Stride Magazine -


and, in England

GEORGE OPPEN, New Collected Poems.
(Carcanet: 2003) £14.95.

Holding such a big book, I feel overwhelmed. The number of pages ­ 433 ­ provides a sort of narrative; like a novel, it asks to be read from start to finish, rather than dipped in to. However, Oppen organised the original edition, which appeared in 1972, which validates the organising principle of this updated edition. Furthermore, the continuity of the collection is important. Oppen was a poet of context.

The introduction shows Oppen was a poet of his time, in a personal memoir of Oppen by Eliot Weinberger and a critical study by Michael Davidson. Oppen identified as one of the Objectivists, published with Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky in the 1933 “Objectivist” issue of Poetry. Davidson notes that early drafts of Discrete Series are labelled “The 1930s”. Indeed, the importance of experience, rather than intelligence alone, to describe the material world, was his major break with Pound. Oppen notes that his Collected was ‘created by childhood, by my mother’s death, by New Rochelle and sail-boats’ (p. xiii).

A break of 28 years occurred between his collection in 1934 and the next in 1962. I see the 28 year break as definitive. Oppen’s first book was Discrete Series. One of Oppen’s beliefs, Weinberger asserts, was that poetry could not successfully have a political message - ‘the work to be done was agitation and organisation, in which poetry could have no place without compromising itself’ (p. vii). The poems seem to record the time rather than comment on it. An example is the end of poem 2 from Discrete Series
(p. 7):

              Cracking eggs);


The place of history in the poem is all important. Oppen directs the reader to use knowledge and insight into the contemporary context of the poem. That is the only way to bridge the space between the elemental domestic work of ‘Cracking eggs’ and the abstract concept of ‘big-Business’. Perhaps it is a matter of time before big-business overtakes domesticity?

Many of the poems don’t seem to have a beginning or an end, and go without helpful titles. Take ‘1’ (p. 6):

              White.  From the
              Under arm of T

              The red globe.

              Down.  Round
              Shiny fixed

              From the quiet

              Stone floor . . .

The notes reveal that the poem describes ‘an ornamental device found over elevator doors’ (p. 359). But, though documents of a period, the poems needn’t be exercises in research. The reader must put them in the context of his or her own experiences: what are the ‘Shiny fixed / Alternatives’? This is a great responsibility. Just like Ron Silliman’s poem Sunset Debris,
the poem’s success depends on the reader’s ability to make links. The reader had better be alert.

Although the poem is extremely specific, it invites interpretation. There’s a temptation to read the poem as symbolic of something more than the object it describes. The first word, ‘White’, has so many connotations that it disrupts the focus on materiality from the start. The ‘arm’ gives the poem a human element as does ‘red’. And if ‘fixed / Alternatives’ means the numbers of the floors, why doesn’t Oppen be more specific with something like ‘fixed / Digits’? The noun ‘Alternatives’ is abstract. But these suggestions refuse to add up to a coherent reading. Then the reader is brought down to earth with a bump; the ‘Stone floor’ is difficult to read as anything but a stone floor. The poem violently shows that it can’t be made more than the sum of its parts (though the dot dot dots leave room for hope). The poem asserts its materiality.

In this sense poem ‘1’ is a poetics. As is the use of a preface by Ezra Pound, which stresses his influence. Like Imagism, Oppen’s poetry focuses on physical things and uses syntax close to plain speech. Yet Oppen also uses the preface to assert his independence. Pound admits finding Oppen difficult, describing ‘a sensibility which is not every man’s sensibility’ (p. 4). Some poems in Discrete Series seem to focus on an image:

              Bad times:
              The cars pass
              By the elevated posts
              And the movie sign.
              A man sells post-cards. (p. 30)

But the emphasis is always on language. The relentless stress on each syllable in the poem above is mechanical. It emphasises that it is a made thing.

The books from 1962 on are very different. The Materials
and This In Which both use epigraphs, which emphasise the book’s place in philosophic and literary tradition. And in all the books, most of the poems have titles, which frame them in a convenient way. Take the poem ‘Eclogue’ (p. 39). Oppen has started to comment, rather than describe, writing that ‘the uproar’ is ‘An assault / On the quiet continent.’ It is even replete with the stock nature imagery ­ ‘Vegetative leaves / And stems’ ­ and a celebration of birth - ‘O small ones, / To be born!’ - to conclude.

