Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thoughts on Refusing Heaven, Poems by Jack Gilbert

Although not a perfect collection, this collection is worth a permanent place on everyone’s bookshelf. Winner of both the LA Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, it is deserving of these awards for the sheer life-affirming quality of the poems. These are a wondrous celebration of life not only in spite of its brevity and flaws but precisely because of its brevity and flaws. What, in the mind of others are failures, within this collection, are transformed into the substance of happiness and beauty. Memory becomes the storehouse of a future life and lazy days doing nothing, the substance of the most joyful times.

Gilbert has assimilated much of Eastern thinking more intimately, more personally, than many other poets. They are not mere stylistic tactics or adopted stances, but insights reaped by living through them, seeing how life affirms the mysticism of Taoism and Buddhism. Thus they are coherently westernized. This is so because Gilbert doesn’t always open with simply accepting their terms. Some of the poems are the struggle toward realization told from the point of view of a western mind.

However, on the whole, his poems are not parabolic, moving from point to point to a final destination, and they are not circular in reaching a resolution or redemption. They are more like a tetherball circling closer and closer to a central point. The iterations the poems cycle through may, at times, lack the peremptory quality that is typically valued in poetry, but they make up for it with their exuberance and joy, in finally transforming the daily and pedestrian into gold, in observing the overlaps of places and identity through time, in noticing the interpenetration of histories within a single life. So his poems may resist memorization because they lack inevitability, but his poems are, in spite of it, memorable.

Not a poet of great music, but a wonderful poet of insight, of the turn of thought that startles or delights. This is the music of reflection, not the right note but the well-articulated idea. If he were a painter, he would be Magritte. Because of this remove, that he is an idea poet and not a musical poet, he is fond of simile. His use of simile does not always please, but it does often provoke. And this is the point. If his similes produce a pause in reading, this does not stall the poem since it causes a consideration of the insight that constitutes the poem. That is, Gilbert does not employ simile as a mere lyrical comparison but as a way to inspire us to think and notice. But thinking means considering, pausing, lingering, which a poem called “Burning (Andante non troppo)” is all about. This is a collection worth lingering over, worth allowing yourself to enjoy. It may actually help you to enjoy life more. Few collections can claim such a triumph.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Skating with Heather Grace -- Poems by Thomas Lynch

Skating with Heather Grace
Poems by Thomas Lynch

This book has been on my shelf for a number of years. It was a collection I occasionally pulled down in passing, read a poem or two, and then returned to its ledge among the other titles in my library. Recently I took it down and carried it with me for several days, reading it from cover to cover a few times. It is something I should have done long ago.

Published in Knopf’s Poetry Series in 1986, this is Thomas Lynch’s first book. As such, the biographical information doesn’t say anything about his poetic career but highlights the fact that he makes his living as an undertaker. Although heavy-handed in pointing this out, it clearly informs every poem.

Robert Frost’s cool philosophical understanding of poetry as a momentary stay against confusion is here heightened to a pitch to hold off despair in the face of death and loss. Lynch has an almost desperate desire for cohesion.

sing the same song over and over
because the sound it makes keeps me intact.
(“Noon on Saturday”)

This is the ars poetica of these poems. But it’s not an existential cry, as Matthew Arnold saying, “I am fragments.” It is not his psyche he fears will disintegrate, but his actual body.

I’m frightened witless at the prospect of
some bomb or cancer out there with my name on it.

What underlies these poems is an acute feral vulnerability, a profound awareness of how tenuous our hold on life really is.

you and your song rise in the leafy air
chancy as bass spawn in a mallard’s underwings.
(“A Clearing in the Woods”)

All of this plays into his adroit manipulation of rhyme, assonance and repetition. There may be the occasional and slight drift away from thematic elements in favor of a phonetic choice, but never enough to spoil the tone and eventual progress into these meditations that are rooted in earth and blood. Considering the tack taken in his poem “A Note on the Rapture to His True Love,” the identities that comprise its rhyme scheme work in conjunction with the idea that the rapture will bring a second life to those taken, a kind of repetition that the poem subtly rebuffs with the final identity being broken where “leaves” is not repeated but transformed into “left,” the final word. It plays on the double-entendre of “left” allowing those who are not taken up in the rapture to find their own salvation in moments of transcendence, which, in the end, like everything else, are finite.

All of these poems are full of the longing for the ethereal, a life beyond the earthbound and what birds, and gulls in particular, in the collection come to symbolize:

out where the gulls glide on the edge of weather
songs in praise of rootlessness and wayfare
(“Learning Gravity”)

And in another poem there is the desire to

join them in the air beyond the land
and make my life with them diving between islands.
(“A Dream of Death in the First-Person”)

But this cannot be. We are all bound by

whereby things rise and fall, arrive and take
their leave according to their gravity.
(“Learning Gravity”)

Those birds and what they represent and everything beyond them are finally

a new life form light-years removed from me.
(“I Felt Myself Turning”)

Or as Lynch puts it in the penultimate poem of the collection

we, none of us survives
our awful will to live or will to die.

It’s said that every elegy is really written about the writer’s own fear of death. This may be the case, but for Lynch, an undertaker by trade, he sees death as random and omnipresent, an ever looming threat against everyone. When, in the poem “Damages,” he invokes the collective pronoun, it’s not to summon an authority he doesn’t have, the way a bad poet might. Instead, it’s to truly touch on something affecting us all. It’s why what is so attractive in these poems is their deep compassion. They are heartbreakingly compassionate. And in this context, other elements, the moments within life, those transcendent but doomed moments, are prized in their fragile brilliance, such as where he tries to remember the naked body of a friend he once slept with years ago, or he watches his young daughter skate and realizes he will gradually need to let her go as she gets older. These are the moments of meaning, of history, of personal significance that are given such deep poignancy against the relentless and inevitable triumph of the meaningless. It saddens them but increases the attention given to them.

Skating with Heather Grace is one of those collections where the poet faces our common abyss and it is a more honest collection than you will typically find because it is not angry but worried, concerned in the way one is when you know such terrible things happen daily, when you see that everyone around you is standing at the edge of the same inescapable end. Here, the resigned faith that “life goes on,” is a poetic principle, it is an amor fati that demands we sing and sing loudly. To paraphrase Roethke, who is invoked in the longest poem, it is the kind of shaking that keeps us steady. It is the precarious balance between two polarized dreams. It is where we live and where these poems take place. This is not only a collection worth reading, it a collection worth rereading.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tomorrow’s Living Room -- A Review

Tomorrow’s Living Room
Poems by Jason Whitmarsh

This is Jason Whitmarsh’s first book. It is winner of the 2009 May Swenson Poetry Award. And it is a deserving collection. One that may at first mislead you with its wit and simplicity. His deft casualness makes it possible to breeze through these poems without thinking of the odd statements being made. Indeed, in his citation, Billy Collins, who chose the book for the award, points out the “pleasurable disorientation” of the language, its “mixture of directness and imaginative surprise.” And the back of the dust jacket describes them as “alternately wry and dark.” These are all accurate observations of the surface textures, but to some extent, miss the point, miss why these poems are such a surprising tonal blend.

