Lorine Niedecker "after the Bay of Pigs".
Ostensibly an oblique commentary on the Bay of Pigs invasion, Lorine Niedecker's brief poem "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs," first published in 1967, also serves as a reflection on the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. The poem's elliptical content is indirectly elucidated by its distinctive form, which pivots around a quotation implicitly attributed--though never directly traceable--to Kennedy himself. Performing a close reading of Niedecker's poem, this essay situates "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" in its literary, historical, and political contexts while also drawing upon speech act theory in order to gain a better understanding of what is at stake in Niedecker's "quotation" of Kennedy.
Of all the political poetry written in the 1960s, perhaps no single poem packed more punch per word than Lorine Niedecker's highly compressed "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs." First published in 1967, and included the following year in Niedecker's collection North Central, here it is as it first appeared in print:
J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs
To stand up--
black-marked tulip not snapped by the storm
"I've been duped by the experts"
--and walk the South Lawn (Niedecker 1967, 53)
How best to decipher the utterance at the center of this poem? Answers may vary, as will interpretations of this famously enigmatic work. This much seems certain: in appropriating a speech act implicitly attributed to Kennedy, Niedecker affiliates herself with his speech act even as she transforms it, inviting readers to claim and reframe her own poem in turn. What are the effects that spring from this mysterious poem? At the very least, Niedecker seems to work in an indeterminate mode whose ambiguities invite attempts at resolution, calling upon readers to exercise interpretative judgments grounded in ethical, historical, and political analysis.
Niedecker's first comment on Kennedy's role in the Bay of Pigs invasion came in a letter of May 10, 1961, to Louis Zukofsky, in which she confessed: "I can't get over Cuba invasion and J. F. K. with the Republicans--that it turned out unsuccessful seems beside the point" (quoted in Penberthy 1993, 281). Viewed from the present day, Niedecker's chagrin at Kennedy's bipartisan adventurism strikes a tone likely to resonate with independent critics of the Obama administration. Yet Niedecker was slow to communicate her dismay with Kennedy to a wider reading public and it wasn't until 1967, more than three years after his assassination, that she sent the manuscript of "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" to Cid Corman (Faranda 1986, 123), who published it in the October 1967 issue of Origin. (1)
Straddling the early and late 1960s, "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" also functions as a poem of our own times. Ostensibly a commentary on the Bay of Pigs invasion, it is perforce a commentary on the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath, which we live with even half a century later. As a poem of its era it also resonates with the prose of its era, capturing the mood of confusion and despair surrounding so many literary works of the period, from John A. Williams's The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), a roman a clef theorizing Richard Wright's 1960 death in Paris as a murder at the hands of CIA agents, to Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968), a rollicking genre-bender concerning the March on the Pentagon of October 21, 1967. But whereas Williams and Mailer wore their political views on their sleeves, Niedecker's poetics were characterized by a much more cryptic, retiring approach.
Rather than spelling her commitments out in prose or emoting them in the confessional lyric mode so popular in the period, Niedecker's "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" encodes its critique in the very structure of its poetic form. In its brevity, the poem makes a pointed claim on the reader, evoking the concision of the haiku tradition and the "luminous detail" of Imagism (Pound 1973, 23). At a glance, this poem would appear to be written in unrhymed free verse unless read in Kennedy's own accent, in which case "storm" just might rhyme with "lawn." (2) But upon closer investigation, it's clear that Niedecker versifies with a purpose and that lineation matters distinctly in this case as well.
Depending on which of the five published versions one considers, the poem contains three or four stanzas, each of different lengths, with the dimeter of the opening stanzas yielding to the monometer of the final stanza. (3) In the poem's first appearances in print in the late 1960s, the utterance "I've been duped by the experts" stood alone, a monostich between couplets, formally echoing the initial monostich. Yet upon its republication in Collected Works, the 2002 edition of Niedecker's oeuvre edited by Jenny Penberthy, this utterance is joined to the previous stanza as a tercet, leaving only three stanzas which unfold in a stanzaic progression of monostich, tercet, and couplet. (4)
The variant versions of the poem also take distinct approaches to Niedecker's use of dashes. In the Origin version, the title reads as "J. F. Kennedy af-- / ter the Bay of Pigs," but all subsequent reprintings style the poem as "J. F. Kennedy after / the Bay of Pigs," in a slight revision that retains but tempers the violence of the original titular interruption. Moreover, whereas the Origin version includes a dash at the end of the first line, most subsequent reprintings omit this dash, revising and softening "To stand up--" as "To stand up" and thus eliding the parallel with the initial dash of the final stanza. Such distinctions might seem trifling, but in a poem of such brevity devoted to a figure of such importance, it is striking that there should be so many published variants, each of which is freighted with slightly different shades of signification.
However one lineates or punctuates the poem, the accentual qualities of the lines in question aren't nearly as important as their syllabic qualities. As for quantity, duration does matter, but not so much in and of itself as in comparison to its larger context. In this sense Niedecker's stanzas and syllabics can be distinguished from those of Marianne Moore, whose quantitative poetics were structured by a logic that was at once arbitrary and regular. Consider examples from Moore's bestiary like "The Jerboa" (1994, 10-15), "The Buffalo" (27-28), "The Fish" (32-33), and "The Monkeys" (40). All of these poems feature stanzas and lines of fixed lengths. But there is no particular reason why "The Fish" should be composed of unvarying nonce stanzas with lines of 1, 3, 9, 6, and 9 syllables, and there is no particular reason that "The Monkeys" should be composed of unvarying sestets rather than of unvarying octaves, unless those reasons are simply matters of aesthetic preference.
