by Pamela Verasco, PortalWisconsin.org
Lorine Niedecker is often regarded as a "poet of place." Striving to capture the very essence of the world around her, Niedecker's work is characterized by precise descriptions of her life and experiences in the rural fishing area of Blackhawk Island in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Entire stanzas devoted to plant species along the Rock River and minimalist passages that pinpoint the sound of nighttime on Lake Koshkonong established Niedecker as one of the most innovative American poets of her time. Unfortunately, however, this important Wisconsin writer remains underappreciated in her native state.
"She's this poet who's well-known in poetry circles across the world," says Sue Hartwick, Director of the Hoard Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson. "But few people in town even know who she was."
The Hoard Museum, in collaboration with the Fort Atkinson Historical Society and the Dwight Foster Public Library, is marking the centennial of Niedecker's birth with a celebration of her life and work. A new Niedecker exhibit is slated to open at the Hoard Museum on Monday, May 12, at 6 p.m. The exhibit gives Fort Atkinson residents a prime chance to get to know their most celebrated poet.
The 6 p.m. exhibit opening will be followed by a 7 p.m. poetry reading. Participants will be the Prairie Fire Quartet from Madison; the Poetry Dream Team from Fort Atkinson High School; Allison Townsend and Pat Moran from UW-Whitewater; and Lisa Fishman and Richard Meier from Beloit College. For more information about this event, call the Hoard Historical Museum at (920) 563-7769 or the Dwight Foster Public Library at (920) 563-7790.
The Hoard Museum's new "Niedecker Room" features the poet's original writing desk, family photos, handwritten letters and first editions of her published collections. A mural painted by local artists around the perimeter of the room depicts Blackhawk as Niedecker portrayed it in her provocative poems. Niedecker's deep commitment to Blackhawk emerges as a strong theme in the exhibit. (Take a virtual tour of this exhibit.)
But who was Lorine Niedecker and why was her work so little known in the town she was so drawn to for 70 years?
Born May 12, 1903, Niedecker rarely ventured far from home. Her father, Henry Neidecker (Lorine changed the spelling of her last name in high school), made his living as a carp fisherman on the banks of the Rock River. The family lived in a small cabin in rural Blackhawk Island, nearly five miles from the center of town.
Niedecker left home in 1922 to attend Beloit College but, after only two years, she returned home to Fort Atkinson to care for her dying mother. After a brief marriage ended in 1927, Niedecker worked as an assistant at the Dwight Foster Public Library from 1928 to 1930. In 1944, she was hired as a proofreader and stenographer at The Hoard's Dairyman, a national dairy-farming journal based in Fort Atkinson. In 1946, Niedecker published her first book of poems, New Goose.
After both of her parents' deaths in the early 1950s, Niedecker's finances were precarious. With two unpaid mortgages, she was forced to foreclose on the house she grew up in and take a job as a cleaning woman at the local hospital. Determined to remain in her hometown, Niedecker rented a one-bedroom cabin in Blackhawk Island.
"She was always very attached to her locale," Hartwick said. "She went to New York in 1933 for a few months, spent two years in Beloit for college, but the rest of her life was spent in Blackhawk."
Perhaps her allegiance to Blackhawk itself is a contributing factor to Niedecker's status as a little-known poet in Fort Atkinson. While her poetry wasn't intentionally kept from her community, Niedecker's choice to live in Blackhawk limited her exposure in the center of town.
"Perhaps if she had grown up on Highway 26 or in the center of town, things would have been different," Hartwick speculated. "You don't really go to Blackhawk unless you have a specific reason to go to Blackhawk."
Still, for the most part, Niedecker chose the life she lived. Her disinterest in fame and fortune, coupled with her profound commitment to life in Blackhawk, governed the nature of her work and how critics and readers around the world viewed it.
While Niedecker continued to write captivating, avant-garde poetry throughout her adult life, it wasn't until she married her second husband, Albert Millen, in 1963 that Niedecker had either the time or means to delve deeper into her writing. Not only did Millen's financial support give her more time to write, the couple's car trips together gave Niedecker new subjects to address.
"In the seven years after she married Al," Hartwick noted, "Lorine doubled the amount poetry she had written in her whole life."
Niedecker published four collections of poetry in the final decade of her life. My Friend Tree, North Central, T&G and My Life By Water established her as a pioneer in the Objectivist poetry movement, bringing her renown on three different continents.
Lorine Niedecker's life and work were focused around the rural area she never left. The words, the themes and the sounds tell stories of Blackhawk, stories that, her admirers hope, will finally have a wider audience in the town that inspired her. The May opening of the Niedecker exhibit at the Hoard Museum--plus a three-day October conference--should help bring renewed appreciation for this remarkable poet. The October conference will take place in Milwaukee and is jointly sponsored by Woodland Pattern Book Center, the Milwaukee Public Library and the Dwight Foster Public Library.