The opening poem is called “Forecasts” and is a grouping of four quatrains, all involving some sort of evasion, distance or submerged emotion controlling the actual moment. For instance, the second quatrain goes,

The rock fell from a great and far-off height
and plummeted silently through the roof
into bed, where it replaced your heart.
That’s what I think. It’s why you’re so aloof.

This distance, heightened by the internal monologue, foretells the rest of the collection. Indeed, that insistent, “That’s what I think” is at the core of Whitmarsh’s linguistic landscape. The poems are often pivoting on people so involved in what they think, they fail to make any real connection with others. Another poem, early in the book, is “One Art.” It is a satire of the famous Bishop villanelle, brilliantly using the exact same rhymes in the sequence of Bishop’s original. But in this version, the speaker is talking about wishing to be Bruce Lee when he was young so he could hit his “way out of disaster.” The poem concludes,

It’s evident
why I wanted to be a kung fu master,
as though desire alone could prevent disaster.

This desire is at the heart of the original Bishop poem, a speaker who is aching to convince themselves of something they don’t truly believe. This resonates to the key struck by the rest of Whitmarsh’s collection, which, on the whole, addresses the disasters that come from entertaining our fantasies too much, the emotional traumas of too much indulgent daydreaming. It’s why the tone is such a peculiar blend of humor and loneliness.

The title of another poem is “He Said These Things, Not Even I Could Forgive Him.” The first line of this poem goes

I’m kind of reluctant to mention the superhero powers
I’ve acquired since last we talked.

This is an opening line that leaves one expecting to laugh the rest of the way through. But the poem ends with the speaker saying,

In my dream
I grabbed an electric fence and when I woke I said
how strange to be in pain in a dream and you said
I was lucky it wasn’t worse, those fences are dangerous.

Oddly, it seems, dream and reality are beginning to blend by the conclusion of the poem. The person spoken to is almost accepting the terms of the “superhero” who is speaking. However, we can’t forget the title. The person spoken to resents the speaker. Why? Perhaps for no other reason than that the superhero is talking about what should remain unspoken.

If Whitmarsh’s poems are about the dramas that result when our unspoken fantasy lives break in and distance us from our real lives, these unspoken fantasies are also the source of what drives us to need each other or what makes us interesting or even who we are. One poem says it’s

Better, maybe, to let the guilt metastasize
than to cancel by good intent
any chance to surprise.

A couplet says,

Everything weak in us survives. It’s meant to.
If not, not a day would go by where I’d want you.

This couplet is from a poem titled “Three Curses.” The implication is that this is a curse, that our weakness is what drives us to want others, to desire. It is also what creates our fantasies and the distances between us. Or as Whitmarsh says in another poem, “One begins ever after and ends upon a time.”

It is a wonderful debut collection, inventive in its forms, from villanelles, triolets, and ghazels to prose poems and all handled with a casual fluency. He writes with compressed intensity; only a handful of his poems are longer than half a page. But all glitter like well-cut gems.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rereading Walter Pater

Rereading Walter Pater’s The Renaissance I’m struck how the sheer pleasure of reading the book breaks hard against the abundance of thought it provokes. It makes it difficult to decide if I should rhapsodize about the beauty of his prose or delight in the many connections his work has to other writers and thinkers both before and after him. Perhaps a little of both.

His aesthetic, as he describes it at the beginning of his essay on Giorgione, accounts for how he allowed himself the luxury of such a poetic style. For Pater, the all important element in a work of art is its impression. When he says, “in its primary aspect, a great picture has no more definite message for us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few moments on the wall” he frees himself to enter a painting or poem or the life of an artist and permit his own reactions to form the meaning. He can suggest the sound of poured water mixing with played pipes in FĂȘte ChampĂȘter or the smile of the Mona Lisa “defining itself on the fabric of [Leonardo’s] dreams” and I take these in without any hesitation that they are not good scholarship since that is not the intention. Pater is not trying to get at some objective message or meaning, but at what it means to him to inhabit a certain space.

Pater argues that it’s neither the senses nor the intellect that art addresses, but the “imaginative reason.” I immediately understand this to correspond to what I call the sensibility. It is an odd organ of perception. But it is Pater’s effort to describe how this vague organ registers aesthetic reality that makes his descriptions so beautiful and why it is not accurate to understand him as simply a critic or hedonist. In fact, so many of his attitudes and ideas seem to foreshadow much in modernism and existentialism.

As I read him, I have strong but undefined feelings that he stands on the narrowest and subtlest bridge dividing what is Romantic from what is modern. Or that he breathes the air of both atmospheres without fully inhabiting either. Certainly, much of what is in the major existentialists and major modernists can be seen as the evolution of the Romantic stances, their natural consequence and end. When Blake asserts that the imagination is the Holy Spirit, there is no significant progress made when Stevens proclaims “God and the imagination are one.” When Keats said negative capability is “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” he defined exclusively for artists what Camus would define as the absurd man. So when Pater describes Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin, it registers as more than an aesthetic disagreement, but a metaphysical one. That’s because Pater had already made a step toward that fragmented landscape of modern life. But he doesn’t seem to step fully into it or, if he does, he’s wearing some kind of protective armor, something that keeps his mind intact where later minds are in pieces. What Pater says of Goethe could be said of himself, “he defines, in clearest outline, the eternal problem of culture — balance, unity with one’s self.”

One sees his method of unity in how he portrays what the mind does to satisfy its need “to feel itself alive.” He said it “must see into the laws, the operation, the intellectual reward of every divided form of culture; but only that it may measure the relation between itself and them. It struggles with those forms till its secret is won from each, and then lets each fall back into its place.” This reaches back to Blake who said,

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity's sunrise.

And it reaches forward to Simone de Beauvoir when she defines freedom as being “able to surpass the given toward an open future.” Between these two metaphysics of freedom, Pater defines his technique to give the intellect the completeness he said it demanded. However, this technique contains the seed of its own dissolution. In the very notion of the “divided form of culture” is everything that gives him his uniting focus and what transformed, for later minds, into a multiplicity that fragmented the psyche itself.

