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This article is taken from PN Review 147, Volume 29 Number 1, September - October 2002.

Collective Speech: On Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen Peter Campion

I suspect that many readers of poetry, even very intelligent ones, feel less confident about their grasp of Modernism than they would admit. I also suspect these readers could come to a better understanding of that poetic movement, as could its long-time admirers, by considering a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, Modernist poets looked for the necessary shape which a given subject demanded, and they favoured this 'essential form' over those society expected. On the other hand, they believed that poetic speech was contingent upon historical and social circumstances. This contradiction created much of the drama in the poems themselves. Think of Mauberley, torn between his 'obscure reveries of the inward gaze' and all 'the age demanded'. As that poem progresses, Pound himself seeks his own 'essential form' through sculptural torsion of the quatrain, even while depending on the collective understanding he conjures through allusion.

Such aesthetic groundbreaking still reverberates. For only in this last year have scholars produced truly comprehensive collections of Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen, two of the best Modernist poets from the generation that followed Pound. Both poets were born in the first decade of the last century: Niedecker grew up as the daughter of a fisherman in rural Wisconsin, Oppen as the son of a San Francisco theatre-owner. Niedecker stayed in Wisconsin for nearly her whole life. Oppen left home as soon as he could, visited Pound in Rapallo, fought and was injured in the Second World War, joined the American ...


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