Lorine Niedecker’s Haiku Library

First published in Solitary Plover #33, Winter 2021, pages 1–4 (front page image below). Originally written in August and October of 2020, with revisions in January 2021. Since this essay’s original publication, in addition to a few other minor edits, in April 2021 I expanded the two paragraphs that begin with “Fenollosa” and “It is surprising,” and have added an entirely new paragraph that starts with “Regarding Niedecker’s awareness” plus a selected poem. Photo by Amy Lutzke, assistant director of the Dwight Foster Public Library in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, which houses Lorine Niedecker’s library.

The text of Peter Pavelich’s talk from the 2017 Lorine Niedecker Poetry Festival, “Niedecker’s Library,” published in Solitary Plover #32, Summer 2020, made passing references to haiku that intrigued me. Most significantly, Pavelich quotes a letter to Cid Corman dated February 18, 1962 referring to a Corman book, in which she says it’s a “lovely little book,” and that “I’ve had nothing affect me quite so much since I discovered haiku.” She then lists books that had found their way into her “special cupboard” for revered books, mentioning haiku as being among those books.

        This got me wondering which other haiku-related books Niedecker had in her library. In response to my query, Amy Lutzke (assistant director of the Dwight Foster Public Library in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin) sent me to a bibliography of Niedecker’s library compiled by Margot Peters. As Peters notes in the document, “This Bibliography is corrected, expanded, and revised from original Dwight Foster Library entries made upon receiving Lorine Niedecker’s personal library after her death in 1970. —Margot Peters, June 2013.” Given the year that Niedecker died, it is perhaps surprising that she did not have at least some of the other prominent haiku books of the time, such as R. H. Blyth’s seminal four-volume Haiku (Hokuseido Press, 1949–1952), Kenneth Yasuda’s The Japanese Haiku (Tuttle, 1957), or Harold G. Henderson’s Haiku in English (Japan Society, 1965; Tuttle, 1967). In addition, she seemingly had no knowledge of American Haiku, initially edited by James Bull and Donald Eulert, the first English-language journal of haiku, which was published from 1963 to 1968 in Platteville, Wisconsin, just a hundred miles away from her home near Fort Atkinson. Perhaps I am simply not aware of her knowledge of this publication, and other haiku books, and thus my thoughts that follow are at best preliminary.

        Indeed, for the moment I am leaving out most research I might do in Niedecker’s biographies and her letters with Cid Corman and Louis Zukofsky, such as when Corman is quoted in R. Virgil Ellis’s foreword to John Lehman’s tribute book, saying “Her haiku-like brief poems are as fine as any short poems of our or any time” (12–13) or when, in the same book, Niedecker says “Japanese influence, of course. Ever felt it? I am perhaps ending with that influence. Perhaps everyone should begin with it” (13). So, there is much more to be said about the role of haiku in Niedecker’s life and writing.

        We also cannot be certain that Niedecker read all the books in her library, but surely she read her beloved haiku books. She may have read additional haiku books borrowed from poet friends and from her local library. It is possible that additional haiku books may be lost or unrecorded, but the following is an extract of all the haiku books listed in the Peters bibliography, together with my commentary. Though somewhat few in number, the haiku books in Lorine Niedecker’s personal library can be seen to contribute to the image-driven impulses in her own poetry, perhaps even replacing their earlier abstractions, each haiku also being a poem of place. Here are Niedecker’s known haiku books, as listed in the Peters bibliography:

