Peter Nicholls

Modernising Modernism: from Pound to Oppen


A friend remarked recently on the number of newly published books carrying the word 'modernism' in their titles. 'Where desire used to be, now there's modernism,' she rather wittily remarked, 'I wonder what that means.' I wonder too. Is it that modernism, like desire, has become an increasingly diverse, not to say polymorphous, phenomenon in the last decade or so? Certainly, it's clear from the bibliographies in journals such as Modernism/Modernity and International Review of Modernism that it's not just that the volume of publication in the field has increased, but that modernism and its works are being written about from a dazzling variety of new perspectives. In calling my own book Modernisms (1) I had had a rather conventional aim in mind, namely to show that Anglo-American modernism had to be seen in the context of parallel avant-garde movements in Europe, that our 'own' modernism, so to speak, could no longer be assumed to be the hegemonic one. (2) But what we have now begun to call the 'new modernisms' aim to shift the balance in more radical ways, stressing, for example, the pivotal importance of the Harlem Renaissance to American modernism or tracing modernism's interaction with popular culture and movements of the political left – areas modernism itself had once seemed to discourage us from exploring. (3) Most fundamentally, perhaps, the shift in attention has been toward considerations of modernism's relation to a variously defined 'public sphere'. (4) Here a postmodern concern with consumerism and identity politics has produced a new fascination with what one critic has called 'the public face of modernism', a public face discernible, for example, in the politics of publishing and advertising. (5) Suddenly modernism has become a highly contagious phenomenon, yielding initially surprising hybrids (modernism and psychoanalysis, modernism and anarchism, modernism and psychiatry, modernism and the New Deal, and so on). (6)

In various ways, these reconfigurations of modernism are the means of 'modernising' it, by which I mean re-reading it in the light of the changing imperatives of modernity. I want to take a rather different tack in this essay, however, looking not for some new supplement to modernism (modernism and…), but rather examining some of the ways in which American modernism, my chosen example here, generated counter-movements within itself, movements which revised and contested what had gone before while remaining within a paradigm we would still want to call 'modernist'. The particular movement of revision and qualification I have in mind was initially labelled 'Objectivism', a loose grouping of poets – George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi and Charles Reznikoff – who appeared on the literary scene in the early 1930s. Their manifesto, designedly unsystematic, was framed by Zukofsky and published as 'Sincerity and Objectification' in the February 1931 issue of Poetry magazine. One of the striking things about this group of poets is that their careers were lengthy ones, each of them publishing a major book as late as the 1970s, and thereby bringing some disorder to a chronology which likes to see 'modernism' expiring before the Second World War. To complicate matters further, two of its members, Oppen and Rakosi, ceased writing altogether for a long period of time. Oppen, on whom I shall concentrate here, published his first book, Discrete Series, in 1934 and nothing else until 1962. After his long period of silence, during which he worked as a communist party labour organiser and ended up as an exile in Mexico, fleeing FBI harassment, Oppen went on to publish a sequence of major volumes. (7)

Perhaps surprisingly, though, given this complicated chronology, critics have until recently tended to emphasise the essential continuity of the Objectivists' work with that of the so-called high modernists, and notably of Ezra Pound. Hugh Kenner, for example, one of the earliest commentators on the group, saw them as representing primarily a turn toward an authentic American subject-matter. Their aim, he says, was 'to make cosmopolis anew, to make it here at home'. (8) The importance of the Objectivists for Kenner is that they bring to fulfilment the promise of an earlier generation of modernist writers: indeed, he says, 'they seem to have been born mature, not to say middle-aged. The quality of their very youthful work is that of men who have inherited a formed tradition: the tradition over the cradle of which, less than twenty years previously, Ezra Pound had hoped to have Henry James, O.M., speak a few sponsoring words.' This is, we might think, a surprisingly narrow view of a group of writers whose works were in fact profoundly marked by Jewishness, Marxism, surrealism, even by a tentative feminism – precisely those elements, of course, that Kenner's particular brand of high modernism would regard as troublingly 'foreign'. Yet the fit between Objectivism and Poundian modernism was actually not at all as seamless as Kenner suggests, partly because, as I've already noted, the chronology involved is an extended and (in the case of Oppen and Rakosi) a broken one; but also because Objectivism arguably reconfigured Poundian modernism by its particular attraction to forms of foreignness and alterity – to things and experiences valued precisely for their unhomely quality.

It might not seem to claim much to say, for example, that American writers were drawn to the work of Europeans, or even that this contact introduced them to forms of writing attuned to negativity, scepticism, and the inevitability of aesthetic 'failure' – a tradition running from Mallarmé, on into writers such as Kafka, Musil and Beckett, and informing much recent continental speculation about literary production (the work of Maurice Blanchot is an obvious example). Critics such as Kenner, though, have tended to read Objectivism as a turn to a kind of authentic Americanism rather than to see that its often sceptical tenor bespeaks a radical questioning of the political and transcendental underpinnings of the Poundian poetic. Even William Carlos Williams, author of In the American Grain, could observe late in his life that 'My eyes have been so unfailingly directed toward Europe, toward what has come out of Paris especially, that I had little interest in anything else. You may be surprised to hear a man who has so identified with American beginnings say this but it is so. The very shock of America to my nerves has made me the more European in my instinctive reactions.' (9) Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker provides another example. Frequently read as the epitome of a small-scale, 'homely' poet, Niedecker in her late work was in fact significantly influenced by her encounter with contemporary French poets like Jean Daive and André du Bouchet. In their writing she discovered distinctly unhomely forms of 'abstractionism', as she called it, forms which, as one of Daive's reviewers described them, sought to 'substitute for real space a mental space, a place…empty, impossible, undermined by the least sign of rootedness.' (10)

