segunda-feira, 12 de dezembro de 2022

APRIL D. FALLON | Not Merely Object and Image: The Surreal and Pre-Raphaelite Influences in Lorine Niedecker’s Poetry

During Lorine Niedecker’s life, her writing was highly acclaimed by a small but influential group of mostly Imagist and Objectivist poets, including Louis Zukofsky, Cid Corman, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. She published only two books in the decades of her most prolific years, New Goose in 1946 and My Friend Tree in 1961. Just before her death, two books of her collected poems were published in 1970. The publication of her selected poems and her complete writings, both in 1985, have served to introduce Niedecker’s writing to a new generation of scholars and readers, and as a result, Niedecker is increasingly considered an important poet of the mid-Twentieth Century. With the publication of her Collected Works in 2002, Niedecker scholars only now have a substantial body of work with which to work.

Lorine Niedecker’s poetry is unique in its seemingly Spartan simplicity. Her work is often characterized by restraint and stoicism in the face of mercurial life circumstances and the forces of nature. She lived most of her life in rural Wisconsin in a small cabin on Blackhawk Island. Her associations with Louis Zukofsky and Ezra Pound have led many to categorize her as an Objectivist or Imagist Poet, though it is clear from her poetry, correspondence, and life that she was not a follower of anyone. Niedecker’s poetry exhibits a wide range of influences beyond Objectivism and Imagism, including Surrealism and The Pre-Raphaelite William Morris. Although Niedecker’s life was somewhat removed from the literati of the time, she read widely. She read Surrealist poets extensively and was an avid fan of William Morris. Unfortunately, the influence of Surrealism and of William Morris on Niedecker has been given less attention than other aspects of her writing, at least until recently. Luckily, with the discoveries of additional works by Niedecker in Zukofsky’s and Pound’s papers, scholars Jenny Penberthy and Burton Hatlen have shed additional light on Niedecker, her work, her influences, and her intentions.

As already noted, although far from the literary centers, Niedecker read widely. Throughout the 1930s, Niedecker read Andre Breton and other Surrealists, as well as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. Niedecker’s relationship with Objectivism, was, at best, qualified. Her choice to live apart from literary circles was, in part, a choice to allow her the freedom to explore creative possibilities without claiming allegiance to a literary camp. Niedecker expressed ambivalence regarding Objectivism and an appreciation for surrealism in a letter to Mary Hoard responding to Zukofsky’s Objectivist issue of Poetry: “Objects, objects. Why are people, artists above all, so afraid of themselves? Thank god for the Surrealist tendency running side by side with objectivism” (Penberthy A little too little). Overall, in correspondence, Niedecker tends to locate her own work as more closely allied with Surrealism than with the Objectivists or Imagists.

Surrealist writers and artists viewed the conscious mind as repressing the power of the imagination, weighting it down with sanctions and taboos. Influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, surrealists hoped that “the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution” (Surrealism). Niedecker’s interest in surrealism seems to predate even her knowledge of it. In a 1933 letter to Harriet Monroe, Niedecker confesses that her poem “Progression” contains surrealist elements, yet was written before she was familiar with surrealism: “[the poem] was written six months before Mr. Zukofsky referred me to the surrealists for correlation, noting that it’s a little disconcerting to find oneself six months ahead of a movement” (Jennison). An excellent example of Niedecker’s experiments with Surrealism are her triptych poems beginning with Canvass. Niedecker sent them to Monroe in 1934 for publication in Poetry. Monroe rejected the poems, expressing “utter mystification” with regard to what Niedecker was doing. In her letter to Monroe, Niedecker describes the project:


An experiment in three planes: left row is deep subconscious, middle row beginning of monologue, and right row surface consciousness, social-banal; experiment in vertical simultaneity (symphonic rather than traditions in long line melodic form), and the whole written with the idea of readers finding sequence for themselves, finding their own meaning whatever that may be, as spectators before abstract painting. Left vertical row honest recording of constrictions appearing before falling asleep at night. I should like a poem to be seen as well as read. Colors and textures of certain words appearing simultaneously with the sound of words and printed directly above or below each other. All this means break up of sentence which I deplore though I try to retain the great conceit of capitals and periods, of something to say. It means that for me at least, certain words of a sentence, - prepositions, connectives, pronouns – belong up toward full consciousness, while strange and unused words appear only in subconscious. (It also means that for me at least this procedure is directly opposite to that of the consistent and prolonged dream – in dream the simple and familiar words like prepositions, connectives, etc… are not absent, in fact, noticeably present to show illogical absurdity, discontinuity, parody or sanity.) (Penberthy Woman and Poet).


Niedecker’s concerns in this letter seem clearly allied with Surrealism. Breton defined the aims of Surrealism in his “Second Manifesto” as “quite simply at the total recovery of our psychic force by a means which is nothing other than the dizzying descent into ourselves, the systematic illumination of hidden places and the progressive darkening of other places, the perpetual excursion into the midst of forbidden territory”. In Niedecker’s letter to Monroe, and as evidenced in the triptychs, Niedecker practices Breton’s concept directly.

In looking at the triptych, comprised of the poems “Canvass,” “For exhibition,” and “Tea,” we can see Niedecker’s three planes of consciousness. “Canvass,” on the left, is the subconscious, “For exhibition,” in the middle, is the wakeful beginning of monologue, and on the right is “Tea,” the fully conscious social/banal surface monologue. “Canvass” is full of image and color, as well as neologisms such as “petalbent” and “smoke dent”. Also in keeping with the subconscious state it depicts, it largely abandons syntax. The second poem, “For exhibition,” expressing the waking state, presents phrases and conventions of grammar and narration such as “in the young beautiful of life” and “or coral on black velvet,” suggesting the beginnings of conscious organization of thought and expression. “Tea,” the third poem of the triptych, the “fully conscious” poem, demonstrates the social, banal conventions of consciousness and its constraints. The poem’s title, “Tea,” suggests social convention and trivial talk. The poems beginning lines, “dilemma/ my suit, continuous,” summons the problems and constraints of the social, public life. In addition to the vertical levels of the poems, Niedecker meant for the poems to be seen as well as read, to be experienced and sequenced as the reader/spectator chooses. Such readings allow the reader to create the text in a variety of ways: in vertical columns, as a horizontal prose work, or as a web of images and phrases. These additional modes of reading also serve to break down the divisions between the three states of consciousness represented in the triptych. Niedecker’s triptychs seek to fully recover the psychic force Breton describes by delving into the midst of forbidden territory, the breakdown of the differentiation between states of consciousness.

The influence of Surrealism is a thread throughout the entirety of her work, though it takes shape in different ways over time. In her later work, Niedecker explored longer form poems. Peter Nicholls points out that in later works such as “Paean to Place,” “the full force of Niedecker’s own particular version of Surrealism is felt, as image yields to figure, and the syntax of the “subconscious” displaces the too seductive curve of memory (Nicholls). “Paean to Place” is one of her most widely read poems, and although it contains autobiographical elements, is equally concerned with conveying a “form of poetic thinking.” Throughout Niedecker’s correspondences in the mid to late 1960s, Niedecker describes she is interested in conveying a “reflective carry-over,” an overlaying of “what has been seen or heard… to make a state of consciousness… The visual form is there in the background and the words convey what the visual form gives off after it’s felt in the mind” (DuPlessis Radical Vernacular).

“Paean to Place” is both autobiographical and a work of poetics. The poem explores states of consciousness evoked by images, events, recollections of the poet’s life and location. Lines such as “I grew in green/slide and slant,” “I was the solitary plover/a pencil/ for a wing-bone/ From the secret notes/ I must tilt,” and “effort lay in us/before religions/ at pond bottom/All things move forward” suggest that metaphysical concerns guide the poem as much, if not more than autobiography or memory. Niedecker focuses on capturing the states of consciousness evoked and created by the images and the suggestive properties of language. The poem’s epigraph. “And the place/was water,” notes the simultaneous concreteness and fluidity of her watery home. Niedecker employs this paradox to demonstrate a poetics of multiple levels of consciousness.

