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Lorine Niedecker, the Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre and Resistances

A poem is a peculiar instance of language’s uses,
and goes well beyond the [person] writing–finally
to the anonymity of any song.
Robert Creeley
(1989, 483)

Anonymity was a great possession. . . .
We can still become anonymous. . . .
Virginia Woolf
(1979, 397, 398)

Remember my little granite pail?
The handle of it was blue.
Think what’s got away in my life–
Was enough to carry me thru.
Lorine Niedecker
(2002, 96)

That’s it. One quatrain. Remember and think guide the meditation, remember addressed to a listener, think addressed to the self. The poem is syntactically eerie, ambiguous in meaning, and split in impact. It speaks from an adult voice, but the first two lines emerge as if from a child. One might imagine the first line seemingly more open, not fraught, somewhat casual, or wondering. The second two—or three—lines “signify” on the first—in these lines the speaker shows a deeper evaluation but possibly only to herself. The movement between little or miniaturized subjectivity and far stickier, complex thought produces an interplay between surface and depth with special meaning for a female poet. Already the poem has put a lot in a small space: the famous Niedecker “condensery.”

In this poem, granite means graniteware, a grainy pattern of speckled enameling on tin utensils, but the word also leaps to the stone that connotes hardness, steadfastness, solidity, monumentality. These terms envelop that little pail, so there is a frisson between the words little/pail and granite, and the pail becomes a monument to that lost time and to other losses. Thus the conventional memorializing functions of the lyric drop down into and around that pail. Neither marble nor granite eventually withstand the ravages of time, but poetry, those succinct words, prevails through storm and destruction—at least that’s what Horace and Shakespeare say about various hard materials. Sometimes this is believable. This poem functions like an epitaph, asking us to remember what is buried at its site. It is a lively rumination from the dead moment.

And that is only one of the poetry allusions in this quatrain. For the word carry contains poetic implication, given that the “carrying” literalizes the term metaphor itself. Metaphor, opened etymologically, indicates carrying over, carrying across—in metaphor meaning is transferred (though never totally) from a literal to a figurative site. So this poem simultaneously presents a literal pail lost forever, and a symbolic pail-action based on metaphor itself: “carrying thru,” by means of the poem and its language, everything that “got away” despite the loss of all the literal things.  But a pail could not carry all of that! So loss and presence are simultaneous, undecidable. Remember my little poem—the handle of it was blue.

I remember that pail, too, on a Far Rockaway beach. And this literal blueness evokes a large horizon, a strained hope, a moodiness. Blueness is evocative—why? In part because of the inverted syntax. “It had a blue handle” is all it would take, but handle provides neither convenient nor straightforward rhyme. The rhyme word blue got wiggled into its necessary position by Niedecker’s syntax. By means of that inversion blueness is highlighted as the intensity of childhood memory and adult desire. I take that blue handle to parallel Walter Benjamin’s “weak Messianic power”: the thin yet possible aura of a transformed reality within the difficult and unjust reality we know. “In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption” that one might, borrowing from Benjaminian concepts, also say is bound up with a sense of any time being Now-time, a time of intensity and plenitude (Benjamin 1969, 254). Niedecker’s and Oppen’s uses of the fragment, of the incomplete evoke Benjaminian “chips of Messianic time,” startling us in our “heterogeneous, empty time” (Benjamin 1969, 263, 261).

The second two lines of this ballad stanza contain a marked ambiguity, poised on a mark of punctuation—the dash at the end of the third line that makes you pause (Niedecker 2002, 96). The toy pail was formative, or at least memorable and amusing, but it is now gone. All those little artifacts that one had, the line says, all the little ribbons and doll clothes, the tattered books and Teddy bears, become traces that generate fantasy and yearning.

What is the ambiguity? One interpretation of the last two lines tends to a sense of fullness, of adequacy.  The pail, though it no longer exists, did carry the speaker, because it re-presents itself to her via poetry’s memorializing functions. A paradoxical dyadic mother-child picture is painted, where the child carries the pail, but when the person grows up, the pail (maternally) carries the adult. One depicts a simple act of purposeful playing; the other shows a need for containment and palpable support. The poem’s logic reveals that though the pail is no longer here, it was enough—adequate, sufficient. It “carried me thru.” [1]

Yet the alternative and simultaneously emerging interpretation of the final two lines tends to a jaunty, devastating assessment of inadequacy. If I had all the things that got away, things summarized in the image of the pail, I would have made it,;I’d have been carried through all the times bad and good. But the pail is lost, gone, a symbol of all the things I had but also lost. Things (not just physical things, but every thing) did “get away”; I didn’t get carried; I was not supported in my need. The two readings hinge between the issues of deprivation/ adequacy; of the missing/ of the available; of being carried or not being carried.

Why is this a ballad stanza? Because ballads are implacable: they deal with what has happened, what simply is. Ballads say It Is. “The handle of it was blue.”  Niedecker’s ballad joins the deictic pointing of the first two lines to the inferences about loss, adequacy, sufficiency, insufficiency, ambiguous in the second two lines. There are two kinds of pointing: one to a simple object, the other to a richly complicated double emotion. Was it enough? Was it not enough? The finger pointing emerges in (or as) the dash between the third and fourth lines. This volta pivots the poem in an otherwise grammatically unified statement. If the dash were not there, the sentence would not be abruptly interrupted. And a reader would not be forced to consider the two opposite perspectives on the granite pail: what I lost carried me thru despite its being lost; and what I lost did not carry me thru—I experienced deep loss.

There’s a certain ice-blue Slant
of messianic light
that pressures. Here or absent?
Such words, really Any words,
incite Conceptual

The Blueness of her handled pail
arcs between Extremes.
Hope or burden, radiance or Stone?
Either? Could be
Neither fully holds or words
the Sum of all that Seems.

Lorine Niedecker, an American woman poet, born in 1903, lived most of her sixty-seven years in rural Wisconsin at the confluence of a lake and a river, in a small cabin like those that her father, then she, managed for vacationing fishermen. She was married twice– very briefly in her late twenties and in the last seven years of her life–but she was more deeply marked by her bonds to her parents and to Louis Zukofsky. She died in 1970. Her life was modest; her poems, mainly, short; her friendships among some literary folks—Zukofsky and Cid Corman—and some neighbors (Gail and Bonnie Roub) were few, but they nurtured her intent and elegant working mainly in the objectivist poetics within modernism. During her life her work was published only by small presses. She is barely anthologized.[2] She made no obvious literary career.

