Buddhist scriptures contain a saying: "regard all sentient beings as your parents." The idea, I infer, is to look at every individual and occasion in one's life as an actual influence, a scene of instruction, a mentoring of sorts. So it is under that rubric that I wish to write about the influence of George Oppen on me and my poetry. Which means that, before I get to George, I must invoke the catenary leading to him.
But what is this catenary at the end of which a poet stands face to face with another poet? What chain of poesis, of making and reading, of possible personal encounters, leads out of the self and its linguistic solipsisms towards the poem which ultimately must stand apart from its author, indeed, predicates its existence on the author's metaphoric disappearance. Making, on the path to a poetics, is accompanied by undoing, by the attempt to resist, even as one is using them, the seductions of everything prior: personal history, nostalgia, conventions and traditions, and by trying to refuse what Oppen called "the trick of gracefulness," the deceptive enchantments of language, of abstract formalisms, literariness or harmonious forms.
The uneasiness of poetic interrelation, of "influence" (as Harold Bloom might inflect the word) lies buried in the factorials of poetic learning. Every transmission from 'mentor' to student abrades the self's inertial desires to maintain the fiction of its own "gracefulness," of its own completeness. Possibly that is why, particularly in the twentieth century, we have whole ranges of poets who would prefer being mentored by an impersonal theory, by the dictates of a zeitgeist or school, all of which appear to be authorless (i.e. where authority is diffuse) and so less messy, less psychically unsettling.
In this essay, I have tried to grasp hold of the emotional and intellectual undercurrents of my early relationship with Oppen, to lean into that relationship and the psychology of it. This then is a record of youthful but also useful uneasinesses.
"Truth also is the pursuit of it"--this line was from George Oppen's book, The Materials, which I found among others, in the blue footlocker I had dragged across the Atlantic at the beginning of an expatriate hegira. My friend Ernie, who had studied with Louis Zukofsky at Brooklyn Poly, had suggested Oppen's work to me, along with that of other modernist poets, William Carlos Williams, Charles Reznikoff, Olson, Duncan, Levertov, Creeley.It was 1965; I had won a small poetry prize from The New School For Social Research, resigned my well-paying job as the head technical writer for a major corporation and taken a Yugoslav freighter from New York to Europe where I planned to live for an extended time.
In that footlocker were other books, Dante, Shakespeare, some contemporary poets, notes and manuscripts as well as an old Hermes portable wrapped in a blanket to keep it from being damaged. I had little idea what I was doing. Here, nearing thirty and on the whim of a minuscule prize, I had thrown a whole career away, had become "hooked," as Oppen once put, on the sincerity of the poem, and was truly sailing into the unknown (I had never been to Europe before, and my 'research' consisted mainly of reading Frommer's Europe on Five Dollars A Day). I was ripe, split wide with vulnerabilities and longings. It was a mental condition that I recognized in my own attempts at poems, in my efforts to bind disparate words together, words marked sentimentally for me, that I clasped or bracketed into forms the way one applies a bandage or dressing over a raw wound.
Two things stick out from that sea voyage as markers of my state of mind: One was the sound, on the radio in the ship's salon, of the empty airwaves in the middle of the Atlantic, a strange roar not unlike the roar of the sea itself, non-human and terrifying. Signalled by that roaring, the vast jumble of phenomena, the world, made any writing, the use, that is, of the intermediaries of words, a seemingly impossible act of translation. I thought about this in my bunk at night, how little words counted against the strange unknowableness of the world. How everything of true depth to the individual struck me as being unnamed, and thereby unsayable even as its shadow in the form of desire swept across one. The other marker of my troubled mental state--I was looking, in the romance of my discomfiture, for such little poetic hints--was that every evening just as the sun was setting and the stars were coming out, the first officer appeared on the bridge, his figure dark against the darkening sky. I watched him, immediately an embodiment of certain masteries, take the sextant from its polished wooden case and "shoot" the first appearing stars and the horizon, thus locating our position on the vast planes of endless water. In those rough and glittering seas, it struck me that only the thin, imaginary line which he constructed between the heavens and the ship anchored us in any way to what was at all human. That line, construed as it was from the symbolic orders of numbers and ratios, was more than mathematics; it was also part of our languages of hope. My education, which had been in the sciences and engineering, made me well aware of the metaphoric nature of our formulae and equations, how behind them lay a search for connections and attachments to the physical world, to certainties and arrestments. In that sense, they resembled all other questing forms of language such as poetry or literature.