As stated earlier, Niedecker read avidly and widely. She read both the works of and biographies of Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelly, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Yates, and William Morris (Willis). As Niedecker’s “Poet’s Work” attests, she was a maker of “art-work” in the same sense in which John Ruskin coined the term, as “a direct confluence of art and labor”. Ruskin’s aesthetics and the aesthetics later espoused and demonstrated by William Morris spoke directly to Niedecker’s own interests and concerns. The doctrines adopted by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, “to have genuine ideas to express, to study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them, to sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote, and “to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues” (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), would have certainly resonated with Niedecker. Morris’s activism in terms of social progress and the veneration of craftsmanship corresponded with Niedecker’s socialism. The union of high art with domestic and decorative crafts, and the insistence upon the practicality of such art, also echoed Niedecker’s interest in the intersection of women’s work, labor, and art.

As Elizabeth Willis points out, Niedecker wrote her poem about Morris, “His Carpets Flowered,” in direct response to Morris’s letters, as well as Morris’s biography by Philip Henderson and Yeats’s recollection in his own Autobiographies. Much of the poem muses over Morris’s own letters, as with the lines discussing dyeing “Good sport dyeing/tapestry wool/I like the indigo vats” and when, later the poem discusses Morris’s trip to Iceland:


Entered new waters

Studied Icelandic

At home last minute signs

to post:



grows here—Please do not mow

We saw it—Iceland—the end

of the world rising out of the sea—

cliffs, caves like 13th century



Morris’s aesthetics, as well as his personal struggles, resonated with Niedecker, so much so, in fact, that the speaker’s identity becomes a “we” that includes both Morris and Niedecker. In addition to Morris’s politics and aesthetics, his immense productivity was impressive: “he was a poet, novelist, bibliophile, translator, embroiderer, calligrapher, engraver, gardener, decorator, dyer, weaver, architectural preservationist and Socialist. He designed furniture, printed and woven textiles, stained glass, tiles, carpets, tapestry, murals, wallpaper, books and type” (Carlioti). Morris had an incredible work ethic and was concerned more with being happy in his work than to find fame. He was both extensively well-read and close to nature. He was, in many respects, a kindred spirit to Niedecker. Morris’s patterns and colors, based in nature and made more abstract through pattern, are similar to Niedecker’s poems. And also like Niedecker, Morris contends with questions of aesthetic purity and ethics. Niedecker addresses this in the poem in the following lines:


Dear Janey I am tossed

by many things

If the change would bring

better art


but if it would not?


Niedecker, like Morris is concerned with simplicity, utility and beauty, and like Morris, takes inspiration from the natural world and adds abstraction and complexity.

The idea of interplay between the influences of Surrealism and William Morris may seem at odds with each other. Surrealism was concerned with states of consciousness, and depictions of everyday life. The Pre-Raphaelites and Arts and Crafts Movement were concerned with beauty, simplicity and practicality. Yet Morris himself wrote “my work is the embodiment of dreams” (Thompson), and many Pre-Raphaelite paintings have a dreamlike quality. Both movements sought to plumb the depths of dream, and both movements espoused Socialist ideals. Both movements lauded the labor, the work of the creation of art over object. The debate over the relationship between the two movements is ongoing. Marcel Jean claimed in his 1959 History of the Surrealist Painters that the Pre-Raphaelites were the precursors to the Surrealists. More recently, Hiroyuki Tanita explored the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites on Salvadore Dali in “Dali and the Pre-Raphaelites.” Franny Moyle’s review of Tate Britain’s 2012 show Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, stresses the same relationship: Dali “pronounced himself ‘dazzled by the flagrant Surrealism of the English

Pre-Raphaelites.’ Their flower-drenched damsels, ‘radiant women who are at the same time the most desirable and frightening that exist,’ were prototypes for his own highly sexualised, man-eating wife, Gala” (The Telegraph 15 Sept 2012).

