"Probably all it means is another long stretch of geologic time before anything really gets printed. The only time the lava flows is those moments while the poems are being written."
                                                                Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1967

In July 1966, Lorine Niedecker wrote to her friend Cid Corman to tell him that she and her husband Al Millen were "setting off by auto for Lake Superior by way of L. Mich. Shore to Mackinaw County and Sault Ste. Marie. The road goes along the Ontario Shore and Down the Minn. Side. Al's vacation."1 This route, which tourism agencies had just begun to refer to as "The Lake Superior Circle Tour," did, in fact, travel through Minnesota's Lake Country, where Al was born and raised. But the trip was as much Niedecker's as it was Millen's. For years, perhaps even decades, Niedecker had been conducting research that would eventually inform her long poem "Lake Superior." Beginning with her contributions to the WPA's Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State (1941), Niedecker became increasingly interested in extending her poetry of place northward, beyond her immediate surroundings on Blackhawk Island, to the northern Midwest. Niedecker connected this interest in "The North" to both geological and linguistic transformation. In "Lake Superior County," a narrative account of her travels, she writes:

The North is one vast, massive, glorious corruption of rock and language granite is underlaid with limestone or sandstone, gneiss is made-over granite, shale, or sandstone and so forth and so on and Thompsonite (or Thomsonite) is often mistaken for agate or agate is shipped in from Mexico and Uruguay and can even be artificially dyed in the bargain. And look what's been done to language! People of all nationalities and color have changed the language like weather and pressure have changed the rocks.2

This geological-linguistic comparison also served Niedecker's own understanding of her writing process, of which she writes to Corman, "I need time, like an eon of limestone or gneiss."3 In Niedecker's estimation, her writing would ideally undergo an almost geologic process, wherein words accumulate and condense under the pressure of time and attention. 

In "Poet's work," Niedecker insists on a poetic "condensery," which both resists the capitalist expectation to secure a paid job and offers a method by which to produce poetry. In this nine-line poem, the speaker rejects their grandfather's advice to "Learn a trade," and instead posits another mode of working:

I learned
   to sit at desk
        and condense

No layoff
   from this

Here, Niedecker promotes an approach to descriptive language by way of condensation's permutations, which gives insight into how she achieves her characteristically terse poems, of which "Poet's work" is an example. It is also likely, however, that she is referencing another kind of condensation in which research is transformed into poetry. In a 1968 letter to Corman, Niedecker mentions the painstaking process through which her notetaking feeds her poetry: "I write from notes, grocery lists. I throw up my arms and scream: Write cut it out and just write poems."5 Following Niedecker's death, and per her request, Millen burned the majority of Niedecker's notes, making it difficult for readers to trace her process for transforming notes into poems. The only documents to survive the bonfire were over 300 pages of "Lake Superior" notes. These offer a sense of Niedecker's wide-ranging research interests ecology, history, economy, geography, industry, and, of course, geology but they don't necessarily offer a guide to the composition, or the revision, of the actual poem. While there are phrases lifted from notes, the act of condensing itself is left mysterious, almost alchemical in nature. 

In a letter written to Corman a month or so after she returned from her research trip, Niedecker suggests that she expects some difficulty writing the poem for which she had been preparing for several years: "Yes, the Lake Superior trip was a great delight if I can make the poem. Traverse des Millens! A millenium of notes for my magma opus!"6 While there are several puns at play here, it is the temporal and geological puns that most interest me. If Niedecker has "a millennium of notes," these notes will need to undergo a quasi-geological transformation if they are to become poetry. As we learn from the first few lines of the poem, one of this poem's primary subjects will be geological interconnectedness:

In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock

In blood the minerals
of the rock."7

The poem's subject may also be its method: to "make the poem" that is itself meant to become a "magma" opus, Niedecker must find a force that, like magma itself, originates underground and transforms into something else (lava, ash, rock poetry) through a multititude of ecological interactions.

