Monday, June 07, 2004

SEPTEMBER 13, 2003, cont'd

In September, 2003, I drove down through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, into Kansas; I drove from Rugby, North Dakota, site of the geographic center of the North American continent, to Smith County, Kansas, home of the geographic center of the lower 48 states; I drove along the western edge of the middle west, staying between the 99th and 100th Meredians. It was mostly backroads I drove, not the highways but the lowways, the by-ways. I wanted to see what the western spine of the middle west looks like. This is the second part of my report of the trip.

A big power transmission line crosses the landscape from northwest to southeast. Swallows bank and turn above the road in front of me. The sky has clouded up now. I drive in shadow, in light, in shadow. Another mud-flat where recently there had been a pot-hole.

Another transmission line, a bit smaller than the first: it runs from west to east. A machine shed coming apart one sheet of tin at a time. Another transmission line, larger, running form northwest to southeast. Why have there been three transmission lines in the past thirty miles? Are there power-generation stations just west of here on the Missouri River? Where is the power headed?

A pot-hole has gone entirely dry; a crust of mud is the only surface of it. A pasture of Holsteins. It is not a Wisconsin pasture. They are not exactly Wisconsin Holsteins. It is not Wisconsin light laying on them.

Not five miles farther on, now I see another transmission line in the distance. We are back in wheat country. Grain bins. Sunflowers, fields of corn again.

I get gasoline at Steel, North Dakota. I get some orange juice. The sky has clouded over almost entirely, the day has darkened.

Highway 3 follows I-94 east for a few miles. It is 149 miles to Fargo from here. I was in Fargo a week ago.

I get off the interstate at Dawson, North Dakota. "South-central Therapeutic Massage" does business in a very old building that used to be a gas station with an overhang of roof out over the pumps. When you say "Massage Parlor" here, you get a very different image from what you might find in the city.

A barn on the ground like a crippled cow.

A yellow ribbon on the post of a mailbox.

Lake Isabel has cottages all the way around it. Yet off to the right side of the road, mud-flats in the slough.

As if to prove the dividing line between middle west and west falls right exactly here, there is corn on the east side of the road, there is range-land on the west side. Could it be any clearer what line I am straddling?

Another mailbox, another yellow ribbon on the post for it.

There is a sign in evidence that they raise polled Herefords out here. What I see is a pasture of Black Angus, a hundred white egrets settled among them.

A stand of trees. An old shed. Some rubble. You know it used to be a farmstead. Land, tell me your story!

Range-land on both sides of the road now. Another transmission line running from northwest to southeast. I'm chewing up all this country, spitting out quick impressions. I try to record everything. I can and yet I can't capture so much as the odor on the wind. All the stoney hillsides. Or hills made of stones. Rock piles. A field of corn. More rock piles. More stoney hillsides. One cone-shaped hill is topped with a rock pile like a nipple, a metaphor of nurture. This land sustains us.

Out beyond a wheatfield, a cone of sand; another cone, of gravel. Each of them is twenty feet tall.

Again there are wheatfields rolling away to the west. I'm approaching Napoleon, North Dakota, now; the community appears to be holding its own in this wind, in this economy, in this culture.

Just south of Napoleon, several hundred sheep fill a barnyard; they have made wool for winter.

Dammit. I hate myself always doing this: I passed a sign for "Historical Marker" yet half a mile down the road I turn around and head back to it. The marker says: "Oley T. Thompson. Born in Norway 1851. Homesteaded and buried one mile west. Froze to death February 6, 1887. In Logan County he was the first white man married, father of the first white child born, and the first white man buried." Most of us don't have any such claim to fame, most of us won't have a marker to remember us.

A rise and fall to the land. North Dakota is ruffled, it has ridges. Off to one side of the road a couple threshing machines have been set out where we are meant to see them, and to remember where we've come from. And perhaps we're meant to think about where we're going.

To be continued....



Presented by Tom Montag
at the Wisconsin Writers Conference
Baraboo, Wisconsin, June 4, 2004

I won't say that your library is your destiny. I will argue, however, that what we read shapes us to the degree that all of our experiences make us who we are. And when we have a dialog with the books we read, that tells even more about how we're being influenced. When we mark up our books and leave marginalia behind, we have a record of that dialog. You might say that our marginalia provides a little window into the soul. My look at her library offers a look in Lorine Niedecker's window.