The breadth and depth of Niedecker’s poetry is just beginning to be explored. For much of the last century, she was seen largely as a minor Objectivist, regional poet. Elizabeth Willis addresses this problem in the introduction of Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place: “the jacket copy on nearly all of Niedecker’s book publications prior to the 2002 Collected Works devotes as much attention to her working-class Wisconsin identity as to her poetics; we are told that Niedecker was isolated, washed hospital floors, lived most of her life in a small cabin, and sewed her own clothes by hand”. Her location in Wisconsin represented with little accuracy. Fort Atkinson is not as remote as it may seem. Fort Atkinson is within an hour of both Madison and Milwaukee, and less than three hours from Chicago. All three cities have long had reputations of liberal, progressive politics, and all three were hotbeds for socialism in the 1930s. Niedecker may not have lived in the literary urban centers, but she lived within a diverse and intellectually and politically active region, the same region that produced Frank Lloyd Wright and Orson Welles.

It has only been since the turn of the current century that Niedecker scholarship has flourished. Esther Sanchez-Pardo notes that “if Niedecker’s surrealist period seemed only a brief stop on a trajectory of poetic development shaped by her correspondence with male poets like Zukofsky and Cid Corman, this is… in part, because the archive of Niedecker’s surrealist work has been scattered and hidden amongst the papers of her male contemporaries.” For many decades, the attitudes of her male contemporaries—attitudes about women writers, attitudes about writers who defied identification with a poetic school, and attitudes about writers outside the traditional, urban literary centers on the coasts— shaped public perception of Niedecker and her work. Even those who saw themselves as her champions often missed the full depth and range of her work. It has been with a new generation of scholars who have sought to gain a broader perspective of Niedecker’s work and own perception of her work, as evidenced in her letters to other poets, friends, and associates that we are beginning to gain a more nuanced understanding of Niedecker’s poetry. 



APRIL D. FALLON. Professor of British and American Literature at Kentucky State University. She received an MFA from University of Pittsburgh in Poetry and a PhD in 20th Century Literature and Poetry from University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She grew up in Downers Grove, IL. She currently lives in Louisville, KY with her husband and daughter.


LUIZ SÁ (Brasil, 1907-1979). Nosso artista convidado. Caricaturista brasileiro, criador dos personagens Reco-Reco, Bolão e Azeitona que, durante anos, apareceram na revista infantil O Tico-Tico. Foi também responsável pela criação de uma série de curtas de animação que ficou perdida por anos, As Aventuras de Virgulino. Seu desenho é caracterizado pelo uso quase exclusivo de linhas curvas, tendo quase todos os seus personagens os rostos bastante arredondados. Por volta de 1950 Luiz Sá muito contribuiu ilustrando panfletos educativos e relacionados com a saúde publicados pelo então Ministério de Educação e Saúde no Rio de Janeiro, como uma ilustração abaixo do texto “Quem come a galope, o intestino entope”. É um dos mais originais, significativos e emblemáticos artistas de toda a história do desenho de humor nacional, tendo sido o primeiro cartunista brasileiro com características de artista popular a conquistar visibilidade nacional. Desde os primeiros desenhos publicados ainda na imprensa cearense em 1927, passou pelos cartuns, ilustrações e histórias em quadrinhos produzidos para os mais diversos meios a partir de 1930.


Agulha Revista de Cultura

Número 219 | dezembro de 2022

Artista convidada: Luiz Sá (Brasil, 1907-1979) 

editor geral | FLORIANO MARTINS |

editor assistente | MÁRCIO SIMÕES |

concepção editorial, logo, design, revisão de textos & difusão | FLORIANO MARTINS

ARC Edições © 2022




∞ contatos

Rua Poeta Sidney Neto 143 Fortaleza CE 60811-480 BRASIL




Nenhum comentário:

Postar um comentário