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State proclaims May 12 Niedecker Day

May 11, 2017 GMT

MADISON — A Fort Atkinson muse who has been called “one of America’s best unknown poets” was recognized by the Wisconsin Legislature Wednesday.

Referred by literary experts as the “Emily Dickinson of the 20th century,” Lorine Niedecker spent much of her life on Blackhawk Island, west of Fort Atkinson. She was a reflective woman whose poetry was inspired by the nature around her.

The state Legislature approved a resolution Wednesday proclaiming May 12, 2017 — the late poet’s birthday — as Lorine Niedecker Day across the state.

While known internationally, Niedecker only recently has been more widely recognized within her home state and community. A former Hoard’s Dairyman proofreader and Fort Memorial Hospital cleaning lady, she wrote extensively about the area’s flora and fauna, her neighbors, family and travel.

She worked closely with her early mentor, Louis Zukofsky, founder of the Objectivist Movement, and was concerned with capturing the simple rhythms of American speech and the complexity implicit in life’s simplicity.

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Only four books of her poetry were published during her lifetime.

Her father, Henry, had died in 1954 and left her rental properties that provided for her financially. Niedecker married Albert Millen in 1963 and from that point to the time of her death, her work was only writing her poetry.

Born on May 12, 1903, Niedecker died in 1970 at age 67.

State Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago, said he was honored to co-sponsor the proclamation.

“I think it’s a great idea because she is influential, not only to the region, but also to the state and nationally,” Horlacher said.

He noted that Niedecker ranks highly in literary circles in terms of revolutionizing poetry in the late 20th century.

The representative’s personal exposure to the poet outside of the downtown Fort Atkinson mural featuring one of her poems primarily was a centennial celebration for the Dwight Foster Public Library building in April 2016. As part of the recognition, the library was designated as a literary landmark due to its association with Niedecker.

Horlacher recalled that several individuals read some of their favorite Niedecker poems.

In addition, a song was played about Niedecker, the lyrics of which were written from the perspective of Emily Dickinson complaining about Niedecker’s fame, referencing the oft-repeated line about the poetry being referred to as “the Emily Dickinson of the 20th Century.”

According to records, in an interview, British poet Basil Bunting compared Niedecker with Dickinson, noting, “Dickinson is good much of the time, but Niedecker is good all of the time.”

Horlacher said his experience at the library event upped his knowledge base of Niedecker and her prominent place within Fort Atkinson’s history.

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Among the individuals who recited poetry for the event was Joel Van Haaften, a poet and Niedecker fan who met Horlacher while working on the Haumerson’s Pond warminghouse project in Fort Atkinson.

Van Haaften, a member of the Friends of Lorine Niedecker’s Education Committee, reached out to Horlacher’s office about the possibility of a proclamation recognizing Niedecker’s birthday.

Although not a formal member of the Friends of Lorine Niedecker, Van Haaften is a fan of the poet and supportive of the ongoing promotion of her work.

“I think it is a great thing to highlight someone who is extremely important to the entire area,” Horlacher said.

For the approval of the resolution Wednesday, the representative read a Niedecker poem about Blackhawk on the Assembly floor.

The Friends of Lorine Niedecker organization is expected to approach Horlacher and state Sen. Stephen Nass, R-LaGrange, about designating May 12 as Lorine Niedecker Day in perpetuity.

For now, a plaque recognizing this year’s resolution is set to be hung in a prominent location either at the Foster Library or Hoard Historeical Museum.

During the past two decades, her poetry has become more widely known and has been the focus of several public art efforts within the City of Fort Atkinson.

In 1991, the Wisconsin State Historical Society erected a historical marker at the site of Niedecker’s Blackhawk Island cabin home. A group dubbed the Friends of Lorine Niedecker has formed to continue to spread the word of her work.

In 2009, local Fort Atkinson artist Jeremy Pinc painted a mural on the wall of a building at the southeast corner of East Sherman Avenue and North Main Street. It showcases a portion of one of her most well-known poems, starting, “Fish, fowl, flood ...”

It was the result of development of the first Lorine Niedecker Wisconsin Poetry Festival in Fort Atkinson that year.

Also, as part of its 2011 renovation, the Dwight Foster Public Library had a separate space to house the Niedecker Collection, celebrating the late poet’s life and works.

In addition, the Hoard Museum has the Lorine Niedecker Room dedicated to the late poet.

Details of the quiet, almost secretive, life of Niedecker were revealed in a biography “Lorine Niedecker: A Poet’s Life,” by Lake Mills author Margot Peters.

And in the fall of 2014, a project involving digital art, stained glass and metal sculpture was installed in the entryway of Fort Atkinson High School. Its theme: dragonflies.

“Our goal is to work through all of the School District of Fort Atkinson schools to get a poetry art piece there so every student who goes through the district will experience Lorine Niedecker,” said Amy Lutzke, Dwight Foster Public Library adult services librarian and Friends of Lorine Niedecker member.

Subsequent artwork promoting Niedecker has been installed at Fort Atkinson Middle School and Barrie Elementary School, with more in the planning stages.

In 2016, a folk art pole carved by L.A. Wilson featuring the Sauk leader Blackhawk and Niedecker was installed at on the north side of Lions Park, facing south down the recreational trail for bicyclists, pedestrians and skaters to see.

Currently, a fundraising is under way to purchase “Our Poet Lady,” a 7-foot-tall mosaic concrete sculpture created by Fort Atkinson artist Sally Koehler.

The Fort Atkinson Arts Council is seeking donations to pay the artist for this sculpture and to install “Our Poet Lady” permanently in a place of recognition in her hometown of Fort Atkinson.

Persons interested in learning more about the sculpture or how to contribute may contact fortartscouncil@gmail.com.