At the Niedecker Centenary Celebration in Milwaukee in October of 2003, Amy Lutzke of the Dwight Foster Public Library in Fort Atkinson, WI, issued this challenge: She said someone should go through the books in Lorine Niedecker's personal library and check them for marginalia. The Dwight Foster Library has the bulk of Niedecker's library, a bequest from the Niedecker estate and a gift of Gail and Bonnie Roub. Gail Roub had been a close friend of Niedecker's. We know that some of Niedecker's books may also have been given to family at the time of her death.

Originally the books the Niedecker estate had given the library were put into circulation, but that misstep was soon rectified. Niedecker's books are now kept together under lock and key in the main area of the Dwight Foster Library, along with a display of some Niedecker memorabilia. This is one of the ways that Niedecker's home town continues to honor her. Bonnie Roub typed the list of the authors/titles that were in Niedecker's library into a database that is now available at the Dwight Foster Library web-site on a page title Lorine Niedecker's Personal Library ( ).

I'm the fool who took up Amy Lutzke's challenge to look at Niedecker's marginalia.

In December of 2003, I spent a week at the library examining Niedecker's books and recording the marginalia I found into the library's database. I returned several times between December 2003 and May 2004 for a day, or two, or three at a time. At this point I have been through all the books at least once.

As I say, I recorded my findings into the library's Niedecker database.

What did I find?

There are about 506 titles in Niedecker's library, books and issues of literary magazines which, it seems to me, is quite a few books for a woman who made her living scrubbing floors. There are sturdy hardcover books in the library, but there are also many very fragile paperbacks from the 1940s, '50s, and 60s.
294 of the titles, or 58% of them, are identifiable as "Literature."

Two textbooks from Niedecker's youth are particularly well-marked up: John William Cunliffe's Century Readings for a Course in English Literature (c 1910) and William D. Lewis's Practical English for High School (c 1916). These books and her marginalia in them give us a base-line image of her early literary education. They would be worthy of further study, I think.

From the evidence of her library, we might say that Niedecker was grounded in the classics. Twenty-seven books in her library are related to the Classical Greek and Roman world, including works by Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sappho, Marcus Aurelius, Caesar's War Commentaries, the complete works of Horace and Tacitus, Plutarch's Lives, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, Ovid's The Art of Love and Metamorphoses, and Virgil's Aeneid and Pastoral Poems.

There are 11 books by or about Shakespeare in the library, including a copy of his Complete Works.

Niedecker seemed especially fond of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She had 8 books by or about him. Her copy of Basic Writings of America's Sage is extensively marked up. She seems to have learned vocabulary in Emerson – for instance: "vitiate" is underlined, with "corrupt, weaken" written in beside it; "depriving" is written next to "privative;" and "contemporaneous" is next to "coeval."

As you might expect, Niedecker owned Thoreau's Walden and also A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

You may recall that the late poet Cid Corman grouped Niedecker with Sappho and Emily Dickinson as the three greatest women poets. Niedecker owned 2 books of Sappho's poems; she owned 6 books by or about Dickinson.

What of other ground-breaking poets had she read? Niedecker had copies of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days. She had a selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems and prose, and John Pick's Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poet and Priest – in it she underlined Hopkin's phrase "... undo the very buttons of my being." She also owned copies of Rimbaud's A Season in Hell and Drunken Boat and Mallarme's Selected Poems; we remember that there's a surrealist strain in her work.

There are 16 books in the library by Objectivist poets, including 8 by Louis Zukofsky and Celia Zukofsky's biography of Louis.

Niedecker owned 12 books by or about Ezra Pound, including The Active Anthology, The Cantos, and Noel Stock's The Life of Ezra Pound.

She had 9 books by William Carlos Williams.

Two novelists who apparently interested Niedecker were Henry James (she had 11 books by or about him) and D.H. Lawrence (6 books by or about him).

She owned 3 books by Henry Miller, but curiously not his most famous: On Writing, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, The Wisdom of the Heart.

There were 14 books related to Asian thought and poetry in her collection, including The Book of Tao, Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, Arthur Waley's Madly Singing in the Mountains and a couple other collections of haiku, and Alan Watts' The Way of Zen.

