Niedecker, Lorine (1903–1970)

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Niedecker, Lorine (1903–1970)

American poet who lived in poverty and rural isolation in southern Wisconsin, publishing little during her lifetime, but was well known in experimental poetry circles in the U.S., Great Britain, and Japan. Name variations: Lorine Neidecker. Pronunciation: Knee-deck-er. Born Lorine Faith Neidecker (later changed to Niedecker) on May 12, 1903, on Blackhawk Island, near Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin; died in Madison, Wisconsin, December 31, 1970, of a cerebral hemorrhage; daughter of Henry Neidecker (a fisherman) and Theresa "Daisy" (Kunz) Neidecker; received public schooling and two years at Beloit College, 1922–24; married Frank Hartwig, on November 29, 1928 (divorced 1942); married Albert Millen, on May 26, 1963.

Began correspondence with Louis Zukofsky (1931); moved to New York (1933–34); after return to family in Wisconsin, moved to Madison, where she began four years of work on Federal Writers' Project (1938); had five poems published in avant-garde New Directions (1936); published in Il Furioso (1939); published first poetry collection, New Goose (1946); began correspondence with poet and editor Cid Corman (1960); after marriage to Millen and move to Milwaukee, began most vital and creative phase (1964); featured in Corman's journal Origin (1966); published last book, My Life By Water (1969); complete works published (1985).

Collections of poetry:

New Goose (1946); My Friend Tree (1961); North Central (1968); T&G (1969); My Life by Water (1969). Posthumous collections: Blue Chicory (1976); This Granite Pail (1985); From This Condensery (complete works, 1985).

The life of Lorine Niedecker is perhaps the bleakest and most isolated of any modern American poet: she grew up with a mother who was deaf, she spent most of her life on a small island where only a handful even knew she wrote poetry, she spent her 50s cleaning hospital floors, she survived Wisconsin winters until she was 60 without indoor plumbing or a car, she married badly twice, and her two closest lovers refused marriage: one—her poetic friend and mentor—insisted on an abortion she did not want. And yet to think of her life as unmitigated misery is to misunderstand what she eventually realized—that the creation of poetry was the center of her desires and had to be protected from whatever threatened her ability to write. She accepted no marriage, no occupation, no material security, and no place to live that interfered with her intellectual life. The unique result of that life lies outside the conventional poetics that dominate most of this century's poetry. Beginning in the 1930s, she and other Objectivist poets (Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and William Carlos Williams) tried to move beyond the practices of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost, and in the 1950s and 1960s, another generation of young rebels like Ed Dorn and Allen Ginsberg would look to her work for inspiration.

Lorine Niedecker was born in southern Wisconsin in 1903 in the small resort community called Blackhawk Island, where she was named after the doctor's wife. Blackhawk Island is actually a peninsula on the southern end of Lake Koshkonong and on the east bank of the Rock River as it flows south and west to the Mississippi. At the beginning of the century, southern Wisconsin was famed for its scenery and lakes and attracted vacationers from nearby Chicago. While the wealthy flocked to such resorts as Lake Geneva, working-class European Americans visited spots like Blackhawk Island, with a place reserved farther down river for African-American vacationers.

Much of the island was owned by Henry Neidecker, who seined carp, rented out some property he owned, and, for a time, operated the island's largest tavern, the Fountain House. His wife Daisy was the daughter of Gottfried and Theresa Kunz , who originally owned and operated the Fountain House. Because the island was a resort, there were few permanent residents and fewer children. Like her daughter, Daisy grew up alone. Shortly after bearing Lorine, Daisy slowly began to lose her hearing, until she was completely deaf some 20 years later.

Henry worked hard so he could send his daughter to a nearby private college, Beloit College, and in her poetry, Niedecker celebrated his easygoing manner in the face of adversity. She also admired his care for nature, particularly the way he spent his last years planting poplar trees. Henry had faults, however, that Niedecker also explored in her verse. He drank too much and cheated on his wife. Legend has it that Daisy stopped having sex with Henry soon after the birth of their only child, and that Henry was later seduced by Gertrude (Gerdy) Runke. Gerdy and her husband Otto apparently engineered the affair in order to fleece Henry, and one result was that by Henry's death only two houses would remain in his ownership.

