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):
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):
arm of T
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
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
the elevated posts
the movie sign.
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) :
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
must look to Lever Brothers
in a square block.
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
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):
sometimes over the fields astride
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:
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
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.