Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sweet Lorine

"I was Blondie" she wrote....
"I worked the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else"
I can understand why Mark Scroggins, in his biography of Zukofsky, fought shy of  Lorine Niedecker's role in Z's life and his poetry; however, as Margot Peters notes in LORINE NIEDECKER A POET'S LIFE (U. of Wisconsin Press, 2011) :
"Scroggins's exclusion of LN from a life of LZ seems inexplicable unless one knows that LZ's son, Paul Zukofsky controls his literary estate and hence any biography.  PZ is, by all accounts, an obsessively private person determined to eradicate anything that might discredit his father."
There is much to discredit Louis Zukofsky personally: his wieldling his power over Lorine Niedecker to the extent that, in addition to bullying her into an abortion of what would have been, as it turned out, twins, although she wanted the child and had said she would never bother him for requests for money and would live as a single-parent mother back in Wisconsin,  he is responsible for having her, against her will, destroy all parts of her letters to him (and his to her) except those parts dealing specifically with attention and praise for his, Zukofsky's, poetry.  And all of their early intimate correspondence.  Of course Margot Peters's biography, though clearly written and most readable, and well-researched, does read sometimes (in its relating hearsay "evidence" in lieu of a microphone in Zukofsky's bedroom in his apartment in Manhattan where Lorine visited and stayed several times)  like a Janet Evanovitch novel.  Now I like her protagonist, Stephanie Plum, as well or more as the next guy.  I'm not overly keen on it all in a biography.  We learn, for example, that Pound and Zukofsky had sexual relations, Z considering P a "sexual predator"; that Jerry Reisman was Zukofsky's sexual partner before Lorine arrived on the scene.  Not a lot of authentication for this, but maybe it's common knowledge, I wouldn't know. 
Mark Scroggins skips too lightly over the "family romance" of the Orthodox Jewish Zukofsky family into which Louis was born, except to say that when he was bullied as a young boy on the streets, he would recite his way out of it by doing the Yiddish version of "Hiawatha" by Solomon Bloomgarden.  It doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize that he was never going to allow, if he could help it, a child of his to be born to a shiksa.  And he was not averse to having her type out all of his manuscripts, including the first parts of "A" his "poem of a life" in 23 plus one often arcane installments which go on and on too often like a broken record (except for A 16).  He uses language to keep his subconscious repressed or at least at bay while constructing what he perceives as moving closer to music in the exactitude and precision of words.  As Basil Bunting commented, sometimes it worked, although too often it was failed experiment (BBC Cassettes, conversation with Eric Mottram). In my opinion, Zukofsky is the most highly-overrated of 20th century innovative poets.  This is despite the exceptionally high opinion which both Cid Corman and my dear friend Asa Benveniste had of his work, and was celebrated between them in unpublished correspondence.  And the highly successful cognitive explication of 80 FLOWERS, by my old friend Leon Lewis (published in "The Writer's Chronicle" volume 40, number 4). All agreed Zukofsky was beyond difficult as a man.  The friendship with George Oppen went to breaking-point when Oppen admitted he preferred his own poems to Z's.  And Bunting was taken aback meeting Zukofsky again in New York, after a Bunting reading Z did not attend, and spending "a painful hour" later with him, describing Z as "very bitter and, strangely, very jealous."  The Artist is a Monster Cocteau wrote, and though no monster, Z was certainly a bit of a schmuck
Niedecker survived her broken heart syndrome, worked her sad way through the "For Paul" poems, and went on to become the greater poet of the two.  Wintergreen Ridge is one of the most outstanding eco-poems ever written, praising "Women / of good wild stock" who
Stood stolid
Before machines
They stopped bulldozers
We want it for all time
they said
Peters' bio does give you a fair sense of the hard rural poverty Niedecker lived in and through most all of her life.  Having made a pilgrimage some years ago with my oldest friend, Leonard V. Kaplan, then a professor at Wisconsin College of Law in Madison, I can attest to the almost dire nature of where/how she lived, having not even indoor plumbing for many years.  Her late-life marriage brought her a bit of comfort of sorts, and Cid Corman made the only tape of her reading her poems, just a few months before she died in 1970.  Her nickname was "Squeaky" in high school, and the remnants of that voice are present enough on the tape so that her detractors have commented on her "girlish" rather than "mature" voice.  "Every woman adores a Fascist" Sylvia Plath had written, and despite decades of failing eyesight (she used a magnifying glass over her spectacles to read), she faithfully, one might say slavishly, typed Z's manuscripts, which he sent to her from New York.  Zukofsky's work is polar opposite of Bukowski's (original spelling of his name: Bukofsky), and it is the avant garde end of Academia (an oxymoron) who now read Z's poetry.  When Zukofsky and his wife, Celia, and son, formed "a closed Trinity" as Carl Rakosi said, Lorine was ex-communicated.  Z's major work, "A", is, as Eric Mottram writes in the issue of John Taggart's MAPS devoted to Z's work, "Autobiography, organic poem, and history contrasted to perfection in art.  But this is a pattern of alibis for constructing an organic vision which takes place within the stasis of perfection."
Rita Dove omits both Niedecker and Zukofsky, along with Oppen, and of course so many others (Dorn!) in her Penguin American poetry anthology, in the pursuit of what?  Crow Jim? Not excellence, certainly, or why publish Amiri Baraka's weakest poems, which include his anti-Jewish prejudice, rather than his best work.  I reckon Dove either is ignorant of innovative poetry, willfully or not, or just has her own axe to grind against it.  Her anthology continues the tradition of the monied establishment dumbing-down  American life and Letters by setting up a Canon which keeps many of the omitted major poets out of mass distribution, just as Eliot, at Faber & Faber, kept Williams out (the first edition of WCW being published in the UK not until 1964, when Williams was already one year dead) and away from publishers' radar, and kept most if not all heterosexual poets at arm's length from Faber during his tenure there.  Niedecker is one of our great twentieth century poets.  Even though she spent years of her life scrubbing hospital floors in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, she never lost her dedication, and her idealistic belief in poetry as a Way.  Some of her short poems, like "I rose from marsh mud"; "There's a better shine"; "I married"; and a few others, are among the best we have.