Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker, edited by Cid Corman, presents an intriguing, if somewhat familiar, picture of Niedecker as a highly autobiographical poet whose primary concern is that which occurs in the domestic realm. Much of the work in this text focuses on the experiences of a female poet living on Blackhawk Island in rural Wisconsin; it tends to be devoid of the political concerns that critic Jenny Penberthy has argued are the source of many of Niedecker’s lesser-known poems. The poet whom Corman reveals understands the complex way in which humans coexist with their environments, observing and rendering them in the language of experience and intellect. His Niedecker is thoughtful and fully engaged in the world around her, and though these “domestic,” autobiographical poems are sometimes characterized as mere local color pieces, they tend to be highly learned. Several of the poems commonly considered Niedecker’s best—poems that reveal the poet’s strong interest and extensive reading in science, philosophy, Oriental poetry, and biography—are among those included in The Granite Pail.

Niedecker began her poetic career as a student of the Surrealists and ended it working toward an aesthetic theory she called “reflectivism,” but the largest portion of her work shows great respect for the Objectivist ideals that Louis Zukofsky set forth in the February, 1931, issue of Poetry magazine....

(The entire section is 558 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Because Niedecker is most closely identified with Objectivism, a poetic movement whose other members are all male, and because her letters to Zukofsky and Corman never explicitly state an interest in feminist ideology, she is often seen as a “male-identified” poet. Further, even though such critics as Penberthy have shown that the relationship between Zukofsky and Niedecker was egalitarian, the critical tradition has been to view Niedecker as dependent upon Zukofsky both for recognition and for tutelage. This perception of her is not entirely unfounded: In her letters to Corman, Niedecker expresses very little interest in developing relationships with other female poets; her most pressing concerns seem to be her ongoing relationship with Zukofsky, domestic issues, and her art. It is necessary, though, to resist placing too much importance on the gender of the poets with whom Niedecker associated, for nothing mattered as much to this poet as did her art—not gender and not ideology. When read with this in mind, Niedecker’s letters reveal a highly independent, motivated, and committed woman who devoted as much of her life as possible to her art.

While Niedecker did not consider herself a feminist, many of her poems actively reject the social ideologies that keep women from fully engaging in the world around them, and much of her work challenges those customs that value men’s lives and art over those of women. Several of her poems deal with the implications of marriage in the lives of women, “I rose from marsh mud” and “I married” among them; others—“Who was Mary Shelley,” for example—contemplate the manner in which women’s identities are sometimes subsumed by those of their male counterparts. Further, Niedecker’s autobiographical poems, especially those that appear in the “North Central” section of The Granite Pail, reveal that she shared with many feminists a belief in the validity and importance of personal knowledge and voice. Hence, Niedecker’s work brings to American literature an organic feminism which arises from need and experience rather than from ideology.

The Granite Pail

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Booklist. LXXXII, November 15, 1985, p. 462.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVII, November 20, 1985, p. 25.

Heller, Michael. Conviction’s Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. This book is the first to be entirely devoted to Objectivist poetics, to discuss in some depth the work of all the best-known poets in this movement. The chapter devoted to Zukofsky provides useful explanations of the Objectivist tenets that he set forth in the 1931 issue of Poetry. While it is perhaps true that Heller identifies Niedecker too singularly with the Objectivist movement, his readings of her work provide a number of useful insights into her poems.

Library Journal. CX, November 1, 1985, p. 99.

New Statesman. CVIII, August 31, 1984, p. 24.

Niedecker, Lorine. “Between Your House and Mine”: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970. Edited by Lisa Pater Faranda. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986. A complete collection of the letters that Niedecker wrote to Corman, this is as much a critical as it is an epistolary text because it contains lengthy, informative notes about Niedecker’s intellectual, personal, and aesthetic life. Faranda also provides readings of several of Niedecker’s poems and places her letters in a historical context.

Niedecker, Lorine. From This Condensery: The Complete Writing of Lorine Niedecker. Edited by Robert Bertholf. Highlands, N.C.: Jargon Society, 1985. Unlike The Granite Pail, this book purports to be intended for Niedecker scholars and enthusiasts. While it has come under attack by Jenny Penberthy and others who lament its lack of scholarly apparatus and accuracy, it is the most complete collection available and is responsible for much of the recent scholarly interest in Niedecker.

Penberthy, Jenny. Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-1979. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. This book not only makes available Niedecker’s side of the correspondence with Zukofsky but also provides a discussion of the importance of the relationship to the personal and professional lives of both poets. Contains extensive readings of several of Niedecker’s poems and discussions of the political dimensions of her canon.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, September 13, 1985, p. 129.