Editing Niedecker

Jenny Penberthy

For the past few years I have been immersed in the details of editing the collected poems of the American poet Lorine Niedecker born in 1903, a second generation modernist. I began my work on the edition with something close to a dismissive attitude towards what I took to be the strictly empirical nature of the task. I thought I could knock if off in a summer. As I entered the archive and began to explore its complexities, one summer extended into several years. I had to re-conceive all the certainties of my previous research and writing on Lorine Niedecker and also to reconsider the place I had assigned to textual scholarship. Quite clearly, the two activities of textual scholarship and interpretation are fundamentally linked. My hope is that Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works — perhaps disconcertingly new to those familiar with the earlier presentations of Niedecker’s poetry — will stimulate fresh readings of the work.

Niedecker’s first collection of poems, New Goose, was published in 1946 — a small-format book of 40 short poems. This was followed fifteen years later in 1961 by a 16-poem collection called My Friend Tree published in Scotland by Ian Hamilton Finlay. The offer for the next book came in 1966 from Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Society. T&G: Collected Poems 1936-1966 appeared in 1969, followed in 1970 — the year of her death — by an expanded collected poems My Life By Water: Collected Poems 1936-1968 published in the UK by Fulcrum. These two collecteds were her own compilations, her late-in-life summaries of her career, opportunities to publish before she died. On the evidence of T&G, for thirty-five years Niedecker had been an author of short lyrics, in most cases very short lyrics of about 5 lines. My Life by Water adds three longer poems but two of these are series of linked short poems.

Of course, revision and omission are commonplace when poets collect their own work. One thinks of Marianne Moore whose sequence of published collections highlights a drama of revisions beginning with Observations in 1924, Selected Poems in 1935, Collected Poems in 1951, and Complete Poems in 1967. From one collection to the next her readers are able to keep track of her revisions, a practice that showcases her method and process as much as the poem itself. However, in Niedecker’s case, the vast majority of the poems in T&G and My Life by Water had not appeared in book form before. Their history was mute.

Given Niedecker’s spare publication record, the collected poems she compiled between 1966 and 1969 could not be a conventional alignment of previously published books. Instead she chose to organize an edited selection of poems in a loose chronology of named categories — generic in the case of “Ballads,” “In Exchange for Haiku,” and the folk poems “New Goose/My Friend Tree,” and thematic in the case of “For Paul,” “The Years Go By,” and “Home/World” — a schema that provided the barest allusion to the ambitious provenance of poems written in the course of thirty-five years. T&G, in particular, is a hermetic collection impervious to a reading that probes — as one might probe a collected poems — for some trace of a developing poetics or a sense of an unfolding career. Instead the poems accrue a kind of autonomy. This is, I believe, a deliberate choice and a result, in part, of the complex sociology of the poems’ production. In My Life by Water, however, the autonomy weakens and a new ontology is asserted. The book is located in place. The dust jacket design is based on a sports-fishing map of Lake Koshkonong and Black Hawk Island where she lived her life. T&G’s same arrangement of poems is here framed by poems of place. It begins with the poem “My Life by Water,” followed by the serial poem “Paean to Place” and the collection ends with another extended poem of place, “Wintergreen Ridge.” On the strength of this collection, she has been read as a poet of place and as a poet of a highly condensed, minimal poetry.   

Both books, of course, carry the stamp of authorial intention — she prepared the printer’s typescripts and proofread both sets of galleys. But they were prepared by a poet whose life’s work had been shaped by her thwarted attempts to publish, failures that had as much to do with her isolation in small town Wisconsin as with her close ties to New York poet Louis Zukofsky. Below the surface of the books are multiple layers of omission, accommodation, and self-censorship.

Looking at the sequence of published books, Niedecker’s period of no book publication coincides with the hiatus in the careers of George Oppen and Carl Rakosi, Objectivist poets with whom she is often linked. They had disavowed poetry, but she hadn’t paused. Between 1946 and the early 1960s, even magazine publication was rare for Niedecker. She told Edward Dahlberg in 1955, “Creeley has now accepted 4. I’m almost overcome, this would make my 6th publication in 10 years!”

The new edition of Niedecker’s works aims to restore the profile of her writing life. To this end it dismantles her own collecteds and presents the work in the sequence of its composition. The collection adds previously omitted work such as all the surviving instances of her early 1930s surrealism, the impulse that Zukofsky and Pound would disparage in her work but that would remain a steady influence throughout her career. There are examples of automatic writing, cross-genre experiments — prose-poems, poetic-prose, short plays entitled “Poems” — a gift-book palimpsest that superimposes her own holograph writings over a conventionally printed pocket calendar, poems that mimic abstract paintings, and so on. This period of writing is characterized by a confidence less evident in her subsequent writings. All of it is omitted from her own collected poems. Of course, many modernist poets omitted their earliest work from their collections, preferring to conceal their derivative beginnings. But Niedecker began with bold and experimental work that she looked back on in the 1960s with a kind of awe.

The new edition supplements the published New Goose volume and the even smaller selection of folk poems from T&G and My Life by Water with the many unpublished poems from the same 80-poem Mother Goose project: poems about the Depression, the growth of Fascism, the Spanish Civil War, the Vichy government in France, the American involvement in World War II, the atomic bomb, and so on.

