Kristine Thatcher’s play Niedecker, produced earlier this year by the Women’s Project at the Apple Corps Theatre in New York, is about paradoxes. It is the story of the reclusive poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970). She has been dead almost twenty years and is largely forgotten, but when she was alive Ezra Pound championed her. Basil Bunting said that she was “the best living poetess. No one is so subtle with so few words,” and Peter Yates called her the “most absolute poetess in our language since Emily Dickinson.”

Thatcher’s play focuses on the last three years of Niedecker’s life, spent (like most of her 67 years) in the small rural community of Ft. Atkins, Wisconsin. For those unaware of the reallife story of Lorine Niedecker, the play raises more questions than it answers. For instance, why would this talented woman choose to live in such an anti-intellectual atmosphere, where her husband and neighbors undermine her poetry, which she feels is essential to her life?

The play does not do justice to reality. It accentuates the small, the remote, and the alienated in Lorine Niedecker’s life. It makes us wonder how she ever became known, much less an emerging star in the constellation of poets. Thatcher leads us to believe that Niedecker only had a few poems published in obscure periodicals, that she was completely out of touch with any literary scene, and that no one of any consequence knew she existed.

This picture is false. Lorine Niedecker always had her finger on the pulse of contemporary American poetry, even from her quiet corner of Wisconsin. As far back as the 1920’s, when in high school, she was a voracious reader and writer of poetry, from the classical to the most avant-garde. In 1931 Niedecker read Louis Zukofsky’s Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine and was mesmerized. Still the shy country girl, it took her six months to raise the courage to write to Zukofsky, but she finally did. So began 30 years of intense correspondence. Zukofsky became Niedecker’s mentor, and through this relationship she developed her terse, clear style and expanded her network of literary colleagues. Thus, without taking a single step from Ft. Atkins, Niedecker leaped into the mainstream of American poetry.

From this perspective, another major paradox raised by Niedecker’s life seems less puzzling. Why did this creative woman work as a cleaning lady in a local hospital, mopping floors and scrubbing toilets? Surely this was not necessary, as the scenes between Niedecker and her young niece Mary make clear. Mary is a college freshman who has a strong desire to become a writer like her aunt. Lorine Niedecker shows the girl her wonderful command of language, of editing, of compressing Mary’s scattered thoughts into concise one-line gems. We watch the master bring to the novice an awareness of what the English language can convey. Watching this, I found myself listing all the jobs that Niedecker could have performed rather than swabbing toilets: teacher, poetry lecturer, editor, tutor, proofreader. But it never seems to have entered her mind that her talents could be used to earn a living. As Thatcher presents her, there is no apparent conflict or sense of distaste over what she does at the hospital.

The fact is, in rural Wisconsin, good jobs were scarce. For Niedecker, swabbing bowls and floors was the highest-paying employment around. And it offered a pension: that was important. She was divorced and alone. Lorine Niedecker’s inner prestige was not bound up in what Ft. Atkins people thought about her, or what they considered proper work. Only her body was there; her mind and soul were far away.

The play fluctuates between the view that Niedecker was perfectly content among the prosaic folk of Ft. Atkins and the perspective that she was miserable and had once tried to escape to the literary world of New York. But once in New York, according to Thatcher, she had been terrified by the millions of egomaniacs fighting for the limelight. Mousy Lorine was traumatized by their flashy clothes and aggressive walk, and so she scurried back home.

But Niedecker needed to live in a quiet environment like Ft. Atkins. She needed the silence, while absorbing in bits the intense energy of the outside poetry scene.

When Zukofsky became too ill to write, Niedecker directed her correspondence toward Cid Gorman. He was the editor of Origin, an influential poetry magazine. In her last ten years they wrote at least one letter a week to each other. Gorman traveled the world on lecture tours. He described the literary climate, philosophies, styles, and viewpoints of the poets he met in each location. Niedecker also became involved in Gorman’s financial and editorial problems as he desperately tried to keep Origin afloat. They badgered and harassed each other through the mails as Gorman published a steady stream of Niedecker’s poems. She was a perfectionist, wanting the punctuation and layout just right.

The great advantage of Ft. Atkins was that when Niedecker put those overly-stimulating letters down, the solitude fired the inner enthusiasm necessary for her to create. Yes, Niedecker did go to New York—several times, beginning in the 1930’s, to meet Zukofsky and his circle of Objectivists: George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, even William Carlos Williams. But she had no intention of staying. She needed the spark, the encouragement of meeting her mentor. That was all. Then she returned home, “psyched-up” and more capable of following her own road.

This process was reversed in the 1960’s, when she became more widely known. It was then that Gorman and Basil Bunting made the trek to Wisconsin to get their own poetic batteries charged through her.

Late in life Niedecker married for the second time, to a former hoboturned-house painter named Al Millen. It is not entirely clear from Niedecker’s correspondence how much Millen knew about, cared for, or understood her poetry. There is some indication he never read any of it. In fact, as Thatcher portrays him, Millen seems to believe he is doing his wife a great favor by pushing her away from poetry. To his way of thinking, poetry was her way of dealing with loneliness. He takes Lorine to dull parties, to bowling tournaments, to dinner in faroff Milwaukee—all to get her away from writing. He believes this will be therapeutic for her.

And yet one simple act forced me to rethink Milieu’s role as boorish anti-intellectual. As he kicks Mary out of the house, the niece screams, “Have you ever read one of your wife’s poems?” He thinks about that for a moment and replies, “No. They’re personal.” Maybe Millen isn’t really such a bumpkin. Maybe he is actually giving Lorine the emotional space and privacy she needs to continue to create.

In a climactic scene in the play, Mary throws a fistful of poems at Millen, saying that he should read them because “these are about you!” Millen struggles with his conscience. The poems are scattered across the floor in front of him. He’s drunk. His resistance is down. He reads one.

I married

in the world’s black night

for warmth

        if not repose

        at the close—


I hid with him

from the long-range guns.

        We lay leg

        in the cupboard, head

in closet.

A slit of light

at no bird dawn—


        I thought

he drank

too much.

I say

        I married

        and lived unburied

I thought—

Why can’t I be happy

in my sorrow

My drinking man


My quiet


The play ends with Lorine Niedecker’s sudden death. At the graveside Millen reads another poem as the lights fade:

I was the solitary plover

a pencil

        for a wing-bone

From the secret notes

I must tilt

upon the pressure

execute and adjust

        In us sea-air rhythm

“We live by the urgent wave

of the verse”

You with sea-water running

in your veins sit down in water

        Expect the long-stemmed


        speedwell to renew


O my floating life

Do not save love

        for things

            Throw things

to the flood


by the flood

        Leave the new


        all one in the end—