Lorine Niedecker: Poetry in a minor key
Lorine Niedecker is a minor poet. Literary criticism rules that a major poet must have great visions and large human themes. Lorine Niedecker wrote flinty succinct verses filled with edges and silences. A major poet has a broad appeal, speaks to the masses. Her name, on the one hand, is rarely mentioned in the New York magazines or the college literature classes. I was saddened (but not surprised) recently when I hunted for her books at stores and libraries and found them almost completely absent.Skip to next paragraph
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A major poet can be recognized by his (and, though rarely, ''her'') clear and individual style, the way he wields the sword of language to carve out a personal niche in the great body of Literature. Lorine Niedecker sculpted delicate, crisp, multifaceted gems, poems made from the sound and image of everyday experience. She stripped these voices of their excess detail and shaped them over a lattice of line, line-break, and silence. What was mundane and flat before is suddenly afire once her pen has crossed it. She is a magnificently sensitive poet who composed in a minor key - and there are few ''major'' poets in contemporary letters who can approach her mastery of craft and level of honesty.
Revered among poets, she was frequently compared to Emily Dickinson in both her life style and her work, and though she modestly deflected what she took to be lavish praise there is a great kinship. Like Emily, she was a solitary individual who extracted a whole universe from her limited domain. She lived almost all her life on the Rock River in Wisconsin, far from the glare of literary centers. She used the water, rocks, flora and fauna, and the people she met as the subjects for her writing. Here is one of her small poems the tone and style of which bring her Amherst counterpart to mind. What bird would light in a moving tree the tree I carry for privacy? Down in the grass the question's inept; sora's eyes . . . stillness steps. Such tiny poems, such a refined focus. . . . How can I describe the awesome effect they can have on a person? Have you ever spent a moment with a raindrop? Just a single watery pearl, on a window or finger tip, isolated from the mass and movement of the great sweep of rain? You know, then, what such a moment reveals to you; I wouldn't presume to explain it in a line. The same for a flower bud, a thistle seed, a flake of crystal. In the expansion of your senses, in the almost overwhelming detail, the tiny element speaks of astounding revelations about the massive world of which it is a part, an essence. But the great surprise is not in the raindrop or the seed, but in you. When you turn back to the daily scene, you are suddenly aware of the relationship of that moment's stillness to the rest of your life. It fosters an almost painfully beautiful clarity in your perspective. At this juncture, at the meeting of clarity and mystery, Lorine Niedecker performs her work. She refers to it as ''condensing,'' as if all she had to do was remove the clutter, the distraction, and there it is: a poem, waiting.
But can you imagine those clear spaces, not examined in isolation from the daily flow, but always present: a part of the mundane chores, the casual conversations, the range of boredom and concentration that fill our days? That was her life, the spirit that spills over to us as we read her poems.