Sunday, September 23, 2012

Poetry Monday: Lorine Niedecker

Last week in ModPo, we learned so much and covered so much ground (this week looks even richer) that it's hard to know where to begin in picking just a tidbit from it to share with you. Before I get lost in Imagism, which is where we're headed this week, I thought it might be fun to just present my favourite poem from the Whitmanians and Dickinsonians we covered (I think you can guess which camp I've fallen into, though I'm a little of both, and of course it's something of an artificial dichotomy). There was much that I enjoyed, but the biggest challenge for me was in learning to understand and even take pleasure in Rae Armantrout's "The Way", which you can hear the author read at PennSound.  This was a difficult poem that I began by rejecting, almost angrily. Working at it and finding my own "way" into the work was a revelation and opportunity for growth for me.  I will cover more of that topic later, but for now, I'd like to share with you  Lorine Niedecker's "Grandfather Advised Me" or "Poet's Work", a poem that indeed sums up, for me, the job of the poet in a few words, condensed perfectly:  

   advised me:
         Learn a trade

I learned
   to sit at desk
         and condense

No layoff
   from this

All writing is about condensation in one form or another (we pick from the chaotic vastness of human experiences and condense it into specific, powerful meaning) . Though I never thought of it in quite this way before, I think that Niedecker is absolutely and profoundly right. The poet, even more than other writers, condenses (selects, coalesces, combines, unifies, and then eliminates all wastage so that what's left is absolutely, utterly shining and essential). In a scientific sense, condensation is the change of the physical state of matter from gaseous phase into liquid and/or solid phase (deposition). In that loose vastness, matter disperses, disintegrates, and entropy takes over. The poet gives form, structure, connectiveness, and above all permanence to this dispersion of life that surrounds us - reshaping the entropy and disintegration into meaning that lasts. It's an act of creation, or to coin Auden, "poetry makes nothing happen" - with the emphasis on "happen" as in, turns nothing into something (I knew my Audenitis would resurface again at some point).  


  1. Ah, the condensery. Such a beautiful word, such a beautiful concept, too. You've a generous spirit to persist with the Armantrout. I'm not so stout as you. But I do want to offer this one up, which had me reeling:

    Motherland by Rose Auslander

    My Fatherland is dead.
    They buried it
    in fire.

    I live
    in my Motherland—

    1. Yes, I imagine when someone asks you what you "do" at a party that you might, as a poet, answer I work at (the) "condensery". At least there is some meaning to unpack in Armantrout, even if obscure. When we get to poems that reject the whole notion of meaning (or mock it brutally) then I suspect I'll struggle. In the meantime, thank you so much for that wonderful Auslander poem which needs no unpacking (though no less rich for its clarity - Fatherland and Motherland having many connotations). Interestingly I think it sums up the entire theme of my first novel Sleep Before Evening in the most concise, delicate way. I may well quote it next time someone asks me what the book is about rather than summarising the plot.