Niedecker, Lorine (Poetry Criticism)
Lorine Niedecker 1903-1970
Since the late 1960s Niedecker's reputation and importance have grown steadily and scholars have increasingly made her work and life the subject of critical studies. Her work is frequently discussed in connection with the “objectivist” poetics of Louis Zukofsky, a contemporary, friend, and correspondent of Niedecker. Her major works include several collections of poetry published during her life and posthumously: New Goose (1946), My Friend Tree (1961), North Central (1968), T&G (1969), My Life by Water (1970), and Granite Pail (1985). Her complete writings have been published in a volume entitled From this Condensery (1985). Her themes as poet range from the intensely personal to the historical and geographical.
Niedecker was born in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, part of that state's southeastern marshlands. She spent most of her life in the Fort Atkinson area and her poetry has a strongly local flavor. Niedecker attended Beloit College for two years but dropped out in order to care for her ailing mother. She was married briefly in 1928 and worked several jobs in Fort Atkinson, including a stint at the public library. From 1942 to 1944 she worked for a local radio station in Madison composing radio plays. For six years following she worked as a proofreader. Although she has been described as a recluse, Niedecker made several trips to New York throughout her life, where she pursued a literary friendship with the modernist poet Louis Zukofsky. The form of her poetry, critics observe, was strongly influenced by him. The content of some of Niedecker's poetry also owes much to her relationship with Zukofsky: many of her poems from the 1950s feature his son, Paul, as their subject. She also became friends with the writer Cid Corman in the 1950s. These relationships, pursued largely through correspondence, proved crucial to the publication of Niedecker's work. She remarried in 1963, and died in 1970, the same year that her My Life by Water was published.
Niedecker began publishing poems occasionally in the 1920s, and her work showed a creative poetics at work from its first appearance. She herself acknowledged, later in her career, that Objectivism had been a guiding force in her writing. Beginning in the 1930s, Niedecker also became interested in surrealism, an influence that shows clearly in the fragmentary quality of her verse. Although her poetry presents strong images of the natural world, the real “object” of much of her work is language itself. Many of the poems in New Goose deal with the subject of war and were composed at the height of World War II. The volume also includes poems that focus on local history and her Wisconsin home. Niedecker also contributed poems to several literary journals, including Origin and Poetry. She published the poem “Lake Superior” in 1968 in England. This poem, long by comparison with most of Niedecker's work, richly combines a portrait of geographic place and historical perspective that is characteristic of much of her work.
Many critics have noted that Niedecker's work partakes in an inventive modernist poetics in the tradition of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. Much of Niedecker scholarship has tended to examine her poetry with reference to her personal and literary life, especially her friendships with other poets. Because of the strongly autobiographical turn of her work, some critics have examined her poetry as a kind of autobiography in itself. Others have turned their attention to the ways her work creates a poetics of place through its depiction of the landscape and history of the upper Midwest. If there is a critical consensus on Niedecker, it is perhaps best summed up by Donald Davie, who in a 1985 review of Niedecker's Granite Pail and From this Condensery collected works called her “a highly idiosyncratic poet unlike any other of her time or of any other time.”
New Goose 1946
My Friend Tree 1961
North Central 1968
T&G: The Collected Poems (1936–1966) 1969
My Life by Water: Collected Poems, 1936-1968 1970
Blue Chicory 1976
From this Condensery: The Complete Writings of Lorine Niedecker 1985
Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker 1985
Harpsicord and Salt Fish 1991
“Between Your House and Mine”: the Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970 (letters) 1986
Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970 (letters) 1993
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SOURCE: Davie, Donald. “Lyric Minimum & Epic Scope: Lorine Niedecker.” PN Review 8, no. 5 (1981): 31-33.
[In the following essay, Davie discusses the use of Great Lakes history in Niedecker's poetry, as well as Niedecker's use of grammar structure and prose.]
