The Lives of Lorine Niedecker
In the summer of 1966, at age 63, Lorine Niedecker saw Lake Superior for the first time. Though she lived her entire life in southern Wisconsin, Niedecker had never traveled to the greatest of the Great Lakes—besides a few trips to New York City in the 1930s, she had never traveled much at all. When she married Al Millen in 1963, the couple embarked upon a series of road trips to the Black Hills in South Dakota and northern Minnesota, where Al had grown up. Niedecker’s eyesight was never good; she had only 80 percent vision and suffered from nystagmus (rapid involuntary eye movement). The trips were at once exhilarating and frustrating. She complained in a letter to her friend Cid Corman, “What maddens me on all automobile trips: you’re traveling that way because it’s easier to stop whenever you want to, but you can’t stop, not just anywhere … you whiz by—you’d have to walk—someday—after you’re dead.”
Niedecker took roughly 300 pages of notes before, during, and after her 1966 trip—perhaps to combat the “whiz”—and she used these notes to inform her long poem “Lake Superior.” In addition to reading and transcribing sections from geological accounts, histories of early explorers to the region, and travel guides from the WPA, she jotted down observations on the road and transcribed conversations between her and Al—all of which combined into “a vast documentary apparatus,” in the words of one Niedecker scholar, Jenny Penberthy. Earlier this year Wave Books published Niedecker’s selection of these notes in one volume, titled Lake Superior, along with excerpts from her reading, three of her letters to Corman, an essay by Douglas Crase on her conception of the “evolutionary sublime,” and the poem itself—“after much culling,” as Niedecker put it to Corman, an epic five pages long.
“We are always inhabiting more than one realm of existence—but they all fit in if the art is right,” Niedecker observed once. Lake Superior seems to contend that the context of a poem is as worthy of reading as the poem itself. It’s not a new approach to Niedecker, whose work in the last few years has come to be seen as more multivalent and referential than previously thought. But the publication of both poem and its materials is something of an event in the Niedecker industry. The book offers a glimpse of the complex processes she used to make her work as well as expands a general reader’s sense of who Lorine Niedecker was. In the book’s pages she emerges as a chatty correspondent, a witty observer, and a ravenous reader; Crase’s essay argues for her place in a tradition of the sublime stretching from Wordsworth to Emerson to Whitman—far different company than the Objectivists she’s normally grouped with.
That Lake Superior alters our sense of Niedecker as both poet and person isn’t surprising. Her work and her biography have always been connected, though often to diminishing effect. In the decades immediately after her death, she was endlessly construed as a poet from the rural margins, with descriptions of her life in Wisconsin often taking precedence in accounts of her work. “The reductive judgment of Niedecker has settled comfortably in,” Gilbert Sorrentino lamented in 1996. “Niedecker’s private life has been sentimentalized by people who should know better.” It would be difficult to argue that Niedecker suffers from such “reductive judgments” today. As Marjorie Perloff noted just last year, Niedecker has been lucky in her critics, and scholars such as Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Elizabeth Willis, and particularly Penberthy have all argued persuasively and effectively for Niedecker’s central role in American modernism. Niedecker’s nearly 500-page Collected Works was published in 2002, and it offered definitive proof of her accomplishment. Edited by Penberthy, and including formerly unknown or presumed lost work, the volume also aided and abetted new kinds of Niedecker scholarship: Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (2008), a collection of essays edited by Willis, as well asNiedecker seminars, a documentary, and the first full-length biography, Margot Peters’s A Poet’s Life, have all appeared in the last decade.
Yet despite the changing critical landscape, Niedecker’s life can still seem the most prominent feature of her work; it’s the relation between the two—the role of Niedecker’s biography in her work, and how her life informs our reading of her poems—that somehow continues to trouble. Too close a focus on Niedecker’s biography can conceal the catholic gathering of forces that compose her poems; yet ignoring that Niedecker often wrote “from” her life, and in fact formulated a sophisticated poetics of experience in letters to friends, might mean missing the deeply personal pitches each poem sounds. So how important is it to know Niedecker’s biography? Should it matter that Niedecker herself was wary of biographies, expressing dismay to Corman when an editor requested one to accompany her poems: “funny does one need a poet’s life to get at his poetry? Perhaps so, never struck me so, really.” Or should we take Niedecker’s own practice of creating portraits of historical figures such as Jefferson, Darwin, and William Morris—and her use of a citational method that drew on published biographies and correspondence—as proof that her enduring interest in the lives of others might warrant a closer look at the ways in which her own life informs, and even enhances, her work?