For Pater, there are discrete aesthetic moments offered to the intellect to construct its own unity, forms yielding definitions and boundaries of cultural discourse. But in the 20th century, the existentialists rejected the mere play of such forms. Again Simone de Beauvoir said, “We repudiate all idealisms, mysticism, etcetera which prefer a Form to man himself.” The divided object presented to the mind in the 20th century was not culture, but man himself, his fragmented psyche. As the poet George Oppen put it, “we have chosen the meaning, of being numerous.” The self no longer felt the unity it once did and could no longer contrive it. Walter Pater’s mentor, Matthew Arnold, exemplified this fragmentation quite dramatically. In fact, the teacher stood on the other side of that bridge dividing and distinguishing the Romantic sensibility from the modern one.

Pater was not driven, like his mentor, to proclaim, “I am fragments” because aesthetic appreciation was a uniting principle for him. He was not a hedonist, but an aesthete. In his famous conclusion to The Renaissance, Pater writes, “Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, in this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendor of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.” It is staggeringly beautiful and poignant, another of the infinite renderings of carpe diem. But we see here the idealism Beauvoir rejects; we see Pater’s unity in gathering together these moments. He is the central self bringing his singular experiences into the whole of his guiding intelligence. And this divides him from the 20th and 21st centuries; this keeps him from being wholly modern. As close to the doorstep as he comes, he remains outside. But he is so wonderfully there, an almost reassuring figure — if only we could be more like him — the favorite grandfather of many artists and intellectuals, a source of wisdom too remote to follow but close enough to relish quoting.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Sensible and the Meaningful

To begin June on my blog, I decided to post some current thoughts on poetry. Lately I’ve thought about Wallace Stevens’ remark that, “a poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” It seems to me that a poem should actually succeed in this resistance, but only just. The intelligence should fail but be so consistently close to succeeding that it can’t resist renewing the effort to bring it under its dominion. A poem should be the perfect seduction of the intelligence. I think of a poem like Joseph Brodsky’s “Kalamaki” as a perfect example, at least for me. It is a poem I have felt always on the verge of fully comprehending. I could sense the boundaries of its meaning as I neared its end, just as it slipped away. It’s like someone whose hand is big enough to almost palm a basketball, but not quite. Portions of it leap out at me as I go along; I gather a thread here and a thread there. I’m about to tie them in a neat little bow when, right at the end, it unravels. And I never fail to return to the poem at some point and renew the journey because it is so amazing, so deeply meaningful, although inexplicable. And that is the subtle distinction that has brought me to this idea of how a poem should function.

Though a thesaurus will show them as synonyms, there is a difference between what makes sense and what is meaningful. Of course, the sensible has many definitions. What I mean by sensible here is: that which is of sound judgment or good sense, something that is fitting. But what we typically consider sensible is so only according to our given understanding of the world. However, the realm of possible meaning is much larger than this. That is, what is meaningful is larger than what is sensible. So, while everything that makes sense is meaningful, there are a vast number of things that are meaningful which make no sense. This is the realm poetry should explore. It is where such poets as John Ashbery, Marvin Bell, even Mallarme and sometimes Fernando Pessoa make their homes or pitch a tent.

It recalls another thought I’ve frequently had, a definition of a poem that has recurred to me throughout the years: that a poem is the clearest explanation of something. The consequence of this is that the explanation of a poem is both a movement away from clarity and a redundancy. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should abandon literary criticism, only that, the best literary criticism should, in itself, approach the nature of poetry. It’s why writers like Walter Pater and Edward Dalhberg are preferable to simple critics like Harold Bloom or Helen Vendler: as admirable and interesting as they are. It is in this spirit that I continue to write my own thoughts on poetry and poets and look forward to shortly publishing my thoughts on Walter Pater after having recently reread The Renaissance.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Matthew Arnold: Man that is Not

This essay on Matthew Arnold was an attempt to do at least two things. It was first, a consideration of Matthew Arnold’s place within the context of modern literature and the modern psyche as a whole. Second, it was an attempt to develop a more discursive voice for my prose. This second purpose meant handling the material differently than with a simple academic focus, but rather with a kind of poetic rhapsodizing. Thus the essay is a meditation on the fragmentation of the modern psyche using Matthew Arnold as the focal point around which that consideration revolves. Disparate elements play into it, but return to him as a leading representative at the beginning of its manifestation in the world.

Matthew Arnold: Man that is Not
By Michael T. Young

“You must be something to be able to do something.”
-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Matthew Arnold was the reluctant modern. “Resolve to be thyself” he pleaded because he was unable to embrace his own spirit. He longed for unity but wrote to his sister, “I am fragments.” These expressions seem excessive to us only because we are its natural descendents. “Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is” said Camus. And George Oppen wrote, “We have chosen the meaning of being numerous.” The multitudinous and fragmented world that daunted Arnold can no longer overwhelm us because we are it. Arnold was among its firstborn, for what Arnold the critic resisted, Arnold the poet embraced. He refused to be wholly himself, and this war with himself made him as modern as any poet writing today.

Arnold was appointed to an inspectorship of schools in 1849. He valued education and knowledge perhaps as highly as we value information. That he turned to the Greeks as models of the best in poetry and thought was all too instinctive. For the Greeks understood ignorance as the enemy of integrity. The Delphic Oracle said, “Know thyself,” to help conduct people to a noble life. But modern man is beyond the Delphic dictum for he has foregone integrity for multiplicity. The modern person in quest of self-knowledge does not seek to know himself; he seeks to “find himself.” And Arnold was such a man because he knew “who finds himself, loses his misery!” Modern man is not ignorant but lost. A labyrinth of constant self-analysis confounds him. He is the Daedalus of his own mind, an inventor of mazes and convolutions of thought for which his conscience imprisons him. It does not let him rest. It drives him to circle his cell, to ever move and never get anywhere, to ever learn and never come to a definite knowledge.

Hither and thither spins
The wind-borne, mirroring soul,
A thousand glimpses wins,
And never sees a whole;
Looks once, and drives elsewhere, and leaves its last employ.
("Empedocles on Etna," 2.82-86)

This same spirit is why Hamlet remains contemporary. He is one of the first modern characters not because he is petrified with inaction but because he must unpack his heart to the air and holds a mirror up to the heart of all around him. He is a mind discovering itself, haunting the world with his brooding confessions, a voice of enchantment echoing inside each of our privately bounded nutshells. This is relevant because Arnold, recognizing Hamlet as a type characteristic of his own age, said, “The dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced; modern problems have presented themselves; we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust.”