In Niedecker's "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs," by contrast, there is a qualitative poetics at work which is neither arbitrary nor regular but instead motivated and variable. In a poem that condenses the promise and the tragedy of the Kennedy presidency into a handful of words, the stanzaic and syllabic sequence is startling in its communication of advancement followed by curtailment, featuring three syllables, followed by four, then five, then seven, then two, then three. In the Penberthy version of the poem, a strict rule applies in both the syllabic and stanzaic cases: whenever the length of a line or a stanza increases by more than one unit, the following line or stanza necessarily decreases. You can have progress in Niedecker's representation of Kennedy's Camelot, but not by leaps and bounds. Progress will come in a gradual, incremental, orderly fashion or else, in the attempt to overreach, the progressive will be cut down.
If this is the kernel of Niedecker's "meter-making argument," to use Ralph Waldo Emerson's prerequisite for poetic activity (Emerson 1983, 450), then it is an argument at once easily missed and intricately woven--a characteristic instance of what Kenneth Cox has described as Niedecker's "complexity ... hidden under feminine ease" (Cox 1983, 29). Does gender necessarily shape Niedecker's poetics here or elsewhere? Perhaps not, though her peculiar combination of complexity and ease emerges with particular force in this case. And if Niedecker's own exposure to haiku in translation helped to shape the ease and the complexity of "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs," (5) this poem also has an American cousin. In its syllabic progression--3, 4, 5, 7, 2, 3--"J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" loosely approximates the "cinquain," an "original verse-form" invented by Adelaide Crapsey in a sequence of twenty-eight poems written between 1911 and 1913 (Crapsey 1915, 27-52).
Though there is no evidence that Niedecker read Crapsey's work, the formal similarities prove striking indeed. While Crapsey's cinquains tend to unfold in a five-line progression of 2, 4, 6, 8, and 2 syllables, it has been noted that in certain cases she "allows herself to add or subtract a syllable from any given line" (Drury 2006, 61). (6) Niedecker works in close parallel to these parameters, with her poem's lines growing more or less consistently by degrees only to be radically reduced by way of conclusion. Like Crapsey, Niedecker devotes her primary attention to syllables and shows a relative disregard for accentual meter. But whereas Crapsey's stresses proceed irregularly from one foot to the next, Niedecker's first seven syllables contain an inordinate number of stresses.
Despite this initial thunder, in loosely (and however unconsciously) channeling Crapsey's cinquain form, Niedecker inhabits a paradigm that is at once evocative and elusive. As Susan Sutton Smith has observed, "The restraint of the cinquains makes them noncommittal: many of the poems must be completed by the reader, and ... may suggest, should suggest, more than one truth" (1984). Meanwhile, as Karen Alkalay-Gut notes, Crapsey's approach to the cinquain set a standard for the form characterized by "a spareness which ... encourages the reader's innovation, the biographer's suppositions, the relating of parallel events" (1985, 269). Although "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" is brief, it too demands completion by way of readerly connection and supposition, for the epic qualities of the work are palpable and historical intrigue saturates the white spaces beyond the words of the poem itself.
What, then, can a reader suppose about the poem, beyond what it seems to say? To what events might one relate it? Beyond the title, the utterance at the center of the poem provides a clue, but when Niedecker speaks Kennedy's language--"I've been duped by the experts"--or at least purports to do so, what exactly is she doing? Here I follow Peter Middleton in wondering about "the effect of placing speech in a poem," which functions as a "cultural act of displacement ... taken for granted by most writers and readers." And yet, as Middleton observes, for Niedecker, quotation functioned as a series of "highly conscious acts alien to her everyday world"--something that was one of modernism's "seemingly fundamental practices" but that becomes "self-conscious, awkward, and distancing rather than taken for granted in Niedecker's practice" (2008, 160-61).
The publication history of "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" reflects the displacement and the distancing of its poetics: written in Wisconsin, it was first published in a periodical edited in Japan and subsequently appeared in a book published in England. Lest this seem an exceptional circumstance, Middleton situates what he describes as "the British Niedecker" alongside a set of related American poets who depended upon transatlantic (and, indeed, transpacific) publishing opportunities, from Robert Duncan and Charles Olson to George Oppen and Gary Snyder. As J. H. Prynne has observed of Olson's Maximus Poems in a reflection that also applies to Middleton's transnational genealogy and to the publication history of this particular Niedecker poem, "These exilic origins are political facts of a high order" (Prynne 1969).
Though published abroad, "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" has resonated with increasing alacrity among Americans. A quick canvas of the critical reception of this short Niedecker poem yields a set of commentaries as abbreviated as they are varied. One of the first critics to comment at any length on the poem, Jan Clausen, read it in the late 1980s as "a brief laudatory segment" in the "Camelot" and "Great Men" traditions that ultimately functions as "a choice bit of liberal myth-making" (Clausen 1989, 164). But partisan interpretations have proven the exception rather than the rule. More recently, in the context of the Abu Ghraib scandal, blogger Stephen Vincent construed the poem as a commentary on the executive style of American presidents, "a 'forward mirror' reflecting on the posture and behavior" of George W. Bush, "a man who is so rigid--such an Almighty Believer--that he will never acknowledge a mistake, never change direction unless forced to" (Vincent 2004). Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Timothy Yu posited that Niedecker took the poem as an occasion for "wringing her hands over the Bay of Pigs," seeing her example as one that "goes to the heart of contemporary political poetry," foreshadowing work "which draws on samples and remixes, recycles, reworks (pick your metaphor) mass-media materials," often in order "to use them against themselves and maybe even to say something, to intervene, in the process" (Yu 2003).
