Lorine Niedecker, by Margot Peters
Lorine Niedecker: A Poet's Life
University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.
THE BEST biographies give you a deep feeling for the author's grasp of a life: the personality, the struggles and triumphs, the world in which that person lived, and the milieu of friends and relations. And in the case of Lorine Niedecker, her close connection to the natural world in which she lived most of her life. Unfortunately, despite evident hard spade work, Margot Peters' grasp of Lorine Niedecker is a preliminary portrait because she does not fully comprehend Lorine's natural world nor the world of poetry she inhabited, a life of the mind Lorine kept close through a life of hardships. When I first came to know of Lorine, she was scrubbing floors at the local hospital, long miles away from her small home, miles especially felt during the long walk home in freezing Wisconsin winters. Unless she lucked out and caught a ride.
My view of Lorine's life is colored by stories I heard early on from my friends Jonathan Williams, Cid Corman, and Carl Thayler. And then later by biographical information from books, especially Lorine Niedecker, Woman and Poet, edited by Jenny Penberthy.
Lorine's life in poetry was in many ways dominated by her friendship with Louis Zukofsky, who was both a mentor and lover, though one might surmise it was mostly a one-sided love affair on Lorine's part. This led to Lorine having an abortion (of twins) at Zukofsky's insistence. He was never going to marry outside his Jewish faith.
One example of Peters' missteps: she calls Lorine's writing of poetry "Lorine's professional life." Nowadays this terminology of being "a professional poet" might be commonplace but it was not in Lorine's mindset. In today's twisted usage "professional" means poetry of a quality to be taken seriously by the large number who write and the small number who read poetry.
Relating to Zukofsky, Lorine wrote Jonathan Williams: "It has been difficult for thirty years, Jonathan, yet I suppose he [Zukofsky] has been—the association through literature—the most valuable part of my life."
This sentence is telling. Poetry was her abiding passion and Zukofsky was her main conduit into this world and this eventually led to many of her publication. The first books of both authors were published by The Press of James A. Decker out of Prairie City, Illinois, and it is telling to track a history of their mutual publishers:
55 Poems, Zukofsky, James A. Decker, 1941
Anew, Zukofsky, James A. Decker, 1946
New Goose, Niedecker, James A. Decker, 1946
Some Time, Zukofsky, Jargon, 1956
My Friend Tree, Niedecker, Wild Hawthorne Press, 1961
16 Once Published, Zukofsky, Wild Hawthorne Press, 1962
T & G, The Collected Poems (1936-1966), Niedecker, Jargon, 1969
From This Condensery: The Complete Writings of Lorine Niedecker, Jargon, 1985
This shows clearly that in all cases except one, Zukofsky led the way, and in the exception (Ian Hamilton Finlay's Wild Hawthorn Press) Zukofsky was responsible for making this connection for Lorine.
Though she was romantically spurned by Zukofsky, Niedecker and Zukofsky stayed in close touch throughout most of their lives despite his marriage to Celia Thaew and the birth of their son Paul. Zukofsky indeed balked when Lorine had a book manuscript titled For Paul and had used incidents in Paul's life in her poetry. At the end of his life Zukofky turned bitter, ironically after the recognition he had longed for finally arrived. His friendship with Niedecker was a casualty to this bitterness when he in effect excommunicated her.
Lorine's life can easily be seen as tragic. Her time in college (Beloit) was cut short by her mother's loss of hearing; she needed her daughter's care at home. Her father was a philanderer and much of the real estate he owned was lost in the process before his death. Lorine's first marriage was very brief, almost as if it never happened. Her work as a proofreader was terminated when her eyesight became a problem. Her second marriage, late in life, to Al Millen was a mixed blessing. He drank and did not appreciate Lorine as a poet; in fact, he was probably jealous of the time she dedicated to writing. But he eased her financial woes and drove her on some trips that fed into her writing (especially her "Lake Superior" sequence).
Lorine was gaining some visibility at the end of her life when her Jargon book (T & G) came out (after a long five-year gestation) along with two books that were published in England by Stuart Montgomery's Fulcrum Press.
Her reputation has only increased after her death and she is somewhat now part of the so-called canon as witnessed by her inclusion in the Norton Anthology, a Robert Pinsky anthology, etc. She is now seen as a Objectivist poet, though in its day this was an exclusively male club centered around Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, and Rakosi. An example of this exclusion would be the "Special Number, The Objectivist Poet" of Contemporary Literature published in Lorine's home state of Wisconsin by the publisher of this biography. Peters herself creates a bit of confusion about this. After claiming Lorine belonged to this group, she has this confusing sentence: "Still, she was destined to remain 'one by herself'—not quite an Objectivist, not a third generation modernist either." (p. 154)
Here she does not define what 'a third generation modernist' might be and who might be in such a grouping. Not that the Objectivist label counts for much, though it is used now as a shorthand with a specific meaning intended where perhaps it has only an ambiguous one. Lorine herself, since she was excluded, probably contented herself with this, her own unique unbranded poetry self. On the other hand Carl Rakosi claimed that Lorine was the "ultimate Objectivist" (p. 232).
Unfortunately, mistakes abound in this bibliography. Peters mentions Lorine admiring Robert Duncan's prose rather than his poetry and cites this as referring to a short publication in Black Mountain Review when it is much more likely based on the whole issue of Origin #10, Second Series which printed excerpts from "The Day Book."
And then there are the numerous annoying small mistakes: the "Mediations" by Marcus Aurelius, p. 75, (correctly "Meditations" in the Bibliography, p. 311); later current editions of Lorine's New Goose and Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry are listed in the Bibliography, but not the current edition of The Granite Pail; Gnomon Press is spelled Gnomen, top of page 317; on p. 266 the first footnote for the book has page number 000; Peters states Cid Corman "publish[es]" Lorine's Blue Chicory and The Granite Pail, two books he edited but did not publish; and then she goes on to describe the contents of the latter book inaccurately, p. 255; Harpsichord & Salt Fish was published by Pig Press in Durham, England, not North Carolina as listed, p. 314; etc. I thought university press books were published with careful editing, but this book tests this opinion.
Still and all, it is good to have this biography after the earlier attempt by Glenna Breslin failed to materialize. Now we can hope to see the publication of Lorine's prose journal and notes of her trip around Lake Superior and other prose work that was included in From This Condensery but is not currently available.