Monday, March 22, 2010

Middle Oppen

Collected Prose:

Daybooks I & II

Collected Poetry:

The Materials
This In Which
Of Being Numerous

Make sure to give special attention to Of Being Numerous.

Also, as we are going into spring break, post once by Sunday, March 28. And twice overall by Sunday, April 4.


  1. Not necessarily to the reading for this week so much as conversations through the semester:

    If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but of thinking of the question that is raised.

    ~ Rene Magritte

  2. The poet who wrote the Materials is not the same poet who wrote Discrete Series. "Grimy death of love" would be blasphemous if it appeared in Discrete Series. "Ozymandias" and "Vulcan" are too mythological for the insistently banal subjects of the first collection of poems, and yet what it actually beautiful in the Discrete Series is present constantly in The Materials.

    Take the first two lines of "Myself I Sing":

    Me! he says, hand on his chest.
    Actually his shirt.

    This is a moment where the beauty of the "Objectivists" as a revolt against the Romantics becomes real (It's arguable whether Whitman is a Romantic, but "Song of Myself" certainly is). The poems of Discrete Series required a lot of pouring over for a very slight pay-off, but the poems of The Materials are both immediate and juicy.

    Also, these poems do more than present an image for a reader to strain after for implication. Image is still a power tool at work in these poems, but in keeping with Oppen's own idea that image only was not the goal of the poem. He presents images but doesn't force them to stand on their own like an old totem whose significance has long past.

    Personally: the brilliance of these poems compared to Discrete Series, which read more like an idiot savant's ramblings than crafted poetry, stands as a sort of sign that the progress of the poet is not just through poems, but through their life. My intuition/ideas about the craft of poetry would tell me that without writing poems for almost 30 years, the second book of poems would be a backsliding from the first; instead, after almost 30 years of not writing poetry, he returned with a book of poems I actually like to read.

  3. I have more to say, which I will say later, but a quick note: I disagree strongly with your first statement. The poems we read for this week are very different from the Discrete Series, yes, but they aren't radically different. At least not to the point of not being able to see the same poet writing them. Take the poem you cited above, the language is a little more sudden, and the method of outburst seems very startling considering the Discrete Series, but look at the content. The way the clothing defines the self, much in the same way the clothing defined the self in many poems from the Discrete Series. The dress defined the woman's body, the breast conformed to the bra. Formally, it might be a little different, but his concerns with Things and our relationship to them is still very strong. This is definitely the same poet.

  4. Also, I’m not sure how the Discrete Series sounded like the ramblings of an idiot savant, especially considering what’s going on in Of Being Numerous. I’m not saying that that sounded like ramblings either, but as a whole it is much more concerned with abstract concepts than images or things. It all seems pretty crafted to me, including the idea centered poetry (Of Being Numerous) and the poetry that revolves around objects (Discrete Series, Materials).

    And really, I’m not sure the value of craft is self-evident. If the poem is brilliant, why do we care how it was generated? I’m also not sure what this “pay-off” we are looking for from a poem is. It seems like we have been reading poems like masturbation; like it should be a simple process with a big reward at the end. I don’t think this really works with Oppen. You read him slowly, over and over, and each time you discover something small, something interesting or something difficult. But you can’t read poems like these and come to some sort of “pay off” where is all is logical and you can arrange it into a tidy little moral.

    I think this is true of most (if not all) poetry, but I think it is especially true with Oppen because he isn’t just using language to look at the world, but to look at our relationship with language and how it allows us to experience the world. He’s using language to look at language. He says in it in the Daybooks “Words are a constant enemy: the thing seems to exist because the word does.” I’d argue that this is a vital project, but one that is ultimately doomed to failure because you cannot define a thing with that thing. There are a lot of people way smarter than me who have said this better, but what I think I am trying to say is what makes Oppen’s poetry so successful for me, the circle is never entirely closed, I never run into a geyser of meaning and feel satisfied to never look at the poem again.

