STAGEnThe Poet asnCleaning Ladynby John ChodesnKristine Thatcher’s play Niedecker,nproduced earlier this year by thenWomen’s Project at the Apple CorpsnTheatre in New York, is about paradoxes.nIt is the story of the reclusivenpoet Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970).nShe has been dead almost twenty yearsnand is largely forgotten, but when shenwas alive Ezra Pound championed her.nBasil Bunting said that she was “thenbest living poetess. No one is so subtlenwith so few words,” and Peter Yatesncalled her the “most absolute poetessnin our language since Emily Dickinson.”nThatcher’s play focuses on the lastnthree years of Niedecker’s life, spentn(like most of her 67 years) in the smallnrural community of Ft. Atkins, Wisconsin.nFor those unaware of the reallifenstory of Lorine Niedecker, the playnraises more questions than it answers.nFor instance, why would this talentednwoman choose to live in such annanti-intellectual atmosphere, where hernhusband and neighbors undermine hernpoetry, which she feels is essential tonher life?nThe play does not do justice tonreality. It accentuates the small, thenremote, and the alienated in LorinenNiedecker’s life. It makes us wondernhow she ever became known, muchnless an emerging star in the constellationnof poets. Thatcher leads us tonbelieve that Niedecker only had a fewn54/CHRONICLESnpoems published in obscure periodicals,nthat she was completely out ofntouch with any literary scene, and thatnno one of any consequence knew shenexisted.nThis picture is false. Lorine Niedeckernalways had her finger on thenpulse of contemporary American poetry,neven from her quiet corner ofnWisconsin. As far back as the 1920’s,nwhen in high school, she was a voraciousnreader and writer of poetry, fromnthe classical to the most avant-garde. Inn1931 Niedecker read Louis Zukofsky’snObjectivist issue of Poetry magazinenand was mesmerized. Still the shyncountry girl, it took her six months tonraise the courage to write to Zukofsky,nbut she finally did. So began 30 yearsnof intense correspondence. Zukofskynbecame Niedecker’s mentor, andnthrough this relationship she developednher terse, clear style and expanded hernnetwork of literary colleagues. Thus,nwithout taking a single step from Ft.nAtkins, Niedecker leaped into thenmainstream of American poetry.nFrom this perspective, another majornparadox raised by Niedecker’s lifenseems less puzzling. Why did thisncreative woman work as a cleaning ladynin a local hospital, mopping floors andnscrubbing toilets? Surely this was notnnecessary, as the scenes betweennNiedecker and her young niece Marynmake clear. Mary is a college freshmannwho has a strong desire to become anwriter like her aunt. Lorine’ Niedeckernshows the girl her wonderful commandnof language, of editing, of compressingnMary’s scattered thoughts into concisenone-line gems. We watch the masternbring to the novice an awareness ofnwhat the English language can convey.nWatching this, I found myself listing allnthe jobs that Niedecker could havenperformed rather than swabbing toilets:nteacher, poetry lecturer, editor, tutor,nproofreader. But it never seems to havenentered her mind that her talents couldnbe used to earn a living. As Thatchernpresents her, there is no apparent conflictnor sense of distaste over what shendoes at the hospital.nThe fact is, in rural Wisconsin, goodnjobs were scarce. For Niedecker, swabbingnbowls and floors was the highestpayingnemployment around. And itnoffered a pension: that was important.nShe was divorced and alone. LorinenNiedecker’s inner prestige was notnnnbound up in what Ft. Atkins peoplenthought about her, or what they considerednproper work. Only her bodynwas there; her mind and soul were farnaway.nThe play fluctuates between thenview that Niedecker was perfectiy contentnamong the prosaic folk of Ft.nAtkins and the perspective that she wasnmiserable and had once tried to escapento the literary world of New York. ButnLorine Niedecker in 1967. Photo reproducednwith the permission of ThenPoetry/Rare Books Collection, UniversitynLibraries, State University ofnNew York at Buffalo.nonce in New York, according tonThatcher, she had been terrified by thenmillions of egomaniacs fighting for thenlimelight. Mousy Lorine was traumatizednby their flashy clothes and aggressivenwalk, and so she scurried backnhome.nBut Niedecker needed to live in anquiet environment like Ft. Atkins. Shenneeded the silence, while absorbing innbits the intense energy of the outsidenpoetry scene.nWhen Zukofsky became too ill tonwrite, Niedecker directed her correspondencentoward Cid Gorman. Henwas the editor of Origin, an influentialnpoetry magazine. In her last ten yearsnthey wrote at least one letter a week toneach other. Gorman traveled the worldnon lecture tours. He described thenliterary climate, philosophies, styles,nand viewpoints of the poets he met inneach location. Niedecker also becameninvolved in Gorman’s financial andneditorial problems as he desperatelyntried to keep Origin afloat. Theynbadgered and harassed each othernthrough the mails as Gorman publishedna steady stream of Niedecker’sn