That idea of an undermining of rootedness will be one of my main concerns here, particularly insofar as it impacts on ways of defining the legitimate scope and ambition of the poetic enterprise, and, in acknowledging certain limits to these, also reconfigures in fundamental ways the relation of writing to cognitive process. One way of grasping this aspect of American modernism's evolution is by looking first at Pound's Cantos, a poem which, in contravention of its original formal aims, came increasingly to epitomise a fantasy of groundedness and 'home'. The tension between beginning and end in Pound's poem, between an initial exilic openness and a concluding desire for rootedness, arguably provided one spur to the 'modernisation' of modernism which I shall attribute to Oppen. In the latter's work, the figure of exile and homelessness would be a significant feature of a reformulated modernism, a figure frequently associated with a conception of Europe as 'other'.

All of which may remind us once again of the complicated nature of modernism's chronology. For Oppen would only begin to write poetry again around the time of Pound's release from St Elizabeths hospital in 1958 where he had spent the past thirteen years waiting to stand trial for treason. Monument to 'high' modernism though they may be, Pound's Cantos were in fact still appearing, with the section called Thrones published in 1959, and a final volume, Drafts and Fragments, issued as late as 1969. Dates such as these play havoc with customary ways of containing modernism within the first half of the century. (11) And perhaps even more important, this acknowledgment of the extended history of modernism invites us to weigh the later Cantos in the same balance as European works like Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus and Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, works which sought to evaluate the modernist project in the light of a modernity now 'ruined' by the disaster of a second World War. In fact, Broch's novel, published in 1945, offers numerous points of comparison with Pound's Pisan Cantos, published three years later. Both texts regard the War as marking a seismic faultline in history which calls in question the very nature of art's function. On the day before his death, Broch's Virgil dreams of destroying his Aeneid, a work he now feels to be somehow inhuman in its sacrifice of ethics to aesthetics and in its misplaced celebration of the Roman state. Like Pound in the death cells at Pisa, Broch had had his own intimations of mortality when imprisoned by the Gestapo, and his novel weighs his sense of human finitude against what he now sees as the failure of art's metaphysical pretensions. The future, which Virgil himself will not live to see, belongs to Christianity, and the novel's scepticism about art is the means by which Virgil is finally able to see something beyond its autotelic laws, something which is both individual and shared, the absolute exteriority of death. The great symbolic figures of Broch's novel and its construction as a series of 'musical' and cosmic movements through the four elements, from 'Water – the Arrival' to 'Air – the Homecoming', certainly resonate with the similar but more fragmented images of The Pisan Cantos, as does its intricate sense of what Broch describes as 'past and future cross[ing] each other'. (12) Yet while Pound is also counting the cost of art's failed engagement with politics, The Pisan Cantos, in contrast to Broch's novel, attribute that failure not to the shortcomings of art but to the politicians who have refused to learn from it. Hence the remarkable stoicism of the sequence and its never wavering belief that a poetic language of 'rectitude', as Pound calls it, might somehow survive the debacle of Mussolini's regime, like a diamond 'torn from its setting', even though its desired political embodiment lies in ruins. (13)

From this point on, The Cantos, while continuing to expand its range of reference through Section: Rock-Drill and Thrones, will at the same time seek a ground or home in radically simplified forms of social order. Aesthetic modernism here survives, but only by banishing modernity as referent and antagonist. In contrast to Virgil's homecoming, which discloses a sort of 'outside' to art, something inexpressible which lies beyond its powers of representation, Pound's progressive dissolution of 'history' in myths of organic stability produces an exactly opposite motion, with the poem increasingly turning in on itself. Pound's Confucianism is now dedicated to an extreme localism: 'Earth and water dye the wind in your valley', he writes (703), 'Establish the homestead' (718), 'One village in order' (723), and so on. 'The plan,' we are told, 'is in nature/rooted' (723) and the social order is likewise organic and external: 'The State is corporate/as with pulse in its body' (721), 'The whole tribe is from one man's body' (722). The landscapes of these Cantos live in what Bakhtin calls 'folkloric' time, not in history, producing what Bakhtin calls 'This little spatial world…limited and sufficient unto itself, not linked in any intrinsic way with other places, with the rest of the world'. (14)

Pound's narrowing of focus and his deliberately parochial sense of value seem distant indeed from the nomadic drive of the earlier Cantos, where multilingualism, as George Steiner once remarked, placed Pound in a modernist company which included self-consciously exilic writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Borges, Nabokov and Pessoa. (15) Pound's late turn toward 'home' is, of course, freighted with ideological investments, reminding us of his wartime denunciations of Judaism not only for its alleged 'intellectualism', but also for the nomadic and anti-agrarian basis of what he had called its 'anti-statal' values. (16) Recoiling from Fascism's disastrous end and, indeed, from his own personal disaster which had brought him to the brink of a trial for treason, Pound discovered in the imagery of an idealised feudalism the key to a perfectly enclosed and finished world in which language seemed absolutely to embrace its objects.