When writing about Daisy, Niedecker mostly remembered her mother's bitterness, about Henry's infidelity and about island life. Blackhawk Island floods every spring, and Daisy complained acridly about the damage the floods wreaked on both home and garden—buckling floors, washing good soil away, bringing snakes and other animals into the house, and forcing her to clean and redecorate the house anew each year. Niedecker remembered Daisy's dying words as "I need / floors. Wash the floors, Lorine!—/wash clothes! Weed!" In other poems, Niedecker recalls better moments, particularly of Daisy's sensitive appreciation of nature.

The young Niedecker grew up outdoors, attending to the small and great changes that take place in river and marsh country. This country attracted a varied and rare wildlife, and as an adult, she knew the names and habits of all the flora and fauna, but as a child, she listened to the lore of her parents and of her grandfather Kunz, who also taught her nursery and folk rhymes. When she reached school age, her parents moved five miles away to the nearest town, Fort Atkinson. When she entered seventh grade, they moved back to the island, letting her stay with a Fort Atkinson neighbor during the school week. During high school, she became increasingly interested in literature, and she published a poem in her senior yearbook.

In the fall of that year, 1922, Niedecker entered Beloit College and changed the spelling of her last name from "ei" to "ie," presumably to aid pronunciation. The choice to enter college was an important one. The 1920s were the age of the so-called "New Woman": women had secured the right to vote in 1920, and had been setting the agenda for two decades of reform work. Many women, seeing college as a route to reform, became doctors, lawyers, professors, and settlement-house workers. Beloit College had dynamic professors in geology and evolution (two subjects that would later dominate her poetry), and it offered a debate club for women that addressed political subjects, which Niedecker joined. The college itself, however, was marked by social divisions. Niedecker was just barely able to afford school, and could not afford to join a sorority, which at the time was an important route to social advancement. Classmates in both high school and college saw her as a social outsider, the poor girl from the island.

In 1924, after just two years of college, Niedecker dropped out of school and returned to Blackhawk Island to help out her family. Daisy had by then lost her hearing altogether. Four years later, in 1928, Niedecker began working as a librarian's assistant at Dwight Foster Public Library in Fort Atkinson, living with her cousin's family during the week and visiting home on the weekends. On Thanksgiving Day of that year, she married Frank Hartwig, a construction worker, but the very next year Hartwig lost his job at the start of the Great Depression, and when they failed to make their house payments in Fort Atkinson, the young couple returned to their parents' homes in 1930 and remained permanently separated. In August 1930, Niedecker stopped working at the library. Virtually no information is available about this brief, 18-month marriage, except that it was essentially over in 1930. The two remained friendly and saw each other occasionally, and Niedecker did not file for divorce until 1942.

In the meantime, Niedecker was learning about poetry. Beginning in high school, she had studied the movements that had changed the face of U.S. poetry and had prepared to take her place in the second generation of modernist poets. During the 1910s and 1920s, the first generation of modernists (those born in the 1880s) had swept away Victorian poetic conventions by rejecting archaic language and a mellifluous poetic line for a more colloquial diction and for new, experimental forms, including pastiche and nonmetrical or "free" verse. While Victorian poetry frequently celebrated the progress of society in sentimental terms, modernist poetry more often documented society's decline. Modernists had seen the sanguine and moral world of their Victorian parents ripped apart by World War I, by new theories grounded in science (Darwin, Freud, and Marx), and by widespread social struggles for the rights of workers, women, and African-Americans.

Although the second generation, born in the century's first decade, continued to develop modernist literary techniques, it applied them to rather different ends. While the first generation attempted to rebuild culture by appealing to mythic structures and sometimes by turning to fascist politics, the second generation—which had been born and raised in the reform-minded Progressive era, and which had come of age during the prosperous 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s—turned more often to the politics of the left, frequently joining the thriving Socialist and Communist parties. One dominant literary mode of this generation was "proletarian literature," which eschewed difficult modernist techniques in order to arouse the masses to political action. While the first generation had become alienated intellectuals, the second generation became activists.

