Saturday, March 15, 2003

It can be interesting when a great poet writes something that doesn’t quite work. There are more than a few examples of this particular sub-genre, but the poem I’ve been contemplating has been Lorine Niedecker’s “Thomas Jefferson.” It’s not in any particular sense a bad poem – the lesser works of top-level poets are often better than virtually everything else out there. But contrasted with Niedecker’s extraordinary gift for the minute details of daily life, this textbook reconstruction of the revolution’s second Renaissance man (Franklin having been the first) has the air of an exercise. One can see, for example, the influence of Pound & Pound pretty much at his worst at that, the Van Buren Cantos as a model for historical portraiture. Given Niedecker’s radically different art, the parts of it all never quite cohere. Yet portions, as with all her writing, nonetheless border on brilliance – reading it gave me the sense of attending a beautiful car crash.


Niedecker did not so much write serial poems as she did poetic series & this is one example of that aspect of her work. Unlike most of those poems, “Jefferson” is for the most part marked off not by periods or asterisks separating individual sections but by Roman numerals* – possibly an allusion to Jefferson’s attraction to classical & neo-classical thought, but also I suspect as a mechanism for registering her own discomfort or distance.


But if “Jefferson” is a car wreck, its mode of presentation is the freeze frame. The nineteen sections function as though it were a museum diorama – each captures a moment of Jefferson’s history, albeit not the traditional high points. What seems to attract Niedecker to Jefferson is precisely that quality that has so often been associated with her own very different life – his isolation. Thus we see him thinking of his wife’s illness while waiting for a quorum, dealing with migraines, his indebtedness, the death of his daughter, the loss of some slaves.


This sense of alone-ness reminded me of another Niedecker poem about a very different president, “J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs”:


To stand up


black-marked tulip

not snapped by the storm

“I’ve been duped by the experts”


and walk

the South Lawn


Niedecker can see the isolation in anyone.


It’s worth noting that the extraneous detail here – “black-marked tulip / not snapped by the storm” – which actually takes up one-third of the lines in this taut little poem, is something that doesn’t really occur at all in “Jefferson” – perhaps Niedecker thought the poem’s diffuseness, spread out over six-plus pages, couldn’t accommodate it – yet this tulip is precisely why the JFK poem proves so very powerful. To reduce the couplet to an “objective correlative,” as would have happened once upon a time, misses its function entirely. Rather it is the contrast that throws the human reactions entirely into relief.


There is a famous photograph taken by Yoko Ono of John Lennon’s glasses resting on a table in their apartment at the Dakota. One lens is still splattered with Lennon’s blood. Through the other lens one can sort of see the view out the window, that expansive sense of New York’s skyline at a distance because one is actually looking eastward across Central Park. But next to this fashion accessory that in the post-Beatles years had become Lennon’s signature, virtually his logo**, stands a plain glass of water – through it the skyline is far more visible. As with the tulip in Niedecker’s poem, it is still water in the glass, not the blood of John Lennon’s murder, that anchors the drama around it.






* There are asterisks, but within sections.


** He wore them first for his role in Richard Lester’s 1967 anti-war film, How I Won the War. They were seen by most people for the first time on the cover of the inaugural issue of Rolling Stone.