The Milk Separator and the New Goose: Niedecker, Eisenstein, and the Poetics of Non-indifference

Elizabeth Willis

Given the fugitive status of Lorine Niedecker’s poetry in her lifetime it seems almost impossible to write about her work without considering questions of context. The release of her Collected Poems from University of California this spring should remedy the problem of access, but as social formations within poetic communities—let alone those within critical discourse—continue to leave her more or less an outsider, it is difficult to know how to contextualize her work in ways that reflect the high level of both singularity and interconnectedness one finds in her writing. As a “country” writer with a social imagination, Niedecker’s poems show, at times, a greater affinity with work produced not only outside Wisconsin but outside the U.S. In response to Niedecker’s own resistance to being classified by regional identity (“What region—London, Wisconsin, New York?”) [1] , I’m interested in generating other taxonomies that place her within an international community of artists who share her creative and intellectual affinities. We might thereby contextualize her among writers like Jean Toomer, Garcia Lorca, and Kenneth Fearing, whose work, like hers, explores cultural conflict and an interest in folk forms—writers who in many ways were equidistant from her writing hand as the other Objectivists.

In this respect, Niedecker’s personal library, still more or less intact at the Fort Atkinson Public Library, contains an interesting record of her tastes and affinities. Since she had little discretionary money and limited space, she would have been highly selective about the books she owned. As I think her quip about regionalism suggests, the broader context of her reading places her in the neighborhood of Ashbery’s Art and Literature, the Bhagavad-Gita, Henri Bergson, Birds and Their Attributes, Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, Burns and Catullus, Confucius’s Analects, Corso’s Gasoline, Caesar’s War Commentaries, John Cage’s Silence, Dante’s Comedia, Dickinson and Diderot, Emerson and Engels, Goethe and Ginsberg, Lao Tzu and Lucretius, Marx and Montaigne, Nietzsche, Ovid, Plato, Plutarch, Pound, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Shakespeare and Schlesinger, Sappho, Santayana, Spinoza, Stravinsky, Sinclair, Tolstoy, Tacitus, Twain, Virgil, Wilde, Williams, Wordsworth, and Zola, as well as Zukofsky.

Niedecker’s poetry is driven in part by the love of mixture this list suggests. Her poems are shaped by the tension between a keenly individual sense of voice and a broader documentary impulse that holds the individual in check. She and Zukofsky shared an interest in Chaplin, with his portrayal of everyman lost in modernism, saving himself with humor and invention. [2] In drawing attention to the overlooked transactions of daily life—the moments when soft matter meets technology head-on—her intellectual curiosity brings her across disciplinary as well as international boundaries. Among other connections, her work shows a kinship with Soviet cinema, much of which shares her passion for anthropological and poetic inquiry—especially along the axes of urban/rural and manual/mechanized labor.

Soviet cinema was also an obvious influence on films produced by and for the American labor market, films that made their way around the country with limited bookings in labor temples, libraries, and other civic facilities, particularly in small Midwestern towns that didn’t have their own movie palaces. Whether Niedecker in fact saw these films or not, the comparison is generative. Her poetry bears a striking resemblance to their semi-documentary tone, and her inquisitive, listening eye is repeatedly tuned to dramas of the individual as they occur along the trajectory of larger struggles. Though disconnected from the nationalist narratives of American newsreels or the high Romantic theatre of Flaherty’s ethnographic features like Nanook of the North, [3] Niedecker’s poetry and poetics connect formally and thematically to some of Sergei Eisenstein’s feature films and writings on aesthetics.

Like Niedecker, Eisenstein came into his art from off-center. By his own account, Hollywood was so far at the forefront in terms of development and money that it was clear to Soviet filmmakers that they could not compete with it on its own terms; so the question quickly became how to establish a new cinema, with an aesthetic appropriate to both the newness and historical depth of Soviet culture. A director of Eisenstein’s sensibility would have had a hard time in the U.S., of course, where films were ideologically edited in the opposite direction, away from any sympathies with labor and unionization. In accordance with such strictures, there was a tendency in American films, even at the height of the Great Depression, to focus on upper or upper-middle class life on the coasts. As if it lived on the Twentieth Century express train, the attention of the film industry was drawn primarily—and increasingly—to New York and L.A., sleeping through the heartland with its shades drawn. As dramatic content, the vast Midwest still resonated with socialist concerns, the plights of farmers and miners and steelworkers, not what the big business of cinema wanted to examine as it scuttled various attempts at unionization within its own industry.

