Lorine Niedecker: A Short Biography
by Margot Peters
Lorine Faith Niedecker was born May 12, 1903 on Blackhawk Island near Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, to Theresa (Daisy) Kunz and Henry Niedecker. Theresa’s family owned Island property and the Fountain House resort hotel; Henry’s chief occupation was carp seining. During the school year, Lorine usually lived with friends or relatives in Fort Atkinson, Island roads often being impassible. After Lorine’s birth, her mother became increasingly deaf and withdrawn and her father began a long-term relationship with a neighbor, which led to Theresa and Henry occupying separate houses. Her parents’ unhappy marriage deeply affected Lorine.
A high school English teacher, Daisy Lieberman, ignited Lorine’s love of poetry. Graduating in 1922, Lorine went on to Beloit College, where she was active in debate and a poetry-writing club. Her college career ended abruptly in 1924 when she returned to Blackhawk Island, ostensibly to care for her mother, actually because her father could no longer pay her tuition. In 1928 she married a Blackhawk Island farmer’s son, Frank Hartwig, and took a job at the Fort Atkinson library. The Depression wiped out Hartwig’s new-founded road construction business, Lorine lost her library job, and they separated in 1930, though she did not divorce Frank until 1942.
Lorine’s early poetry reflected her interest in the subconscious, dreams, and “illogical expression.” Then in 1931 she read the February issue of Poetry magazine, guest-edited by the New York poet Louis Zukofsky, who argued for Objectivism in poetry–focusing on an object rather than one’s feelings and conveying its essence along a musical line. Deciding that here was the center of literature, Lorine wrote Zukofsky; after corresponding two years, she went to New York to meet him. They became lovers; he persuaded her to abort after she became pregnant. More important, they remained intellectual friends for decades, stimulating and critiquing each other’s poetry, sharing inside jokes, and venting against the establishment. In 1946 the Press of James A. Decker published both Zukofsky’s Anew and Lorine’s New Goose. To celebrate her achievement, she moved into her own cabin on the Island.
Lorine had dedicated herself to poetry; yet, published by small presses and little magazines, she had to make a living. From 1938-1942 she worked in Madison in the Federal Writers Project, researching state biographies and writing for radio station WHA. Laid off, she became a proofreader at Hoard’s Dairyman in Fort Atkinson. Poor eyesight, which had afflicted her from childhood, forced her to leave Hoard’s and she took a job as a cleaning woman in the Fort Atkinson Hospital’s dietary unit. This drudgery ended when she married Al Millen, an industrial painter from Milwaukee, in May 1963. They lived in a tiny apartment in South Milwaukee until his retirement in 1968, when they returned to Blackhawk Island where Lorine had built them a cottage on property inherited from her father.
During her lifetime, Lorine saw only four books of poetry published: New Goose, My Friend Tree, North Central and T&G, though she was published frequently in literary magazines, most significantly in Cid Corman’s Origin. Between the years 1963 and her death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1970, she expanded as a poet, writing longer poems like “Wintergreen Ridge” and the haunting, autobiographical “Paean to Place.” Admired by her poetic peers, Lorine Niedecker’s reputation as a major twentieth-century poet has expanded since her death with the publication of her collected works and two editions of correspondence.
For anyone interested to read more about Lorine Niedecker’s life, we recommend the following sources of biographical information:
Lehman, John. America’s Greatest Unknown Poet: Lorine Niedecker Reminiscences, Photographs, Letters and Her Most Memorable Poems, Zelda Wilde Publishing, 2003. Library.
There are also two volumes which collect large segments of Niedecker’s correspondence with Louis Zukofsky and Cid Corman that are of interest to anyone seeking to better understand her life and literary friendships. They are:
Penberthy, Jenny. Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-1970, Cambridge University Press, 1993. Library.
Faranda, Lisa Pater. Between Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970, Duke University press, 1986. Library.