Of all the literary arts, poetry is arguably the least heralded, despite its unique suitability to the fast-paced lives and short attention spans of contemporary readers. The nature of writing and journalism has been moving inexorably away from long-form narrative; we want our information and entertainment in bite-sized chunks, preferably small enough to be suitable for tweeting.
It's in the very DNA of poetry to communicate a great deal of meaning in very little real estate. Poets are consummately skilled at deploying le mot juste, a tool that would well serve a current generation of writers whose electronic communiques seem most heavily influenced by Prince's song titles. Poetry at its best delivers intense, concentrated emotion using language that's wielded with scalpel-like precision, yet it's often viewed as the literary equivalent of Brussels sprouts when it's really more like foie gras.
There's no debating that "poet" is currently pretty low on the list of professions parents hope their children pursue. The day of the celebrity poet, with the exception (maybe) of Billy Collins, is soundly behind us. John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, has publicly encouraged poets to seek increased readership by writing, as The New York Times puts it, "more upbeat poems."
But the poetry of contentment and good cheer is not what sticks with us; Wordsworth's daffodils seem far less relevant nowadays than does Yeats' rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem. These are tough times to be a plumber, never mind a poet.
For evidence that the poet's life has never been an easy one, readers need look no further than Margot Peters' new biography, "Lorine Niedecker: A Poet's Life," a captivating portrait of one of Wisconsin's best but least-known writers. Niedecker, who lived from 1903 to 1970, was associated with the influential "objectivist" poetry movement, but spent most of her life in relative obscurity outside Fort Atkinson. Peters' biography is the latest salvo in a recent resurgence of interest in Niedecker's life and work, and a re-evaluation of her significance to American poetry.
Even if biographies of poets are well outside your customary reading material, Peters' book is capable of sucking you in. Lorine Niedecker's story is full of pathos, the struggle of a talented and artistically driven woman whose ambitions were stymied by the times, her gender, her physical limitations, and her complicated relationships with the men in her life. Her father was a hard-drinking carp fisherman with dubious business skills and philandering ways; her long-suffering deaf mother seemed to live a life entirely devoid of joy or comfort. Niedecker herself had very poor eyesight, a cruel fate for a woman whose first love was the written word. Her vision impairment limited her employability in the very fields for which she was most qualified.
Niedecker lived nearly her entire life on Blackhawk Island, a flood-prone community along the shore of Lake Koshkonong. Her only sojourns outside the Midwest took place in her youth, when she traveled to New York City to visit fellow poet and lifelong correspondent Louis Zukofsky; their brief romantic entanglement eventually became a friendship and artistic kinship. Zukofsky's treatment of Niedecker over the course of decades makes him seem like a heel of the first order, to say the very least.
Amid a seemingly ceaseless barrage of misfortune and privation, Niedecker produced strange, lovely poetry full of acute observations of the natural world she inhabited.
Words that shine
Current Wisconsin Poet Laureate Bruce Dethlefsen's new collection, "Unexpected Shiny Things" (Cowfeather Press, 104 pages), is decades apart from Niedecker's work but provides some of the same sense of quiet wonder evoked by her descriptions of the Wisconsin landscape and its changeable, difficult charms. His poems take familiar features of Midwestern life — thawing rivers, compost heaps, chopping firewood — and cast them anew for readers. It's impossible to read his work without seeing the humble things in one's environs with fresh eyes. "The Garden Is Growing Old," for example, depicts a plot of fallow land "scrunching the blanket to her chin/ dreaming old garden dreams/ the blanket bundled and bristled/ against her straw dry whiskers." As the days grow short and the nights grow cold, "Unexpected Shiny Things" is a boon companion, making the bleakness of the weather seem understatedly majestic rather than just freezing.
Cows in close-up
Paoli resident and retired health psychologist Paul W. Thoresen spent 10 years studying and photographing Holstein cows living on farms close to his home; the result is "Cows: A Closer Look," (Borderland Books, 133 pages) a handsome collection of photographs featuring the animal Wisconsinites both love and perhaps take for granted. Thoresen's black-and-white images examine cows individually and in herds, sometimes taking sculptural-looking close-ups of their hides that suggest views of rippling landscapes taken from the air. The cows in his pictures can appear soulful or inscrutable, and they are captured in attitudes ranging from the serene to, as Thoresen puts it, the "hormonal." It's an informative and oddly mesmerizing volume for anyone who's ever admired a cow. And really, who hasn't?
Fiction in a flash
Somewhere on the continuum between poetry and the short story is "flash fiction," a storytelling genre defined by its brevity. Flash fiction is short enough to read at a stoplight — not that it's recommended that anyone do that. A good piece of this type, sometimes called a "short-short story," provides something of the jolt of a good poem alloyed with the narrative pleasures of a longer work of prose.
While length parameters for the genre vary, the online fiction publication "UW Flash Fiction" publishes selected submissions of 1,000 words or fewer "that still include elements of a story." Publication takes place on a weekly basis at www.uwflashfiction.wordpress.com, and submissions are being accepted from UW students until Dec. 16.
There do not appear to be any limitations as to subject matter, but the website does feature prompts for sufferers of writer's block and issues the occasional specific challenge. Get your stories in before the project goes on hiatus at the end of the semester.