My grandmother worked with wool. She raised sheep, and spun their fleece into yarn. She knitted the yarn, and then boiled the knit to shrink and thicken the wool into felt. Felted wool slippers and hats are phenomenally warm, protecting the wearer from piercing northern winters. As a writer, I am more of a wool gatherer, but my process with language is similar to her process with wool.
There is a difference in the language of poetry and prose that can be described by using the word compression. Paul Valery said the language of prose is meant to fall away once meaning is delivered, but this is not so with poetry whose language is meant to recreate the breath, and make the poem new each reading. Reading poetry gives the reader an ear for this, and I recommend reading poetry extensively. There are techniques that poets use to compress the language.
by Lorine Niedecker
Learn a trade
to sit at desk
Condensery is an apt term. The poet must condense the language; in the condensing, the language begins to have more substance. My grandmother had her copper laundry boiler, a wood stove, and wooden paddles as tools to condense her knitted garments into felt. The poets' tools also allow one to put the language through a process. Figurative language allows a writer to compress language. Metaphor is effective; the writer talks about two things at the same time. Consider this line from the poem, "Questions of Travel" by Elizabeth Bishop.
"And have we room/ for more folded sunsets, still quite warm?"
One word will makes the difference. If the poet had used the word 'blankets' instead of 'sunsets,' then the effect would have been prosaic. Bishop's decision to use sunsets makes the sentence take on more wonder. One can imagine the sunset's colors folded and put away like blankets. Can one take a sunset along, in a suitcase? The sunset suddenly becomes intimate as the blanket on a bed, it has a tactile sense. She did not say blanket, but she has created a physical sense of touch by suggestion. A single word choice made the meaning both intimate and expansive. The compression the poet achieves here suddenly vaults the reader into another space.
Poetry often evokes more than one meaning; Mary Oliver says poetry is language that casts more than one shadow. If it casts a shadow, then it must have solidity and heft. This solidity and heft comes from the five senses, the perceptions of the body. If it casts a shadow, it could be a thing or a being, like cart or a horse. Interesting possibilities, this intensity of poetry. Each word has a history and a host of associations; the poet considers this. Sometimes words come out on paper perfectly, but many times revisions help the poet find just the right language.
Here is another example:
by May Swenson:
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
With cloud for shift
how will I hide?
This poem is physically palpable. The form is created by a parallel questioning. The words lend their history and associations to the task; the words are tightly bound together like wool beat into felt. My house, my horse, my hound. The series of words illuminate the body as place first followed by images of horse and hound. Speed, beauty, animality. Hound also invites associations with hunting and baying. Metaphor again. In this spare poem, Swenson also uses sound elements and patterns to compress the poem. The rhymes are tight: ride and hide, I and sky and lie. Almost rhymes: quick and thicket. hound and mount and cloud. Alliteration (same consonant sounds) and assonance (same vowel sounds) occur; everything intense.
The form of a poem lends the poet a tool for condensery. Repetition and variation are built in to some forms like the villanelle, pantoum, or sestina. Other forms have strict limits like the haiku, seventeen syllables, or the sonnet, fourteen lines in a certain rhyme scheme. One must compress and cut the language to fit. In addition, poets add tension. Suspense or the use of opposites add tension. Twists. Line breaks and choices about form can also increase the compression.
Robert Lowell, in interviews, said poems must be high tensile objects. He talked about setting up tension in or between the poem's metrics and in the form or content of the poem. For example, a sonnet form sets up an expectation of rhyme. The poem might use blank verse (iambic meter) and instead of rhyme on the end lines place it elsewhere, internally.
Condensing is perhaps also a process of reduction. One takes away words and phrases, a process Virginia Woolf referred to as ellision. In the taking away, the poet can heighten the effect and create an ambiguity that evokes more meaning. Spareness is often powerful.The stronger the focus, the stronger the poem. Using precise and concrete images adds weight. Staying in metaphor adds focus.
Sometimes I think the form of the poem is a dialectic between language and white space, silence. Dialectics, or the use of opposites, compress. Allusion to other literary work adds weight and meaning.
Add heat. Keep refining. Words are like wool; they have fibers that pull on other fibers. About wool, my grandmother knew about boiling, then ice. She knew how to take fiber into strand into knit into felt.
Poetry is distilled. From language, the poet makes a tincture or an essence. A poet learns to create a distillery to turn grain into whiskey or potatoes into vodka.
Perhaps condensery is akin to the ancient science of alchemy and its quest of turning metal into gold.
Of course, some writers do this is in fiction and essays as well. The writer, Clarice Lispector, created visceral, existential consciousness for the reader via the use of character and setting. Her language is compressed like poetry, compressed to a point of great intensity as if she were at a work bench, cranking the words with a vise. I read her work for its lessons in compressed language as well as for her vision.
This sentence in her book Stream of Life conveys in just nine words her unique voice.
"I am before, I am almost, I am never."
This poetic language uses parallel structure, repetition, variation, and sound in a tight form that conveys psychological truth. It embraces opposites. None of the phrases are subordinated; all are equal. It is tensile and brilliantly evocative.
Niedecker's poem "Poet's Work" expresses the poet's endless search, the quest for the right words and the right arrangement. It is work that is never done.
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. c1984.
Lispector, Clarice. The Stream of Life. University of Minnesota Press. c1989.
Alexrod, Steven and Helen Deese, editors. Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry. Cambridge University Press, c1989.
Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. Mariner Books. c1994.
Niedecker, Lorine. Collected Works. University of California Press. c2002.
Swenson, May http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177225
Valery, Paul. Selected Writings of Paul Valery. New Directions Press. c1964.