    I think the part Jonathan picked is a perfect example of this very complex kind of poetry. The first line is pretty obvious, right? The speaker says “me” and puts his hand of the chest. But is it that simple? Is the self somehow located and defined in the body? He complicates it in the next line- “Actually, his shirt.” This is more complex than just “you are what you wear.” The speaker is saying one thing, but getting another. It’s like the speaker is mistaking himself, thinks he is indicating himself when objects are getting in the way. Or maybe the shirt is what is seen and is therefore the self. The stanza ends brilliantly, that that this is itself the question. What “me” is the speaker pointing to? How do we define “me”? Where is “me” located? And I think, most importantly for me, what happens when we say “me”? This is especially relevant in terms of words that deal with the self, what is actually indicated in the language we know ourselves with? What makes this part so excellent is that you come out with more questions than answers.

  5. I’ve also been looking at Oppen’s sense of linguistic consciousness, but an interesting new part of self-consciousness becomes manifest in The Materials, a poetic history. Oppen attempts to examine the world through his poetic history. Jonathan, I don’t think it’s really that far removed from the Discrete series that he uses Vulcan and Ozymandias (and simply as titles) because he’s not mythologizing the world of the poems, so much as using the history to interpret modernity. Unlike Shelley, Oppen isn’t calling forth an Egyptian ruler; he’s calling forth Shelley—far less mythological. He does the same thing with Whitman. He’s using the condition of poetry as a method of interpreting modernity and concepts of self-hood.

    Furthermore, I think what actually becomes evident here as Oppen ages is not his ability to communicate with the reader (personally, I find these poems much more self-complicating and inaccessible conceptually; they’re much more difficult to articulate some kind of discrete meaning), but his opinion that words have weight grows. I love the line from the daybooks Genna pulled out, ““Words are a constant enemy: the thing seems to exist because the word does.” It seems Oppen prescribes to the view that words generate a consciousness—our relationship to the world is contingent upon words. Language carries ample representation and is rife with true meaning of some kind. I think this is how Oppen feels comfortable moving toward a directness of speech (if not of poetry) after the Discrete Series.

    Now, we mentioned Zukofsky last week in class re: accessibility in poetics, and now I’ll say that this divide manifests from Zukofsky’s own relationship to language. Essentially, Zukofsky believed that language didn’t have weight as a signifier—it’s meaningless. The weight of a word is not self-evident because it has no real connection to what the word represents (or at least that what I deduce from his sense that sound/music is the most sincere, purely communicative part of language). Oppen finds weight in words, so the value of a very direct statement should be self-evident. It’s like Rilke said: “Every angel is terrifying.” As Zukofsky wrote more, he probably wouldn’t have the same opinion because all those words not only have a complex, rich linguistic history, but also their relationship to any one meaning would be obscure or arbitrary, a play at work in both Catullus and 80 Flowers. Zukofksy probably thought Rilke’s angel was sort of novel, but didn’t have the ability to be scary.

    Now, feel free to stop me with my next statement, but all this considered, it seems that Zukofksy was moving into a more post-structuralist view of language. A word stopped being a meaningful and direct signifier, instead the most meaningful part of the word is what’s inherent in the object of the word itself: the sound. As Genna pointed out, Oppen isn’t unaware of language’s complexities, and he actively creates ambiguities linguistically to trouble our relationship with what he’s representing; he even uses a Heidegger quote to begin This in Which: “…the arduous path of appearance.”

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  7. I'll try to make this post without the metaphysical jargon I keep wanting to use about "Product."

    I read the line "Even the New Englander/Was boatness" and it is everything I want to say about being a product of a place and the place a product, a product of the products in it, too. Like the idea of "chairness," boatness tries to define what it is to be a boat, not a specific boat - and in doing so, Oppen addresses its function, its operation as a thing. In doing so, he includes the people of New England as part of the function and operation; to me this is brilliant. Because of the ambiguity of description, the fewer details that are given the more meaning-full the word "boat" becomes. Without modifiers, the most effective descriptions are usually the least complicated. As in the poem "Myself I Sing" the reminder that we also are objects is plain.

