Book Review

Lorine Niedecker: A Poet’s Life by Margot Peters. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. Hardcover $34.95, e-book $19.95

Reviewed by Linda Aschbrenner

What if? What if biographer Margot Peters did not live in Wisconsin? Would this first full biography of Lorine Niedecker exist? What if Niedecker did not discover the Louis Zukofsky guest-edited February 1931 issue of Poetry at the Fort Atkinson public library? What if Niedecker did not write to Zukofsky in care of Poetry? What if Poetry or Zukofsky ignored this letter? What if Zukofsky in New York neglected the letter because he had buckets of fan mail? (Everyone else ignored this issue of Poetry it seems. Zukofsky was happy to get this letter from Wisconsin.) What if Zukofsky didn’t encourage Niedecker to submit her own poetry to Harriet Monroe at Poetry? What if Niedecker and Zukofsky didn’t go on to exchange letters for thirty-nine years? What if? Would Niedecker have found other poets to keep her connected with the poetry world? Better connected?
To explore these what ifs:

Award-winning writer Margot Peters was born and raised in Wausau, Wisconsin, and lives in Lake Mills—just thirteen miles from Lorine Niedeckers’ Blackhawk Island. Peters has written six other biographies, including Unquiet Soul: A Biography of Charlotte Brontë; The House of Barrymore; Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; May Sarton: A Biography; and Bernard Shaw and the Actresses. With her PhD in Victorian Literature and linguistics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Peters taught English, linguistics, and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Peters nearly stopped writing biographies after the five-year stress of the May Sarton book. (Don’t ever write a biography about someone still alive, she cautions.) At one time, Peters declared she was done writing biographies and that she would be concentrating on her poetry. I heard her make this statement at a talk she gave at the McMillan Memorial Library in Wisconsin Rapids. After her presentation, I handed her copies of Free Verse, the poetry journal I was then editing/publishing. I invited her to submit poetry. She did, and she submitted poetry to other state publications for several years. Peters writes about the inception of the Niedecker biography: “In June 2008, after attending a performance of Rae Brown’s play about Lorine Niedecker at the Hoard Museum, I said casually to a woman staffing a desk, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a life of Lorine Niedecker.’ Sylvia Sippel took me seriously.”  263

Peters wrote, “Lorine is an unusual subject for me because I’ve usually written about people famous in their lifetimes…. During her lifetime (1903-1970) Lorine was appreciated chiefly by other poets who recognized her gift. Most often she is compared to Emily Dickinson, chiefly for their isolated lives and absolute devotion to their craft. Lorine, however, was not really isolated, though she lived virtually all her life alone on Blackhawk Island, on the Rock River, three miles from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. She married twice, went to New York to meet the poet Louis Zukofsky, was forced to work for her living as a proofreader and hospital cleaning woman. Her terse but deeply felt and musical poetry moves me deeply. I also love her as a person—her intelligence, courage, wit, and vulnerability make hers a fascinating story.”

In an interview on September 29, 2011, with Jean Feraca on her program “Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders” at Wisconsin Public Radio, Margot Peters explains that a biographer has to dig harder for information when writing about a person not famous in their own lifetime. Peters’ “Acknowledgments,” “Notes,” and “Selected Bibliography” in Lorine Niedecker reveal the immense amounts of research undertaken for this book. Peters conducted numerous interviews as well. Alas, how to find everyone? On this same Feraca interview, David Henze, a former neighbor to Niedecker, called in to reminisce about Lorine playing piano, the ice skating gatherings in the backyard, and about Lorine getting rides to work from his stepfather, Æneas McAllister. “Why haven’t I talked to you?” Peters asks on the program. A chapter is devoted to the stepfather, Æneas McAllister.

Peters dedicates her book to Ann Engelman, president of the Friends of Lorine Niedecker, an organization headquartered in Fort Atkinson. The group publishes a newsletter, The Solitary Plover, available on their website. Information about Niedecker’s life and books is also found here. Of interest: links to The State of Wisconsin Collection that holds Niedecker related documents, photographs, and audio / video.

It is fitting that The University of Wisconsin Press should publish this book of a long-neglected Wisconsin poet written by a Wisconsin biographer. It is ironic however that the press selected a small font, unless this size is the current trend. I could imagine Lorine Niedecker reading this biography with her magnifying glass. Also of interest, the book is available as an e-book. Niedecker’s books appearing in her lifetime were from publishers in Prairie City, Illinois; Penland, North Carolina; Edinburgh, Scotland; and London. No Wisconsin publishers during her life. 

Why wasn’t Niedecker’s poetry well known in her own lifetime? Peters offers several reasons.

