This is part two of my posts on the neurology of reading in poetry. If you have not yet read the previous post on Dickinson, I would recommend that you do so first, as there are some important concepts that are integral to understanding this attempt at Lorine Niedecker’s (1903-1970) work. I chose Niedecker for two reasons: the first is the obvious connection of her writing to Dickinson’s and the second was because of this quote: ‘Gail Roub asked Lorine once: “Who are you?” [She answered,] ‘William Carlos Williams said I am the Emily Dickinson of my time.”’
Niedecker almost perpetually inhabits a liminal zone; in fact, she seemed to demand this position throughout her life. Living as a self-described ‘laborer’ and as a poet allowed her to dwell in both the physical and the abstract. She built her cabin along the waters of Rock River in Wisconsin, fulfilling that classic, melancholic image of the ruminative figure standing on the shore gazing into the infinity of sky and water. Jenny Penberthy points to this disposition of liminality several times in her introduction to Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works (2002). She writes, ‘[Her] poems offer a rich and subtle study of folk habits made by a poet with twin allegiances to a rural backwater and a metropolitan avant-garde’ (6). And in an essay on Niedecker, Penberthy continues: ‘She’s drawn to threshold states, to boundaries between the familiar and the alien, between the facilitating contours of syntax and an alien content. In other poems where the hold on syntax loosens, she pushes further into pre-discursive language, into the non-expressive, into the abstract.’
With an understanding of the neurology of reading, it becomes clear that Niedecker’s projects progress beyond mere experiments in abstraction. Her poems consistently demand something more from the reader, something beyond the trancelike state in which she may have composed them.
The process of reading a written word occurs within a tenth to a half a second and we maintain in our memory the graphic or symbolic expanse of what is seen and its relation to what precedes or follows it, this allows us to make meaning contextually if our mental dictionary of word meaning does not immediately recognize the word. The mental dictionary of word meaning is different in each person. It is dependent upon culture, learning, etc.; as one moves from culture to culture, from semantic space to semantic space, meaning varies through slippage. Already Niedecker’s ‘abstraction’ is significant, as it seems to rely on the unreliability of the reader’s recognition and understanding. In Niedecker’s poetry—which desires to assert an inter-subjective meaning between the spaces of personal significance—slippage and linguistic trickery that relies on the irregularity of the saccadic eye becomes key.
The inherent formula of poetry allows Niedecker a field to assert these two techniques, given that ‘whenever our eyes stop, we recognize [only] one or two words.’ In a letter to Roub, Niedecker describes what she is attempting with her poetry: ‘Much taken up with how to define a way of writing poetry which is not Imagist nor Objectivist fundamentally nor Surrealism alone…. I loosely called it “reflections” or as I think it over now, reflective, maybe. The basis is direct and clear what has been seen or heard-but something gets in, overlays all that 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’ (Roub 41).
Take a segment from part V of ‘Progression’:
In Swalery I forgot my face,
beyond that it’s something to have under a sunbonnet
when aphorists and haymakers meet. And doctor,
nothing so good I know for intricate rhyme schemes
in six-syllable lines with ten syllable lines
of an evangelical staple as bug-sing and carrot seed,
observe now, while perspective is the next show
in the gallery, it’s a fervid shade, and there’ll be
stricken areas in the throat waiting for the blowing.
A touch of noon? Try then: each man to his own sleep
in the night skies. Gaspaciousness enmillions
dread-centric introspectres. Future studies
will throw much darkness on the home-talk.
The difficulty of this excerpt demands rereading and subsequent explication (one can revel in the sounds and that is fine), and, as I have stated, it is this demand that renders meaning within the poem.
In this poem, Niedecker compresses the distance between language and culture. The segment begins with a setting that becomes at once no place and every place due to the ambiguity of Swalery (as far as I can tell Swalery does not exist). Niedecker immediately asserts the ubiquity of female oppression within the realm of sexual politics. The face becomes something beneath the obscuring, female ‘sunbonnet’ to be worn when hosting. The semantic field of ‘sunbonnet’ seems to infantilize women as well, as it is infants that now primarily wear them. The infantilized state is continued in the youthful, perhaps uneducated syntax ‘doctor / nothing so good I know for,’ which is followed by the statement of her roles as poet and laborer, declaring her self-sufficiency in dialectical terms, that is as the diminished female, the empowered female poet, and then again the diminished female whose labor is confined to the garden:
[diminished–>]nothing so good I know for [empowered –>] intricate rhyme/schemes/in six-syllable lines within ten-syllable lines/
of an evangelical staple as [diminished –>] bug-sing and carrot seed
Finally her statement ‘Future studies / will throw much darkness on the home-talk’ seems to predict (in the temporal realm of the poem) sexual revolutions, the empowerment of the female, and the subsequent vexation of the male in regard to that power.
