Sunday, September 29, 2002

In 1969, Jonathon Williams’ Jargon Society published a volume of Lorine Niedecker’s poetry entitled T&G. The book’s subtitle was The Collected Poems (1936-1966). Unpaginated, the text ran all of 60 pages, a number of which were devoted to A. Doyle Moore’s plant prints. Thirty-three years hence, it seems stunning that we can now have a book entitled simply Collected Works (University of California, 2002) whose gathering of Niedecker’s poems and prose totals 362 pages, with over 100 additional pages of notes and indices to lend the volume heft.

In my mind, I had linked Niedecker with Besmilr Brigham, connecting the pair to a larger Dickinsonian tradition of women writing in isolation. But now I think that the parallel feels forced. Brigham & Niedecker share two important dimensions:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Each lived precariously on the economic margins at a considerable geographic distance from major literary centers
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Both held a visible relation to the Pound/Williams tradition – more to Williams than to Pound – and connected to the scene primarily through the mail. 
Beyond that, though, they are profoundly different poets. Part of it may just be generational – Niedecker was ten years older, having been born in 1903, with her earliest poems have been written in the 1920s and her connection to Zukofsky and the Objectivists dating from the early 1930s. Brigham may have been a late starter by comparison – her first publication in El Corno Emplumado in 1966 occurs when she is 53 (although apparently telling people that she was ten years younger).

It’s worth considering what the curious history of the Objectivists meant not just to Niedecker but to all of the writers usually associated with that rubric – active and working together in the early 1930s, but not quite jelling in terms of public response, followed by an erasure from public view in the 1940s & ‘50s, only to return again, this time triumphant, in the 1960s. For one thing, Niedecker’s own position vis-à-vis the participants in the famous February 1931 issue of Poetry & subsequent anthology had changed by the mid-1960s. Fully mature as a poet, she was in no way outside the circle by the time of their collective re-emergence.

Furthermore, Niedecker had benefited from the long silence as did several of the Objectivists as they became a far more disciplined and cohesive group of poets than they had been in the early 1930s. Without any wider audience for so many years, the Objectivists had only themselves and a few others as readers for nearly 20 years.* The work that came out of the long silence was more spare than that which had gone before. Consider the florid tone of this passage by Carl Rakosi, which actually led off the Objectivist issue of Poetry, the first stanza from a piece entitled “Orphean Lost” from a larger serial poem called “Before You”:

The oakboughs of the cottagers
descend, my lover,
with the bestial evening.
The shadows of their swelled trunks
crush the frugal herb.
The heights lag
and perish in a blue vacuum.

This overwrought text, which initiated a revolution, is not to be found in Rakosi’s Collected Poems.** If anything, the text reflects a love-hate relationship with surrealism that shows up both in Poetry, which included two Rimbaud translations by Emanuel Carnevali as well as a little symposium on the “gratuitous and arbitrary” poetry of Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford, and in the anthology where Zukofsky literally rearranged the lines of a Kenneth Rexroth work in seemingly random order, to the latter’s considerable vexation.

All that deliberate excess is gone by the 1960s. Thus we can identify a second factor separating First and Third Phase Objectivism*** – a new emphasis on a spare, unadorned style not always evident during the 1930s. This was reinforced by the return to writing of George Oppen, who had had the most austere aesthetic during that first decade.+

Niedecker may have been isolated geographically, but she was integrally part of this literary cabal and it is this community that created the foundation for her broad acceptance, especially after her death in 1970. Brigham never had this – the poets with whom she is said to have corresponded, Duncan & Creeley, were already famous by the 1960s. Older than either of them, Brigham never made the transition from correspondent to peer. While the work of those two men was associated with Black Mountain College, where each had taught, they had always been completely different poets and, by the 1960s, each was evolving according to impulses and demands that had little to do with one another, regardless of their mutual admiration. So it turns out that it is Brigham far more than Niedecker who was truly the Outsider poet.

This is true in other ways as well. Place is important to both of Niedecker & Brigham, but Niedecker inhabits the Wisconsin of her poems with a sense of its presence, very nearly its omnipresence++  compared with the far more tentative landscapes the peripatetic Brigham confronts in Mississippi, Texas, Mexico & Arkansas. I sense Niedecker truly in her environment whereas Brigham carries the perspective of someone who appears to have been an observer more than a participant, regardless of the context…just passing through, taking notes.

My impression of this is heightened by the fact that Brigham is a poet of the eye, whereas Niedecker thinks and proceeds by ear. A distinction like that is simply a part of one’s human chemistry – it’s not a question of right or wrong decisions – but the distinction plays out in important ways for poetry.  There is a tonal logic in Niedecker’s work, as there is, say, in the poetry of Larry Eigner, which is extraordinary to read. The poetry as a result possesses a cohesion that communicates as total life prosody – you are never in doubt that you’re in the presence of a major poet with Niedecker. Brigham’s poems are no less intense or intelligent, but tonally they’re more diverse – the range is from straightforward narrative, rather like the piece I quoted on September 25, to highly enjambed. You can see & feel all of her directions, but never quite sense that presence of an overwhelming unifying force.

On the other hand, a true Collected Poems of Besmilr Brigham might tell as different a story as Niedecker’s Collected Works does from T&G: The Collected Poems (1936-66).

* & even this overstates the case. Oppen had dropped out almost entirely, working as a political organizer, fight in the Second World War, then choosing exile in Mexico during the McCarthy era. Bunting, more of a sporadic than a prolific poet, was off in the Middle East occupied with espionage.

** Two of the four sections of “Before You,” have been preserved: “Fluteplayers from Finmarken” and “Unswerving Marine,” both of which show up in the section of the Collected entitled “Amulet,” albeit not in the order they appeared in 1931. All four sections can be found as separate poems in Poems 1923-1941, Andrew Crozier’s admirable excavation of Rakosi’s work from Objectivism’s First Phase.

*** See “Third Phase Objectivism,” Paideuma, Vol. 10, No. 1, “George Oppen Issue,” Spring, 1981, National Poetry Foundation, Orono, ME, pp. 85-89.
+ The noteworthy exception to the austere style is Zukofsky. To a significant degree, the commitment to “A” pushed his own poetry in different directions than the rest of the Objectivists, although his shorter pieces often reflect the stripped-down aesthetic of his cohort.  A test of my thesis about the impact of “disappearance” of Objectivism in the 1940s can be seen in the work of the two younger poets from that issue of Poetry who continued to write and publish: Rexroth and Ted Hecht. Their poetry evolved in ways different from the core Objectivist group as well as different from one another – neither adopted anything like a spare style.

++ Interestingly, when Niedecker turns to place as Other, in the four-part poem “Florida,” she too emphasizes the eye – both opening and closing sections focus on the visual aspects of the state – the birds, the older women wearing slacks.