During this time (the 1920s and early 1930s), Niedecker read the poetry journals of the day and paid special attention to Poetry magazine, published in nearby Chicago by the now legendary Harriet Monroe . Monroe had succeeded in making the Midwest an important literary center, and for over a decade, since 1912, she had been publishing the freshest, most experimental voices she could find. Most of the first-generation modernists published there, and in 1931, she signaled her continued interest in the new by asking the young Louis Zukofsky to guest-edit an issue devoted to his work and that of his friends. She also asked him to describe and name the circle. In the February issue, Zukofsky characterized a tendency he called Objectivism, a focus on "historic and contemporary particulars" and the process through which they emerge. In this formulation, Zukofsky announced his allegiance to political critique but not to the "social realism" of his contemporaries who were writing proletarian literature. He wanted instead to merge modernism and Marx, believing that modernist experiments with language could reveal what Marx called "dialectical materialism," the way that material circumstances and culture affect each other and together create the reality we experience.

Six months after reading the Objectivist issue of Poetry, Niedecker wrote Zukofsky, launching a 40-year correspondence as well as her career as a serious poet. For the first 15 years, they wrote at least once a week about the craft of poetry, and in the winter of 1933–34, Niedecker moved to New York, planning to make her future there. Zukofsky introduced her to his poet-friends and to the literary and cultural advantages of the city. Soon she moved in with him and later became pregnant. She wanted to stay in New York, but Zukofsky wanted her to have an abortion. When she offered to return unmarried to Blackhawk Island and raise the child with her parents, Zukofsky again insisted on abortion, and she complied. Not long afterward, she returned to Wisconsin and continued her correspondence with Zukofsky until her death.

Deciding to stay in Wisconsin permanently, Niedecker moved up to Madison in 1938. For four years, she first wrote and then edited research for the Federal Writers' Project, which produced the Wisconsin Guide and grounded her more thoroughly than ever in the history of the region. During this time, she also wrote scripts for radio station WHA, including an adaptation of William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying. After four years, however, she tired of city life and returned to Blackhawk Island in 1942 to live with her parents. That same year, she finally divorced Frank Hartwig. Two years later, she began work as a proofreader for the agricultural journal Hoard's Dairyman, walking the five miles to her job in Fort Atkinson.

By 1946, at the age of 43, Niedecker had enough poems for a small Illinois press to publish her first volume, New Goose. Earlier, she had published six poems in avant-garde journals: five in New Directions in 1936 and another in Il Furioso in 1939. The poems in New Goose marked her evolution beyond the Victorian verse of her high school years and beyond her apprentice work, which had imitated Emily Dickinson and Ezra Pound. The title of the volume referred on the one hand to the newness of her verse—its Objectivist emphasis on the particular and on process and its frequently surreal use of imagery—and on the other hand to the Mother Goose rhymes which she had heard from her grandfather and which lent the poetry much of its rhythm. Throughout her career, Niedecker would distinguish herself from other Objectivists through her astute use of rhythm and rhyme. She gave away only three copies of the volume in Fort Atkinson, preferring instead that no one she knew think of her as a poet.

They fished in beauty It was not always so.

—Lorine Niedecker

The following year, 1947, Niedecker had a small, one-and-a-half-room house built for herself on Blackhawk Island near the bank of the Rock River. The 1950s were to prove a difficult time. In 1950, her eyesight began to fail, forcing her to quit the proofreading job she had held for six years. Her vision, like her mother's, had always been weak, and she had worn thick glasses since childhood, but now she was reduced to reading with a magnifying glass. In 1951, Daisy died, followed three years later by Henry, in 1954. Her father's death left Niedecker shaken, and she withdrew from society for a time, perhaps suffering a nervous breakdown. Renting out the two houses left to her, she found she could live without working if she managed her expenses very carefully. Tired of that burden, in 1957 she secured a job cleaning floors in the Fort Atkinson hospital, again walking the five miles into town, even during winter.

In the 1960s, Niedecker experienced a personal and poetic rebirth. In the 14 years since the publication of New Goose, she had published steadily in small, avant-garde journals, and in 1960, she began corresponding with the poet Cid Corman, who lived in Japan and edited the avant-garde journal Origin. By this time, her correspondence with Zukofsky had turned from poetry to his failing health and his desire to be recognized more broadly as a poet, and so Corman provided her with a fresh opportunity to discuss her craft. During this time, Niedecker briefly dated Harold Hein, a Madison dentist with whom she shared her intellectual pursuits. Although she hoped to marry him and move to Florida, where he had some property, he made clear that he was her "no marriage / friend." In 1961, at age 57, she published My Friend Tree with a small Scottish press and installed indoor plumbing. Finally no more trips outdoors were needed in winter to pump water. Poet Ed Dorn wrote the introduction for the book, and it was warmly reviewed by the influential writers Gilbert Sorrentino, Jonathan Williams, and Robert Creeley.