This could be told as a narrative of female pathos, victimization by literature or its representatives. What alters that story is a feminist emphasis on the agency of writers, on the choices (even among narrow options, even favoring self-erasure) that allow a person to construct an oeuvre. In her late and unfinished essay “Anon,” Woolf argues that “Anonymity” was a great possession of the past, giving us ballads, songs, implacable attitudes, nonegoistic subjectivities, frankness, and abilities to articulate communal values. The notion of anonymity saturated Niedecker’s attitude toward the poetic career. She worked to claim the non-elite, nonhegemonic literary career (anonymity, erasure, loss) as a cultural identity: she will return to the folk with whom she identified. This is a gesture emerging from her self-contained class location and her loosely Popular Front politics. Indeed, she embraced, worked toward, and improvised playfully on the condition of anonymity as a gesture of career building, maintaining the position of Anon. in several ways.[3]

Being female is not a transcultural absolute, though it is still a marked position. Femaleness always plays itself out in specific historical and social conditions and in relation to other social markers. For Niedecker one such marker was her social class or, more accurately, her multiple class facets—as a person from a formerly comfortable, property-owning family, as a poorish, semirural person holding mainly low-level jobs, as an intellectual poet responding to at least three very specific poetic traditions (folk, surrealist, and objectivist), and as a political radical making a left critique of American culture and society.  She was visually disabled as well, and she had spent a good part of her life involved with her impaired mother (deaf, with her “big blind ears” [Niedecker 2002, 107, 174]). The resistances Niedecker makes in her poetry involve her critical discomfort with gender norms, class assumptions, and Americanist ideology as she lives out her intense marginality to a dominant culture of materialism, bellicosity, bigness/bestness, and fame developed in the postwar period. These resistances play themselves out not only thematically but in her choices of genre: Mother Goose rhymes, ballads, and haiku/renga. She may seem to seek a minority, a littleness, a miniature scale almost unthinkable, especially for a female writer who can be culturally coded as minor no matter what genre she chooses, but especially if she chooses tiny-looking and folk forms. Many of the assumptions in poetics made by Niedecker distance her poetry from the glut and fattiness of mainstream poetries. Because of the little magazines and presses in which she appeared, the nonhegemonic “objectivist” cohort with which she mainly affiliated, and the subtle smallness of the work, Niedecker has had no particular impact until quite recently, with work by Jenny Penberthy and others (Niedecker 2002, 1993; Penberthy 1996).

In addition, her loyal, marked friendship with Louis Zukofsky and his family was part of her formation that had been interpreted to tell a familiar master-disciple story. Zukofsky’s son Paul (the well-known violinist) figures in Niedecker’s imagination as a sibling artist, or even as an imaginary son, for the complexities of affiliation, some filial piety, some love longing carefully set aside, and continuous artistic camaraderie between Niedecker and Louis Zukofsky  make one of the decisive stories of her formation, and arguably his as well.[4] Her poetic development was interdependent with his colleagueship, but she also assumed the pose of loyal disciple as a strategy, using a demeanor of intentional modesty while articulating her own cultural attitudes and practices.[5]

A striking “Mother Goose” work—the first stanzas chanted like a jump-rope rhyme—is Niedecker’s limpid feminist poem about female erasure and underknown foremothers, about a historical woman at the triple crossroads between anonymity, erasure, and renown:

Who was Mary Shelley?
What was her name
before she married?

She eloped with this Shelley
she rode a donkey
till the donkey had to be carried.

(Niedecker 2002, 212)

Along with folk wit about the donkey where a woman just wore that animal out, this poem connects to a love motif (“Who is Sylvia?”), a familiar site for female figures in the lyric tradition. The love plot erases the character’s life as it erases her future–the poem ends “She bore a child// Who died/ and yet another child/ who died” (Niedecker 2002, 213). The poem is deliberately terse, laconic, incomplete, filled with loose ends; it anatomizes the achievements and losses of a woman whom Niedecker saw as virtually missing to literature, despite her power, as the author of Frankenstein was in the 1940s to the1970s, before feminist scholarship. This oblique allegory of female cultural power and virtual anonymity is motivic for Niedecker.

In a similar spirit of anonymity, Niedecker dealt with a young poet who cited an Al Millen story about mowing a carp while cutting very swampy grass. First, Niedecker made him take his dedication to them off his poem, feeling exposed that they have been mentioned, especially in a poem she felt was “indecent” and perhaps expressionistic and histrionic with its blood and guts. She would not lend her name to tones and poetic modes that she felt were melodramatic.  But then she teased Corman, “Well, someday the world may hear someone say ‘Here is where the husband of Lorine Niedecker mowed a carp'” (Niedecker 1986, 214-15). This comment shows a real investment in the possibility of her fame—but masked by concerning her husband’s story (not one she told) and the erased poem of an unknown youth (not one of hers).

Anonymity for Niedecker may be construed in both gender and class terms. She always accepted herself as a populist, a member of the populace, the vox populi.

The clothesline post is set
yet no totem-carvings distinguish the Niedecker tribe
from the rest; every seventh day they wash:
worship sun; fear rain, their neighbors’ eyes;
raise their hands from ground to sky,
and hang or fall by the whiteness of their all.

(Niedecker 2002, 100)

It is a “minor” subject—women’s work, and people’s commonplaces, including cunning commentary on how primitive religion manifests today in social uniformity, in “white” tribes that worship conformity. ALL, an iconic washday detergent, is evoked, as if its racialized and commodified totalities could succor us (Niedecker 2002, 100).