What exactly is Niedecker sampling, remixing, recycling, or reworking here? Did Kennedy actually utter the words "I've been duped by the experts?" While this precise phrase hasn't emerged from the archives to date, it's certainly the kind of language that Kennedy might have spoken on television or on the radio. Indeed, as Brook Houglum has observed of Niedecker's media diet, "reports of radio listening are part of the fabric of her oft-incorporated materials in letters," providing "accounts of listening" that "isolate particular fragments of broadcasts for written report, demonstrating how radio is subject to Niedecker's habit of notating live and written speech (or song) that she finds compelling, humorous, or distinctive" (2009, 224-25). Thus, even if Kennedy never spoke these words directly, it's quite possible that a television or radio commentator attributed these words to Kennedy, paving the way for Niedecker to do so. (7)
At any rate, in its seeming invocation of another speaker, "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" sits squarely within that category of "the Modern quoting poem" (Diepeveen 1993, vii), depending less upon literary allusion than on attributed or unattributed language culled from other sources. Leonard Diepeveen has traced this strain in the American tradition through the work of Modernist exemplars including E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams, but also notes its resonance for more recent poets including John Ashbery, William S. Burroughs, Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, Adrienne Rich, and Louis Zukofsky.
In her various uses of quotation, Niedecker drew quite closely on the examples of Moore and Zukofsky in particular. For Moore, quotations seem to function as "cyphers of mysterious import" (Diepeveen 1993, 19-20), and so too for Niedecker, but whereas Moore's turn to quotation depends on "ephemeral material" and retains an "ahistorical aspect" (Gregory 1996, 170), Niedecker's quotations, like her forms, prove more motivated and more particular than Moore's. (8) The connection with Zukofsky proves more personal. In the wake of their liaison in the 1930s, the remainder of their relationship was largely confined to correspondence. Niedecker subsequently quoted from Zukofsky's private letters and his published works in several of her poems. (9) Zukofsky can be heard as an implicitly credited speaker at several points throughout Niedecker's sequence "For Paul" (2002, 137-61), and in "(L. Z.)" (2002, 125) she borrows his phrase "an acre of music" directly from the poem "Sequence 1944-6: 2" (Zukofsky 2011, 109).
Beyond attribution, what other rhetorical purposes inform the poetic use of quotation? Lynne Truss notes that "until the beginning of the eighteenth century, quotation marks were used in England only to call attention to sententious remarks" and it was only then that writers began "using them to denote direct speech" (Truss 2004, 150-51). (10) If there is something "sententious" about "I've been duped by the experts," that sententiousness would seem to hover somewhere between Kennedy's purported remark and the way in which that remark is flagged, deconstructed, and relayed to readers via Niedecker's poetic incorporation. Schofield Thayer's praise of Moore's quoting practice resonates in this particular connection. As Thayer wrote to Moore, in a sentiment that applies equally to Niedecker's practice, "Sometimes your quotations ... suggest an opposite, or perhaps I should say converse, meaning to that intended by the author, and these points of yours are the best of all!" (quoted in Moore 2002, 436). At any rate, one gets the sense that Niedecker, like Moore, is no mere parrot of her purported sources. As such, both poets succeed in redoubling the critical faculties of readers who meet their quoting practices in a similar--which is to say in a discriminating and probing--spirit.
By appearing to quote Kennedy, does Niedecker cast him as executive martyr or executive malefactor? In Elizabeth Gregory's view, "poets who quote" use the ironic distancing of quotation as an opportunity "to represent their ambivalences toward the historical changes of their moment, allowing them to try on some positions without endorsing them definitely and to critique others indirectly (or even both at once)" (1996, 3). But readers looking to discern Niedecker's incorporation of words attributable to Kennedy as "reverential quotation" or "parodic quotation" (Gregory 1996, 7) get relatively scant indication from the poet herself and are left to rely on their own instincts as literary critics, as historians, and as political animals.
Perhaps Niedecker turns here to the device that Mikhail Bakhtin describes as "intonational quotation marks," wherein, per Elizabeth Gregory's paraphrase, "the words are marked as borrowed--not from a specific earlier text but from the more general text of a particular kind of person's speech" (Gregory 1996, 9)." In this case, Niedecker may be working to "conjure" what Gary Saul Morson describes as "the aura of a quotation," with the utterance at the center of the poem registering as one that "displays what might be called 'quotationality' without actually quoting anything specific" (2011, 37). As such, it may be that she does not quote Kennedy so much as she quotes his "quotational double" (97). Yet this indeterminacy takes on a firmer footing once we read the poem, for while we cannot confirm its words as Kennedy's, we can confirm them as Niedecker's. Simultaneously functioning as purported speech, quoted speech, and requoted speech, "I've been duped by the experts" is the thing that the reader says, that Niedecker said, that Kennedy said. Or to be more precise, given that this language has been attributed to Kennedy rather than traced directly to him, it is the thing that the reader says, that Niedecker said, that Kennedy is said to have said.
Niedecker layers the ambiguity embedded within this complex utterance by omitting a dialogue tag from the quotation in question. In so doing, does she implicitly attribute these words to Kennedy or do we merely presume as much? The titular formation seems to verge upon a stage direction that would suggest Kennedy as speaker. Yet the section titles framing this poem--"HEAR & SEE" in Origin, and "Traces of Living Things" thereafter--reinforce the ephemeral nature of the language, perhaps signaled in a related poem from these sections that refers to "whisper-talk / preserved in chalk" (Niedecker 2002, 229). In any case, the attribution remains indirect, unfixed. Kennedy could well have been walking the South Lawn while uttering the words "I've been duped by the experts," but Niedecker could have been walking the south lawn of her property along the shores of Lake Koshkonong; indeed, any reader might be walking some south lawn as well, especially if the "South Lawn," when voiced, is dislocated from the White House and southern Wisconsin to the fuller set of south lawns that any such speaker could walk.