Two years later, in early 1963, Albert Millen, a housepainter who lived and worked in Milwaukee, was vacationing at Blackhawk Island and rented one of Niedecker's houses. They quickly fell in love and married on May 26. In his youth, Millen had belonged to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union that in the first two decades of the century had posed a serious challenge to organized labor by accepting women, African-Americans, and unskilled laborers into its membership. A national raid in 1917 and a subsequent trial of 101 leaders in 1918 resulted in the collapse of the organization. While Niedecker still kept Marx on her bookshelf, Millen wanted her to take it down, perhaps fearing the anti-Communist hysteria whipped up by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

Later that year, Niedecker quit her six-year job at the hospital, and the next year, 1964, she moved into Millen's home in Milwaukee, returning to Blackhawk Island on weekends and holidays. The next four years in Milwaukee were active ones, personally and professionally. Niedecker called Millen her "connection to life," and friends and neighbors noticed that she was brighter and happier than she had been for years. An outdoors enthusiast like herself, her father, and grandfather, Millen brought with him four adult children from a previous marriage and six grandchildren. Since he owned a car, he took Niedecker on long tours that helped her create a new kind of poetry based on what she called "reflections," an "awareness of everything influencing everything." Many of the images for these later poems come from the trips the couple made to South Dakota in 1965, the upper peninsula of Michigan in 1967, and Minnesota and North Dakota in 1968.

During these years in Milwaukee and afterward, Niedecker's social world expanded and her influence grew. She accepted visits from poet and publisher Jonathan Williams and the British poet Basil Bunting in 1967, from Zukofsky and his wife, the composer Celia Thaew Zukofsky , in 1968, and Cid Corman and his wife, Shizumi Konshini , in 1970. All of these men pressured Niedecker to raise her profile in the poetic world. For two decades, in the 1940s and 1950s, American poetry had grown increasingly academic, but the advent of the Beat writers in the late 1950s, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac among others, as well as the publication of Robert Lowell's Life Studies in 1959, signaled a new desire for experimental poetry. Young poets were looking for models outside the modernist mainstream and were rediscovering the Objectivist poets. Meanwhile, the work of young poets like Charles Olson and Robert Duncan in turn stimulated Niedecker's own poetic development. Milwaukee was the center of some activity, and Niedecker enjoyed the university and the museums, but she turned down numerous requests for readings and visits from younger writers. She did allow Corman to record her reading some of her poems. In the meantime, she poured herself into the greatest writing and publishing activity of her life. Journal editors began requesting her poetry, the July 1966 issue of Corman's Origin featured her work, and she published three books of poetry—North Central (1968), T&G (1969), and My Life By Water (1969).

For all the renewal Millen brought to Niedecker's life, he also brought great pain. He was drunk on their wedding night and frequently thereafter, he was occasionally jealous, and he had little understanding of her work or intellectual life. As she put it in one poem, "I married / and lived unburied." In 1968, Millen retired, and the couple returned to Blackhawk Island permanently. They built a spacious house on the bank of the Rock River just 50 feet from the small house she had built for herself almost 20 years earlier. Millen agreed to her demand that the house be built extra high to evade the flood waters, and later that year they added on a garage after she sold her correspondence with Zukofsky to the University of Texas. Zukofsky had resisted the sale, feeling the letters were too private, but finally agreed after being promised they would not be published until after his death.

Later that winter, Niedecker suffered from headaches and dizzy spells and spent ten days in the hospital. Two years later, on December 1, 1970, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and lost the ability to speak. When she contracted lobar pneumonia, she was moved from Fort Atkinson to Madison, where she died the next day, December 31, 1970. Three days later, she was buried next to her parents at Union Cemetery in Sumner, just outside Blackhawk Island. A blizzard prevented Millen's daughters from attending the burial, but his son went, while Millen stayed home and destroyed Niedecker's journals. Although some friends suspected that he wanted to destroy her negative portrayals of him and their marriage, Millen himself claimed that Niedecker had asked him to burn the journals. She left behind a manuscript collection of poems entitled "Harpsichord & Salt Fish."

