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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Niedecker's "In the great snowfall before the bomb"

Our conversation last night focused on the following passage by Lorine Niedecker from For Paul & Other Poems. The problem of containment—as in, what constitutes the context of the poem & the poet's distance from her environemnt?—cropped up continually in our discussion & will be discussed at length later in this essay.

But to begin, here is the passage we read, in full:

In the great snowfall before the bomb

colored yule tree lights

windows, the only glow for contemplation

along this road

I worked the print shop

right down among em

the folk from whom all poetry flows

and dreadfully much else.

I was Blondie

I carried my bundles of hog feeder price lists

down by Larry the Lug,

I’d never get anywhere

because I’d never had suction,

pull, you know, favor, drag,

well-oiled protection.

I heard their rehearsed radio barbs—

more barbarous among hirelings

as higher-ups grow more corrupt.

But what vitality! The women hold jobs—

clean house, cook, raise children, bowl

and go to church.

What would they say if they knew

I sit for two months on six lines

of poetry?

The most prominent poetic effect upon our first reading emerged as a shift between the penultimate & ultimate stanzas. The poet distances herself from the women & men alongside whom she has up to this point in the poem worked. Her poetry is closeted & the divulgence of this private act to us, the readers, separates poet & reader from “the folk” who customs are reported in the previous lines.

There is an ethical or moral separation of some kind that occurs in this removal of the lyrical self from its workplace environment that will trouble us throughout our analysis. The poem is flooded with the dialectic of ‘being there / not being there’ that makes itself known in the shift between these stanzas.

We first encounter it in the first stanza, where it emerges, upon rereading, in at least three instances.

Temporally: the poem is set in a past marked by an event of global importance: the detonation of “the bomb.” The bomb to end all bombs. The bomb that will cause an eternal winter—radioactive ash falling like snow. “In the great snowfall before the bomb” links this event to an early, much more localized & ordinarily recurring ‘emergency’ event—a winter storm that is ONLY RETROACTIVELY (radioactively? a half-life?) related to the singular violence of America’s use of atomic weaponry on August 6 & 9, 1945. We might imagine the memorable snowfall to have occurred some 8 to 5 months prior to the event which eclipses all previous sky-born cataclysms. It doesn’t matter exactly when, because the real work of this opening line is to perform a poetic function commensurate with William Carlos Williams’ notion of “the weather”: to link one element of social life (the international political) with another (the regional mundane).

Ethically: Already in the first stanza the poet separates herself from the “folk” she is about to write about. She recollects how, in the war-time winter when the decision to use the bomb was being made, the “colored yule tree lights” in “windows” were “the only glow for contemplation / along this road.” Let’s take the final line of this passage to mean both a physical road (that of the commute home from the printing factory) & the political-spiritual road along which any brave American might travel in the 1930s & 1940s: that metaphorical road of ‘fellow travelers’ known as the Communist party. The poem follows directly Pound’s advice, in the manifesto on imagism, to make the natural object the appropriate symbol. The “natural object” is the actual road; traveling along which road the poet sees many “colored yule tree lights.” The symbolic object makes this road a metaphor for mainstream U.S. culture & in this context the lights symbolize an unthinking acceptance by the general (Christian) population of holiday rituals. The inability to choose between materialist & spiritualist analysis constitutes the ethical or moral tension animating these lines.

Aesthetically: The holiday trash we install as decoration in our collective window is like & unlike the poem we are reading. One member drew attention to how the holiday windows of department stores (I’m thinking the infamous Macy’s X-mass windows displayed to the delight of commuter & tourist each year) produce a calm that temporarily distracts us from, among other things, the war. You don’t see Santa’s little soldiers getting blown to bit by smart or suicidal bombs in the displays, even if every gift is ideally a surprise that shocks the family. The problem of ‘here / not here’ is pronounced in the distinction between poem as sacred text & the far less sacred if far more prevalent texts of candles in the window. Buy the trashy decoration, slap it in the window, and call yourself blessed. The market’s realization of the familial iteration of sacrosanct ritual denigrates what it supports. Niedecker’s poem examines this problem, but the position she takes in relation to it can only be determined by interpreting tone, & it is to this end that we will turn as we begin to assess what happens between the first & last lines.

The poet continues to set herself apart from the environment she is writing about in such lines as “right down among em / the folk from whom all poetry flows / and dreadfully much else” & “I heard their rehashed radio barbs--/more barbarous among hirelings.” But what is the social accent—the pitch, the charge in the verbal atmosphere—of these lines. Do they drip with venom or are they more jocular? Do they speak of harsh contempt for their subject, or are they, as though in holiday spirit, to be read as though spoken with an exasperated roll of the eyes? The question of tone comes down to the phrase “But what vitality!” Do you, dear reader, here total contempt or contempt mixed w/ humorous admiration?

The problem of this question—a problem of interpretation of tone—is entirely ordinary. Everyone lives their own lives at a distance from their coworkers—the ego protects itself in part by maintaining a ‘healthy’ disdain for one’s fellows. This may be particularly true of subjects who imagine themselves to share a hidden identity—in this case, closeted poetry. Certain events occasion the dissolution of this ordinary distancing of the individual from her environment. Snow storms are one such phenomenon that most Midwesterners will recognize. During & after a good storm we often feel a bit closer to our neighbors, with whom we have shared the endurance of the event. Sometimes a similar feeling can be generated by mutually witnessing spectacles. (9/11 of course, but an even more pertinent one for U.S. citizens might be the shuttle disaster of the 1980s, which interrupted an event staged for mass consumption.) But there is a further chill that accompanies such witnessing—we are united by a force of division. The bomb is surely the ultimate signifier of this painful neighborliness for several generations of cold-war Americans.

