Radical Vernacular: Kristina Marie Darling on Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place

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.

Twists & Transformations: Ashley Keyser on Robyn Schiff’s Revolver


Robyn Schiff, Revolver, University of Iowa Press

To describe Robyn Schiff’s collection Revolver (Kuhl House Poets 2008), I take one of her own images: the moving and morphing parts and compartments in the poem “Multi-Purpose Steamship Furniture, by Taylor & Sons”– the bed which becomes a sofa in the underwater bedroom-turned-sitting room. As the rooms upon rooms change and refract in water, Schiff’s writing transforms and spirals into intricacies throughout this collection.

Much of the book takes its subject matter from the Great Exhibition of 1851, with poems like “Colt Rapid Fire Revolver” demonstrating a kind of relentless terror in technology, the weapon that “repeats fire without reloading.” In these descriptions, the facets of fact after fact are precisely hewn, and often surprising: The poem on Colt’s revolver opens with Elizabeth Hart Colt’s wedding cake “trimmed with sugar pistols / with revolving sweet-tooth chambers … while a / fly drawn to the sugar places a stringy foot / on the trigger. Dysentry.”

Schiff traces historic marvels to modern figures of consumerism, like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein – similar to her first collection, Worth (Iowa 2002), which dealt with fashion and beauty. In the poem “On the Abduction of Calvin Klein’s Daughter Marci: A Captor’s Narrative,” the speaker recounts how she and a young Brooke Shields and Kate Moss were behind the 1977 kidnapping scandal. The voice is humorous and incisive:


I can’t remember the name of my own parent
company, I ask: You know what
comes between me and my
John Calvins? Nothing, except Judaism – and then I recall
the name of the corporation is Puritan.

In other poems, Schiff moves rapidly through time and place. The collection’s final piece “Project Paperclip” deals with Nazi engineers’ involvement in the US space program before transitioning to Asian Longhorned Beetles, then to Chinese furniture with poems carved on the legs, and later to the September 11th attacks. Proof of Schiff’s skill is her management of myriad threads. We don’t get whiplash in these poems; we always know where we are, even if we don’t immediately understand why the change in location was necessary or what it will mean.

What I particularly admire, more than Schiff’s cleverness, is her awareness of that cleverness, particularly in the poem I cited above, “Multi-purpose Steamship Furniture, by Taylor & Sons.” Here, Schiff demonstrates a kind of anxiety around the work’s artifice. The form is something like a sestina wrapped like a pretzel – each line of nonspecific length ends with one of five repeating words, including sweet (or suite), room, and so on. When Schiff asks repeatedly, “How will I use the word sweet?” the question forces us to consider the poem’s making, troubling an illusion of an organic whole.

Like a man-made machine, Schiff’s formal choices are rigorous. At first glance, the margins are ragged, unkempt, as if the lines fling themselves headlong into blank space. But they also are managed by secret structures, bound to Schiff’s own designed syllabics – some poems include stanzas with specific and repeated, if seemingly arbitrary, line lengths. In this sharp awareness of form, Schiff resembles the keenly intellectual poets she has cited among her influences: Jorie Graham, Gjertrud Schnackenberg and Marianne Moore.

In likening the poems to the objects they describe, I don’t mean to say they are mechanically cold or distant. A distinct human presence infuses the collection. “H5N1,” a poem dealing with avian flu (and perhaps also love?) surprises with this moment of beauty: “who would not kiss the head of a swan / just to try to memorize / the softness of something wild?”

These passionate moments make the poems more than well-crafted things – Schiff’s sense of emotion gives her work true relevance. Even as stanzas twist and transform, and as changing rooms submerge in water, her honesty keeps us anchored.