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Radical Vernacular

Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place

Elizabeth Willis

Publication Year: 2008

When Lorine Niedecker died in 1970, the British poet and critic Basil Bunting eulogized her warmly. “In England,” he wrote, “she was, in the estimation of many, the most interesting woman poet America has yet produced.”
     Aesthetically linked with the New York Objectivist poets, Niedecker remained committed to her community in rural Wisconsin despite the grinding poverty that dogged her throughout her life.  Largely self-taught, Niedecker formed attachments through her voracious reading and correspondence, but she also delighted in the disruptive richness of vernacular usage and in the homegrown, improvisational aesthetics that thrived within her immediate world. Niedecker wrote from a highly attenuated concern with biological, cultural, and political sustainability and, in her stridently modernist poems, anticipated many of the most urgent concerns in twenty-first-century poetics. In Radical Vernacular, Elizabeth Willis collects essays by leading poets and scholars that make a major contribution to the study of an important but long overlooked American poet.
     This pathbreaking volume contains essays by seventeen leading scholars: Rae Armantrout, Glenna Breslin, Michael Davidson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ruth Jennison, Peter Middleton, Jenny Penberthy, Mary Pinard, Patrick Pritchett, Peter Quartermain, Lisa Robertson, Elizabeth Robinson, Eleni Sikelianos, Jonathan Skinner, Anne Waldman, Eliot Weinberger, and Elizabeth Willis.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. v-vii

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pp. ix-x

Several of these essays appeared in different versions in the following publications and are printed here with the gracious permission of their authors and publishers: Rae Armantrout’s...


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pp. xi

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pp. xiii-xxiii

Where — or how — should contemporary readers place Lorine Niedecker? Is she a folk poet? A major or minor Objectivist poet? A regionalist? An eco-poet? A working-class socialist poet? An outsider poet? Her work has been described as realist, surrealist, rustic, even in the style of “the old farmland potato.” While Niedecker aspired to the production...

Natural and Political Histories

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Life by Water: Lorine Niedecker and Critical Regionalism

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pp. 3-20

In an oft quoted letter to Cid Corman, Lorine Niedecker complained that papers of hers deposited at the University of Wisconsin had been filed among the regional materials. She asks “[what] region — London, Wisconsin, New York?” (BYH 208). Her impatience at being...

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Niedecker’s Grammar of Flooding

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pp. 21-30

A river is a multi-channeled text that shapes as it is shaped, that preserves as surely as it destroys. In modern history, natural waterways have defined exploration, conquest, and settlement. A river allows for external exploration through estuarial ports, and it creates access to internal waterways through canals, streams, and washes. The inner valleys...

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Life Pops from a Music Box Shaped Like a Gun: Dismemberments and Mendingsin Niedecker’s Figures

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pp. 31-40

“Poetry if anything has a sense for everything,” wrote Louis Zukofsky in his essay “Poetry,” which begins by noting his son Paul’s first words, “Go billy go billy go billy go ba,” spoken three months before the atomic bomb was used that “ended the Second World War”...

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Particular Attention: Lorine Niedecker’s Natural Histories

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pp. 41-59

Lorine Niedecker, who finds the “facts” of “birds, animals and plants... wonderful in themselves,” pays particular attention to natural history (NCZ 243). Poems like “Wintergreen Ridge” or “Paean to Place” take their imagined place in geological time, speak with a working knowledge of ecological relations, and honor humans who extend solidarity across...

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Writing Lake Superior

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pp. 61-79

Lorine Niedecker’s “Lake Superior” — the first long poem she would see into print — occupies five pages with a total of 395 words. Her research and preparation for the poem, the punning and aptly named “millenium1 of notes for...

Sounding Process

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In Phonographic Deep Song: Sounding Niedecker

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pp. 83-90

In 1897 Oliver Lodge developed and patented the concept of syntony. The principal underlying the patent was this: “the antennae systems of both transmitter and receiver [were] made sharply resonant at the intended frequency. The two antennae had to form a syntonic...

