Lorine Niedecker

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 969

It was only after her death in 1970 that the poetry of Lorine Niedecker (NEE-deh-kur) became well known to readers. During her lifetime, no one in her hometown of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, was aware that she had been writing poems for more than forty years. She did not want any of her neighbors to know that she had established a small but highly respected reputation among the poets of the day. Much of her poetry, however, came out of her contact with the common folk with whom she lived. She lived and worked “right down among em/ the folk from whom all poetry flows/ and dreadfully much else.” Like Wallace Stevens—another poet who kept his poetry secret from his associates—Niedecker toiled in silent obscurity much of her life.

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Poetry, however, was her primary connection to the world about her and her most crucial means of participating in it. Like Stevens and Ralph Waldo Emerson, she was an unapologetic American romantic poet whose work was grounded in a particular geography, that of the area around Blackhawk Island, near Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. She spent much of her life on Blackhawk Island, near where the Rock River empties into Lake Koshkonong. The contents of that marine area—fish, birds, floods, trees, plants, flowers, animals, all “the little thin things,” and the human beings involved in the movement of those endless cycles—became thematic material for much of her poetry. However, she also wrote poems about people such as Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, William Morris, John Adams, Matsuo Bash, and—especially—Louis Zukofsky’s brilliant young son, the violin virtuoso Paul Zukofsky.

Her father was a carp fisherman, and Niedecker frequently accompanied him on his fishing trips. Her mother’s deafness often kept her at home performing household duties, even though she attended Beloit College from 1922 to 1924. In 1928, she married Frank Hartwig, and the couple moved to Fort Atkinson, where she worked as a librarian’s assistant at the local public library for several years. The marriage fell apart in 1930 as the result of financial difficulties, and Niedecker moved back in with her ailing parents in 1930.

It was about that time that she discovered the work of Louis Zukofsky and the Objectivist poets in Poetry magazine. She was thus exposed not only to Zukofsky’s unique work but also to the poems of William Carlos Williams, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and George Oppen. These poets eschewed the abstractions of late nineteenth century poetry and embraced the tenets of Ezra Pound’s Imagism: to present the image accurately and to write in the rhythm of the musical phrase rather than the metronome. She initiated a correspondence with Zukofsky that lasted for more than twenty years, and she learned from Zukofsky and Williams the principle that affected her poetry for the rest of her career: condensation. With Zukofsky’s help, she began to publish her poems in small but important journals in which Stevens, Williams, and Zukofsky were also publishing.

During the late 1930’s and throughout the 1940’s, she worked as a research editor for the Federal Writers’ Project, as a scriptwriter at a local radio station, and as a stenographer and proofreader. By 1946, she had published enough poems for her first book, New Goose. Many of the poems in this collection dealt with the comings and goings of neighbors, fishing, and the natural movement of animals and humans throughout the area around Blackhawk Island. In her second collection, My Friend Tree, she writes about “life along the river” that “gave me life, give me this/ our relative the air, floods/ our rich friend/ silt.” Although half of the poems in this collection had appeared in New Goose, the new poems connected the earlier ones more intimately to the cyclic processes of the natural world.

Zukofsky’s advice to Niedecker to condense as much as possible resulted in her works becoming enormously compressed and dense, though they still managed to maintain their lyrical intensity. Her work, like that of an obvious influence, Emily Dickinson, demonstrated that the origins of human life and the life of the imagination issued from the same source: “In every part of every living thing/ is stuff that once was rock/ In blood the minerals/ of rock.”

In 1963, she married Albert Millen, a housepainter, and the couple moved to Milwaukee, where Niedecker worked as a cleaning person in a hospital. Though there is evidence that her marriage was not an ideal one, she chose not to live an exclusively isolated life. She summed up the advantages of connubial bliss: “I married/ and lived unburied,” and poignantly suggested that “At the close—/ someone.”

In the 1950’s, she had begun an important correspondence with Cid Corman, the editor of Origin, a relationship that widened her readership considerably. Corman proved to be her most valuable editor and friend till the end of her life. Also, Jonathan Williams, poet and publisher of the Jargon Society Press, became her friend and champion and published her collected poems, titled T and G: The Collected Poems, 1936-1966, a volume that garnered high critical praise from scholars and poets alike. The Jargon Society also published From This Condensery: The Complete Writing of Lorine Niedecker, edited by one of her best scholars, Robert Bertholf.

Though most of her poems were short and to the point—like Emily Dickinson’s—Niedecker’s late work became more expansive and longer. Two of her masterpieces, “Paean to Place” and “Wintergreen Ridge,” show her a master of longer poetic forms. As Bertholf put it: “She chose her way of life in order to fulfill her poetry. She learned the poet’s work, ‘to sit at desk/ and condense,’ and ‘from this condensery’ has come a magnificent expansion of the imagination’s life.” She died on the last day of 1970 in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.

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