Saturday, October 23, 2004

On George Oppen

George Oppen, NEW COLLECTED POEMS (Carcanet)

I don’t know the poetry of George Oppen well. I almost don’t know it at all. I’ve only had the more than 400 page Collected Poems for three or four weeks, and I’ve only read half of it, and since reading a book of poetry entails a bit more than just turning the pages to get to the end to see what happens, this almost amounts to not having read it at all.

While I waited around for the book to arrive (smoking, drinking, loafing) I prepared myself a little. I’m also not much of an expert on the Objectivists (of whom Oppen is/was nominally one) but I did a bit of brushing up, which served at least to remind me how in the past I’ve often found that stuff kind of dry, but my tastes are changing (albeit slowly) and perhaps it’s time to have another look. Which I haven’t yet. My somewhat limited refresher course also reminded me (in more detail than before) of Oppen’s personal history.

And I immediately took to him. This was initially and primarily on the level of an immense respect, because I figured that anyone who could be serious enough about poetry and about social and political concerns to give up the former because he wasn’t going to rope poetry in to the service of social causes, to fall into the trap of writing slogans and doggerel, was someone worth thinking about. And for this refusal to write poetry and commit oneself to social and political work to last 25 years….. Well, 25 years is a long time, and he obviously meant it. As for the poetry he did write, there’s also a nice line in the Preface by Eliot Weinberger to the Collected which is worth taking note of: “A product of the 1930s, Oppen had spent the first years of that decade attempting to rally a second generation of American modernism, relocated from Europe to the American city, that would continue and modify the poetic principles of its immediate predecessors while rejecting their political principles: a poetry that might not be for the masses, but one that did not loathe them.” (my italics)

This combination of what I perceived to be a decent human being (which is not always the case with poets) had me more than a little inclined to be sympathetic and receptive when I eventually got to the poems themselves. But before I get to them, there’s Ezra Pound, who wrote the Preface to Oppen’s first book, Discrete Series, (1934) and said, among other things, “I salute a serious craftsman, a sensibility which is not every man’s sensibility and which has not been got out of any other man’s books.” As ever, Pound manages to say something that we forget all too easily or, to put it around another way, something we should remember more than we do, almost all the time: poetry is (or should be, when it’s the genuine article) another person’s sensibility, not necessarily a comforting reflection of one’s own. And not got out of books but, by a process of elimination, out of life.

And “life” -- in inverted commas here, but out there it doesn’t have inverted commas, it simply has factories and conveyor belts and long hours and not enough money and all those life things – is hanging all around George Oppen’s poems. As the first poem posits, by way of Henry James (and I quote it here in full, because it says it all, and is, anyway, quite beautiful):

The knowledge not of sorrow, you were
saying, but of boredom
Is ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­---- aside from reading speaking
smoking ----
Of what, Maude Blessingbourne it was,
wished to know when, having risen,
“approached the window as if to see
what really was going on”;
And saw rain falling, in the distance
more slowly,
The road clear from her past the window-
glass ----
Of the world, weather-swept, with which
one shares the century.

What goes on goes on outside the window. It’s weather, but a weather that stands for every kind of ray of sun and blast of wind that rocks or soothes a life. And it’s the century, our time. We share it. And it matters. And this underpins Oppen’s poetry, but it’s not an easy poetry to read, for me, and it almost certainly won’t be easy for anyone wholeheartedly unused to reading a poetry that denies our expectations of conventional poetics and gives us, instead, fragments, disassociated phrases, sometimes part-utterances ….. but which also, in spite of that, often (very often) gives moments of pure beauty, elegance, recognition, wisdom. It’s sometimes hard to relinquish the quest for total comprehension in favour of a few seized moments of great pleasure or revelation, but I swear it’s worth it. When I think of how often reading and “getting” a whole poem can be a very much less than pleasant reading experience, I’m thankful for a few lines that give pleasure and add something to my world.

