. . . Niedecker

. . .

Modernist Class

I remember reading to him a German translation from a speech by Radek in which the Russian attacked Ulysses at the Congress of Kharkov as being the work of a bourgeois writer who lacked social consciousness. "They may say what they want," said Joyce, "but the fact is that all the characters in my books belong to the lower middle classes, and even the working class; and they are all quite poor." I know he was a convinced antifascist.
-- Eugene Jolas
Underbred.... the book of a self taught working man....
-- Virginia Woolf on Ulysses
It's sleight of hand, a kind of shell game. A few flourishes of the shells labeled "Modernism" and "Postmodernism" keep us from noticing the writers who have not been shoved into them and from noticing the essential differences between the writers who have.

Class, for example.

Yeats's, Pound's, and Eliot's works were in defense of a dreamlike aristocratic status; they loathed the city, or, more specifically, the city's middle class and the city's poor.

Pound and Eliot first became interested in Joyce as a semi-articulate witness to those urban horrors, a sort of Dublin Dreiser. And they lost interest in him as the serialized episodes of Ulysses left realism behind: he was no longer a witness but a class-climbing eccentric who somehow assumed that the world owed him a living. (Biographers still seem to have trouble with that notion, but one should bear in mind that the world of the time seemed perfectly content to supply Yeats, Pound, Stein, Woolf, and so on with livings.)

By the time we get to Louis Zukofsky and Lorine Niedecker (if we ever do; they're still not part of standard academic curricula), those beastly New York Jews and bestial Midwestern immigrants who so offended Henry James are actually writing, without apology, as if they could possibly fit into some respectable (and quite imaginary, thank the lord!) society....

. . .

Mamas, Don't Make Your Babies Executors

It's corporations that have forced the vicious new copyright laws upon us and it's mostly corporations that reap the scattered profits and work the universal havoc. After all, corporations have the rights of an individual, are richer than an individual, but can't be institutionalized for criminal insanity like an individual. But because corporations do define themselves as individuals, the monstrous growth of their "rights" has to some extent trickled down to those individuals who have done individually absolutely nothing to merit control of an absent individual's work: to wit, relatives.

The Astaire widow's vacuum-cleaner-financed defense of posthumous dignity may be the most visible outcome. But, as with corporations, the true cultural danger of these suit-threatening and suit-hiring relatives is loss of the marginal rather than exploitation of the famous. Corporations and corporation-like individuals both prefer the risk of eradication to the risk of losing control.

Thus, word on the rue was that a major delay in bringing Jean Eustache's The Mama and the Whore back into distribution was the heir's hope for a windfall, and that a continued obstacle to bringing Mes Petites Amoreuses to videotape is the same. Since Mes Petites Amoreuses was an international flop as well as my favorite coming-of-age movie, if rue-word is true a windfall is unlikely and the stalemate will continue.

Moving past cinematic rumors to literary documentation, "difficult" poet Louis Zukofsky has gotten still more difficult as incarnated in his son, Paul. Possibly understandably teed off by the tongue-clucking directed towards his father by Lorine Niedecker scholars (after all, Niedecker never complained about her treatment), Zukofsky fils refused to allow the teensiest scrap of père's letters to enter into the otherwise excellent Niedecker and the Correspondence With Zukofsky. But gagging the accused isn't such a hot idea: a writer's best defense is usually their own testimony. Witness how the fuller disclosure of Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky easily snuffs the calumny that Zukofsky sucked up to Pound's anti-Semitism.

(Could be worse, I suppose, and it is in the case of Zukofsky's lifelong comrade, Basil Bunting, whose life and letters remain in darkness due to the mortar-and-brick combination of his estate's reticence and England's Official Secrets Act.)

The granddaddy of such repressers has got to be professional grandson Stephen Joyce, who's redirected the kind of smug never-forgive never-forget selfishness that usually gets expended on family feuds towards all scholars everywhere. In A Collideorscape of Joyce, a festschrift for angelic if plain-spoken Joycean Fritz Senn, Stephen Joyce plays the villain again, preventing inclusion of a new German translation of the last chapter of Ulysses and of a study of the manuscripts of the "Nausicaa" chapter, and, most unforgivably, blocking publication of exactly the sort of calumny-snuff referred to above:

"I'll never forget the moment when Lili Ruff produced a copy of the German translation of Ulysses, inscribed to her father by Joyce, with letters stuffed inside.... I was flabbergasted, honoured (never mind that I would later be thwarted by Stephen Joyce from publishing them). Because among those letters... were Joyce's sentiments regarding the treatment of Jews before the outbreak of World War II, and more evidence of his active participation in helping Jews to escape from Nazi Europe." -- Marilyn Reizbaum, "Sennschrift"

. . .