In its repudiation of the modernity that lay 'outside', the world of the late Cantos invites comparison with that of another important European novel which sought to reckon with cultural 'disaster', Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. Hesse's novel ironically projects a distant future in which culture has survived only by becoming an elitist, semi-religious game. Like an unimaginably complex form of chess, the game is played with cultural fragments: it might start, says Hesse, 'from a sentence out of Leibnitz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore the initial motif, or else enrich its expressiveness by allusion to kindred concepts.' (17) The form of the game, modelled on fugue and counterpoint, and developing an 'international language of symbols' akin, says Hesse, to 'the ancient Chinese script' cannot but remind us of Pound's later Cantos, and uncomfortably so, since the Glass Bead Game exemplifies not only an ideal of artistic autonomy but also the social remoteness of the intellectuals who play it and the disastrous aestheticisation of politics which their withdrawal ultimately permits.

For younger writers like Oppen, The Cantos similarly refused to reckon with the brutal facts of political disaster ('Pound, the encyclopedic, didn't speak of the gas chambers'). (18) We might gauge the nature of that refusal by considering briefly another approach to 'disaster', that of Maurice Blanchot. For Blanchot, the 'disaster' is a condition of being outside dialectic and history. It is, for that reason, not to be understood as an empirical, apocalyptic event (though in The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot does signal the holocaust as 'the absolute event of history' ). (19) It entails, as one commentator puts it, 'a concept of exteriority rather than of catastrophe'; (20) it is, says Blanchot, 'the force of writing' but, at the same time, something 'excluded from it' as 'the limit of writing'. (21) The 'disaster', something never directly experienced, is what makes us, says Blanchot, 'uprooted creatures, deprived by language itself of language – of language understood as ground where the germinal root would plunge, and as the promise of a developing life'. (22) The terms Blanchot uses here are fortuitously appropriate ones in which to talk about Pound, who early in his life had himself celebrated the visionary powers of what he called the 'germinal universe' (23) and who much later would speak in Canto XCIX /723 of 'the plan…in nature /rooted'; but, of course, Blanchot's use of such terms points up the absolute divergence between him and Pound in their respective sense of what 'disaster' is. For the final stages of The Cantos are driven by two main impulses: one, to constitute history itself as disaster (precisely the opposite move to Blanchot's and one which allows Pound to retain concepts of tradition, futurity and the sacred, while reinscribing history as fate and conspiracy); the other, to discover somewhere in the closing movements of his long poem the promise of an ending by which the 'ruined' and fragmentary remains of history might recompose themselves in a figure of homecoming powerful enough to contain the centrifugal tendencies of a poem that now seemed to its author perilously 'nomadic'. For Blanchot, of course, it is precisely this threat of some solipsistic closure that is to be resisted. Again using terms similar to Pound's, but with a predictably different inflection, Blanchot asserts that being Jewish is 'an affirmation of nomadic truth', whereas 'To be pagan is to plant oneself in the earth, as it were, to establish oneself through a pact with the permanence that authorizes sojourn and is certified by certainty in the land.' (24) For Blanchot, this very 'fixity' is the mark of a blindness to the claims of the other, a form of self-possession which refuses the challenge of exteriority.

I want to suggest that, in attempting to meet just this challenge, the Objectivists sought a new kind of encounter with modernity, one which propelled them in a direction quite opposite to Pound's trajectory in the late Cantos. (25) In Oppen's case, his return to poetry in the late fifties opened a perspective on modernism as something precisely lacking in any 'fixity' or ground. As with Blanchot's notion of 'disaster', Oppen's sense of poetry's unrootedness signified at once the damaged condition of post-war modernity and the kind of formal openness which would be the only guarantee of poetry's survival in the future. His divergence from Poundian modernism was thus inevitable and, as comments in his personal notes or 'Daybooks' show, not just for ideological reasons but for technical, poetic ones as well. 'Pound,' he remarks, 'never freed himself from argument, the moving of chess pieces', (26) and whether or not Oppen here recalls Pound's early 'The Game of Chess', where the 'moves break and reform the pattern', (27) he conceives of 'argument' as a 'game of thought' in which each 'piece' has its meaning assigned in advance. (28) It may seem odd that Oppen should fault the elliptical and fragmented modes of The Cantos for being an 'argument', but his choice of that word points up a significant divergence between his poetics and Pound's. At issue are not merely the argumentative habits of the older poet's work and the hectoring tone of the late stages of his poem, but, more importantly, what Oppen sees as a tendency there to the same kind of closure and solipsism that characterise Hesse's imaginary game. If poetry is to serve as 'a test of truth', as Oppen puts it in one of his rare prose statements, it has to resist the attractions of self-legitimating 'argument':

It is possible to say anything in abstract prose, but a great many things one believes or would like to believe or things he believes will not substantiate themselves in the concrete materials of the poem. It is not to say that the poet is immune to the "real" world to say that he is not likely to find the moment, the image, in which a political generalization or any other generalization will prove its truth. (29)

