Erica Zhang reviews Niedecker monograph pamphlets by Jenny Penberthy, Paul G. Hayes & Martha Bergland

Lorine Niedecker’s Century 1903 – 2003 by Jenny Penberthy
Increase Lapham & Lorine Niedecker by Paul G. Hayes and Martha Bergland

Romantic transcendence held no appeal for Niedecker. Her exploratory gaze is more typically turned towards the ground.

                               A student
                              my head always down
                              of the grass as I mow
                              I missed the cranes.


(Penberthy 3)


It’s perhaps fitting for a first read-through of the monograph pamphlets published by the Friends of Lorine Niedecker and Woodland Pattern to have taken place some-thirty-thousand feet up in the air, on a flight out from Wisconsin. The question of scale that emerges from both volumes—scales of influence, scales of embodiment, mobility, scales of attention—was itself magnified in-flight, as if the stakes of Niedecker’s poetic project came into sharper focus with elevation and distance. Head in the clouds rather attuned to head down to the ground.

In these parts, Lorine Niedecker needs no introduction to readers and writers of poetry. A Wisconsin-born poet whose work has been read among the modernists and linked to Objectivism, including a personal, intellectual and romantic relation to Objectivist poet Louis Zukofsky, Niedecker will also be familiar to readers of modern poetry of the past century. Even so, her name may still be obscure. (My own discovery of Niedecker did not occur until I moved to Wisconsin—a discovery shocking in its lateness.) The two inaugural pamphlets in the series serve both constituents well, the fans and the uninitiated. Anyone with an interest in “regional” poetics, modernism, and the conversations occurring between modernism and the natural sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth century will want to pick up a copy.

The first pamphlet, Lorine Niedecker’s Century 1903-2003, reproduces the script of a talk given at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater by Jenny Penberthy on the occasion of Niedecker’s centenary. Right away, Penberthy tells us Niedecker herself was physically small, slightly built. Her diminutive stature and timid personality would seem to reinforce the miniaturized way in which her formally curt, concise verse tends to be read. Niedecker also circumscribed herself within a limited geography, returning to live and work in Wisconsin, albeit only after stints abroad and in New York. If avant-gardism is linked to an internationalism often ostentatious in display, then Niedecker and her quietism form a kind of anomaly. Penberthy gets at this oddity by rather confirming its naturalness to Niedecker’s life. She plays up the scales and seeming contradictions within Niedecker’s life and legacy, noting the poet’s literary ambition alongside her modesty, her rural existence set against the backdrop of a cosmopolitan education. The pamphlet offers an eloquent, informative overview of Niedecker’s work and biography. It stakes out a big bold space for Niedecker in literary history—an entire century of Niedecker’s own, as the title suggests—and sets the tone for open exploration.

The second pamphlet in the series by Paul G. Hayes and Martha Bergland, simply titled Lorine Niedecker & Increase Lapham, zeroes in on the ground, literally the land on which Niedecker resided, to identify and describe the presence of specifically-Wisconsin botany and geology in her work. The authors do this by investigating the appearance in Niedecker’s poetry of Increase Lapham, a self-taught nineteenth-century naturalist. Lapham wrote Wisconsin’s first scientific paper and published the first book in Wisconsin, on the topics of Wisconsin’s plant species and geography. We learn that, like Niedecker, Lapham was also slight of stature, with an inclination to have his head down to the ground, attention to the grasses.

The “cosmic” kind of expansion of scale Penberthy speaks of plays out in the second pamphlet across historical and textual excavations. Lapham corresponds long-distance with Asa Gray, sharing with the notable nineteenth-century naturalist his findings of specimen on the ground in Wisconsin. In the twentieth century, Niedecker digs in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society to find letters exchanged by the two men. Bits and phrases, lifted straight from the archives, then find their way into Niedecker’s poetry.

Lightly and unhurriedly, Hayes and Bergland make their case for the centrality of Wisconsin geography in Niedecker’s work. It’s not to show that the poems are thinking or feeling about Wisconsin, but that they owe their direct existence to a physically lived, material record of Wisconsin land as Niedecker, like Lapham before her, trekked upon, carefully observed, and catalogued. Niedecker also paid attention of this kind to the historical archives. An affinity and analogy is made between the way Lapham gathered his specimen and the way Niedecker collected her phrases. The poems, we might say, are a result of scientific study.

A suggestion here emerges: to consider poetic production not as a function of expression—and as Penberthy already points out, certainly not “Romantic transcendence”—but rather the empirical study of one’s immediate environment.

But this line of thought would seem to butt up against what Penberthy cites as Niedecker’s views on the impetus for her own poetic production: “this would be of course what no one else has written—else why write,” as well as her reference to T.S. Eliot, “It is as wasteful for a poet to do what has been done already as for a biologist to rediscover Mendel’s discoveries” (8). Is not Niedecker jotting down again what has already been written by Gray and Lapham, and (re)discovering what Lapham has earlier discovered?

Hayes and Bergland do not overtly take up this issue of craft. But they do carry out their own exercise in such a poetics of (re)discovery. The last section in the pamphlet presents the results of the authors’ own diggings in the historical archives: new poems composed in Niedecker’s style out of found phrases in Lapham’s journals and letters. They make for a mostly irreverent addition that opens up to a question of poetic method, a question of discovery and invention that is perhaps central if we are to seriously investigate the relation between poetic writing and scientific observation. It’s something left in the air for now that perhaps a future pamphlet in the series will take up. What emerges from these first two issues is a portrait of a poet-scientist knowing of distant places yet curious of her immediate surroundings, with her nose close to the archives, to the words, as well as the grasses.



Erica Zhang blogs at Modern Jargon and tweets @rrrle.


Penberthy, Jenny. What Region? 1.1 Lorine Niedecker’s Century 1903 – 2003. Friends of Lorine Niedecker, 2015.

Hayes, Paul G. and Martha Bergland. What Region? 1.2. Increase Lapham & Lorine Niedecker. Friends of Lorine Niedecker, 2015.