The requisite force, in "Lake Superior," is the pressure of the poet's focused attention. If Niedecker spent hour upon hour researching the natural and human history of "Lake Superior," as her notes suggest she did, she also labored, "at desk," to "make the poem."8 Though we do not have full drafts of previous versions of "Lake Superior," we know that at least two versions existed under different titles. The first, "Circle Tour," seems to have been a single long poem whereas the second, "TRAVELERS: Lake Superior," was shorter and organized into numbered sections. Again, letters give us a sense of the difficulty the long poem posed for Niedecker. In a letter to Morgan Gibson, who would eventually publish "TRAVELERS: Lake Superior" in Arts in Society, Niedecker complained about "the terrors of the long poem."9 A year and two drafts later, Niedecker landed on the final, condensed, version. While the transformation of research notes into the final version of "Lake Superior" is certainly interesting, Niedecker's experiences, as traveler, as observer, and finally, as poet, are just as important, if not more so, than the preparatory notes. While it is tempting to scour the notes in search of a blueprint for the poem, I am far more interested in the experiential material the observations, the considerations, and the oscillations the poet herself experienced as she researched and traversed the land, but perhaps even more importantly, as she wrote and re-wrote the poem. Yet, to go in search of the experiential basis of the actual poem, we have nowhere to go but to the poem itself. There or here, perhaps we find not only Niedecker, but often ourselves, as readers of her thick poetic description and as inhabitants of the earth. 

The final version of "Lake Superior," informed as it is by Niedecker's research, is in-formed, that is made into form, by the force of Niedecker's attention. The poem begins, "In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock."10 In these two lines alone we encounter generalizations ("every," which appears twice) and abstractions ("stuff" and "thing"). From the start of the poem, Niedecker withholds a conventional lyric speaker in favor of a larger, geological, transtemporal speaker. It is as if the very center of the earth is speaking its geological, ecological truth. But what is also at play here is Niedecker's own poetic attention through which time, material, and language are compressed. The second couplet of this initial section moves toward specificity without giving way to a specific location in time and space: "In blood the minerals, / of the rock."11 For Michael Davidson, in "Life by Water: Lorine Niedecker and Critical Regionalism," Niedecker's poetic process takes on a decidedly physical parallel:

The opening couplet forms a complete sentence, balanced on the copula of the second line. The second couplet parallels the syntax of stanza 1 but eliminates the verb phrase: "In blood [can be found] the minerals [formed from the same stuff] of the rock." To some extent, the removal of the syntactic elements replicates the chemical reduction that the poem describes; just as the living things are composed of chemicals found in the most inert elements rock so those same elements are hidden like absent verbs in blood. The Darwinism of the opening couplet (from rock to living things) is reversed in the second (from living things back to rock), a pattern reinforced by the shift from complete clause to sentence fragment. Language is not only about stone; it imitates the same forms of organic exchange as elements of nature.12

Just as the poem moves toward a certain specificity, it also performs a kind of linguistic alchemy whereby the first 13 words of the first stanza reduce to the second stanza's seven words. The first line, in fact, is written in iambic pentameter (especially if read in Niedecker's Wisconsin lilt) as if we might expect a lyric speaker, but these expectations are overturned. Any lyric subjectivity cannot be separated from the planetary scope of Earth itself, and the typical intimacy of lyric speech is thus withheld.

In a poem that skirts the border between lyric and epic, rocks remain central, almost as if they are the poem's heroes. Niedecker, of course, is not the only American poet to make a character out of place, but she is unique in that her "condensery" privileges neither human voice nor human action, as one might expect in a lyric or epic poem.13 That is, while colonizers, explorers, and Native Americans figure prominently in the poem, the human always registers insofar as it is in relation to the more important geological and ecological facts of the American landscape. White colonists Radisson, Joliet, and Schoolcraft and Native American tribes the Anishinaabe in particular are mentioned far less often than the specific rocks and minerals the poems contain. Iron, coal-black, iron-ore red, granite, azoic rock, basalt, sard, limestone, agate, cobalt, carnelian, hornblende, cambrian rock, mineral oxides, copper, and schists all make appearances. The "I" of the poem does not surface until the penultimate section, and even then, it is named not so much as an autonomous subject, but rather as a conduit between human and rock:

The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
                the leaf beside it

once was stone
Why should we hurry

By this point in the poem, the "I" has merged with the earth, such that the speaker and the figures with which she interacts gain some specificity even as they remain on the periphery of the poem's focus. The stone is a "smooth black stone" found in "true source park," the park surrounding Lake Itasca that is the "true source" of the Mississippi River. It seems important that Niedecker names neither Lake Itasca nor Lake Superior directly, as to do so would emphasize human naming over geological and geographical fact. "Superior" does appear earlier in the poem as an adjective modifying "spot" "And at the blue ice superior spot" a move that obliquely references the lake without specifically naming it.15 That the "I" appears so late in the poem signals a compression of historical figures and events, setting both aside in favor of the area's common elements marked by the human who observes them. Lava has flowed in the process of making the poem, and what emerges is an interaction that is far more important to Niedecker's "magma opus" than is glorifying the human's impact on the land itself. After all, the human impact, as even Niedecker knew almost seventy-five years ago, is often not to be glorified. 

