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Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker (1903- 1970) was an American poet known for her condensed language, vivid imagery, and influence from Imagism, Objectivism, and Surrealism. She is most well known for her books of poetry, such as New Goose (1946), My Friend Tree (1962), and North Central (1968). Her most well-known poems include "Paean to Place" (1968) and "Poet's Work" (2002), which highlight her unique, concise language that uses objects to convey meaning. Recently, there has been a renewed interest in Niedecker's work, who has been described as "the world's greatest unknown poet."1

A Biography of Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker was born on May 12, 1903, near Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. The area where Niedecker grew up was relatively isolated, and Niedecker became familiar with the particulars of her surrounding landscape, which influenced her later work. In 1922, Niedecker attended Beloit College where she studied literature. She left in 1924 because her father's business was struggling and her mother's health was declining.

Niedecker married Frank Hartwig in 1928, just as Niedecker became her mother's primary caretaker. Niedecker also took a job at the Fort Atkinson Library but lost her job due to the Great Depression. It was also this time that Niedecker's marriage to Frank Hartwig began to fail. The two separated in 1930 and divorced in 1942.

The Great Depression (1929-1939) was a period of worldwide economic decline that began after the stock market crashed in 1929. During this period nearly 23% of the US population was unemployed, inflation increased, and personal income sharply declined. The Great Depression gradually ended with the advent of WWII as war efforts increased government spending.

While Niedecker struggled with severe poverty, she began to enter the world of poetry after reading the works of the Imagist, Surrealist, and Objectivist writers.

Imagism was a literary sub-genre of the Modernist movement in the early 20th century that used sharp language to recreate the physical reality of an object and create clear imagery of that object.

Surrealism is a literary style in which unreal, unrelated, and bizarre stories are juxtaposed with each other to create stories that border both reality and imagination.

Objectivism was a literary theory from the early 20th century that saw poems as objects that could be analyzed as mechanical features to highlight the object of human experience and the pursuit of happiness.

After reading some work in Poetry magazine, Niedecker sent her poetry to Louis Zukofsky, an editor and poet, who encouraged her to send her work to Poetry. A few of her poems were published and Niedecker briefly traveled to New York City in 1933 to meet Zukosky. There she published a few poems in the magazine Origin, known for its avant-garde style. They became close friends, and she returned to Fort Atkinson, where she continued writing.

Lorine Niedecker, Wisconsin lake, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Niedecker was influenced by the environment around her in Fort Atkinson.

Niedecker initially wrote in the style of the Surrealists but began to write more about the real sociopolitical issues surrounding her. In 1946, Niedecker published her first poetry book, New Goose. Her next book was not published until 1962 and is titled My Friend Tree. The 1960s was a productive period for Niedecker. In 1963, Niedecker married Albert Millen, which allowed her to reach financial stability, allowing her more freedom to focus on her writing. Niedecker also met an influential circle of poets in the 1960s, namely Cid Corman and Basil Bunting. In addition, the late 1950s and early 1960s also saw a resurgence in magazine and book publications. With financial stability, a literary circle, and a resurgence of publications, Niedecker published many books including, North Central (1968), My Friend Tree, T&G: The Collected Poems 1936-1966 (1969), and My Life By Water: Collected Poems 1936-1968 (1970).

In 1968, Niedecker and her husband moved to a cottage, today known as the Lorine Niedecker Cottage, on Blackhawk, Island. Two years later, Niedecker died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Niedecker had left behind many unpublished poems, some of which were burned upon her request by her husband. In 2002, Niedecker's Collected Works was published by the University of California Press.

Books by Lorine Niedecker

During her lifetime Niedecker published four poetry books: New Goose, My Friend Tree, North Central, and T&G: The Collected Poems 1936-1966 (1969). The poems contained within these books reveal Niedecker's Modern poetic style.

Lorine Niedecker, Poetry books, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Niedecker wrote 5 poetry books during her lifetime.

