Niedecker, Lorine

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Born 12 May 1903, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin; died 31 December 1970, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin

Daughter of Henry E. and Theresa Kunz Niedecker; married Frank Hartwig, 1928 (divorced); Albert Millen, 1963

Although a relatively unknown and secluded poet, Lorine Niedecker was early recognized across the Atlantic and her list of admirers is long. Niedecker lived and worked in the upper Midwest all her life, and her poetry arises out of her observations and intimate contact with the people of the region—her "folk."

Niedecker lived on Black Hawk Island, a small island near the town of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Her father, who worked as a carp skeiner, was an alcoholic with a boisterous personality and a cruel streak. Her mother was deaf and going blind, a silent sufferer of her husband's philandering and alcoholism. As a result of her parents' chaotic relationship and very different personalities, Niedecker learned the importance of balance or "floating" between them. As Lisa Pater Faranda observed, "Floating and flying became metaphors she used for managing the balance needed to survive" and "achieved in the act of writing."

Before graduating from high school in 1922, Niedecker bought a Wordsworth, and as she told Cid Corman many years later, she "was vaguely aware that the poetry current was beginning to change" (Between Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960-1970, 1986). She was already writing some poetry, and after graduation from Fort Atkinson High School, she left home for Beloit College to study literature. After only two years in college, she left Beloit to care for her ailing mother. In 1928 Niedecker married Frank Hartwig, but it was a short-lived marriage and they were permanently separated two years later. During this period, she wrote relatively little, but began her long years in various occupations (librarian, proofreader, radio scriptwriter, cleaning woman) that would become the ground for many later poems. She also moved back to Black Hawk Island, first with her parents, then, after a few years working in Madison for the WPA, in a cabin she built on her father's property on the river.

In 1931 Niedecker read the work of Louis Zukofsky and other poets who appeared in what has been called the "Objectivist" issue of Poetry (February 1931). Impressed by a poetry that condensed details to create a sense of completeness, a poetry that touched something in her own poetic sensibility, she began a correspondence and friendship with Zukofsky lasting until her death. Through Zukofsky, Niedecker was introduced to literary journals sympathetic to this new way of looking at poetry, and his critical suggestions helped her develop into a mature poet. The farthest she traveled from Black Hawk Island were the three trips she made to New York City to visit Zukofsky in the 1930s and 1940s.

Niedecker published her work in small avant-garde journals and had a small selection of poems published in the groundbreaking first issue of the New Directions Anthology in 1936. Niedecker wrote seriously and steadily, though not quickly—and she kept her poetic occupation much to herself. In her poem "In the great snowfall before the bomb," she writes, "What would they say if they knew / I sit for two months on six lines / of poetry." Her first book, New Goose, wasn't published until 1946. Niedecker, though wanting to be published, was also careful about where and to whom she sent her poems. Although Niedecker felt people were her poetic muse ("folk from whom all poetry flows"), she also told Cid Corman she had more trees for friends than people. She was a keen observer of people and their everyday lives, of her own everyday life, but she also kept the distance necessary to be an observer.

In Niedecker's second book, My Friend Tree (1961), the poet's place in the natural world comes more into focus. As with her observations of people, Niedecker does not glorify or sentimentalize nature. Rather, she observes the bleak as well as the bright in the relationship between human beings and nature.

In 1963, when Niedecker was sixty years old, she married again, much to everyone's surprise. Albert Millen was a painter who, though very different temperamentally from Niedecker, offered her companionship and also the opportunity to widen her life. They moved to Milwaukee, working during the week and spending the weekends on Black Hawk Island until they retired back to the island six years later. They took a few driving tours around the north country—one in particular around Lake Superior became the gravitational center of her poems in North Central (1968). Those poems represent the beginning of a change in Niedecker's finely honed poetics. In a 1967 letter to Gail Roub (published in Origin in 1981), Niedecker broaches the subject of her evolving poetics: "Much taken up with how to define a way of writing poetry, …I loosely called it 'reflections' or as I think it over, reflective maybe… .The visual form is there in the background and the words convey what the visual form gives off after it's felt in the mind. A heat that is generated… .A light, a motion, inherent in the whole.… I used to feel that I was goofing off unless I held only to the hard, clear image, the thing you could put your hand on but now I dare do this reflection." Niedecker began to link shorter poems together to form longer series that resonated with her experiences of the world.