That "Home" is capitalized, and occupies its own line, is significant, providing a sense that this word refers to something other than the speaker's residence. In some elemental or evolutionary way, we are to understand the speaker's true home as the lake itself. Life emerged from water; we, as humans, are made up of it. There is no reason to hurry home because we are already there. The only other place the "I" appears is in final lines of the poem:

I'm sorry to have missed
                Sand Lake
My dear one tells me
                we did not
We watched a gopher there16

In this case, the proper name, Sand Lake, is capitalized. Sand Lake, of course, signals a specific place named for the outcome of eroded rocks. Just as the poem requires the pressure of Niedecker's time and attention, sand emerges from the pressures of water, weather, and time on rocks. It turns out the earth itself, like the poet, is an alchemist: it transforms matter. It is notable that proof of the visit relies on a specific observation in this case, a gopher. As a burrowing animal that creates extensive tunnels, the gopher is intimate with the earth, specifically, with the rocks, minerals, and sand that remain buried. Eroded rocks and gopher activity share a paradox both can deplete and fertilize the earth. As Douglas Crase notes in "Niedecker and the Evolutionary Sublime," "the poet never misses Sand Lake . . . because she is an example of it." Crase continues, noting that "Niedecker's own rearrangements have redemptive ends. If you treat words like sand, stories by their constituent elements, perhaps you can incorporate the contradictions that created you, embody them long enough to leave the land clean again."17 And, perhaps, too, you can incorporate the elements that created us, the very earth that supports us, and the alchemical forces that act through us. The rearrangements of which Crase speaks are the result of a poetic temporality and a condensery that is not linear, not the timeline of human history, but rather "a long stretch of geologic time"18 that requires an attentive and patient poet who sees the landscape as more than a stage for human activity.

Sasha Steensen (she/her) is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Everything Awake (Shearsman Press) and Well (Parlor Press), as well as an ongoing multi-media project entitled Overland: An Incomplete History of Three Acres and All that Surrounds (https://www.sashasteensen.com/overland). She is a Stern Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University where she teaches and serves as a poetry editor for Colorado Review. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, two daughters, and a whole host of animals.


  1. Lorine Niedecker, "Lake Superior," in Lake Superior: Lorine Niedecker's Poem and Journal, along with Other Sources, Documents, and Readings, ed. Joshua Beckman (Seattle: Wave Books, 2013), 50.[]
  2. Niedecker, "Lake Superior," 11.[]
  3. Niedecker, "Lake Superior," 51.[]
  4. Lorine Niedecker, "Poet's work," Collected Works, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 194.[]
  5. Lorine Niedecker, "Between Your House and Mine": The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970, ed. Lisa Pater Faranda (Durham: Duke University Press, 1986), 153.[]
  6. Niedecker, "Lake Superior," 53.[]
  7. Niedecker, "Lake Superior," 1.[]
  8. Niedecker, Collected Works, 194.[]
  9. Quoted in Jenny Penberthy, "Writing Lake Superior," Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, ed. Elizabeth Willis (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008), 71.[]
  10. Niedecker, "Lake Superior," 53.[]
  11. Niedecker, "Lake Superior," 1.[]
  12. Michael Davidson, "Life by Water: Lorine Niedecker and Critical Regionalism," Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, ed. Elizabeth Willis (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2008), 13-14.[]
  13. Here we might think of The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams's Paterson, and Muriel Rukeyser's U.S. 1, among others.[]
  14. Niedecker, "Lake Superior," 6.[]
  15. Niedecker, "Lake Superior," 3.[]
  16. Niedecker, "Lake Superior," 6.[]
  17. Douglas Crase, "Niedecker and the Evolutionary Sublime," Lake Superior: Lorine Niedecker's Poem and Journal, along with Other Sources, Documents, and Readings (Seattle: Wave Books), 37-38.[]
  18. Niedecker, "Between Your House and Mine," 133.[]