Lorine Niedecker Niedecker, Lorine (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Lorine Niedecker 1903-1970

American poet.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

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

Donald Davie (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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
Gulls playing both sides
‘a laborinth of pleasure’
this world of the Lake
Long hair, long gun
Fingernails pulled out
by Mohawks
                                                                      (The long
‘Birch Bark
          and white Seder
                    for the ribs’
Through all this granite land
the sign of the cross
Beauty: impurities in the rock
And at the blue ice superior spot
priest-robed Marquette grazed
azoic rock, hornblende granite
basalt the common dark
in all the Earth
And his bones of such is coral
raised up out of his grave
were sunned and birch bark-floated
to the straits
Entered the Mississippi
Found there the paddlebill catfish
come down from The Age of Fishes
At Hudson Bay he conversed in latin
with an Englishman
To Labrador and back to vanish
His funeral gratis—he'd entered
Quebec's Cathedral organ
so many winters
Ruby of corundum
lapis lazuli
from changing limestone
glow-apricot red-brown
carnelian sard
Greek named
kicked up in America's
you have been in my mind
between my toes
                                                            Wild Pigeon
Did not man
          maimed by no
mash the cobalt
          and carnelian
                    of that bird
Schoolcraft left the Soo—canoes
US pennants, masts, sails
chanting canoemen, barge
soldiers—for Minnesota
Their South Shore journey
                                        as if Life's—
The Chocolate River
                                        The Laughing Fish
and The River of the Dead
Passed peaks of volcanic thrust
Hornblende in massed granite
Wave-cut Cambrian rock
painted by soluble mineral oxides
wave-washed and the rains
did their work and a green
running as from copper
Sea-roaring caverns—
Chippewas threw deermeat
to the savage maws
‘Voyageurs crossed themselves
tossed a twist of tobacco in’
                    Inland then
beside the great granite
gneiss and the schists
to the redolent pondy lakes'
lilies, flag and Indian reed
‘through which we successfully
The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
                    the leaf beside it
once was stone
Why should we hurry
I'm sorry to have missed
                    Sand Lake
My dear one tells me
                    we did not
We watched a gopher there

Faced with such daunting or taunting brevities, our first impulse is to annotate. Sometimes the impulse should be resisted, and certainly it shouldn't be indulged at length. But in this case some annotation cannot be avoided. And so we may start with Sault Sainte Marie, named in the second section, of which we may learn from Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopaedia that it is:

county seat and port of Chippewa County, Mich., on the St Mary's River, opposite the Canadian town of the same name, with which it is connected by a railroad bridge 1[frac12]m. long.

The Chippewa Indians had their favourite fishing grounds at this site and the first settlement of Michigan was made here. Following visits by several French explorers, Father Marquette established a mission (1668). At a great council of Indians held here in 1671, the governor general of New France claimed for France all country south to the Gulf of Mexico and west to the Pacific. The British held the area, 1762-1820, when it came into the possession of the United States. Incorporated as a city in 1887.

What must first strike us is how impassively or indifferently Niedecker passes over those dimensions of her subject that to a writer of another temper might have seemed most ‘poetic’—the chequered history through three centuries, the poignant or bizarre juxtaposition, around those dates of 1668 and 1671, between the Versailles of Louis XIV and the wilderness outpost in the middle of untracked North America. Nor is it only the remote past of the Sault (or ‘Soo’) that is resonant: for the Encyclopaedia entry goes on to record the prodigious feats of engineering which, in the nineteenth century, lifted ships from the eastern Great Lakes up to the level of Lake Superior through two ship canals and five massive locks. As it happens we have evidence of what a poet's imagination of a different temper could make of this material, in Janet Lewis's shamefully neglected masterpiece, The Invasion. A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St Mary's (originally University of Denver Press, 1932). An extraordinarily intent paragraph on pages 343-4 of Janet Lewis's book, about a ship's passage through the Weitzel lock (completed 1881, 515 feet long), makes a very striking and instructive contrast to Niedecker's blank, almost perfunctory ‘big boats / coal-black and iron-ore-red / topped with what white castlework.’

A more famous masterpiece of American historiography, Francis Parkman's multi-volume France and England in North America, identified Pierre Esprit Radisson from St Malo, who in La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (1869) is credited with having discovered, as early as 1658-9, the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri. In The Old Regime in Canada (1893) Parkman tells how Radisson later, ‘having passed into the service of England … wrote in a language which, for want of a fitter name, may be called English.’ Hence, we may suppose, ‘a laborinth of pleasure’—which is hauntingly unEnglish in more than the misspelling. Radisson's Second Voyage made in the Upper Country of the Iroquois was published by the Prince Society in 1885; along with other narratives by Radisson it appears, modernised by Loren Kallsen in The Explorations of...

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Robert Bertholf (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Donald Davie (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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George F. Butterick (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Martha Nichols (review date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Lisa Pater Faranda (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Reginald Abbott (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Donald Davie (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Rachel Blau DuPlessis (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Robert Creeley1

Anonymity was a great possession. … We can still become anonymous. …

Virginia Woolf2

Lorine Niedecker is an...

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Jenny Penberthy (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 [1921] 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...

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Douglas Crase (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Rae Armantrout (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Peter Middleton (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Lorna Jowett (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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.


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