Yet her relationship to the people is never without the judgment of an outsider: she is inside in social class yet outside by virtue of her artistic production. Niedecker proofread for Hoard’s Dairyman (from 1944 to 1950), and when her eyes went bad, she became a cleaning woman from 1957 to 1963 at the Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital. This doubled position, central to the social and cultural meaning of the writer as woman, is manifested in the following anecdote from 1958: when hired as a member of the hospital housekeeping staff, she concealed from her supervisors and fellow workers her copy of Art News Annual:

I think they know they have a cleaning woman
who is a little different from the usual, but it
wouldn’t do the slightest good to show them
how different. (Niedecker 1993, 244)

They would not understand, and she says, all she would have been doing in her self-revelation is “getting uselessly involved just for the sake of a moment of less loneliness.” Part of/Far from the working class, part of/far from the middle-class perspective on a domestic worker, she is also an intellectual carefully choosing her audience, unwilling to indulge in needless rear-guard explanations and self-justifications that would involve the packaging of her personality. Her anonymity was principled; it was a choice. My argument echoes Adrienne Rich’s essay on Dickinson–she chose her own terms, made her own psychic “economies” in order to do her work (Rich 1979, 160).

Although Niedecker may have been figuratively lonely, she was not literally isolated. I was astonished, in visiting Niedecker’s one-and-a-half room cabin outside of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, to discover that she lived year-round in a summer colony. The cabins are packed along the two sides of a road on the narrow peninsula, and she was unbelievably close, in a physical sense, to her neighbors’ houses.

Her poverty, however, was a condition. Cold drafts through wall holes, old wash dresses, a rivered lake that floods and leaves stink and mess behind, a “soak-heavy rug” appear in her poems; they are not props. Subsistence. Eking: these are some of Niedecker’s prime subjects. She does speak from “nature” as a pastoral trope (a literary space) but in nature as a material condition—that is, inside subsistence. Spending her life, she has chosen poetry; the recurrent floods have chosen her. In one of her fiercest poems, brilliantly depressed, she declares (merging with a maternal voice): “I’ve spent my life on nothing”—poetry and poverties, poverties of class and gender intermixed.

I’m pillowed and padded, pale and puffing

lifting household stuffing—

carpets, dishes

benches, fishes

I’ve spent my life in nothing.

(Niedecker 2002, 147-48)

“On nothing”: on kinds of work that reduce to zero, poetry, and housework; and “in nothing”—in a place and situation (poor land, strained relationships) that reduce one’s status to nothing. Even the furies that pursue her are “nothing” insects, mosquitoes, or mites. I take this poem as an indicator of the consciousness of her choice of small scale—because of the rage that choice can sometimes induce.

In both class and gender this is a poet for whom material cares were palpable. She, or her persona, makes barbed political observations about class and the construction of leisure:

We know him–Law and Order League–
fishing from our dock,
testified against the pickets
at the plant–owns stock.

There he sits and fishes
stiff as if a stork
brought him, never sprang from work—
a sport.

(Niedecker 2002, 99)

A piercing pun on sport, certainly. Niedecker understood work and its costs, sexuality and its; understood right-wing rigidities and the dangers of their apparently comic pretense.

Indeed “Poet’s Work,” a poem framing her poetics, wittily uses the metaphor of laboring and working-class tragedy: the layoff.


advised me:

Learn a trade


I learned

to sit at desk

and condense


No layoff

from this


(Niedecker 2002, 194)

When her grandfather says “learn a trade,” her choice is a playful distortion of his intention to encourage her to master a marketable skill or craft. For instead of learning a trade, she makes a trade, trading his intention for hers–poetry. Then she produces a factory superior to his: “no layoff/ from this/ condensery.”  Niedecker’s “condensery” poetics may well be a bilingual pun on Pound’s influential injunction in The ABC of Reading: that “Dichten=condensare,” or, to write poetry is synonymous with the imperative infinitive to concentrate/ compress/ condense (Pound1960, 36). Niedecker’s “Poet’s Work” or “trade” (that is, Dichten, with the further pun on “diction”) is boiling down, paring down in the “condensery.”  To Corman, Niedecker wrote about the tension she felt between plenitude and compression: “You and Jonathan Williams have thrown off the shackles of the sentence and the wide melody. For me the sentence lies in wait—all those prepositions and connectives—like an early spring flood. A good thing my follow-up feeling has always been condense, condense” (Niedecker 1986, 33). This statement shows the temptations of excess and emphasizes the corrective discipline of the condensery. This is a further elucidation of her choice of scale: the haiku-lyric, the miniature may even offer its own barbed commentary on monstrous, overweening cultural ambitions. On the other hand, as with many women writers in modernism, the very humility is implosive. An overweening humility, we might call it.

Niedecker also made barbed comments about gender institutions. She resists beauty, construed as a trap for women, for females in general, for herself—the critique of beauty as a part of both general ideology and poetic ideology makes her refuse the romantic lyric and its rhetorics of transcendence. Her refusal is anatomized in a balladlike work of intense feminist critique.

I rose from marsh mud,

algae, equisetum, willows,

sweet green, noisy

birds and frogs

to see her wed in the rich

rich silence of the church,

the little white slave-girl

in her diamond fronds.

In aisle and arch

the satin secret collects.

United for life to serve

silver. Possessed.

(Niedecker 2002, 170)

This negative version of the happy ending of romance for both women and men critiques normative feminine commonplaces and female goals; the bride is “the little white slave-girl.” The silver service (punningly, for Oneida was a silver company) is an appropriate bourgeois wedding present for the couple, but “United for life to serve/silver. Possessed” shows the newlyweds possessed by their possessions, in marital jail, enslaved by propriety and property.

In contrast, Niedecker, like a mummer or “green man,” decks herself with the “noisy birds and frogs” and greenery of her swamp. The “rising” of stanza one makes a devastating intellectual pun on Darwinian evolution (mud to algae to flowerless seedless plants to more complex plants), where churchgoing civilization is shown ironically lower on the evolutionary scale. Its materialism makes meaningless and crude display, while natural materiality is integrative and generative. This poem is about the “ascent” of the active subject “I.” She criticizes contemporary materialism in its impact on both genders and criticizes marriage as an institution, in which man possesses woman and both are possessed by the things they own. Niedecker’s contemptuous pity for, and distance from, these values is very plain. A similar comment occurs in a blues poem in which the female-enforced culture of materialism is deplored by means of the catchy judgment “fads” rhyming with “woman and those ‘buy! buy!’/ technicolor ads”  (Niedecker 2002,165). Another poem reminds us that to be alone is “hard” but at least there is “no (TV) gun/ no more coats than one// no hair lightener/ Sweetheart of the whiter// walls” (Niedecker 2002, 229-230).