As in early Soviet cinema, much of Niedecker’s poetic thinking is given over to the observation of cultural collision and collective production. As Eisenstein investigates the (artificial) production of pathos, Niedecker investigates the (artificial) production of folk. Like Eisenstein, Niedecker’s aesthetics are grounded in acts of memory and recombination; they include the acknowledgment and even documentation of her own indebtedness to “sources,” whether those sources are history or hearsay, canonical literature or front-porch gossip. Niedecker’s attention to small scale dramas in poems like “To my small electric pump” evokes the kind of knowing, tongue-in-cheek humor that one finds in Eisenstein’s The Old and the New. In this poem, the pump is addressed as the presiding, ruminative lord of the manor, instructed to look to its “snifter” of oil in order to “sense / and sound / this world.” As in “The Great Snowfall Before the Bomb” social mobility and industrial-age machinery are conflated as structures that require lubrication, “well-oiled protection” to operate.

This awareness of the material means of manufacturing emotive effects keeps the work of both artists connected to its primary sources without becoming sentimental; their art is self-aware without turning merely ironic or nostalgic. Like Eisenstein’s films, Niedecker’s work draws attention to its own conditions of production, deflecting the implied authority of the subject/speaker by emphasizing markers of collectivity: reported conversations, historical and scientific accounting, and traces of other texts and authors. Her famous image of poetic production as a “condensery” (in “Poets Work”) is a perfect example of her method. First, as a folked-up mispronunciation of Pound’s “Condensare,”It revels in the ways high and low cultures are each other’s undoing. Then, as a metaphor it blurs the distinction between the two, with sedentary poetic production and “real work” (something that has value as a “trade”) operating according to the same principles. Generating little in the way of monetary or cultural capital, a mechanism that will gain her little individual freedom or buying power, the condensery invests in its own dream of collectivity. Poetic condensing may be a job that’s so slow and impoverished nobody would want it, but in the language of the labor movement of the 1930s, it’s as good as a union with its protection against layoffs.

In his essay “The Milk Separator and the Holy Grail” Eisenstein discusses the production of pathos as a structural issue, rather than merely one of content.  After offering an analysis of his own Battleship Potemkin, he compares the build-up of tension in Potemkin to that of his later film The Old and the New, linking the famous climax on the Odessa steps to the successful operation of a collective farm’s new milk separator in the later film—an image that coincides nicely with Niedecker’s condensery. As Eisenstein describes the machine, it is grail-like in its visual significance, its symbolic weight; it functions as an intensifier and as an intensification: “Kindled by an internal flame, the separator could be said to have been a central artistic image, condensing in itself both the theme as a whole, and its treatment.” (50)

In their observation of cultural collision, Niedecker’s poems move dialectically through the repeated juxtaposition of poetic and manual labor, working and middle class interests, the predictable and random clashes of indoor and outdoor sensibilities, rural and urban ways of doing things, blue and white collar love, the iron in the blood conversing with the iron in the stone. This love of the impact of opposites appears as a signature gesture on many levels in her work, from her images—say, the “granite pail”—to her titles—like “Tenderness and Gristle” or “Home/World.”

Much in the way that Eisenstein repeatedly demands of his viewers a cognitive leap by cutting between the opposing realities of mechanized and nonmechanized farming (in The Old and the New) or between communist solidarity and czarist loyalty (in Potemkin), Niedecker collides the “rich rich silence of the church” with the noise of Darwinian nature (in “I rose from marsh mud”). The “museum man!” is confronted with the spit box, a paycheck is dried in “leaves of grass,” and commercial exploits abrade natural interconnection where “gulls play both sides” of the international waters in “Lake Superior.” Likewise, Adams’ vision of revolution is framed by chintz curtains (in “The wild and wavy event”), suggesting that Revolution is repeatedly domesticated, made safe, cheapened, stylized, converted into something marketably “chintzy.”  With an Eisensteinian use of caricature, irregularities in social behaviors are revealed as deep ideological differences:  “you spit, I don’t spit”  (in “Two old men—”).

Beyond their interest in documenting the relation between opposite sensibilities through a “diapason” or leap from one condition to another, Niedecker and Eisenstein share a vision of nature as “non-indifferent”—not merely a backdrop for human drama but interconnected with it, an inseparable part of the drama. This non-indifference places artist, art, and viewer at a point of collision. In his essays “On the Structure of Things” and “Pathos,” Eisenstein writes specifically about bringing the viewer into a state of “ecstasy” through a highly calculated movement between opposite states—an attention to creative reception that is mirrored in Niedecker’s early poem “When Ecstasy Is Inconvenient.”