Hard on the heels of North Central, which was only published in London, came T&G: The Collected Poems 1936-1969 (1969). Niedecker had waited long for a collection of her poetry to come out in the U.S., and T&G revealed the breadth and depth of her poetry. When she remarried, Niedecker had already begun a correspondence with Corman that would continue over the last decade of her life. Along with the publication of T&G and Corman's journal Origin, Niedecker was introduced to a younger generation of poets and readers, and reintroduced to readers who may not have seen her since the publication of New Goose many years before. But it wasn't until the posthumous publication of The Granite Pail (1985, reprinted 1996) and then From this Condensary: The Complete Writing of Lorine Niedecker (1985) that Niedecker's poetic vision and achievement became fully apparent. She died in 1970, just a few months after having met Corman in person and recording her first reading of her poetry for him. She was awarded the Notable Wisconsin Writers Award in 1978, an overdue recognition of her work. Interest in her work waxes and wanes with poetic tastes, but recently there have been more students studying her poetry and writing her place in the American poetic tradition.

Other Works:

Blue Chicory (1976). Origin 16: Fourth Series (1981). Harpsichord and Salt Fish (1991). Lorine Niedecker (1995).


Beard, C., "Lorine Niedecker: The Pulse of Her Poems" (thesis, 1996). Dent, P., ed., The Full Note: Lorine Niedecker (1983). Edminster, S., "The Daisy and the Aster: Two Essays on Lorine Niedecker" (thesis, 1991). Gibson, M., "Stuff That Once Was Rock: Critical Treatments of the Work of Lorine Niedecker" (thesis, 1993, 1995). Johnson, J., The Perfect Order: Lorine Niedecker's Poetry (1994). Knox, J. S., Lorine Niedecker: An Original Biography (1987). Mills, B., On First Looking into Lorine Niedecker (1986). O'Brien, G., Bardic Deadlines: Reviewing Poetry, 1984-95 (1998). Penberthy, J. L., Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-1970 (1993). Penberthy, J. L., Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet (1996). Prebel, J. E., "Lorine Niedecker's Feminist Poetics" (thesis, 1994). Radford, M. A., "The Human Bond: The Mother/Daughter Archetype in the Poetics of Lorine Niedecker & Anne Sexton" (thesis, 1993). Sorrentino, G., Something Said: Essays (1984). Sturgeon, T. J., "A Critical Edition of the Collected Poems of Lorine Niedecker" (thesis, 1990). Walsh, P., Lorine Niedecker: Solitary Plover (1992). Whitehead, M. D., "Saving Graces: The Economies of Water, Rock, and Poetry in the Work of Lorine Faith Niedecker" (thesis, 1989). Williams, J., ed., Epitaphs for Lorine (1973). Williams, J., Noah Webster to Wee Lorine Niedecker (1986). Willis, E., The Human Abstract IV, A Few Stones for Lorine Niedecker (1995).

Reference works:

Benet's (1991). CA (1977, 1978, 1999). CLC (1979, 1987). Critical Survey of Poetry (1992). DLB (1986).

Other references:

Arts in Society (Summer 1966). Belles Lettres (May-June 1987). Cambridge Quarterly (Spring 1969). Line (Fall 1985). New Directions in Prose and Poetry (1936, 1937, 1950, 1951). The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (1999). Origin (July 1966, July 1981). Parnassus (Spring/ Summer 1977, Spring/Winter 1985, 1987). Quarterly Review of Literature (Spring 1956). Truck (Summer 1975).