Lorine Niedecker, from "Switchboard Girl":

I divined this comedy, Dante, before I went in. But I had to have a job....

I was the September dandelion – forty, female – seeking a place among the young fluorescent petunias. I kept cropping up in the world’s backyards while here in America, on all sides they shear civilization back to the seventeen-year-old girl....

(Sounds like the corrected collected works will be out this year....)

. . .

As one Somnambulist to another
our sleep could be more perfect.

Jan.-Feb. 1935
    To give heat is within the control of every human being.
Lorine Niedecker means a lot to me. All the Objectivists mean something to me, 'cause of their class, and their politics, and the long breaks they took to make a living or a political commitment -- well, I guess maybe those aren't uncorrelated -- and their simultaneous (if often interrupted) commitment to poetic artifact as artifact instead of as ego-puffing walrus-teared persona. (Which may also be not so uncorrelated.)

And I still gnaw and lipsmack and tonguecluck Zukofsky's confections with delight, but Niedecker's my infatuation. I whine about how hard it is with a full-time job, or without one, and folks ask how someone who's not a grad student could possibly maintain an intellectual life, and then I think about Niedecker and I can't decide whether to crumble or melt or be pleased to be human, though I'm grateful that Niedecker prods us toward option 3.

It's been a long wait for the collected Lorine Niedecker. It's still not completely collected, like for instance her reviews (though it includes "I'd sit on a quiet fence / and sing a quiet thing: sincere, sincere. / And that would be Reznikoff."), and her letters you should get too, and I agree with Bob Arnold it's a lousy shame the book designer decided to wedge short poems into the bottom of the page and then split them into splintery messes with a swing of her mighty axe, I guess she might have been trying to save paper but this was the writer of "My friend tree / I sawed you down" so you have to wonder....

But it's better than before, being so much more than before. All the previously-unpublished work seems lovely to me, like this two-weeks-and-one-trite-affirmation per page 1935 calendar someone gave her, all twenty-seven pages of which she pasted over with her own affirmations. (Under this particular paste-job I can make out "...people in...neighborhood...better place...they...")

Later affirmations aimed at an even later date:

I fear this war
Will be long and painful
and who
  No matter where you are
you are alone
and in danger — well
            to hell
with it.

. . .

"I fall upon the books of life! I read!"

For the very most part, what Leggott finds in the genealogical record of Zukofsky's book is other books (including Zukofsky's own earlier work). There are some notes on the Zukofskys' retiree garden, whose progress guided the composition schedule, but (to judge from Leggott's presentation) as usual the material world impinged on Zukofsky mostly as calendar: dates of flowering join birthdays and Valentines as occasion for verse, while botanical expedition reports and seed catalogs join the shelves of poetry and philosophy.

As anyone who's ever written anything knows, the relation between preliminary notes and a finished work isn't simple derivation. If it was, there would be no point to the finished work, and we could stop reading any novel at its epigraph. (Not a bad idea in most cases.) The raw materials -- which is to say the words -- of Zukofsky's poems are drawn from other sources, as they are for most of us. The question is: what got made with them?

It's a question Leggott treats with understandable caution, given the extremity of her straddling. As a Ph.D. candidate, she shouldn't have to defend exemplary primary research; as someone who's publishing 400 pages about an inaccessible book by a not-yet-industrialized writer, she's got some 'splainin' to do. The lines between "ideal reader" and "genealogist" are blurred in self-defense.

She's careful in her talk about intentions; the intentionality she writes about is always tactical (and always tactful, given Paul Zukofsky's iron grip on the copyright), never going so far as to claim readerly recognition of Zukofsky's sources as Zukofsky's goal. When she says of Paradise:

"The garden must be like a real garden, with cycles of growth; blossoming and witherings."
the cycles are those of the writing, not those of the reading.

On the other hand, she knows hostile suspicions might be aroused when one seems to make interpretation and enjoyment of a supposedly functional work dependent on ancillary scribbledehobble, and so she defends the practice as a pragmatic smoothing of the way: Zukofsky was always ahead of his time, and this book, being newest, is ahead furthest. To help its time along, crafty Zukofsky deliberately dropped off its blueprint (in the form of notes, drafts, and galleys) at U. Texas. (Being from New Zealand, Leggott might not have realized how financially dependent American poets have become on archival donations to state universities.) And in using that material so extensively, Leggott is merely following Zukofsky's implied wishes. After all, it's always easier to inhabit a house once you've seen the blueprint. That way you can find the kitchen when you need it.