Kennedy himself was no stranger to the appropriation and transformation of the words of others. Even his most famous injunction, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" (quoted in Clarke 2004, xvi) has its rhetorical roots in a wide range of precedents from Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Warren G. Harding to Van Wyck Brooks and Kennedy's own headmaster at Choate, George C. St.John. (12) By obscuring these references, Kennedy (or perhaps more accurately his speechwriters) made a claim to speak in his own language, even as he drew silently on the language of others. Does Niedecker make a similar claim in neglecting to credit Kennedy directly?
We might understand Niedecker's "quotation" of Kennedy as a mode of appropriation that is in and of itself a commentary on Kennedy's imputed speech act. But that commentary is not confined to Kennedy's own status as a speaker and an actor. For just as Kennedy does something even as he says something, so too Niedecker does something even as she says something that Kennedy says (or, at least, is said to have said), as do each of us each and every time we turn to the utterance at the heart of this startling poem. Perhaps Niedecker's "quotation" of Kennedy does nothing so much as to evoke his specter. As Donald Davidson suggests in his demonstrative theory of quotation, "The inscription inside does not refer to anything at all, nor is it part of any expression that does. Rather, it is the quotation marks that do all the referring, and they help refer to a shape by pointing out something that has it" (2001, 90). In this case, the veracity of the attribution notwithstanding, these quotation marks seem to point nowhere so much as to the shape of Kennedy himself.
J. L. Austin's line of argument in How to Do Things with Words matters deeply to this case. As he puts it, "language is not merely descriptive: it can do something, even as it appears to make a statement," since "to say something is to do something" for "by saying or in saying something we are doing something" (1962, 12). Using Austin's categories for speech acts, Kennedy's imputed "I've been duped by the experts" should be seen as a perlocutionary rather than merely a locutionary or illocutionary act. To say "I've been duped by the experts" or words to that effect is not only to raise a shout (locutionary) nor simply to produce a meaningful utterance (illocutionary), but more specifically to attempt an argument about a situation. Per Austin's description, perlocutionary acts are "what we bring about by saying something, such as convincing, persuading, deterring, and even, say, surprising or misleading" (Austin 1962, 108).
Whatever else it is, Kennedy's imputed language stands as an attempt to convince his auditors that where foreign policy was concerned, he himself was the more deceived. But in the act of invoking Kennedy's imputed language of persuasion, Niedecker's "I've been duped by the experts" produces an argument of its own, grounded in its own morass of indeterminacies. This is where Austin's argument fails to help us. As Jacques Derrida has observed, in excluding instances of quotational and poetical speech acts from his analysis, Austin stops short of reckoning with the fullest and most definitional instances of performativity. In a Derridean sense, if Kennedy's imputed speech act holds our attention, it is in this case precisely because of what Derrida refers to as the "general iterability" (1988, 17) to be found in Niedecker's speech act, an iterability that can be found in all instances of poetic quotation that encapsulate their purported sources. Has Niedecker been persuaded by the logic of Kennedy's imputed "I've been duped by the experts"? Did Kennedy say it in the first place or did Niedecker concoct it as a representative utterance? Did Kennedy at the very least imply it? Did he mean it? Does she, in saying it herself, mean it? What would it mean in her case--as opposed to his or ours--to say it but not to mean it?
One way or the other, whether the experts duped Kennedy or Kennedy joined the experts in duping the American public, it would seem that Niedecker was duped by the experts about the Bay of Pigs invasion. As, too, were we. Unless to claim as much is to occupy the same space that Kennedy created in making the original claim. He's been duped by the experts. She's been duped by the experts. We've been duped by the experts. Haven't we? Or do we know better, just like Kennedy did? Or did he? Part of the difficulty in assessing Kennedy's imputed speech act, and in assessing Niedecker's act of appropriation, is that neither are possessed of those features that Austin describes as "primitive devices in speech" (Austin 1961, 73): things like mood, tone of voice, and the accompaniments and circumstances of the utterance. The gestures. If he in fact said something to this effect, did Kennedy pause for effect? Did he frown, or smile, or shrug, or wink? Did Niedecker? Do we?
And what does it mean for Kennedy to be have "been duped"? To say "I've been duped" is quite distinct from saying "I am being duped" or "I will continue to be duped." But to say "I've been duped" is also to present oneself as a dupe, the noun from which the verb derives. To "dupe" is to deceive, to delude, to befool, to cheat, but to be a "dupe" is more complicated than this. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "dupe" variously as "a person who allows himself to be deceived or deluded"; as "one who is misled by false representations or notions"; and as "a victim of deception," tracing the word back to the seventeenth century but also noting "dupe" as a more recent colloquialism for "duplicate" per twentieth-century vernacular usage. (13) "I've been duped": is this an all-too-human intimation of regret? An instance of bad faith? A disclaimer offered in the interest of a reelection campaign? The confession of an automaton? All of these things at once?
Crucially, Kennedy's role in the Bay of Pigs invasion has been historicized not only as the case of a man duped, but also as the case of a man duping. In her recent study on brainwashing, Kathleen Taylor mentions "the phenomenon of 'groupthink'" as something "alleged to have occurred, notoriously, during the Bay of Pigs fiasco" and points to a constellation of causes, including "the charisma of the American president, John F. Kennedy, the closed nature of the decisive meetings, the strong anti-Russian convictions of those making the decisions, and the importance of abstract ideas such as 'the future of the free world'" (Taylor 2004, 42). In this reading, Kennedy's "charisma" was the very lever by which he "allow[ed] himself to be deceived or deluded," with the super-duper retrofitted as the super-duped.
