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.
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.
Grandfather advised me: Learn a trade I learned to sit at desk and condense No layoff from this condensery
A passage in the Hindu Vedas warns of the danger of ''putting words between the truth and ourselves.'' This is an injunction that writers must take very seriously if they want their work to become more than decoration and diversion. In her poems, Niedecker sets down the separate components of conscious experience with remarkable care; rather than explain them, her words seem to set up a sympathetic vibration between the elements which draws us closer, urges us to listen for sense and resonance. And in each poem is a vast silence, the unsaid imagination; it is the reader's own feeling that rushes in to fulfill the creation. Here is a small example: The smooth black stone I picked up in true source park the leaf beside it once was stone Why should we hurry home
It is only a curious little poem until you begin to ask yourself questions. ''True source park'': a place? a state of mind? Stone into leaf; leaf into stone; the slow weaving of ages and ages. ''Why should we hurry . . . .'' Home from the park? From the precious moment? Back to our house or back into dust and rock?
The elegant precision of word/sense is not abandoned in her longer poems. ''My Life By Water'' is a compressed portrait of the place she made her home, rich with the sound and the feel of the river's presence. The poem that begins ''The great snowfall. . .'' is a vision of blue-collar America, realistic in both descriptive and psychological detail. She did, in fact, work ''right down among em'' in print shops, libraries, and as a cleaning woman in hospitals. She doesn't romanticize the working-class life, having witnessed its capacity for bitterness and cruelty; but neither does she diminish it. ''But what vitality!'' she exclaims; they provide the steam, the enthusiasm, the go that makes this American machine function. In exchange for her hours of work she earned the security of home; her long walks and evenings of reading; and her own peculiar occupation. ''What would they say if they knew. . .. '' But hardly any of her friends or neighbors knew, even at the time of her death in 1970, the great gift of reflection she was fashioning - for them as well as herself.
They say great poets innovate, revolutionize. . . . Lorine just refined her poet's tools: sharp eye, clear voice, focused feeling, loving word. Her writings have the remarkable effect of making you want to think and think more finely, with more care and more pleasure than before. She makes the leaping from moment to marvel seem always present, possible, as close as breath. Each line, each poem, is as carefully cut as a crystal snowflake, falling (it would seem) as effortlessly. But when it lands on your hand, tongue, eye . . . it doesn't melt; it sprouts. From each word, seedlike, springs perception; from verse: universe.
In our age, even poets can trade their art for stardom just like all the professional performers; and unfortunately, many are concentrating on just that. When I taste the sense and beauty in Lorine Niedecker's work, her life, it becomes much easier to choose between the gaudy distractions and the true gifts of our human existence. There is a courage, a sense of purpose in her long quiet dedication that stands out among the art-performers as a work of genuine greatness.