the cold
can’t mouse in
This one is closer to being simply descriptive. It takes a very humble object. I don’t know if you know what that is, the popcorn-can cover on the wall, a pretty typical Wisconsin cabin décor/solution to broken plaster. Not a very poetic object, not the natural world or mythology or anything.
COOPER: I love the way you’ve moved like a novelist into her poetry, fleshing out the scene around the very lean words which she gives us. I would never even have thought of the possibility of the “drinking man” as an aspect, a facet of the poem’s speaker. Perhaps I’ve read a little too much about her–though it’s not a great deal–so that I more or less automatically made her, or at least a woman, the speaker of the poem, a woman thinking about her relationship or marriage and the way that relationship relates to her life as a whole. I can see, though, using your psychological insight, how a tiny poem like this might even link into the confessional poetry so prominent in the 1960s–even if the “confession” is still general enough, “lyric” enough, I might say, to be more universal than most confessional poetry. It’s also interesting, as you suggest, that the music of the poem, the sense of wholeness provided by the rhyme, turns a poem about sadness into a rather pleasing and contented poem. Of course lyric often does that. The satisfaction of the contemplation tempers the sorrow.
“Popcorn-can cover” works in much the same way. It depicts an uncomfortable and even miserable situation in such a precise and elegant way that the misery is redeemed by the attitude: the implied metaphor of “mouse” as a verb; the not-quite-perfect rhyme of hole and cold. This is really a sly piece, especially because “mouse” carries such strong, and opposing, metaphoric possibilities. Most of us, I think, recalling childhood reading, will put a positive spin on “mouse,” a storybook animal that children almost uniformly adore, so that the invasion of the cold seems charming rather than bitter, and minor–like a draft around the ankles–rather than the bitter cold of an unheated cabin, say. For the readers who recoil at mice, however, the popcorn-can cover becomes more of a battlement than a decoration, a staunch guardian against something very unwelcome. (And, no, for what it’s worth, I had no idea about the Wisconsin-specific sense of the cover. I would’ve imagined it as little more than the aluminum lid of a Crisco can, or the top of a gallon can of paint.) But it’s rather amazing how much ambiguity Niedecker packs into even a description as “limited” as this.
Take a look at this:
all the years
ANGELA: I think we should make sure to call what we’re doing here an appreciation of Niedecker, or a consideration, not a review or an analysis. I couldn’t possibly analyze a poem like this. That’s probably the whole game, though, right? She’s created a creature out of words, for us to take in, but it’s not possible to apprehend it with a logical process that decodes it in terms of what it depicts or what it means. She’s in fact made some new words here, by rhyming “of day” with “no day.” They are closely tied in sound, with the repetition of “day,” but it’s as if the those verse-end phrases are two different shades of meaning.
The spacing gives movement to the few words. The verses sag, sadly. The brevity draws us down to a deep, tiny humility. It’s a mother working endlessly, or a blind old woman, or a tired woman stopping for a moment and leaning on a windowsill, not seeing anything. The immense energy of the poem is that it’s all these scenes and more, without being any one distinctly.
There’s a charm to Niedecker’s work, even though the moods are adult and even bleak. I’m attracted to these miniatures in the same way as a child I loved stories about little people. You were a school librarian in your working days. You must have a sense of that special pull of books like The Borrowers or Stuart Little, where the whole world is depicted at a small scale. My family had a book called The Brownies, probably from the 1920s, that was my father’s, and belongs to Niedecker’s era. That peculiar delight in thinking little people are swarming around unnoticed, playing and getting into messes, sailing away in acorn caps–it’s a child’s fantasy, and I re-experience it in reading these tiny poems. I can think of many poets who write very brief poems, but this sense of the gigantic, unpleasant world rendered down into the minuscule seems something particular to Niedecker. There’s a child-like quality too to the emphatic rhymes and the simple vocabulary, the one-syllable words.
COOPER: That’s a remarkable way to look at Niedecker! A world in an acorn cap. Which is perhaps exactly the amount of space needed for her rhymes and slant-rhymes to echo most suggestively in. It also suggests, at least to me, a squirrel’s activity–taking something apparent and visible and then hiding it away. Niedecker’s process is of course the exact opposite.
I also enjoy the way you dive in, imagining the various characters who might be speaking these words, whereas my natural inclination is to aim so narrowly on the few words as to dispense, almost, with a speaker, to make her almost a ghost. A disembodied voice.
The bleakness of these poems–the sense, perhaps, of poverty stoically endured–is in some ways countered by, and in other ways underlined by this one, which is also from the little sequence called “Autumn,” which provided us with “Popcorn-can cover.”
on the minnow bucket
and a school of leaves
This partakes of the delicacy and brevity of haiku but is, I think, much richer: the minnows mimicked by the “school” of leaves, the ice contradicted by their downstream flow, the isolation–the death, so to speak–of the bucket negated by that same flow. The patently dead leaves become living creatures, quick and nimble like a school of fish, but they move downstream, which takes them eventually, doesn’t it?, to the sea, a process which thousands of critics tell us is a metaphor for death.
ANGELA: There’s the plainness of the minnow bucket, a fisherman’s battered old tool, and then the larger-than-human irresistible force of nature taking the leaves onward, past us. Stasis and movement intermingle in the ice and the stream, the bucket vs the fish and leaves. Here I would agree with you that the speaker has vanished, is ghostly, disembodied. But how potent her seeing eye.