Thursday, July 30, 2009

Minimalism Part IV: George Oppen's Discrete Series

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 [1934], 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.

Down. Round
Shiny fixed

From the quiet

Stone floor . . .


Hides the

Parts--the prudery
Of Frigidaire, of


Above the

Plane of lunch, of wives
Removes itself
(As soda-jerking from
the private act

Cracking eggs):


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.      

The mast
Inaudibly soars, bole-like, tapering:
Sail flattens from it beneath the wind.
The limp water holds the boat's round
                                 sides. Sun
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)

Parallel emotions,
We slide in separate hard grooves
Bowstrings to bent loins,
                         Self moving
Moon, mid-air.  

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
         the shore

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
All night
So many years ago,
We saw
A lake beside us
When the moon rose.
I remember

Leaving that ancient car
Together. I remember
Standing in the white grass
Beside it. We groped
Our way together
Downhill in the bright
Incredible light

Beginning to wonder
Whether it could be lake
Or fog
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). 

The resolution?

"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)

Or this--

#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?   


Kirby Olson said...

I think many of the Objectivists had difficulty dealing with the Communists. The Communists argued that anything you did had to have a value to the community, or else you should stop doing it.

I remember the wonderful essay by Carl Rakosi which was originally a letter to Eliot Weinberger, and which appears in Volume I of the E. corpse Reader, 1988-1998, in which he says that he became a member of the communist party and it basically extinguished his poetry for a long period. But he argues instead for something else.

"...what value does poetry have for society? I do not hold the view, passionately held by some, that its value depends in some way on the proportion of its value to the society. To believe this is to fall into the Communist trap. Trotsky himself, that fiery revolutionist, understood this. Literature, he said, was a different thing. It should be left alone to go its own way and not be expected to be another organ of the state. ... Writing poetry and reading it are ways of living, and like life itself need no other justification. Its value is therefore existential. This is not to say that poetry has no social value ... it often does, but not always and not necessarily" (39-40).

Rakosi isn't that clear on what he thinks poetry SHOULD do, because I don't think he thinks it HAS to do anything, and it certainly isn't a form of social work, or politicking, or any kind of communist jibber-jabber. It just is, like breathing, or like being in love.

It doesn't have to answer to the totalitarian state, or to any other sphere of life beyond itself.

I think many of the Objectivists fell into what Rakosi called "the communist trap." The Language people did, too, and nearly wrecked poetry as a result.

The separation of church and state allowed Lutherans to pursue poetry as something on its own, and to think about those things such as are EXISTENTIAL (word derives from Kierkegaardian thought) centuries back.

It's why it's still a precious recourse against the communist totalitarians.

And even against the Buddhists, who are just as bad at least in terms of Actual Existing Buddhism, in which you have to explain everything you do to some fat guru looking over your shoulder.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


a nice homage-piece to the man Oppen, poems read both sensitively and with an eye to interesting word-play and syntax.

I'm lost in some of the language, at times a little murky (such as "A compressive immanence invested in objects" or " a refusal to turn any of this immediacy of feeling into any ethical leverage") but I get the Oppen-as-quintessential-Objectivist-poem point.

It didn't seem obvious to me, not in the selections chosen here, that words themselves, above all their "discreteness", made the poem as a whole purer than any of the, say, Burroughs "cut-and-paste" type you seem to decry.Stated as personal preference, the statement's fine. But if you've got methodology in mind (as the tenor of your reviews suggests you do), I'd like you to be a little specific about what makes Objectivist poetry purer than any other.

If Oppen is an Objectivist, true to a poem's intelligible and accessible form, intention obviously formed a large part of it (unless I've missed your point)It's not a "sufficient" mark of genius just to be true to "perceptual data"; I'm much more interested in getting justification for the claim, also made, that Objectivism can treat poetic object's with more "sincerity, intelligence" than most other kinds.

Perhaps it's in that terribly unclear "function and sinuous circularity of entwined 'utility' that the key to Objectivism's superiority lies. Does it? And if Objectivism clings onto facts, then why all this other talk about "the emergence of a new visionary transcendence" in Oppen's later years?

Perhaps Oppen said it best of his own work:"It is difficult now to speak of poetry". Now and always difficult when we don't use terms like Objectivism with the verbal precision they deserve.

Curtis Faville said...


These posts are composed "on the fly"--the internet blogging medium isn't about immaculately made essays, deathless prose.

I try to make a few fairly straightforward points, and get out with my conscience intact.

You tend to confuse specific points with general ones, and to apply assertions to the wrong topics.

Where did I ever decry Burroughs's cut-and-paste? Certainly not here--or anywhere. It's usually best not to impute motive to unexpressed (implied) sentiment.

Did I ever say the say the Objectivists' poetry was "purer" than any other?

The Objectivists' manifesto was composed by Zukofsky. I think Oppen, among the several poets identified among this company, was probably the best demonstration (example) of its principles.

Oppen manifestly attempted to present objective empirical data as resistant, undeniable fact--this was a major tenet of Leftist ideology. Whether he succeeded--and to what degree--is open to debate. My point was in suggesting his intention, and the originality of that attempt. Who else do you think (circa 1934) was doing anything remotely like this?