What Oppen aims at in his own work, then, is 'Not argument of thought, nor even the argument of the I, but the argument of consciousness./ Consciousness in itself and of itself carries the principle of actualness / for it itself is actual.' (30) The distinction is fundamental to Oppen's thinking, partly because it stresses the openness of the poem, the tentativeness of its movement toward a future horizon, but also because it sets a limit to scepticism by locating one 'truth' which is not open to doubt: 'Impossible to doubt the actualness of one's own consciousness: but therefore consciousness in itself, of itself, by itself carries the principle of ACTUALNESS for it, itself, is actual beyond doubt.' (31) A reality, then, not known in advance and not grounded in the echoing continuum of 'tradition' – this is the locus of a poetics for which 'there must be no possible impression of a statement having been put into verse'. (32) Rather, 'the thinking occurs at the moment of the poem, within the poem[.] As the image forms in the mind, forms in the present and surrounds me tho it may speak of the past'. (33)

In this context it is perhaps not surprising that Oppen prized Parmenides' famous axiom, 'the same is to think and to be', (34) and took one of his epigraphs for his 1965 collection This In Which from Heidegger's discussion of Parmenides. (35) As his remarks about Pound suggest, Oppen may well have seen the divergence between himself and the older poet as a reflection of the ancient divergence proposed in Heidegger's essay. There Heidegger argues that with the Sophists and Plato, a cleavage opened up between thinking and being, with the latter term assimilated to the 'suprasensory realm' of the idea. 'Truth' then became not the disclosure of being, but 'the correctness of the logos. With this the logos has departed from its original inclusion in the happening of unconcealment.' (36) 'This differentiation,' argues Heidegger, 'is a name for the fundamental attitude of the Western spirit. In accordance with this attitude, being is defined from the standpoint of thinking and reason' – or 'argument', to use Oppen's word. (37) If poetry is a rejection of this 'differentiation', it is because it offers (as Gerald Bruns puts it) 'A language not for use: a language that can only be described by a kind of topology, not by grammar or rules.' (38)

What kind of 'topology' might this be? Certainly, Oppen's late work, especially his last volume, Primitive, pays little heed to rule and convention, working with notoriously fragmented syntactic elements and exploiting the literal spaces of the printed page. In addition to this, however, his reading of Heidegger also leads to a significant reformulation of the idea of tradition that had been so important to first generation Anglo-American modernists. For Oppen, allusions to a cultural past, far from being pieces in a 'game of thought', are the products of sudden intuitions, intrusions, even, which substitute radical contingency for an ordered tradition. Michael Heller remarks that 'all of Oppen's significant influences are given to him in extremis', and this neatly catches the conjunction of chance and anxiety that tends to characterise the irruption of other voices in Oppen's work. (39) So, puzzling over his early poem about 'boredom' ('The knowledge not of sorrow'), he notes that this was

an odd word to use. I am touched by superstition remembering my hesitation over that word and the sense of having been given it. Followed by a much later event, involving a dream and all the trappings, in which I had dreamed quite literally of being given a phrase over a telephone and, the following morning wrote into a poem a quotation from a short essay of Heidegger's which I had been reading the night before. When I checked the quotation – not there!' (40)

Heidegger's thought is both foreign and resistant, manifesting itself in a kind of dreamlike (and deceptive) dictation from 'outside' which undermines familiar certainties of home and tradition. In contrast to the substantive 'piths and gists' of The Cantos, the phrases Oppen draws from European thinkers such as Heidegger, Hegel, Simone Weil, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein have a kind of evanescence about them, being already partly absorbed into the occasion of Oppen's writing and modified by it. (41) They do not have an exemplary function or direct us back to some supplementary source; rather, they allow the present tense of the poem's thought to continue. Yet this movement forward is a highly tentative and precarious one, lacking the kind of 'ground' that allusion was intended to secure in The Cantos. The poetic intelligence is, accordingly, 'nomadic', to use Blanchot's word, a prey to the 'anxiety' that Heidegger described in his Introduction to Metaphysics, a text with which Oppen was familiar:

In anxiety, we say, 'one feels ill at ease [es ist einem unheimlich].' What is 'it' that makes 'one' feel ill at ease? We cannot say what it is before which one feels ill at ease. As a whole it is so for him. All things and we ourselves sink into indifference. This, however, not in the sense of mere disappearance. Rather in this very receding things turn toward us. The receding of beings as a whole that closes in on us in anxiety oppresses us. We can get no hold on things. In the slipping away of beings only this 'no hold on things' comes over us and remains….We 'hover' in anxiety. (42)

Unheimlich, or 'unhomelike', 'not-being-at-home' [das Nicht-zuhause-sein], as Heidegger had put it in Being and Time, (43) might help to define a characteristic mood of Oppen's work ('One writes in presence of something/Moving close to fear', as he puts it in one poem [CP, 223]). This anxiety or 'dis-orientation' (44) is as much a formal as an emotional condition. It entails a particular (ethical) stance toward the world, in face of which the loss of 'hold on things' marks a refusal of knowledge and mastery.