Even as the journey across the ocean ended, disorientation hovered over me, a vague fog of personal and poetic choices. It was still with me some months later when I had finally settled in a small house in a small village in Spain. In that house, in the bedroom that was to be my study, I took the books out of the locker, placed them on a shelf, put my papers beside them, set the typewriter on the cheap wooden table which my landlord had given me and looked around. I was unable to begin. Instead, I found myself arranging and rearranging the books, surveying the room, the whorls of its plastered walls. I recall nothing so much as the deliberateness of my actions, as though the precision and repetition of physical gestures, of minutiae would translate my surroundings into familiarities.
There was a bed in the room, covered with a long white spread. It appeared to float off the floor, and all I could think of was to lie down on it, to float away like a child on a nimbus. From the small high window over the table, I could hear some kind of animal thrashing in the yard next door. I climbed on the table and looked out but could see nothing except a thatched roof where the noise came from, above it an absurdly blue sky and the Mediterranean dotted with a few fishing boats. I felt vertigo, dis-ease. Those words of Rilke's, as he recorded his "mystical" experience, "the Spanish landscape, the last I inimitably experienced" ran through my mind. I felt completely thrown back on myself, which I knew was nothing, merely what seemed like a silly thing, this minuscule personal history immersed--this much I knew about poetry--in an art that was immense and arduous.
I now understand that I was looking for handholds, for any sort of anchoring as I slid into the confusion of self, of self-doubt, and was available for some sort of transmission. It was then that I took down the Oppen book. I probably reached for it because, although I had not really studied his work, I remembered that the lines of his poetry were fairly clean, unadorned, without metaphorical clutter. I didn't need to think about how I was going to decode it, but, rather, to be in contact with something graspable to my state of mind. I turned to the back of the book, to the last poem in it, "Leviathan"--this is a habit I have always had when casually browsing--and read the first line of the poem: "Truth also is the pursuit of it." I read the line over and over, like a chant, feeling a raw ache in my chest. What did the words mean to me? I had only the vaguest idea, but also a sense of wanting to weep. I calmed myself down and began to decipher my response. I took the "it" of the line as art, hunger, the clarification of the very confusion I was experiencing. Later, I would read that this word was, of course, one of Oppen's substantives, an order of nouns like "sun" or "rock," a "taxonomy," as he referred to them, which hinted or pointed at the real. In my own receptive state, the line, with its functionally medial "also" bridged a chasm between a pure skepticism of language induced by my uneasiness and some obdurate sense of the otherness of the world. "Truth" as I saw it in the line was not some abstract category of universal knowledge and fact but the more humble sense of what was going on around me. In other words, the facts before me, the room, my vertiginous almost nauseous falling into an abyss were also "truth." I could begin where I was--indeed, was there any other place?
A bit further down in the poem, there were these lines which vaguely reconciled me to my state of mind and fueled my desire to write:
'preponderance of objects.' The sky lights And we
have become the present. We must
talk now. Fear
'preponderance of objects.' The sky lights
And we have become the present.
talk now. Fear
I was looking at these lines, not only or necessarily as a poet; rather, I was reading them as one might read a theological tract or guide to the perplexed, as a form of wisdom. I was, in this reading, unaware of the 'art' of these lines, the way Oppen distributed cadence or language, or used parallel structures to link the "inexplicable" with the "preponderance of objects", with "talk" and "fear." There was, in the most profound sense that I can imagine concerning my response, no admiration present. One does not admire the spar to which one is clinging.
Instead, a certain kind of transparency was taking place, decidedly unliterary. (I did not understand then how the style of the work contributed to this effect.) I sensed only that the words were entering into me, inscribing themselves in a place where moments before fear was regnant. In retrospect, I believe I was inoculating myself into a way of apprehending poetry, not as a literary product at all. For even now, I still strip down my response to a poem to the, for me, essential question of its use- or meaning-value in my life. Oppen's poem had stung me, but also, like the invasive barb of a possibly poisonous insect, it left me irritated and anxious rather than satisfied. Later, after studying Oppen's poetry for months on end, this ground bass of uncertainty (which came only with the utmost precision and clarity of language) became for me the central function of the poem.
