A Poet’s Work at the Condensery

July 12, 2010

I signed off of Twitter Saturday night with this note:

“Goodnight from my condensery…”

A friend saw it and wrote to ask what I meant by “condensery,” which seemed to have to do with making milk, not poems.

I was working, revising some poems, and meant “condensery” as a reference to the poet Lorine Niedecker.

It is an interesting choice of words, because condense means “to make denser or more compact; especially : to subject to condensation,” according to Merriam-Webster, which perhaps connotes compactness rather than concision.  Concision, cutting away or making more concise, is probably closer to my method of revision.  (I try not to make my poems more dense as I revise; and I rarely, if ever, can get as compact as Miss Niedecker did in her poems.)

Niedecker called her desk a “condensery,” in part to connote her process and in part to make it clear that, for her, her desk was a physical place of genuine, creative labor.  Making poems is real work.

Here is Lorine Niedecker’s poem “Poet’s Work,” from which the phrase comes, in its entirety:

Grandfather
advised me:
Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
and condense

No layoffs
from this
condensery

##

You can read more about Lorine Niedecker and her poetry at Poets.org

Her collected poems are available here: Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works.

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