Niedecker’s early “Wasted Energy” (1922) appeared in her high school yearbook (Niedecker 2002, 368). This piece of witty verse concerns language, gender and class:

When Tom, Dick and Phil are conversing,

The effect is entirely unique,

We can’t quite make out what they’re talking about

But we gather it’s Sheba or Sheik.


It’s amazingly queer, but from all sides we hear

Of the “crooks” and “tough birds” in our town,

Of “wild women,” of “guys,” many “I wonder why’s,”

“Juicy” tales and requests to “pipe down.”

(Niedecker 2002, 368))

This is a folklorist’s collection of slang phrases in which the prancing poet seems to mock her own pretensions to verse. The title suggests that making rhymes is worthless because all one really needs to get along is to “hand people lines.” Not, of course, lines of verse but the lines of formulaic slang responses, bromides and turns of phrase that blur distinctions and precisions. She “tells Tom of the quake that made Mexico shake”; his response is a standard line “‘Well, ain’t that the berries?’ quotes he.”

But in that “line” that is popular, Niedecker conceals allusions to that “line” that is seductive.  For slang seems to be a medium involved with stories of sexuality: Sheba or Sheik. So when Niedecker distances herself from yet collects this language, she is setting herself at a class and gender distance from her peers, unwilling to be absorbed into the same joshing easygoing formulas. She answers by encircling this language with her own “lines,” a poetic practice of scrupulous segmentivity.

Her strategies grew more subtle, but the same verve, energy and outrageous claims for and about “the people” appear in her cold war poem, “In the great snowfall before the bomb . . .”  This important poem captures her difference from those among whom she lives as if in disguise (“I was Blondie”), yet tries to understand the energy that she admires in

“the folk from whom all poetry flows /  and dreadfully much else”(Niedecker 2002, 142-43). Niedecker proposes a distinct political critique of the easy efficacies of postwar culture, of the bellicose power of the bomb, of the banal commodities that we trust. Some of the “much else” may be glossed by another of Niedecker’s piercing epigrams: “Beautiful girl–/pushes food onto her fork/ with her fingers–/ will throw the switches/ of deadly rockets?” (Niedecker 2002, 185) The plethoras of plenty and the smug pride of gender are joined to unthinking political destructiveness. These poems propose a judgmental alienation from yet love for the People, with whom her fate—in the fact of the bomb—is inextricably intertwined in the post-Hiroshima-Nagasaki era. “In the great snowfall” depicts aggression, posturing, slavish relations to popular culture anatomized in a series of puns and homonyms (“rehashed radio barbs” to “barbarous”; “hirelings” to “higher-ups”). The people have uncritical but bitter relations to power, whether office politics or beyond. Insofar as their violence, political sleaziness, and banal language are also “folksy,” one must come to terms with this dreadful “folk” who are, at the same time threatened by international politics far beyond their control.  Niedecker appropriates their language in a deliberate, but contained moment, using the em of “right down among em,” while judging her choice in the word down.

The double position of the word poetry in “In the great snowfall. . .” is one of its most striking features. “Poetry” comes from the people’s vitality and their aggression, their snide, snappy, clichéd language, emerging from mass and folk cultures. “Poetry” conversely is made by the quiet, solitary Niedecker “sitting” for months on a few lines; Niedecker is the broody hen hatching the potential of a folk whose manner she finds both dreadful and admirable. Her resistance takes the shape of anonymity; she hides her vocation for its sake, and for hers, the better to observe and conserve. The question in the bemused last stanza is unanswerable: “What would they say if they knew/ I sit for two months on six lines/ of poetry?”  The quiet rhyme of “knew” and “two” functions to isolate and make superfluous the latter lines of the poem—the reference to her own slow, considered poetic practice.

In another poem her late-in-life second marriage is set eerily in two bleak contexts: for warmth and companionship “at the close” of an individual life and simultaneously, to have “someone” “in the world’s black night” during an era of political fear and despair—the cold war era, registered as the poise of potential, mutual destruction.[6] “I hid with him/ from the long range guns” (Niedecker 2002, 228). The claustrophobic description, with its witty use of page space to define head and foot,  “We lay leg/ in the cupboard, head/ in closet” is certainly about the (tragicomic) narrowness of a marriage, possibly about a compensatory snugness, but certainly about the prissy domesticities of shelters that one pretends are adequate in the face of geopolitical fears no less compelling for being distant and inchoate. “‘Shelter'” is another such poem, which alludes to the American 1950s hysteria for bomb-“shelters”—note Niedecker’s mocking quotation marks in the title (Niedecker 2002, 246). Pensively she alludes to the death of even the outlying regions of earth, “beyond/ the main atrocities.” True to her watery place, she imagines the destabilization of her piece of earth and makes an ironic commentary on “property” in apocalypse.

In her resistance to commonplace values, Niedecker asks again and again what our power and possessions really cost, and struggles with her troubled ownership of “debts/ and two small houses,” and her larger ownership of her own poverty and poetry: “Property is poverty/ I’ve foreclosed. I own again// these walls thin/ as the back/ of my writing tablet” (Niedecker 2002, 157-58, 194-195). Her ethical adhesion to clarity of rendering is linked to an ethics of the subjectivity produced in the words. She worries that her new plumbing—a luxury, she insists—might disturb the old “plumbing,” making her neglect the straight Thoreauvian (plumb) line of “principles. In her little poem—regretful, wry, Horatian–about the pump, plumbing for principles with the lead mark is a form of clarity. Niedecker nonetheless (eventually) succumbs to modernizing, giving up her outside pump (once visible by her cabin). And the poem consists mainly in a catalogue of plumberie: “faucet   shower/ heater   valve/  ring seal  service// cost to my little/ humming/ water/ bird.” The stanza break combined with the line break makes one wonder whether the phrase is “service cost” or a more ambiguous “service [of plumbing apparatuses]” which come at a high “cost to my little/ humming/ water/ bird” –the “sure pump,”  of “my pres-/sure pump” in the dedication, perhaps the spirit of her poetry (Niedecker 2002, 201).

