Study Guide

Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker Essay - Niedecker, Lorine (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Niedecker, Lorine (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Niedecker, Lorine 1903–1970

Niedecker was an American poet. Blue Chicory is her best known work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Miss Niedecker is a modest, cheerful writer whose publisher has served her ill in North Central with an oversized format and lopsided layout, confusing the beginnings, middles, and ends of her poems. She finds her theme in the relation between a region and its people. Natural history and local history are drawn together in short, breath-long lines of free verse. The three-stepped line of W. C. Williams supplies the form of several poems, especially the last and longest, "Wintergreen Ridge", in which the book culminates. Miss Niedecker often tries to let the succession of images carry so much implication that a few discursive touches and cool hints of her own attitude will point us to the generalizations on her mind. The method is like [Basil] Bunting's in Briggflatts but less erudite and pretentious—though not more reliable. While we move hesitantly from the level of rock formations and the time of the early explorers to the urban present, Miss Niedecker speaks more freely, recommending the wildness of mountain landscape, creatures, and flora as life-giving and sacramental. Natural human ties strengthened by these associations assert themselves against the death-directed impulses of industrial capitalism and war. The argument is hardly startling, but Miss Niedecker avoids oracularity…. (p. 212)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 27, 1968.

Tony Harrison

[In 'Poet's Work', Niedecker typifies her poetic activity as 'condensery.' It is an] activity that, at its worst, is much like that of the white ants' mandibles nibbling away Sappho's full-bodied poems into so many passionate haiku. There is a sense of strain in much of her condensery, of observations nipped timidly in the bud, of a cut out detail of a print framed as a genuine miniature, of the lopped top few inches of a fir passed off as a bonzai. She admits to having Basho on her mind and has a section called 'In Exchange for Haiku', and as one follows the other, generously displayed in appropriate white spaces, one has the feeling of mounting panic like watching a child go blue in the face from holding its breath too long, a sort of Black Mountain hara-kiri. Some of the shortest poems are of a folksy banality stripped to essentials as though Robert Frost had grown suddenly tight-lipped on saki…. (pp. 166-67)

Sometimes Miss Niedecker goes in for very awkward rhyming in short poems of very short lines, so that they sound like tumbling Skeltonics decapitated in mid-air. Sometimes a desperate alliteration props up her Zukofsky/WCW triplets:

               there the light
                   pissed past
                       the pistillate cone

There are a few successes even among the palimpsests, like 'Museum' and other fragments in 'Wintergreen Ridge' and 'Paean to Place' where memories of her dead parents help her to sustain her landscape by water long enough for it to have a human presence. (p. 167)

Tony Harrison, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1971), April-May, 1971.

James Naiden

Lorine Niedecker's new collection, Collected Poems 1968: My Life by Water, is a part of a rather long period in contemporary American life, from 1936 to 1968. Many of these poems are reflective of a spare genius, not without occasional impatience with what rankles at the soul—the very personal, yet sociable, tendencies in the life of any artist. Lorine Niedecker's poems reveal a most compassionate awareness of those elements that either impair or sustain the poet's vision in an hour of great turmoil….

The concerns are always close to home and personal in ways peculiarly feminine, yet not in the least precious or "endearing"; above all, there is a good humor, with the eye always alert…. (p. 119)

James Naiden, in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1972.

Thomas Meyer

"… Am I the American indeed—I can't be entirely content, it seems, without some puzzlement, some sharpness, a bit of word-play, a kind of rhythm and music in however small a way…." Lorine Niedecker wrote Cid Corman the fifteenth of December 1966. (p. 85)

The New York Times daily crossword and Lorine Niedecker, however far from one another, occupy points on the same language circuitry. Words in both instances are devices used for amplification, switching, and detection—each one, in short, a transfer resistor or transistor. (p. 86)

Anyone who reads more than three poems by Lorine Niedecker will not fail to feel a need satisfied, or at least resolved. Perhaps only her own, but the work is of that order. The poems are short and relatively few, not so much perfected as complete in themselves. We know from her letters to Cid Corman she was slow before the task a poem exacted, careful to trust only what absorbed her, almost Carthusian in that act of silence she demanded her poems be…. Apart from the awe we sense in the animal, vegetable, or mineral her poems fed on, what feeds us in her work?

               The radio talk this morning
               was of obliterating
               the world
 
               I notice fruit flies rise
               from the rind
               of the recommended
               melon

Obviously a woman well enough read that we can't rule out the possibility of Bashō's informing such a poem. Yet it seems impossible that our idea of Japanese poetry should be so vitally present in the way the words play such a precise music on flies, rise, rind, ending their run on melon via recommended. We can only speak of affinity, or the slave-boy Socrates was able to exact the theorems of geometry from without the kid's knowing he knew them. Amazingly, there is something so authentic, American, about the poem we are relieved of seeking pedantic sources…. She wrote Jonathan Williams in December 1965, "My inclusion in A Test of Poetry in the folk category under general heading Recurrence pleased me and he [Zukofsky, editor] said in a general way: 'The less poetry is concerned with the everyday existence and the rhythmic talents of a people the less readable that poetry is likely to be.'" The "readable" for Lorine Niedecker meant "one person to another, spoken thus, or read silently." In a lifetime she exercised little direct influence upon her generation or the next, making almost no disciples, yet producing work which, it is...

(The entire section is 1134 words.)