In putting this problem to paper, Niedecker is speaking for or on behalf of her workers in the shop at the same time that she is distancing herself from them. Because, after all, couldn’t anybody adopt this perspective? Isn’t this the very question posed by the unanswered last lines, which turn the question around: what would they say, these other hard-working women (who bowl rather than write poems)? Do we have to imagine a purely negative response? How far apart is Niedecker the poet from those she writes about? What constitutes the difference that poetry makes in this poem?

The poem dramatizes this issue in the lines that speak of work environment nicknames. “Blondie,” “Larry the Lug”—these are the nominal equivalents of holiday window dressings—plucked from the radio & comic strips. Niedecker’s nickname is among the cheapest & most ready-to-hand monikers of modern patriarchy. Larry’s is an equally obvious & reifying reference to the working-class everyman. The poem brings something like the shop floor conversation onto its page with the second half of this stanza: “I’d never get anywhere / because I’d never had suction, / pull, you know, favor, drag, / well-oiled protection.” Here again the problem of one’s own cherished, depressing distance from one’s life. The young woman who dreams of some more intelligent, fulfilling life’s work won’t get ahead in the print shop. (Yet isn’t it exactly in the print shop, albeit from another position, that of the author, in which she aspires to get ahead?) Ambitious beyond the social norms & therefore perceived to be lacking in ambition. On the track “Piss Factory,” (Land), Patti Smith tells a story about precisely this predicament.

The list of words for this desire that seems, from the perspective of the shop floor, to be lacking is organized in another sphere by the rhyme of “suction / protection.” The poet’s attention to these words asks us to examine them more closely, & we find in the phrase “well-oiled protection” both the greased palms of ordinary patriarchal corruption (ordinary to us in Chicago anyway, under the ever watchful eye of the Daley family) & the war machine, with its offer of barbarity as protection.

Here again the poem mediates the relation between local & national contexts of domination & resistance. With this issue of contextual blurring in mind, we noticed how this passage is embedded in a much longer poem. The serial structure of Niedecker’s poetic pieces—mostly untitled lyric fragments separated from each other by a single typographical dot—was put into the context of Dickinson’s ‘daybook’ poetry, which is most fully developed in relation to a theoretical perception of the poetic effects by Williams in Spring & All & The Decent of Winter, and later practiced by fellow traveler poets such as Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Oppen & Creeley.

Yet, the sequence in which this passage occurs was titled For Paul & Other Poems & it was astutely pointed out that this means that we should not blithely treat Niedecker’s serialized pieces as merely interchangeable passages, but should regard them as well-ordered parts in a more complex mechanism. There is a poem for Paul, & also other poems in this collection. The passage we focused around was about three-quarters of the way through the opening poem, which is “For Paul.” We read the entire poem aloud (it took about ten minutes, being at least eight pages long) & discovered that it is a pedagogic poem directed to a boy (Louis Zukofsky’s son? we speculated, w/out following up on it too closely…) who is six years old in the opening lines of the collection:


now six years old:

this book of birds I loved

I give to you.

Here the poem emerges in the context of an actual life—knowledge of the world & joy & sadness articulated in a specific dialogic address. In the practice of reading aloud we found a new mode of relation to & within the poem. We returned to the particular passage & found it to be organized by a tension between oral & typographic utterances. The “folk from whom all poetry flows” transmit their views of the world to each other primarily through conversation. It is from this conversation that we get Blondie & Larry the Lug & “pull, you know, favor, drag” & it is not a coincidence that these are listeners to the radio rather than readers of the papers. The literate is here preserved as a poetic activity & it is the transformation of spoken to written words that constitutes the ultimate difference that poetry makes for Niedecker. The poem is a secret diary, a letter to be sent away (to New York, to that community for whom it will register as art).

Jacques Ranciere’s notion of the ultimate aesthetic object of capitalist democracy as an “orphan letter” find its home in this poem’s unhappiness with home life. The poem as aesthetic object must be sent away for it to be properly appreciated. Composition in what Williams called “the American idiom,” as an aesthetic practice for the modern poet, requires dislodging speech from its familiar place—in the mouths of polish mothers, for example. One consequence of the application of this compositional practice is a transformation in the perception & use of the fragment. In another regime of aesthetic production & interpretation, the fragment references a problem for editors that can be expressed as a concern for the lack of a total text. The publisher warns her readers that these passages from Sappho (for example) should not be read as a coherent text because parts are missing. The aesthetic practices of modernism turn this perception of the fragment inside out. The fragment is now the guarantee of another kind of totality—the totality of the artist’s vision which, Duchamp-like, allows its view to settle upon this or that particular precisely because it’s the view & not the object that matters.

With this, we turned to our own poetry. For the immediate future, the second part of each workshop is dedicated to the reading & discussion of members’ poems. We give ourselves the collective assignment of trying to write work inspired by our readings & to bring that material to the next workshop.

The next meeting will be held on Tuesday, 10 November, 7:00 pm at the Mess Hall in Rogers Park, Chicago. We will be reading a selection of poems by Kenneth Rexroth. If you would like to join the workshop, send an e-mail to & the readings will be sent to you!


  1. In preparation for your next meeting, note that there is a large online archive of Rexroth's writings at


  2. Thank you for posting the selective minutes of the N.O. workshop analyses of Niedecker's, "In the Great Snowfall before the Bomb." Reading this has has given me some special connection to home(Chicago) and Dubrovnik where I've spoken to many who have fought in their '91-'92 war, still too fresh in their minds.

    It is a pleasure to fill a late night by reading something that completely satisfies my current narrow focus. -jfb