Works by late poet Lorine Niedecker inspire music performed by ensemble

Originally posted on Daily Union on June 18, 2013.

MADISON — The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble of Madison, under the direction of Scott MacPherson, celebrated its tenth anniversary by commissioning a piece from composer Jerry Hui.

The piece is made up of three parts based on three poems penned by the late Fort Atkinson poet Lorine Niedecker.

“When we heard about this performance, several of us traveled to Madison to hear it. We were not sure what to expect,” Friends of Lorine Niedecker President Ann Engelman said. “We were astonished. The pieces are beautiful and reflect the spirit of Lorine’s poetry.

“The performance by this remarkable group of gifted voices created an extraordinary experience,” she continued. “We asked permission to post the performance to the Niedecker website. Someday, we hope a group will perform it here in Fort Atkinson.”

Composer Hui also is a member of the ensemble.

“Niedecker had a magical voice in evoking the people and Nature of Wisconsin,” he wrote in his notes. “Her works using ‘condensery’ language, in her own words, read like miniature paintings, reflecting her life living on Blackhawk Island. It is the visual nature and the intriguing sounds within her poetry that drew me to setting them into music.”

The first piece, titled “My Mother Saw the Green Toad,” is a nostalgic recount of childhood. Beginning with simple, unadorned duet lines, the harmony swells and breathes with increasing complexity of emotion in the text. The second piece, “My Life By Water,” is a “composite of images, as the poet recalls animals and objects she encountered near the river — spring frogs, board bridges, muskrats, rabbits, boats, birds and floods. In the music, each phrase takes on the character of its subject to paint the picture.”

Titled “From My Bed I See,” the third piece “is a dreamy description of the pastoral Wisconsin night. Likewise, the music is impressionistic and free-form; singers at times proceed in individual tempo and rhythm and at times come together, as if casting a spell to conjure a timeless night in the woody swamp,” according to Hui.
Engelman also noted that, ironically during the performance, a bat, literally, came out of the belfry. Everyone was startled at first, but came to accept the creature with the music and story being presented. Following the performance, the bat disappeared.

“We think it was Lorine! Many might not understand that, but anyone visiting Blackhawk Island would just take it in stride,” Engelman said.

Amy Lutzke, Friends of Lorine Niedecker and the Dwight Foster Public Library arranged for the three songs, approximately two minutes each, to be posted on the Lorine Niedecker website at under “About Lorine, Listen.” Born in Fort Atkinson on May 12, 1903, to Henry and Theresa “Daisy” Kunz, Lorine Niedecker was a quiet, plain woman with thick eyeglasses and a birdlike voice. She graduated from Fort Atkinson High School in 1922 and attended Beloit College the following year. She began to publish her poetry in the mid-1930s, but never was far from routine occupations, including as a public library assistant, Hoard’s Dairyman proofreader and Fort Memorial Hospital cleaning lady.

She lived alone in the cabin inherited from her father until her marriage in 1928 to farmer Frank Hartwig. They separated two years later — she wasn’t the farmer’s wife he was seeking — but didn’t divorce until 1942. In 1962, Lorine married Albert Millen, a rough outdoorsman-turned-building painter. They lived in Milwaukee until he retired to Lake Koshkonong four years later. They traveled frequently.

Her life was filled with correspondence with literary greats such as Cid Corman and Jonathan Williams, and she worked closely with her early mentor, Louis Zukofsky, founder of the Objectivist Movement, becoming concerned with two issues in her poetry: capturing the simple rhythms of American speech and the complexity implicit in life’s simplicity.
She began writing not only about nature and home, but of people she admired in history, scientific discoveries and the mysteries of the universe.

On Dec. 1, 1970, Lorine suffered a stroke and died on New Year’s Eve. Al Millen passed away in 1981 and is buried alongside her in Union Cemetery on North Dewey Avenue in Jefferson.

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