Many of Niedecker's poems are full of vivid imagery, condensed and sparse language, and a precise way of expressing the world around her. Her work feels delicate and hints at rhythms. Niedecker's books also contain many topics such as her observations of nature, history, personal and public figures' biographies, as well as her interest in the lived reality of many in her rural home of Fort Atkinson.

Poems by Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker wrote many poems in her lifetime. A few poems stand out as some of Niedecker's best work and are worth diving into a bit deeper. Her most well-known poems include "Paean to Place" and "Poet's Work". Niedecker's earliest poetry was influenced profoundly by the Objectivists and the Imagists, however, as Niedecker developed her style, the influences began to wane. Niedecker wished to portray the visual world and visual form through words that can convey the visual into the conscious mind.

"Paean to Place" (1968)

"Paean to Place" is a poem written by Niedecker as a constellation of units to describe a place made up of water. The poem includes short phrases and words that concisely portray the visual world Niedecker wishes us to see in a series of ecological materials. However, the poem is less about the physical place and more about the unconscious place humans can reach when life is filled to its absolute fullest.

And the place
was water
Fish
fowl
flood
Water lily mud
My life
in the leaves and on water
My mother and I
born
in swale and swamp and sworn
to water"(Lines 1-12)

In the first stanza, the reader is introduced to the object of Niedecker's observation: water.

Look at the shape of the poem. What might the shape of the poem itself reveal to the reader? A poem that takes a shape to symbolize what is happening in the poem is called a concrete poem.

Rather than elaborate in long sentences, Niedecker presents the reader with a concise list of objects related to water such as fish, waterbirds, flora, her mother, and herself. This is Objectivist. Niedecker also utilizes many literary techniques, such as alliteration, in lines 3-5 (Fish, Fowl, Flood) and in line 11 (swale and swamp and sworn).

Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of a successive group of words.

"Poet's Work" (2002)

"Poet's Work" by Niedecker is a 3 stanza poem that describes in many ways Niedecker's style as a poet. Each stanza contains three simple lines that despite a lack of rhyme, contain a rhythm built of mirrored syllables.

Grandfather
advised me:
Learn a trade
I learned
to sit at desk
and condense
No layoff
from this
condensery"(Lines 1-9)

The poem speaks to how Niedecker writes in a condensed style which is a learned trade.

What does the title tell you about this poem? Titles are a good place to start when you are having trouble analyzing a poem to find its meaning.

Niedecker not only spoke of condensed language in her poem but also provided an example which is the poem itself. This in effect makes the poem an object revealing Niedecker's Objectivist influence. Each word in this poem is no longer than one or two syllables and at times Niedecker omits words. An example is found in line 5 in which Niedecker writes "to sit at desk" rather than "to sit at a desk". This poem reflects Niedecker's mastery of language and her writing style.

Criticism of Lorine Niedecker

When Collected Works was published in 2002, a renewed interest was placed on Lorine Niedecker's work putting her work under academic criticism. In the early 21st century, critics began to label Niedecker as "the world's greatest unknown poet"1 due to the 42-year silence her poetry was met with after her death. However, new critics are viewing Niedecker's work as a genius of quiet reflections that look upon the small, rural area around her with a new perspective. Her poetry was able to portray the beauty of her surroundings while also conveying more profound meanings of the sociopolitical realities of the world around her. Recently, Niedecker's work has become the focus of feminist theory and critique.

Lorine Niedecker, Typewriter with feminism written on paper, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Niedecker's work has come under Feminist critique in the last two decades.

Niedecker worked in a time when society and literary publications were male-dominated, which met she had to work even harder to get her poetry published and noticed. In addition, Niedecker's ability to make observations on social injustice felt around her, meant her poetry was met with backlash.

Quotes by Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker's poetry is a journey through quiet reflections on the environment, society, and injustice. It is worth analyzing some quotes taken from Niedecker's poetry to get a better idea of her poetry.

Her hair is high.Big blind ears.

I’ve wasted my whole life in water.My man’s got nothing but leaky boats.My daughter, writer, sits and floats."

