Lorine Niedecker: A Poet’s Life

By Margot Peters
University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.  $34.95; distributed in the UK by Eurospan. £30.95.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

published in Times Literary Supplement (FEB 2012).


Lorine Niedecker has been fortunate in her critics, most of them poets like herself. From Basil Bunting, Donald Davie, and Charles Tomlinson in England to William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and, more recently, Rae Armantrout and Elizabeth Willis (the editor of a fine new volume of essays titled Radical Vernacular) in the United States, Niedecker’s spare and enigmatic lyric poetry has been carefully studied and appreciated. The catalyst for recent work on Niedecker has surely been Jenny Penberthy’s superb edition of the Collected Works (2002). Penberthy is also the author of a study of Niedecker’s correspondence with her lifelong mentor Louis Zukofsky – a study that tactfully and elegantly circumvents what has been a minefield for all Zukofsky (and hence Niedecker) scholars: the refusal of Paul Zukofsky, the poet’s son and executor of his estate, to permit publication of the bulk of his father’s letters (the manuscripts are in the Harry Ransom Center in Texas), as well as to impose severe restrictions on all citation from the poetry itself.

Given this situation, it is unsurprising that the first Niedecker biography comes to us not from a member of the Niedecker circle, but from a professional biographer, Margot Peters, who has previously written on figures as diverse as Charlotte Brontë and May Sarton. Peters writes as a feminist as well as a resident of Niedecker’s home state, Wisconsin; she knows the lake country of Blackhawk Island at first hand. Her chapters on Niedecker’s early life are thus especially valuable, as is her account of the poet’s late marriage (she was sixty) to a house painter from Milwaukee named Al Millen, a divorced father of four who had lost his right hand in a printing press accident and drank heavily. Married less than three months after they met, the couple were surprisingly happy together until her death in 1970. Niedecker had recently witnessed the publication of not one but two versions of her Collected Poems: T & G from the Jargon Society in the US and My Life by Water from Fulcrum Press in England.

The only child of what was at first an affluent household (Niedecker’s maternal grandparents had owned much of the property in Blackhawk Island, which is in fact a peninsula), the poet had to cope with her mother’s increasing deafness and agoraphobia as well as the decline of her father’s carp-seining business and real-estate enterprises. By the time Niedecker was in high school, her mother had retreated into her own silent world even as her father was openly having an affair with their next-door neighbour Gertrude Runke, who was barely older than Niedecker herself. Some twenty years later, she wrote a poem about Gert: “What a woman! – hooks men like rugs, / 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”.

A dedicated student at Beloit College, Niedecker was called home during her sophomore year, not only, as has been said, to take care of her ailing mother (then all of forty-six), but because her father could no longer afford the college payments. “That summer of 1924”, Peters writes, “Lorine was back on the Island with silent Daisy and her father and Gert next door.” It must have been a terrible disappointment for a twenty-one-year-old, but Niedecker found a job shelving books at the Fort Atkinson Public Library. By the time she was twenty-five, she had met her first husband – a farmer named Frank Hartwig, who had worked with her father on the river. What was perceived by all concerned as an ill-advised union soon dissolved: by the end of 1929, Niedecker was once again living at her father’s house on Blackhawk Island.

As the impulsive marriage testifies, Niedecker was by no means reclusive like Emily Dickinson, to whom she has often been compared. On the contrary, however bookish and intellectual she may have appeared to her friends and neighbours, she also seems to have inherited some of her father’s gregariousness and erotic energy. A loner in high school and later at Beloit, she especially loved being on the debating team. The early poetry reflects this dialectic between being and doing. Her poem “When Ecstasy is Inconvenient” (1930) begins sardonically with the words, “Feign a great calm; / all gay transport soon ends. / Chant: who knows – / flight’s end or flight’s beginning / for the resting gull”. But in the third stanza, the studied distance collapses: “Know amazedly how / often one takes his madness / into his own hands / and keeps it”.

The turning point in Niedecker’s career came in 1931, when she discovered Zukofsky’s poetry. The story has often been told: Niedecker, checking out Poetry magazine from the public library, came upon the special Objectivist number edited by Zukofsky: it included, among others, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and Basil Bunting. Although no one, including Zukofsky, knew quite what the term “Objectivist” meant, and although Niedecker herself was never a full-fledged member of the group, she immediately responded to the call for “economy of presentation”, sincerity, objectification, the avoidance of elaborate metaphor and traditional metrical forms in favour of a short, compact, speech-based lyric. Niedecker wrote Zukofsky a fan letter; he responded, urging her to submit something to Harriet Monroe at Poetry. A spirited correspondence began, and in 1933, Zukofsky invited Niedecker to come to New York and stay with him. Soon they were lovers.