1) Niedecker lived apart from poetry communities and had no access to universities and lecture circuits. In addition, at that time, poetry readings were not as prevalent as they are now. Even if they had been, Niedecker believed poetry should be experienced on the page. 

2) Niedecker was shy and self-effacing. While she submitted work and was eager to be published in the world, she did not want to be known as a poet locally in order to protect her privacy and limited writing time. She refused public readings. Her poor eyesight was another concern; she would need to read with the use of a magnifying glass. 

3) Niedecker was not well-known because her poetry was not included in major anthologies during her lifetime. Few women were included in anthologies that were routinely edited by men. These anthologies were then used to teach at colleges and universities.

 4) If poets compared her work to Zukofsky, she was at a disadvantage. Her poetry was not as oblique. It had elements of surrealism and humor. Peters writes, “…Niedecker was compared in small but crucial scholarly circles to Louis Zukofsky—to her disadvantage. ‘However much Niedecker may have gained from her association with Zukofsky during her lifetime,’ wrote Niedecker scholar Jenny Penberthy in 1993, ‘she has, ironically, suffered from it since.’ Though their thirty-nine-year correspondence was the major output for both, scholars used to dismiss the relationship as mentor-pupil, partly because, in pruning her letters, Zukofsky retained material about himself. Scholars also ignored the fact that Niedecker critiqued Zukofsky’s poetry and more often than not rejected his advice to her.”  6

The biography is arranged in 24 chapters. For ease in following Lorine’s life, the chapter headings include a timespan and a subject-related line or two  from a poem or letter. 

Niedecker grew up on Blackhawk Island where her maternal grandparents owned much property and ran the Fountain House resort hotel. The land was turned over to their daughter Theresa (Daisy), and then to Daisy’s husband, Henry (Lorine’s parents). As a girl, Lorine enjoyed birds, nature, and joined the Campfire Girls. In high school, she was active in Glee Club, choirs, and the debate club. 

When Lorine’s mother and father lived in separate houses, Henry took a mistress, Gertrude, a married neighbor, just three years older than Lorine. In time, Henry turned over more and more of their Blackhawk Island property to Gertrude and her husband. Peters wrote, “Henry may perhaps be forgiven for wife-cheating but not for cheating his family.” (18)  I enjoy these asides by Peters. When young Niedecker writes about life passing too quickly, Peters comments, “Nothing like reaching the vast age of seventeen for feeling that life is passing you by.” (19) (And I was reminded of Sylvia Plath’s journals when she was in high school. She too was very aware of the finite nature of time. In Plath’s case, her life was more than half over.)
Lorine attended Beloit College for two years before Henry could no longer afford tuition. She returned home and cared for her mother who was becoming more secluded due to her deafness. Lorine read widely, worked as an assistant librarian at the Fort Atkinson public library, and married a neighbor, Frank Hartwig, in 1928. The marriage ended quickly and both Lorine and Frank returned home to their families. Partly as a result of the Depression, both Lorine and Frank lost their jobs.

In 1931 Niedecker read the Objectivist issue of Poetry guest-edited by Louis Zukofsky. He included the works of Basil Bunting, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Arthur Rimbaud, and Kenneth Rexroth (among others). Peters: “…Lorine immediately felt the importance of the Objectivist creed. Briefly: (1) ‘clarity of image and word-tone’; (2) ‘thinking with things as they exist, and directing them along a line of melody’;  (3) ‘economy of presentation’; and (4) the poetic rendering of current speech. Here, she felt, ‘was the center of literature in this country and in the world.’” (36) Niedecker soon began a long-term relationship with Louis through letters.   

She submitted work to Poetry. Two of her poems appeared in the September 1933 issue—“When Ecstasy is Inconvenient” and “Promise of a Brilliant Funeral.” She continued to send notes and poems to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe and once stopped in to visit her at the Chicago office. 

Zukofsky invited Niedecker to visit him after they had exchanged letters for two years. She had the immense courage to board a bus in Fort Atkinson and travel to New York to stay with him in his Greenwich Village apartment on West Eleventh Street. She arrived with low funds, high expectations, an iron, and an ironing board. Perhaps she intended to remain in New York for some time. Zukofsky, however, did not encourage an extended stay. Lorine returned home, but made other trips to be with him in the years following. One visit in 1935 resulted in a pregnancy and abortion. Lorine wanted the baby, Louis did not. (Twins, as it turned out.) In 1939 Zukofsky married Celia Thaew, a musician and pianist. In 1943, they had a son, Paul.

Niedecker typed Louis’ manuscripts and sent money to him whenever she could for Paul’s expensive music career. They exchanged poetry and critiques, and Louis was able to introduce her to other poets and publishers. 