Lorine Niedecker's ‘Lake Superior’, as it appeared in her sumptuously printed North Central (Fulcrum Press, 1968), consists of twelve short or very short passages of verse. Accordingly it can be quoted in full:
In every part of every living thing is stuff that once was rock
In blood the minerals of the rock
Iron the common element of earth in rocks and freighters
Sault Sainte Marie—big boats coal-black and iron-ore-red topped with what white castlework
The waters working together internationally Gulls playing both sides
Radisson: ‘a laborinth of pleasure’ this world of the Lake
Long hair, long gun
Fingernails pulled out by Mohawks
(The long canoes) ‘Birch Bark and white Seder for the ribs’
Through all this granite land the sign of the cross
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SOURCE: Bertholf, Robert. “Lorine Niedecker: A Portrait of a Poet.” Parnassus 12-13, no. 2-1 (spring-winter 1985).
[In the following essay, Bertholf discusses Niedecker's role in the legion of isolated folk poets such as Emily Dickinson.]
Susan Howe writes in her discussion of Emily Dickinson that when Ralph Waldo Emerson came to Amherst, Massachusetts, to lecture for the second time, Emily Dickinson did not attend. Far from being the inability of a fragile, intimidated lady to seek out one of the most articulate minds of her time, she, by that time, had read enough of Emerson, and heard enough about him, to know she did not want to hear any more. She chose not to go to the lecture. Her fellow Puritan, Nathaniel Hawthorne, shared her sentiments, as he scoffed at the camp followers of Emerson in his preface to Mosses from an Old Manse. Dickinson wanted her way of life, reclusive, intensely literary, infused with Shakespeare, Dickens' novels, Cooper's novels (Howe's point), her own contemporaries, Lamb, the Brownings, and many others. She managed trips to Boston for medical attention for her eyes well enough, when she wanted to. She followed the news of the antislavery movements, and then the news and progress of the Civil War. She was an observer of the actions of her times but not an active participant in them. She did not tend the wounded as Whitman did. She chose the life of a poet,...
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SOURCE: Davie, Donald. “Niedecker.” Parnassus 14, no. 2 (1987): 201-07.
[In the following essay, Davie reviews two collections of Niedecker's poetry: Granite Pail and From this Condensery, both of which were published in 1985.]
I don't want to sound like the late Philip Larkin, or like his and my friends Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest. It's many years since I expected to agree with these men when judging poets and poetry. I expect to agree more often with people like Cid Corman and Ed Dorn and Jonathan Williams, Kenneth Cox and Charles Tomlinson, above all with the late, great, and lamented Basil Bunting. Imagine my chagrin when I see in the current promotion of the late Lorine Niedecker (so many “late”s, alas) little more than what Larkin and Amis and Conquest would see—a specially impudent confidence trick on the part of the aging avant-garde, a salesman's hype to which Tomlinson and Dorn, Cox and Williams have no doubt unwittingly lent themselves. This is a point not about poetry but about the marketing of poetry; and it's sad that I must begin this review, and sustain it for quite a while, as a survey of marketing techniques remarkably ill-advised and arrogant.
Cid Corman, Niedecker's literary executor, prefacing her selected poems under the title The Granite Pail (“granite” means in British English “enameled”—no thanks to anyone but...
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SOURCE: Butterick, George F. “Ain't Those the Berries: The Writings of Lorine Niedecker.” Conjunctions 8 (1985): 225-38.
[In the following essay, Butterick discusses Niedecker's use of space and language in From this Condensery and Granite Pail.]
Her family's name was pronounced “kneedecker,” as has been preserved for us by Louis Zukofsky. She was shy to the quick. The husband she married when she was fifty-nine referred to her as a “knucklehead” about meeting people. He once got the “devil bawled out of him” when he told somebody in a tavern that his wife was a writer. “The second night I was with her … she whispered to me she was a poet—a poetess. She thought I might be angry about it.” He might just as well have thought she was whispering “pythonness.”
Not that there should be anything startling in her biography. Her favorite drink, when taken out, was a “grasshopper.” She lived most of her life where she was born, along the banks of the Rock River in southern Wisconsin; specifically on Black Hawk Island near Fort Atkinson, about sixty miles west of Milwaukee. If some live lives of quiet desperation, she lived a life of accustomed precariousness, shaped and symbolized by the ceaselessly flooding river. It was a Sisyphean river; every front door, each spring, had a boat tied to it for emergency evacuation.