Still others have construed Kennedy's duping as a much more sinister case. For example, Walter H. Bowart argues that in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion, "Kennedy took the blame for what were obviously CIA lies," with his administration having been "somehow convinced that it was better to issue a false confession that they had lied to the nation than to admit that they had been lied to by their own intelligence agency" (1978, 50-51). (14) In this case, Kennedy's "I've been duped by the experts" can be read as a true lie of sorts, with the conjecture that Kennedy was "somehow convinced" to play along feeding into Bowart's larger arguments about CIA-driven mind control, which Kennedy's--or Niedecker's--word "duped" faintly anticipates.
In distinguishing Niedecker, the proletarian poet, from Kennedy, the patrician politician, their class differences speak volumes. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes, Niedecker's was a "nonelite, nonhegemonic literary career" (DuPlessis 2006, 142) and so her relationship to experts and expertise would have been quite different from Kennedy's. Although Kennedy had staked a position apart from expertise as early as his landmark study Profiles in Courage, where he argued that "to be courageous ... requires no exceptional qualifications" (1956, 225), upon ascending to the presidency he surrounded himself with a cohort of experts--"the best and the brightest" who, in David Halberstam's words, were summoned "to serve, to run the government" (1972, 4). In her own domain, Niedecker not only stood apart from such distinctions but actively shunned them. As Middleton points out, "By rejecting professionalism [Niedecker] was also rejecting the longstanding claim that the work of literary practitioners could evince a special kind of expertise or 'cultural knowledge' and its accompanying role of teacher to initiates" (2008, 170-71).
Standing apart from the elite fraternity that Kennedy cultivated in his administration, Niedecker also worked apart from mainstream literary culture, assuming her place alongside Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Gluck, and Anne Carson, a quartet of poets who resort, in Lee Upton's terms, to "defensive measures" in their work, thereby "reversing, inverting, or challenging in overt or covert ways a dominant perceptual mode" (2005, 17). While such defensiveness carries more than a hint of subversion in Niedecker's case, it also contains an element of quiescence. After all, in speaking of her poetic vocation, she once explained that her aversion to "too much publicity" and in particular to "local publicity" was a function of the fact that, living "among folk who couldn't understand," she would "not like to appear a freak" (Penberthy 1996, 94; quoted in Fraser 2000, 123). One might infer that the same would be true where her politics were concerned. This is less to say that Niedecker posed as a conservative than to say that she posed as a liberal, even while harboring more radical tendencies. Thus, in "[When brown folk lived a distance]," she offers a self-critique of her own "potted progressive principles," both claiming and disavowing a tendency to speak for social justice while taking minimal risks and making minimal efforts toward those ends (Niedecker 2002, 136).
What, then, might Niedecker be speaking to in "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs," apart from that which she seems to say (however poignantly or wryly) on Kennedy's behalf if not quite in her own? In some respects, the poem seems to say more in its silences than in its statements. As Sandra Alcosser observes, "Niedecker's aesthetic practice was to select the world in fragments, to plant those fragments in silence" (2004, 28). And as Burton Hatlen has argued, "In Niedecker's poetry ... the silences that surround the words are at least as important as the words themselves" (1999, 58).
Take, for example, the fragment of the "black-marked tulip / not snapped by the storm," and the silences that surround those words. What can one say about this image in its context? Peter Campion reads it as one of those "immediate, almost palpable facts of the local world" which resonate with "global significance" (2002, 58) throughout Niedecker's work, though he does little to specify the nature of that significance in this instance. Jonathan Skinner argues that "as we look for connections between 'J. F. Kennedy after / the Bay of Pigs' and the 'black-marked tulip' on Niedecker's lawn, facts shade off into other histories (including perhaps that of overvaluation in the Dutch tulip trading bubble)" (2008, 42). Meanwhile, in an entry posted to Silliman's Blog, Ron Silliman construes the image of the "black-marked tulip" as an "extraneous detail" that serves not, per Campion's suggestion, as an "objective correlative," but rather as "the contrast that throws the human reactions entirely into relief" (Silliman 2003).
Despite various impulses to localize, globalize, or minimize this image, in thinking through the historical context of the poem--taking both Kennedy's life and his death into account--it is difficult to avoid reading that which is "black-marked" and "not snapped" without thinking in terms of the as-yet-to-be-assassinated president. Indeed, as Elizabeth Willis has observed, "Niedecker's work is saturated with politics," structured in many places by what Willis describes as her "trans-historical poetic research" (2008, 223). In methodological terms, Eliot Weinberger has situated Niedecker's tendency toward "the severe condensation of actual documents into first-person monologues or third-person narratives" (2008, 184) within a tradition of related work done by Pound, Williams, and Charles Reznikoff. But, notably, in making an extensive catalogue of Niedecker's biographical condensations ranging from Michelangelo and Kepler to Darwin and William Morris, Weinberger omits Kennedy from the list.
