Margot Peters offers a readable and engaging account of Lorine Niedecker's life and writing in Lorine Niedecker: A Poet's Life. She draws on material that scholars of Niedecker will already know, such as the accounts published in Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet and her published letters to Cid Corman and Louis Zukofsky, but she also builds on material from Glenna Breslin's unfinished biography of the poet, John Lehman's America's Greatest Unknown Poet (2003), relevant archives, and numerous interviews with people who knew Niedecker. (Niedecker's letters are so lively and enlightening that one wishes them to be brought back into print, perhaps in a selected edition including letters not just to Corman and Zukofsky but to others as well, such as Gail Roub, Jonathan Williams, and Clayton Eshleman). While Peters is obviously dedicated to her subject and willing to side with Niedecker against Zukofsky and others who may not have treated the poet well, she offers a clear and balanced report of Niedecker's career and its context in twentieth-century American poetry.
Fans of Niedecker's poetry and letters will already be familiar with her distinctive vernacular, lively wit, and admirable pluck, but Peters does an especially nice job of keeping these qualities front and center throughout her portrait of the poet. One finds oneself more inspired by Niedecker's example as a writer the more one learns about the often difficult circumstances of her life and her characteristic ways of responding to them, both in her daily living and in her enthralling letters and poems. Peters tells a story of transition from Niedecker's relative obscurity throughout her lifetime to her status as a fairly well-known poet today (at least among writers and academics). She situates Niedecker under the banner of "Objectivism," but she also shows the way in which this label is a manufactured abstraction with attendant limitations. As Peters points out, Zukofsky's use of the term in the 1931 issue of Poetry he edited was provisional and pragmatic, but the term is appropriate to Niedecker's capacity for vividly rendering the objective realities of the world around her (5). At the same time, Niedecker is decidedly her own woman in the portrait Peters has produced. (The author identifies Niedecker's interest in the subconscious and in surrealism, for example, an interest Zukofsky did not share, though William Carlos Williams did).
Peters sheds some light on two major conflicts in Niedecker's life. The first is her father's affair with Gertrude Runke and the second is Niedecker's abortion after [End Page 214] her own sexual relationship with Louis Zukofsky. Like others who have described Niedecker's life, Peters portrays Niedecker as identifying strongly with both her father and Zukofsky throughout her life. While Peters is matter of fact about these conflicts and provides some important details relating to them, she refrains for the most part from speculating about any damaging emotional effects of both her father's longstanding affair and Zukofsky's insistence on the abortion. In the case of the father's affair, the negative effects Peters does report are more financial than emotional, since Gertrude Runke and her family are characterized in the book as money-grubbing and land-hungry. Peters makes no bones about the claim that Zukofsky insisted on the abortion which Niedecker did not want, and she offers proof to contradict claims that Niedecker was never pregnant or had an abortion by citing the testimony of a friend who knew about it.
The abortion seems connected to Niedecker's strong interest in the son Zukofsky fathered with his wife Celia, an interest which led to numerous letters and a poem sequence called For Paul. Peters reports this interest but tends to focus on Zukofsky's growing resistance to the poetic sequence, without commenting on it. The fact that Niedecker maintained such a long correspondence with Zukofsky and saw his family several times well after their own affair had ended attests to the durability of their friendship and to the power of...