"Function and sinuous circularity of entwined utility" was an attempt to characterize the metaphysical meaning of the coiled rope through the Marxist glass. What is the ultimate meaning of a coiled rope? On one level it's a utilitarian tool which serves human use; on a symbolic level, it might be a sexual metaphor (such as a snake), or perhaps a symbol of chained labor. I don't claim to understand the power of Oppen's use here, but I respond to its ingenuity.

Oppen was an Objectivist in the 1930's. Did you miss my point that his work (and personality) underwent a transformation in the intervening 25 years?

Do you have more precise words to describe Objectivism than I? By all means....

Ed Baker said...


go to the sources as close to the primary as you can get


- Carl Rakosi's "George Oppen, The Last Days"

- Mary Oppen's "Meaning A Life"

-Burt Hatlen's "George Oppen Man and Poet


"The Selected Letters of George Oppen" edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis


there's an ethics an ethos

an ETHOS that is sorely lacking in todays "everything"

sad sad sad


now birds talk!

birds only sing -ever.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I appreciate the off-the-cuff nature of blog writing but I'm a stickler for clearly defined 'terms' (even in poetry criticism). Don't misunderstand: you've got Oppen right but I was hoping for a bit more development of some key terms used. It's interesting that Oppen himself, like a good "language theorist" insists on the elements of the poem as being "empirically derived" (making him, by temperament, a 'verificationist')
But you did ask for something a little more 'concrete' from me.

If, for example, you look at Oppen's

"White. From theUnder arm of T
The red globe.
UpDown. RoundShiny fixedAlternatives
From the quiet
Stone floor . . .

ThusHides the
Parts--the pruderyOf Frigidaire, ofSoda-jerking--
Above the
Plane of lunch, of wivesRemoves itself(As soda-jerking fromthe private act
OfCracking eggs):

and talk about fractured syntax, it'd be interesting to show why this sort of word-play in the hands of an imitator is bound to produce a more grating, staccato effect than is the case here.What exactly does 'fragment' mean here?

Oppen's great skill seems (to me) to lie not just in being faithful to facts but in reconfiguring the world of facts so that the subject doesn't "disappear". This is not, as Fredric Jameson would say, just a case of a "heterogeneity without a norm" ("Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism").

In fact, if we visually rejoin parts 1 and 2 of Oppen's poem (in the act of reading) so that , instead of 'fragments', a complete syntactical sequence of subject, verb and complement emerges, we may have to rethink our use of 'fragment' and speak of a revisualization of the language-object interface along Marxist lines. Oppen's work is rather a 'mosaic' whose lines are barely perceptible, giving not just the appearance of fragile community but essential overlap. Civilization and culture in capitalist societies do necessarily overlap (as Raymond Williams says in "Marxism and Literature")Verse 1 is rather, in true Objectivist fashion, the Text for any discussion of the forces that threaten to disjoin the poem from its own purity.

Cannot "hides" serve, then, as verb of subject "White", however textually removed they are from each other? Cannot verse 2 be both complement for, and critique of, that relation of the pure Object ("Stone floor"), the poem, to its impure form as "commodity" of late capitalism (or early postmodernism)? Cannot, in a word, 'fragment' be a very skilfully employed ruse of Oppen's for the insidiousness of that linguistic move into which as consumers of commodified poetry we're all to likely to fall?Is this what you meant by "sinuous circularity of entwined utility"?

A bare bones 'minimalism', working as you've said below by a kind of 'torque' mechanism ("taut spring of engagement"?), offers not just "pastiche" but a complete correspondence of parts to whole, the opening verse serving as metaphor for the shiny white-stoned "T-frame" solidity of the Poem that's been sadly dissolved into "the Parts".But, of course, correspondence is open to a myriad of objections just as a self-styled literary style.

Curtis Faville said...

On an intellectual level, I'm not sure I could explain exactly what Oppen is doing (or how he achieves certain effects) to anyone's satisfaction. Georgia O'Keeffe said that what inspired her to paint subjects was "something I don't know about"--i.e., a mysterious enigma pertaining to some shape, landscape, feeling. It's this same quality that attracts me to certain works of literature and art. It may be possible to explicate certain techniques, to deconstruct their presumptions and pigeon-hole their sources and biases, but that often doesn't explain their power and attraction.

It would be very difficult for me--on a wholly rational level--to specify what, for instance, it is about Morandi's work, that I find so attractive, comforting, mysterious, and complete. Intellectually, I'm simply looking at a bunch of bottles on a table top. I've spoken before--in the Gertrude Stein discussions--of how she believed that composition is what every human being is doing all the time, just by being alive, in the present, perceiving, absorbing data, placing our apprehensions and movement (flow) within a context of the world we know and understand. We do not merely reproduce the world, we, all of us, constantly perform creative augmentations and arrangements of objects and feelings and senses, all the time. Composition, in this sense, isn't what only trained and gifted and inspired artists and writers do, but what everyone is capable of, what goes on continuously even on an unconscious level. The human mind is never still; it continuously shapes and orders and prioritizes data.