Two poems published in the early seventies show how these ideas informed Oppen's critical view of Poundian modernism. In the first of these, 'Of Hours', his 'Old friend' is clearly rebuked for his egotism – 'What is it you "loved"/ Twisting your voice', Oppen asks in a sharp reminder of Pound's 'What thou lovest well remains' – but perhaps the most telling aspect of the poem is its way of proposing its own elliptical structure as a critique of Poundian self-certainty: 'Holes pitfalls open/ In the cop's accoutrement', Oppen writes, invoking not only the literally fissured landscape of the war in which he almost lost his own life, but also those syntactical 'holes' and hesitancies that work to undermine the poet's authority. At the poem's close, Pound pursues his way 'homeward' but remains 'unteachable'. Oppen implies that it was the poet's monopoly on 'truth' that led to the 'twisting' of his voice, and his own poem attempts a directness which equates sincerity with the recognition of limits – of, we might say, the world's resistance to metaphor (hence we have the 'rubble' of Alsace rather than Pound's visionary stone). (45) The second poem, 'Speech at Soli', similarly takes Pound to task for his failure of vision: 'war in incoherent/ sunlight it will not/ cohere it will NOT…'. (46) Only in a self-legitimating 'game of thought' can the 'incoherence' of war be sublated in aesthetic form. Oppen's title, he explained in an interview, derived from his discovery that 'the etymology of "solipsism" was the name of a place, Soli. The Greeks, apparently, thought that town somewhere in Italy to be a very barbarous place'. (47) In contrast, then, to the Poundian 'solipsism', poetic language, in Oppen's view, allows us not to grasp 'truth' as concept, but, quite the opposite, to accept limits to our cognitive ambitions by creating a language which recognises what he calls the 'impenetrability' of the world: 'That which exists,' he says, 'can not be explained[.] it cannot be analyzed, it is the object of contemplative thought, it is known by "indwelling".' (48) With this last, Heideggerian word, Oppen gestures toward a world in which we have a place rather than a world that offers itself as an object for knowledge (the title of his third volume of poems, This In Which, seems to make precisely this point). (49) That such a world is 'impenetrable' does not mean, however, that it is unintelligible: as the poems show, it is available to reflection, but its resistance to reduction establishes it as powerfully different, as non-identical. (50)

This sense of encountering the world as something irreducibly other gives poetic language an unresolved, lacunary quality, with syntactical openness and hesitancy constantly proposing shared relationships and experiences without formulating them absolutely. In a very specific sense, the language, with its 'holes' and 'pitfalls', seems to fail in its attempt to grasp the real, and thought becomes a matter of doubting rather than asserting or believing. (51) But it is this very failure, the 'holes' opening up in the fabric of language, that allows the disclosure of 'the commonplace that pierces or erodes/The mind's structure' (CP, 206). In an early letter to Cid Corman, Oppen explains that

I think of form as immediacy, as the possibility of being grasped. I look for the thinnest possible surface.– at times, no doubt, too thin : a hole, a lapse…There is no point in defending lapses – but that is, of all risks the one I plan to live with. I am much more afraid of a solid mass of words. (52)

The discursive order of ' a solid mass of words' is 'pierced' by something that resists thematisation, by 'The absolutely incomprehensible, which pierces any possible structure of the mind'. (53) This particular sense of lacunary structure is quite different from Pound's use of ellipsis and juxtaposition in the late Cantos. As I have suggested elsewhere, Thrones, the last main sequence of the poem, shows Pound increasingly drawn to formulations of absolute identity, notably through expressions of monetary value such as '8 stycas: one scat', '2 doits to a boodle' and so on. (54) His 'ideogrammic method' had originally seemed to offer resistance to an identificatory mode of thinking that would subsume objects to concepts, expressing instead a kind of remainder always in excess of the process of adequation (in defining the word 'red', for example, the ideogram containing 'rose', 'cherry', 'iron rust' and 'flamingo' instigates multiple displacements away from any simple identification of subject and predicate). By way of contrast, expressions such as '2 doits to a boodle' leave no remainder and produce a moment of reified identity in which being – the 'is' of equivalence – can express itself only as quantity.

Oppen's aim, we might say, is to redeem this 'is' from the closure of predication by launching the poem in the direction of the 'is' of existence: 'if we still possessed the word "is", there would be no need to write poems', he observes. (55) Hence his account of Discrete Series as 'my own attempt toward the primacy of subject as against predicate' (56) as a way of defining poetry in terms of what he calls its 'primary concern with postulation'. (57) And again: 'the poem as process of thought….The primacy of the nominative, which Hegel spoke of, the primacy of subject. Revelation in the nominative: there can be no predicate of revelation. It is never which is which[.]' (58) What Oppen calls his 'ontology', then, is arrived at by suspending the predicative impulse, and as here he frequently dissociates this aim from mere 'argument' or 'comment' by a (mis)quotation from Hegel: 'Disagreement marks where the subject matter ends; it is what the subject matter is not'. (59)

A poem from Seascape: Needle's Eye (1972) provides an example of the means by which Oppen seeks to evade any homely 'solipsism':

      From a Phrase of Simone Weil's and Some Words of Hegel's

In          back          deep the jewel
The treasure
No         Liquid
Pride of the living life's liquid
Pride in the sandspit wind this ether this other this element all
It is I or I believe
We are the beaks of the ragged birds
Tune of the ragged bird's beaks
In the tune of the winds
Ob via               the obvious
Like a fire of straws
Aflame in the world or else poor people hide
Yourselves together             Place
Place where desire
Lust of the eyes the pride of life and foremost of the storm's
Multitude moves the wave belly-lovely
Glass of the glass sea shadow of water
On the open water no other way
To come here the outer
Limit of the ego (60)