("[Well, Spring Overflows the Land]" (2002), Lines 9-13)

"[Well, Spring Overflows the Land]" by Lorine Niedecker is about Niedecker's mother who was deaf and abandoned by Niedecker's father, who was having an affair with a neighbor. The poem speaks to the injustices Niedecker's mother faced as both a mother and a wife. In a series of short words and sentences, Niedecker writes vivid observations of her mother's condition.

While analyzing this poem, take note of a few factors. Try to determine the tone, the literary techniques implemented, and the literary devices used. It might be helpful to approach the poem line by line and then put all of the ideas all together at the end.

Water becomes a symbol of drowning under the work of domestic life. The man in the poem, Niedecker's father, holds the mother down under the water never allowing her to reach the surface while the daughter, Niedecker, can only "float" because of her mother's support. The poem speaks of the pain Niedecker's mother faced and the unfair life she had to live in a tone that does not imply pity, but rather a defeated strength.

I married
in the world’s black night
for warmth
if not repose.
At the close—
someone."("[I married]" (2002), Lines 1-6)

"[I married]" (2002) is a poem by Niedecker that explores marriage through the lens of necessity. The speaker marries someone for comfort and stability both in life and finances. However, the last lines of the poem ("I married and lived unburied. I thought--" (lines 19-21)), to suggest the married life the speaker had envisioned did not become a reality. In the first six lines, the reader can observe Niedecker's distinctive condensed style of writing with short words and sentences. There is also vivid imagery such as "world's black night" (line 2) to emphasize the feeling of comfort marriage should have brought.

What tone does the vivid imagery in the poem convey? Try to free write a list of words you might associate with descriptors like "world's black night" (line 2), and try to see which one fits best. A tone of disappointment is a good place to start.

Fast ride
his horse collapsed
Now he saddled walked
Borrowed a farmer’s
unbroken colt
To Richmond"("Thomas Jefferson" (2002), Lines 5-10)

"Thomas Jefferson" is a poem by Lorine Niedecker that highlights Thomas Jefferson's life as a series of short stanzas that convey historical events. The poem reveals Niedecker's in-depth interest in historical biographies and her unique way of portraying people's lives. In the second stanza, she describes very concisely Jefferson's horse collapsing and how he had to borrow a farmer's young horse to ride to Richmond. The writing style is typical of Niedecker in that she uses short words, stanzas made up of only three lines, and a series of objects to convey meaning.

Niedecker also used descriptive language that is both concise and vivid at the same time with words such as "fast" (line 5), "saddled walked" (line 7), and "unbroken colt" (line 9).

What other literary devices and techniques can you discern in the text?

Lorine Niedecker - Key takeaways

  • Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) is an American poet known for her condensed language and utilization of vivid imagery that portrayed sociopolitical realities and the environment surrounding her rural home.
  • Lorine Niedecker was greatly influenced by the literary movements known as Imagism, Surrealism, and Objectivism, the latter of which appears in many of her poems.
  • Lorine Niedecker wrote four poetry books during her lifetime including New Goose (1946), My Friend Tree (1962), North Central (1968), and T&G: The Collected Poems 1936-1966 (1969).
  • Lorine Niedecker is known for her concise poems that use a constellation of objects to convey a visual image and understanding in the reader's mind.
  • Two of her most well-known poems include "Paean to Place" (1968) and "Poet's Work" (2002).

References

  1. Ellis, R. Virgil; Lehman, John. America's Greatest Unknown Poet: Lorine Niedecker Reminiscences, Photographs, Letters and Her Most Memorable Poems. 2003.

Frequently Asked Questions about Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker published 5 poetry books during her lifetime.

Lorine Niedecker died in 1970.

Lorine Niedecker (1903- 1970) was an American poet who was known for her condensed language and vivid imagery and took influence from Imagism, Objectivism, and Surrealism.

Lorine Niedecker had a son with Louis Zukofsky.

"Paean to Place" (1968) and "Poet's Work" (2002) are examples of poems written by Lorine Niedecker. 