    This is the moment that didn't come for me in Zukofsky or Reznikoff - the acknowledgment of our beloved selves as being at least in part a physical thing which exists apart from our consciousness. I think Charles is right when he says

    "It seems Oppen prescribes to the view that words generate a consciousness—our relationship to the world is contingent upon words. Language carries ample representation and is rife with true meaning of some kind."

    Since I'm not a theist, and I believe it is language which makes the conscious "I" different than the physical "I," I suppose that would equate language with soul in my way of thinking. I feel that by directly observing and addressing the self-as-object, Oppen shows its relation to language and (at least for me) discovers the essence of personal identity - it is more than being able to note when personal identity is present.

    If that didn't make sense, I'll try to clarify it. Again. :)

  8. I find the POV of Sara in Her Father's Arms amazing, just one man to another, no woman present except as possibly a milk-maker (but this is also a part of Sara). I know from psychology classes all about how the infant doesn't realize itself apart from its mother or the rest of the world around it, but I'm sure I've never read an unscientific appreciation of it like this. It seems to challenge the idea that Sara will grow out of that stage, too, don't you think? Another example of the self-as-object, this time as a self-creation. I wish I were more aware of this act in the real-time world.

  9. “Whatever I write has already
    Happened—at least to me.”

    The sections we read came off very personal to me. A poem I really enjoyed was From a Photograph [68]…The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree reworked while looking at a photograph of a daughter; the idea that the daughter thought her parents had been able to give her snow. I really enjoy it. “Whole arms as if I were a loved and native rock,”
    I do feel that the ambiguity of what Oppen does/is doing in these makes it a more interesting experience. I re-read when I construct the context or syntax of the sentence wrong, but I wonder if that is part of the experience. E.g. his use of repeated words sometimes blended into other words and I wondered if my experience was to acknowledge the word that wasn’t there.

    I liked the reworking of the Yeats Quote: “We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart's grown brutal from the fare;” to “They fed their hearts on fantasies / And their hearts have become savage.” I wonder about this. If Oppen is moving toward an observers point, is he referencing the same moment that Yeats examines (No). But what is he doing? Taking the small moment from a Yeats piece and allowing it to encompass everything?

    Also, thought this moment he took from Ecclesiastes was rad: Ecclesiastes 3:11 “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

    Was curious to others reaction to Guest Room on 107. I felt a little lost several times, the linguistic ambiguity that Charles brings up happens here a lot for me. Seems to go through a series of meditations from political to existential to death to this (the all encompassing-this). Reminded me of the question, how do we go from something small to something larger and do we give it the same time? Made me wonder about his use of bullets to section it—how do we take those? Not a new poem, but a new piece of a whole, a whole that is unsequenced? Are the permeable? I don’t really think so.

  10. Jason, I’m glad you brought up some of the ambiguities that are really rife throughout This in Which, mostly because it’s the height of his self-consciousness we’ve seen (outside of the Daybooks). We don’t get the same amount of self-aware sense for language and poetry in the next book, Of Being Numerous (though notably, I may eat my words upon reexamining it).

    Now this in mind, I’d like to focus on two pretty obvious poems to demonstrate this: “Five Poems About Poetry” (101) and “Boy’s Room” (122) (still, I suppose “Five Poems…” could be called a cluster of poems, but ya know).

    First consider the two first sections (poems?) of “Five Poems About Poetry.” In “The Gesture,” wwe get an indication of how we encounter and keep the world in our heads; I keep harping on Oppen’s complex relationship to language and its inherent need. It seems as though in the third couplet here, Oppen begins to articulate a relationship to language, a need to have it to hold something ephemeral. Perhaps that’s my own interpretation, wanting to answer his first question, as the next statement would indicate, essentially paralleling an attempt to hold an ephemeral experience/concept/whatever with positioning it for marketing. I suppose the question that he’s asking poets is how we present our ideas through language: as either a way to market them for benefit (to be read on maybe a mercenary level) or to try and capture something ephemeral through the lyric. If we apply this biographically, I’m not sure how to apply it to his opinion on reader relationship—he doesn’t really seem to be very available at all conceptually. This is a little convoluted, but thoughts?

