A few weeks ago, I got a tip from a coworker that a documentary film about Lorine Niedecker was being shown at Loyola University. I used to be the only person I knew who knew who Lorine Niedecker was, so naturally I had to drop everything I was doing to go see the film. I'm glad I did. The film, Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker, is written and directed by Cathy Cook. It's full of gorgeous photography of Wisconsin flora and fauna, and offers an interesting if selective introduction to Niedecker's life and work. In this case, seeing is hearing, and I'd recommend it to people who want help hearing her poems. The blank space in her poems is well-served by the nature shots that comprise the film.

The film made me reread her for the first time in a long while, and discover how relevant she still is. "Poet's work", ironically, is a poem that sees in poetry a trade from which there are no layoffs. More of her work can be found here.

Originally Published: May 20th, 2009

Catherine Halley is the editor of JSTOR Daily, an online magazine that draws connections between current affairs, historical scholarship, and other content available on JSTOR, a digital library of scholarly journals, books, and primary sources. She is the former digital director of the Poetry Foundation, where she served as editor...

  1. May 21, 2009
     Annie FInch

    Thanks Cathy! Good to see her mentioned here. I remember spending several hours reading her in a garden...her poetry is so elemental and clear that in a way, looking back now, I can't really distinguish my memory of the poems from my memory of the garden itself.

  2. May 22, 2009

    Thanks for this post and the links. I wonder if one can order Cathy Cook’s film on DVD? “Poet’s Work”, embodies what Allison Glock had to say about poetry in her article “I Blame Blogs” – which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way – my one problem is that she doesn’t distinguish personal blogs form subject-specific blogs, like the ones were doing here at Harriet. I’d like to see her debate the matter with Andrew Sullivan.\r

    But to Niedecker: I remember my first fascination…I was already in graduate school, and definitely working under the aegis of the so-called “New York School”. But a loved the “Objectivists”, especially Zukofsky and Niedecker, though I read them for two entirely different reasons, and had trouble fitting them under one roof. For me Zukofsky served as a kind of lyrical grease. He sat right next to me as I was writing, Z. on one side of my typewriter and a book full of Joseph Cornell’s boxes on the other side, essentially for the same purpose: whenever I paused or got stuck, I’d either look at the boxes or read a page from A. I never read Zukofsky for the poems, I read him for the language, the line, the segues and the syntax. Niedecker, on the other hand I read for the poems, for what they could tell me, for the lyric as sentient object. And I still do.\r

    I don’t have the new Collected Works yet. I’m sure it costs a bundle, even more when you have to pay duty, as I do. For the moment I’m relying on the Google version. Jenney Penberthy, the editor of the new Collected tells us in a 1999 article that, while Niedecker was initially enthused about the Objectivist agenda, she didn’t really regard herself as one of them, and she wasn’t included in any of their early anthologies, even though, to cite Penberthy, “…her work has nonetheless come to be seen as Objectivist, even quintessentially Objectivist. Carl Rakosi has written of her as Objectivism's most representative practitioner: 'With her the external world, the object is primary, it is most out front, and the subjective is most subsumed, so Objectivist is appropriate for her.’ Even the pattern of her publishing resembles that of Oppen and Rakosi: a first book published early, New Goose in 1946; and the next book much delayed -- North Central in 1966 can be considered the second, independent volume given that My Friend Tree in 1962 was essentially a reprint of selected New Goose poems. A gap of 20 years though for quite different reasons from those of Oppen and Rakosi. More of this later. Niedecker had an ambivalent connection to Objectivism. She certainly read and was excited by the original Objectivist statements but she did not regard herself as an Objectivist. At the time of Larry Dembo's Objectivist interviews for Contemporary Literature in the 1960s, she showed no trace of retrospective belonging to that particular avant-garde, no sense that Dembo ought to be interviewing her too.” (\r

    It’s funny; the schools, the categories and all the other ways we have of making sense out of the richness that is American poetry crumble in the end and we’re left with the poems and the often very solitary poets that made them. I still admire Zukofsky’s music, but it’s no longer my preferred grease. Niedecker’s poems, on the other hand, still keep me enthralled, as poems. For me, she’s more essential in this new century than the other poets with whom – it seems to her own surprise – she was grouped.\r


  3. May 24, 2009

    "It’s funny; the schools, the categories and all the other ways we have of making sense out of the richness that is American poetry crumble in the end and we’re left with the poems and the often very solitary poets that made them."\r

    To the point.\r


  4. July 24, 2009

    Hello! I myself had no idea who Lorine was up until the 7th or 8th grade. I live in Fort Atkinson, so growing up my family took many trips to the Hoard's Museum (well the fact that we lived across the street too made it the thing to do on the weekend's for my brother's and I). Well anyways, one day we went to the museum for the local Art Show and they had just started working on the room for Lorine. This was the first time I had hears of her. My dad was with me and when seeing the room he leand over to me and said "Did you know she's your great aunt?" That is when I became fasinated. I had no idea! And the fact that I was a kid I didn't have a lot of knowledge about these things, like I said, I never heard of her (I was born 18 years after her passing). My grandfather, Gary Niedecker, is her nephew and started telling stories about spending time with her at her house. We are trying to get him to go talk to people at the museum and library about his memories and share them with fans. I definatly will search for this film and share it with our family, ecspecially my grandfather.

  5. July 25, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    There are few poets who give me as much hope as Lorine Niedecker, despite the lack of warmth and even the bitterness I feel in her. For what she does is give me a sense of companionship in my struggle to figure out how my own poetry fits in--and I mean not only into the world out there of other poetry but into my own private life where I live. It's not that I'm a great poet, as I truly believe Lorine Niedecker was, or even one that's necessarily worth publishing, just that I need help with the riddle of being a very serious poet without any audience at all. For example, there's not a single person in the little community of 15 people where I live in Asia that reads me, and even my own grown-up children, one in Paris, one in London, one in China, and one for the moment gone missing -- even those children of my own in their 40s aren't interested in the poet who's me, or even ask me what I'm doing.\r

    But my isolation is a blessing too, however much a mixed one -- because most of my work still belongs to me and me alone. I still have the right to go into it and test it, for example, to tease it, get annoyed with it, pare it down, whittle it into shapes that I could never have achieved if it had settled down earlier into its own public existence.\r

    There have not been many other major poets who have so demonstrated "the courage to breach her reticence," in Michael Heller's memorable phrase, than Lorine Niedecker. For that reason she's a comfort to me, and I'm sure to many other older, unheralded poets --"the comfort of substance, of authentic possession," is what Heller calls it in the same passage. She was 59 when her first major collection went public -- and she had been dead for 15 years before the first major study of her work appeared. I published my first poem at 52, and I'm already 3 years older than Lorine Niedecker was when she died -- and what I want to say is that when I'm at my best I'm grateful for that close fire!\r


  6. July 27, 2009
     Cathy Halley

    I'm so glad to let you know about the film!