It is perhaps easier to understand the critical wariness of relying too heavily on Niedecker’s biography after you read Mary Oppen’s autobiography Meaning a Life (1978). On page 145, Lorine Niedecker arrives unforgivably late to the Oppens’ home for dinner. Describing how Niedecker was too shy to ask directions on the subway, Oppen continues: “New York was overwhelming and she [Niedecker] was alone, a tiny, timid small-town girl. She escaped the city and returned to Wisconsin. Years later we began to see her poems, poems that described her way of life; she chose a way of hard physical work, and her poetry emerged from a tiny life. From Wisconsin came perfect small gems of poetry written out of her survival, from the crevices of her life, that seeped out into poems.” Oppen’s damningly faint praise helped encourage a view of Niedecker as “rural savant,” in Willis’s phrase, or “bumpkin-savant,” in Sorrentino’s. A perception of Niedecker’s life as “tiny” helped shape a critical consensus of her poetry as tiny—miniature, domestic, marginal. But to prove that her poetry is “big” doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding the impulse to read her poems as “biographical analogue,” as Penberthy has cautioned against. Rather, going deeper into her life, or any life for that matter, might prove how “big” in fact it was—how deeply Niedecker read, how much she saw, and how carefully she selected and arranged the facts of her life for her own poems.
Though she didn’t believe a poet’s life was necessary to “get at” poems, individual poems of Niedecker’s can ask readers to be familiar with personal details—and reward those readers who are. “Paean to Place,” her long poem about Blackhawk Island, her parents, and her own identity as a poet, is a well-known example. Knowledge of Niedecker’s family history helps fill out lines like these:
He could not—like water bugs—stride surface tensionHe nettedlonelinessAs to his bright new carmy mother—her housenext his—averred:A hummingbirdcan’t haul
Niedecker’s father “netted” carp as a commercial fisherman, until the industry became regulated in the ’30s—that line, shorn of its object, speaks to financial as well as emotional failure. The lines “her house / next his” might be inflected with gender politics, as property ownership slides inevitably from females to their husbands; we might also note how the two lines create “surface tension” visually, their matching dashes holding terms at bay. Both are exemplary effects of Niedecker’s “condensery.” But a biographical reading doesn’t erase these formal, sonic, and visual triumphs, though it might augment them. The poet Jerry Reisman, who visited Blackhawk Island with Zukofsky in 1937, later described the “soap-opera situation” there. Niedecker’s father, a generous but impulsive man, had taken a mistress, whose husband he appeased by selling the family’s land and assets. Niedecker’s parents were effectively estranged, occupying adjoining houses, her father’s mistress living next door. If anything, biography enhances the poem’s careful selection of language—how close but not quite “averred” is to “averted” in this family’s disaster.
Other Niedecker poems all but require a basic understanding of her chronology. For Paul, the long poem she worked on during the 1950s, is dedicated to Paul Zukofsky, Louis Zukofsky’s child with Celia Thaew. Built of addresses to Paul, reimaginings of scenes from the Zukofsky household—scenes Niedecker knew only from letters—and lyrics about her own parents, the poem was a turning point for Niedecker as she moved from incidents like “Mr. Van Ess” to the open-ended sequences such as Lake Superior that mark her later period. But the poem itself becomes stranger, sadder, even (as Paul is alleged to have described it, years later) “creepy” with the knowledge that Niedecker and Zukofsky were lovers in the 1930s, and that Zukofsky forced Niedecker to abort the twins she became pregnant with as a result. Swiveling between the secondhand scenes of Zukofsky’s family and the recent deaths of her own “Niedecker tribe” (her parents both died within a few years of each other in the early ’50s), certain lines accrue a terrible emotion in the context of Niedecker’s life:
Wash and say good nightto variants and quarto texts,emendations, close relations.Let me hear good night.
None of these events “explain” the poems that may have precipitated them (though Niedecker could admit to “going crazy over another [poem] that wants to come right out of a recent experience”). Rather, a full appreciation of her poetry acknowledges how life and work work together.
Perceptions of Niedecker’s poetry weren’t shaped just by an overreliance on the hardscrabble facts of her life, though. They were also based on material conditions surrounding the publication of her work. In the years following her death, her poems were difficult to come by: she published five collections of poetry during her lifetime, all with small presses, and the majority in Britain (Wild Hawthorn in Edinburgh and Fulcrum in London). According to critic Eliot Weinberger, Niedecker’s reputation after 1970, the year she died, was “built on Xerox and hearsay.”
But even during her lifetime Niedecker’s publication record was spare, and her desire to be lionized complex. Though she quipped in 1960, “Am I becoming fameous?,” Niedecker’s letters reveal a complicated relationship to literary recognition. She aspired to it: in another letter to Zukofsky, after receiving a Writers’ and Artists’ Relief Fund award, she wrote, “[I]t does no harm for my name to come up before them [ ] I ain’t vain at all!” Her letters to Zukofsky and Corman—who published her in his magazine Origin—brim with details, questions, and occasional gossip about other writers, magazines, and presses. But Niedecker also struggled to see her work into print. In a forlorn postscript to Zukofsky in 1962, she asks, “Can you think of a mag I can send my poems to?” She wrote testily to Jonathan Williams, the publisher of Jargon Press, about having to pay to see her work printed. And T&G: The Collected Poems came out after a years-long delay in 1969, just before her death.