Her middle name...
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SOURCE: Nichols, Martha. “‘Thoughts on Things’: a Review of The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker.” Ironwood 15, no. 1 (spring 1987): 171-81.
[In the following review, Nichols praises the tone of voice, and subtle imagery that Niedecker uses in her collection of poems Granite Pail.]
The girl, short with stubby legs: “sturdy,” as her Ma says. Except for the glasses, two saucers of glass, or Coke bottle bottoms—but the world ain't green when you look through em. And there's this light, the girl says, it floats on the river that's always moving. She pushes up her glasses, over and over, makes another note with a pencil stub: Dark ain't the opposite of anything.
After reading The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker, I looked through the poet's eyes at the Great Flood, the world awash with water and poetry and “dreadfully much else” (p. 21). I'd read most of the poems before, but in scattered places—in several of Niedecker's original collections, for example, or an edition of Origin. Fortunately, The Granite Pail, edited and with a preface by Cid Corman, is a well-organized selection of her work and all in one volume. It forms the type of “seined” fishing net, floats attached at the top edge and weights along the bottom, that Niedecker the fisherman's daughter...
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SOURCE: Faranda, Lisa Pater. “Composing a Place: Two Versions of Lorine Niedecker's ‘Lake Superior’.” North Dakota Quarterly 55, no. 4 (fall 1987): 348-64.
[In the following essay, Faranda discusses the changes and base similarities Niedecker makes in her revision of “Lake Superior”.]
Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) is most widely known for the short, highly condensed poems she wrote during the forty-odd years of her writing career. For most of her career she saw herself “on the periphery” of the objectivist movement, sharing with its advocates a regard for the “hard, clear image, the thing you could put your hand on,” and the integrity of the poem as an object with its own irresistible demands.1 However, four years before her death she began writing the long poems and sequences which are her most prodigious works. The first of her experiments with long forms was “TRAVELERS: Lake Superior region,” and this poem, along with its revision “Lake Superior,” answered a restlessness and discontent that had begun to bother Niedecker in the early sixties.2
As early as 1963, she wrote to Cid Corman about a kind of migration toward a new form, a new conception of poetry which made her a little uncomfortable: “I'm a little worried—not really, tho—about my own folk impulse lost—lost?—on the way to the ice.”3 To Corman, and other...
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SOURCE: Abbott, Reginald. “‘All Fashions Feud’: Images of Fashionable and Unfashionable Women in Lorine Niedecker.” Sagetrieb: A Journal Devoted to Poets in the Imagist/Objectivist Tradition 8, no. 1 (spring-fall 1989): 149-74.
[In the following essay, Abbott explores representations of women in Niedecker's work, especially within the context of contemporary trends in women's clothing fashions.]
In her short-story entitled “Uncle” (Niedecker, From This Condensery 257-78), Lorine Niedecker presents a traditional, hardworking family, the Beefelbeins, who are prone to financial failure in an increasingly untraditional world where hard work does not always guarantee success. Throughout the story, it is quite clear that Niedecker's sentiments are with the Beefelbeins in all their unsuccessful attempts “to win the good things of life” (Condensery 257). But it is equally clear that the Beefelbeins cannot win “the good things of life” because they preserve their traditional concepts of work and the rewards of work in a modern, untraditional world. The Beefelbein concept of wealth and industrial society (“The feeling that money was bad. Same with machines, city industries that used newer and newer machinery and threw men out of work. Money, principally, was bad.” [Condensery 262]) puts the Beefelbeins outside any possibility of success in the modern world. “Uncle”...
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SOURCE: Davie, Donald. “Postmodernism and Lorine Niedecker.” PN Review 18, no. 2 (November-December 1991): 43-45.
[In the following essay, Davie reflects back on previous critical arguments he has made on Niedecker's “Lake Superior”.]