Looking back, I also see how my Spanish experience had been very fruitful. While there, I had my first poems accepted for publication and had lived something of the writer's life I imagined for myself, looking every morning at a white page, attempting to mark it with words in some way meaningful to myself. Oppen's poetry had been the strait gate to that "preponderance of objects" which both surrounded me and were part of my physical environment, and which impinged on that lost or somewhat alienated consciousness of a New York Jew loose in the stark and near mystical culture of Andalusian Spain.
A curious thing had occurred in Spain, a certain sense of intimate relationship in which, through the agencies of Oppen's work, I felt allied with the bleak purpled beauty of the Sierra Morenos, the slopes of which were covered as though in a new vocabulary of plants and trees. Even the dramatic plunge of those mountains into the Mediterranean evoked the closures of poems, as though the physical escarpments of that coastline were moral landscapes, teacherly perspectives of poetic being. The poetry did not so much give me the sanctions of description or representation nor did it suggest a mode or style. Rather, its value as statement gave me a kind of confidence in the act of poetry, in a feeling of being aswarm in media res as a philosopher might put it, in a world of poetic availabilities.
At the same time, other ideas about poetry possessed me as well, the combined avant-gardisms of my youthfulness as a latecomer to poetry, which perhaps led me down a curious path in the stylistics of writing. Among the "influences" (and I would now say of this period that these came at the wrong time, requiring me to unlearn them in order to learn them again for myself) I would cite such figures as Mallarme (particularly his Un coup de des), the pointillist painters and, most importantly, the music of Anton Webern which I listened to over and over each morning as a preliminary to writing. I had found in these, I thought, the projection of the future lineage of poetries, the formally disjunctive and aleatory, which I heartily embraced.
I mention these influences because when, after a year and a half in Europe, I returned to the States, I had in hand a considerable body of poetry, of a kind which, despite my late start as a writer, had been well-received, published and even anthologized. And yet, as I looked again at this work, as I reread it daily, I felt no feedback from it. Rather, it struck me as clever and programmed, but down deep meaningless. Possibly, I was only experiencing what any poet feels about prior work--a desire to be elsewhere. And yet the feeling came as no ordinary case of merely wanting to move on to newer things. I suddenly and violently questioned the value of anything I had written.
So I began over again. I went back to the simplest, clearest writing that I could remember, the writing which had initially led me toward the act of making poems: the translations of the Japanese and Chinese poets, Williams, Montale's poetry and, once again, Oppen's work. I read philosophy, history, anything but that kind of writing, including much poetry, behind which lay some sort of dictatorial theory of readership or composition. Now, in an effort at 'purity,' I was excluding a lot, from the traditionalists to the surrealists to the contemporary avant-gardes. Without being aware of it, I was forswearing a large portion of the extant cultural apparatus. I was now thirty years old and, strangely, as though revisiting myself, feeling as I had in Spain, alone, disoriented, bereft of the poetic toolkit I had built for myself. I was at sea again, on the Atlantic Ocean of the zeitgeist which stretched before me and showed no hint of a landfall for my poetic making.
I think the truth is that I was again ripe, in a state similar to that when I first encountered Oppen's work. And it was in this climate, in 1967, that I met Oppen the man.
He and his wife Mary spent part of each year in New York City, in a small apartment on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights. They were good friends of the poet Harvey Shapiro who lived only a short distance from them and at whose house at a small gathering of poets and writers I came face to face with the poet whose work had crucially affected me.
My experience of meeting him reminds me that there are situations where physiology has rhetorical (hence moral) force. I am speaking of the way we are drawn to certain faces in photographs, how they fascinate or move us.The self, Martin Buber suggests, is not a substance but a relationship, the knowledge of which comes out of an encounter. Already, as I was shaking Oppen's hand and mumbling a few words to him, the lines and leathery creases of his face, the slightly stiff posture, that of a workingman (which I believe he had cultivated when he worked as a radical populist in the Thirties and Forties) was prompting a response, some knot of emotion and language seeking a form. Not that I was moved to comment on his appearance but that that appearance was a conditioning aspect of what I might later say. Oppen's presence, and my heightened experience of his work were a kind of witness to the expression I sought, not then, but in the work I wanted to write. Buber's 'law' of intersubjectivity, as you can see, was already at play. I cannot remember the pleasantry which I uttered on that occasion, but I do sense that as I looked across the space between us, there was a shift in the way words were being created. There was something ceremonial about the occasion, much as if I'd been introduced to and then mesmerized by a wizened old medicine man in the jungles of the Amazon. As I reflect now, the encounter demonstrated to me Oppen's sense of what he meant by calling himself a "realist" poet, someone concerned with a fact outside of himself which he did not entirely create. Oppen, in that moment, had been the "fact" for me. Ultimately, such a concern became a central part of my own poetics.
