Mourning Doves – Brief Poems by Lorine Niedecker

lorine-niedeckerLorine Niedecker (1903-1970) was an American poet often identified with the Objectivists.

She was born in a remote part of Wisconsin on  the Black Hawk Island of the turbulent Rock River near Fort Atkinson,  where she lived most of her life in rural isolation. Her father was a commercial fisherman who rented hunting and fishing cabins. She grew up surrounded by the sights and sounds of the river until she moved to Fort Atkinson to attend school. The environment of birds, trees, water and marsh would inform her later poetry. On graduating from high school in 1922, she went to Beloit College to study literature but left after two years because her father was no longer able to pay her tuition and because her mother, who was deeply depressed by her husband’s flagrant affair with a neighbour,  had become totally deaf  and needed her daughter to return home to help take care of her. A brief marriage to a local man, Frank Hartwig, ended in divorce. She worked, first at the public library, then at a radio station, and from 1944 to 1950 as a proofreader for Hoard’s Dairyman, a job made difficult by her extremely poor eyesight. In 1951 her mother died, both deaf and blind; her father died three years later, leaving her with two houses that had to be foreclosed and very little money. From 1957 to 1962 she was employed by the Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital as a cleaning woman, sterilizing the dishes and utensils in the kitchen and scrubbing the cafeteria floors. Every day she walked the five miles or so to the hospital and back again to her one-and-a-half room cabin without plumbing on the riverbank. Her isolation from other writers and the austere beauty of her natural surroundings had a notable impact on her work. She chose to write in seclusion, and many of her closest relatives and neighbours were unaware that she was a poet.

In 1931 she read the Objectivist issue of Poetry. She sent her poems to Louis Zukofsky, who had edited the issue. This was the beginning of what proved to be an important relationship for her development as a poet. Zukofsky suggested sending them to Poetry, where they were accepted for publication. Niedecker then found herself in direct contact with the American poetic avant-garde. Near the end of 1933, Niedecker visited Zukofsky in New York City for the first time and became pregnant with his child. He insisted that she have an abortion, which she did, although they remained friends and continued to carry on a mutually beneficial correspondence following Niedecker’s return to Fort Atkinson.

In 1963 at the age of fifty-nine, she married Albert Millen, an industrial painter at Ladish Drop Forge on Milwaukee’s south side, a man who had no idea she wrote poetry and who spent a good deal of time at the local tavern. But he also took her on trips to South Dakota and around Lake Superior and seems to have been the companion she needed at this stage of her life.When Millen retired in 1968, the couple moved back to Blackhawk Island, taking up residence in a small cottage Lorine had built on property she inherited from her father.  She was looking forward to a period of less housework and more time to write when in 1970 she had a stroke and died.





Concerned with the distillation of images and thoughts into concise expression, Niedecker described her work as a “condensery,” and several critics have compared her poetry to the delicate yet concrete verse of Chinese and Japanese writers.

Her early work was influenced by Imagist and Objectivist poets, including Ezra Pound and, especially,  Louis Zukofsky.  The influence of the Objectivist and Imagist schools gradually became less pronounced in her poems as she developed her own idiosyncratic voice and style. Niedecker wrote most often about the world around her on Blackhawk Island—her neighbors and family, history, and the local flora and fauna.

In 1967, she wrote “Much taken up with how to define a way of writing poetry which is not Imagist nor Objectivist fundamentally nor Surrealism alone. ..ZI loosely call it ‘reflections’… reflective. .. The basis is direct and clear – what has been seen or heard – but something gets in, overlays all that to make a state of consciousness… The visual form is there in the background and the words convey what the visual form gives off after it’s felt in the mind… And (there is) awareness of everything influencing everything…”

Although Niedecker’s long correspondence with Louis Zukofsky, who frequently submitted her poems to the journal, Origin, and contact with such respected writers as Cid Corman and Basil Bunting, brought her some critical notice, her work was generally overlooked until late in her life. When she died in 1970, the British poet and critic Basil Bunting eulogized her warmly. “In England,” he wrote, “she was, in the estimation of many, the most interesting woman poet America has yet produced.”




Brief Poems by Lorine Niedecker

For sun and moon and radio
farmers pay dearly;
their natural resource: turn
the world off early.


Remember my little granite pail?
The handle of it was blue.
Think what’s got away in my life—
Was enough to carry me thru.


There’s a better shine
on the pendulum
than is on my hair
and many times
      .. ..
I’ve seen it there.


where her snow-grave is
the You
        ah you
of mourning doves


clean-smelling house
sweet cedar pink
       flesh tint
I love you


My friend tree
I sawed you down
but I must attend
an older friend
the sun


You see here
the influence
of inference

Moon on rippled

‘Except as
and unless’


I hear the weather
      through the house
or is it breathing



A robin stood by my porch
     and side-eyed
          raised up
               a worm



Along the river
     wild sunflowers
over my head
     the dead
who gave me life
     give me this
our relative the air
our rich friend


Poet’s work

      advised me:
            Learn a trade

I learned
      to sit at desk
            and condense

No layoff
      from this


Now in one year
      a book published
            and plumbing—
took a lifetime
      to weep
            a deep


Popcorn-can cover
screwed to the wall
over a hole
      so the cold
can’t mouse in


We are what the seas
have made us

longingly immense

the very veery
on the fence


          on their heads

Thoughts on things
     fold unfold
          above the river beds



We must pull
the curtains—
we haven’t any


A monster owl

A monster owl
out on the fence
flew away. What
is it the sign
of? The sign of
an owl.






The Lorine Niedecker website.

The Poetry Foundation Page on Lorine Niedecker.

The Poets Org site on Lorine Niedecker.

The Electronic Poetry Center Site on Lorine Niedecker.

The Modern American Poetry site on Lorine Niedecker.




One thought on “Mourning Doves – Brief Poems by Lorine Niedecker

  1. Pingback: Fortune Cookies – Brief Poems by Bob Arnold | Brief Poems

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