Niedecker’s resistance to plenty, while driven by necessity, also defines her aesthetic and her moral sensibilities. Two abstemious genres specially mark this: haiku and ballad/nursery rhyme. What does it mean for an insulated American woman, on a watery island, to assimilate the influence of the Japanese writer Basho to the degree that she did? There are several allusions to him (Niedecker 2002, 225-226, 204, 270, in two poems) in which she admits “Basho/ on my mind,” and it is clear that she knew of haiku from early in her career (Niedecker 2002, 226).[7] Even in the first years of her correspondence with Corman, she already had haiku on the bookshelf she dubbed her “immortal cupboard,” and she appreciated Corman’s exemplary translations of Basho (1968). As well as constructing many poems with the succinct obliqueness of the haiku, she titled a collection “In Exchange for Haiku.”

To choose a foreign marker for this contained, oblique mode (when there was already a long imagist tradition of Anglophone work) is in part to deny one’s own belatedness, declaring Basho her source, not Pound, Williams, or H.D.  Niedecker finds comrades in an international style that transcends barriers of language and ethnicity, an international style that constructs a formal answer to Bigness. One can never, of course, perfectly mimic the force and the tradition of Japanese haiku in American poetries. But using that tradition marks certain desires. Niedecker plays renga—linked haiku—with herself, imaginatively creating a community; in Japanese practice the poems are written with others at a ritualized writing party. The form is quite austere, brief, subtle, working by indirection, inference, juxtaposition, and hint. In American poetries, haikulike objects have been used to make emphatically antirhetorical claims. Ever since Pound’s imagist poetics, the desire for the presentational, restrained, abstemious, antimoralizing Image always bespeaks a desire to separate some essence of poetry from packaging, poeticisms, and ornamentation.

Haiku seems to have been Niedecker’s means to a commentary so buried, so deeply embedded in apparently artless word choice, line break, and tone that one must tune in to a very subtle understatement. The facade of inability, artlessness, and the almost unspoken hint are very feminine strategies; her haiku furthermore work as gifts on a small personal scale. Haiku are part of a poetics of gift exchange that she constructed with both Zukofsky and Corman. Thus she made a familial economy of affiliation that rejects the feedback loop of impersonal publication, prizewinning poetry and fame. She wrote to Charles Reznikoff, “Reading Inscriptions: 1944-56 I often feel a kinship between us in the short poem. And if you are my brother-in-poetry then we have Chinese and Japanese brothers. But I have a great deal of practicing to do–of quiet insight—before I can enter such a good family.” [8] The implosions of humility in this letter are as striking as its principled internationalism.  In addition, from a class perspective the lack of high poetic language (in Anglophone haiku) infuses dailiness and life as it is lived with the possibility of poetry.

“My Life by Water” draws on the radical condensations of haiku; this work may be thought of as an elaboration of the “sound of water/water sound” of Basho’s great haiku about the frog jumping into the pond (Niedecker 2002, 237-238). And as “watersound,” the word by in the title might mean next to—as Niedecker spent her life in the flood-prone spillway “a section of low land on the Rock River where it empties into Lake Koshkonong” (Dent, ed.1983, 36).  But by might at the same time open much-debated questions of authorship and point of view. Could this really be the “life” of someone, her biography, whose author is water? The angry, hapless Keats epitaph, also a trope on anonymity and fame, reverberates: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” (Keats 2002, xxxii). With by, Niedecker claims the doubled position of water and author. Water surrounds her as amniotic medium and author of herself; she writes the “water borne” or water-related aspects of her life. The fluidity of boundary between self and setting is a theme: she sees boats “pointed toward/ my shore” or may herself be the “one boat” that  “two” (her parents) “pointed” there.

Nine intensely compressed three-line stanzas are framed by two dashes, so the whole poem is caught (dammed) between the words “My life/ by water” and “Water.” She catalogues animals: frog, muskrats and rabbits, whose activities are in some continuum with human and other forms inhabiting the same terrain. Either a frog or a cold board makes a cracking noise. Muskrats create “wild green/ arts and letters,” a diploma of nature, from, or out of the “doors,” that separate us from the out-of-doors. The “lettuce” nibbled by the rabbits chimes pointedly with our phrase for the humanities as a discipline: letters/ lettuce. Puns and line flow  communicate intersubjectivity and webbed relations.

The little stanzas climax in a series of kenninglike combinations. The kennings birdstart or wingdrip remove the transparency and limpidity of nature; the compound neologisms construct linguistic possession without possessiveness, sound ebbing in the loosening of the hyphenated “weed-drift.” She is mothered by, nourished by the place. Niedecker need not search for anything beyond the “here” in which (and much is through the ear in her work) one can “hear.”  With the ear she tempers the domination of the “eye” and scopic practices. The poet sustains an attitude of wonder and readiness at the quirky holiness of the ordinary. The universe is nondualistic—both awkward and beautiful.

If this poem is (auto)biography, it also constitutes her poetics: a poetics of rumination, meditation, circling around, and “reflection.” “The basis is direct and clear—what has been seen or heard –but,” stated Niedecker, “something gets in, overlays all that to make a state of consciousness.” There is an “awareness of everything influencing everything,” with networks of linkages and not the “hard, clear image” only.[9] But this is a poem that also tracks a political attitude: how to have the environment as a source without imposing ownership. Possessions (as things, pots, clothes, appliances) and possession (as mediumship, shamanistic behaviors, poetic transcendence, vatic or bardic claims) are both resisted in Niedecker’s work.

The title of her first collection New Goose (1946), with its main allusion to Mother Goose, makes statements worth hearing from a gender and class perspective.  Mother Goose, child rhymes, and folk melodies are a series of palimpsests of different origins and different voices—some with political allusions—that have “somehow” gotten redacted together. The forceful, often trochaic rhythms  (Barber, barber, shave a pig),  and proverbial solidity (Some like it hot; some like it cold), the highlighting of a few dialogic daily objects (curds and whey, fat and lean), the luminous melodic lines, yet undecipherable density of allusion, all together provide models for Niedecker, not only of stylistic choices but of the precise nature of her ambition. New Goose, as a first-book title, is a serious declaration of intent, suffused with a brisk, humbling wit (“silly goose”) that comments on the apparent smallness but folk fullness of the scheme. Moreover, the title may conceal a serious critical project.