One can read one of these poems and it might feel like a cold and unforgiving gemstone: it looks great, feels great, but it’s not exactly yielding anything up to you. You’re very much outside it and separate from it. But it’s okay to read a poem more than once, and largely these poems have that about them that suggests you do that. Attempt One wasn’t altogether bad, even if perhaps you didn’t get much from it in the way of meaning but there was some reading pleasure; Attempt Two may yield something else. And as readers, we can work a little, can’t we? A poem with only a couple of dozen words in it, and the first time it resisted you, but you liked it enough to read it again -- And again -- And again several days later -- For example:

This land:
The hills, round under straw;
A house

With rigid trees

And flaunts
A family laundry,
And the glass of windows

I admit I still can’t make anything very interesting out of that “round under straw” bit. I may be being blind and dense. But for the rest, each time I read this poem, I see a picture in my mind’s eye but, more importantly, I sense a celebration (if that’s the right word, which it perhaps isn’t) of the very ordinary washing flapping on the washing line, and those windows, which one can look in to, and out of. And think and imagine. “Rigid” is an interesting word in the middle of the poem, don’t you think? And it doesn’t matter if I’m right or if I’m wrong, because it really doesn’t. I’m not being marked on this.

Occasionally, a poem will be much simpler:

Civil war photo:
Grass near the lens;
Man in the field
In silk hat. Daylight.
The cannon of that day
In our parks.

Which is, I think, and to be frank, damn fine.

Having read “around” Oppen in my preparation for reading the poems, I came across some pretty finely tuned intellectual ideas, not all of which made complete sense to me. I can just about live with his concern with the little words, what the Objectivists termed “the lyric valuables” that make up the world, what a note in the notes to the Poems refers to as his “lifelong concern with the primary elements of experience, those ‘little nouns that he [liked] the most’”. And I’ve read a couple of analyses of a couple of poems that concentrate, for example, on how the word “thus” is used twice in a poem, and how its use and placing, and the space around it resonates….

…. which is all very well, and I’m not underestimating any of that in any way, but there’s a few reasons why quite a lot of what I read in my reading so far of The Collected Poems of George Oppen left me a little uneasy, for example the major sequence that opens Of Being Numerous, which contains some absolute gems, pearls, but its being a sequence of 40 short pieces stretching over 25 pages rather suggests you should be able to see the connections at once (and the notes, and Oppen’s own comments, don’t always help towards this) and you can feel a little inadequate, and so much “modern poetry” does this to you –

but there’s some cracking stuff here, so let me tell you now: don’t be put off. Get this:

It is the air of atrocity,
An event as ordinary
As a President.

A plume of smoke, visible at a distance
In which people burn.

“An event as ordinary as a President.” Wow!

But after all this, I’ve forgotten to mention the warmth. And I don’t get it from every poem but I get it lots, and the only way I can describe what I mean is to quote another poem entire, which to me sums up the humanity that is in Oppen’s best poems, and probably in all of them, but I’m still getting to know him. This is “The Men of Sheepshead”. One could go on about the knowledge and empathy in this poem, the calm assurance of it, or how the world is these things, the mauls, the piers, the tenons, the rules of thumb and cams and levers. Or you could take another angle and try and find some way of accounting for how “Speaking of things” works, and why it is placed the way it is; or you could write an essay about “self-contained”. Or then again, how the joining, the dovetailing, apparently about wood, could and probably is about people, too. Or you could let the poem speak for itself:

Eric -- we used to call him Eric --
And Charlie Weber: I knew them well,
Men of another century. And still at Sheepshead
If a man carries pliers
Or maul down these rambling piers he is a man who fetches
Power into the afternoon
Speaking of things

End-for-end, butted to each other,
Dove-tailed, tenoned, doweled – Who is not at home
Among these men? who make a home
Of half truth, rules of thumb
Of cam and lever and whose docks and piers
Extend into the sea so self-contained.

This review was previously published in The North.