If anything, Niedecker's other poems about US presidents would seem to be even more damning in their praise of their subjects. Thus, "Jefferson" (Niedecker 2002, 275-81) begins with an ambivalent portrayal that depicts its subject first as a doting and then as a neglectful husband. And in "Black Hawk held: In reason," Abraham Lincoln is cast a victorious war veteran whose start in life was grounded in the conquest and dispossession of native peoples (Niedecker 2002, 99). As such, Niedecker's disillusionment with war games did not originate in the 1960s but grounded itself in a history extending back to the early nineteenth century. Born in 1903, Niedecker was old enough to have taken the imperial expansions of 1898 as the recent past; she viewed the events of World War I with a skeptical teenager's eye. Later, in poems like "Memorial Day" (Niedecker 2002, 34) and "Bombings" (Niedecker 2002, 92), she harbored a thinly veiled contempt for the stage management and structural inequalities of the Second World War. (15)
However, if these examples are discernable as war poems, "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" is at once something more and something less than a war poem. Ultimately, the forces that landed at Playa Giron were organized via CIA initiative, not via the US Army, the US Marines, or the US Navy. There is a sense, then, in which Kennedy's claims to have been misled are proffered in order to advance what Thomas G. Paterson has described as "the principle of plausible deniability" (1989, 138) and what Mark Johnson has referred to as "the 'official lie'--an intentionally deceptive false statement made by a government spokesperson on behalf of the government" (1994, 96). This "official lie" thus stands as a modern inheritor of the Platonic notion of the "noble lie," though its roots are planted not only in ancient strategic visions of reinforcing the larger political order but also in modern and contemporary tactical visions of perpetuating a particular partisan order. (16)
As a speaker who looks to speak the "official lie" in the service of "plausible deniability," Kennedy would seem to stand metonymically for modern governance itself. To some political theorists, this structural relationship, self-interested though it might be, is sufficient to exonerate any "official lie" on its face. As Johnson asks,
Do we hold the person himself responsible for lying? The answer is not clear. This is surely not a prototypical lie, for the individual is not speaking on his own behalf, but rather he is merely filling the role of spokesperson. We expect whoever fills the role of spokesperson to issue, from time to time, official lies. We understand this nonprototypical instance of lying only relative to a background scenario we have concerning how governments disseminate certain sorts of information and what they are expected to do in cases where important national secrets are at issue. (Johnson 1993, 96).
With this in mind, when Kennedy claims to have been duped (or speaks words to that effect), we cannot discount the possibility--or, perhaps, the likelihood-- that he himself claimed as much in order to dupe the larger public that he represented for strategic purposes. To reiterate, there are only two alternatives here: this is either a case of an unrestrained government bureaucracy conspiring against the highest elected representative of the people, or this is a case of the government bureaucracy and the highest elected representative of the people conspiring against the people themselves. (17) Both, ultimately, are versions of the official lie. Here, as indeed in the totality of Kennedy's presidency from election to foreign intervention to assassination, we have a narrative in the key that Peter Dale Scott labels as "deep politics": namely, as "all those political practices and arrangements, deliberate or not, which are usually repressed rather than acknowledged" (1996, 7).
Many commentators on the deep political repressions of the Kennedy administration have represented those repressions as matters of confusion and disorientation. As Piero Gleijeses framed it, "the Bay of Pigs was approved because the CIA and the White House assumed they were speaking the same language when, in fact, they were speaking in utterly different tongues" (1995, 2). Incomprehension characterizes many accounts of the event. For example, Jean Edward Smith's analysis in an article in the Nation of April 13, 1964, which proved to be among the most thorough accounts of the 1960s, concludes by confessing that "it is beyond the competence of this article to reconstruct what actually happened" (1964, 363). But if Smith had turned to the recent archives of the Nation she would have come across an article by Carey McWilliams that asked a very pointed question in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy's election: "Are We Training Cuban Guerillas?" (1960, 191). (18) The resonances with 1960s conflicts in the Congo and Indonesia and with current conflicts in Libya and Syria will be striking for some. But if Washington's interventionism has grown more surreptitious in some ways, it has grown less so in others, and internal fractures would seem to be just as evident in the Obama era as they were in the Kennedy era.
Behind the scenes on either side of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy was being counseled by his advisors to shape the narrative of the event with great care. Thus, in the month before the invasion, Arthur Schlesinger implored Kennedy to think through "the question of our public response if the operation should be undertaken," with the aim of "work[ing] out in advance a consistent line which can hold for every conceivable contingency." Such precautions were designed to avoid a miscalculation that would lead to "the government either changing its story midstream or else clinging to a position which the rest of the world will regard as a lie." Then, in the month after the invasion, with the operation exposed as a failure, Schlesinger argued for "a visible shake-up and subordination of the CIA," positing that while "people are eager to believe that the President was misled by bad advice in the matter of Cuba ... they are also eager to be reassured that he will not continue to get the same bad advice in the future." (19)
In retrospect, Schlesinger explained to a wider reading public that "the first lesson" of the Bay of Pigs invasion, for Kennedy, "was never to rely on the experts" (2002, 296). This was a narrative that Schlesinger initially elaborated in 1965, gleaning it from a conversation Kennedy had with Theodore Sorensen in the aftermath of the event; it is this account Niedecker may well have read shortly before sending her poem to Corman. Sorensen later recalled the President walking with him in the White House garden, "more distraught than I had ever seen him" and wondering aloud, "How could I have been so stupid? ... How could I have let the experts so mislead me?" (Sorensen 1998). (20) Within a week, however, Kennedy had decided to take ownership of the political fallout, proclaiming in a speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association that "this administration intends ... to accept full responsibility for our errors." Foreswearing "any search for scapegoats," Kennedy acknowledged that where policy decisions were concerned, "the final responsibilities of any failure are mine, and mine alone" (1961).