Modern man’s identity is a series of momentary stays against confusion. He is perpetually asserting his psyche’s identity to withstand the threat of other identities. Arnold noted that “Hardly have we, for one little hour,/been on our own line, have we been ourselves.” Keats could not have conceived of the numberless selves springing up and dissolving in the modern psyche because negative capability was, to him, a poetic talent or character trait. But to the modern mind it is either its nature or its neurosis. This dualistic psychology gives birth to our multiple warring personalities. Seeing this multitude rising in himself and in the world, Arnold was one of the early thinkers to conceive of “the masses.” He knew man was getting lost in the multitudes both in the world and in himself. “Each half lives a hundred different lives” he said. And none of those halves are in harmony, but moving in a growing discord. Sartre’s remark that “hell is other people” was foretold when Arnold said, “Other existences there are, that clash with ours.” Feeling the perpetual struggle, Arnold looked at nature with envy.

And with joy the stars perform their shining,
And the sea its long moon-silver’d roll;
For self-poised they live, nor pine with noting
All the fever of some differing soul.
(“Self-Dependence,” 21-24)

The stars were not only tranquil but joyful in their shining because they were not the victim of a “differing soul.” They remained themselves, always shining, always there, reliable enough to navigate by. Arnold labored to order the flying fragments of the new world, the multitudinous scatterings of industrial society. He pressed images of nature hoping to transform them into symbols of man’s potential ideal. The stars were

A world above man’s head, to let him see
How boundless might his soul’s horizons be,
How vast, yet of what clear transparency!
How it were good to abide there, and breathe free;
How fair a lot to fill
Is left to each man still!
(“A Summer Night, “87-92)

But all the exclamation points belie his passion to believe his own words. Arnold was not an optimist in his taste or his sentiment. He admired the melancholic poetry of Leopardi and ended his own most famous poem by saying of modern man’s condition that,

. . . we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
(“Dover Beach,” 35-37)

Arnold in his social criticism chastised British society for “the anarchical tendency of [their] worship of freedom.” He knew that some authority must exist to which people answer, even if it were only his cherished “right reason.” But Arnold was, as Blake said of all true poets, “of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” In his prose Arnold knew where poetry was going and why, and in his prose he struggled against it with all his might. But his poetry was authentic as his prose was desperately sincere. His prose demanded guidance from right reason, but his poetry enshrined the boundlessness of man’s soul and the endless struggles it was condemned to engage.

Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body by the wall!
(“The Last Word,” 13-16)

Torn by the force of the indifferent mechanism which modern society has become, he is in fragments. But driven by the rage to assert his integrity or charged by the very power that rips at him, modern man tries to understand himself, hoping enlightenment or knowledge will save him.

But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves. . .
(“The Buried Life,” 45-55)

It’s to “know thyself.” But at some point the quest becomes a red herring. Faust sold his soul for knowledge and for all he knew, it could not save him. Solomon proclaimed, “The fool hath no delight in understanding, but that his heart may discover itself.” He turns and turns in himself to understand his own fragments, to gather them into some organized whole. It was the poetic project of Stevens who was always diving and mining for “Words of the fragrant portals dimly-starred,/And of ourselves and of our origins.”

Modern man does know himself. He is better informed than all before him about psychology, physics, and the numberless scattered trivia that compose his external and internal worlds. His failure is that he “isn’t” himself.

. . .we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘tis not true!
(“The Buried Life,” 64-66)

To the problems he saw in the world, Arnold tried to interject solutions, but his poems ring true when he simply records his observation of the discord that he cannot resolve. Even in his prose, when he defines culture “not in resting and being, but in growing and becoming” he has already embraced the spirit of an age he condemned. While he warned against the “unrestrained swing of the individual’s personality,” he hoped to fill a cultural need by “spontaneity of consciousness.” Like us, Arnold had enough self-knowledge to know the faults if his time but not enough inspiration to know the way to resolve them. His ultimate abandonment of poetry was inevitable.

Arnold excluded “Empedocles on Etna” from later collections of his poetry. He said it was because its sufferings had no release in action, that there was no relief from the pain through hope or resistance. And this is partly true because Arnold already understood what Sartre said in the 20th century, that for modern man “there is no reality except in action.” Empedocles’ most assertive self-expression was self-destruction, the most valid action for the man “whose insight has never born fruit in deeds” (“The Scholar-Gipsy,” 174). That is, a violent action becomes the only action for those whose self-knowledge has no expression in their being.

Empedocles leaps into the fires of Mount Etna,

My soul glows to meet you.
Ere it flag, ere the mists
Of despondency and gloom
Rush over it again,
Receive me, save me!
(“Empedocles on Etna,” 2.412-416)

“Empedocles on Etna” is the earliest expression of Amor Fati, the only control left for the non-existent. Death is Empedocles’ salvation.

A character in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano says, “What is a lost soul? It is one that has turned from its true path and is groping in the darkness of remembered ways.” It is caught in a circuit of habit and recollection, reiterations of yesterday which it mistakes for tomorrow. This is what produced the nostalgic poetries of Leopardi and Hood. In them, it was innocent and young but in Arnold, it was a spirit of self-knowledge and fragmentation. For us, in the 21st century, it is simply the nature of things. As Larkin said, “nothing like something, happens anywhere.” The non-existent has taken place of our being. Arnold was the first poet to register this displacement with something like conscience. His struggle against it became part of the discord which made him one of its primary representatives in the Victorian age. In his poetry he affirmed the fragmentation, the fears and the self-assertions that he denied in his prose, but not because he lacked self-knowledge but because his self-knowledge could not change what he was.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Charles O. Hartman: New & Selected Poems

Charles O. Hartman
New & Selected Poems

Review by Michael T. Young

I happily discovered this poet through Facebook. The Ahsahta Press sent a publication notice for his New & Selected Poems along with one sample poem. The sample poem was short, but stimulating, a poem that, as a poet myself, I thought after reading it, “I wish I had written that.” Consequently, I ordered his New & Selected Poems and am truly glad to have encountered this poet’s intelligence.

He is a jazzy sensibility. This is clear in the variety of his forms. He seems to endlessly experiment. His poems range from metrical to free verse to prose poems. You can see stylistic undercurrents from such diverse sources as William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Patchen and Francis Ponge, which is not to say these are direct models, but simply atavistic ancestors. You hear them faintly, in the distance, since Hartman makes the forms his own, extending them, working them into his personal vision and exploration of meaning. In each form he shows himself capable of transforming his material into the search for the limits of what might be said. However, testing these boundaries always carries risks that few ever escape all the time.