Niedecker also owned John Cage's Silence and Louis Fischer's Gandhi (published in 1946).

Niedecker had 2 copies of the Bible in her collection, one a King James version, the other called Every Man's Bible. The King James is extensively marked up.

We know of Niedecker's interest in Thomas Jefferson. There are five books about Jefferson in her library, including his Autobiography.

She had the Journals of Lewis and Clark as edited by Bernard Devoto.

Edwin Honig knew Niedecker in the late 1930s and has made the statement that "It seemed pretty clear that most of Lorine's reading of poetry, science, political and music theory came directly from Zukofsky and Pound." Did it? Niedecker's library may help us to argue otherwise.

Niedecker owned 39 books related to science, including William Dampier's History of Science, three books by Loren Eisley (including The Immense Journey), Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne, Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us, Maeterlinck's The Life of the Bee, Anne Dowden's The Secret Life of Flowers, and Glover Morill Allen's Birds and Their Attributes.

There are 11 books in the library about politics, more than half of them Marxist titles, which doesn't sound like Pound to me: Handbook of Marxism, a collection of writings by Marx and Engels, Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-criticisms, John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World, Those Who Built Stalingrad, and Anna Rochester's Rulers of America.

Niedecker owned 11 books about music, including Edwin C. Woolley's Handbook of Composition, Stravinsky's Poetics of Music, Elson's Pocket Music Dictionary, and biographies of Beethoven and Mozart.

There are 10 books about art in the library, including Wechsler's Pocket Book of the Old Masters, Winston Churchill's Painting as a Pastime, two books on Winslow Homer, a book about Picasso and one about Renoir.

Niedecker was not like the rest of us, putting books of philosophy on our shelves but never reading them. She read hers, and some of them she argued with. There are 49 books about philosophy in her library, including 3 books by Henri Bergson, Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy, Pascal's Pensees, Rousseau's Confessions, 7 titles by Bertrand Russell, 9 titles by Santayana, and 2 books by Alfred North Whitehead

There are some curious books in Niedecker's library, at least I think they are curious: The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson, The Scottsboro Boy by Haywood Patterson, Kurt Krueger's I Was Hitler's Doctor, and Perry Wolff's A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy.

I think there are some "omissions" from Niedecker's library, too. I admit we could talk for a long time about books that aren't in her library, but these are ones I do find especially curious: no Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, no Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, no Ulysses by James Joyce, no books by the Objectivisit poet Carl Rakosi.

At the Centenary Celebration last October, it was obvious that feminists have embraced Niedecker. The feminist critics should take note, I think, that there seem to be no identifiably "feminist" texts in her library. In fact, I can recall only two passages she marked that might be possible evidence of a feminist outlook on her part.

Now – the marginalia itself. How did Niedecker mark her books?

Most often she would draw a line in the margin along a specific passage.

Sometimes she would underline words, sentences, or passages.

Sometimes, as I say, when she was underlining words, she was learning new vocabulary; the word's definition would be nearby.

Sometimes she would bracket a passage at the beginning and the end.

Sometimes she would write things in the margin, in response to the text, and occasionally she'd write in fresh thoughts of her own.

Niedecker marked a wide variety of books. The examples I present here are only a small sampling of the marginalia. The books I include are only some of those that were more extensively or more significantly marked. Among them were both the Holy Bible and the Handbook of Marxism; Jesus, a Myth by Georg Brandes; Robert Browning's Promegranates from an English Garden; Confucius' The Conduct of Life; Hemingway's A Moveable Feast; Robert M. LaFollette's Political Philosophy; Albert Schweitzer's Out of My Life and Thought; and Oscar Williams' A Pocket Book of Modern Verse.

She marked Francis Bacon's Essays and New Atlantis, including these passages:

"Revenge is a kind of wild justice."

"Life is ever a matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies.

"It is impossible to love and be wise."

In James Branch Cabell's Beyond Life, which is a discussion about realism, she noted the passage: "Facts must be kept in their proper place, outside of which they lose veracity."

Written out on a slip on paper tucked into John Ciardi's How Does a Poem Mean? is a quote from Ciardi: "The act of producing a word involves breath and music, and various kinds of muscular activity tend to produce various kinds of feelings." On another slip of paper in the same book Niedecker notes a statement by I.A. Richards to the effect that "One talks about the subject of a poem when he does not know what to do with the poemness of the poem."