Early commentators assumed that the poems Niedecker now began to publish – intricately sounded, rigorously condensed, elliptical, and often cruelly candid and sardonic lyrics – were written under the sign of Objectivism. But however much Zukofsky opened New York doors to Niedecker, and however many artists and poets she met through him, her own signature style, with its early amalgam of Imagism and Surrealism, had already been formed. And indeed, as Eliot Weinberger recently noted in his essay for the Willis collection, “if one knew no biographical details, it would be difficult to put [Niedecker and Zukofsky] together as poets”. At the same time, the emotional tie was powerful: in 1934, Niedecker became pregnant. According to Peters – and her account here is quite convincing – Niedecker wanted to keep the child, but Zukofsky was adamant that she have an abortion, even though he couldn’t pay for it and she had to get the money from her father. It turned out she had been carrying twins, whom she ruefully named “Lost” and “Found”. She decided, in the event, to return to Wisconsin where she remained for the rest of her life.

What form the relationship took after this is debatable. Zukofsky gave much support to Niedecker in the years that followed, editing her poems and introducing her to James Laughlin of New Directions and James E. Decker, owner of The Press, which published her New Goose in 1946. She, in turn, responded to the drafts he sent her with extravagant praise. Peters acknowledges their continuing bond but finds what she sees as Zukofsky’s sexism and superciliousness deplorable, especially after he married Celia Thaew in 1939. She reminds us that Niedecker regularly typed his manuscripts, that he insisted that they destroy much of their correspondence, and that, after the birth of Paul in 1942, he discouraged the childless Niedecker’s overtures to the boy. “For Paul”, the sequence of poems written between 1949 and 1953, some of them citing specific letters from Zukofsky, proved to be a major bone of contention between the two. Zukofsky was reluctant to see most of the poems published, disliking their intimacy, which he (and Celia) took to be misplaced. In 1956, when the young Jonathan Williams of Jargon Society Press offered to publish a book version of “For Paul”, Zukofsky refused to write the requested foreword. Discouraged, Niedecker dropped the project. The final version, called For Paul and Other Poems, was not to be published during her lifetime. As for Paul Zukofsky himself, Peters quotes him as telling her that these poems “make me feel creepy”.

But despite the annoyingly girlish tone she often took in her letters to “Louie”, and despite the menial day jobs she was forced to take – from 1957 to 1963 she worked as a cleaning lady at Fort Atkinson Hospital, living, for a time, in a log cabin with no “indoor terlit” – Niedecker was nobody’s pushover. At the time, she was writing such important poems as “Poet’s Work” (“Grandfather / advised me . . .”) and “You are my friend”:

You are my friend –
you bring me peaches
and the high bush cranberry
you carry
my fishpole

you water my worms
you patch my boot
with your mending kit
nothing in it
but my hand

The desolation of that final image, reinforced by the complex rhyme of “mending kit”/ “nothing in it”, was prompted by her recognition that the poem’s “you” – her then lover Harold Hein – was willing enough to “carry / [her] fishpole”, but not, in the end, to propose marriage. Later, she was to tell a friend who asked why she had married the alcoholic and uneducated Millen, “He’s the only man who ever told me he loved me”.

In her poems, the candour of such remarks was transmuted into the most subtle obliquity. By the mid-1960s, Niedecker was corresponding with Edward Dahlberg, Cid Corman, Basil Bunting, and Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose Wild Hawthorn Press had published My Friend Tree in 1961. She was discovering new poetic material in the geography and geology of her Lake District, culminating in the “LAKE SUPERIOR” sequence. And before her death, she saw two large collections through the press. Painful as her life must have been, it was thus also a success story – at least in respect of the poetry. Peters’s somewhat one-sided biography – she repeatedly implies that Niedecker succeeded despite rather than because of Zukofsky’s impact on her life and work – will probably displease the poets and critics of what has been called the Objectivist Nexus. But her narrative largely makes its case, showing us how this poet’s “condensery” was the product of a clear-sighted, good-humoured, and remarkably unsentimental sense of the poet’s own deprivation. As Niedecker puts it in one of her most famous New Goose mock-nursery rhymes:

Remember my little granite pail
The handle of it was blue.
Think what’s got away in my life –
Was enough to carry me thru.