Sometimes his poems lose their emotional tie, lose the sense of a definite speaker and become simply linguistic artifacts. These perhaps result from struggling too hard to reach his end. But at his best, when he allows his instinct to carry him a little of the way, these ties hold and thread together his deep curiosity, his intelligent wanderings and make for sometimes unexpectedly moving poems. Such startling examples are “Over a Cup of Tea,” “Joinery,” “The Theory of Sunday,” and “Landscape with Marmots: Quasimodo Unstraps His Hump.” Such extremes in his work come from his daring, his willingness to take risks, exploring the boundaries of meaning as other poets such as James Tate, John Ashbery or Marvin Bell. For Hartman, this exploration is bound up with the vague landscapes of memory and the fragile constructions of the self, both of which are not solid, but fluid, a movement rather than an object. As he says in “The Long View,” “Who we are is where we have been going.” Memory and identity are verbs, not nouns and time in this context is part of a puzzle that is perpetually constructed by the attentive intelligence. “Time is pieces to adjust” he says in “The Lens.” Because of this fluidity the self that suffers the flux has a singularly important lesson to learn: compassion. As much as Hartman’s poems are full of risk and experimentation, they are also full of forgiveness. Rather than suffering making us stronger, it has instead the potential to make us more understanding, more accepting.

We for whom the hardest lesson is that no virtue
inheres in being uncomfortable or unhappy
may suffer on a day like this
the vertigo of a stair missed in the dark.

Easier to offer thanks for the afternoon
once we know we could not deserve it,
as when the hunter with the groundhog in his sights
decides gracefully never to have existed.
(“Landscape with Marmots: Quasimodo Unstraps His Hump”)

It is the willingness to go on in the common effort beyond our endless error.

Having made
errors of all kinds, we have learned one another

approximately. We feel our way between two mysteries
into a third. Night rises, and with a common motion we gather in
each other, all we can hold.
(“Over a Cup of Tea”)

This is an intelligence striving to accept its own limits and extend that as grace, a mind creating a kind of faith by the power of its imagination. We do what we can with the limits of our minds and hearts. We struggle toward each other and always failing, accept and hold what we can of the approximations we make of each other’s presence. So, if Hartman’s poems sometimes get lost in their own discourse, it is only because they are like these approximations, which are ultimately believable and beautiful in their efforts and rhythms, delightfully intelligent in their experimentation and exploration.

New & Selected Poems was published by Ashatha Press in 2008.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Secular Sublime

Ten or fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have given a poet like Gerald Stern a second thought. Today he is one of my favorite poets, one of those liberating voices I am constantly refreshed by. The following essay grew out of a particular poem of his that kept coming back to me after reading his collection This Time. The poem “June Fourth,” even months after I’d read the collection, kept reviving in my mind: it’s imagery and tone, a kind of quiet rebelliousness. This gentle obsession ultimately led me back to his work and a deeper consideration of it. Out of that reconsideration, I discovered a poet whose work connects to a long history.

(Please note: I have written permission from the author to reproduce “June Fourth” in its entirety.)


The Secular Sublime: An Appreciation of Gerald Stern
By Michael T. Young

There are experiences and perceptions that change us so completely that when we look back at how we lived and saw things before, it is as if looking at another person. It seems that an old self is sloughed like a snakeskin and a new self emerges. It is a refinement. It is an experience of what some call the sublime. Such moments are the center of Gerald Stern’s poetry. His poems almost always take place at a moment of transformation, the instant of breakthrough. He is America’s consummate poet of the modern sublime.

Stern’s poems are deceptively simple. He writes in a language completely devoid of pretense and yet dignified with the elegance of profound meditation. He thinks and thinks deeply and through thought, the sublime is registered. We are transformed. As he says in the poem “The Thought of Heaven,” “I let it change me, that/is the purpose of thought—I call it all thought, whatever/changes you” (239. ln. 71, 72).

This change occurs to a figure in his poem “June Fourth.” It is a short poem that gathers all the major threads of Stern’s project: experience of the sublime, mourning of the past, and exhilaration of the emerging self. These threads all rise or recede in Stern’s poetry as his sensibility is sensitive to one, now another of them. But in “June Fourth” these threads come together with a subtle neatness.

Today as I ride down Twenty-fifth Street I smell honeysuckle
rising from Shell and Victor Balata and K-Diner.
The goddess of sweet memory is there
staggering over fruit and drinking old blossoms.
A man in white socks and a blue T-shirt
is sitting on the grass outside Bethlehem Steel
eating lunch and dreaming.
Before he walks back inside he will be changed.
He will remember when he stands again under the dirty windows
a moment of great misgiving and puzzlement
just before sweetness ruined him and thinking
tore him apart. He will remember lying
on his left elbow studying the sky,
and the loss he felt, and the sudden freedom,
the mixture of pain and pleasure—terror and hope—
what he calls "honeysuckle" (90).

One of the attractions of this poem is the articulation of the man’s experience as “honeysuckle.” Not only does the poem articulate an inner reality through a sensual experience; it was a stroke of genius to have chosen a smell as the vehicle. Physiologically, smell is the most closely connected to memory. But memory isn’t only relevant to this poem, as we shall see later it is also a relevant characteristic of the modern sublime.

Over a long period of time I was haunted by the poem’s simple and beautiful articulation. It slowly seduced me. Part of that seduction was the realization of its connection to another transformation beginning at least as far back as Milton. It seemed necessary to compare the figure in Stern’s poem to Satan in Paradise Lost.

The most obvious connection between them was the use of metaphorical language to articulate an inner experience. As the man in Stern’s poem uses “honeysuckle” to express his transformation, Satan expresses his transformation with the famous line, “Which way I fly is hell, myself am hell” (bk. 4, ln. 75). “Hell” becomes the term that articulates his internal reality. But this merely scratched the surface. Their kinship is deep and rooted in the drastic, even violent change both experience and how that experience is of the sublime.

“Sublime” derives from the Latin word “sublimis” and means “to lift high.” In Medieval Latin it meant “to purify” or “to refine.” The original Latin implies a change of place. The Medieval Latin implies a change of quality. But both imply a change of some kind. Although it is not reducible to change alone, change is the term common to every experience of the sublime and is a reasonable starting point for comparing the figures.

The man in “June Fourth” is ruined by sweetness and torn apart by thinking. Not only is it a change but it’s described as a violent one. The violence of Satan’s transformation is obvious enough: cast from Heaven to eternal damnation in Hell. But Satan’s change is also initiated, like the man in Stern’s poem, by a moment of taking thought.

