Poem 14 Lorine Niedecker “Poet’s Work”
If you don’t know Niedecker’s work, you really should. She lived her life in a small Wisconsin town and worked a variety of jobs--for the local newspaper and, later in life, as a cleaner at the hospital, among others. In addition, she was a well-read, well-connected writer who published four books during her lifetime. Look to the bottom of the page for links to learn more about her Niedecker’s life and bibliography.
This weeks poem is wonderful in its humor, its concision (or more appropriately, its condensedeness—if that might be a word!), and its beautiful attention to line and music.
Even with the title, Niedecker is condensing. “Poet’s Work” should probably have an article in front of it, most likely “the” because we see this is the singular possessive—the work of just one poet. Maybe “a” would fit here, but immediately as the poem begins we see the poem is personal. This is a specific poet, the speaker, and a specific work. By dropping the article in the title, Niedecker’s condensery is in business.
In the first stanza, each line has three syllables and an identical rhythm: stressed syllable, unstressed syllable, stressed (GRAND fa THER/ AD vised ME/ LEARN a TRADE). Of course I’m over-emphasizing here—not all the stresses are equally hard--but I am not sure how to make the computer show my intent. At any rate, this is a not unexpected piece of advice from a grandfather, and the predictable rhythm emphasizes that.
The next stanza immediately breaks the rhythm though. “I learned” is only two syllables, suggesting the rules or expectations are going to be broken. However, the words themselves suggest the opposite: the speaker could have learned a trade, followed the advice. Notice the next lines though: “to sit at desk/and condense.” Again, words have been condensed right out of the line. Shouldn’t it read “to sit at a desk” or “to sit at my desk”? Still, the poem could still be about learning a trade and studying. But then there’s that “and condense” just hanging out there as if it were the most expected trade one might learn. What does it mean to condense? Well, the speaker’s been showing us all along. She is making poetry.
In the final stanza the speaker playfully puns on her trade. She has more job security in her trade than if she were working in another sort of condensery (which really is a place where water is evaporated from milk). So instead of working to evaporate water from milk, our speaker evaporates words, and in so doing enacts the poet's role while describing it. She recognizes the humor in the situation, too; poetry is not the sort of trade her grandfather had in mind. While it might provide job security, it certainly doesn't pay all that well, as Niedecker's life of hard work at odd jobs demonstrates. We don't see one iota of regret in the speaker's choice of this career, though. Just pure pleasure at her craft.
to sit at desk
Some good links:http://www.lorineniedecker.org/index.cfm