Thus, Niedecker's line--"I've been duped by the experts"--appears to present a radical condensation of Kennedy's conversation with Sorensen and indeed of Schlesinger's script for the event; but her version also introduces further measures of distrust and misgiving into the equation, suggesting not merely that Kennedy had been misled but that he had been "duped." In this intensification, Niedecker summons a mode that Richard Hofstadter contemporaneously identified as "the paranoid style in American politics," a style characterized by "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" not merely confined to those "with profoundly disturbed minds," but widely adopted by "more or less normal people" (2008, 3-4). To Hofstadter, it was the Kennedy assassination itself that served as a milestone event in the enablement of "the gift for paranoid improvisation" (7). (21)
Part of the genius of Niedecker's poem is to employ the specific disturbance in Kennedy's imputed speech act as a vehicle to express a more generalizable tenor of disturbance that becomes, implicitly, a much broader commentary on the Kennedy assassination and the modes of governance and intelligence that have emerged in its wake. Elliptical, paranoid, and reticent, Niedecker's "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" resonates as a characteristic intervention in the poetry of its era, which informs our own. To speak the words of the poem are to verge upon echoing Niedecker, just as she seems to echo Kennedy.
What in the end does it mean to speak the words of another? To speak them back, to speak back to them? Here Jack Spicer is worth listening to: in his "Seven Poems for the Vancouver Festival," completed in the summer of 1963, he diagnosed the problem quite precisely, albeit in a halting, asyntactical manner:
They've (the leaders of our country) have become involved in a network of lies. We (the poets) have also become in network of lies by opposing them. (Spicer 2008, 425)
By Spicer's imperfect logic, to counter the official version of history is necessarily to engage with it and thus in some senses to validate it. Who's duping whom? Or is everyone in on the swindle?
Say it again: "I've been duped by the experts." By seeming to give these words over to Kennedy, Niedecker advances a critique--and a mea culpa--that both speakers finally inhabit and that we too may embody. For when we ourselves turn to Niedecker's poem, we too consider the possibility of inhabiting its words. Yet in doing so by taking up her poem's critique at a remove, we risk failing to develop a direct cognizance of the conspiratorial elite in our own midst and in our own time, instead displacing that cognizance on to the recent literary-historical past. To do so is to be more taken by the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s than by recent events structuring the contemporary political order--unless one remains committed to the idea that scrutiny of the former works to provide a keener understanding of the latter.
As E. E. Kellett once noted, "a quotation may be adopted as a subterfuge" insofar as "you may shelter yourself under the authority of another author when you do not wish to face entire responsibility in your own person" (1933, 44). To this point, Diepeveen observes that in such cases quotations "allow poets to say and not to say things, to attempt to remove the presence of their own voices" (1993, 131). Yet by embedding language attributable to Kennedy within her own poem, Niedecker intermingles the presence of her own voice with that of Kennedy's, inviting and enabling her readers to do the same. As per Marjorie Garber's sense of another speaker in another instance of appropriated speech, it is almost as if "she became its speaker, though she was not its originator" (2003, 20).
Once more, with feeling: "I've been duped by the experts." Kennedy seems to have been said to have said it, without definitively saying it or necessarily meaning it; Niedecker says it and does not say it, whether she means it or not; we as readers do not say it in and of ourselves (unless we do) and do not mean it in and of ourselves (unless we do). How many of these would-be speakers have been deceived on some level? How many understand that deception as such and how many are any the wiser for it? Here again, answers may vary, for the utterance at the center of this poem speaks in more than one tongue. Just as Kennedy and Niedecker have very different relationships to this utterance, so too those relationships prove as distinct from one another as they do from each of us who would think to utter the utterance anew.
In Willis Goth Regier's view we quote for various reasons: "To attack ... to counterquote ... to rule and rebel ... to silence and speak out" (2010, xvi-xvii). To this, add Durs Grunbein's sense that "he who quotes capitulates" (2010, 76). When Kennedy says "I've been duped by the experts" or something to that effect, he speaks either to rule or to rebel--or perhaps a little bit of both. When Niedecker says "I've been duped by the experts"--or, at least, when she writes it--she speaks either to counterquote, turning Kennedy's original sentiment back upon itself, or to capitulate. But when each new reader comes to this poem, saying "I've been duped by the experts," what exactly does such a reader come to mean? And, having said that, what is to be said thereafter?
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(1) For permission to reprint two brief Niedecker poems in their entirety, I acknowledge Bob Arnold, literary executor for the estate of Lorine Niedecker. In a fascinating quirk of literary history, the issue of Origin featuring "J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs" contained not one but two poems keyed to the indeterminacy of Kennedy's legacy. In a sequence titled "A Day at the Airport," Seymour Faust's "707 ARR JFK" regards a plane with state markings and notes that "If the group that debarks / is government / I don't know them" (Faust 1967, 47).
(2) Although unrhymed, the sonic compression within the poem, pivoting around the "p" and "s" sounds, is evident. For more on these nuances, see Scott 2003, 235.
(3) For a record of the poem's published appearances to date, including four distinct variant versions, see Niedecker 1967, 3; Niedecker 1968a, n.p.; Niedecker 1970, 116; Niedecker 1985a, 177; and Niedecker 2002, 246. While the poem was omitted from Niedecker 1968b, Corman 1975, Niedecker 1985b, and Niedecker 1996, Niedecker did include it near the end of her unpublished manuscript "The Earth and Its Atmosphere," assembled in June 1969 (Niedecker 2002, 465-66). In addition to these variants, Jenny Penberthy (1993) notes a further undated manuscript variant, whose last stanza--reading "--and walk the South Lawn / By Sun"--suggests an earlier draft that Niedecker later truncated and relineated.
