Concerning Craft: Henry Niese (and William Carlos Williams)

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it. In this case, that occurred in a rather roundabout way…

WCW HN Flossie

William Carlos Williams, Henry Niese and Flossie Williams, 1960

Right after we opened the submissions period for our Social Justice issue, I sent Henry Niese a message. I was thinking about starting a related series, “On Being Invisible,” for this blog and wanted to focus on Native American authors and artists first. In no time, he and I were off on various tangents taking me further and further from the essay I envisioned.

Among other things, I told Henry about arriving as a five-year-old war refugee from Latvia in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where all things related to the Odawa people played a prominent role. How I grew up believing that Indians, as well called them in those days, were much like my Latvian ancestors, who, no matter how urbanized they became, remained close to the earth and the old agrarian gods. How I’d set the novel I was writing in a place I called “Anishinaabeg,” loosely based on Petoskey circa 1950.

Among other things, Henry told me about a guy from Grand Rapids, probably a furniture manufacturer, who had bought a good painting at his first one-man show in New York City in 1957. He wanted to obtain a photo of the piece. Since Grand Rapids back then was The Furniture Capital of the World (much as Detroit was then The Automobile Capital of the World) and my writer-philosopher father performed manual labor in one of those wretched factories, I found a far longer list of such facilities than Henry would’ve liked.

To get back on track, I decided to feature him in the “Concerning Craft” series. For this, I needed the manuscript of the essay published in our Spirituality issue. Responsive as ever, he sent me something. Instead of a delightful recounting of encounters with Jimson weed, it was an informative list of vegetables used as medicine by Native Americans. I asked him to try again, and he promised to figure out how the title I gave him “translates into my filing language.” After searching for an hour, he triumphantly sent me his take on Lakol wic’ohan, the Indian way of life. “Nice essay,” I wrote back. “But that ain’t it.”

By that time, I was more fascinated with things Henry and I hadn’t addressed. This fellow Marylander, who lived some ten miles or so up the road from me on a Glenelg farm, was a Lakota Sundancer trained in traditional medicine by Bill Eagle FeatherHenry Crow Dog and Turkey Tayac. He had studied painting at places like the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris and palled around with legendary painters like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline as well as world-class poets like William Carlos Williams.

A paragraph in the press release for his upcoming exhibit in DC caught my eye:

Niese’s 1960 painting “Jersey Lyric” inspired William Carlos Williams to write a poem with the same title. The exhibition includes a charcoal sketch of the painting and the original correspondence between Niese and Williams, in which they discuss three different drafts of the poem.

I asked Henry to send me anything he had on that.

Henry responded with a 1960 photo of himself with Williams and Williams’ wife Flossie sitting on Williams’ living room couch. “I was a baby-faced 36,” he wrote. “Bill was about 75. We lived about 40 miles apart, he in Rutherford, me in Hackettstown, NJ. In one of his poems, there is the line ‘Hercules is in Hackettstown.’ It wasn’t about me.” Later he added, “Somewhere I have a letter from him asking if I would sell him a small painting. I did. He bought a couple of them. Gave one to his daughter-in-law, Bill Eric’s wife.”

Henry Niese's "Jersey Lyric" sketch

Henry Niese’s “Jersey Lyric” charcoal sketch

Henry also sent me two digital images, one of the original “Jersey Lyric,” a monochromatic sketch, the other of the full-color oil, “Jersey Lyric II.” Rarely have I seen such logic in the evolution of a work. In the sketch, the three sets of elements–trees, “woodchunks” and wine bottles–seem unbalanced. There are many instances of the first two but only a single of the latter. In the oil, balance is attained through the addition of more bottles and some glasses as well.

Jersey Lyric II

…and “Jersey Lyric II,” as an oil painting

Rarely have I seen such a perfect match between a painting and a poem, either. Or a painter and a poet. Both had an artistic and a medical bent–Williams was a pediatrician and a GP, who, according to Richard Colgan, “worked harder at being a writer than he did at being a physician.” Both created fresh, uniquely American forms despite their somewhat exotic heritage and education–Williams’ father was English, his mother Puerto Rican, and he had also spent time abroad.

The most remarkable link, after studying both the painting and the poem, seemed to lie in Williams’ stepped triadic line, a long line divided into three segments. Had I not know Henry’s painting came first, I could’ve easily assumed that the structure of the poem inspired his use of the three complete sets of elements in the oil. Instead, there seems to have been a congruence rather than an influence of style in either direction. “Bill Williams sent me 3 drafts of the poem ‘Jersey Lyric’ on 3 consecutive days in 1960,” Henry wrote me, “complaining about how hard it was for a man to change just one letter in a poem.”

“Is this what you wanted?” Henry asked me in conclusion.

“Perfect,” I replied.

If you want to learn more about the correspondence between Henry Niese and William Carlos Williams, you’ll have to visit Henry’s exhibit at Gold Leaf Studios in Washington, DC. It opens Thursday, September 20th and continues through Sunday, November 20th. If you’d like to read Henry’s essay “Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Plant Life,” you’ll have to buy a back issue. Sorry, we tried.

If you enjoyed reading about how one version of a creative work evolves from another, I recommend “Concerning Craft: Clarinda Harris,” which examines an earlier version of the poem “White Noise,” published in the our current issue.

Oh, yes, and if you’d like to see the text of William Carlos Williams’ “Jersey Lyric,” here it is, courtesy of Google Books:

Jersey Lyric
William Carlos Williams

View of winter trees
one tree

in the foreground
by fresh-fallen

lie 6 woodchunks ready
for the fire

For more on Henry Niese and William Carlos Williams, see “Reader Response: A Red Venetian Bottle and Henry Niese.” 

6 thoughts on “Concerning Craft: Henry Niese (and William Carlos Williams)

  1. William Adair

    Great stuff, art, poetry and the connection between the two…I met a poet named Peter Varrick, and told him that the gilder, Charles Predergast (brother, and framemaker to artist Maurice Predergast) once said, rather poetically in a 1948 article in the New Yorker by Hamilton Basso, “Gold leaf is like half solidified sunlight,” and he immediately responded, “then silver leaf is like half solidified moonlight.”…a poet’s mind works in mysterious ways.
    Ocober 17th, 2011
    William Adair, gold leaf studios, Washington DC 202 833 2440


  2. Pingback: Reader Response: A Red Venetian Bottle and Henry Niese | Little Patuxent Review

  3. Henry Niese

    Ilse, you shoulda been there for the “Friends&Family” reception last Weds. Nov.9th. Bill Adair got about 50 people together in the big room & haded me a mike, “Say something,” he said.
    Because of a pinched nerve in my back, I had drunk 6 glasses of wine, & taken a prescribed Oxycodone, so I was feeling no pain. But I was coherent except a few times as I told the story of flying refugees Jews from Teheran to Israel in 1950. It was supposed to be the preface to my adventures as an artist, but Billy said, “Enough,” & I quit. Got a standing ovation, ho-ho-ho!


  4. clarinda harriss

    Ilse, thanks so much for reminding me that I needed to re-read this thoroughly delightful piece–with its beautiful visuals and, of course, the poem. It reminded me of what a seriously challenging editor you are, too–sending a solicited piece back twice for re-doing! I shall take it to heart, and I shall also go throw some chunks on the fire and get out the red wine. Sensuous stuff all round.


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