Saturday, April 19, 2003

Well, after all my bluster, due to circumstances beyond my control I never made it to Cassie's reading. So I guess I'll take solace in a few thoughts on a poet almost as good as Cassie: Lorine Niedecker. (Come on, Niedecker fans--I'm just having a little fun.)

I shamefully admit to knowing very little about Niedecker until Thursday, when my classmate Giles Scott gave a presentation on Niedecker's late work in the Workshop on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Cracking open the new, hefty Collected Works, I was stunned: how had I lived thus far in ignorance of work like this? What might seem like a simple, imagistic poetry of nature is lit up by a shockingly vivid and dense sonic landscape (apologies, I can't get the formatting to come out quite right):

Early morning corn
shock quick river
edge ice crack duck

Grasses' dry membranous
breaks tick-tack tiny
wind strips

And this precision's not limited to nature:


See it explained--
compound interest
and the compound eye
of the insect

the wave-line
on shell, sand, wall
and forehead of the one
who speaks

Giles's presentation began with the 1967 poem "My Life by Water." In the stops and starts, the rhythmic and syntactic switchbacks of the poem--

My life
by water--

first frog
or board

out on the cold


to wild green
arts and letters

--Giles heard what he called "reflective pauses," moments of distancing and interruption that allowed space not for immersion in language but for a stepping back from the immediate that allows perspective, ethics.

I admit, though, to being most intrigued by some of the moments of more explicit political and social engagement in Niedecker's work, perhaps because I've been looking at poets like Allen Ginsberg, whose work of this same period so directly incorporates the materials of mass culture and political discourse (often from the air itself, as Ginsberg was dictating many of his poems into a tape recorder). Take a look, for example, at this section from "Traces of Living Things":

High class human
got no illumine

how a ten cent plant
winds aslant

around a post
Man, history's host

to trembles
in the tendrils

I'm a fool
can't take it cool

Giles argued that this section was a kind of parody of mass culture rhetoric, even of pop music, its corny rhymes (fool/cool) a sharp contrast to the usual subtlety of Niedecker's sound effects. But I actually loved this passage--it sounded utterly contemporary (Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge was the first thing that came to mind)---and a number of the others in the room agreed with me. But what seemed vital about it to me was also what made Giles most suspicious about it--its colloquial, bluesy tone, which seemed to puncture the seriousness of the "high class human," but which might also be seen as simply replicating (rather than distancing from, critiquing) popular discourse. Its pleasures (the argument would go) are too easy, its rhymes unearned; it doesn't stop to question itself or to leave room for reflection and skepticism...and it also remained in my head long after I'd closed the book.

I think this debate really goes to the heart of contemporary political poetry. It made me think of a lot of poetry that I've seen written (and that I've written myself) over the past few months, much of which draws on, samples & remixes, recycles, reworks (pick your metaphor) mass-media materials, whether from TV, print news, or the Internet. The "Google poem" is only the latest manifestation of this kind of work. For those who write it, it often seems like a way of talking back to these discourses of power, finding a way to use them against themselves and maybe even to say something, to intervene, in the process. And it often produces work that is pleasurable, funny, entertaining.

But thinking through this discussion of Niedecker made me wonder if that's enough--if one has to (is it possible?) get outside popular discourse in order to critique it. Niedecker, who lived most of her life on Black Hawk Island in Wisconsin, is sometimes (and sometimes dismissively) characterized as a regional or local poet, one who drew her poetic language itself from her immediate environs and community. Giles sought to turn this into a strength of her work--the "local" could become a source of community that was neither solipsistic nor drawn from mass culture. While I find this idea attractive, I ultimately think it's too romantic; even on her island, Niedecker was watching TV and wringing her hands over the Bay of Pigs (calling JFK a "black-marked tulip / not snapped by the storm").

I suppose that's why I liked the section I quoted above so much. It doesn't have the remoteness of some of Niedecker's most beautiful work; it's engaged with a world it can't escape. Yet it deforms that world so that it's almost unrecognizable; it uses a popular form like a Trojan horse, showing us how even a commodity can be turned to a different end--"how a ten cent plant / winds aslant."

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