I have loved the poetry of Lorine Niedecker, and been deeply influenced by her work and life since being introduced to her writing by the great poet and independent literary publisher, Jonathan Williams, just a few years after her untimely death in 1970. His outstanding press, The Jargon Society, published one of the largest collections of her work during her all too brief lifetime (T & G: Collected Poems, 1970). In the years since her death, she has been discovered by many writers, scholars and general readers and her work is available now in several great collections, including Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy, from the University of California Press.
For the many who still do not know of her, Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) was born, raised, schooled and lived almost her entire life in Wisconsin. She was a poet her entire adult life, mostly self-educated, but always deeply involved in the milieu of modernist poetry and experimental writing. The most famous of her peers were William Carlos Williams (who knew and appreciated her writing), Louis Zukofsky (with whom she had a very deep and complicated relationship), and George Oppen and Carl Rakosi, among many others. But as a woman writer who worked hard for a living during a time when men ruled the literary roost, she wrote mostly in obscurity, known only to a small number of other writers who appreciated the brilliance of her imagination and craft.
My friend tree
I sawed you down
but I must attend
an older friend
Margot Peters’ new biography, Lorine Niedecker, A Poet’s Life, is a wonderful book, reflecting Peters’ own love and appreciation for her subject’s life and writing. Lorine’s life story is important to read about, whether you have read her poetry or not. It’s a powerful introduction to a complicated and unique American life. Lorine never had it easy. Her family life was difficult, her poor eyesight was a difficulty for her entire life, her relationships with men were complicated and often painful for her, and she never received the attention her writing deserved. Peters tells the story of her life in great detail, but is never boring. She interviewed people who knew Lorine where she lived in Wisconsin, and even those who, like me, think they know Lorine and her work will learn a great deal about her. Peters is perceptive and clear eyed about Lorine and aware of the difference between the life as lived and the poetry as written. For the poet, it is always the words that matter. Peters knows this too.
Reading about Lorine Niedecker continually reminded me of the power of her intellect and the depth of her brilliance as a poet. She honed and sharpened constantly, like a jeweler bringing a stone to life. Her reading was vast, her intelligence and clarity of vision virtually unmatched. I do not think it is an understatement to call Niedecker one of the greatest poets America has ever produced.
Learn a trade
to sit at desk
Every poet, every writer, should read and absorb these words.
If it’s not obvious, I have been smitten by this poet’s work for a really long time. This biography is a terrific addition to the Niedecker opus, and is highly recommended. I had a great time talking to Margot Peters, whose knowledge of Niedecker, Wisconsin and poetry is broad, deep and very well put together.
Please visit the Lorine Niedecker website to learn more about her, sample some poetry, and to get a feel for Fort Atkinson, where she lived most of her life. You can visit Margot Peters’ website for more about her book as well. There is now an annual Niedecker Poetry Festival in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin every fall.
Books by and about Niedecker:
New Goose. Prairie City, Ill.: Press of James A. Decker, 1946.
My Friend Tree. Edinburgh: Wild Hawthorne Press, 1961.
North Central. London: Fulcrum Press, 1968.
T & G: Collected Poems 1936-1966. Penland, N.C.: Jargon Society, 1969.
My Life By Water: Collected Poems 1936-1968. London: Fulcrum Press, 1970.
Blue Chicory. Edited by Cid Corman, New Rochelle, N.Y.: The Elizabeth Press, 1976.
From This Condensery: The Complete Writings of Lorine Niedecker. Edited by Robert J. Bertholf, Jargon Society/Inland Book Company, 1985.
The Granite Pail: Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker. Edited by Cid Corman, North Point Press, 1985.
Collected Works. Edited by Jenny Penberthy, Berkely: University of California Press, 2002.
(note, I owe apologies to LN – in the poem Poet’s Work above, I could not get the spacing to work right here, please read it either on the Niedecker site or in the Collected Works to see it the way the poet meant it to look on the page)