Lorine Niedecker’s life

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 After Lorine’s birth, her mother became increasingly deaf and withdrawn and her father began a long-term relationship with a neighbor, which led to Theresa and Henry occupying separate houses.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. After graduating from high school 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 “Objectivists” issue of Poetry magazine, guest-edited by the New York poet Louis Zukofsky, who argued for 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 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.

This capsule biography was written by Margot Peters, whose book-length Niedecker biography was published by the University of Wisconsin press in 2011.

Further Reading

To learn more about Lorine Niedecker’s life, we recommend the following biographical sources:

Large portions of Niedecker’s correspondence with the poets Louis Zukofsky and Cid Corman have been collected in two books edited by literary scholarly and published by university presses. Both books are out of print, but can be accessed through a nearby academic library or purchased in the secondhand market.

  • Penberthy, Jenny. Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-1970, Cambridge University Press, 1993. Library.
  • Faranda, Lisa PaterBetween Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970, Duke University press, 1986. Library.

Interactive Timeline of Major Life Events

Historic Sites

In and around Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin

1000 Riverside Drive, Fort Atkinson, WI
Home where the Niedecker family lived from 1910-1916

506 Riverside Drive, Fort Atkinson, WI
Home where Lorine stayed during the school year 1917-1918 with family friends Charles and Barbara Bowen

315 Garfield Street, Fort Atkinson, WI
Home that Niedecker shared with her first husband Frank Hartwig

W7309 Blackhawk Island Road
Location of Niedecker cabin, cottage and historical marker. PLEASE NOTE: this is private property. Access to the property can be made by appointment via the Friends of Lorine Niedecker. [link to contact form]

Union Cemetery, County Road J north of Hwy 106, Cemetery Road
Burial place of Lorine Niedecker, Al Millen and Lorine’s parents Henry and Daisy (Theresa). Niedecker’s grave is on the left as you enter the cemetery, about 2/3 of the way back, just inside the fence.

209 Merchants Avenue, Fort Atkinson, WI
The Dwight Foster Public Library. Niedecker worked here in the 1930s. The library has a dedicated Lorine Niedecker reading room.

401 Whitewater Avenue, Fort Atkinson, WI
The Hoard Historical Museum. The museum includes an archive of Lorine Niedecker materials and a Niedecker room with a Blackhawk Island mural.

Elsewhere in Wisconsin

28 E. Gilman St., Madison, WI
Building where Niedecker roomed while working for the WPA in 1941.