Peters writes, “[Niedecker] had dreamed of a book of LZ-LN letters, though she gave up the idea when he intimated he’d destroyed most of hers and weeded out personal bits in those he’d kept. (Actually more than two hundred, though often fragments, survive.) He did not discourage, however, a book of his letters, though he insisted that she eliminate all personal references…. She tackled each letter with magnifying glass and scissors, excising anything she guessed the ultra-private—or paranoid—Louie would object to. Some letters survived only as scraps, which she pasted separately onto sheets of typing paper.” 180 - 181

On the letters: “[Niedecker] defied [Zukofsky] by preserving enough of his letters from the 1930s to establish once and for all their intellectual and emotional intimacy. Had Lorine kept Zukofsky’s letters whole, she would have left posterity one of the richest surviving records of friendship between a male and female poet. But then, she always did what Zukofsky asked.” 201

An interesting bit of information from the book’s last chapter: “[Lorine and Al Millen] named [their new] garage ‘University of Texas’ because Lorine had finally sold Zukofsky’s letter fragments to the Harry Ransom Research Center, repository of the largest manuscript collection of twentieth-century writers in the world. …Ironic that the Texas money bought Al his hideaway; or perhaps Lorine deliberately spent it that way: a gift to the man who stood by her from the man who, finally, didn’t.”  241-242

Niedecker worked in Madison from 1938 to 1942 as a writer, research editor, and radio scriptwriter. The research she did “fed her poets mind” as she read history and biography. From 1944 to 1950 she was a proofreader at Hoard's Dairyman, a business in Fort Atkinson. Her 80 percent vision suffered from all the close work. From 1957 to 1963 she did cleaning at the Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital. All this time she was reading, writing, and submitting her poetry. 

Her first book, New Goose, was published in 1946 by The Press of James A. Decker in Prairie City, Illinois. Also in 1946, her father ordered a log cabin kit from a catalog, and Lorine moved into her own tiny one-room dwelling with outhouse. Prominent in the cabin, her bookshelves and books. 

From 1949 through 1953, Niedecker wrote poems about Paul, Zukofsky’s son, thinking of him “as a fellow artist and surrogate son.” A publisher was willing to publish these poems, For Paul, but only if Louis wrote an introduction. He refused. (The poems, For Paul, would be published after her death.) Zukofsky became troubled by the appropriation of his son into her poetry, and the friendship became strained. Peters writes, “… Paul eventually repudiated the poems and turned against her [Niedecker]. …After Louis’s death, he refused to let his father’s letters to her be published, to allow Zukofsky’s biographer to include her as more than a passing reference, or to allow her to be mentioned in a proposed volume of Zukofsky’s selected letters. One hopes Lorine was spared the knowledge of Paul’s total rejections, yet; uncannily, she had predicted it.”  125

In 1955, Lorine met her new neighbors from Chicago—Mona McAllister and her grown children. Lorine became friends with twenty-eight year old Æneas McAllister. They shared an interest in classical music and enjoyed spending time together. Æneas was also able to provide transportation and help Lorine with needed chores. In 1959 through 1961, Lorine dated Harold Hein, a dentist from Milwaukee who had family connections in the area. This friendship ended when Lorine realized he wasn’t interested in marriage. To Zukofsky, Lorine wrote: “Not much ahead for me where H. is concerned but at least nothing taken away.” Peters comments: “Nothing? Only her hopes of the permanent companionship of marriage,” (154) and Peters places Niedecker’s poem here,

    My life is hung up
    in the flood
           a wave-blurred

    Don’t fall in love
    with this face—
           it no longer exists
               in water
                     we cannot fish

In 1960, Niedecker began to correspond with Cid Corman in Japan who accepted her poetry for his publication, Origin. Peters: “Her correspondence with Corman would differ markedly from hers with Zukofsky. With Corman she was frank and friendly, with none of the teasing fondness, language play, goofy humor, or intimacies she shared with Zu. Unlike Zukofsky, Corman was always appreciative, accepting her poetry fait accompli. He allowed her to vent her frustrations with Zukofsky. And she could praise other poets to Corman.” (145) Corman published seventy-five of her poems.

