“I was the solitary plover,” wrote Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker in “Paean to Place.” “A pencil / for a wing-bone / From the secret notes / I must tilt / upon the pressure / execute and adjust / In us sea-air rhythm / ‘We live by the urgent wave / of the verse.'” The spare lines compare the hollowness of bird bones with the pencil, an extension of the poet’s hand–or perhaps a bone filled with lead. But it’s the mention of the common plover, a shorebird that pretends to be injured when an enemy approaches its nest, that most strongly reveals the autobiographical foundation of Niedecker’s long poem; the precise, compact phrases suggest that the solitary writer is both cunning and fragile, a bird who must deceive others to survive.
Niedecker, who died in 1970, is sometimes compared to Emily Dickinson, though she’s much less well-known than the Belle of Amherst. Both women lived outside the mainstream and wrote distinctive, sometimes strangely hermetic verse that used nature as a springboard to explore social issues and the limits of women’s roles in society. Both were virtually unknown during their lives, but Niedecker has been left out of the canon almost entirely. Until the publication last year of Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works, she had barely been anthologized, and many of her manuscripts went unpublished for years. Four volumes of her work appeared with small presses in her lifetime; the last, My Life by Water, was published only months before her death.
Niedecker didn’t have an artist’s ego and, unlike Dickinson, never thrilled to the idea of posthumous fame. But her work–stripped-down and fragmentary–was ahead of its time: today her writings from the 1930s and ’40s read as if contemporary. At times funny, at times lonely and sad, her poetry is inseparable from the dark water, marshes, and thirsty lakeside trees of Blackhawk Island, Wisconsin, where she spent virtually her entire life.
Born in 1903, Niedecker grew up on the Lake Koshkonong island near Fort Atkinson, 30-odd miles southeast of Madison. Her father ran a carp-fishing business, and Niedecker, an only child, recalled (in a letter to poet Kenneth Cox) a comfortable childhood spent outdoors among “twittering and squawking noises from the marsh.” In 1928 she married Frank Hartwig, a former employee of her father’s, but when she and Hartwig lost their jobs during the Depression and couldn’t pay the rent, both returned to live with their parents and the marriage withered.
Around the same time, in 1931, Niedecker read the journal that would set her course as a writer: modernist poet Louis Zukofsky’s objectivist issue of Poetry magazine, a manifesto of sorts for the New York-based objectivist poetry movement. Niedecker was captivated by the movement’s rejection of emotion and sentimentality: objectivist poets wanted to capture the observed world in a “nonexpressive” manner, using flat, nonconnotative language. They favored surrealist techniques and rejected authorial glamour, preferring to focus on the words themselves. In 1931 Niedecker wrote to Zukofsky and sent some of her poetry along. Zukofsky, impressed, wrote back, and the two began a 40-year correspondence. This mostly epistolary friendship (as well as correspondence with other objectivists) sustained Niedecker as a serious writer throughout her life, providing a link between the world of avant-garde poetics and tiny Fort Atkinson.
Early in their relationship Niedecker visited Zukofsky in New York City a number of times, and the two became lovers for a while. According to Jenny Penberthy, who edited the Collected Works, Niedecker became pregnant, but Zukovsky persuaded her to have an abortion, and she returned to Wisconsin shortly thereafter. Niedecker traveled to New York only a few more times, but her friendship with Zukofsky endured. In 1949, after he married composer Celia Thaew and had a son, Paul (who later became famous as a violinist and conductor), Niedecker began a series of 51 poems dedicated to the boy. (The series, “For Paul,” was never published in its entirety during her lifetime–probably because of the influential Zukofsky’s discomfort over the intensely personal nature of the work. Several of the poems appeared in literary magazines; the rest remained hidden until after Niedecker’s death. The whole text, however, is included in the Collected Works.)
Her correspondence with other poets helped Niedecker focus on her craft, but she still had to make a living and worked a variety of odd jobs through the 50s. She was much poorer as an adult than she’d been as a child, and many of her poems assume the voice of a nameless, financially strapped character, referencing class divisions and a hardscrabble life: “I spent my money / by the ocean / and have not any / to fill a tooth,” reads one untitled piece from the 40s. But the rejection of middle-class comfort agreed with her on some level. She was pro-union and antiwar, and her letters show that she was intellectually engaged with issues of the day from the Spanish civil war to the atomic bomb, though her activism was confined to the page.
