Notes and An Appreciation
On Lorine Niedecker's
Paean To Place

by Karl Young

"Wd. like to see it in print in a little book all by itself," wrote Lorine Niedecker to Florence Dollase in August, 1969. The poem she referred to was Paean to Place, and she sent Ms. Dollase a copy of the poem written out in a compact book. She expressed a similar wish in a letter to Cid Corman regarding the publication of "Lake Superior," specifying that she would like to see it printed one stanza per page. Lorine Niedecker got considerably less than a reasonable share of what she wanted during her lifetime. As people who have received a great deal from her, it is our good fortune to try to honor her wish regarding this book, in celebration of her 100th birthday. This poem, one of her most complex and, for some, most gratifying, seems a particularly good choice to present in a facsimile edition.

Niedecker inscribed her poem for Ms. Dollase in an "Autograph" book such as you could find in dime stores at the time. Its pages measure 5 1/2 by 4 1/4 inches, bound on the short side. The paper runs a gamut of pastel colors in random order. The book has a cushioned cover, with a square, a stylized star, and the word "Autographs" stamped into it in gold letters. The last two leaves of the book were taped in place to accommodate the last two stanzas. The stock for these last pages is identical to that found in the commercially bound part of the book, so one may guess that Niedecker purchased at least two autograph books at the same time. She made other books like this as a means of circulating her work. Niedecker transcribed one stanza per page, using the right hand pages only, leaving the facing pages blank. In doing this, she may have been following the practice of some printers who leave versos blank. Or she may not have wanted the ink to bleed or set off, or the pen to leave indentations on the other side of the leaf.

Her penmanship appears exemplary according to the standards of her generation, but its precision seems almost spooky. There are several places where she makes minor mistakes in lettering, but even these she caught before they got very far. There are few variations between this copy and the text as it appears in Jenny Penberthy's Collected Works of Lorine Niedecker. The main differences occur in the lineation of the superscription, the use of single inverted commas to indicate quotations, and a few hyphens in compound words, suggesting that by the time of transcription, Niedecker had finished the poem and felt no need to make revisions. The neatness of the script, the near absence of errors, and the lack of variants in the text suggest that she worked as meticulously in transcribing as she did in composition.

Aside from expressing her desire to have this poem printed in a book of its own, we have little to go on in trying to determine what Niedecker wanted. We do have the autograph book as a model, and the letter about "Lake Superior." Niedecker repeatedly admonished her readers to pay particular attention to the blank spaces in her poems. The strongest of these types of "negative space" pertain to those of the mind and ear - those created by logic, syntax, rhythm, and sound properties - rather than anything that appears on the page. Still, she reflected her sense of how negative space works in lineation, indentation, and other graphic devices. In this book, she also used page breaks. Reading the stanzas independently changes the tone and sense of the poem. A comparative reading of the poem in manuscript and set up in type makes this clear.

It seems appropriate that an autobiography should come forth in the author's own hand, and the exemplary legibility of this book make it ideal for presentation as a facsimile. As a practical consideration, we decided to print the book in a standard 6 by 9 inch format. Stubby books get lost on shelves and can damage those next to them. A straight score running completely across the page in this edition indicates the page size of the autograph book. Stanza numbers, which should not be mistaken for page numbers, appear at the bottoms of text pages.

With the publication of Jenny Penberthy's Complete Works of Lorine Niedecker, it seems likely we will have a reliable standard edition for a long time to come. From this base, it seems appropriate that some works find special editions of their own, bringing out facets of the poems that standardization does not allow. Rumor Books' edition of New Goose precedes our efforts in this. At the same time as we bring out this edition in print, we also place it on-line at the Light and Dust web site, where readers can access it electronically, and also get a sense of such features as the color of the paper and the cushioning of the cover.


Lorine Niedecker's birthplace, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, is located on the Great Eastern Divide of the North American land mass, a hinge between the two immense water systems, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence and the Mississippi Basins. The area also has a rich human history, stretching from ancient Native American mound-builders to the heterogeneous throngs William Carlos Williams called "the pure products of America" in the 19th and 20th centuries. As people who made part of their living renting cabins, the Niedecker family had a clientele that may have included gangsters, jazz innovators, industrial inventors, and radical political activists from the near-by Chicago-Milwaukee industrial corridor - at least those who couldn't afford the more expensive cottages on the shores of Lake Geneva, some 30 miles to the south east, the resort area established by the midwestern condottieri of the Capone era. This region of the state was to Chi-Waukee what the Catskills recreational area was to New York City at the time.