The dust jacket copy of the book contains four sentences, the first two of special interest for a critique. It is not clear whether Niedecker wrote these words, whether they were based on her statements to the publisher, or whether she approved of the statements, but they are a significant datum: “She speaks and sings against all that’s predatory in ‘Mother Goose.’ Whatever in it is still to be touched or felt she recreates for people today to feel and touch in her—their—own way.” Predatory—plundering, pillaging, victimizing, destroying others for one’s own gain—all of these ideas suggest class and power relations in the “real” Mother Goose: the kings and queens, the taunted children. Indeed, New Goose proposes a number of different subjectivities; the poems are spoken by sharecropper, Stalingrad fighter, fishermen, a variety of country people (men and women), and cite approvingly Black Hawk who “held: In reason/ land cannot be sold” (Niedecker 2002, 99).  The poems are not all, or even mainly written from the point of view of the artist or an observer of others. She puts the poems about writing amid the voices she has created for the people. In addition, the jacket statement says she does not prescribe a way (“her way”) to assimilate this work, but equalizes and fuses “her—their—own way.”

Niedecker is the woman who “sings at the top of [her] voice when folky records are being played on the phonograph”  and who “must have that blues book you speak of.”[10] She wrote, joshingly (to Zukofsky), “Mebbe I shdn’t ever have gone to NY to meet the real writer [i.e. Zukofsky] but shd. have stayed in my little country patch and written country ballads to be sung with a geetar!” (Niedecker 2002, 408).  New Goose, she states,

is based on the folk—and a desire to get down direct speech (Williams influence and here was my mother, daughter of the rhyming, happy grandfather mentioned above, speaking whole chunks of down-to-earth (o very earthy) magic, descendent, for sure of Mother Goose  (I her daughter, sits and floats, you know).

(Dent ed. 1983, 36)

She is a writer whose saturation in language was initiated by her maternal grandfather “who somehow had got hold of nursery and folk rhymes to entrance me.”  If her mother is “a descendent for sure of Mother Goose,” then no reason why the child of such a mother could not be a “new goose”—enfranchised by maternal earthiness and paternal charms. The sense of descent and parenting is one that,  I have shown before, is an enabling feature of the female artist who stands in a triangular plot of nurturance that repossesses and transforms oedipalization, transposing the undervalued arts of the parents into those channels wherein they can be culturally assimilated (DuPlessis 1985). In Niedecker, however, one loses any sentimentality with which this genealogical narrative could be invested because all three “parents” are depicted as resisting her vocation.

Many of Niedecker’s poems have a nursery rhyme sound: the poem beginning “Missus Dorra/ came to town” (Niedecker 2002, 88); “Petrou his name was sorrow” (Niedecker 2002, 89) or the insoucience and bitterness of “Half past endive, quarter to beets,/ seven milks, ten cents cheese,/ lost, our land, forever” (Niedecker 2002, 111). Her political poem “1937” contrasts hope blooming in the Spanish republican struggle with a dim and depression-laden “Here”: “Here we last,/ lilacs, vacant lots,/ taxes, no work,/ debts, the wind widens/ the grass. / In the old house/ the clocks are dead,/ past dead” (Niedecker 2002, 120 and 164). The diction is telegraphic Mother Goose; it criticizes the predatory. The folk origin is consciously articulated, knowing, witty: she teasingly says to Zukofsky–“time for BP [her mother] to write/ me a poem” (Niedecker 1993, 159). Whether she assimilates the Goose of childhood rhymes, the native ballads, proverbs, or even the blues, Niedecker chose her literary means as a political stance. Echoes of, allusions to, appropriation of the sounds, rhythms, patterns of nursery rhymes abound in Niedecker’s work, not to speak of other kinds of allusions, such as titling a poem “Nursery Rhyme” with the dedication “as I nurse my pump” (Niedecker 2002, 285).

Even more poems draw on the ballad. [11] Certain elements of the ballad might have had a particular intellectual and emotional appeal to Niedecker. For one, there is little of the personally expressive “I” in them, appealing to her coolness to conventional subjectivity. Her “I” is often an observer of her/ his own fate in a subjectivity mixing first-person experience, third-person emotion. They often speak from an implied speaker who hasn’t a lot of social power at the moment of the song—except the power of the song (like Mary Hamilton in the old ballad). Then there is an interesting stylistic relation between imagist/objectivist tactics of selection, condensation and juxtaposition and ballad tactics of “leaping” and “lingering” (Gummere 1907, 91).[12] Leaping involves a springing forward, the omission of details, the overlooking of connective and explanatory materials, the lack of causality, the disregard of elaborate narratives of time and place. Like the anti-rhetorical poetics of imagism, the ballad works by the caveat against excessive words, by condensation and intentness of the framing of significant images, by a “terse narrativity” (Stewart 1990, 148). By means of the “leaping” and “lingering,” ballads move with buried, compacted affect. They run on inference. Ballads leap between materials, do not back and fill, and they override the claims of ego.

Even more notable is the ideology of the ballad in relation to Niedecker’s work. Traditional and literary ballads are good for expressing the implacability of things that happen, especially in personal relations involving grief, violent emotions, or tragic events that one could not prevent—perhaps because one was always already politically disenfranchised. Most ballads can be summed up as something dreadful happened, something driven by a fatedness that cannot be stopped—or even explained. It just is. Sometimes this fatedness is actually very bad politics, like the politics of racism in Gwendolyn Brooks’s and Sterling Brown’s ballads; fate there is driven by an often unnamed but deeply represented white racism, but it might as well be fate in its dreadful, unstoppable effects. Sometimes the fatedness involves gender assumptions (i.e. sexual politics), as in Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” The ideology of the ballad form creates an ethical witness about political power, and the ballad can engineer a partial reversal of this situation, because by witness, by song, one reclaims cultural (inspirational and, in rarer cases, political) power. The tension between fate and politics gives a dialectical edge in the ballad.