After the Depression Niedecker worked for the WPA Writers’ Program, helping to compile the 650-page Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State, which was published in 1941. She also proofread for a rural trade magazine, Hoard’s Dairyman, from 1944 to 1950, but quit when her eyesight began to fail. After that she scrubbed floors at a Fort Atkinson hospital for many years. “I think they know they have a cleaning woman who is a little different from the usual,” she once wrote of her coworkers at the hospital, “but it wouldn’t do the slightest good to show them how different.”
Critics point to Niedecker’s isolated rural life as contributing to her persistent obscurity. Stubbornly uninterested in self-promotion, she further marginalized herself from avant-garde tastemakers by choosing to experiment with folk poetry forms, as in her 1946 collection New Goose, which borrows its tonality and rhythms from Mother Goose rhymes and American folk songs. In New Goose (published by James A. Decker, an Illinois poetry press) she spins themes such as debt, neighborhood gossip, and man stealing into rich stories full of clear language and character. “What a woman!–hooks men like rugs,” reads one poem. “Clips as she hooks / prefers old wool, but all / childlike, lost, houseowning or pensioned men / her prey. She covets the gold in her husband’s teeth / She’d sell dirt, she’d sell your eyes fried / in deep grief.”
Her outsider status–like her chosen labor–seem to some degree a deliberate rejection of the mainstream, which was as full of hyperbolic personalities, glitz, and commercialism at midcentury as it is today. Niedecker’s lean lines do what the best of Western literature can–speak to us about aspects of life removed from our culture’s deafening noise.
At age 60 Niedecker married a Milwaukee housepainter named Al Millen, and was able to leave her hospital job and devote herself to writing. Her late poetry alludes to disappointment in the marriage, and hints that Millen was an alcoholic, but her career clearly benefited. Throughout the 60s her work was published regularly in small journals; when she died of a brain hemorrhage on December 31, 1970, she was working on a final manuscript, Harpsichord & Salt Fish. Since her death, her reputation has grown steadily–last month Fort Atkinson staged a celebration of her 100th birthday, and in mid-October Milwaukee’s Woodland Pattern Book Center and the Milwaukee and Fort Atkinson public libraries will host a three-day Niedecker centenary conference.
Her posthumous recognition is due in large part to Penberthy, an English professor at Vancouver’s Capilano College, who’s edited several of Niedecker’s posthumous collections and has meticulously researched her life. Before Penberthy’s research, information about Niedecker wasn’t easy to find. Penberthy herself discovered the poet when reading an interview with British poet Basil Bunting, in which he remarked, “One of the finest American poets at all, besides being easily the finest female American poet (Emily Dickinson is good from time to time–but there are a lot of Emily Dickinson’s poems that are pretty miserable), Lorine Niedecker never fails; whatever she writes is excellent.”
Penberthy’s Collected Works has secured Niedecker’s place as an important American poet. A squarish, beautifully made book, it offers generous samplings of supercompressed lines full of the cadences and concerns of the rural midwest and set off by stanza breaks evoking silence. The book also contains short fiction, a radio play, and 27 facsimile pages of a 1935 desk calendar on which Niedecker wrote odd, funny, mysterious lines: “What a white muffler / in a dark coat / will do for a / dull man,” reads one. “I like a / loved one to / be apt in / the wing,” goes another.
“Paean to Place,” her extended meditation on Blackhawk Island, is full of satisfying, earthy nouns: “Fish / fowl / flood / Water lily mud / My life / in the leaves and on water / My mother and I / born / in swale and swamp and sworn / to water.”
“Lake Superior” (1968) is similarly sensual, thickly packed with awe and science: “In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock / In blood the minerals / of the rock.”
In language of nearly twiglike simplicity, she describes Lavoisier’s law of mass conservation, which holds that matter is neither created anew nor destroyed. Toward the end of “Lake Superior” she writes, “The smooth black stone / I picked up in true source park / the leaf beside it / once was stone / Why should we hurry / Home.” She seems to take comfort in knowing that matter is endlessly changing from one form into another, finding that amidst such wonder, there’s no rush to die. But at the same time, to die means to arrive home, and home is central to Niedecker’s work–a place to drink in and then remake as poetry.
Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy, University of California Press, $45.00.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy the Roub Collection, Fort Atkinson.