Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627
In the editor’s note, Corman says that the poems in the section “My Friend Tree” were written under Zukofsky’s tutelage, and his reasons for making such an assertion are clear: These poems are marked by an adherence to the Objectivist mandate that poets think with “things as they exist.” Readers should not make the assumption, however, that Niedecker was motivated only by the Objectivist aesthetic when she wrote these poems; they are influenced also by Niedecker’s belief in the strength of minimalist expression, by her admiration of the lives and languages of those she called “common folk,” and by her experimentation in what could be characterized as American haiku. Three poems in this section that clearly illustrate Niedecker’s integration of Objectivist aesthetic principles with minimalist expression are “My Friend Tree,” “Along the river,” and the book’s title poem, “Remember my little granite pail.” The nine poems that close the “My Friend Tree” section of The Granite Pail are selected from a grouping Niedecker called “In Exchange for Haiku,” written between 1956 and 1958. These elegant pieces arise from Niedecker’s respect and admiration for the Oriental poetic tradition and foreshadow her movement toward a more considered integration of Objectivist and Surrealist elements.
Partly because of Corman’s desire to present Niedecker’s work chronologically, the poems in the “North Central” section of The Granite Pail are more mature and complex in content and in form than those in the previous section. Here, Niedecker moves toward an even fuller integration of Objectivist and Surrealist aesthetic principles as she comes to understand what Corman calls “her range and depth.” These poems tend to find their sources in the intellectual realm rather than in the domestic, and many contemplate the implications of knowledge that Niedecker gleaned from her extensive reading in philosophy, science, and literature. For example, “Linnaeus in Lapland” is about an eighteenth century Swedish botanist, and “As praiseworthy” applies statements made by the first century Stoic philosopher Epictetus to life in twentieth century rural America. “North Central” is perhaps the most important section of The Granite Pail because it contains such poems as “Lake Superior,” “Traces of Living Things,” “My Life by Water,” “Paen to Place,” and “Wintergreen Ridge.” Niedecker’s longest poems, these five are considered by many critics the best in her canon. In each of these poems, she combines her astute poetic eye, her ability to say much in few words, and her learnedness. Niedecker also seems in these pieces to come to terms with the place of the poet’s self in the poem, for while these pieces are finally no less autobiographical than those in the previous section, the autobiography is simultaneously more subtle and more direct.
The poems in “Harpsichord & Salt Fish,” the final section of The Granite Pail, were written during the last decade of Niedecker’s life, and they follow the precedent the poet set in the longer poems mentioned above. “Thomas Jefferson,” “Three Americans,” “Thomas Jefferson Inside,” “His Carpets Flowered,” and “Darwin” were inspired by Niedecker’s readings of biographies and letters, and they reveal her intense interest in the way in which humans use language to create their lives. Interestingly, though, what unifies this portion of the text, what sets it apart from the rest of The Granite Pail, is that most of the poems in it are titled. Niedecker did not consistently title her poems; in fact, most of her poems were published either without titles or with first lines that double as titles. The consistent presence of titles in “Harpsichord & Salt Fish” indicates that, at the time of her death, Niedecker was still very much concerned with challenging her own aesthetic principles, with discovering and resisting the limitations of her work.