It is characteristic of the difficulty of Oppen's later poems that the 'phrase' of Weil's and the words of Hegel in the title have yet to be identified. (61) Furthermore, Oppen's radically disjointed syntax leaves us fumbling for clues about the direction in which the poem is headed. To be sure, we can trace certain main lines of association: there is the sea to figure space and desire – 'the wave belly-lovely' – and the familiar celebration of the impenetrability of the real: 'ob via', the Latin meaning literally what is lying in the way, at hand. The poem seems to push toward some 'outer limit' where the homelessness of drifting 'On the open water' allows an apprehension of 'being' (in his Daybook, Oppen writes of 'Being, in which intelligence must come to rest. The defining limit of thought'). (62)

I suspect that the 'words of Hegel's' appear in Oppen's 'this ether this other this element' and are drawn from the following passage in the 'Preface' to the Phenomenology:

A self having knowledge purely of itself in the absolute antithesis of itself, this pure ether as such, is the very soil where science flourishes, is knowledge in universal form. The beginning of philosophy presupposes or demands from consciousness that it should feel at home in this element. (63)

We can begin to see, then, that in its larger movement at any rate, the poem seeks the 'absolute antithesis' of the self in 'the obvious'; it is in that exilic, outward journey that the self or ego is finally seen as something bounded and limited, witness to 'the pride of life' only in its recognition of what is not its self. (64) It is not surprising that the poem seems to court unintelligibility since Oppen's commitment to the irreducibility of the real has to be embodied in a language which itself abandons predication. The fragmentary first line thus warns us in advance that this is a language that will not clarify itself through the normal procedures of 'thought', but will leave us instead with words and phrases which stubbornly refuse to be drawn into any kind of 'argument'. There are literary allusions here – perhaps to Eliot's 'I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas' and to Stevens's 'The Idea of Order at Key West' – but Oppen's poem does not engage in ironic self-presentation or conjure with some paradigm of aesthetic order. Instead, there is a desire for some pure exteriority which allows the 'ego' to be defined only at the point at which it runs up against what is not itself. There is an emphasis on the 'lust of the eyes', on the making manifest in the sudden flaming of the dry straw, and this is contrasted with the poor who 'hide' together. It may be that it is this rather cryptic reference to the poor that is borrowed fromWeil, for in her book Waiting on God which Oppen knew she writes of 'A popular Spanish song [which] says in words of marvellous truth: "If anyone wants to make himself invisible, there is no surer way than to become poor."' (65) If this is the passage Oppen has in mind it would support a reading that emphasises some sort of turn from 'I' to 'we', redeeming a notion of collectivity by embedding it in the 'obvious'.

Interestingly, it was in just this way that Oppen responded to one interviewer who had rather missed the point of this poem. The interviewer asks:

Have you moved more, in these poems, to an inner landscape? I'm saying this a little clumsily but in the first poem you seem to start inside the 'dark jewel', then move out to the actual world of the 'ragged birds' beaks', and finally return back in to the 'limits of the ego'. (66)

One can sympathise with the interviewer's perplexity, but what is interesting is his ready construal of the poem as 'an inner landscape' and his sense of it achieving closure in a movement of return (a kind of homecoming, again). Oppen is tactful but firm in his response:

I did, however, say no to the jewel. Unless the jewel sees: unless the jewel, like a mirror, gives something back. I was speaking again of my own specific response and not searching that interior. I said no, and then said it's the lust of the eyes that moves the belly-wave. It acknowledges the spirit and circumstances of where we are, of being far at sea, of being among the elements. It's a little too complex to reduce but it definitely rejects that inner space. It says no to it except where the spirit moves out to infinity, or at least to the given which I take to be infinite. (67)

Oppen's account of his poem is not completely clear, though his emphatic rejection of an 'inner space' in favour of 'the circumstances of where we are' is surely one kind of attempt to open poetry to something beyond the self. At least we might say that the particular ambition of this poem and Oppen's attendant sense of modernity as a 'being far at sea' are there to remind us of some of the 'fixities' left in our wake as we move from one modernism to another.



1. One driving force behind the recent expansion of work in the field is the Modernist Studies Association which has held a large-scale annual conference since 1999. In an earlier form, the present essay was given as a paper to the first conference of the MSA. >

2. Modernisms: A Literary Guide (London: Macmillan, 1995). >

3. See, for example, Houston A. Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987, Maria Balshaw, Looking for Harlem: Urban Aesthetics in African-American Literature (London: Pluto Press, 2000); Cary Nelson, Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989) and Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left (New York: Routledge, 2001), Al Filreis, Modernism from Right to Left: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties and Literary Radicalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London and New York: Verso, 1996). >

4. For a recent example, see Georgina Taylor, HD and the Public Sphere of Modernist Women Writers 1913-46 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). >

5.See, for example, Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) and Mark Morrisson, The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences and Reception, 1905-20 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001). >

6. See, for example, Lyndsey Stonebridge, The Destructive Element: British Psychoanalysis and Modernism (London: Macmillan, 1998), Alan Antliff, Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001, David Trotter, Paranoid Modernism: Literary Experiment, Psychosis, and the Professionalization of English Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, Michael Szalay, New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000). >