Lifted up so high,
I ‘sdained subjection, and thought one step higher
Would set me highest.
(bk. 4, lns. 49-51)

How conspicuously that phrase "lifted up so high," suggests the original meaning of "sublime."  But more simply, for us, this moment of thinking to take God’s place on the throne of Heaven initiates Satan’s fall and subsequent transformation. Though what the figure in Stern’s poem is thinking isn’t clear, it is thinking that initiates his transformation. In the words of the poem, it tears him apart.

The man in “June Fourth” feels misgiving and puzzlement. He feels loss and freedom, terror and hope. Satan shares this confusion of emotions. He is tormented by the thought of “lost happiness and lasting pain” (bk. 1, lns. 54-56) but in defiance cries, “Here at least/we shall be free.” (bk. 1, lns. 258, 259). He feels the same exhilaration of “loss and freedom.” He describes the other fallen angels as being “astonished.” Thus both figures are filled with an apprehensive anxiety, a wonder before what has happened to them. Interestingly, 18th century critics, especially Edmund Burke, tied these same emotions to the sublime.

Burke wrote, “A mode of terror, or of pain, is always the cause of the sublime” (136. Part 4, Section 7). Furthermore, and more importantly for Stern’s poem, Burke said,

“As common labour, which is a mode of pain, is the exercise of the grosser, a mode of terror is the exercise of the finer parts of the system. In all these cases, if the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious; if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of the person, as these emotions clear the parts, whether fine, or gross, of a dangerous and troublesome incumbrance, they are capable of producing delight. Its object is the sublime. Its highest degree I call astonishment” (136. Part 4, Section 7).

That Burke should identify the highest realization of the sublime as astonishment is significant since it is the very emotion Satan applies to the fallen angels. However, I want to focus on Burke calling “labour” a mode of pain and, consequently, a “grosser” type of the sublime. The man in Stern’s poem is a laborer. He works for Bethlehem Steel. Though it is of the grosser type, his pain is thus an experience of the sublime and it connects him to Satan’s pain, for like Satan he inwardly rebels against his condition.

Satan, before his decision to aspire to God’s throne was the highest angel. He was the morning star. But he was in this position because God, his creator, placed him there. Satan himself said, “Lifted up so high.” Having been “lifted” implies an external force, i.e., God, put him there. What this means is that Satan before his fall and transformation deferred his will to God, he obeyed God, he was in subjection to God. The man in Stern’s poem also defers his will. He is a worker at Bethlehem Steel. He defers his will to those who employ him: his supervisors, managers, and, more importantly, the shareholders and board members of the company. It is the owners of the company who are the secular version of God. It is they who hold the highest power in the company and determine its standard practice or laws.

Part of the worker’s change is that he is ruined by sweetness. Honeysuckle, the term used to identify the figure’s transformation, has a sweet smell. The association is with all that is outside: sunlight, fresh air, and open space. These are set in implied opposition to the factory where it is dirty, claustrophobic and hot. What he aspires for is nothing less than freedom from an oppressive job, freedom to enjoy the sunlight, fresh air and open space. But what he requires for that freedom is the money and power of those over him, especially of those like the shareholders. Implicitly, the man aspires, like Satan, to the position of those in power over him. This quiet rebellion, this opposition, during the 18th century, became an intimate part of the modern definition of the sublime.

Hume, in The Treatise of Human Nature, wrote, “any opposition which does not entirely discourage and intimidate us, has rather a contrary effect, and inspires us with a more than ordinary grandeur and magnanimity. In collecting our force to overcome the opposition, we invigorate the soul, and give it an elevation with which otherwise it would never have been acquainted . . .. Opposition not only enlarges the soul; but the soul, when full of courage and magnanimity, in a manner seeks opposition” (qtd. in Boulton l, li).

This “elevation” of the soul, obviously associated with the sublime, in Hume, is also associated with opposition itself. The association gained acceptance among critics through the 18th Century and in the Romantic poets was embraced in the images of the rebel and outcast as hero: Shelley’s Prometheus, Byron’s Childe Harold, Blake’s Los. In fact, Blake not only claimed Satan was the true hero of Paradise Lost but also expressed Hume’s point epigrammatically, “Opposition is true friendship” (42).

A curious historical fact lends credence to this point for the Stern poem. After Bethlehem Steel closed in the mid-90’s, a theater troupe took the unemployed workers and staged a performance of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. This gives us the analogy that, in Stern’s poem, Bethlehem Steel is the Zeus-like power against which the Prometheus-like worker thinks to rebel. The opening of Demogorgon’s final speech in the play is relevant.

This is the day, which down the void abysm,
At the earthborn’s spell, yawns for heaven’s despotism
(130. lns. 554, 555).

We live in a secular age and in such an age, heavenly despots are replaced with a board of shareholders, hell with earth, and Satan or Prometheus with the ordinary, working man who, like those figures, aspires toward the better life of those who employ him. The man in Stern’s poem is “the earthborn” yawning for “heaven’s despotism” and he experiences all the mixed exhilaration of those other independent, self-determined figures.

The man in Stern’s poem doesn’t openly rebel against his employers. He doesn’t quit his job, try to steal from them or to kill them. His rebellion is internal, an epiphany, a moment of insight. However, it is not spurious for being so. Most of us go to jobs we care little for, in fact, probably hate. We inwardly rebel against a condition to which necessity forces us to acquiesce. This does not make the disparity between our actions and feelings, between our outward circumstance and inward reality any less real or less painful. Each of us determines in some way, we are not defined by our job, we are something else. This is also to say that the essence of the rebellion is the desire for self-determination and the power used to define that self is the imagination or memory.

To the assertion that God created him and to him Satan owes his being, Satan says,

Who saw
When this creation was? Rememberest thou
Thy making? While the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power
(bk. 5, lns. 856-863)

Satan is invoking the power of memory to claim his past. What he can’t remember, he denies, thus reducing his sense of self to what his memory dictates. He is attempting an act of self-creation. He wants to be “self-begot, self-raised.” Memory is the faculty by which he tries to claim that power and it is the same power invoked at the beginning of Stern’s poem.

The goddess of sweet memory is there
Staggering over fruit and drinking old blossoms.

Memory defines the boundaries of the poem. But there is a hint that something isn’t quite right. The peculiar phrase “staggering over fruit” implies something of a stumbling block, perhaps a kind of alcohol, intoxicating the mind. The “drinking” of old blossoms reinforces the assertion. It is reminiscent of taking the fruit in Genesis, for there the temptation was that “ye shall be as gods.” That is, you shall become like your creator, becoming, in a way, self-created.