In the time the Oppens spent that year in New York, I had much contact with them, eating dinner at their small apartment on Henry Street, taking long walks with George around the streets of Brooklyn or meeting them at readings and lectures. Soon after, however, George and Mary went back to California, and I carried on my conversations with him through the mail. My correspondence with George was unlike any I've had with another writer. It was not merely the case that I was finding my way as a poet, for I had blundered into writing poetry the way I have blundered into many things in my life. Rather, the letters between us were pitched at a strange, existential level. I was trying to articulate to him my estrangement and feeling of lostness, my sense of disillusionment with the activity of writing which filled every day with a blank anguish. And so these exchanges with George were not about specific poems or the business of poetry but about what poetry and life had to do with each other. George's response to these outpourings of mine were always kind, never dismissive but thoughtful and patient. The words from him seemed to go to the ground I was seeking:
something like that, maybe in order not to speak of any kind of correctness other than awe - -
.(Letter to MH, late 1971)
I believe to this day that I stand under the shadow of these words, that they both harbor me and cast me in a darkness from which I seek to be free. Reading them, word by word, it was as though they were building in me not only an outlook on poetry writing but also a conscience, a code which was simultaneously liberating and confining. It was almost, as in Plato's parable of the cave, that I was seeing the world, certainly the world of making art, through the webbings of these phrases.
I remember, as an example of this simultaneous effect, how together, we worried the word "dogma," its meaning and use in our correspondence. For Oppen, the word had enormous philosophical and ethical weight. He meant it in some unspecified and hence all-encompassing way, not so much a terminological marker as a weight, a burden, which by that peculiar operation of the mind (and by the relationship I had established with Oppen) became, for me, a description of the mental environment in which we lived. Dogma, in Oppen's usage, delimited the totality of the philosophical, cultural and aesthetic views which we lived under. The first duty of the poet was to make himself aware of this fundamental condition, then to find a means of overcoming or subverting it through art.
As I reflect now on that correspondence, I wonder if I was turning Oppen's words into another dogma? If so, it felt like a dogma of openness, of receptivity to the world about me, and so came with that curious admixture of total freedom and total responsibility for what I was up to as a poet.
Oppen's letter had, in this instance, been partially in response to a question I put to him: "Is it a poetry that one writes?" and his answer in that letter framed the paradox I was living in:
refusal of the word 'dogma' above is questionable: this is, of course
the question one MUST not attempt to answer or think of answering,
this is what is wrong with all the 'courses' is it not? The question:
'is it a poetry that one writes?' is
the question not to answer
Is it a poetry that one writes? alright: one's typewriter and one's desk could answer this.
and this can sustain discussion: the act of writing
(Letter to MH, late 1971)
Possibly these words led to nowhere and everywhere, but in them I felt deeply, for good and surely for possible ill, the absence of prescription, the refusal to impose a stylistics or mode upon one. They placed the act of the poem back, nakedly, with its maker.
What made Oppen's letters so powerful for me was the generality I hint at above. How to explain the effect of this generality? After all, poetry (to paraphrase Robert Frost) is at war with generality. Yet, as I read Oppen's work in the late sixties and came to know something of his personal history, the universality and even abstractness of his correspondence came to seem a kind of framing device, an arena which bracketed his poetic activity, heightened its gravity and disclosed the limit, for Oppen, of what could possibly be articulated by the poem.