The response of the literary community to Niedecker's death was immediate and profound. In 1973, Jonathan Williams published a collection by various poets (including Ed Dorn and Allen Ginsberg) entitled Epitaphs for Lorine, and in 1975, the avant-garde journal Truck dedicated a special issue in her honor. As her literary executor, Cid Corman edited and published a collection of her poetry, Blue Chicory, in 1976, featured her work in a special issue of his journal Origin (July 1981), allowed her letters to him to be published in 1983, and edited and published a volume of her selected poems, The Granite Pail, in 1985. Later that year, her complete works were published, entitled From This Condensery. The year 1993 saw the publication of her letters to Zukofsky, and a collection of critical essays about her, Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet. A previous book of criticism, The Full Note, had been published in 1983.

The complete body of Niedecker's work is slim, numbering only 300 pages, but the brevity belies the depth she achieved. She liked to compare the writing of poetry to a condensing factory or "condensery" and wondered in one poem what her co-workers in the print shop would say "if they knew / I sit for two months on six lines / of poetry." Niedecker's typical poem runs between five and fifteen lines, usually untitled. Many of the poems describe her life on Blackhawk Island, either directly or in dramatic monologues, and her observations range from nature to historical figures, and from town and country people to her parents, friends, and lovers. When she condensed these experiences into the brief space of her poems, she did not reduce the complexity of her experience. Instead she used all of the poetic devices at her disposal—including puns, rhymes, punctuation, and line breaks—to reveal in language the interrelated processes through which things, people, and experience become.

Niedecker claimed that she "literally went to school to William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky," and she included on her "immortal cupboard" works by Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius, John Muir, George Santayana, D.H. Lawrence, Edward Dahlberg, and Basho. Her experiments with haiku significantly broadened the suggestiveness of the form through her use of colloquialisms and quietly stunning rhymes and line breaks, and during her poetic rebirth in the 1960s, she reinvented the long poem for herself. Earlier in her career, she had built sequences out of shorter poems, many of them addressed to Zukofsky's son Paul, a violinist with whom she was very close. Many of these poems include quotations from letters she and Zukofsky had exchanged about Paul, thus beginning her long experimentation with turning the intimacy of correspondence into the intimacy of poetry. In 1965, she crafted the Zukofsky letters she later sold to the University of Texas into a sequence of quotations intended to reveal the "deep-in spot in [Zukofsky's] being," turning a simple collection into a kind of poem. Although Zukofsky refused to let her publish the 370-page manuscript, she used her experience in producing it to create her long poems about the lives and correspondence of William Morris, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Darwin.

At the same time, Niedecker experimented with long poems that might be termed metaphysical. She counted as one of her strengths the fact that she was raised outside organized religion, and in her late, long poems "Lake Superior," "Traces of Living Things," and "Wintergreen Ridge" (which is focused on women's collective agency), she grounds her metaphysics in evolutionary theory and in her own experience of poetry. If Darwin had taught her that "In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock," then the processes of poetry had taught her that "everything influenc[es] everything." These developments perhaps reach a peak in the other long poem from this period, the great "Paean to Place," in which Niedecker united her new, metaphysical mode (the poetry of "reflections") with the subject matter that had animated so much of her career, the lives of herself and of her parents on a place called Blackhawk Island.

With Lorine Niedecker's complete works so recently before us, poets, readers, and critics alike have only now become open to her influence. How far she takes us depends on how closely we listen to her subtle facility with words, a facility far more sensitive to the silent interstices between things than that possessed by perhaps any other modern poet. Others might imitate Byron's lover, who "walked in beauty like the night," but Niedecker, like her fellow islanders, "fished in beauty"—she lived in a beautiful world and gathered it into herself in the very same motion.


Breslin, Glenna. "Lorine Niedecker: Composing a Life," in Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography, and Gender. Edited by Susan Groag Bell and Marilyn Yalom. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Faranda, Lisa Pater. "Between Your House and Mine": The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970.

——. "Lorine Niedecker," in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 48, pp. 304–319.

Knox, Jane Shaw. Lorine Niedecker. Fort Atkinson, WI: >Dwight Foster Public Library, 1987.

suggested reading:

Penberthy, Jenny. Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931–1970. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.


Correspondence with Zukofsky and other materials are at the Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin. Correspondence to Cid Corman is in the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library. The manuscripts collected for "Harpsichord & Salt Fish" are in the Mulgar Memorial Library at Boston University.

Michael Tomasek Manson , Assistant Professor of Literature, The American University, Washington, D.C.