Dissertation, via The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 2011

(Adviser: Wayne Koestenbaum)

Significant Little Wrecks: Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, and the Question of ‘Small Poetry’ in Twentieth-Century American Writing 

Certainly a great deal of critical attention has been paid to collage and disjunction in experimental poetry; likewise, there are valuable discussions of poetic brevity and concision.  But there is not yet sufficient work on how the conjunction of these two features constitutes a unique poetic strain, a sort of “genus”: spare, damaged groups of words posited as page-contained, emphatically material, readable objects.

In this study I argue that there is indeed such a poetic type in twentieth-century American poetry, that it is mainly characterized not by lyric criteria (of voice and subjectivity) or mere size (“short” poems) but by an emblematic use of form, and thus that the significances of this type can best be drawn out through a textual-semiotic approach to the relevant words, pages, and books.  I explore a notion of form that entails both the material qualities embodied in these words, pages, and books, and also, much more narrowly, the exclusive potential in constructed things or objects to function as conceptual shells, totem-like vehicles that can figure accretions of ideas, feelings, and associations.

Though the study of experimental poetry has regularly made use of semiotics, it has relied almost exclusively on the work of Saussure, neglecting the rich earlier work of thinkers like the American Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.  In my dissertation I use Peirce’s semiotics to help construct a theory of “small poems” in America, focusing on the works of Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen, and, continuing into the present moment, Susan Howe and Myung Mi Kim.  The written output of all four poets is almost exclusively limited to disjunctive, spare, page-bound verses.  In response to the enveloping, relentless violence and upheaval of modern experience, both before and after the Second World War, these poets present the irreducible facts of their cryptic hand-marked forms.

According to my reading, a disciplined commitment to small poems constitutes an investment in negative values of refusal, transience, and inscrutability—what Theodor Adorno calls “barbaric asceticism in the arts” (Minima Moralia)—as means of articulating an emblematic response to twentieth-century violence and superfluity.  I also contend that, in spite of these negative postures or gestures, Niedecker, Oppen, Howe, and Kim do not enact the strict Nominalist skepticism about language often claimed for modernist (or “post-modernist”) poetics.  Instead, in ways consonant with Peirce’s philosophical Realism, their poems affirm the adequacy of language to human experience by insisting on their own material status as incised documents of witness and as emblems of dissent.


I recently served as editor for a facsimile edition of Lorine Niedecker’s handmade book of poems from 1964, Homemade Poems.  The edition has just been published through The City University of New York’s (CUNY) Center for the Humanities, as part of Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. Archival research led Harkey to Niedecker’s original book, which is held in The New York Public Library’s Berg Collection.  As editor, I planned and oversaw the precise way the handwritten poems were reproduced, and he also wrote an afterword, titled “Usable Dimensions,” which is included in the facsimile as a pamphlet insert.  Lorine Niedecker, a native of Wisconsin, was the only woman among the “Objectivist” group of American poets (who came to some prominence in the 1930s).  Though she has been lesser-known and regarded as “marginal,” a mounting wave of scholarly attention over the past decade suggests that Niedecker is in fact centrally important to the landscape of 20th century American poetry.  My edition of Homemade Poems thus makes one more small contribution, I hope, to this larger project of reassessing and kindling new interest in Niedecker’s work.  Pre-release copies of Homemade Poems have already met with some strong shows of approval: in a web post that includes excerpts from the afterword, The Poetry Foundation calls it an “insanely lovely publication,” and Niedecker’s literary executor, Bob Arnold, of Longhouse Books, has posted a video of the blue-inked booklet as he leafs through it.  Homemade Poems is part of Lost and Found’s “Series III” (which includes six other archival publications pertaining to such poets as Langston Hughes, Charles Olson, and Diane DiPrima), which can be purchased, as a bundle, through the Lost and Found website.

Info & Video of Lost & Found Series III Launch Event

Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog

Christina Davis’ Flickr Set of the Book-in-Action

Video & Excerpt from Longhouse Books

Paolo Javier’s Blog


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