And the new edition restores the “FOR PAUL AND OTHER POEMS” manuscript, which she had planned as her second volume, ten years after the first. Roughly half of the poems are addressed directly to Paul Zukofsky, 6 years old at the time she began in 1949. Others refer to the politics of the time and to her family and home on flood-threatened Black Hawk Island. Zukofsky had, of course, a close involvement in the project — the poems were written as much for him as for Paul — and his criticism of them was often barbed. Despite her efforts, “FOR PAUL AND OTHER POEMS,” intended to be her second book, ten years after the first, was never published. Zukofsky’s ambivalence was an important obstacle. As late as September 1960, Niedecker told Cid Corman that she had “ready, a book not yet printed, under title of For Paul.” Soon after she would dissolve the collection and instead publish the individual poems in magazines. Several of these were substantially revised, others remained unpublished, and still others such as “What horror to awake at night” and “Sorrow moves in wide waves” had to wait 18 years for their first publication in T&G.

The new edition organizes the work chronologically by collections, both published and projected. Not all of these can be represented because of their overlapping content — a particular problem with the 1960s books and typescripts. I have included as many of the major groupings of her work as chronology and the need to avoid duplication will allow: collections published in her lifetime (New Goose, North Central), manuscripts intended for publication (“NEW GOOSE,” “FOR PAUL AND OTHER POEMS,” “HARPSICHORD & SALT FISH”), and the gift-books made by hand for her poet-friends at a time when publication still seemed unlikely (“HOMEMADE POEMS” and “HANDMADE POEMS”). In between these collections, the remaining poems are placed in the chronology by first traceable date of composition. The arrangement of the 1960s collections not represented in the text is recorded in contents lists at the back of the book.

Smaller groupings of poems are also noted in the edition. When Niedecker submitted her work to magazines, she typically arranged the poems in groups. In many cases, however, the groupings were retrospective and transitory, made in fresh attempts to see the poems into print. Partly because she was published so irregularly, she had a growing body of work to draw from when she made submissions to magazines or when she compiled her books. As she revisited her poems — both published and unpublished — she revised them and altered their groupings. These groupings, usefully described as contextual rather than textual variants, are always interesting and revealing. But because of their fluctuating boundaries, they are difficult to preserve in a print collection. They can, however, be reconstructed with the help of the notes at the back of the book.

For copytext, I have settled on My Life by Water (1970) as Niedecker’s latest and most substantial revised text, or, when a poem is not included in My Life by Water, the last extant version. This is a gesture toward recording final intentions made with the awareness that Niedecker’s final intentions are often difficult to assess. Indeed, authorial intention can be a shifting quantity with different versions of poems sanctioned by authorial intention at different times. And because there are instances where Niedecker’s intentions are masked by the convolutions of her close relationship with Zukofsky, the original form of the poems is recorded in the notes. Some begin in lengthy drafts and emerge years later much condensed. Her ambivalent statements about the practice of “condensery” suggest that this compositional record should be preserved. Thus all the surviving drafts and their revisions appear in the notes.

My choice of the last version for copytext is in some ways at odds with my decision to preserve collections that pre-date My Life by Water, a particular problem when many earlier poems are substantially revised for My Life by Water. The most striking example is “Dear Paul,” which was condensed from its 198 lines in the “FOR PAUL AND OTHER POEMS” typescript to 33 lines in My Life by Water. In all such instances, the revised poem displaces the earlier poem, whose text can be found in the notes. This practice is less than ideal, but must suffice until an electronic edition can present all of her published and unpublished collections intact.

The disposition of Niedecker’s manuscripts is not entirely known. Few manuscripts and papers from her own collection have survived: her husband followed her instructions to destroy them after her death. Those in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin formed part of Louis Zukofsky’s large bequest to the Center in 1964. The largest concentration of manuscripts belongs to the “FOR PAUL” project that occupied her between 1949 and 1956 and that generated a substantial traffic of manuscripts between the two poets. Niedecker’s revisions can be traced from one manuscript to another. At times, Zukofsky noted his suggestions directly on the manuscript. Why then did these annotated manuscripts remain in his possession? Very likely he asked her to return them to him. But given the indeterminate character of this exchange of manuscripts, his annotations need to be read with care. In at least two cases, he appears to have inscribed onto early drafts subsequent revisions that are clearly Niedecker’s own. It is easy to mistake these annotations for his revisions of the poems. Throughout the notes, I have indicated apparent interventions by Zukofsky.

Lorine Niedecker: Collected Poems aims to be both a reader’s edition and a scholarly edition. For those who wish to read the work — poems, plays and prose — the text is uncluttered with apparatus. For the intrepid scholar, a dense 100-page section of notes waits at the back of the book. Here is the record of the process of construction and transmission of the poems — a drama almost completely masked by Niedecker’s own enigmatic final collections.

Bio: Jenny Penberthy teaches at Capilano College. She is the author of Niedecker and the Correspondence with Louis Zukofsky (Cambridge University Press, 1993) and has edited Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet (National Poetry Foundation, 1996) and Lornie Neidecker: Collected Works (University of California Press, 2002). She is currently editing Niedecker’s “Lake Superior” notes.

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