Most of Niedecker's oeuvre explores the minute particulars of the rural parts of this watery territory in small poems. Her concision, avoidance of the flamboyant or decorative, and lack of sentimentality fit the agenda of a loosely organized group of poets who went under the name "Objectivists." Niedecker is often considered a member of the group. During the last years of her life, she wrote a number of longer poems, venturing into the larger natural history of the region, American history, and the sciences of geology and biology. Some of her admirers prefer the miniatures she wrote in mid-life. Others see the longer workings as more important. But the division into long and short poems is often an initial illusion. She put considerable effort into the placement of the short poems in thematic groups or what we might call "constellations" based on formal principles. Niedecker built her poems carefully and painstakingly from small units. Paean to Place is a fine example of a late poem built up in discrete units.

Niedecker is a poet of such economy and precision that no words she uses should be seen simply as fitting a convention, acting as a label, or functioning as decoration. In this book, the title and superscription (the first eight words in the poem) may function as a poem or irregular stanza in themselves. In the printed editions, the superscription appears as two italicized lines, the line break coming after the word "place." In the autograph book these five words appear as a single line. Do they form a couplet ("Paean to Place/ - and the place was water"), or are they simply title and superscription? However you read them, they set both the basic technique of the poem and its argument. The poem progresses by links, each of which includes a surprise and something that radically alters what preceded it. The poem argues emphatically that "place" is not a static entity. It may be seen as consciousness defined by the passage of a river or as the interlaced progression of the lives of several people. The poem says virtually nothing specifically about Fort Atkinson and environs, even though it is made up - in good Objectivist fashion - entirely of local materials. Near the end of the poem, Niedecker exhorts her readers "Do not save love / for things / Throw things / to the flood." What matters for her is life as lived, a continuity full of surprises and changes, paradoxically full of loss, and simultaneously able to find satisfaction in what might appear as trivia. Much of the significance of the poem comes through the prosody.

Her prosody features standard devices such as alliteration, quirky inventions such as two nearly identical words placed next to each other, and an eccentric approach to discontinuity that upsets the reader's expectations. Good examples come in the last two lines of the second stanza of Paean to Place:

in swale and swamp and sworn
to water

The alliteration here does not strain for easy effect but alludes to traditional Anglo-Saxon verse, while the many other currents going on in the lines keep this device from sounding tinny. It may be noted that if these two lines were combined, and a caesura inserted after "swamp," the line would have appealed to the author of The Seafarer, The Wanderer, or one of the other Old English classics. The three alliterating words seem to set up a series, yet the third is plainly not a noun as the first two seem to be. This shift brings the other terms into new focus. In a poem whose diction seems extraordinarily plain, "swale" is a curious inclusion in its antiquarian tone, shifty syntax, and multiple meanings. As a noun it means a shallow place. But like "sworn," it can be used as a verb. As such, it means to move or sway up and down or side to side from a fixed point. This action could describe what Niedecker and her family did in this place as well as describing the low area prone to flooding. "Swamp" can also act as a verb, suggesting one of the perennial difficulties of living in such a place: being swamped by water. "Swale" sounds like the verb "to swell" and the swelling of this line sets us up for the next: it is considerably shorter and creates a sense of diminishment while suggesting the feeling of flood and recession, of seasonal recurrence. It hints at disappointments that appear elsewhere in the poem. Interacting with the rhyming lines, the first and last lines end with the same word. In the thicket of sounds Niedecker sets up, this pairing answers the Preacher's phrase "dust unto dust" as well as suggesting the traditional sestina form, where repeated words take the place of rhyme.

The dance of wit runs through nearly all Niedecker's opus, serving a number of functions. One of the most important is the way this playfulness contributes to keeping poems of loss and disillusionment from degenerating into statements of self-pity, and instead offering solace through the reassurance of a steady voice and the cleanliness of sound textures. A counterpart to this is her ability to find the humor and the power of regeneration that get people through trials and catastrophes.