Niedecker wanted to be published—what writer doesn’t? But her letters show that she was leery of certain kinds of fame. Though perhaps best known to casual readers as the author of wryly charming small-town scenes such as “Mr. Van Ess,” Niedecker guarded her poet’s identity from the “folk” whose language inspired her. “The cat is out,” she wrote to Zukofsky in 1948, sending along a local newspaper clipping that described her as one of “Fort Atkinson’s industries.” Niedecker expresses impatience with her neighbor’s incurious curiosity: “The worst is to have the ordinary person look at you as tho you wrote of moonlight and roses and were a simpleton in general, but never stir himself to find out otherwise. Now that they do know I can’t wait till they read Goose [New Goose, her first book]—but they probably won’t bother.” Niedecker also contemplated sending a poem to Ladies’ Home Journal “just for fun” but decided against it: “wouldn’t want my fellow workers to know I write poetry—just wouldn’t do.”
Niedecker’s attitudes toward recognition might seem to corroborate biographical claims about her reclusive, “tiny” life; but just as there is a long tradition of simplifying Niedecker, there’s an equally distinguished tendency to note how deceptive all things Niedecker are. Describing her life as “isolated” depicts her geographic location—southern Wisconsin—as somehow beyond the literary pale, reinforcing commonplaces about where, and by whom, “literature” is written; it also positions Niedecker as physically, intellectually, even existentially alone. Her parents’ deaths in the 1950s left her with property on Blackhawk Island, where she was born and raised, that drained her energy and resources to manage. She had endured a failed marriage in the late ’20s, the failed love affair with Zukofsky in the ’30s, a disappointing romance in the ’50s—she was 60 when she married Al. Certainly she felt lonely, writing to Zukofsky, “[L]onesome is such a physical thing.” But she also had good friends in Wisconsin, champions of her work—and lifelong correspondents—in Zukofsky, Corman, and Basil Bunting, and fans closer to home such as the poet Bob Nero and University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee professor Morgan Gibson. Edwin Honig, who worked with Niedecker in the 1930s at the WPA Federal Writers’ Project in Madison, noted that even then, “[f]ellow workers on the project kidded her about being another Emily Dickinson, but she brushed this aside; for one thing she was not reclusive or shy, and she knew what she had to do with her life.” Accounts of her poverty are not overstated: she lived much of her adult life in a one-and-a-half-room cottage that lacked indoor plumbing until 1962. But Niedecker also seemed to believe that a simple, quiet life was necessary for poetry. “I don’t mind the lone-ness of it for poetry,” she wrote to Nero. “In fact I couldn’t do it any other way and I have the presumption to feel that others writing should retire unto themselves deeper than they do.”Scholar Glenna Breslin notes that as early as 1931 “Niedecker had determined to live simply so as to conserve her energies for writing.”
Niedecker also described a tendency to “fight shy” of public events such as poetry readings. She worried about poets she knew getting involved in politics and the “literary whirlwind,” sacrificing time to write poetry, and was dubious about the trend of reading aloud. After Corman recorded Niedecker reading—the only recording she ever made—she wrote to her friend Gail Roub: “I think a person conscious of a listening audience would write just a tiny bit differently from the way he would for print.” She also instructed her husband, Al, to burn her notebooks after her death—the Lake Superior notes survived only because they escaped notice. Eager for recognition yet skeptical of self-promotion; invested in the sonic qualities of poetry but eschewing performance and committed to “planting poems in deep, silence”; at once convinced of the importance of “lone-ness” and capable of feeling bitterly her solitude—Niedecker’s contradictory impulses shaped her poetry and its reception during her own lifetime. The marginalized mystique of her life continued to hold sway over her work well after her death. But Niedecker’s life has started to seem less marginal and more vibrant and complicated thanks in part to publications like Wave’s, the critical work of scholars, and the efforts of dedicated readers in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Gilbert Sorrentino wrote in his essay on Niedecker, “There doesn’t seem to be any way for the poet to escape her role as bumpkin-savant.” Oddly enough, Niedecker’s “escape” has been made through the very means she was most suspicious of—our growing sense of the scope of her life.
Niedecker wrote to Zukofsky about a review of My Friend Tree (1961),“[T]he review has such a flattering sound. And LN personally—when what we’re talking about is poetry!” A poet’s work is inevitably read differently by the generations of readers who come after her, when the “documentary apparatus” is available in published editions of letters, notebooks, critical appraisals, and, yes, even biographies. If anything, we might reconsider how our understanding of a poet personally—her biography, process, and reception—automatically inflects our reading of her poetry. Niedecker’s body of work and its framing and reframing within the context of her life encourage us to notice how biography and poetry reflect and refract one another. After all, both a life and a poem are always at play, at odds, and at least in part what others make of them.
Hannah Brooks-Motl was born in Wisconsin and earned an MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of the poetry collections The New Years (2014) and M (2015). Her criticism has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online and The New Republic/The Book, among other places. With Stephen Burt...