31 March 2014

William Morris’s Legacy in the 20th-Century Avant Garde

Lorine Niedecker, via the Poetry Foundation
Listening to a recent talk on ecology and contemporary poetry given by Professor Margaret Ronda, I was struck by how closely the aesthetic and political concerns of Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker mirror those of William Morris, who was writing 75-100 years earlier. Niedecker’s work evinces a discomfort with the new, with aesthetic and literary emphases on innovation, and connects such neophilia with an unsustainable capitalist ideology of disposability and overproduction. This same anxiety about the connection between capitalist production and an aesthetic preference for innovation is apparent in Morris’s work, as I mentioned to Ronda after her talk. Imagine my surprise when Ronda told me that Niedecker was deeply interested in Morris and had in fact written a poem about him, titled “His Carpets Flowered.”

The poem, reprinted below, was written in the late ‘60s, and it suggests that Niedecker was primarily inspired not by Morris’s poetry, nor by his work in arts and crafts, but by his letters, and more specifically, by Morris the man as expressed in his letters. As Niedecker wrote in a 1969 letter to fellow poet Cid Corman: “I'm absorbed in writing poems--sequence--on William Morris. I know how to evaluate--Ruskin, etc., their kind of socialism--paternalism--but the letters of William Morris have thrown me. Title will be His Carpets Flowered. I can't read his poems. I'd probably weary of all those flowery designs in carpets, wall papers, chintzes...but as a man, as a poet speaking to his daughters and wife--o lovely” (455).

So many aspects of Morris’s life and Morris’s thought make their way into this short poem: his relationship with his wife (“Dear Janey”), his constant speculations about the relation of art to socialism (“If the change would bring / better art // but if it would not?”), his own conflicted position as an upper-middle-class socialist (“Employer / of labor, true -- / … / I’d be a rich man / had I yielded / / on a few points of principle”), and his late-life love of Icelandic landscapes and Icelandic literatures (“We saw it – Iceland – the end / of the world rising out of the sea”).

Niedecker herself was an obscure poet who sustained herself by working odd jobs through decades of writing poetry in her homeland of rural Wisconsin. Now rediscovered as an important poet in the twentieth-century avant garde, she has recently been celebrated with a new biography (2011) and collected works (2002).

I find it inspiring to see the traces of Morris in Niedecker’s work, the line of influence, mediated through Yeats, that “His Carpets Flowered” draws from Morris to the modernists to the avant garde. From London to Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, Morris’s ideas nourished the growth of many flowers.

                 --Elizabeth Carolyn Miller

His Carpets Flowered
By Lorine Niedecker

William Morris

—how we’re carpet-making
by the river
a long dream to unroll
and somehow time to pole
a boat

I designed a carpet today—
dogtooth violets
and spoke to a full hall
now that the gall
of our society’s

corruption stains throughout
Dear Janey I am tossed
by many things
If the change would bring
better art

but if it would not?
O to be home to sail the flood
I’m possessed
and do possess

of labor, true—
to get done
the work of the hand…
I’d be a rich man
had I yielded

on a few points of principle
Item sabots
I work in the dye-house

Good sport dyeing
tapestry wool
I like the indigo vats
I’m drawing patterns so fast
Last night

in sleep I drew a sausage—
somehow I had to eat it first
Colorful shores—mouse ear...
horse-mint... The Strawberry Thief
our new chintz

Yeats saw the betterment of the workers
by religion—slow in any case
as the drying of the moon
He was not understood—
I rang the bell

for him to sit down
Yeats left the lecture circuit
yet he could say: no one
so well loved
as Morris

Entered new waters
Studied Icelandic
At home last minute signs
to post:

grows here—Please do not mow
We saw it—Iceland—the end
of the world rising out of the sea—
cliffs, caves like 13th century

of hell-mouths
Rain squalls through moonlight
Cold wet
is so damned wet

black sand
Stone buntings’
Sea-pink and campion a Persian

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