    In the second section, he’s extremely concerned with the initial perception, using Williams’ metaphor that’s come up previously in this class. He’s setting up poetry as an expression of some sort of relationship with the world through its perception. Considering the idea that Oppen already finds language to be so significant in carrying actual weight through representation, the relationship of perception becomes just as active here, as if the world actively makes itself perceived. In this poem, the world stares back at us.

    “Boy’s Room,” seems a little more available at first, making the poet some non-threatening, somehow below traditional masculinity. Immediately, as part of the book, I’m reminded of the last section of “Five Poems…” regarding the small boy being born, unfit for the gods. Here, I feel Oppen makes an expansion and more direct assertion of the poet as small boy with an expanded set of implications. In both these poems, there’s an implication of the poet as somehow insufficient—he doesn’t have a full grasp of what he does. Applying that to what poets do, make art, it seems Oppen is making an assertion as to a true poet’s role, to chase after something out of reach with the inexact/flawed tool of language. Genna has mentioned something like poetry and language’s inevitable failures being visible in Oppen’s work. Oppen seems to think a true poet (whatever that means) puts themselves in a position of being insufficient—the poet is born as a parva puer: “small boy.”

  11. I’m thrilled Charles brought up both Shelley (last week) and the poem “Boy’s Room,” it ties in very closely with something I found very interesting in that poem. I think Charles was right that Oppen, aware of his poetic history, doesn’t resurrect mythical sea creatures, but in his sort of poetic shout outs (like the one Jason pointed out to Yeats) he is pointing out the sort of mythos of the poet.

    Yet, as mentioned in “Five Poems about Poetry,” the boy is unfit for the god’s tables, not to mention the godesses’ bed. This reminds me a bit of Shelley and Keats’ gestures. Shelley indicated the mythic in a gesture towards immortality for both the subject (Keats?) of his poem Adonais and for the poet himself. If I remember correctly, Shelley suggests in the poem that his is aware of the ultimate futility of this gesture, but I might be wrong here.

    What a difference between Shelley’s image of the poet and the one Oppen gives us in “Five Poems about Poetry!” One the one hand, we have the immortal poet, on the other the boy whose parents wont even smile at him. In “Boy’s room,” Oppen starts that to a viewer, the rooms of Shelley and Keats (poets who struggled with their mortality and raged against it), are just the rooms of boys.

    In one reading, this demystifies the poet. The poets are just boys wandering at the lake. But I think what is significant, and more difficult to deal with, is that fact that this opinion is not coming directly from the narrator, but from “a friend.” Who’s friend is it, Oppen’s? Or a friend of Keats and Shelley? This boyish character is not self-declared by the poet, but instead by some sort of viewer. I think this may comment on the relationship between the reader and the poet, but I am not sure. And I am definitely not sure what to make of the women in this poem, who already know that the poets are boys and would rather sleep with bankers. Any ideas what that might be about?

  12. Sorry- I should clarify that was me- not Charles

  13. I am amused at the mistake being the other hundred poets. I’m not especially sure what to make of the Gesture. Seems to have a sort of stream of consciousness feel to it, the bauble, the mock symbol of office held seems like an entertaining and condemning way to see the bauble in the poem. The gesture seems to be the question, which wraps the whole poem within itself and confuses me.

    The hole seems to be another reference to Yeats, though Williams is obviously in it. It’s in this poem and others following that I become more aware of his use of the term violent, which seems to come with an almost endearing ‘passionate’ feel at times, though literally still reactive. All these series seem to work in a progression of story the way one would expect a story to work, through severely internal in relation to an actual story.

    I like the idea of applying biography to this, but I feel like it is unnecessary because it is inherent. I’m surprised the term sincerity hasn’t been thrown around yet, however, one thing I feel from Oppen is a very real genuine self in the poem and the writing. I think his poems really come across as sincere/genuine/honest etc.