Ian Hamilton Finlay in Scotland was interested in publishing a book of her poetry, but he too wanted an introduction by Zukofsky. Louis refused. Peters writes, “She should have known better: Zukofsky had refused introductions for both New Goose and For Paul.…Still, it was a hurtful letter from a friend of thirty years who’d been helped enormously by the patronage of Pound and Williams and had written introductions for other poets. And to whom, in a new will made in 1960, Lorine still left all she possessed.”  146

In 1961 her book My Friend Tree was finally published by Ian Hamilton Finlay with his Wild Hawthorne Press—her second book appearing fifteen years after New Goose. This year she also had an indoor bathroom installed in a closet of her small house.  Niedecker wrote:

    Now in one year
          a book published
                  and plumbing—

    took a lifetime
          to weep
                  a deep

In 1963, Niedecker married Albert Millen, a house painter from Milwaukee. The marriage worked even though he loved TV while she “sat and scribbled.” Niedecker enjoyed exploring Milwaukee by bus—museums, the public library, and any islands of nature. After Millen retired from his job, they left Milwaukee and built a small house along the Rock River on Lorine’s beloved Blackhawk Island. With Al, Lorine took road trips to South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, and northern Wisconsin. (Due to her limited vision, Niedecker was never able to drive.) She was inspired to research and write longer poems (“LAKE SUPERIOR.” “WINTERGREEN RIDGE”) based on her travels. One wonders what her life would have been like if she had the time and funds to travel. She also wrote poems based on biography: Mary Shelley, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, William Morris, and Leonardo da Vinci. 

In a post-trip letter to Zukofsky, Lorine wrote, “Have I written you since we got back from Duluth …?” Peters writes, “Never before had she tossed off Zukofsky with ‘Have I written you?’ At the same time, Zuk’s poetry still meant more to her than almost anything in the world, and now he was asking her to return his gifts to her, 55 Poems and Le Style Apollinaire, so he could send them to the University of Texas-Austin, which was collecting his work. Lorine responded: ‘I wish you’d ask me to return some hair or flesh. This really hurts ….I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say: I can hardly live without one kind of possession: books, and chief among books, those of Louis Zukofsky. Knowing this, you can still ask me for ‘55’??’”  He wanted them, she sent them.   180

Morgan Gibson, a poet and poetry professor from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, wrote Niedecker and asked her for a copy of My Friend Tree. He also asked her to send poems to be published in the university publication Arts in Society. He accepted one and Niedecker “was delighted to receive five dollars for ‘Churchill’s Death’” in 1965. She also reviewed Corman’s books for the publication in 1966.   202 - 203

In 1968, L.S. Dembo, a professor, invited Zukofsky, still in New York, to read and be interviewed in Madison. He also interviewed Rakosi, Oppen, and Reznikoff. Lorine went to Madison to visit with Louis and his wife. Niedecker wrote, “Lovely day in Madison,” and described her encounter. Peters echoes incredulously, “Lovely day in Madison?… Lorine [was] outside both the Zukofsky marriage and Dembo’s projected work on the Objectivists, which would cut her dead. Besides Pound, few if any of the “Objectivist” poets had attained Objectivism except Niedecker in New Goose and “LAKE SUPERIOR”; ironically, Carl Rakosi had always believed Niedecker the ultimate Objectivist. Her exclusion by Dembo was a sexist act by a scholar who probably didn’t know what sexism meant. But Lorine the sublimator was hard at work.…And after all, she lived just thirty miles down the road.” 232 

One wonders, with all the neglect bestowed upon Lorine Niedecker during her lifetime by Wisconsin colleges and universities, state literary organizations and art funds—how many poets are we ignoring today?
After Niedecker’s death in 1970, Al and his daughter sorted through her papers. Lorine had requested that her journals be destroyed. A great loss! Her remaining letters from Zukofsky were sent to Texas. One box had been labeled for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but there is no record in Madison. Cid Corman was named executor and continued to publish Lorine in “Origin in 1971; in a collection, Blue Chicory, in 1975; in a special 1981 Origin featuring her poetry, letters, and memoirs of colleagues and friends; and eighty-nine of her poems in The Granite Pail in 1985.….Lorine never had a more loyal publisher than Corman.”  255

Peters relates, “…her total earnings from poetry [was] something like eight hundred dollars, all of which and more she had spent supporting small presses.”   239   

Niedecker’s Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy (2002), has generated great interest in her poetry. Now Margot Peters’ essential biography will also draw new generations into the life and poetry of Lorine Niedecker. 

Peters writes: “Perhaps the world is made new enough now to recognize Lorine Niedecker’s extraordinary gifts. This biography explores the life and work of a woman who, along with Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, is one of America’s unique poetic voices.”  7

Linda Aschbrenner is the editor/publisher of Marsh River Editions. She edited and published the poetry journal Free Verse from 1998 to 2009 which now continues as Verse Wisconsin. She lives in Marshfield and is presently lost in the 1950s as she works on a book of family memories with her two sisters, Elda Lepak and Mavis Flegle.