Lorine Niedecker’s life and work bear a strong resemblance to Emily Dickinson’s. Though twice married and no stranger to work in the city, she preferred to live in the rural surroundings where she grew up and write her poetry in seclusion from the public arena where fame and support are usually acquired. Her work itself is as elliptical, precise, and as full of surprising turns of phrase as Dickinson’s, and from first to last it makes use of the phenomena of nature as well.
Arranged in three sections (“My Friend Tree,” “North Central,” and “Harpsichord & Salt Fish”—the first two from the titles of some of her previous books) by her friend Cid Corman, The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker covers Niedecker’s most enduring concerns. These include nature and its essence and function, poetry, the poet, her mother and father, men in general, and her personal ethics.
One of the basic features of nature, according to Niedecker, is its hunger. Nature feeds on itself by preying on its examples. It survives in cycles of feeding and dying, and in this way it is both hard and fragile, a paradox exemplified by the carnivorous flowers in “Wintergreen Ridge.” Nature is thus the source of meaningful knowledge—a much truer source, in fact, than any human school.
Among nature’s many lessons based on this insight is that nothing in it is artificially stable. Its overall design may be stable, as “Darwin” points out, but the fate of its particulars is left to chance. Property (in the human sense) is therefore alien to nature, as both “Traces of Living Things” and “Foreclosure” indicate. Indeed, the instability in nature is sometimes illustrated by the manner in which some of its humblest and seemingly most fragile living forms gradually erode its most solid forms, such as rock. That nature’s forms, especially its creatures, including man, are so finite is less a cause for gloom than for fascination, as Charles Darwin concluded in observing the surprising fertility of nature, and Niedecker adopts this attitude in her own observations of the natural world, pushing aside the mechanical distractions of man.
Nature itself gives her a chance to do this, for it affords her the peace and the silence required to reflect with precision on her surroundings. This was the peace and clarity that Thomas Jefferson, worn out by the contentions of public business, looked forward to in the rural landscape with which he was familiar. One of the functions of nature, in effect, is to present itself, with respect to man, as a worthy subject of contemplation while at the same time providing the context whereby he may contemplate it.
There is much that is reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau in Niedecker’s stance toward nature. Like him, she observes its minutest details, and also like him, she detects its principles in them. “Lake Superior” and “Traces of Living Things” focus her understanding of these principles. Man himself is a congeries of features—in his physical and mental makeup—shared with the least and most imposing objects in nature. A plant growing about a post symbolizes (in the manner, perhaps, of the DNA spiral) the process of human feeling and instinct. Still, there is more than symbolism involved here. Man actually shares with nature an essence composed of stone and water. Nature’s chemistry, that is, is at the root of all of its forms, and the imperfections of stone and the life-giving and eroding properties of water, since they are so fundamental, are truly beautiful. Man’s own loveliness depends on the fact that he has evolved from and contains the features of this a priori chemistry.
Poetry for Niedecker is true and useful only in the context of such knowledge, making use of the physical forms in which this knowledge is embedded. Like the slow erosion of things by water, the slow erosion of sorrow in the poet produces poetry. The process of making a poem is almost geologic, a patient condensation of language, and water is an image that Niedecker frequently uses when she talks about poetry. “To my pressure pump” amusingly shows the difference between the functions of water as the poet regards it and as the practical man uses it. To the one, it relates to the proper subject and rhythm of poetry; to the other, it relates only to...