    But, I think more than the small boy is echoed from the final Virgo poem and from before. Esp. the salesperson in the first poem.

    There is the serious nature of the poet not reaching maturity, I do not feel like it is the poet being non-threatening, I feel like the poem has a frustrated sense of infertility (maybe wrong, but a spring word). Insufficient is good.

    But, this “indeed a poet’s room / is a boy’s room / and I suppose that women know it.” automatically sets the poet as an immature figure, away from the masculine (not yet formed) and deficient of what a woman needs. The ‘I’ is self-conscious even in the poem, but it points to a self-consciousness outside.

    This is followed by what is exciting to a woman, ‘the unbeautiful banker.’ / ‘a man / not a boy gasping / for breath over a girl’s body.’ A man is a person with a job, or a collector and protector of things (unbeautiful aside). A man makes love to a woman. A poet is a boy and a boy only finds himself gasping for breath over a girl’s body. Inadequate and naïve and realistic (?).

  14. From "Of Being Numerous":

    There are things
    We live among 'and to see them
    Is to know ourselves.'

    The poems from these three books of poems would be troubling if we were taking on a purely "Objectivist" lens, because they deal with highly abstract concepts and they do not limit themselves to purely objective images. These first lines of this poem could be seen as a poetics of the whole, but instead of highly poetic language, he's using very plain rhetoric to convey a rhetorical point.

    I think this is reflected in the day books, where he writes blip after blip about his personal response to the poetics of his peers and his own reflections on poetics. The image is never enough, the meaning is never in the words, and as he sees it, the act of poetry is to give meaning back to words beyond the suffocating "associations" that he felt writers of his time (particularly French?) were content to work in.

    The conversation changes in these books of poems because while in Discrete Series he had expected the words and images to do everything a poet or reader would want, in these poems he's working with more than simply image (ala Reznikof) but always he is engaging with the implications of the images, the words, and the act of writing poetry itself.

    I could go on and on about "Myself I Sing", "Still Life", "The Forms of Love", "A Language of New York", and "Power, The Enchanted World" and how they use an "Objectivist" mode to do something, to make a statement that is meaningful, and make a poem I like to read (which is of little scholarly merit but has a substantial value to me).

    I would say all these poems do it in a very similar way, and it has to do with Williams' old rag "no ideas but in things." What a terribly stifling idea (not thing)! It's also very imprecise, seeing as the printed word or language in general works in a way unique to it: while arts like theatre, painting, or music have sensory processes directly relating to their experience, poetry as an experience is nether in the seeing (as reading is a very different process than looking) or the hearing (since this is not inherent to words on a printed page). Poetry works within the mind, shaping with memory and imagination, and not with objects (as in "things").

    Discrete Series pointed the way: #1 from that series, with its disintegrated floor indicator, points to the act of taking in a sense experience and through familiarity imposing something beyond the object in-itself. It works like a zoom in or high-contrast image, where the use, intention, design of the object is blurred away to reveal merely its shape.

    It would be a bold move, if that's what was intended by it. There are probably several other interesting readings that could be just as valid, but if we go so far as to say "Oppen didn't intend any individual reading, but that each person could make their own", what are we doing talking about it? Comparing notes? Having a fun time playing a game? For someone who took the work of poetry so seriously (THE GESTURE from "Five Poems About Poetry" is about how seriously one ought to take poetry), it seems like a very flimsy basis for writing a poem.

    Or perhaps it is for no meaning whatsoever, but for the pure aesthetics of the experience. That seems equally unlikely given the ways that he has insistent upon meaning, both from his own poems and from the poems of his peers. To say that you do not know what a poem is about before you finish writing it, that means ultimately that there is a meaning to a poem, and while that might be hidden from the poet, Oppen revised his poems so much that by the time he has finally created its publication copy, the meaning would have fully arrived in the poem.

    The poems from these three books are not limited to the object, or the image, or "what can be seen"; he's become a stronger poet by going beyond his own arbitrarily imposed limits.