Even when Eisenstein’s images lean toward caricature, they remain, in his own terms, effective vehicles for pathos. In structuring the build-up of anxiety around the operation of the milk separator, with its promise of transforming the arduous lives of farmers, Eisenstein closes the gap between viewer and viewed in much the way that Niedecker’s poetic asides about Mr. Van Ess’s washcloths or Pa’s spit box are delivered with an open, offhanded familiarity. Watching the snaggle-toothed laughter of the peasants in The Old and the New while they watch the milk separator finally trickle out its long-anticipated cream, it is difficult not to laugh with a mixture of mockery and self-recognition. It’s not that we have become one with the struggle of these Russian farmers, nor that we see them as a pathetic bunch of rubes, but in becoming a part of the complex, collective enterprise of the film, we experience a pleasure that coincides with theirs, having been brought here by the delirious pace of the film’s cuts.

While this kind of cultural collision drives much of Niedecker’s work, nowhere is it more evident than in the forthcoming expanded edition of New Goose, with its explicit contrast between past and present styles—the Old (Mother) Goose and the new progeny of modernism and tradition. Like Christina Rossetti’s collection Sing-Song, these poems combine nursery rhyme sound patterns with rather adult accounts of life’s darker realities. The poems’ repeated losses are not met with reassurance except of the “death and taxes” sort, reaffirming the inevitable watery overflow of personal and political struggle, which will always be at odds with the interests and concerns of the landed.

At times the poems of Niedecker’s New Goose reveal something like Robert Duncan’s mid-century “meadow,” only muddier; their images are less idealized, less idyllic, but equally locating in their account of creative composition. But the peaceful security of this location is, it turns out, always bordering on someone else’s property:

A lawnmower’s one of the babies I’d have
if they’d give me a job and I didn’t get bombed
in the high grass

by the private woods. Getting so when I look off my space I see waste
I’d like to mow. (10)

Whereas Frost stopped by private woods to contemplate mortality, Niedecker stops to capture the dream of dominating nature with a lawnmower. In the process she acknowledges what may be a profound truth about the American preoccupation with personal space: that it speaks to a deeper frustration around ownership, uselessness, frustrated desire. (“Whose woods these are I think I know” becomes a less comfortable “waste / I’d like to mow.”) Or perhaps in the verbal play between getting bombed and lying in post-war wastedness, Eliot’s Waste Land meets the local drunk; international modernism tested out by the local. Everywhere the social, biological, geological, and political are intertwined through double entendre and the homophonic resonance of overlapping vocabularies.

In another poem from the collection, Niedecker’s word choices—fishing, dock, pickets, plant, stock, sits, fishes, stiff, stork, sprang, sport—form a sequence of terms that morph sonically and sensically as the poem progresses:

We know him—Law and Order League—
fishing from our dock,
testified against the pickets
at the plant—owns stock.

There he sits and fishes
stiff as if a stork
brought him, never sprang from work—
a sport.

Here social history is layered with the deeply impacted language of sex, birthing, gardening, manufacturing, social policing, work and leisure. This man from the Law and Order League may be fishing for recruits from the transport dock of a privately owned factory or for real fish from the dock of a publicly owned body of water. Plant and stock read primarily in the realm of manufacturing and business but evoke a botanical reality from which folks have been separated by industrialization itself.

Outside the reach of the Law and Order League, the poem captures this enemy of labor as “stiff,” dead, emotionally wooden. Looking as if a stork brought him (he is the agent of a fairytale belief), he “never sprang from work,” e.g., couldn’t have come from the rank and file, from the work of sexual union, from the labor of birth. He’s engaged in fishing as sport, and he is a sport, a butt of jokes, a good old boy club-type, lacking both the seriousness and humor of those he tries to keep in “order.”

Thus one kind of civic and economic order is posited only to be replaced by the indelible, sure-footed order of the poem. The poem embodies precisely Eisenstein’s sense of organic unity:  “It is in an organic work of art that the elements contributing to the work as a whole permeate every feature composing this work.” (10) In this way Niedecker creates or rather reduces the poem to the condition of an organism, a “higher unity” as defined by Eisenstein and Engels. Insisting on an aesthetic of non-indifference, these poems create an unsettled, unsettling region. Its terms are fluid markers of both general and particular patterns—an ideal condition for art, as Eisenstein defines it: “This could be called the organic unity of a particular of exceptional order. It is this that we find particularly interesting.” (11)

Works Cited

Eisenstein, Sergei. Nonindifferent Nature. Trans. Herbert Marshall. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Faranda, Lisa Pater. “Between Your House and Mine”: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970. Durham: Duke UP, 1986.

Niedecker, Lorine. New Goose. Berkeley: Listening Chamber, 2002.

Penberthy, Jenny. Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1993.

Ross, Steven J. Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1998.


[1] Faranda, 208.

[2] Penberthy, 39.

[3] Ross, 218.

Bio: Elizabeth Willis is the author of three books of poems: Second Law (Avenue B, 1993), The Human Abstract (Penguin, 1995) and Turneresque (forthcoming 2003).

readings index

table of contents