Leggott relates the material in Zukofsky's notesheets to Zukofsky's finished poetry using the Poundian-and-Objectivist dictate of "condensare" ("condensation" in Zukofsky; in Niedecker's exquisite American, "this condensery"). Now, besides being somewhat self-destructive (in both good and bad ways), "condensare" is ambiguous. In Pound's and Zukofsky's critical writings, "condensare" sounds something along the lines of Strunk & White or Readers Digest: don't waste words; don't dude it up; get to the point. Niedecker, for example, could often be said to follow the poetic practice Zukofsky recommended: notice something, reduce it to its essentials, and make it musical. (Not necessarily in that order, of course.)

In Pound's and (particularly) Zukofsky's poetic writings, what happens is less often condensation than fragmenting. The effect isn't of a cleanup or a liposuction or a diagram or a sketch or even an ideogram of "the original source"; the effect is of "the original source" being busted to bits and used to tile a more-or-less abstract mosaic.

Busting doesn't come much finer than in 80 Flowers. (Jackson Mac Low's mechanical word crushers don't count, since his original sources are explicitly cited as the subjects of the work.) No matter what the diligent scholar finds in the manuscripts, when a "quote" consists of a single word or two, or a punning transliteration of a single word or two, in what sense can 80 Flowers be said to reference Theophrastus, Juvenal, Horace, Chaucer, Gerard, Shakespeare, Thomas Campion, John Adams, Henri Fabre, Thomas Hardy, Albert Einstein, or private correspondence from Guy Davenport?

. . .

Non-anorexics can't always discern the healthy glow to be gained from obsessive-compulsive fasting, scrubbing, and exercise. And to the uninitiated reader, Pound's and Zukofsky's fear of fatty inexactitude didn't produce dignified austerity but new forms of excess. (Lorine Niedecker had too robust an appetite to fully trust that imperative. From a letter: "I know that my cry all these years has been into -- into -- and under -- close your eyes and let the music carry you -- And what have I done? -- cut -- cut -- too many words...")

Working from different notions of sincerity, Pound and Zukofsky carved down to different peculiarities. Pound-pundit's minimalism is as bullying as the maximalism of D. H. Lawrence or Wyndham Lewis: rather than advancing an argument, he bellows a few sacred words and assumes our bellowed "Ditto!", and if we don't supply it, well, fuck us for fuckwits. Whereas Zukofsky never seems comfortable with the idea of self-expression, and, though his passive-aggression might be called cold, he never bullies.

For Zukofsky, the sincere is the objective. Sincerity opposes subjectivity.

But given what's been acceptable poetic message-matter since the mid-nineteenth century, to eliminate self-inflationary rhetoric from one's poetry is to risk eliminating message entirely.

It's a risk Zukofsky took without a second glance. Zukofsky's essentials are the words. The inessential pared from the words is the message.

Which sabotaged any early ambitions as Marxist propagandist or movement leader.

Doubly rejected, and thin-skinned and soft-spoken by nature, after the mid-1930s, Zukofsky famously restricted his polis to the family triangle of father-mother-son. He became celebrant of a closed-system cocoon of irritable praise.

In both parts of his career, the disappointing moments are the uncoded ones. Earlier, the mantis is fine, but the armies of the poor thud: the disjunction between spavined syntax and familiar figure brings the cliche zooming to the foreground. The later valentines, OK, but that "Blest ardent Celia" hoohah creeps me out as much as John Lennon's flat "Yoko and me: that's reality" or Lou Reed's shower-baritone "Syll-ILL-vee-ee-ee-uh!" Keep it in the bedroom, guys.

Zukofsky's music is incomparable: it's the sound of crabbedness folded back into itself so densely as to break through the floorboards into downstairs' lyric ceiling. When not biscotti, it feels undercooked. When not startlingly odd, it feels compromised.

Since Zukofsky was always going to seem excessive, he might as well skim and serve up the pure excess. Clotted cream: a springtime treat.

. . .

Nothing Personal, 7

It's not true that only poets read poetry. It is true that keeping up with poetry comes close to a full time job, like keeping up with international cinema or popular music or genre fiction.

Job markets vary by geography even avocational job markets. Taking similar land routes, I and Joshua Corey traced similar reading histories, and the ten years between us made comparatively little difference. Although a quirk of publishing history had led to Zukofsky being stocked by the Chillecothe, Missouri, library, and although the Black Mountain lost-leaders were widely available, there was no collected Niedecker or Spicer in my youth, and what I could find in Philadelphia and NYC led me, like Corey, to posit a post-1940 decline into the poetics of lithium. (Things are better in Brooklyn now.)

