When Lorine Niedecker died of a brain haemorrhage in 1970 at the age of 67, her work was virtually unknown outside contemporary circles.  Indeed, some of the closest members of her family didn’t even know she wrote poetry. Five days after her death, a letter from Basil Bunting was published in the Wisconsin State Journal declaring her “the most interesting woman poet America has yet produced…she was only beginning to be appreciated.”

Niedecker was born in Blackhawk Island near Fort Atkinson Wisconsin, and for most of her life, lived beside a flooding river in a Spartan cottage without electricity. Her mother’s family owned Island property and her father was a carp seiner. After her birth, Neidecker’s ’s mother became increasingly deaf and agoraphobic while her father entered into a long-term relationship with a neighbour, which led the Neideckers to occupy separate houses.  She was an only child and her parents’ unhappy marriage profoundly affected her and must have amplified her sense of isolation.

Niedecker’s high school teacher, Daisy Lieberman encouraged her love of poetry and when she graduated in 1922, she went on to Berloit College where she was active in a poetry-writing club.  In 1924, she was forced to give up her education because her father could no longer pay her tuition, and returned to Blackhawk Island. Four years later, she married Frank Hartwing, a farmer’s son, and began working at the local library and continued to write poetry. The Depression razed Hartwing’s fledgling construction business, Neidecker lost her job and they separated in 1930, though remained married for a further twelve years.

In 1931 she wrote to Modernist poet Louis Zukofsky who had guest edited the February edition of Poetry.  He had argued for Objectivism in poetry whereby the poem is treated as an object and the outcome of the poet’s ability to look clearly at the world without elaborate metaphor. Objectivism was born from Imagism and critics of Niedecker’s work have noted her affinity with Imagist William Carlos Williams, and also with Zukofsky himself, with particular regard to her use of short lines and colloquial language.  Niedecker and Zukofsky corresponded by letter for two years, and when she went to New York to meet him, they became lovers.  She fell pregnant and he forced her to abort the twins she was carrying, whom she named ‘Lost’ and ‘Found’. She moved back to Wisconsin and was to remain childless for the rest of her life.

In 1946 The Press published her first collection New Goose and she took various jobs to support herself, while continuing to write and be published by minor journals and small presses. Zukofsky was still a major force in her life and the pair remained intellectual friends for decades, critiqued each other’s work and railed against the establishment together.

Failing eyesight forced Niedecker to take more manual jobs and in 1963, when she met industrial painter Al Millan, she was working full time as a hospital cleaner.  The couple married and moved to South Milwaukee where they lived for five years until his retirement when they returned to Blackhawk Island, the spiritual home of Lorine Niedecker’s poetry.  She had inherited land from her father and built a cottage in which she was to spend the last two years of her life. Neidecker really began to find her voice as poet in her last seven years, writing longer works, including the poignant, autobiographical Paean to Place, which was published in her collection North Central (1968).

Niedecker wrote for the page and was very uncomfortable about hearing recordings of her voice.   Her unease with this medium is evident in Darwin, which you can hear on this Archive page.  Niedecker took a great interest in Naturalists and felt a kinship with them. She has used direct quotes from Darwin’s notebooks in this poem such as: “I am ill, he said/ and books are slow work” which some commentators have suggested is a projection of her own slow writing process and of the hardships that she suffered in her life.

Books by Lorine Niedecker