The most fascinating and wonderful part about this poem is the sentence ‘Gaspaciousness enmillions / dread-centric introspectres.’ It is here that Niedecker is operating within that liminal zone between abstraction and meaning. Neurologically, the synaptic pathways responsible for encoding and decoding are interrupted by the unrecognizable words. All that becomes important on the first read through is that very important aspect of poetry, sound. ‘Mental conversion into sound plays an essential role when we read a word for the first time. Initially we cannot possibly access its meaning directly, since we have never seen the word spelled out. All we can do is to convert it into sound, find that the sound pattern is intelligible, and through this indirect route, come to understanding the word. Thus sounding is often the only solution when we encounter a new word’ (Dehaene 27).
It is easy to dismiss these lines of poetry as mere sounds or useless units of language. As Dehaene writes, ‘English has a particularly extensive collection of complex graphemes such as “ought,” “oi,” and “au.” Our visual system has learned to treat these groups as bona fide units, to the point where we no longer pay attention to their actual letter content.’ But with a close, albeit subjective reading, the neologisms develop great and personal meaning for readers as well as Niedecker herself. Through the process of memory and word recognition, we can project meaning onto the neologisms. The preceding sentence slowly unfolds as a declaration of death between the line breaks:
each man to his own sleep
in the night skies.
As the result of the deaths of these men, the speaker is haunted by not necessarily their deaths but the demons it manifests within the self. The root words in gaspaciousness are gas, space, and –ness; gas-space is the gas that fills space and the –ness turns the word into a noun, so a synonym would be something like ether. Enmillions is easy: the prefix –en forms a verb, so it simply means ‘makes millions’. Dread-centric can only mean concerned with dread and introspectres (intro+spectres) means inner ghosts, or colloquially inner demons. ‘Gaspaciousness enmillions / dread-centric introspectres’ means, then: ‘Out of the ether is made millions of inner-demons that cause dread’ i.e. guilt, fear, etc. It is this difficult, seemingly nonsensical sentence upon which the entire poem turns, as it encapsulates the anxieties of being a cultural being suffused in the complexity of a language delineating the very complexities of that culture.
In this disruption or transmogrification of language, Niedecker opens the readers to new categories of thought by exploring human experience through the use of various possibilities of language. In her own exploration of human experience and linguistic experimentation, she also places the experience of the reader in the fore; the reader’s role becomes central to the entire process, dependent upon culturally varying memory banks. Niedecker once wrote in a letter to Gail Roub, ‘I like planting poems in deep silence, each person gets at the poems for himself.’ Dickinson’s poetics accomplish the same things: ‘Dickinson may encourage us to pay more attention to our own perception of texts and reflect on figures of cognition and their cognitive effects on processes of reading’ (Sielke 69). It is not merely this assertion of subjectivity that Niedecker and Dickinson have in common. In a poem like ‘Progression’, Niedecker repeats the same techniques in Dickinson’s ‘I felt a Cleaving in my Mind’; however, whereas Dickinson placed the complexity almost wholly within the mind, Niedecker explicitly places the interiority of the speaker into a cultural context.
Dickinson and Niedecker’s sometimes nonsensical lines demand that the reader (on a conscious and subconscious level) considers more deeply the perplexing graphic representations put forth on the page as the saccadic eye drifts into the aporetic space of line breaks. Through obfuscation, meaning is rendered more immediately and viscerally. Their success at this (and therefore the success of their poetry) is due to the ability to give multiple meanings to language that is either present outside of our linguistic territory; that is, to operate within the liminal position between complete linguistic abstraction and objective meaning rife with psychological and or cultural significance.
Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. Print.
Penberthy, Jenny. ‘A little too little: Re-reading Lorine Niedecker.’ Modern American Poetry. http://www.english.illinois.edu/. Web. 21 May 2013.
Penberthy, Jenny. Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works. 1. University of California Press, 2002. Print.
Roub, Gail. ‘Getting to Know Lorine Niedecker.’ Wisconsin Academy Review. 32.3 (1986): 37-41. Print.