When I moved to Cambridge, Mass., I lost access to international cinema but gained access to WordsWorth Books and the Grolier. (I also gained a three-hour daily commute, and I also lost my lover and my mind.) At one of those shops, I bought Sal Salasin's first book because it reminded me of Ed Bluestone in the National Lampoon. And I bought Bloomsday by Jackson Mac Low because it was Bloomsday. And then I bought Sulfur 24 because Jackson Mac Low was in it.

I can't find that issue must've lent it to someone and never gotten it back. The web tells me it included one of my favorite Ron Padgett poems, and something by the incomparable David Bromige. But what struck hardest was a long excerpt from Ron Silliman's Toner.

"It spoke to me."

Diction is about shared assumptions, and diction varies because what's "universal" varies. For example, pace Berryman and Hacker, not all of us have had the universal experience of sleeping with our students. So it's possible that you just need to have been a commuter to really get Silliman's poetry. But I got it, and got it bad: here was someone who'd experienced this previously unsung, astonishingly stupid side of life, and found redemptive lyric possibilities in its suspended-yet-mobile state of consciousness. A suspension so extended that it became epic: Kinda-Ron kinda-Endures.

One Age of Huts later, I walked away with the ugly mossy block of In the American Tree. I wouldn't say it changed my life I haven't led that sort of life but it certainly changed my buying habits.

What the anthologized pieces shared was an absence of recognizable names (other than the dedicatee, Larry Eigner) and anything resembling well-established subjective lyric stances. The range of alternatives seemed even wider than what Donald Allen had come up with. And yet Silliman didn't present himself as an outside arbiter or professional event organizer; apparently this range belonged to something he thought of as one group, his own.

The nearest thing to a new norm here was parataxis, which seemed to account for many of the precursors paid tribute in the essays at the back of the book: Ashbery (although not Allen's Ashbery), Stein, Spicer.... Still, there wasn't a "standard Language Poet poem" as far as I could see at least not among the ones I liked. Lyn Hejinian's My Life and Bob Perelman's a.k.a. were both beautiful little books of paratactic prose paragraphs, but you couldn't mistake Hejinian's VistaVision montages of Northern California for Perelman's grim resignation to "cleverness", young Beckett pressed into an old Beckett role:

He heard the music and stood up. Played at appropriate speed, incurable motion out the window. The names are maintained to prevent the accumulations of self-esteem from crashing too harmlessly into private abysses. As if hearing were a perfection of air perpetrated among rivals, sets of teeth, synonyms, sentence structure, ruptured blood vessels. He held on, in advance. Night fell, and I lived through that, too, expressing the expressible in terms of the expressed. On good terms with neighbors, dependable, daily, there, smiles, and is currently writing and reading this sentence.

Susan Howe suffered megalomania of the archive in a way I found much more congenial than Charles Olson's: high on dust mites and the glare of wide margins, the texture of the paper, the impress of the type, a whited-out thought balloon of imminent immanent insight tugging gently at our scalps....

And sure, lots of us have words appearing on our foreheads, but Hannah Weiner was the first to accurately transcribe them.

Depersonalized? No, just respecified: new specs in front of the eyes, less heavily tinted, and, in some cases, less smudged.

I moved to San Francisco in 1991, when Small Press Distribution and Small Press Traffic both had storefronts, and my binging intensified. Like Corey, I learned to browse bookshelves by publisher name. Some of Silliman's also-rans were as good as he'd implied: Rosemarie Waldrop, Robert Glück (who turned out to be a very different sort of writer indeed), Beverley Dahlen, Alice "Notely", Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Some of the included gained importance: speaking of Campion, Stephen Ratcliffe's spaces in the light said to be where one / comes from is subvocalized MDMA. Some seemed to drop out: Stephen Rodefer's Four Lectures were primo, and his Villon translation was a pungent pinch of Spiceresquerie, but then what happened?

Most were uneven. There was such a thing as The Charles Bernstein Poem, and I didn't think much of it, but just often enough he'd come up with something unexpected like "Artifice of Absorption" or "I and The", and even The Charles Bernstein Poems had their place. On the other hand, Susan Howe, always worth reading, was worth surprisingly less in dowdy paperbacks than in her expansive expensive smaller press editions. Silliman's Tjanting played to his weaknesses, despite the conceptual catchiness of its form.

But they continued to be more uneven sometimes than others, and they led other places, like Jackson Mac Low had, and so the binging goes.

