The Poetry Foundation has an essay called The Lives of Lorine Niedecker: How Important is a Poet’s Biography?. I had never heard of Niedecker before but she sounds like an interesting woman and poet, under appreciated. She lived mostly in Wisconsin and among her poems is a long and well thought of one called “Lake Superior.” I will have to investigate her work further.
What is most interesting about the article is its examination of how important biography is to understanding her poetry. While it focuses on Niedecker, I found the discussion extends well to other poets, poetry in general and even fiction. The importance of biography to understanding a creative work is one of those perennial questions that will never have a completely satisfying answer. Some say an author’s biography should never enter into understanding and interpreting her work. Other’s say an author’s biography is extremely important because, after all, everything he writes is filtered through his life’s experiences. My thoughts on the matter move around the nebulous middle of it depends.
Part of the difficulty, especially with poetry, especially with poets like Niedecker who deliberately and obviously draw from the personal — Adrienne Rich did this and Sharon Olds and countless others — is knowing where to draw the line. Niedecker didn’t believe knowing a poet’s life was necessary to understanding individual poems, but having a familiarity with her life and personal details gives a reader rewards.
Yet her biography, according to the author of the essay, is also quite possibly a hindrance to her being more well-known. Niedecker preferred to live pretty much alone in rural Wisconsin on her farm. In 1978 Mary Oppen published an autobiography and in it she takes a pot shot at Niedecker. Oppen had invited her to dinner and Niedecker, who was not familiar with New York and too shy to ask directions on the subway arrived “unforgivably late.” So Oppen describes Niedecker as a “timid small-town girl” whose “poetry emerged from a tiny life.” This opinion spread to other critics who began describing her as a “rural savant” and a “bumpkin-savant.” Damage done. And in spite of scholars and critics like Marjorie Perloff and Rachel Blau DuPlessis arguing for Niedecker’s central role in American Modernism, she remains off the radar of most people.
Completely unfair. But in spite of my feeling indignant on Niedecker’s behalf, I have to also stand among the guilty. Not when it comes to Niedecker, but when it comes to using an author’s biography against her. I have on a few occasions chosen not to read an author because of, mostly his, personal life. I suspect I am not the only one who has done this.
The essay author makes a great point. She says that while biography might not explain the work, a “full appreciation of her [Niedecker's and one can say most creative artists] poetry acknowledges how life and work work together.” And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Biography shouldn’t loom so large that it diminishes the work, but the work is also informed by biography. Life and work are interconnected. It is silly to deny the interconnectedness. But at the same time it is also silly to comb through an author’s work trying to suss out who this character is in real life and whether that event ever actually happened. Thus I remain in the nebulous in between. It’s soft and fuzzy here. Not a bad place at all.