Friday, September 20, 2013

ModPo 2013 #9 Condensation, Distillation, Ars Poetica: On Niedecker's "Poet's Work"

Image from

Note: I am currently taking a course on called Modern and Contemporary American Poetry taught by Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania. I will be posting my thoughts on the course discussions here.

Poet's Work
by Lorine Niedecker

  advised me:
        Learn a trade
I learned
  to sit at desk
        and condense
No layoff
  from this

This poem by Lorine Niedecker speaks directly to me as a poet. I have an ars poetica that runs in the same line as Niedecker's but I call it distillation (well, it has the same spirit as condensation).

I guess this is why I lean towards Dickinson in the false binary. There certainly was a time that poetry was a trade of some sort. Chap books and ballads did use to sell like hot cakes. But in the poem, Niedecker "flips off" (I like that phrase from the video discussion of the poem) the notion of trade that her grandfather is talking about. What she prefers is to sit "at desk" (a condensed phrase!) and condense (aka write poetry). It is not a trade, it is a life.

I don't want to take condensation out of context, here. It is in context of poetry. It is not mere concision or cutting down for the sake of cutting down. For me, poetry is the paring down of experience, of life, into the clearest and most concise game of words. I cannot take away the game, the play of words because that is what makes poetry what it is. It is engaging with language itself and challenging it to paint, to draw life, to draw something that matters to both the poet and the reader so that a new view is available.

Well, in conclusion, there really is no layoff in this condensery because laying off has to do with making a living and not the living of life. A poet's work is life. For me, at least, it's true.

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