Thursday, August 10, 2006

Lake Superior

Lorine Niedecker’s poetry might be thought too spare, too minimal to give a true sense of landscape. And yet, as Charles Tomlinson has written, ‘the space of an environment, sparse in detail and mocking the trite inadequacy of the names that American locations so often bear, stands at the back of Miss Niedecker’s terse formulations – they are fragments shorn against long winters, spring floods and literary isolation.’ In a 1961 essay Jonathan Williams described her house at Black Hawk Island and observed that ‘the river is a major fact in her life – lying there sparkling and running, often flooding and worrying people. It’s in the poems.’ Niedecker herself said, ‘the Brontes had their moors, I have my marshes.’

In fact Niedecker did write longer poems that convey the watery expanses of Wisconsin. ‘Paean to Place’, for example, where we read of her father sculling through marsh fog and her mother helping him with the nets. Then there is ‘Lake Superior’, in which fragmentary facts and quotations mingle with elements of the landscape: granite, iron-ore, blue ice, birch bark and water. And there is her poem ‘My Life by Water’, which can be read here

A slightly muffled but engrossing recording of Niedecker from November 1970 can be heard here. In it she reads from her last collection Harpsichord & Salt Fish. There is a real poignancy in hearing her reading these poems a month before she died, at the age of 67, on the last day of the year.

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