[End Part I]

Curtis Faville said...

[Part Two]

Taking that as a given, one's interest in how anyone--especially artists--respond to their environment is a measure of difference, or uniqueness, and a fascinating analogue or logarithm of perception. The Objectivists sought to bring to direct representation of "things" a clarity and honesty which could reveal truths about experience and reality--they probably also believed--though it was fashionable to do so in those times--that it could, in some small measure, serve to help "liberate" labor and society from the class and cultural elitism of the capitalist system. It was a worthy, if wrong-headed, ideal.

What it produced, on balance, may or may not be apprehensible as perceived through a number of Marxist literary principles. Jameson and Eagleton and Williams and company are fascinating to read, and I wouldn't pretend to lock horns with them, but I'm not sure Oppen's gifts and discoveries are useful and important to me, in the ways that they may be to Marxist critics. For me, Oppen isn't an example of a failed Marxist poet, any more than Zukofsky is. That's like trying to make a case for Steinbeck being a "Communist" writer during the 1930's. Almost any intelligent person with a conscience in the 1930's would have been affected by the public conflicts of those times. A writer doesn't choose to live and write in a certain age--it's purely a matter of chance. One of my pet theories is that literary talent will manifest itself at any time, regardless of the prevailing tenor of the age.

What most moved me about Oppen's work were the qualities I've enumerated. It was only later that I was able to fill in the biographical back-file, and to see his work within the context of his whole career and in the sequence of American and world literature(s). In other words, I responded to his work first as a reader, then as a writer (of verse), and finally (later) as a critic. I'm really not interested in convincing you about the literary historical significance of his work in context, or the utility it might have as a model for certain dimensions of criticism. Its primary use for me is selfish: I respond to it directly, with enthusiasm.

The later work is somewhat less interesting, for me. The reasons why this is so may be of greater, wider interest, than my simple response to a small sheaf of poems from 1934. Unlike Kirby, I'm not out to make political points by magnifying biographical facts and events into a larger agenda. I don't deny the importance of these wider significations, but they're beyond my scope here. (Still, Kirby always fascinates me with his circuitous and often surprising connections.)

Conrad DiDiodato said...

If properties of a poem by Oppen overlap and conflict with each other (in the way I’ve suggested in my previous post, using the ‘mosaic’ analogy) it’s rather a sign both of literary strength and of its permanence as an American cultural artifact. True, Oppen wasn’t immune to the living and writing conditions of his day. Objectivist to the core, poet gave to his work too much of the richness of his own life and that of a thriving artistic community (in San Francisco area) he and his wife helped develop to let it go the way of the more ‘disjointed’ poetics that followed. If after a period of self-imposed literary exile he moved away from Marxism towards ‘transcendence, it’s because he saw clearly the twofold path ahead of him: viz. accept the flaws inherent in any literary design and, at the same time, engage in all the fruitless literary disputation it would take for a defense of his ‘minimalist craft. He wisely chose to remain silent.

It’s not on an intellectual level (as you rightly say) you can explain Oppen, nor any serious artist: to do so would amount to the silliness of looking for ‘algorithms’ and reduce literary appreciation to a consensus on quasi-scientific ‘first principles’. Russian Formalists tried to do that, and with disastrous results. Language theorists tried the same tack in their attempt to discredit epistemology by clinging onto the belief that scientific method would eliminate Cartesian ghosts of doubt and uncertainty, from which a lot of endless quibbling ensued. I hope you don’t think it’s what I want also.

There is a sort of literary ‘givenness’ of the text I deem necessary but never sufficient for otherwise you threaten to reduce literary experience to solipsism. And so I do appreciate your saying that ultimately Oppen is a poet who’s worth reading: “I respond to it directly, with enthusiasm.” There’s something in the act of reading that’s vital to any discussion about literary ‘value’: for the question of “What does reading Oppen feel like” is an honest request for the simple “pleasures of the text” (Barthes) that no quantifiable analysis can give. Criticism must take a backseat to ‘aesthetics’, but only initially. If you do refer to those “literary qualities” of Oppen’s writing that make reading (and writing about) the man and his oeuvre meaningful, I’m also interested in questions of justification. We cannot afford to be disengaged, refusing to see the literary enterprise as a significant undercurrent running throughout the wider political context. There is both socio-political and socio-linguistic urgency to any discussion of a text whose ‘parts”, by the author’s own admission, must be regarded as verification for the whole poem. The metaphor of a white shiny white-stone T-frame, in verse 1 of Oppen’s poem, is very telling in that regard.

I believe literary criticism flourishes best in a societas of sympathetic, engaged readers and writers, and that does oftentimes generate a little head-butting. I do appreciate the way “Compass Rose” has given scope and purpose to this important discussion.

Ed Baker said...

in reality in my day it was called

Epistemological Idealism

as a-possed to Epistemological Reality!

google either/ or...

as Kierkegaard did posit!

or try

Sarte's Being and Nothingness foe "kicks"