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How to Do Things with Nothing: Lorine Niedecker Sings the Blues

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pp. 91-101

The year 1903 marks the conventional date assigned to the birth of the blues. As W. C. Handy describes it in his memoirs, while waiting on a late-running train in Tutwiler, Mississippi, he was wakened from a fitful doze by the sound of a knife being drawn across the strings...

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pp. 103-112

It’s well known that Lorine Niedecker’s mother suffered from depression. Niedecker describes her as “tall, tormented, darkinfested” (CW 287). What a wonderful, terrifying word “darkinfested” is. It’s a biological metaphor, of course. And Niedecker is neither casual nor careless...

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Music Becomes Story: Lyric and Narrative Patterning in the Work of Lorine Niedecker

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pp. 113-130

This poem from For Paul would seem to be an exemplary lyric piece with its repetitions, short lines, and gentle rhyming. The poem’s relation to time appears initially direct as it conjures a familiar seasonal event: the autumnal fall of leaves from trees, though...

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Waking into Ideology: Lorine Niedecker’s Experiments in the Syntax of Consciousness

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pp. 131-150

Just prior to Jenny Penberthy’s discovery in 1996 of “Next Year or I fly my rounds, Tempestuous” in Louis Zukofsky’s archive, National Poetry Foundation Director Burton Hatlen found Niedecker’s expanded version of the 1933 poem “Progression” buried in Ezra Pound’s...

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Lorine Niedecker’s “Paean to Place” and Its Reflective Fusions

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pp. 151-179

When Professor L. S. Dembo organized his groundbreaking recovery of the Objectivist poets at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in April and May 1968, he conducted interviews with Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi. Dembo was a penetrating...

Niedecker and Company

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pp. 183-187

Much, perhaps too much, has been written about Lorine Niedecker’s relations with Louis Zukofsky — her friend, colleague, lover, commiserater, and forty-year obsession — but the curious thing is that if one knew no biographical details, it would be difficult to put them together as poets. Only rarely in their writings do they resemble each other...

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Lorine Niedecker: The Poet in Her Homeplace

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pp. 189-206

When I began studying the poetry of Lorine Niedecker, I, like many other readers, thought of her as painfully isolated in her Wisconsin community, despite the facts that her family had lived there for three generations and that she lived and worked there most of her life. To...

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Who Is Sounding? Awakened View, Gaps, Silence, Cage, Niedecker

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pp. 207-221

I propose a contemplative gaze to extend a look at Lorine Niedecker’s work and encourage a discussion around view in the spiritual sense, as well as performance/orality (both public and private) and silence. I also suggest a poetic affinity between the seemingly diametrically opposed...

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The Poetics of Affinity: Niedecker, Morris, and the Art of Work

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pp. 223-246

Lorine Niedecker’s work is saturated with politics, with an embodied, practical intelligence conceived at the intersection of public and private lives. It’s not simply that there are unions, bosses, paychecks, and presidents in her poems or that two of her most frequently...

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The British Niedecker

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pp. 247-270

It ought to seem more strange than it does that over half the books Lorine Niedecker produced in her lifetime were published in Britain.1 If it doesn’t strike us as exceptional this is probably because we like to think of the New American Poets and the Objectivists as English...

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Take Oil / and Hum: Niedecker / Bunting

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pp. 271-283

They’re such very different poets you’d never mistake one for the other. Niedecker’s language is unmistakably spoken, conversational, at times almost casual — don’t get me wrong, she’s an extremely careful writer of very great skill indeed...

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 285-294


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pp. 295-297


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pp. 299-307

Contemporary North American Poetry Series

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pp. 309

E-ISBN-13: 9781587297762
E-ISBN-10: 1587297760
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587296987
Print-ISBN-10: 1587296985

Page Count: 333
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: cloth