Lorine Niedecker's Republic of Letters

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Book Chapter

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Letter Writing Among Poets: From William Wordsworth to Elizabeth Bishop


'Asa Gray wrote Increase Lapham: / pay particular attention / to my pets, the grasses' (Niedecker 105). The three-line poem from New Goose, Lorine Niedecker's 1946 volume, is characteristic of its author because of its source as well as its style. From first to last, Niedecker's work takes material and inspiration from correspondence. This small poem quoting letter wirters, published early in her career, looks ahead to multi-paged poems quoting letter writers collected in her last book. Her work moves from letter-indebted poems like 'Asa Gray...' or 'van Gogh' in the 1940s through the letter-indebted poems of For Paul in the 1950s to the letter-indebted poems like 'His Carpets Flowered' or 'Thomas Jefferson' in the 1960s. Indeed, the last lines in her final manuscript, Harpsichord & Salt Fish, quote a letter from Charles Darwin to the same Asa Gray of her earlier poem (299). Her own letters, meanwhile, prove her interest in these writings -- she records her love for 'calm, timid-looking Darwin', for example, and her worry that her poem about him is 'good but not as deft as the Jefferson' (Niedecker and Corman 227, 231). To Niedecker, letters were a vital form to both read and write.


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