Actions have little background or motivation; their political and social materials are absolutized, not analyzed. Ballads do not tell you why something happened in a cause-and- effect sense (why did Lord Randall’s lover poison him? exactly why did Sir Patrick Spens get sent off when the king knew he would have to sail on a dangerous, winter ocean?). Rather, ballads offer images that it happened—eels in frying pan; courtly, fashionable shoes floating on salt water. One rarely hears answers to the question “Why?” But (in part as a deflected substitute, in part as a memorializing of the intensities of the event) one hears many answers to the question “How?” So ballads spotlight circumstantialities—names, places, times, colors of dresses—but leave motivation, psychology, and rationales totally in shadow. We get, in ballads, the facts and the effects, not the causes. This gives a sense of inevitability, implacability, an ajudgmental stance, or a judgment very oblique and almost affectless.

The ballad therefore has the possibility of a class figuration. It can be used by, or can sing of, the relatively powerless, those who, for reasons of positionality (woman to cruel man; man to vampish woman; commander to king; pregnant lady-in-waiting to court; laborer to exploitative boss; black person to white person) have a minimum of choice or agency, or those who for similar reasons wish to sing of that divestment of agency. Ballads condense and focus areas of emotion and social pain, yet they are rather uncomplaining. Ballads are sometimes like epitaphs and revenants at once—telling you what social forces are “buried” at a site and what ghosts have been created—the ballads of Sterling Brown are like this. The ballad’s implacability is the freezing of divested social agency into fate. Yet given the tradition of the protest song that also evokes the ballad mode, this kind of poem can also be used to protest a sense of plunder and being ripped off; people want social agency; they want their politics to be heard and their understandings to matter. Thus the ballad can also express the heating up of a sense of disenfranchised social agency into political outrage.

Or the ballad can exercise a satisfaction at the ending of one particular political outrage.

Laval, Pomeret, Petain

all three came to an end.

Bourdet, Bonnet, Daladier

so did they.

They tried each other

they sold out their brother

the people of France.

Let’s practice your dance.

(Niedecker 2002, 144)

We know that certain “nursery rhymes” were old political jingles of oppositional mockery and carnivalesque puncturing of authority. This is a new goose aspiring to the same social function in a satisfied antifascist statement.

A balladlike poem in which powerlessness claims a desperate hope to continue to impose is Niedecker’s “Old Mother. . ..” This poem cites her mother’s uncanny last words, exhorting her daughter to compulsive female drudgery.

“It’s a long day since last night.

Give me space. I need

floors. Wash the floors, Lorine!–

wash clothes! Weed!”

(Niedecker 2002, 149)

In this hallucinatory poem of final panic, final orders, Niedecker provides a subtle opposition between floor and earth; earth indicates the fear of death and burial; floors are domestic order and containment. The apposition of “Death from the heart,/ a thimble in her purse” may be said simply to connect two details, or more suggestively to make the second phrase provide metonymic comment on the first.  Niedecker offers a picture of her mother’s reductiveness and the almost empty bit of love.

Another notable ballad of the family living under the sign of “water” sums up her father’s life and extracts a blessing from her father despite his unfulfilled desire that she improve her life and work in a bank. Three of the five stanzas of the poem spin past the life on water of her father: “out of flood”—like a kind of creation myth—”came his wood, dog,/ woman, lost her, daughter—/prologue// to planting trees,” which he still fertilizes with carp (Niedecker 2002, 169-170). The latter two stanzas define her father’s desire for her vocation:

To bankers on high land

he opened his wine tank.

He wished his only daughter

to work in the bank

(Niedecker 2002, 170)

Again, as with the poems to grandfather and one of the poems to mother, their instructions for her vocation are definitive and in conflict with her real choice. In each instance each of these figures without their knowing, offered her a truer gift, “a source,” in a fascinating feminine rhyme at closure, “to sustain her–/a weedy speech,/ a marshy retainer” (Niedecker 2002, 170).

That last word is one of Niedecker’s semantic images. This term offers a way of noticing how meaning is constructed from word choices that seem “artless” or virtually without metaphor, but that travel laterally across a dictionary definition, assimilating all definitions to the poem. Retainer—in apposition to “speech” or oral language—is a richly allusive word involving some thing or person she is able to keep or hold in her possession, keep in a particular place, keep in mind, or remember, or hire for a fee. The first three meanings of the language suggests the memorializing functions of poetry and the language’s status as Niedecker’s most precious (sustaining) possession, her source—which is, of course, water welling up, and buoying her up. The financial meanings of that word allude back to the narrative of deals and banks and the family’s poverty and financial losses. Language that works as a financial allusion, as hireling, as retainer—a “trusted servant or companion”–but as well alludes to a relationship in which she is held or bound evokes the material ground of poverty and failure, the actual cost of her father’s life choices. Marshland is also notably unstable. Therefore it needs a “retaining wall” or retainer, someone who holds it, and by holding it—the whole life by water—holds and retains herself and her speech, no matter how wayward and weedy. The memorializing, storehouse functions of poetry are again subtly evoked. As muses, these parents are disgruntled, almost inadequate; the mixture of pride and disability is so deeply inwoven as to be inextricable. Niedecker puts these summary words in her mother’s mouth:

I’ve wasted my whole life in water.

My man’s got nothing but leaky boats.

My daughter, writer, sits and floats.

(Niedecker 2002, 107)

Here the whole family is washing away, unanchored, dependent on water and yet victimized by it. The boats-floats rhyme suggests the connection of daughter to father and their greater acceptance of cycles of water. Yet from the ungiving, deaf and angry mother, Niedecker has fictionally extracted the word writer to allude to herself.

The intensity and seriousness with which she debated anonymity vs. fame can be measured by an early poem, appearing in a sequence called “New Goose.”

She had tumult of the brain

and I had rats in the rain

and she and I and the furlined man

were out for gain.

(Niedecker 2002, 94)

What indeed can that startling poem mean, arranging its poets in a phalanx, even, as part of a strange robber gang, and including Niedecker among Dickinson and Zukofsky. “Out for gain”! What is the gain when in the same sequence a pendulum shine outshines her beauty; her coat is “thread-bare” and “our land” is “lost.” It can only be fame—Fama—poetry, and the intense work of making a name for oneself—a name that is deeply, ethically committed to its own anonymity and disappearance: from the folk, into the folk.

Scuttle up the workshop,

settle down the dew,

I’ll tell you what my name is

when we’ve made the world new.[13]

(Niedecker 2002, 87)

Her anonymity is then a utopian gamble; she will have a name when poetic changes (Pound’s “make it new”) and social and political changes—even unto revolution—begin to transform the class and gender materials that she spent a lifetime analyzing in pretended simplicity and principled anonymity.