(4) Penberthy's editorial suture--which she later acknowledged as an error (Penberthy 2013) and which has been corrected in printings of Niedecker's Collected Works from 2013 onward-cuts across Leonard Diepeveen's sense that in a poem that relies upon quotation, "each quotation visually coheres as a unit opposed to the rest of the text" and thus works to "ensure a slight stoppage and change in direction that disrupts the reading process" (Diepeveen 1993, 23-24). In any case, such a stoppage registers, even in the absence of a stanza break.
(5) Although not retained in more recent collections of her work, Niedecker included a section that she titled "In Exchange for Haiku" in the only volume of collected poems to be issued in her lifetime (1970, 75-58). Robert Bertholf later retained and expanded this section under the same title (Niedecker 1985a, 117-25).
(6) Crapsey's first cinquain in the sequence, "November Night," has a 2-4-6-8-2 syllabic progression, but the second cinquain "Release," has a 2-4-7-8-2 progression, and further examples offer a range of other variations (Crapsey 1915, 28-29).
(7) Niedecker's inveterate skepticism toward such media commentary is perhaps best exemplified in her poem "The radio talk this morning" (2002, 428-29).
(8) Regarding the ephemeral and ahistorical approaches to quotation, Moore's most radical successor is neither Niedecker nor Rich but Alice Notley, who experimented with a highly disjunctive and paratactic poetics marked exclusively by brief snippets of quotation in her 1996 collection The Descent of Alette.
(9) For more on the relationship between Niedecker and Zukofsky, see Peters 2011, 39-52.
(10) Though Niedecker generally uses single or double quotation marks in her quoting practice, she sometimes omits punctuation altogether, as in the case of "Black Hawk held: In reason" (Niedecker 2002, 99).
(11) For more on "intonational quotation marks," see Bakhtin 1981, 44-45.
(12) These lines served as the culminating flourish of Kennedy's inaugural address, delivered on January 20,1961. Holmes's words are among the closest antecedent in their phrasing: "We pause to ... recall what out country had done for each of us and ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return" (quoted in Morson 2011, 124). An even closer, though more obscure, antecedent comes in Isaac Doughton's observation that "as good citizens you are not so anxious to know what your country does for you as you are to know what you can do for your country" (4). For more on these precursors, see Morson 2011, 2,124; Bartlett 2002, 799; Clarke 2004, 77-79; and Schlesinger 2006, 4.
(13) Oxford English Dictionary Online, March 2013, s.v. "dupe" n.1, n.2, v.1, v.2. www.oed.com/ view/Entry/58564; www.oed.com/view/Entry/58565;www.oed.com/view/Entry/58566; http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/58567.
(14) For more on the relationship between CIA and the Kennedy administration, see Wilford 2009, 233-34. As Laura Wides-Munoz noted in an Associated Press report filed on August 15, 2011, "newly declassified US documents show a CIA operative accidentally fired on friendly pilots during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba," and "two US pilots described dropping bombs and napalm on Cuban troops that 'left the convoy badly messed up.'"
(15) As Allison Carruth observes, "in contrast to First World War poets who imagine poetry as a vehicle of war memorial, Niedecker figures poetry as out of step with the war" (2009, 769). As such, Niedecker bridges the gap between Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen on the one hand and Robert Bly and Robert Duncan on the other.
(16) For more on the stakes of the shift from the "noble lie" to more recent forms of tactical lying in politics, traced forward through a genealogy of political theorists from Plato and Machiavelli through Strauss and Arendt, see Jay 2010, 130-80.
(17) These inscrutable alternatives receive further attention in another short Niedecker poem of 1968, also first published in Origin, which reads in its entirety as follows:
Unsurpassed in beauty this autumn day The secretary of defence knew precisely what the undersecretary of state was talking about (Niedecker 2002, 243)
To historicize this poem within the context of the 1960s, if Robert McNamara understood George Ball, Chester Bowles, or Nicholas Katzenbach precisely, does it necessarily follow that Kennedy or Johnson understood McNamara and company precisely? Or, on the contrary, does Niedecker posit the president as the unwitting dupe of a well-coordinated set of advisors bent on an end-run around his authority?
(18) On the silence surrounding McWilliams's report, prompting follow-up pieces at the Washington Post and the New Republic that were killed prior to publication on advice from Arthur Schlesinger, see Kern, Levering, and Levering 1983, 105-106.
(19) Document 63: "Memorandum from the President's Special Assistant (Schlesinger) to President Kennedy," Washington, March 15, 1961 (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Cuba, General, 1/61-4/61. Secret); Document 129: "Memorandum from the President's Special Assistant (Schlesinger) to President Kennedy," Washington, May 3, 1961 (Kennedy Library, President's Office Files, Countries Series, Cuba, Security, 1961. Confidential), both reproduced in US Department of State 1997.
(20) According to Sorensen, Kennedy viewed the Bay of Pigs invasion as a "fiasco" that "he felt personally responsible for," but at the same time "he was also angry ... for having paid attention to the experts without checking out their premises more carefully" (1998). Another version of Kennedy's remark to Sorensen renders it as "All my life I've known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?" (quoted in Blight and Kornbluh 1998, 2).
(21) In a case of grim irony noted by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the earliest articulation of Hofstadter's theory had its first public airing as the Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford University on November 21, 1963, "hours before the assassination of John F. Kennedy with all the paranoia that was to follow" (Moynihan 1996, xi). "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" was later abridged and printed in Harper's in November 1964 before being expanded and issued as the title piece in a selection of essays in 1965.
JIM COCOLA is Assistant Professor of Literature, Film, and Media in the department of Humanities and Arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He recently coauthored updated entries for terms including "Cadence" and "Syllable" in the fourth edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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