Once upon a time the young Basil Bunting came across a succinct expression of a central concept in his own poetic practice which Ezra Pound quickly promulgated as a crystalline slogan of the Modern era: “dichten = condensare”—‘to compose poetry is to condense.’ Perhaps no other poet’s work sets a clearer, finer example of this than Lorine Niedecker. As she states in her rather infamously well-known poem “Poet’s Work,” her grandfather advised her to “learn a trade” and she
. . . learned
to sit at desk
The publication by Wave Books of Lake Superior provides a practical and straightforward case study, presenting factors detailing in one example how she put this practice to use. Niedecker’s poem is itself a sparse thirteen sections long, taking up only the first six pages of the book. Immediately following is her journal “Lake Superior County,” documenting a vacation trip she took with husband Al Millen in 1966, driving up around Lake Superior into Canada and back from their home in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. It’s quite clear that the poem is a sort of condensation of the journal.
The inclusion of Douglas Crane’s “Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime” excellently clarifies this, further documenting key source materials Niedecker drew upon while also firmly cementing her place within an American-British tradition of nature poetry written in English. Crane’s essay, first published in 1992, looks forward to the eco-poetics fashionable today, situating Niedecker’s work in a central position leading back to Emerson and Wordsworth while also advancing beyond them. And it humorously reminds that Niedecker’s allegiance to the preferred brevity expressed by Bunting and Pound came via Louis Zukofsky. As she alludes to in a letter referencing the verbosity found in the poems of New York School poets Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery: “Koch, Ashbery—there but for the grace of God and Louis Zukofsky go I.”
Following Crane’s essay are three letters Niedecker wrote to poet and editor Cid Corman. Being less formal than her journal and poem, these give another, looser version of her take on the road trip and other poetry business matters of the time. Her concerns are readily apparent: “I’m going into a kind of retreat so far as time (geologic time from now on!) is concerned” and “Strange—we are inhabiting more than one realm of existence—but they all fit in if the art is right.” A short selection of Corman’s translation from Bash?’s travel journal of prose and haiku poetry “Back Roads to Far Towns” comes after the letters. This is perfectly apt as Niedecker often writes in what is an Americanized version of an extended haiku. Correspondences between her work and the poetic traditions of the Far East have long awaited extended explication. This is at least a start in directly citing the connection.
The remainder of this slender volume is comprised of source materials which Niedecker drew upon and is heavily indebted to Crane’s diligent work. First is “Tour 14a” from Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State, a WPA 1941 publication that Niedecker worked on. Next is Aldo Leopold’s classic naturalist text “On a Monument to the Pigeon.” Leopold worked under the WPA in Wisconsin during the same period as Niedecker. The placement of his work here invites readers to revel in the revelations of juxtaposition. The two final documents are excerpts from the writing of two initial early explorers of the Lake Superior area, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Direct reference to both these explorers appears in sections of Niedecker’s poem.
Throughout the book are reproductions of sample pages from Niedecker’s typed manuscript pages and notes. And, quite fittingly, two of the six total pages of her “handwritten geology notes” compose the rest of the book. As the first section of “Lake Superior” declares, geology is of visceral interest to Niedecker:
In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock
In blood the minerals
of the rock
And her journal opens: “The agate was first found on the shores of a river in Sicily and named by the Greeks. . . . A rock is made of minerals constantly on the move and changing from heat, cold and pressure.” For Niedecker, writing is of such structure as the earth itself is formed. Her writing seeks to fashion itself in its “condensery” according to a manner which yields such a purity of ore that there is no waste. Lake Superior reveals with piercing clarity the fundamental depth of research combined with the alacrity of perception that Niedecker had developed an innate skill at later in life. This gathering of various documents provides the opportunity to come as close as possible to observing the poet at work in her own mapped-out space—a rare, intimate consolidation of all relevant available information concerning one terrific poem.