These publications, in the late 1960s, would give any burgeoning haiku student useful basics for haiku. Yuasa’s translations presented haiku in four lines, and Harold Stewart’s versions present haiku in rhyming couplets, with titles, so Niedecker would have seen a fundamental uncertainty at the time for how haiku should be presented, though she wrote her brand of haiku in the late 1950s before most of these books were published. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku also used rhyme and titles, but in three-line offerings. While Henderson’s book focuses on Japanese haiku, it provides a useful sweep of the genre’s history, but it’s a shame that Niedecker seemingly didn’t also have Henderson’s Haiku in English booklet of either 1965 or 1967 (two different publishers) to extend her knowledge and connect her with early haiku activity in the United States (the Haiku Society of America, for example, was founded in New York City in 1968). It’s also interesting that she had one of the Peter Pauper Press haiku collections, but apparently none of the other three (all four with translations by Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn, but uncredited until the fourth volume). These collections were exceedingly popular in the 1960s, in the wake of Beat poetry and its embrace of haiku. They served more as gift books, with Japonesque illustrations, presenting all the poems in four lines, and in all capitals, which may not have served the genre well. Rexroth’s collection consists almost entirely of waka poems (now called tanka), a precursor to haiku that hewed in Japanese to a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern of sounds, not to be confused with syllables (thus giving Niedecker a larger context for Japanese poetry than just haiku), but the book ends with a selection of twelve haiku in free-form translation that are closer to what is standard for haiku in English (and in translation) today. Rexroth’s versions, though far fewer in number, are at most times more effective than those in Stewart’s collection and in the Peter Pauper Press collection.

        The following books from Niedecker’s library may also be relevant to her appreciation of haiku, at least tangentially:

Fenollosa, of course, influenced Pound and the early development of Imagism, which itself was heavily influenced by haiku. John Cage had read Blyth and wrote various compositions titled “Haiku,” “Renga” (a linked poetic form from which haiku derived), and other pieces influenced by Japanese poetry and aesthetics. And of course, the “silence” that Cage promoted (especially in his ostensibly silent 4'33" composition of 1952) is an important part of the unsaid aspect of haiku—its spirit of suggestion and implication. As Romanian Nobel prizewinner Herta Müller has said, “Silence is also a form of speaking.” Indeed, Phyllis Walsh noted in the last paragraph of her brief tribute to Niedecker, Lorine Niedecker: Solitary Plover (La Crosse, Wisconsin: Juniper Press, 1992), “To the end she values the silence she sought throughout her life” (46). And in inscribing one of his books to Lorine, Nonce, from Elizabeth Press in 1965, Cid Corman wrote, “for Lorine—one of the few who hears the light of silence sing.”

        It is surprising that the Niedecker bibliography lists only two Corman books. Corman’s own translation of Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi (Back Roads to Far Towns, a version of which Niedecker had in Yuasa’s translation) would come out from Grossman in 1968, and Corman would also publish other books relating directly to haiku, although mostly after Niedecker died in 1970. However, it turns out that many of Niedecker’s books had been loaned out, apparently for a research project, and not returned until 2017, and thus omitted from the bibliography that Margo Peters compiled of Niedecker’s books in 2013. Ann Engelman processed these returned materials, mostly books but also ephemera, and they are listed in “Lorine Niedecker 2017 Collection” (which is where the preceding Nonce inscription is recorded). These materials include five Corman books, including his translation with Kamaike Susumu of Back Roads to Far Towns, and eight Corman chapbooks, many of which are described as employing handmade paper and Japanese stab bindings. These books date from 1959 to 1970. Consequently, she did have much more of Corman’s work than the Peters bibliography indicates. Indeed, Niedecker wrote about Corman’s poetry, even mentioning haiku and silence in relation to his work, such as in a short 1965 essay of hers, “The Poetry of Cid Corman,” published in Arts in Society in 1965.

        Regarding Niedecker’s awareness of haiku, perhaps most significant among missing materials returned in 2017 is Donald Keene’s Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers, published by Grove in 1955. This short book (114 pages) covers Japanese poetry, theater, and fiction. Its introduction quotes at least five haiku, and the 25-page chapter on poetry quotes three tanka, six haiku, and eighteen renga verses (its starting verse, known as the hokku, evolved into the standalone verse we now know as haiku). The poetry section also quotes two haiku by Amy Lowell, published in 1919, which is significant because it’s one of the few indications of English-language haiku among materials in Niedecker’s library. Keene criticizes Lowell’s attempts by saying that they neglect to include an understanding of the kireji or “cutting word” that divides haiku in two. Keene emphasizes that “there should be the two electric poles between which the spark will leap for the haiku to be effective, otherwise it is no more than a brief statement” (40–41). We see this sort of turn or leap in some of Niedecker’s shortest poems, including those she identified as being “In Exchange for Haiku,” such as this one from Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), where a grammatical pause juxtaposes the first two lines with the rest of the poem (184):