Ten years ago, when considerations of Niedecker's poetry were few and far between, I published in PN Review a brief appreciation of her ‘Lake Superior’ under the title, ‘Lyric Minimum & Epic Scope’. Quite by accident and much to my astonishment I discover that this modest piece has been made a casus belli between me and Joseph M. Conte, in the latter's Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry (Cornell University Press). I am used to being misunderstood, and would not bother with this if it were only a squabble between me and Joseph Conte. But Conte from the first raises the ante: my essay, he says, ‘so thoroughly undervalues and misinterprets the intentions of the “Lake Superior” series that it seems … to be of some use; at the very least it teaches us how not to read Niedecker’ (my italics). So if I seem at first to engage in in-fighting with Conte, it's on the understanding that more is at stake than his or my standing as commentators.
What sticks in Conte's gullet is my having found it useful to bring to bear on Niedecker's poem such other accounts of Wisconsin and the Lake Superior...
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SOURCE: DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “Lorine Niedecker, The Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre and Resistances.” Kenyon Review 14, no. 2 (spring 1992): 96-116.
[In the following essay, DuPlessis discusses Niedecker's subtle role in the canon of female poets.]
A poem is a peculiar instance of language's uses, and goes well beyond the [person] writing—finally to the anonymity of any song.
Anonymity was a great possession. … We can still become anonymous. …
Lorine Niedecker is an American woman poet, born in 1903, who lived most of her sixty-seven years in rural Wisconsin on the confluence of a lake and a river, in a small cabin like those which her father, then she, managed for vacationing fishermen. She was married twice, once very briefly in her late twenties, and then in the last seven years of her life, but she was more deeply marked by her bonds to her parents. She died in 1970. Her life was modest; her poems, mainly, short; her friendships among literary folk—Louis Zukofsky and Cid Corman—and neighbors (Gail and Bonnie Roub) were few, but they nurtured her intent and elegant working in the objectivist poetics within modernism.3 Her work was published only by small presses.4 She is...
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SOURCE: Penberthy, Jenny. “‘The Revolutionary Word’: Lorine Niedecker's Early Writings 1928-1946.” West Coast Line 26, no. 1 (spring 1992): 75-98.
[In the following essay, Penberthy discusses Niedecker's attempts to publish her poems.]
In a letter to Cid Corman in the 1960s, Lorine Niedecker recalled: “When I was 18 … I didn't quite know, yet I think I was vaguely aware that the poetry current  was beginning to change” (12 December 1964; “Between Your House and Mine” 49). Ten years later that intuition would find its most persuasive articulation in Louis Zukofsky's “Objectivist” issue of Poetry, February 1931. This single issue ignited Niedecker's career as poet.
Only four poems survive from the period before her encounter with the Zukofsky-edited issue of Poetry: two highschool yearbook romps “Reminiscence,”1 which she refers to later as an ode to Lake Koshkonong, and “Wasted Energy” which reveals an early start to her fascination with language and idiom); the Imagist-influenced “Transition” published in Will-o-the-Wisp; a Magazine of Verse:
Colours of October wait with easy dignity for the big change—
like gorgeous quill-pens in old inkwells almost dry.
(From This Condensery 4)2
Later that same year, the disaffected Imagist...
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SOURCE: Crase, Douglas. “On Lorine Niedecker.” Raritan 12, no. 2 (fall 1992): 47-70.
[In the following essay, Crase discusses Niedecker's “Lake Superior”.]
Poetry is words: though when I think of the Whitman who found he incorporates gneiss, the Stein who says anybody is as their land and air is, the Stevens who locates mythology in stone out of our fields or from under our mountains, then I have to admit that the sublimest American poetry has always read to me as if it hoped to restore, or even realize its desire for a wealth outside words. That is what I always liked about it. It is what I liked at once about Lorine Niedecker's “Lake Superior,” that spare ferropastoral of a poem in honor of the rock and mineral wealth
Iron the common element of earth
for which the human species is just another mode of transport. I also have to admit that what I like about our poetry may be exactly what makes it so alien to other readers. In particular I remember the disapproval of the reviewer who once noted in a British journal that the heroes of “Lake Superior” seem to be rocks, not men, but went on to judge “repellent” this same bias, this same extraspecies deference, that I read as honestly sublime.
The sublime is not a term that comes unembarrassed into American discourse. But sublime doesn't have to mean...
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SOURCE: Armantrout, Rae. “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity.” In Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics, edited by Christopher Beach, pp. 287-96. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Armantrout discusses Niedecker's relationship to other feminist poets and Niedecker's vision of female identity.]