7. The Materials (1962), This In Which (1965), Of Being Numerous (1968), Seascape: Needle's Eye (1972), Primitive (1978). The 1976 Collected Poems has now been superseded by New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002). Reference will be made to this volume as NCP throughout. >

8. Hugh Kenner, A Homemade World: the American Modernist Writers (1975; London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 18. Further references will be given in the text. See also the discussion of these ideas in my 'A Homemade World? America, Europe and Objectivist Poetry' in Cristina Giorcelli, ed., The Idea and the Thing in Modernist American Poetry (Palermo: Editrice Ila Palma, 2001), 13-30. >

9. Williams, Unpublished letter to Henry W. Wells, quoted in A. Walton Litz, 'Williams and Stevens: the Quest for a Native American Modernism', in R. P. Draper, ed., The Literature of Region and Nation (London: Macmillan, 1989), 181. >

10. Quoted in my 'Lorine Niedecker: Rural Surreal', in Jenny Penberthy, ed., Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet (Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, 1996), 215. Cid Corman's magazine Origin played a crucial part in bringing such writers to an American audience. >

11. Other critics have noted this problem of chronology: see, for example, Charles Altieri, 'The Objectivist Tradition', Stephen Fredman, '"And All Now Is War": George Oppen, Charles Olson, and the Problem of Literary Generations', and Andrew Crozier, 'Zukofsky's List', all in Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain, ed., The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1999. An earlier discussion of the problem is Ron Silliman, 'Third Phase Objectivism', Paideuma, 10.1 (Spring 1981), 85-91. >

12. Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil, trans. Jean Starr Untermeyer (1946; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 21. >

13. Pound, The Cantos (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 444. >

14. M.M.Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas, 1981), 225. >

15. George Steiner, Extraterritorial: Papers on Literature and the Language Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 16-17. >

16. For an account of Pound's wartime journalism, see my Ezra Pound: Politics, Economics and Writing (London: Macmillan, 1984), 151-60. >

17.Hermann Hesse, Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), trans. Richard and Clara Winston (1943; New York: Bantam Books, 1970), 30. >

18. Significantly, perhaps, this is Oppen's most forthright comment on Pound's guilt and it is confided to his notebook (see 'The Circumstances: A Selection from George Oppen's Uncollected Writing', ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, in Sulfur, 25 (Fall 1989), 22). The fullest and most conflicted response is, arguably, Charles Olson's; see Catherine Seelye, ed., Charles Olson and Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1975). For an extended discussion of Oppen's relation to Pound, see Rachel Blau DuPlessis, 'Objectivist Poetics and Political Vision', in Burton Hatlen, ed., George Oppen: Man and Poet (Orono, Me: National Poetry Foundation, 1981), 123-48. >

19. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 47. >

20. Gerald. L. Bruns, Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1997), 210 >

21. The Writing of the Disaster, 7. >

22. Ibid., 86. >

23. Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910;New York: New Directions, 1968), 92. >

24. Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 125. >

25. Several contributors to The Objectivist Nexus, make this point. Burton Hatlen, for example, discerns 'some distinctively Jewish overtones in the insistence of the Objectivists that the world is not only real but Other' (45), while Alan Golding comments on 'a shift from the high modernist ("the perfect") to a postmodernist ("the possible") poetics of Oppen, and Charles Altieri characterises the Objectivist ideal of 'sincerity' as a demand for 'an eloquence based on the resistance to eloquence' (302) – both moves against the kind of 'self-possession' of which Blanchot speaks. >

26. 'Selections from George Oppen's Daybook', ed. Dennis Young, Iowa Review, 18.3 (1988), 5. >

27. Pound, Collected Shorter Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 131. >

28. 'Selections from George Oppen's Daybook', 6. Cf. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed., 'George Oppen: "The Philosophy of the Astonished"', Sulfur, 27 (Fall 1990), 220: 'the danger is of the chess-board: on which everything has already been named'. >

29. 'The Mind's Own Place', Kulchur, 10 (Summer 1963), 4. >

30. 'Selections from George Oppen's Daybook', 6. >

31. 'Statement on Poetics', Sagetrieb, 3,3 (1984), 27. >

32. Oppen Selected Letters, 104. >

33. 'The Anthropologist of Myself: A Selection from Working Papers', ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Sulfur, 26 (Spring 1990), 160. >

34. Quoted in Oppen, Selected Letters, 133. >

35. The discussion makes up Chapter 4 of Heidegger's An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1959. The phrase Oppen uses – 'the arduous path of appearance' – is at 113. >

36. Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 106, 186. >

37. Ibid, 145. >

38. Gerald L. Bruns, Maurice Blanchot, 62. >

39. Michael Heller, '"Knowledge is Loneliness Turning": Oppen's Going Down Middle-Voice', Ironwood 26 (Fall 1985), 56. >

40. Selected Letters, 156. For a fuller discussion of this poem, see Randolph Chilton, 'The Place of Being in the Poetry of George Oppen', in George Oppen: Man and Poet, 108-10, and my 'A Homemade World?', 19-22. >

41. For analogies to Oppen's way with quotation and citation it is helpful to look to contemporary poets. See, for example, 'An Interview with Michael Palmer', in Thomas Gardner, Regions of Unlikeness: Explaining Contemporary Poetry (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 286: 'Occasionally I'll appropriate a source verbatim, but often it will be slightly or radically altered. It becomes altered by the impetus of the poem itself, the demands of the rhythm, the surrounding material, whatever. As so it's not quotation exactly. It's a form of citation, but it's layered, covered over.' >

