I first learned of Lorine Niedecker (1903 -- 1970) from reading a selection of her poetry in Volume 2 of the Library of America's Anthology of American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. I was intrigued by the restrained, simple, and succinct character of the poems for two reasons. First, they reminded me opf poetry I knew: of the work of Charles Reznikoff, in particular, and of his fellow-objectivist poets, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and W.C. Williams. I later learned, of course, that Niedecker knew these writers, and was close to them. She was particularly close to Louis Zukofsky, with whom she carried on a forty year correspondence and had a brief affair.
I was also intrigued when I learned that Lorine Niedecker spent most of her life in the small town of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, which is approximately mid-way between Milwaukee and Madison. She lived on a small island called Black Hawk Island outside the town where her family rented cabins and fished. Much of her life was spent in poverty and for several years she was employed scrubbing floors in the local hospital. Most of the poets with whom Niedecker was associated lived in New York City. Although she visited New York City and spent time with Zukofsky, for the most part she learned and practiced her art by herself.
I was familiar with Fort Atkinson because I lived for a short time in my early 20's in Jefferson, Wisconsin, an even smaller town just adjacent to Fort Atkinson. I was there briefly in the early 1970's, just after Niedecker's death (She lived in Milwaukee at the time.) and I don't remember hearing anything about her. Today the town of Fort Atkinson and the local library where Niedecker worked for a time are active in preserving her memory. I was moved to discover the work of this outstanding modernist poet who lived in obsurity in an area with which I was familiar.
I was grateful to find this collected edition of Niedecker's works edited by Jenny Penberthy, Professor of English at Capilano College, Vancouver. Ms. Penberthy has also edited a recently-published collection of letters between Niedecker and Zukofsky together with a book of critical essays: "Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet". This collected edition of Niedecker's poetry is attractively put togther, includes good notes and a listing of Niedecker's published volumes, and begins with an informative introduction by Ms. Penberthy to Niedecker's life and work. The poems are arranged chronologically. The book includes Niedecker's early efforts and also includes some important prose and radio pieces, including the short work "Switchboard Girl" and a radio adaption of Faulkner's "As I lay dying." Ms. Penberthy has done a great service in making Niedecker's work available.
Much of Niedecker's early work was as a folk-poet. In 1946, she published a collection of 80 short poems called "New Goose", which was based on the rhythms of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes. These poems describe life in rural Wisconsin and show a strong sense of political activism -- in common with Zukofsky. They point to the injustices and hardships Niedecker found in war, the Depression, and a capitalist economy. A subsequent collection of early poems was titled "For Paul", named after Zukofsky's young son, and featuring meditations on music, art, and the world of nature.
Niedecker's later poetry becomes much more spare and formal. She tended to write short poems, in five lines with irregular feet. She was influenced by Haiku and by Chinese poetry aw well as by her fellow-objectivists. These poems are autobiographical, and include many scenes of life on Black Hawk Island. The longest of these poems is titled "Paean to Place". Later poems also describe the Lake Superior area around Sault Ste. Marie which Niedecker visited with her husband whom she married late in life. She also grew increasingly interested in historical themes and wrote poetry about Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Adlai Stevenson, and Charles Darwin, among others. These poems integrate extensively quotations from their subjects into the text of the poems.
Niedecker's poems include irony, reflection, and a deep sense of place. They show a person who had learned to be alone with herself. Here is a short untitled poem by Niedecker (p. 157) which I hope will encourage you to read more.
"The death of my poor father
and two small houses.
To settle this estate
a thousand fees arise--
I enrich the law.
Before my own death is certified,
recorded, final judgement
I shall own a book
of old Chinese poems
to probe the river
This is a collection of the works of an American poet who deserves to be read and remembered.