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Name Niedecker, Lorine
Born / Died 1903–1970

The Lorine Niedecker collection consists of several manuscripts and a few items of correspondence.

Manuscripts by Niedecker in the collection consist of two unpublished poetry compilations titled The Earth and Its Atmosphere and The Very Veery, as well as Harpsichord and Salt Fish (Pig Press, 1991). Each is typed, and all but Harpsichord contain two sets of carbon copies and are signed June 1969. The Earth and Harpsichord manuscripts contain handwritten notations.

The correspondence includes a letter from Louis Zukofsky dated 1969. This letter is accompanied by copies of ten Niedecker poems admired by Zukofsky, who frequently published Niedecker’s work in his journal Origins .


An often overlooked and underappreciated poet, Lorine Niedecker (1903 - 1970) garnered some attention before her death, but posthumously she has come to be appreciated for her unadorned language that conjures vibrant images. Indeed, she has been favorably compared with the American poets Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams, as well as with various Chinese and Japanese writers. In a critique of a posthumously published work, fellow poet and novelist Gilbert Sorrentino wrote: “Miss Niedecker’s English has the brevity and compactness of classical verse, her syntax carefully balanced in a way usually possible only with highly inflected languages. She herself called her compositional methods a ‘condensery.’ … Her work is … the product of a true poetic sensibility, faultless and luminous.”

Lorine Faith Niedecker was born in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin on May 12, 1903, the only child of commercial fisherman Henry E. Niedecker and his wife, the former Theresa Kunz, known as Daisy. She spent her early life and formative years living in isolation on Black Hawk Island, just outside of Fort Atkinson, some 35 miles from Madison. Her mother’s family had been prosperous but gradually over time, thanks to the Depression and her father’s ill-fated business schemes (including a cottage-rental business) and nascent alcoholism, the Niedeckers slipped into genteel poverty. Her parents’ marriage was also not a happy one and the tension drove the young girl to seek refuge in the surrounding environment. Her poetry would reflect the sensory experiences of her childhood and youth spent in the marshy environs of the island where she became acquainted with the various birds and indigenous animals as well as the numerous plants and flowers.

Niedecker attended Fort Atkinson High School, graduating in 1922. Her first published poem, “Wasted Energy,” appeared in her senior yearbook.  For the first time in her life, she left home to attend Beloit College, but within two years she had returned to care for her sickly mother who was now deaf. In November 1928, she married Frank Hartwig, an employee of her father’s, and took a job as a librarian’s assistant in Fort Atkinson. One of her poems, “Transition,” was accepted for publication in the literary journal Will-o-the-Wisp. Two years later, though, her husband defaulted on a loan and the couple lost their house. Niedecker and Hartwig formally separated and she returned to her parents’ home on Black Hawk Island where she was to remain for the rest of her life. (She and Hartwig did not divorce until 1942.)

When Niedecker read the February 1931 issue of Poetry magazine, guest-edited by Louis Zukofsky, she recognized a kindred writer. The issue was devoted to “Objectivist” poetry and contained works by William Carlos Williams, Carl Rakosi, and George Oppen, among others. Almost immediately, Niedecker initiated a correspondence with Zukofsky which served as her entry into the world of literary journals and publishing. Many of their early letters explore various works in progress with each offering commentary and suggestions for improvements. Subsequently, she submitted her work for publication to periodicals like New Democracy and Poetry. During a visit to New York in 1933, she met with and engaged in a brief affair with Zukofsky. When Niedecker returned to her rural home later that year, their epistolary relationship continued.

Her first major literary notoriety came in 1936 when a series of her poems as well as two short plays appeared in the debut issue of New Directions, an anthology edited by James McLaughlin. Two years later, Niedecker relocated to Madison, Wisconsin, and found employment with the Works Public Administration as a writer and researcher for the Federal Writers’ Project. Her duties included working on the Wisconsin Guide, which covered the state’s geography, history and culture. In 1942, she briefly worked as a script writer at a local radio station, but she became unhappy living in a metropolitan setting and before that year was out, had returned to her home on Black Hawk Island.

After her divorce was finalized, Niedecker supported herself as a stenographer and proofreader for a local periodical, Hoard’s Dairyman. After World War II, she privately published her first collection of poems, New Goose (James A. Decker, 1946), but characteristically kept the matter secret from her neighbors. A year later, Niedecker built a riverbank cabin.

Her failing eyesight caused her to relinquish her work at Hoard’s Dairyman in 1950. The following year, her mother died followed three years later by her father. She inherited property and her father’s cottage-renting business, but it proved difficult for her and she later sold the land and buildings. In 1957, Niedecker accepted employment as a cleaning woman at a local hospital.

All through the 1950s, she had continued to write poems and in 1960, she initiated a correspondence with poet Cid Corman, the editor of Origin magazine. He was instrumental in introducing her to Ian Hamilton Finlay, a Scotsman who published her second collection of poems, My Friend Tree (Wild Hawthorne Press), in 1961. She served as a contributor to Origin and in July 1966 was selected as the magazine’s featured poet.

In 1963, Niedecker retired from her position as a cleaner at the hospital and to the surprise of many married for a second time to housepainter Albert Millen on May 26.

The newlyweds settled in Milwaukee, where she spent most of her time writing. Her health, though, began to deteriorate. In addition to her failing eyesight, Niedecker had developed a heart condition. In 1968, her third book, North Central (Fulcrum Press), appeared and the next year the couple built a new home near her cabin on Black Hawk Island.  Shortly thereafter, Niedecker published T & G: The Collected Poems (1936-1966) (Jargon Society, 1969), which include a section of poems written for Zukofsky’s son Paul. In preparing for a British edition, the poet added other previously published works and well as several unpublished poems resulting in My Life by Water: The Collected Poems (1936-1968) (Fulcrum Press, 1970), which appeared shortly before her death.

On December 31, 1970, Lorine Niedecker suffered a fatal stroke and died in hospital at Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin at the age of 66. Several collections of her works have been published posthumously, including Blue Chicory (Elizabeth Press, 1976), edited by her literary executor Cid Corman, and Harpsichord and Salt Fish (Pig Press, 1991), on which she was working at the time of her death.

Library of Congress Subject Headings Women Poets, American.
American poetry 20th century.
American poetry Women authors.

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