Satan, for the same desire, was cast into Hell. The worker in “June Fourth” suffers no less. Though we never see him in a heaven from which to be cast, we see him in his desire for the heights of it. He lies “on his left elbow studying the sky.” “Left” has always had unfavorable implications. The word itself derives from an Old English word meaning “idle,” “weak,” and “useless.” The word “sinister” derives from a Middle English word meaning “on the left side.” The worker in Stern’s poem, by this gesture, is aligning himself with the rebellious, with the sinister.

The man also is “studying the sky.” He is not simply looking distractedly in its direction. It implies that he isn’t thinking of something else, he is thinking about the sky, for one studies something in order to master it. Quietly, and symbolically, the figure follows in the footsteps of Satan, Prometheus, Los, the rebels of literary history. For his ambition, he is banished to labor “under the dirty windows.” The word “under” is telling for it could have easily been “behind.” But “under” suggests a vertical direction for the worker in relation to it. That is, the worker has been cast down. The factory is hell. But he has our sympathy, for he is the hero of our age. He is the underdog. He is our co-worker. He is each of us going to work everyday.

Works Cited
Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Ed. James T. Boulton. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.

Milton, John. John Milton Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1957.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Selected Poetry and Prose of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Ramdon House Inc., 1951.

Stern, Gerald. This Time: New and Selected Poems. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Cindery In-betweens of Charles Tomlinson

My essay on George Oppen, the inaugural posting in my blog, opened with a poem Oppen wrote to the British poet, Charles Tomlinson. The following essay is a consideration of the poetry of Charles Tomlinson, a wonderful poet in his own right.

One thing I should alert my readers to is that I am, so far, unable to make the poems properly post with their indentations. I apologize for this and hope to shortly rectify this problem.

The Cindery In-betweens of Charles Tomlinson
By Michael T. Young

A poet is a type of geographer charting verbal countries in rhythms and metaphors. Some note the unobserved details of previously visited terrain while others discover altogether new islands. What the British poet, Charles Tomlinson, does is bring this metaphor of mine closer to an identity. That is, his verbal explorations are most often of literal geographic locations and their metaphysical depths. Tomlinson is deeply attuned to the landscapes he has visited in his lifelong travels, whether it’s Venice, Rome, Oaxaca or New York.

Although Charles Tomlinson has a name less recognizable than Philip Larkin or possibly even Thomas Gunn, he is their contemporary and as much a masterful poet. He was born in Stoke-on Trent in 1927 and educated at Queens’ College, Cambridge. A professor of English at Bristol University for thirty-six years, Tomlinson is also a successful visual artist, with some of his works published in 1976 under the title In Black and White: The Graphics of Charles Tomlinson.

In Tomlinson’s poetry his visual facility keeps pace with his poetic ear. This combination of eye and ear makes for lushly and subtly textured lines such as

. . . water, seeping up to fill their pits,
Sheeted them to lakes that wink and shine
Between tips and steeples, streets and waste


A trout, facing upstream, hangs
Balanced against the current he is riding:
Tail and fin countervail the force
Which keeps compelling him into acquiescence

These are delectable syllables, tasteful on the tongue and easy to relish. In fact, it might be enough to simply bask in the pleasure of his sound if that were all his poetry offered. But it isn’t. In early and late poems alike he returns to locations to meditate upon them and Tomlinson is a profound thinker. Buildings, events, moments in his travels are carefully and caringly traced through collections ranging from The Necklace in 1955 to Skywriting in 2003.

In the telling poem, “At Stoke,” about his childhood landscape, he writes,

I have lived in a single landscape. Every tone
And turn have had for their ground
These beginnings in grey-black: a land
Too handled to be primary—all the same,
The first in feeling. I thought it once
Too desolate, diminished and too tame
To be the foundation for anything. It straggles
A haggard valley and lets through
Discouraged greennesses, lights from a pond or two.
By ash-tips, or where the streets give out
In cindery in-betweens, the hills
Swell up and free of it to where, behind
The whole vapoury, patched battlefield,
The cows stand steaming in an acrid wind.
This place, the first to seize on my heart and eye,
Has been their hornbook and their history.

Indeed, the characteristics of this landscape intimate the interests and traits of his poetry, its color, its lights, a poetic life spent exploring all the “cindery in-betweens.” I tend to imagine Stoke with the “lights from a pond or two” serving as single points of certainty, of definition in a gray landscape, and I think this may be true for Tomlinson himself. One sees it in the care he takes with the structure of his poetry, the abundance of internal music, the rhyme, and the ease with which he moves through his meters. One sees it in the occasions of his poetry when “Light stilled the mind, then showed it what to do.”

Like his contemporaries such as Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie and Philip Larkin, Tomlinson responded stylistically, and even thematically, to those excesses found in a poet like Dylan Thomas. His poetry is not grandiose and passionate but thoughtful and controlled. This is not to say that Tomlinson’s poetry is cold and indifferent. Rather, his poetry shows the complexities of a mind and heart equally bound up in its responses to the world. These elements—heart, mind and world—so mingle and mutually make each other, none govern absolutely. But together they engender a form and structure in Tomlinson’s work that is not only poetic technique but insight into universal principles. In “Swimming Chenango Lake” the light playing on the water “is a geometry and not/A fantasia of distorting forms.” It is this same impetus that inspires a poem like “Against Extremity” or “Roma: Monte del Gallo” where the nature of two cypresses sit in “deep/Arboreal indifference to unsleeping Rome.” To Tomlinson, structure, form, and artifice are healing powers and the way to “wish back Eden.” But it would be wrong to think there is no conflict or struggle. We are, in fact, the dispossessed, living in a world expelled from Eden.

The fact that we need the healing powers of art implies our sickness and struggle. But what that art discloses is that the balances we strike simultaneously are points of great conflict and convergence. Here, equal and opposite forces become one another as often as they balance. In fact, the definition of balance may be not where equal and opposite forces cancel each other out but where they seamlessly become one another. Thus scavenging birds in “The Faring,”

. . . intent
On nothing more than the ploughland’s nourishment,
Brought the immeasurable in

Conversely, the poem “In Arden” discloses a manifest world echoing the transcendent and moves to that unseen rhythm as

. . . Arden’s springs
Convey echoic waters — voices
Of the place that rises through this place
Overflowing, as it brims its surfaces
In runes and hidden rhymes, in chords and keys
Where Adam, Eden, Arden run together
And time itself must beat to the cadence of this river.