Moreover, the poetry itself enacted, through its unique mixtures of poetic imagery and rhetoric, the boundary conditions of its own making, that dance between the known and the unknown which has been Oppen's singular contribution to twentieth century poetry. Oppen, from the first, struck me as a very different kind of poet from those of his generation, including his "objectivist" peers, who came out of the PoundWilliams lineage and who were influenced in one way or another by Imagist theory and doctrine. In his practice, he departed radically not only from those poets but also from those who, coming after, would call him an influence. For me, this difference lies in how he used the poetic image, the building block of modern poetry, in an entirely different way from these other poets. For Oppen, the image, as I've written elsewhere, is neither descriptive not decorative but investigatory. It registers instead an impingement of a world upon him, and in following out in a phenomenological manner the dictates of this new knowledge, the element of vision becomes a kind of thinking. The concretions of the visible world and language which constitute the main element of his poetry rather than showing or putting the world on display led the reader unerringly to the brink of the unknown, to the sense of something incalculable, as, for example, in this excerpt from "Of Being Numerous:"
The power of the mind, the
Power and weight
Of the mind which
Is not enough, it is nothing
And does nothing
Against the natural world,
Behemoth, white whale, beast
They will say, and less than beast,
The fatal rock
Which is the world
O if the streets
Seem bright enough
Fold within fold
Or see clearly thru water
Clearly the pebbles
Of the beach
Thru the water, flowing
From the ripple, clear
As ever they have been ( CP 167; NCP 179)
This powerful passage, one of my favorites, as it moves from philosophical statement to an uncannily ordinary and precise perceptual moment, both consoles and takes away its consolations in the same poetic breath. Technically, the strategically placed "O if" of the fourth stanza and the "Or" of the fifth stanza (which has no clear antecedent) undermine the closures of imagist poetry that are usually invoked by a visual datum. Here, these ingenuities but also the propelled dynamics of the language, produce an entirely different effect. One feels and this was one of Oppen's most powerful teachings to me that the poet is groping within his own uncertainty, trying to resolve his own state of being as he reaches for that which can not be articulated in language.
In a number of other letters to me, Oppen spoke directly of his own poetry as such a linguistic and phenomenological quest, an attempt to bring word and world, or reality into charged consonance, as in this excerpt:
this is the ground the poems mean to stand on. And to speak from.
(Letter to MH, late 1972)
In his way, Oppen was reversing the contemporary ordering of our thought, making the poem carry the reader from the known to the unknown, rather than the other way around. He wanted to be precise, but also to preserve the mystery of substance and otherness which he felt was at the root of our creative lives. His poetry, looked at carefully, is thus at odds not only with the gelid wastes of official literary culture but also with the programmed experimentalisms of much of the avant-garde. This was his strength, his radicality, and also the reason, I think, for which critics and the poetry establishment have found it difficult to come to terms with his work.
"We wanted to know if we were any good out there," Oppen wrote in "Disasters," one of his later poems. The phrase was not meant to examine a career in poetry in any competitive way; rather, it invoked, in its almost primal simplicity, the whole range of ethical questioning which had precipitated, in the Thirties, Oppen's poetic silence, a silence that lasted twenty-five years.
I remember reading those words and the sudden effect they had on me. In particular those two words "out there." They provided the fulcrum by which I was both able to feel deeply in Oppen's debt and yet also feel that I was a poet separate and responsible for my own work. I suppose, in saying this, I am mainly rejecting the idea that poetry is not a force in the world, and instead affirming my belief that both good and bad come of it.
George Oppen died in 1984, in a California nursing home. Still, increasingly, I find my state of mind ever ready to invite the dead poet to reenter the household of my psychic and artistic economy.
I did not see much of George in his last days, but I do recall his final visit to NY when Verna Gillis and I made a tape for Windmill of him reading from his work. This event, as though closing a certain kind of circle, took place in Harvey Shapiro's house where I had first met him. At the time, George was very frail and Mary hovered protectively over our taping sessions. George had lost not only his energy but also the power of intense concentration which had made his poetry so compact and powerful. He could read no more than a dozen lines at a time, and we had to stop frequently, sometimes even to remind George where he was in the poem. Verna and I had set up a makeshift taping studio in one of the bedrooms. Across the hall, there was another room with a day bed where George sat or lay down to rest between the short bouts of reading, eyes open, with a copy of his Collected Poems folded on his chest. There was a touch of fear in his eyes, and already one sensed he was peering into the very incalculable which his poetry had so assiduously courted.
Later, Verna effected a miracle by splicing the minute bits of poems into an almost seamless recital. When, recently, Oppen's literary archive became available to scholars, I was amazed to discover that George's method of composition in the poems had, all along, involved the splicing and pasting down of little slips of paper on which he might earlier have written anything from a word to single lines or passages. What had held that collage of language together, what had given an impressive coherence to his work, had been the ethical and philosophical depth he spoke from, a depth which anchored the most disparate language and tonalities. Oppen had spent his entire time as a poet searching for and recreating in these structures the uneasy meeting place of uncertainty and existence. When Verna and I had finished with the production of the tape, we had assumed we had put the poet back together. In fact, we had merely complied with the inmost dictates of Oppen's own poetry.