Lorine Niedecker: Essential American Poets

March 14, 2012


This is The Poetry Foundation’s Essential American Poets Podcast. Essential American Poets is an online audio poetry collection. The poets in the collection were selected in 2006 by Donald Hall when he was poet laureate. Recordings of the poets he selected are available online at and

In this edition of the podcast, we’ll hear poems by Lorine Niedecker. Lorine Niedecker was born in 1903 in Wisconsin. Her father was a carp fishermen, and Niedecker spent most of her childhood along Wisconsin’s rock river in the marshes of Blackhawk Island. At 18, Niedecker went away to Beloit college, but after two years, her mother began to go blind and she returned home to take care of her. Niedecker got married briefly to a local boy, but the marriage didn’t last. For most of her adult life, Niedecker lived in a cabin on the riverbank and held a series of low wage jobs. During the depression, she worked as al library assistant and wrote for the Federal Writers Project. During the war years, she worked as a stenographer and proof reader. In the 50s, Niedecker got a job at a local hospital, sterilizing utensils and scrubbing cafeteria floors. She worked there until she turned 60. Only then, when she married for the second time was she able to quite her job and devote her remaining years to writing.

Though she lived far from literary circles, Lorine Niedecker had a  life long correspondence with the poet Louis Zukofsky, one of the founding members of the objectivists. Niedecker’s sparse, careful work reflects the influence of the group who focus on objects and the material of language rather than personal experiences. But Niedecker’s poetry is very much her own. It’s concerned with colloquial speech, dreams and with folk traditions like mother goose rhymes. Her later work includes evocative descriptions of her life on Blackhawk Island, as well as history poems on topics ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Lake Superior. Niedecker didn’t publish much poetry during her lifetime. Her first book, New Goose, was privately printed in 1946, and her second, My Friend Tree, came out nearly 20 years later in Scotland. Though she began publishing more in the 1960s, Niedecker’s work was never widely known, and few friends and family even knew she wrote poetry. In 1970 at the age of 67, Lorine Niedecker has a stroke and died. After her death, the British poet Basil Bunting wrote the Wisconsin State Journal Newspaper, “Lorine Niedecker was, in the estimation of many, the most interesting woman poet America has yet produced. She was only beginning to be appreciated when she died, but I have no doubt that in ten years time, Wisconsin will know she was it’s most considerable literary figure”. Since that time, Niedecker has slowly come to secure a central place in 20th century American poetry, and in 2002 Lorine Niedecker’s collected works were published. They were heralded as a modernist classic. The following poems are from a home recording made in 1970.



Lorine Niedecker: His Carpets Flowered


This is the William Morris poem.



—how we’re carpet-making

by the river

a long dream to unroll

and somehow time to pole

a boat


I designed a carpet today—

dogtooth violets

and spoke to a full hall

now that the gall

of our society’s


corruption stains throughout

Dear Janey I am tossed

by many things

If the change would bring

better art


but if it would not?

O to be home to sail the flood

I’m possessed

and do possess



of labor, true—

to get done

the work of the hand…

I’d be a rich man

had I yielded


on a few points of principle

Item sabots


I work in the dye-house



Good sport dyeing

tapestry wool

I like the indigo vats

I’m drawing patterns so fast

Last night


in sleep I drew a sausage—

somehow I had to eat it first

Colorful shores—mouse ear...

horse-mint... The Strawberry Thief

our new chintz




Yeats saw the betterment of the workers

by religion—slow in any case

as the drying of the moon

He was not understood—

I rang the bell


for him to sit down

Yeats left the lecture circuit

yet he could say: no one

so well loved

as Morris




Entered new waters

Studied Icelandic

At home last minute signs

to post:



grows here—Please do not mow

We saw it—Iceland—the end

of the world rising out of the sea—

cliffs, caves like 13th century



of hell-mouths

Rain squalls through moonlight

Cold wet

is so damned wet



black sand

Stone buntings’


Sea-pink and campion a Persian



Thomas Jefferson



My wife is ill!

And I sit


for a quorum




Fast ride

his horse collapsed

Now he saddled walked


Borrowed a farmer’s

unbroken colt

To Richmond


Richmond How stop—

Arnold’s redcoats





Elk Hill destroyed—


carried off 30 slaves



Were it to give them freedom

he’d have done right




Latin and Greek

my tools

to understand



I rode horse

away from a monarch

to an enchanting





                           The South of France


Roman temple

“simple and sublime”


Maria Cosway


on his mind



white column

and arch




To daughter Patsy: Read—

read Livy


No person full of work

was ever hysterical


Know music, history



(I calculate 14 to 1

in marriage

she will draw

a blockhead)


Science also





Agreed with Adams:

send spermaceti oil to Portugal

for their church candles


(light enough to banish mysteries?:

three are one and one is three

and yet the one not three

and the three not one)


and send salt fish

U.S. salt fish preferred

above all other




Jefferson of Patrick Henry

backwoods fiddler statesman:


“He spoke as Homer wrote”

Henry eyed our minister at Paris—


the Bill of Rights hassle—

“he remembers . . .


in splendor and dissipation

he thinks yet of bills of rights”




True, French frills and lace

for Jefferson, sword and belt


but follow the Court to Fontainebleau

he could not—


house rent would have left him

nothing to eat



. . .



