Dwelling with Place: Lorine Niedecker’s Ecopoetics
I’m currently writing a dissertation for the English department at UW-Madison, in a subfield called environmental criticism or ecocriticism. When I describe my work to others within my field, I often use the term ecopoetics. The word itself is an amalgam of two Greek words: oikos [household or family] and poïesis [making, creating, or producing], so that ecopoetics quite literally means the creation of a dwelling place, or home-making. The term came into special prominence after the influential British literary critic Jonathan Bate published The Song of the Earth in 2000. There, Bate defined ecopoetics as a critical practice in which the central tasks are to ask “in what respects a poem may be a making … of the dwelling-place” and to “think about what it might mean to dwell upon the earth.”
Poetry, because of the attention it gives to “the little words” which would otherwise pass invisibly beneath our notice, is ideally suited to helping us explore our relationships with and responsibilities toward the myriad other entities who share our planet. When it comes to planetary home-making, these little words matter quite a lot: consider how different dwelling in, on, or upon the earth feels from dwelling with it. In the former instances, our places are too often seen as blank slates to be filled or occupied as we desire, while the latter contains at the very least an awareness of other modes of being than our own.
This notion of dwelling with our home places should not be entirely unfamiliar; after all, it has been more than sixty five years since Aldo Leopold urged us to adopt a “land ethic” by “enlarg[ing] the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” Concerned that we too often view land as mere property, Leopold invited his readers to treat land as an organism made up of “all of the things on, over, or in the earth,” and transform our role “from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen.”
Lorine Niedecker and Dwelling With
Since I moved to Wisconsin in 2007, one of my goals has been to learn how to dwell with this place—that is, to better understand the panoply of organisms and entities that make up my land-community. One of my greatest guides in this pursuit has been the poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), a woman who spent most of her life living in a tiny cabin on rustic Blackhawk Island, a small, marshy peninsula which juts into Lake Koshkonong on the Rock River just outside of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.
Although she lived in almost total obscurity—nearly blind, on the brink of poverty, working a series of anonymous, largely menial jobs—she produced a body of rich, highly condensed, extraordinarily perceptive poetry. In the decades following her death, her reputation as a poet has steadily grown (she has been praised as a twentieth-century Emily Dickinson), culminating with the publication of her Collected Works in 2004 and Margot Peters’ excellent biography of her in 2011. Because of the ways in which she strove to be a “plain member and citizen” of her land-community, Niedecker’s life and thought offers an exceptional model for dwelling with our own parts of the world, no matter how much they may differ from an oft-flooded rural Wisconsin marsh.
One of the most compelling parts of Niedecker’s thought is the almost complete absence of egotism. At several points in her correspondence with urban male contemporaries, she adopts self-effacing epithets that critics usually read as some combination of modesty, timidity, or gendered deference. For instance, she jokes with her longtime mentor Louis Zukofsky that in place of an author photo like the one that has appeared in his most recent book, “They can put a creeping mint for me when I have a book—the ditches along the road are full of it this spring here, a bright blue flower and leaves smelling very strong of mint—a wonderful ground cover, no grass gets thru it.” She also refers to herself in her letters and poems as “just a sandpiper in a marshy region”; “a little bunch of marshland violets offered to the crooked lawyer”; “the solitary plover / a pencil / for a wing-bone” and “the lowland leek—of the lily family, tho.”1 Rather than being purely self-abnegating, I find her claims of affinity with these small plants and birds delightfully humble, democratic, and ecological. “Plain member and citizen,” indeed!
Niedecker’s sense of kinship and identification with other biotic elements is woven throughout her poetry. Her remarkable long poem “Lake Superior” begins with the insistence that
In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock
In blood the minerals
of the rock 2
and she writes wryly in her poem “Wintergreen Ridge”:
It all comes down
to the family
‘We have a lovely
Instead of fretting over how such a finite parentage might threaten our “humaniqueness,” Niedecker welcomes our bond with nonhuman life and seeks instead to endow us, as she writes in “Paean to Place,” with a deeper appreciation for the “sea water running / in [our] veins.”4
She also insists upon the necessity of our learning to dwell with other biotic elements who share our land-community, including what she calls in one poem “our relative the air” and “our rich friend / silt.”5
Embodied Perception and the Role of Senses
Dwelling responsibly with these other entities requires humility, acknowledgment of our kinship with other co-dwellers, and “love, respect, and admiration for land,” to borrow Leopold’s phrasing. But where does this sense of kinship come from—how do we learn to dwell with? Leopold believed that our ideas about the land community are grounded in prior perception, fostered and nourished by our body’s regular sensation of and engagement with land, arguing that “we can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” Sometimes, increased attention to our interconnectedness is an outcome of disaster. Yet while Niedecker’s upbringing in a place that underwent regular flooding certainly contributed to her sense of proximity with all kinds of non-human others, surviving a catastrophe, thankfully, is not necessary for the shift in awareness we’re after. What is required, however, is sensual, embodied experience—close encounters of awe, wonder, fright, disgust, or even tedium—which remind us both of the real earth with which we dwell, and that we share our home with innumerable cohabitants.