                How white the gulls

                in grey weather

                                  Soon April

                                  the little


        I have not had a chance to read the Eigner book, but the “fragments” in its title hint at haiku, and he wrote many short haiku-like poems, a characteristic that finds echoes in the three Sappho books. From ancient Greece the books swing to ancient China with the two Lao-Tzu books and the philosophy they espouse, as do the Lin Yu-T’ang and Thomas Merton books. Gary Snyder represents Beat poets with his first best-of collection, which also included translations of the Japanese novelist and poet Kenji Miyazawa (though not haiku). Snyder’s focus on nature would find sympathies with Niedecker. As Niedecker wrote in a letter to Gail Roub on June 20, 1967, quoted in Phyllis Walsh’s book on Niedecker, “I am what is around me—these woods have made me” (27). And to conclude, Waley was a prominent early translator of Asian literature, and this book celebrates him and his writings, and Watts too was a promotor of Asian philosophy, briefly mentioning haiku in The Way of Zen. Watts was also the final judge of the 1964 Japan Air Lines English-language haiku contest that received 41,000 entries, helping to promote haiku in the United States while Niedecker was still alive. Other books from Niedecker’s library might also speak to Japanese cultural, aesthetic, and philosophical influences.

        As Lorine Niedecker admirers will know, she left behind a poem titled “Bashō,” about Japan’s greatest haiku poet, in her 1969 unpublished manuscript, “The Very Veery.” The poem (not alone in mentioning Bashō among her poems) also appears in Jenny Penberthy’s Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works (270):


                beholds the moon

                              in the water

                He is full

                at the port

                              of Tsuruga

Perhaps Niedecker was equally filled, and fulfilled, by haiku poetry. We know, of course (the subject of a separate essay), that she wrote her own five-line haiku, with an indented rhyming line, as indicated by the “In Exchange for Haiku” sections of T&G: The Collected Poems (The Jargon Society, 1969) and again in her The Earth and Its Atmosphere manuscript of June 1969, which present haiku-like poems, acknowledged by Niedecker herself. In addition, she may not have read widely about haiku, but haiku held a place in her special cupboard and in her poetics. In the aforementioned critical study of Niedecker, Lorine Niedecker: Solitary Plover, Phyllis Walsh quoted a 1968 letter Niedecker wrote to Corman, saying: “I think this is it—the ultimate in poetry. The hard and clear with the mystery of poetry and it’s done largely by the words omitted” (8). On the next page Walsh wrote that “Although her life was as lean as her verse, she comes across chiefly as its celebrant,” adding that “She was able to find sustenance in the common things around her” (9). These attitudes echo with the common here-and-now emphasis of haiku, which Billy Collins has called an “existential gratitude.” And of course, Niedecker readers all know her “poet’s work” of “condensery,” which is the fundamental essence of haiku poetry.

        Speaking of Phyllis Walsh, she was a fellow Wisconsin resident also living near Fort Atkinson. In 1990 she would start Hummingbird (with the encouragement of Cid Corman), a quarterly journal for short poetry that largely featured haiku in its first two decades, among other short poetry, and occasionally featured reprints of Niedecker’s work. Walsh published her journal out of Richland Center, within a hundred miles of Fort Atkinson. And since 2009, nearby Mineral Point has been home to the biennial “Cradle of American Haiku” conferences celebrating haiku—its name also a reference to the American Haiku journal that began in 1963 in Platteville, the first haiku journal in English. Wisconsin has indeed been a cradle for American haiku. And while Lorine Niedecker may not have participated prominently in the writing of haiku in English, nor corresponded (to my knowledge) with active haiku poets near where she lived, or farther afield, she was certainly influenced by haiku, and is returning her influence on haiku in English even today. The haiku books in Lorine Niedecker’s library are a testament to her appreciation for haiku and its influence upon her.