Bibliography of works cited in or necessary to this essay

  • Bold, Alan. The Ballad. London: Methuen, 1979.
  • Breslin, Glenna. “Lorine Niedecker: Composing a Life.” In Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography, and Gender, ed. Susan Groag Bell and Marilyn Yalom. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990: 141-153.
  • Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Thomas H. Johnson, ed. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1960.
  • Gerould, Gordon Hall. The Ballad of Tradition. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1932.
  • Middleton. “Lorine Niedecker’s ‘Folk Base’ and Her Challenge to the American Avant-Garde,” in The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain, eds. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1999: 160-188.
  • Niedecker, Lorine. Collected Works. Jenny Penberthy, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Niedecker. New Goose. Prairie City, Illinois: Press of James A. Decker, 1946.
  • Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-1970. Jenny Penberthy, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Niedecker. “Between Your House and Mine”: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960-1970. Lisa Pater Faranda, ed. Durham: Duke University Press, 1986.
  • [Niedecker materials], ed. Cid Corman. Origin 16 (July 1981).
  • Rexroth, Kenneth, ed. One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. New York: New Directions, 1955.


  • In comments to Zukofsky, Niedecker parses the final line as “Was enough to have carried me thru,” noting that “folk don’t say that, they slur it over into simply what I did say.” Her comments on an Ian Finley translation of the poem into Scots show how seriously she took her witty word carry as indicating “carry pail or in pail, and carry me thru life,” that is, as both literal and figurative/ idiomatic (Niedecker 1993, 290). This version has an exclamation point after the third line. Peter Middleton discusses how and in what senses Niedecker used folk materials and social stances in her work. By comparing “Granite Pail” with Williams’s red wheelbarrow poem from Spring & All (1923), Middleton argues that Niedecker differed from objectivist and avant-garde practices, showing how her words demand readings that are specific, local, nonuniversal, responsive to idiom and usage distinctive to particular settings. The essay proposes that Niedecker “seems oddly suspended between the apparently incompatible worlds of the avant-garde and folk poetry” (Middleton 1999, 186).
  • Until the important University of California Press edition and the devotion of its editor,  Jenny Penberthy, Niedecker was published by the Press of James A. Decker (Prairie City, Illinois); Wild Hawthorn Press (Edinburgh); Fulcrum Press (London); Jargon Society (North Carolina); Elizabeth Press (New Rochelle); North Point Press (San Francisco); Pig Press (Durham, U.K.); in Origin magazine (Boston and Kyoto); there were two collections of essays from Truck Press (North Carolina); and Interim Press (Devon). In the fifth edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry advertised in 2004, she is not included. Nor are Oppen or Zukofsky.
  • Niedecker instructed her second husband Al Millen that her journals be destroyed at her death (a demand loyally and unfortunately executed), thus pulling her back from posthumous personal revelations.
  • Glenna Breslin reports that after a two-year marriage that ended in 1930, Niedecker met Zukofsky, lived with him briefly in New York, became pregnant, and terminated the pregnancy of twin fetuses. This account is sometimes contested. They sustained, after that, a rich relationship in correspondence (Breslin 1990, 146).
  • The ambiguity of this strategy may be surmised from a letter by Carl Rakosi to George Oppen. “I was shaken by the sudden death of Lorine Niedecker. I met her for the first time last spring in her house on the edge of a creek, a house so small that if there had been one more person than the four of us there [probably Al Millen, Leah Rakosi, Carl and Lorine], it would have been impossible to sit down to table. She had been described as having some strange ailment and of refusing to see anyone, but she was delighted to see me and I found her as fresh and wide-awake as a daisy. I jolted her when I didn’t go along with her adulation of Zukofsky. When she saw I was serious, she beamed and looked relieved. She said she found it refreshing. All in all, a very healthy person.” (Letter of Jan. 18, 1971, Archive for New Poetry, University of California San Diego, George Oppen Papers, General Correspondence 10, 35.)
  • Niedecker married Al Millen in May 1963. The Cuban missile crisis occurred in 1962. Niedecker (who wrote the poem in 1967) described this poem as coming “from a folk conversation and I suppose some of my own dark forebodings” (Niedecker 1986, 129). It is not clear whether the forebodings are personal,  political/historical, borrowed from another speaker, or her own.
  • Jenny Penberthy notes that Niedecker’s first haiku appeared in a “For Paul” manuscript in 1953. Niedecker owned the Peter Pauper Press “gift” edition of  Japanese Haiku (1955) and One Hundred Poems from the Japanese (1955). The latter, edited by Rexroth, contains a small sampler of twelve famous haiku. Origin series 2 (July 1964) featured Basho. See Niedecker 1986, 49-50, 33, 145.
  • A letter to Charles Reznikoff from Lorine Niedecker, Nov. 23, 1959 (Archive for New Poetry, University of California, San Diego, Charles Reznikoff Papers  9, 4, 1).
  • Niedecker to Gail Roub, 1981, in Origin 16 (July 1981). This letter is a statement of her poetics, accomplished, she suggests, and realized in “My Life by Water.” This letter also reveals her ambiguous relation to the Zukofskian version of “objectivist” practice: “I used to feel that I was goofing off unless I held only to the hard, clear image, the thing you could put your hand on but now I dare do this reflection.”
  • Letters to Cid Corman:  “folky,”  October 13, 1966 (Niedecker 1986, 102); “blues” [identified as probably a collection of blues lyrics] November 2, 1968 (Niedecker 1986, 180).
  • “A ballad is a folk song that tells a story with stress on the crucial situation, tells it by letting the action unfold itself in event and speech, and tells it objectively with little comment or intrusion of personal bias” (Bold 1979, 97, citing Gerould 1932). It probably should be added that there is a stock stanza–of 4,3,4,3 stresses and b rhymes. Ballads often feature dialogue.
  • Lingering occurs with the use of stanzas identical except for several pivotal words; the tactic of incremental repetition of ballads is a version of “lingering.”
  • “I’m Nobody! who are you?” Johnson #288, and the reference to “chanticleer of dew” also Dickinson; the earlier reference could be to “I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain,” Johnson #280 (Dickinson 1960).