Final Lorine Niedecker Quiz

Question

When was "Poet's Work" published? 

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"Poet's Work" was published in 2002. 

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Themes in "Poet's Work" include 

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Themes in "Poet's Work" include remaining true to oneself and prioritizing the ability to create. 

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What type of poetry is "Poet's Work" by Niedecker? 

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Part of the modernism movement, "Poet's Work" is an example of objectivism. 

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Niedecker uses all of the following literary devices in "Poet's Work" except

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onomatopoeia

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All of the following are characteristics of modernism found in "poet's Work" except

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elaborate details

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A summary of a "Poet's Work" explains that it is about

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a grandfather's advice to the speaker and how the speaker responds. 

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How is "Poet's Work" a lyric? 

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"Poet's Work" expresses the internal thoughts and emotions from the perspective of the narrator. 

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Lines 4-5 that state "I learned / to sit at desk" is an example of what literary device? 

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enjambment

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What is the structure of "Poet's Work"? 

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"Poet's Work" is in three tercets. 

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What is unique about the first stanza's form in "Poet's Work"? 

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The first stanza has the same number of syllables in each line, reflecting the traditional and closed views the grandfather represents. 

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Who was Lorine Niedecker?

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Answer

an American poet who was known for her condensed language and vivid imagery

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What words describe Fort Atkinson which inspired many of Niedecker's poems?

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Answer

Rural, isolated, full of natural landscapes

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What historical event pushed Niedecker into extreme poverty in the 1930s?

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Answer

The Great Depression

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What three literary movements and styles influenced Niedecker

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Answer

Imagism, Surrealism, and Objectivism

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What is Imagism?

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Answer

a literary sub-genre of the Modernist movement in the early 20th century that used sharp language to recreate the physical reality of an object and create clear imagery of that object

Show question

Question

What is Surrealism?

Show answer

Answer

a literary style in which unreal, unrelated, and bizarre stories are juxtaposed with each other to create stories that border both reality and imagination.

Show question

Question

What is Objectivism?

Show answer

Answer

a literary theory from the early 20th century that saw poems as objects that could be analyzed as mechanical features to highlight the object of human experience and the pursuit of happiness.

Show question

Question

What early 20th century poet encouraged Niedecker to publish her poetry?

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Answer

 Louis Zukofsky

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Which decade became Niedecker's most productive periods?

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1960s

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How many book collections did Lorine Niedecker publish in her lifetime?

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four

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What is the title of one of Niedecker's poetry books?

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New Goose (1946), My Friend Tree (1962), North Central (1968), T&G: The Collected Poems 1936-1966 (1969), and My Life By Water: Collected Poems 1936-1968 (1970)

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What are Niedecker's poems full of?

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Answer

vivid imagery, condensed and sparse language, and a precise way of expressing the world around her

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Question

Which topics does Niedecker cover in her poetry?

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Answer

observations of nature, history, biographies (both personal and public figures), as well as an interest in the lived reality of many in her rural home near Fort Atkinson

Show question

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How did Niedecker wish to portray the world in her poetry?

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Answer

 Niedecker wished to portray the visual world and visual form through words that can convey the visual into a conscious mind

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What is "Fish, Fowl, Flood" ("Paean to Place", Lines 3-5) an example of?

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Alliteration

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Who wrote the poem "His Carpets Flowered"?

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Lorine Niedecker

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What is the name of the artist the poem is about?

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Answer

William Morris

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True or False: Morris is famous for creating textile designs inspired by industrialization. 

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Answer

False

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What are the two main themes in the poem?

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Creation and labor

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True or False: The speaker of the poem is an artist who takes pleasure in dying his own wool to make carpets.

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True

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What does carpet-making symbolize?

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The coming together of creativity and labor

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Which poet does the poem allude to in section II?

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William Butler Yeats

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True or False: William Morris opposed industrialization and modernization.

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True

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To which country does Morris travel in the thrid section of the poem?

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Iceland

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True or False: There are no rhymes in the poem.

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False

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