In saying this, I am not suggesting that immediate sensory experience is all we need for more healthy relationships with place. Certain kinds of education clearly help. Niedecker herself was a voracious reader with a particular interest in geology, botany, and natural history, and a great deal of her later poetry was informed by her reading, whether it be the extensive research she did in advance of a Lake Superior circle tour which would form the basis for one of her most significant poems, or her lifelong interest in the journals, letters, and diaries of historical figures. However, like Leopold, Niedecker believed that abstract education or book knowledge alone are insufficient ethical guides. As insatiable and delightful as Niedecker’s curiosity for books was, it did not displace the primacy enjoyed by direct, embodied experience.
The relationship between reading and lived experience can be seen clearly in a letter Niedecker wrote to Cid Corman in which she described some of her recent reading in natural history only to comment: “But all this won’t be remembered, likely, when I open the door out home beside the marsh some spring night and hear the sora rail running down the scale—the spoon-tapped water glass.”6 In a later letter, she movingly described how a face-to-face meeting had helped to repair her relationship with her longtime confidante Zukofsky: “I find letters don’t do it (over a period of 14 years, no! talking clears the air and brings out half a laugh here and there. A glance and a certain tone makes all the difference. We poor beings with that we think—life is made up of more and what strikes the feelings directly that’s our best way—one person facing another— … Best thing that could have happened from my point of view to all of us … [was visiting the UW] arboretum to see all those lilacs in bloom and several other trees and bushes.”7 Similarly, Niedecker’s poem “Easter Greeting” begins with the remark “I suppose there is nothing / so good as human / immediacy,” before concluding not with an image of human community, but with an image of lilies and these twinned imperatives: “stand closer— / smell.” Niedecker’s poetry is permeated with quiet insistence on our need to “sense / and sound / this world”; we are continually made aware of our proximity to and neighborliness with an animate, sensuous, more-than-human environment. One particularly striking small poem reads:
Shared Bodies, Shared Places
Niedecker’s portrayal of living with beings and things in our environment is not merely a poetic metaphor; it also finds support in the field of biology. We now understand that even our bodies, the things we think of as most us, are in fact shared organisms, with trillions of microbacteria colonizing our guts in such numbers that they may potentially outnumber our own cells. Furthermore, most evolutionary scientists now accept the endosymbiotic theory, which holds that complex life on earth was made possible when anaerobic bacteria engulfed aerobic bacteria and the two life forms found they obtained mutual benefit from the merger. On one level, coinhabiting and dwelling with are not really choices for us to make; rather, they’ve already been made, and the quality of our future existence will depend in many ways on how well we acknowledge this fact.
Such an acknowledgment seems to have been central to Niedecker’s identity for most of her adult life; she told Kenneth Cox “I spent my childhood outdoors—redwinged blackbirds, willows, maples, boats, fishing (the smell of tarred nets), twittering and squawking noises from the marsh,”8 and wrote to her neighbor Gail Roub in 1967: “Early in life I looked back of our buildings to the lake and said, “I am what I am because of all this—I am what is around me—those woods have made me.” In fact, Niedecker and her association of identity with her sense of place occurs in some of her earliest surviving correspondence with Zukofsky, as when she wrote: “Where I am and who I am … everything else is so silly,” and signed her 1947 Christmas letter: “from my little kitchen / table overlooking 600 / acres of marsh. The Brontes / had their moors, I have / my marshes!”
Not only did Niedecker see her own life and thought as intricately linked to place (see especially her poems “Paean To Place,” “My Life by Water,” and “[He lived – Childhood Summers]”), she also saw these connections in others’ work. Shortly before her death Niedecker was deeply affected by reading the French poet Jean Daive, explaining her interest in his work by quoting one of his lines: “That’s it—this poetry is the Earth with its atmosphere // as it lies in us, in the poet.”9 It’s easy to see why Niedecker would appreciate this idea so much. After all, several years earlier she had written to Zukofsky about her own poetic ambition: “I wonder if we dare to close the gap someday – What we feel, see, inside us and outside us melted together absolutely.” This is perhaps as perfect a definition of the goal of ecopoetics as we might ask for: a home-making in which we (a feeling, sensing embodied being) are fully and deeply embedded, an acknowledged part of an integrated world.
Featured Image: Lorine Niedecker in her cabin. Photo courtesy of the Hoard Historical Museum.
Steel Wagstaff is a poet, literary scholar, designer, and education technology consultant. He holds graduate degrees in English and Library and Information Studies and is building a web-based dissertation dedicated to the ‘Objectivist’ poets. He works for L&S Learning Support Services at UW-Madison, where he makes his home with his wife, Laurel Bastian, and their young son Cedar. Contact. Website.
Jenny Penberthy, Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 215. ↩
Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works (Berkeley: University of California Press), 232. ↩
Ibid., 252 ↩
Ibid., 268 ↩
Ibid., 168. ↩
Lisa Pater Faranda, ed., “Between Your House and Mine”: The letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press), 146. ↩
Ibid., 164-5. ↩
Quoted in Peter Dent, ed., The Full Note: Lorine Niedecker (Devon: Interim Press), 36. ↩
Lisa Pater Faranda, ed., “Between Your House and Mine”: The letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press), 187. ↩