He bowed to everyone he met

and talked with arms folded


He could be trimmed

by a two-month migraine


and yet

                stand up




Dear Polly:

I said No—no frost


in Virginia—the strawberries

were safe


I’d have heard—I’m in that kind

of correspondence


with a young daughter—

if they were not


Now I must retract

I shrink from it




Political honors

            “splendid torments”

“If one could establish

            an absolute power

of silence over oneself”


When I set out for Monticello

       (my grandchildren

                will they know me?)


How are my young

                     chestnut trees—




Hamilton and the bankers

would make my country Carthage


I am abandoning the rich—

their dinner parties—


I shall eat my simlins

with the class of science


or not at all

Next year the last of labors


among conflicting parties

Then my family


we shall sow our cabbages





Delicious flower

of the acacia


or rather


Mimosa Nilotica

from Mr. Lomax




Polly Jefferson, 8, had crossed

to father and sister in Paris


by way of London—Abigail

embraced her—Adams said


“in all my life I never saw

more charming child”


Death of Polly, 25,





My harpsichord

my alabaster vase

and bridle bit

bound for Alexandria



The good sea weather

of retirement

The drift and suck

and die-down of life

but there is land




These were my passions:

Monticello and the villa-temples

I passed on to carpenters

bricklayers what I knew   


and to an Italian sculptor

how to turn a volute

on a pillar


You may approach the campus rotunda

from lower to upper terrace

Cicero had levels   




John Adams’ eyes


Tom Jefferson’s rheumatism





Ah soon must Monticello be lost

                   to debts

   and Jefferson himself

                                     to death




Mind leaving, let body leave

Let dome live, spherical dome

and colonnade


Martha (Patsy) stay

“The Committee of Safety

must be warned”


Stay youth—Anne and Ellen

all my books, the bantams

and the seeds of the senega root


Another Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Inside


Winter when no flower

The Congress away from home

Love is the great good use

one person makes of another

(Daughter Polly of the strawberry


Frogs sing--then of a sudden

all their lights go out

The country moves toward violets

              and aconites





His holy


                        mulled over



not all “delirium

            of delight”

                        as were the forests

   of Brazil


“Species are not

            (it is like confessing

                        a murder)



He was often becalmed

            in this Port Desire by illness

                        or rested from species

   at billiard table


As to Man

            “I believe Man…

                        in the same predicament

   with other animals”




Cordilleras to climb—Andean

            peaks “tossed about

                        like the crust

   of a broken pie”


Icy wind

            Higher, harder

                        Chileans advised eat onions

   for shortness of breath


Heavy on him:

            Andes miners carried up

                        great loads—not allowed

   to stop for breath


Fossil bones near Santa Fé



   Tended by an old woman


“Dear Susan…

            I am ravenous

                        for the sound

   of the pianoforte”




FitzRoy blinked—

            sea-shells on mountain tops!

                        The laws of change

   rode the seas


without the good captain

            who could not concede

                        land could rise from the sea

   until—before his eyes



            Talcahuana Bay drained out—

                        all-water wall

   up from the ocean


—six  seconds—

            demolished the town

                        The will of God?

   Let us pray


And now the Galápagos Islands—

            hideous black lava

                        The shore so hot

   it burned their feet


through their boots

            Reptile life

                        Melville here later

   said the chief sound was a hiss


A thousand turtle monsters

            drive together to the water

                        Blood-bright crabs hunt ticks

   on lizards’ backs


Flightless cormorants

            Cold-sea creatures—

                        penguins, seals

   here in tropical waters


Hell for FitzRoy

            but for Darwin Paradise Puzzle

                        with the jig-saw gists

   beginning to fit




Years… balancing


                        I am ill, he said

   and books are slow work


Studied pigeons

            barnacles, earthworms

                        Extracted seeds

   from bird dung


Brought home Drosera—

            saw insects trapped

                        by its tentacles—the fact

   that a plant should secrete


an acid acutely akin

            to the digestive fluid

                        of an animal! Years

   till he published


He wrote Lyell: Don’t forget

            to send me the carcass

                        of your half-bred African cat

   should it die




I remember, he said

            those tropical nights at sea—

                        we sat and talked

   on the booms


Tierra del Fuego’s

            shining glaciers translucent

                        blue clear down

   (almost) to the indigo sea


(By the way Carlyle

            thought it most ridiculous

                        that anyone should care

   whether a glacier


moved a little quicker

            or a little slower

                        or moved at all)



sailed out

            of Good Success Bay

                        to carcass-



the universe

            not built by brute force

                        but designed by laws

   The details left


to the working of chance

            “Let each man hope

                        and believe

   what he can”


That was Lorine Niedecker, recorded in 1970 and used by permission of the University of California. Audio courtesy of PennSound, an ongoing project of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. PennSound is committed to producing new audio recordings and preserving existing audio archives. You’ve been listening to the Essential American Poets Podcast, produced by The Poetry Foundation in collaboration with To learn more about Lorine Niedecker and other essential American poets, and to hear more poetry, go to

Recordings of poet Lorine Niedecker with an introduction to her life and work. Recorded at home in 1970. Recording courtesy of PennSound.

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