42. Heidegger, The Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1997), 103. Cf. Gerald L. Bruns, Heidegger's Estrangements: Language, Truth, and Poetry in the Later Writings (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), 49: 'Poetry lets things go and comes into its own in this event of letting-go. It manifests what is merely present before us or set over against us in the form of representations; it breaks the hold we have on things and allows them to come into their own as beings.' >

43. Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 233. >

44. See Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, 'In the Name of…', in Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, Retreating the Political, ed. Simon Sparks (London: Routledge, 1997), 64 for this translation of Freud's Unheimlichkeit. >

45. See 'The Mind's Own Place', 3: 'It is possible to find a metaphor for anything, an analogue: but the image is encountered, not found; it is an account of the poet's perception, of the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness.' On 'limits', see Michael Davidson, ed., 'An Adequate Vision: A George Oppen Daybook', Ironwood 26 (Fall 1985), 24: '[William] Bronk. An intellectual insight which becomes an emotional force thru the recognition of its limits, the recognition of its failures…'. >

46. The allusion is, of course, to Pound's Canto CXVI. >

47. Kevin Power, 'An Interview with George and Mary Oppen', Montemora, 4 (1978), 220. Oppen's etymology seems slightly awry here. Soli was an ancient Anatolian seaport. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, 'The bad Greek spoken there gave origin to the term solecism (Greek soloikismos).' The usual derivation of 'solipsism' is from solus and ipse. >

48. Selected Letters, 115. >

49. Cf. The letter quoted in Burt Kimmelman, The 'Winter Mind': William Bronk and American Letters (Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998), 146: 'If we accept [Bronk's scepticism] we have to discard the idea of predictable cause and effect, but that's about all. The world will remain as something IN WHICH we exist among other existences.' >

50. See, for example, NCP, 164: 'As the world, if it is matter/ Is impenetrable'. Cf. 'George Oppen: "The Philosophy of the Astonished"', 218 on 'The real; that which possesses an indestructible element, an irreducible element…'. >

51. Selected Letters, 118-9: 'Doubt, rather than faith, is the motivation of an ethic of pity.The one ethic left to us – or, or??' Oppen quotes approvingly his friend and fellow-poet William Bronk to the effect that 'it is by our most drastic failures that we may perhaps catch glimpses of something real, of something which is' (Selected Letters, 167). >

52. Selected Letters, 40. >

53. 'Selections from George Oppen's Daybook' , ed. Dennis Young, 12. This motif of 'piercing' occurs in several poems. See, in addition to 'The Occurrences', NCP, 212, 'Of this all things…', NCP, 129 ('everything is pierced/ By her presence'), 'Some San Francisco Poems', NCP, 222 ('Pierced and touched'). Oppen may also have recalled the use of the same word in Simone Weil's Waiting on God, trans. Emma Crawfurd (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951), 78: 'this nail has pierced a hole through all creation, through the thickness of the screen which separates the soul from God.' Oppen quotes part of the passage about the nail at the beginning of 'Of Hours'. >

54. See my '2 doits to a boodle: reckoning with Thrones', Sagetrieb (forthcoming). The quotations are from Canto XCVII, but examples of circular definition abound in this sequence. >

55. Selected Letters, 249. See also Burton Hatlen, 'Between Modernism and PostModernism: Truth and Indeterminacy in the Poetry of George Oppen', in Giorcerlli, ed., The Idea and the Thing in Modernist American Poetry, 89 n.38. >

56. Selected Letters, 180. >

57. Ibid., 179. >

58. 'George Oppen: "The Philosophy of the Astonished"', 208. >

59. See Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J.B.Baillie (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1931), 69: 'For the real subject-matter is not exhausted in its purpose, but in working the matter out….Similarly, the distinctive difference of anything is rather the boundary, the limit, of the subject; it is found at that point where the subject-matter stops, or it is what this subject-matter is not.' For 'ontology', see, for example, Selected Letters, 118-9: 'I speak of the ontological not the ethical problem.' >

60. NCP, 211. >

61. In the interview with Kevin Power, Oppen seems to suggest that the passage from Weil is the one used as an epigraph for 'Of Hours'. However, it is not clear from the context that he is definitely referring to 'From a Phrase…' here and the passage itself does not connect in any obvious way with the poem in question. >

62 George Oppen, 'Daybooks One, Two and Three', The Germ, 3 (April 1999), 238. Variations on the phrase include 'this is a work of the intellect in that it feels the extreme outer limit of the ego' ('George Oppen: "The Philosophy of the Astonished"', 218). >

63. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, 86 (my emphases). For Oppen's reading of the 'Preface', see, for example, Selected Letters, 240-1. >

64. The 'jewel' and 'treasure' rejected in the poem's third line seem somehow related to an idea of fetishised or introverted selfhood. Cf. the following comment from the Daybook, which suggests too a damaging delimitation of the erotic impulse (the words appear to be addressed to Oppen's wife): 'the Jewel, you thought I was, the warrior, the precious, the vulnerable phallus' ('George Oppen: "The Anthropologist of Myself"', 140) >

65. Weil, Waiting on God, 91. >

66. Power, 'An Interview', 199. >

67. Ibid >