The sparkling quality of Niedecker's verse is particularly important in a poem that deals with the often dull lives of a family living beside a river. These are lives lived interlinked, and it seems appropriate that they should be delineated in a poem of complex links. In Paean to Place, Niedecker returns to variations she had developed on Japanese forms a decade earlier. In a group of poems she at one time gathered under the title "In Exchange For Haiku," she used five line stanzas, with a discontinuity or paradox between the first three and the last two lines. She sometimes emphasized the transition point with a rhyme. Although "In Exchange For Haiku" dates from the late 1950s, a time when there wasn't much available in English about Japanese Renku, the poems in it seem to have taken their cue from that form. Renku is a type of group composition made up of alternating stanzas of three and two lines. In the classic form, each new stanza simultaneously links to the previous stanza and shifts away from it. Niedecker seems to have grasped essentials of linking and shifting outside the group context of Japanese practice. It seems appropriate that Niedecker chose a form she had adapted from group composition for an extended work dealing with the interlinked lives of her family.

In Paean to Place, the links between the two and three line parts of each stanza and the links between stanzas include overlaps, shuffles, and echoes. Thus in the first stanza, the discreet elements "Fish / fowl / flood" make up a parallel grammatical and alliterative set. These could be read as a three line stanza in a Renku. Again they include the potential ambiguity of nouns that could act as verbs. The next two lines, "Water lily mud / My life" could be read as continuing the series with a more complex element (the specific mud that water lilies grow in, usually including a fair amount of decaying matter and soft soil from previous seasons) acting as a summation of her life. Yet "My life" also acts as a preliminary clause, linking this stanza to what would be the next stanza in Renku composition: "My life // in the leaves and on water." This could act in turn as a couplet as well as part of the three line progression "in the leaves and on water / My mother and I / born." The capitalization of "My" and the rhyme make a link with the couplet that ends this stanza "in swale and swamp and sworn / to water." The liquid nature of many of these transitions allows twos and threes to shadow each other as they move through the poem. In addition to adding ambiguities to the piece, they can move into hints of the surrealism Niedecker investigated during her youth. A strong example of this comes in the shifts of stanzas three and four, which speak of her father coming from higher ground to see her mother's face as she played the organ, but in such a way as to suggest that he saw it through water.

These sets and their echoes establish links that create recurrences (one might almost call them dream ripples) throughout the poem. In stanzas 13 and 14, the water lily mud finds an echo in a place named Mud Lake, and at an internal transition point, Niedecker says that her father "Knew what lay / under leaf decay," moving from her own and her mother's "dead leaves" to those of her father's loneliness - something that didn't nourish him and which a bright new car couldn't hide, just as it could not lessen the strains of his marriage nor assuage his wife's sense of betrayal and her distancing herself from other people. In stanzas 27 and 28, the water lilies reemerge as flowers that might be placed on her grandfather's grave. Echoes such as these can reach a deeper level of strangeness than Niedecker could find in the more overt surrealism she experimented with when she was young.

In stanzas 10 and 11, Niedecker mourns her mother's deafness in trills full of nearly every sonic device she could pack into a stanza. That these sound properties, including onomatopoeia, are precisely what her mother could not hear makes the loss all the more pointed. As much as this draws on surrealist procedures, it also epitomizes Objectivist aims as sharply as possible: the stanza is made up of sound, "the thing itself." In stanzas 19 and 20, she introduces a set of links to her childhood with the sound characteristics of nursery rhymes. In her first major poetic effort, New Goose, she made subversive parodies of Mother Goose Rhymes - in Paean to Place, she not only makes parodies of children's rhymes but parodies of her own parodies of them, linking two distinct phases of her personal development.

Niedecker did not like to read her poetry aloud, and never gave a public reading in her life - an odd decision for a poet whose skill at sonic development was so magnificent and whose work depends so thoroughly on sound. In a letter to Gail Roub she wrote "I like planting poems in deep silence, [where] each person gets at the poem for himself. He has to come to the poems with an ear for all the music they can give and he'll hear that as Beethoven heard tho deaf." Perhaps her own silence helped her to hear so exquisitely, and to be able to do so much with what she heard.

The page breaks in this edition make the silences and major disjunctures of the work more apparent and more palpable. It's easy to see how an abrupt break and a pause between stanzas 39 and 40 can initially suggest the image of the river moving barges through an as yet unspecified mouth, emphasizing the dream dimensions of this poem and Niedecker's capacity for unsettling disjunctures. The breaking up of stanzas slows the reader down, establishing a tempo outside that of normal reading speed. In stanza 22, perhaps the most often quoted from the poem, Niedecker describes herself as "a solitary plover / a pencil / for a wing- bone." These five lines when not rushed create a sense of space around them, seeming to suspend time, and give concentration to the gentle radiance they release. Although some commentators have read these lines as a statement of loneliness, in context they reveal themselves as much a statement of the ability to make time for reflection and contemplation. It gives force to the quote in the last two lines of the next stanza: "'We live by the urgent wave / of the verse."' The hovering bird of one stanza and the situational pressure in the next strike a balance and reinforce the nature of ripples moving through the poem.

