I can't remember, now, how I first heard about George Oppen. I may have discovered The Materials [New Directions, 1962] accidentally in a Berkeley bookstore. In any case, I discovered that the rare book room at the UC Main Branch University Library had a copy of his first book, Discrete Series , and I went there one afternoon in 1968 to check it out. You weren't allowed to remove items from the rare book room, so I had to read the whole book sitting right there at a huge thick oaken desk, under the watchful eye of the proctor. (I later wrote a note to Oppen telling him that if I'd had a matchbook with me I might have been able to copy the whole book out--it amused him.) The book was a thin little thing, hardly more than a pamphlet bound in fragile green paper covered thin boards. I was there about an hour, but the experience was a turning point in my life.
Oppen [1908-1984] had been a key figure in the Objectivist Movement of the 1930's. There'd been this one modest little book, I knew, then a long silence of decades during which nothing had appeared. Reading these poems for the first time, I was immediately struck by their concision, enjambments, elisions, and pronounced brevity: A compressive immanence invested in objects and intense feelings/observations. I at once perceived the power and suggestion of such poetry, which was totally unlike anything I'd encountered in my haphazard reading of traditional poetry in the big dusty anthologies I'd rummaged around in during my youth.
I recall quite clearly the experience of first reading this poem--
White. From the
Under arm of T
The red globe.
From the quiet
Of Frigidaire, of
Plane of lunch, of wives
(As soda-jerking from
the private act
The deliberate fracturing of syntax--both visually and grammatically--suggested both a creative use of letters as symbolic objects (literal signs on a building), as well as discrete events within a composed sequence of observation/perception. I had probably seen a concrete poem or two somewhere by this point, but this was an integrated example of incorporating the sign without the limiting self-consciousness of mere paper cut-outs. Oppen had been on to something, decades ago, and whatever it was had been ignored or unacknowledged, and the author himself had abandoned the enterprise.
Inaudibly soars, bole-like, tapering:
Sail flattens from it beneath the wind.
The limp water holds the boat's round
Slants dry light on the deck.
Beneath us glide
Rocks, sands, and unrimmed holes.
The clarity, the quick breaks with their lively perceptual surprises, the vividness ("unrimmed holes") of the observation, the strange metaphysical contrasts (a "mast...Inaudibly soars"), the proprioceptive motion ("Beneath us glide" instead of we glide over)--in addition to a refusal to turn any of this immediacy of feeling into any ethical leverage, was totally inspiring!
Oppen was quoted as saying, appropos of the book, "a discrete series is a series of terms each of which is empirically derived, each one of which is empirically true. And this is the reason for the fragmentary character of those poems." Which hardly seems like an explanation of method, unless you understand that a series of "terms" (the key word), or words used in a specific context, which derive their applied meanings from the specific occasion of their use (i.e., "empirically derived") preserves the purity and discreteness of each poem, without resort to an over-riding precondition or intention. This fidelity to perceptual data, to the sense and matter of real things as honestly and ingeniously reported, is the first key to Oppen's genius.
Hard, dense materiality, however, is only one dimension of Oppen's concerns.
Near your eyes--
Love at the pelvis
Reaches the generic, gratuitous
(Your eyes like snail-tracks)
We slide in separate hard grooves
Bowstrings to bent loins,
The intensity of perception is enhanced by a distillation--the act of love is regarded almost clinically, "mere" identity subsumed inside the physicality of act, passion implied and ramified by the E-motion, the motive force of action. The taut spring of engagement ("separate hard grooves/Bowstrings to bent loins") lifts consciousness to a suspended intensity ("Self moving/Moon, mid-air").
Objectivism's primary tenets--as defined by Zukofsky--to treat the poem as an object, and to emphasise sincerity, intelligence, and the poet's ability to look clearly at the world--are nowhere more clearly expressed.
On the water, solid---
The singleness of a toy---
A tug with two barges.
O what O what will
Bring us back to
Coiling a rope on the steel deck
The investment in the obdurate fact of the material world--the function and sinuous circularity of entwined utility--the infernal seduction of manufactured object (Blake), is both an astonished agon (Ulysses longing for home) and an agape of naked experience accurately seen and registered.
The irony of Oppen's silence (1934-c.1958) and the development of Modernism is reflected as well in the transformation of his original Objectivist's position, and the emergence of a new visionary transcendence in his work. The insistence by the Thirties Left upon the facts delineated by way of Marxist ideologies included a dogmatic preference for perceived material realities: Along with fidelity to observed class and social hierarchies and demarcations, went a willingness to accept the obvious: All the phenomena of actual lived life, the stuff of the material world, with every bit of its burden of weight, texture, associations both pleasant and unpleasant.
But by the mid-Fifties, Oppen had undergone a change in consciousness, or at least a change in his approach to subject-matter. In an oft-quoted poem from his later period--
The Forms of Love
Parked in the fields
So many years ago,
A lake beside us
When the moon rose.
Leaving that ancient car
Together. I remember
Standing in the white grass
Beside it. We groped
Our way together
Downhill in the bright
Beginning to wonder
Whether it could be lake
We saw, our heads
Ringing under the stars we walked
To where it would have wet our feet
Had it been water
--that first line of the third stanza ("Beginning to wonder") could stand as a subtitle for all of Oppen's resumptive agenda following the changed political climate after the McCarthy Era of the early Fifties. Speaking from a presumption of worldly wisdom, the corpus of Oppen's home stretch is a consolidation, if not a repudiation, of the political-material-aesthetic bases of his youth. The earlier man would doubtless have been content with the experience (and the meaning) of walking along a lake under moonlight; the older man's uncertainty at the solidity and dependability of matter and sensual fact ("Had it been water") is offered as explicitly as the earlier version(s).
"I believe my apprenticeship
In that it was long was honorable
Tho I had hoped to arrive
At an actuality
. . .
And record now
That I did not."
(from Pro Nobis, from This in Which)
#27 - Of Being Numerous
It is difficult now to speak of poetry--
about those who have recognized the range of choice or those who have lived within the life they were born to--. It is not precisely a question of profundity but a different order of experience. One would have to tell what happens in a life, what choices present themselves, what the world is for us, what happens in time, what thought is in the course of a life and therefore what art is, and the isolation of the actual
I would want to talk of rooms and of what they look out on and of basements, the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks of wood in the concrete, such solitude as we know--
and the swept floors. someone, a workman bearing about him, feeling about him that peculiar word like a dishonored fatherhood has swept this solitary floor, this profoundly hidden floor--such solitude as we know.
One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands,
He must somehow see the one thing;
This is the level of art
There are other levels
But there is no other level of art
As a summation of an artist's life, the statement is characteristically ambiguous. What are we to make of his "feeling about him that peculiar word like a dishonored fatherhood"? Is the word--that which we inherit from the generations gone before--in its moral vacancy--what we ultimately are doomed to relive? Could poetry (art) serve a purpose beyond objective reality?