On Lorine Niedecker

By Arnold, Elizabeth | Chicago Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

On Lorine Niedecker


Arnold, Elizabeth, Chicago Review


I once mistook Niedecker for a nature poet, drawn by her habit of linking the animate and inanimate. But she is much more active, producing startling shifts in perspective and scale by way of sudden identifications of seemingly unlike categories and deliberately sounded syllables, as in the opening lines of "Lake Superior":

In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock

In blood the minerals
of the rock                          (232)

A similar insight is delivered even more strikingly in "Wintergreen Ridge":

Life is natural
 in the evolution
  of matter

Nothing supra-rock
 about it
  simply

butterflies
 are quicker
  than rock        (247)

In these last lines especially, the flattening of hierarchies--between one of the most delicate, quickest instances of life and the seemingly static rock--gives a sense of relief and joy, as comes with the discovery of some new realm of knowledge. "Nothing supra-rock / about it / simply..." sounds so sensible, so honest, belying the extraordinary observation about varying forms of matter that follows.

In distinction to the sweeping manner of Whitman--who makes some of the same observations but claims so much for himself by way of them--Niedecker is humble, cautious. Like George Oppen, whom she certainly read and may have met on a trip to New York to visit her friend and lifetime correspondent (and for a short period, lover), Louis Zukofsky, Niedecker had a healthy respect for limit. She didn't altogether trust the visionary impulse, and though her poems have stunningly transporting stretches and turns, she avoids anything resembling romantic sweep. As a result, most of her poems are short, dense, concentrated--in both sound and sense; and even the longer, late poems are constructed of short, unmarked sections or fragments, as of a sequence. The chiseled quality of these fragments gives them a shard-like stubbornness--appropriate, for example, for an imitation of the not-so-melodious song of the blackbird:

Not all harsh sounds displease--
Yellowhead blackbirds cough
        through reeds and fronds
as through pronged bronze              (271)

The bulking up of heavy stresses and strong consonants conveys a stony feeling to these lines, something like what you get in Pound's translation of "The Seafarer" and visionary passages of the Cantos, as well as in the poems of a friend of Pound's, the British poet Basil Bunting, whose work Niedecker knew. The success of such densely sounded poems demands that they do not freeze up, that a spark of life be always coursing through them. Niedecker's decision to withhold the expected "-ed" to "Yellowhead" contributes to the sculpted effect, but the strong verb, "cough' and the preposition "through" provide enough momentum to keep the thing alive and moving. I'm very much reminded of Bunting's "Ode 15" in his First Book of Odes, where he too pushes his words to the limits of stasis:

strong over unseen
forces the word
ranks and enumerates...
mimes clouds condensed
and hewn hills...        [my emphasis]

The result in both Niedecker and Bunting is a marvelous effect of life whistling through matter--there's the metaphysical insight, right in the language.

Similar to the interplay of materially dense language and spirit in the blackbird fragment, when Niedecker's poems take up the human condition, they tend to assume an emotionally tough, slightly skewed, attitude-bound slant that says there's a mind at work here, a (hurt) heart, the terseness, what is not said, driving the commentary. A case in point is this fragment from North Central:

Stone
and that hard
contact--
the human

On the mossed
massed quartz
on which spruce
grew dense

I met him
We were thick
We said good-bye
on The Passing Years
River                    (240-41)

I'm struck by how Niedecker situates the human sphere in the temporally as well as physically huge frame of the natural world; the third stanza moves much more quickly than the first two, underscoring the fleeting quality of not just human relationships, but of any human life and the existence of humans altogether. …

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