Niedecker marked with an exclamation point in the margin of Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy: "But what if we have knowledge whose truth is certain to us even before experience - a priori?"

In Lao Tzu's The Way of Life she marked "Live within yourself; do not exhaust yourself in the world as it is."

In Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathurstra Niedecker couldn't let pass a paragraph that begins: "As yet woman is not capable of friendship: women are still cats...."

There's a poem in Robert Payne's The White Pony with the line "The delight of a mountain hermit" in one poem; Niedecker has put a note behind that, reading: "or a bachelor lady?"

Nor could she let pass an entry in Donald C. Peattie's An Almanac for Moderns about how "there are no truly wild spots hereabouts unless they may be the marshes."

In S. A. Robbins' See America Free, she marked passages referring to communities in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Montanta.

This passage in Frank G. Slaughter's Your Body and Your Mind caught Niedecker's attention: "We know, too, that even such simple psychosomatic conflicts as the oral desires, which lead to so much gastrointestinal disturbance, are fundamentally sexual in nature."

In Harold Stewart's A Net of Fireflies she marked this quote by Takuboku: "Poetry must not be so-called poetry. It must be accurate reports, and honest diaries relating happenings in the author's emotional life."

This sentence was marked in J.W.N. Sullivan's The Limitations of Science: "If nature did not possess a harmony that was beautiful to contemplate, said Poincare, science would not be worth pursuing, and life would not be worth living."

On a slip of paper between cover and first page of Thoreau's Walden Niedecker has written out this quote from Emerson: "He chose to be rich by making his wants few."

Several noteworthy lines Niedecker marked in Marguerite Wilkinson's New Voices (c 1921), including:

"Poetry is often thought to be a painless twilight sleep out of which beauty is accidentally born."

The word "concise" is underlined, with a question mark in the margin, near: "He believes that poetry differs from prose partly in being more concise."

"When he has been published a poet may have inferiors, equals and superiors, but he has no rivals."

Niedecker made very extensively markings two particular books, that seem especially telling. She marked a total of 66 pages in Upton Sinclair's Mammonart (1924), including:

She wrote "Not so much!" next to a sentence that ended: "... and that in technical skills the modern work is superior."

There is an exclamation point near to this sentence: "Does a poet necessarily have to be appreciated by those of whom he writes?"

"Oh Help!" is written in margin and underlined twice next to this passage about Oscar Wilde: "He went back to London and wrote more plays, one of them, 'Salome,' assuredly the most cruel, cold, and disgusting piece of lewdness in the English language."

Next to the sentence "If poets saw things as they are they would write no more poetry" Niedecker wrote: "Nonsense!!"

The other book with extensive significant markings worth attention is Havelock Ellis' The Dance of Life, some as follows:

"We cannot remain consistent with the world save by growing inconsistent with our own past selves."

"I have never seen the same world twice."

"Science consists in knowing, Art consists in doing."

"Freud regards dreaming as fiction that helps us to sleep; thinking we may regard as fiction that helps us to live. Man lives by imagination."

Style in writing "is also defined – and, sometimes I think, supremely well defined – as 'grace seasoned with salt.'"

"To exalt pleasure is to exalt pain; and we cannot understand the meaning of pain unless we understand the place of pleasure in the art of life."

"... [A]rt must not be consciously pursued for any primary useful end outside itself."

And the single most remarkable passage in all of Niedecker's marginalia, a notation that makes the hundred hours of work worth the effort, is this: Niedecker wrote in ink at the top outside corner of the p. 348 of The Dance of Life:

"3 reasons for seclusion: 1. [to] cultivate a detached manner; 2. to watch the world; 3. to instill a faith and a feeling of aloneness" with an arrow pointing to text reading "without which no art is possible."


"Hawk at Evening"
from MIDDLE GROUND (1982)

that bird
that wild    wild
    edge of sky
bird    turns back

dusk on its wings
like wetness    turns
back on a breeze

riding its spine

turns    driving
splits the air

a fast attack
fur & feathers
on the ground

then filled that bird
off again    climbing
    into evening
against blood-red sky

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