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Friday, February 25, 2011

Robert Creeley and Lorine Niedecker: two vernaculars,

In October 2006, a year and a half after the death of Robert Creeley, a number of poets and critics gathered in Buffalo, New York, for a poetic and critical celebration of his life and work. Among Bob’s many friends we invited the following poets and peers: John Ashbery, Robin Blaser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Susan Howe, Ann Lauterbach, and Rosmarie Waldrop. Charles Bernstein was scheduled to read but was forced by weather to cancel. Critics comprised Charles Altieri, Michael Davidson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Stephen Fredman, Benjamin Friedlander, Michael Gizzi, Alan Golding, Peter Middleton, Peter Quartermain, and Marjorie Perloff (whose appearance was also prevented by weather). As a material tribute to the poet, the Poetry Collection mounted an exhibition of Creeley titles, correspondence, and memorabilia. Designed as a town-gown event, the conference talks and panels were planned to take place on campus in the Poetry Collection, with downtown evening readings at Trinity Church. (Steve McCaffery, Preface, Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley’s Life and Work)
Two titles celebrating the work of late American poets recently appeared in my mailbox from University of Iowa Press, the impressive Preface, Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley’s Life and Work, eds. Stephen Fredman and Steve McCaffery (Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2010) and Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, ed. Elizabeth Willis (Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2008), two critical compilations on American poets worthy of further attention. The first volume came directly from the proceedings of a conference about and celebration of Robert Creeley’s life and work, and the second, seemingly exists as a collection of previously published works, both volumes collecting pieces by critics and poet-critics alike, including Marjorie Perloff, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Benjamin Friedlander in the volume on Robert Creeley, and Michael Davidson, Eleni Sikelianos, Jenny Penberthy, Lisa Robertson, Rae Armantrout, DuPlessis (again) and Elizabeth Robinson in the volume on Niedecker (Vancouver critic Peter Quartermain also shows up in both volumes). My personal tastes lean further toward the poet-critic, in pieces less purely critical than a writer responding to the works of a mentor or otherwise literary influence, and it would seem that Creeley had more than his share of responders. As Stephen Fredman writes in his “Creeley’s Contextual Practice”:
It was no coincidence that Creeley’s initial acknowledgement of his conversion to a more existential way of writing and the conversation that provoked it would appear in a book of his interviews. In 1973, Creeley may have been the first poet to publish such a book as one of his own works, and over the course of his life he may well have given more interviews than any other American poet. As an artistic endeavor, the interview genre offered Creeley an opportunity to extend the contexts of his poetry in two ways: by engaging an interlocutor in conversation and by presenting that conversation to a reading audience. From the perspective of the interviewer, Creeley’s heroic commitment to an art of the present moment made him a magnet. Paradoxically, this man of exquisite self-consciousness and insistent self-effacement was always out there in dialogue with others. The result was a life dedicated to conversation and collaboration within a contextual practice of exquisite attunement. Creeley’s interviews, in particular, have taken a place as one of the indispensable theoretical statements of mid-century aesthetics: arguably more than any other writer, Creeley raised the genre of the interview to the status of an essential context for poetry.
Because this is a volume on Creeley’s work from a specific conference, the volume on Niedecker’s poetry feels far more open and expansive, as opposed to responding to a specific time and place (but this is appropriate, given the sheer amount more on Creeley’s writing). Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place exists far more as a volume of poet-critics responding to one of their own personal influences, at times allowing light into particular elements of their own works, such as in the case of Lisa Robertson’s “In Phonographic Deep Song: Sounding Niedecker,” where she writes:
I’m interested in the presence of listening in Niedecker’s work, listening as a shaped, material practice of reception. Specifically I’d like to consider listening as a compositional practice rather than a mode of consumption. The listener devises tactics of receiving in order to turn sound toward shapeliness. Listening is an active, shaped, and responsive attentiveness to, and among, environmental acoustics. My understanding of listening as composition has been guided by the electro-acoustic composer Pauline Oliveros, who teaches listening techniques as responsive followings outward of sound—whether vocal, environmental, or electronically reproduced—by the attending subject. That is, the listener, in internal alertness, waits for sonic information from the world, then attentively follows a perceived line of sound in its environmental movement, greeting or responding with a performed or imagined reciprocal sonic movement, next turning to a slightly altered performative trajectory as each perceived sound movement ceases or dwindles and a new one arises. The information Oliveros gives about how to compose is not metaphorical, but technical. Each compositional listening gesture places itself in moving, improvised relation to existing frequencies. In this sense, listening is itself a syntonic construct or agent. It composes compatibilities. But in imagining how to discuss such listening techniques in relation to Niedecker’s poems, I ran into some troubles. That is, I can’t speak for her subjectivity and its process. The performative interiority of process, even a materially based process, seems to remain private. The poems remain at listening’s trace.
How does writing become? How do such short, simple and complex works of a lifetime get made, and what exactly might they mean? The explanations are vast, and the questions far outnumber the answers, certainly, but a number of compelling directions are explored through various essays ranging from the formal to the informal/creative. Either way, these two volumes are impressive, and can allow any reader further and deeper, repeatedly, into the works of both poets. A particular favourite between the two volumes is Vancouver critic and editor Jenny Penberthy’s “Writing Lake Superior” in the Lorine Niedecker volume, tracking the genealogy, geography and dna of a single five-page poem. Penberthy, until recently the editor of The Capilano Review, has possibly done more individual work on Niedecker’s writing than anyone, including editing the volumes Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970 and the essential volume Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works.
In contrast to long poems such as “Wintergreen Ridge” (written in September/October 1967) and “Paean to Place” (written in October 1968), the layout of “Lake Superior” presents no visual template. Niedecker chose not to use her five-line stanza, by now a compositional staple. In its final form, each section of the poem is a discrete fragment with little stated continuity between parts. White space predominates over characteristically minimal placements of texts, and the disparate parts coalesce within a mute and implacable topography. The two early titles—“Circle Tour” and “TRAVELERS / Lake Superior Region”—lodge the poem with the human circumnavigators. In its final revision, the title is given to the lake.

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