In 1978 Charles Bernstein asked me to write an essay responding to the question, “Why don't more women do language-oriented writing?” The first answer that came to mind was that, as an oppressed group, women have a more urgent need to describe the conditions of their lives. This answer, however, seemed rather facile. It implied, for instance, that there was another (that is, a non-language-centered) poetic style in use that could fully and clearly represent the nature of women's oppression. I wasn't convinced of that. The question of how best to represent women's social position remained open, and the answer must depend on what one assumed to be the cause of that position. Moreover, I didn't believe that women had ever shown a marked preference for writing poetry of an easily readable, because conventional, kind. From Dickinson to Stein to Riding-Jackson to the women I discussed in that 1978 essay (Susan Howe, Carla Harryman, and Lyn Hejinian), American women have been radical innovators.
Since 1978 the debate around the role...
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SOURCE: Middleton, Peter. “Lorine Niedecker's ‘Folk Base’ and Her Challenge to the American Avant-Garde.” In The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, pp. 160-88. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Middleton explores Niedecker's place within American avant-garde poetry and analyzes folk elements within the language of her poems.]
What is the effect of placing speech in a poem? What is the effect of placing a poem in a collection of poems by other poets? These ordinary cultural acts of displacement are taken for granted by most writers and readers, but for the Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker they represented highly conscious acts alien to her everyday world. Although her fellow Objectivists were marginalized by the literary world for much of their careers, they mostly lived and worked within the metropolitan cultures where their avant-garde poetry was read. She spent almost all her life in rural Wisconsin in relative poverty, keeping her writing life quite separate from her various working-class jobs and the local community. This essay will read her poetry in terms of its relations with the poetic avant-garde and the acts of displacement required by these connections. Doing so helps make tangible the complexity of a poetic style that can appear to dissolve meaning into a limpid clarity leaving nothing to interpret,...
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SOURCE: Jowett, Lorna. “Lorine Niedecker: Auto/biography and Poetry.” In Representing Lives: Women and Auto/biography edited by Alison Donnell and Pauline Polkey, pp. 77-86. New York: Macmillan/St. Martin's, 2000.
[In the following essay, Jowett explores how Niedecker's poetry engages her personal life and constructs her own autobiography.]
Carolyn Heilbrun opens her book, Writing a Woman's Life, with the statement:
There are four ways to write a woman's life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman's life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.
But there is a fifth way a woman's life can be written, which Heilbrun describes when discussing Adrienne Rich, whose ‘autobiography is not to be found in a single book but rather in her poems and in diverse parts of her prose works’ (Heilburn, 1989: 66). Heilbrun briefly discusses the cross-fertilization between autobiography and poetry, concentrating on ‘confessional’ poetry written by white, middle-class, women poets after 1960. Lorine Niedecker (1903-70) does not fit Heilbrun's proposed model,...
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Breslin, G. “Lorine Niedecker: Composing a Life.” In Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography and Gender, edited by Susan Groag Bell and Marilyn Yalom. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, 255p.
Explores the autobiographical aspects of Niedecker's writing.
Cox, Kenneth. “The Poems of Lorine Niedecker.” Cambridge Quarterly (winter 1968): 170-75.
Discusses Niedecker's descriptions of folk settings.
Davie, Donald. “Niedecker.” Parnassus 14, no. 1 (1987): 201-07.
Comments on the grammatical structure of Niedecker's poetry.
Dent, Peter. The Full Note: Lorine Niedecker. Budleigh Salerton: Interim Press, 1983, 100p.
Exploration of Niedecker's poetry, focusing on its connections to Objectivist poetics.
Knox, Janet Shaw. Lorine Niedecker: An Original Biography. Milwaukee: Dwight Foster Public Library, 1987, 48p.
Most complete examination of Niedecker's life.
Middleton, Peter. “Folk Poetry and the American Avant-Garde: Placing Lorine Niedecker.” Journal of American Studies 31, no. 2 (August 1997): 203-18.
Discusses Niedecker's role in the genre of folk poetry, and the style of language she employs within the genre....
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