Monday, December 05, 2011

`A Whole Family of Him'

The Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker writes March 19, 1956, to Louis Zukofsky:

“I take down not my Bible but Marcus Aurelius and follow up with Lucretius and Thoreau’s Journal (The Heart of) and why couldn’t somebody like Thoreau—a whole family of him—have ever settled near me?”
More than two years later, on June 1, 1958, she writes again to Zukofsky:
“Cleaning the old cupboard I placed three books together that mean most to me—Marcus Aurelius, Thoreau’s Walden and Japanese Haiku and standing beside that is [Zukofsky’s] Test of Poetry.”
Niedecker and Thoreau – American Isolatoes (Melville: “not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own”). Both lived by water and wrote about it -- Thoreau on the rivers and Walden Pond, Niedecker on Black Hawk Island (“The Brontes had their moors, I have my marshes.") Both celebrated silence and wrote of neighbors with suspicion, envy and gratitude. Many of Niedecker’s neighbors, as well as relatives, were unaware she wrote poetry. The citizens of Concord knew Thoreau as a surveyor, pencil maker and oddball in a time and place of oddballs. The “Visitors” chapter in Walden begins:

I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me thither.”
Niedecker asks “why couldn’t somebody like Thoreau—a whole family of him—have ever settled near me?” Impossible. Thoreau made his final doomed journey to Minnesota, Wisconsin’s neighbor, but there was never anyone “like” him. Like her he was sui generis, a cast-iron eccentric, for better and worse. He would have wandered off into the marshes after turtles.
In her home library Niedecker owned copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. The latter is the 1927 Everyman’s edition. On a sheet of paper tucked into the volume is written in Niedecker’s hand:
“Of Thoreau - He chose to be rich by making his wants few. – Emerson”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Very interesting to compare hermetic iconoclasts Thoreau and Niedecker. One could add that they both were water signs (Cancer and Scorpio), both relied on mentors of letters (Emerson and Zukofsky) who looked on them as charges instead of, more properly, peers. Both were fascinated by travel/expedition/nature narratives and had a distinct preference for the literary products of the new world (witness Niedecker’s obsessions with Jefferson and the James Brothers). Both used science to condemn certain affectations in the arts, and both used art to condemn certain rigidities in science. Both became isolated from their respective societies because they too strongly believed in its ideals. Thoreau turned the Puritan/Ingenious Yankee mindset on its head by actually taking it seriously, willing himself to believe such structures were not first and foremost efforts to organize society. Neidecker for her part turned her back on the societies of versifiers by essentializing the essence of poetry, striving to condense words into vapor – as such she had no time for the gamesmanship involving poetic forms, ideological rigor, ideas in the rhetorical sense, for all that relied on a shared assumption between reader and writer, a compromise that was not honest enough for her. She collected phrases for months at a time, cutting them back relentlessly, until maybe a syllable remained in the final work. She took seriously Rilke’s dictum that poets were good for maybe 10 lines at best over a lifetime, as Thoreau demonstrated Bob Dylan’s dictum that “to live outside the law you’ve got to be honest.”

I’ve known many Thoreaus and Niedeckers in my life. They know how to maintain a 1970 Toyota in drivable condition, they don’t know how to use a computer, they cast their lot with manual laborers society deems illegal or damaged, they only live at a fixed address to get a library card. I’ve been to Concord and Fort Atkinson. The latter does not ring with Niedecker as much as with Dane County’s famous expatriates Frank Lloyd Wright and Georgia O’Keefe, both of whom went from water to desert for their truest expressions. Similarly, Thoreau seems far away from the high-tech baronage that is contemporary Concord. I found his spirit in Thoreau, New Mexico, a small village mostly of Indians (his last word), supported by Federal funds and a few old uranium mines, and in the shadow of magnificent red rocks that tell the story of human civilization.

Looking essentially at random, I find shared space between he who Updike termed “the perfect crank” and she who Basil Bunting called “the finest female American poet” in Neidecker’s poem “Foreclosure” (an apt title in our current, so different age):

“Tell em to take my bare walls down
my cement abutements
their parties thereof
and clause of claws

Leave me the land
Scratch out: the land

May prose and property both die out
and leave me peace”