Despite the pleasure Niedecker took in observing the natural environment that the river afforded her, its perennial floods brought endless miseries. There is nothing sentimental about the river and the river of life as Niedecker experienced it. An unintentional indication of this comes in stanza 38. "The boy my friend" is a proxy for a child Niedecker was pushed into aborting some three decades earlier. The events of this phase of Niedecker's life left scars that never completely healed. At the time she wrote this poem, the proxy was in his twenties, and, for Niedecker, had become part of an internalized family mythology. In the course of her life, this particular flood left more than its share of "soak-heavy rug[s]" and "buckled floors." Although Niedecker had her own ceremonial reasons for writing this stanza, its main function in the poem for many readers may be to bring home how much the miseries of existence extended beyond glib interpretations of such a potentially corny conceit as the river of life.

In the penultimate stanza, Niedecker refers to the planet Mars in Pisces. She probably had no astrological interpretation in mind. Associations of the constellation of the Fish with spring would make sense for someone, like her, who watched the stars as a natural phenomenon. She may have been thinking of Mars in Pisces as seen at some time in childhood, or she could have seen it there in the spring of 1966, when she may have made an early draft of this poem. The move away from something as abstract as astrology to naked eye observation of the cycles of the heavens shows how much awareness of the life of a place prevents that place from limiting its significance for people living elsewhere.

Starting at least as early as the 1960s, Niedecker had admirers outside the few with whom she corresponded. Her early fans (almost all of them poets) may have been small in number, but they were adamant. One of the reasons for this is simply that the English speaking world may have produced a few comparable lyricists in the 20th century, but none better. During the last 40 years, those who appreciate her work have grown in number. Given the momentum built up at this point, it seems safe to say that she will not contend with her early colleague Charles Reznikoff for the title of most disgracefully neglected poet of her milieu. We can, at this point, feel assured that she will take her place in the traditional canon with such peers as Andrew Marvell, Robert Herrick, and Christina Rossetti. It is not a bad place to be: not alternately proclaimed a dolt and the messiah, but someone who is always there for those open to the clarity and refreshment that only a lyricist of her ability can provide.

Books By and About Lorine Niedecker:
New Goose, The Press of James A. Decker. Prairie City, Illinois, 1946.

My Friend Tree, The Wild Hawthorn Press (Forward by Edward Dorn). Edinburgh, Scotland, 1961.

Origin, Third Series - Issue Featuring Lorine Niedecker. Kyoto, Japan, July 1966.

North Central, Fulcrum Press, London, England, 1968.

T & G: The Collected Poems of Lorine Niedecker (1936 - 1966), The Jargon Society. Penland, North Carolina, 1969.

My Life by Water, Collected Poems 1936-1968, Fulcrum Press. London, England, 1970.

Blue Chicory (Previously uncollected Poems), Cid Corman, ed. The Elizabeth Press. New Rochelle, New York, 1976. Truck 16: Lorine Niedecker Issue, Carrboro, North Carolina, 1976.

The Full Note: Lorine Niedecker. Peter Dent, ed. Interim Press, Budleigh Salterton, UK, 1983.

From this Condensery: The Complete Writing of Lorine Niedecker, Robert Bertholf, ed. he Jargon Society, Highlands, North Carolina, 1985.

The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker, Cid Corman, ed. North Point Press, San Francisco, 1985.

"Between Your House and Mine": The Letters of Lorine Niedecker and Cid Corman 1960-1970, Lisa Pater Faranda, Duke U. Press, Durham, North Carolina, 1986

Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, Jenny Penberthy, ed. Cambridge U. Press, New York, 1993.

Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, Jenny Penberthy, ed. National Poetry Foundation, Orono, Maine, 1996.

Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works, Jenny Penberthy, ed. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 2002.

New Goose, Jenny Penberthy, ed. Rumor Books, Berkeley, California, 2002.

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Copyright © 2003 by Karl Young