Not only are the poems more easily identifiable, and so less thought-provoking, but many have narrative. This means there is less need for the reader to explore the language. Which is a shame because the language is as interesting as it was. For example, a couplet from ‘The Tourist eye’ (p. 64) :

              Lacked centre:
              We must look to Lever Brothers

The opacity of meaning leads the reader to investigate. The soft, long vowels of ‘We must’ suggest a people unsure of their role. The strong vowels and short consonants of ‘look to Lever Brothers’ operate as a command and an answer. But the capital ‘L’ weds ’Lever Brothers’ with ‘Lacked centre’, questioning weather big business is the people’s solution or their problem. Is their identity as a workforce - ‘We’ - chosen by them or created for them? Here, Oppen employs aural and visual effects of language. However, in context, these effects can be missed:

              The land
              Lacked centre:
              We must look to Lever Brothers

              Based in a square block.
              A thousand lives

              Within that glass.

Language is dwarfed by narrative.

To some extent, narrative is disrupted in Seascape: Needle’s Eye
(1972) by the use of a new (for Oppen) and therefore disruptive form - spaces between words. An extract from ‘From A Phrase of Simone Weil‘s And Some Words of Hegel‘s’ (p. 211) demonstrates this:

              In          back     deep the jewel
              The treasure
              No        Liquid
              Pride of the living life’s liquid

The technique is developed in Primitive (1978), in, for example, this extract from the start of ‘A Political Poem’ (p. 265):

              for sometimes over the fields astride
              of love?            begin with

              nothing or

              everything        the nerve

In both, the titles lead the reader to expect a certain point of view to be advanced - but the narrative is literally pulled apart. The discourse is therefore opened up rather than closed down. Yet the (new for Oppen) use of lower-case to start a line creates a flow which to some extent neutralises the disruption. I can’t help feeling that reading the poem becomes a case of finding a meaning to fit the title, coercing the reader into adopting a point of view, in order to understand it.

In other poems, Oppen comments on youth - ‘they seem / to be mourning‘ (p. 221). He tells people what to do -‘To the Poets: To Make Much of Life’ (p. 260). If it was Oppen’s intention to tell ‘no narrative but ourselves’ (p. xxviii), here he seems to be speaking for himself. This is far from ‘a language free from instrumental uses’ (p. xv). The introduction states that:

              Oppen chose to solve the problem [­ how to give value to anything in a world              full of facts ­] not by adding more fragments to an already debased      architecture but by refusing the building altogether - or at least by paying more               attention to its building materials.’ (p. xxx)

Discrete Series celebrates fragments. The later writing attempts to build a whole in the traditional modernist style. The title, Myth of the Blaze, justifies that collection with a nod towards classical stories, and simultaneously takes the focus from the present. Oppen recalls H.D. further with abstract nouns such as ‘consciousness’ (p. 259), taking the focus away from precise language. As a result the poems seem less new, less clear, and less important now.

However, the Collected is important as a document. The organization between books is chronological, the order in which the books came into publication. The emphasis in the Collected is on historical and literary context as a shaping factor rather than the poet, or even the poems. The place of the poems in history is important. Davidson admits that Oppen

              may be “rather startled” to find many poems that he published in magazines           and journals but never included in his 1975 edition. Moreover, he might have been dismayed to see the addition of poems taken from manuscripts and               working papers that he never intended to print at all.’ (p. xiii)

Therefore, the question of who Oppen’s writing has influenced is justified.

The introduction usefully mentions many figures influenced by Oppen’s drive ‘to restore meaning to words - particularly in a time of official lies’ (p. ix). The distrust of language - particularly as used by politicians and market forces - has bearing on Jack Spicer, in his Book of Magazine Verse, which questions the integrity of certain magazines and the poetry they publish. Indeed, much Language poetry develops this distrust of language. Ron Silliman in Tjanting uses paratactic sentences. The effect is that each sentence - often the language of advertising (’Wait, watchers.’) - lacking context, cannot be subsumed. The reader is forced to explore the language stripped of its political / commercial message. Oppen’s language, ‘sceptical of the full, adequate word’ (p. xxx) anticipates Susan Howe’s work with fractured words and broken lines. Many more writers could be mentioned.

In Britain, the introduction says, Oppen ‘established important relationships with Charles Tomlinson, Christopher Middleton, and Jeremy Prynne’ (p. xxvi). It would have been interesting if the volume had described these relationships more fully, to put Oppen’s work into a British context, to see how useful (and therefore how important) his poems are. Here and now.

              © Thomas White 2003