By Brian D’Ambrosio
Lorine Niedecker was a poet’s poet. English poet Basil Bunting considered her to be one of the finest poets of the 20th Century, and William Carlos Williams called her the Emily Dickinson of her time. Though internationally noted, in Wisconsin she remains a stranger – so much so that a 2003 biography of Niedecker by John Lehman was titled America’s Greatest Unknown Poet. Lorine Niedecker is referred to as a poet of place because her imagery was so rooted to her life on Blackhawk Island. She celebrated the visions and sounds of Blackhawk Island, a stumpy, marshy peninsula along which the Rock River pours before emptying into Lake Koshkonong. As an objectivist poet, the simplicity of her words still intuitively touches our own experiences.
The daughter of a Wisconsin carp fisherman, Niedecker was greatly influenced by her life on Blackhawk Island. She was born in May 12, 1903, on a spit of land near Fort Atkinson. She lived much of her life beside a flooding river in a Spartan cottage without electricity or running water. An only child, her words weave the textures of her culture, family and neighbors.
The seminal point in her poetic development came in 1931 when she read Louis Zukofsky’s “The Objectivist” issue of Poetry magazine. By 1940 Niedecker viewed herself exclusively as a poet. Reclusive and shy, her primary motivation was to have her poetry shared and read and her reputation as a poet locked. Niedecker’s poetry reflects her vision of the world, water, fish, fowl and flood. She spent her childhood outdoors watching blackbirds, willows, maples, boats, fishermen and spring floods engulfing her little house. In a letter to a friend in 1967, Niedecker confirmed the pure inspiration she found in her surroundings on Blackhawk Island: “Early in life I looked back of our buildings to the lake and said, “I am what I am because of all this – I am what is around me – these woods have made me….”
She lived first in the log-sided house and later the house alongside the waterway from 1947-1970. Today, literary followers from around the world make their way to Blackhawk Island to view the small one-and-one-half-room cottage where Niedecker lived and wrote. The Lorine Niedecker homes are privately owned and not open to the public.
The Friends of Lorine Niedecker sponsors a monthly poetry reading in Fort Atkinson, which is rich with Niedecker-related sites, including W7309 Blackhawk Island Road, the location of Niedecker’s writer’s cottage and modest home. Both of which are private property, but access is allowed through an appointment with the Friends of Lorine Niedecker. Other notable markers include: Union Cemetery, County Road J north of Hwy 106, Cemetery Road, the burial place of Lorine Niedecker and her parents Henry and Daisy; 506 Riverside Drive, the home where Lorine stayed during the school year 1917-1918 with family friends; 1000 Riverside Drive , the home where the Niedeckers lived from 1910-1916; 209 Merchants Avenue, the Dwight Foster Library, home to Lorine’s personal library archive; 401 Whitewater Avenue, the Hoard Historical Museum, which operates a room with myriad artifacts related to the poet’s life.
“Our job is to promote and identify the work of this great poet,” said Ann Engelman, president of Friends of Lorine Niedecker. “Her fellow poets were so promotional of her, from William Carlos Williams to Allen Ginsberg. Her fellow poets really praised her.”
Few people were aware of Niedecker’s poetry, and she died virtually unknown outside of contemporary circles. Her poetic reputation has enhanced so widely that in 2011, Engelman can claim that no anthology of 20th Century American poetry is whole without some of Lorine Niedecker’s work.
“Her esteem as a major American poet grows each year,” said Engelman. “In Wisconsin, she is still very much unknown. Our goal as a society is to change that.”
Lorine Niedecker: A Life, UW Press
American Poetry Archival Project, University of Nebraska