Celebrating Niedecker's Centennial

Robyn Schiff

In the late 1960s, Lorine Niedecker wrote "Paean to Place," a meditative poem set in southern Wisconsin, where she lived for much of her life. It begins: "Fish / fowl / flood / Water lily mud / My life / in the leaves and on the water."

This year marks the centennial of Niedecker's birth. To celebrate, libraries and bookstores in her home state are planning a series of events that will draw poets, scholars, and readers to the places that inspired and influenced her poetry.

Born in 1903 on Blackhawk Island, Niedecker spent her childhood among the "twittering and squawking noises from the marsh," as she later recalled. She worked most of her life as a library assistant, a proofreader, and finally a washerwoman at a hospital. Deeply moved by the "Objectivist" issue of Poetry magazine in 1931, she began a lifelong correspondence with its editor, Louis Zukofsky, and it is through him and sporadic though much-admired publications that she accessed the literary world, earning the respect of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, among others. During her life she published only two books of poetry, New Goose (J.A. Decker, 1946) and My Friend Tree (Wild Hawthorne Press, 1961), and two volumes of collected work, T & G: Collected Poems (The Jargon Society, 1969) and My Life by Water (Fulcrum Press, 1970). In 2002 the University of California Press published Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy.

May 12, 2003, would have been Niedecker's 100th birthday; she died of a stroke in 1970 at the age of 67. The Dwight Foster Public Library in her hometown of Fort Atkinson is hosting a birthday celebration that, in addition to decorations and a birthday cake (adorned with a line of her poetry), will feature an evening of readings. The library is a fitting place for the celebration: Niedecker worked there as an assistant from May 1928 through August 1930. Also on May 12, the nearby Hoard Historical Museum will unveil an exhibit fabricated to resemble a room in Niedecker's home, with a mural painted by local artists depicting the view from the window beyond her writing desk—blue herons in the marsh of Lake Koshkonong.

The recognition of Niedecker's birthday will continue into her centennial year. "Celebrating Lorine Niedecker," a public symposium convening in Milwaukee from October 9 to October 11, and hosted by the Milwaukee Public Library, the Dwight Foster Public Library, and Woodland Pattern Book Center, a nonprofit cultural center, will address her work and its influence on contemporary poetry.

Dozens of participants will speak on aspects of Niedecker's poetry, including Penberthy, Michael Ondaatje, Elaine Equi, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Marjorie Perloff. The event offers two days of panel discussions and talks, readings of her poetry and dramatic pieces, as well as gallery exhibitions of Niedecker family photographs, images of the Wisconsin locales portrayed throughout her oeuvre, and the handmade books Niedecker prepared as gifts for her family. On the final day of the event, attendees will travel to Fort Atkinson and Blackhawk Island to see for themselves the places that informed the poet's work.

For more information on "Celebrating Lorine Niedecker," visit the Woodland Pattern Book Center Web site at www.woodlandpattern.org. Or read an interview with Jenny Penberthy on editing Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works at www.pw.org/mag/dq_niedecker.htm.

Robyn Schiff's first collection of poems is Worth (University of Iowa, 2002).