Here ends my happy consumer conversion narrative. "Or like stout whosits when with eagle eyes," "Nirvana made me a better student," "I can't believe it's not butter," and so on.

Happily, I wasn't a participant.

Next: I finally get back to where I was more than a year ago!


Joseph Duemer has some questions.

. . .

Salve qui peut

In my fifties I began catching up with post-1960 English poetry Roy Fisher, J. H. Prynne, Bill Griffiths and last year I reached Alan Halsey, who quickly became a sentimental favorite.

Halsey's publications bolt around the field like a deranged beagle: drawings and collages; an anarcho-scholastic Robin Hood book and Shelley memorial; tossed-off proto-Flarf; cans of evaporated "Lives of the Poets" rolling out the condensery.... Happily for me, my favorite mode is one he started early, conveniently concentrated in Not Everything Remotely, and kept up, still going in his recent skinny-volume, Even if only out of:

it’s not as if meaning means
the imaginary something
something like ‘menagerie’
a hinge of exchange or henge
that hangs in the air and the air
as if obliged hangs itself

It could be called nonsense verse with an adult vocabulary, like the Zukofsky which reeled me in during my inflamed youth. Sometimes it packs the oomph of an adult nursery rhyme along Niedecker or Spicer lines (Halsey namechecks all three); mostly, though, it's lighter, Zukofsker, import dissolving into the clack of nudged semantic tiles on a slider puzzle of found (or pounded down the gullet) sounds:

Broken Mirror

Present fragment included as
the dream working up to it
is no small thing to be saved.
If there is a war there is

therefore an external world
and these books, there is a world ex-
tended, present fragment included,
one’s order is the mirror

of another one’s chaos. Man
the measure tidies up until
no more remains of the remains
to be seen written out on the irritable

surface. The secrets of the skin-
deep defeat us, we have perfect
recoil as the argument turns,
on the point of death indistinct

as our present perception
and possessions in troops
and troops all the same are
or have to be recalled.

Present fragment as the dream working
up to it is no small thing and nothing
like to be saved. If there is a war there is
therefore an external world and a world ex-

tended, present fragment included,
one’s order is the mirror of another one’s chaos.
Man the measure tidies up until no more remains
of the remains to be seen written out on

its irritable surface: the secrets of the skin-
deep fade among the souls of the souls
in infinite regression which like kings of Europe
with its multitudes and neighbouring tribes

fall out. Across that corner of the field
of vision which is England with its tax
on memory, its perfect recoil. In which the
argument turns on the point of death indistinct

as present perception and possessions in troops and
troops all the same are or have to be recalled.

Halsey's verses include "auguries," "emblems," "charms," and "spells," and to the receptive soul that's how they work not a splashy stunt like levitating the Pentagon but the soothing mundane magic of mumbled beads and mantras and whistling in the dark. Keeping us safe by keeping us surfaced.

A lot is "political poetry" in the only sense I really understand, the sense where political formulae happen to be stuck in there clanking and thumping and crooning catchy obscenities along with all the other semi-organic clutter which can only be gotten out of your head physically. When life puts nits in your mind's ear, you just got to balance your itsy-bitsy top hat on your scalp, tweezer up your teensy whip, and make flea circus out of that shit: flea aerialists triple-somersaulting, flea bareback deranged-beagle-riders, that line of political poetry.

Along that line, Halsey has an edge on Zukofsky, whose interest in political economics stopped at the end of the 1930s around the same time his terminology obsolesced. Whereas Halsey had the good fortune to start at the dawn of the Thatcherite/Reaganomics hell we still inhabit. It's made a crap world but a steady muse.

"An edge on Zukofsky" ain't a commercially viable location, though. Just like with poor ol' Zuk and poor ol' Beddoes, Halsey's enthusiasts will always be outnumbered by the indifferent and the irritated. That last might be even the reason I looked Halsey up; it's the kind of bad review which would make me want to read the target.

You tell me what kind of good review this is.

It certainly isn't going to pretend that the peculiar satisfaction of these peculiar needs is particularly admirable or ideologically sound. Donald Rumsfeld was just as dependent on the dictionary and just as prone to dissolve sense in pattern. I suppose I would go so far as to posit that some nonsense verse is less toxic and more restorative than others and that the writer and readers of Through the Looking Glass are somehow better than Humpty Dumpty and the Red Queen. I wouldn't go so far as to claim that they're better than Alice.


Michael Orlando writes:

Thanks for the Beddoes link, I've thought that about HM since I was intoduced to him via a Chinese backdoor by Schafer.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.