Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, Edited by Elizabeth Willis, University of Iowa Press, 2009.
Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker holds a unique place in American literature since her work reflects ties to the folk culture of rural Wisconsin, as well as interactions with the literary avant-garde of New York and exposure to an international community of artists that included John Cage, William Morris, and Basil Bunting. Indeed, a great deal of the renewed interest in Niedecker’s work focuses on her use of rural life as a point of entry to questions of national and even global significance. Early in her introduction, Elizabeth Willis situates Radical Vernacular within this emergent dialogue about Niedecker’s poetry, “Fueled in part by the energy of the Niedecker Centenary, this volume presents a range of new readings of her lifework, informed by its engagement with geopolitics, regional identity, sound and information technologies, intertextuality, and literary influence” (xxi). Moreover, Willis’s concern with the intersection of regional, national, and global identities serves to anchor the varied perspectives that comprise the volume. Informed by such diverse fields as gender studies, cultural studies, musicology, and technology studies, these essays offer a fascinating exploration of this innovative poet’s vision of place as a nexus of the universal and the particular.
Like only the best edited collections, Radical Vernacular addresses longstanding questions about this writer’s complex body of work while also representing overlooked areas of Niedecker scholarship. Essays about the fairly well-documented regional influences on her work appear alongside less familiar explorations of her interest in blues music, sound technology, and approaches to the writing process itself . Thus readers may expect to find widely varied readings of such well-known poems as “Paean to Place” and “Lake Superior,” in which time-honored interpretations appear alongside newly emergent ones. This trend proves to be especially visible in the wide-ranging approaches to “Paean to Place” that appear throughout Radical Vernacular. In his essay “Life by Water,” for instance, Michael Davidson presents this poem as commenting on modern life through the tangible details of rural existence. He writes, “Measuring the sound of canvasbacks, ‘their blast-off rise/from the water,’ recording the speech of local townsfolk, or seeing the world through her electric pump gave the poet a lens through which she could see the limits of modernity, its instrumental forms and agendas” (3). Such passages adeptly revise and update established readings of Niedecker’s most celebrated poems, situating these interpretations within contemporary literary scholarship. Davidson’s commentary forms a stark contrast with that of Rae Armantrout, who interprets the same piece in light of previous depictions of depression in nineteenth and early twentieth century women’s literature. Armantrout explains, “Here the ‘black depths’ are presented as an unknown to be explored and Niedecker clearly places herself in the company of those who will explore them. In ‘Paean to Place’ she seems to celebrate this exploration” (107). Rather than elaborating on previous interpretations of the piece, passages like this one break new ground, delving into less traditional areas of Niedecker criticism. By allowing established readings and emerging ones to exist side by side, Radical Vernacular offers readers a multifaceted, and remarkably diverse, portrait of Niedecker’s most celebrated poems.
In many ways, these close readings of individual works prove to be the most outstanding aspect of the book. Although contributors like Elizabeth Robinson, Anne Waldman, Patrick Pritchett, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis address broad questions about modernity, regional identity, and rural existence, their generalizations are skillfully grounded in small stylistic details of the poems themselves. In this respect, the essays found in Radical Vernacular treat a range of historical, social, and cultural concerns while at the same time proving to be remarkably concrete. Consider Patrick Pritchett’s essay, “How to Do Things with Nothing,” in which the author presents blues music as an influence on the rhyme schemes, structure, and thematic content of Niedecker’s work. As Pritchett compares excerpts of Niedecker’s For Paul and Other Poems with Bessie Smith’s “Wasted Life Blues,” he skillfully grounds a more general claim of influence in three carefully selected stanzas, focusing on specific choices with respect to rhyme. He writes, describing this excerpt of For Paul and Other Poems, “…what does it mean that, in the first stanza, ‘nothing’ pointedly rhymes with nothing? That in the second stanza, ‘Nothing’ rhymes internally with ‘Something,’ and then with ‘nothing’? That in the final stanza, in a very sweet dialectical move that might have provoked the envy and admiration of the Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, ‘nothing’ is made to rhyme with ‘puffing’ and ‘stuffing,’ both figures for an ironically posed inflation that spikes the speaker’s sense of deflation” (93). Throughout such passages, Pritchett uses small decisions with respect to rhyme as a point of entry to broader questions about autobiography, the position of the female artist in society, and the influence of musical culture on poetry. Radical Vernacular is filled with analyses like this one, in which the author’s treatment of Niedecker’s work offers readers a remarkable synthesis of the historical and the particular.
With that said, Radical Vernacular would be ideal for use in a humanities classroom. By using individual poems as an entry point to questions of regional, and often global, significance, this wonderful edited volume illustrates the ways broad cultural trends inform the technique and thematic content of specific works of literature. Thus questions about female identity, popular culture, rural life are presented in a concrete, and often interdisciplinary, fashion. Perfect for courses dealing with twentieth century American culture, regional identity, and women’s history in addition to traditional literature seminars, Willis’s edited volume is a true service to the literary community.