Lorine Niedecker wrote small poems packed with the power of nature, poems that appear made to sit nicely on the shelf but harbor a life's worth of emotions. The work is usually filed under "Objectivism," an early 20th-century style that grew out of Imagism and focused tightly on imagery. Niedecker's poems can seem fragmentary, like reading Sappho, as if portions are lost from the original.
Niedecker herself has seemed as elusive as her poetry. Her life, full of substance and sadness born from unlikely sources, is arguably more accessible than her poetry.
In her new biography, Lorine Niedecker: A Poet's Life (University of Wisconsin Press), Margo Peters teases a cogent narrative from the Niedecker record to create the most solid portrait so far of the southern Wisconsin poet.
Niedecker was born in Fort Atkinson in 1903 and lived most of her life there on Blackhawk Island, a flood-prone spit of land jutting into Lake Koshkonong. Peters has the least to work with in the early years, but a real child rather than a myth emerges - a sometimes awkward but also fun-loving schoolgirl.
Peters dates Niedecker's fascination with poetry from the summer she turned 18. By page 29 she has married her first husband. By page 31 the marriage has failed. By page 38 she's discovered the Objectivists, conducted a two-year correspondence with the poet Louis Zukofsky in New York, and bought a bus ticket to go live with him there.
The rest of the biography follows how Niedecker - abandoned emotionally by Zukofsky, pressured into having an abortion, yet still in love with him - managed to live out the rest of her life, writing poetry, struggling to get by financially, forging new relationships. It is a book about the compromises Niedecker made, the delusions she harbored, her perseverance.
The bio probably provides the most complete picture available of Niedecker's late-life marriage to house painter Al Millen. Peters mostly skirts heavy-handed analysis of the unlikely relationship, though the facts speak for themselves. It's hard not to think that Niedecker's relationship with Millen mirrored that with her father; both were heavy drinkers. Peters leaves it complex, which, with Niedecker, is probably inescapable and for the best.
Peters balances evidence from letters, personal reminiscences and the poetry. She doesn't overstep into re-creating scenes whole cloth yet provides a compelling story. Rather than using the poems to illuminate the life, Peters lets the life illuminate the poems.