With a poet like Tomlinson, it is not easy to plumb the depth of a poem, for multiple currents run through them, mingling, merging and separating in a constant dance of light and shade. It might seem like evasiveness if it weren’t for the fact that life hangs perpetually at the edge of revelation. Forces simultaneously disclose and cover the depths, like the gull in The Way of a World that “Swayed toiling against the two/Gravities that root and uproot the trees.” Or more overtly in Snow Signs, where, although the snow covers the landscape, rather than hiding the world, it leads to a revelation of contours that were otherwise unnoticed,

It is written here in sign and exclamation,
Touched-in contour and chalk-followed fold,
Lines and circles finding their completion
In figures less certain, figures that yet take hold
On features that would stay hidden but for them:

These are other forms of the cindery in-betweens, places where we stand before “the competing geometries of shore and sky,” or watch a jet trail

. . . beneath
this no-man’s territory to see
How far that fringe of vapour can prolong
Its fading signature against space

This territory has been Tomlinson’s poetic homeland from the beginning. His exploration of it for more than fifty years has made him one of its most accurate geographers, one of its most revealing historians, and one if its most sensitive poets. It is a rich country full of details and subtleties to which this visitor’s brief journal entry can only hint.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Intro and Appreciation of Oppen

The most difficult thing about starting this blog has been determining what to call it. I settled on The Inner Music only because the Capote quote from which I took it strikes a chord with my own aesthetic. There is something deeply satisfying about good writing and though I might not always call it music, that word suggests enough of a larger country beyond its simpler definitions. At some point I’ll post a brief essay on why I write. That essay engages this question of what in us is satisfied in the aesthetic experience.

My intention here is simply to share my thoughts on poetry, books, writing, and art in general. I’ve been writing for twenty-five years and over that time I’ve read and commented on many books and authors, jotted down many thoughts on art and writing. Unlike poetry, which is my first passion, I don’t really try to publish my prose. I’ve published a few book reviews and even fewer essays, but decided a blog would be a good forum for sending my prose work into the world.

I’ll try to revise so things don’t read as dated works, although, sometimes this will be unavoidable. For instance, I wrote on the movie Fight Club and will post that here at some point. Since the movie is now ten years old, it’s impossible for the essay not to be dated. Although the significance of it still seems relevant.

To kick off this site, I’ve posted a brief appreciation of the poet George Oppen that I wrote a few years ago. Although he’s gained more recognition in recent years, it’s still safe to say he’s not as well known as his contemporaries, or as well known as he deserves.

For those who visit, I hope you find here something engaging, something thought provoking.

Michael T. Young


The Pleasure of Being Heard:
An Appreciation of George Oppen

By Michael T. Young

In a poem to Charles Tomlinson, George Oppen wrote,

I would like,
as you see,
to convince
that my pleasure in your response
is not
plain vanity
but the pleasure of being heard

The irony of Oppen’s desire is that he seems largely unheard by poets born beyond the mid-60s. Like his fellow Objectivist, William Carlos Williams, Oppen won a Pulitzer. In 1976, his Collected Poems was nominated for a National Book Award. But in spite of these recognitions, in standard college surveys of major American poets, while Williams receives great attention, Oppen receives relatively little. His work was not even included in The Norton Anthology until the most recent editions.

In an attempt to understand this neglect, I was drawn to a comment by Eliot Weinberger. Talking of Oppen’s importance to poets in the 60s, he said “There were, first of all, the facts of his life, which had particular resonance in the era of the Vietnam War and of hectically mutating events and values.” Though Weinberger’s essay, first published in American Poet in 2002 and then used as the introduction to the New Collected Poems of Oppen, was most likely meant to renew interest in Oppen’s work, it seemed possible that Oppen’s political significance skewed the reading of his admirers and limited his audience. With too much emphasis on his political and social appeal, his significance as a poet passed away as those circumstances did. What intrigued me was Oppen had not only served in World War II but, in order to take political and social action, stopped writing for about twenty-five years, in what is probably one of the most famous poetic silences.

Grounded as I am in formal poetry, coming to Oppen’s work was a complete surprise. My natural affinity was for the poetry of James Merrill, Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht: a different generation and altogether a different sensibility. I had read poets like Williams, but the aesthetic never engaged me. I read it. I knew it. However, I had no interest in it. That is, until I came to George Oppen. His poetry not only engaged me, it enlightened me. Here was a modern voice that never said anything for the simple beauty of a phrase, indeed, never dared speak except to utter in the clearest words its most exacting vision. Here was a poet with an integrity that could be located in every line.

I have not and never did have any motive of poetry
But to achieve clarity.

To the mind of some readers, Oppen’s concern for clarity is possibly belied by his syntax. It is perhaps the most peculiar of any major modern poet, even more difficult than the philosophical phrasing of Wallace Stevens or the intellectually dense formal lines of Edgar Bowers. But it is Oppen’s desire to make every word take part in a meaningful creation that accounts for his syntax. When the words used to manipulate me in advertisements, politics, and social events are called on to express my most intimate experiences—my sense of being, my sense of identity—they are, by the time I come to use them, emptied of any potency by their trivialization in the everyday world of buying and spending. Words are

Which have run mad
In the subways
And of course the institutions
And the banks.
("A Language of New York")

By the time I come to speak of myself, I can say nothing.

He wants to say
His life is real,
No one can say why

It is not easy to speak

A ferocious mumbling, in public
Of rootless speech
("Of Being Numerous")

This rootless speech is what the poem calls a speech of “anti-ontology.” It has no being. The man trying to speak the meaning of his life has no language to speak it. It is unreal because politics and public life have appropriated it for ends other than an existential dialogue. The implication is that the ontological use of language must precede or take precedent over all other uses or the consequence is the loss of our ability to articulate being. We will be left always trying to recover the ontological use of language against the erosion of meaning by these other, less significant, uses.

And there are words we have learned
Not to look at,
Not to look for substance
Below them. But we are on the verge
Of vertigo.
("The Building of the Skyscraper")

The battle to recover these words for ontological use is what accounts for Oppen’s syntactic oddities. A further implication is that even poetry becomes ineffectual for certain things. Simply put, it has limits. If I think that language can accomplish everything, whether as an advertiser or a poet, I rob the true ontological root, which is everyday life, and render language ineffectual in its true and most valuable role: as an instrument for creating meaning.

Who are the people? that they are

That force within the walls
Of cities

Wherein the cars
Of mechanics
And executives

Echo like history
Down walled avenues
In which one cannot speak.
(Part 3, "A Language of New York")

It is only treating words with the utmost care, even as ghosts, that maybe,

Carefully they will restore
I hope to meaning
And to sense.
("A Narrative")

This is why Oppen’s poetry needs no politics or prose, but caries its integrity and dignity all on its own. Ontology precedes politics and art in every situation for Oppen. Ontology is the ground of everything. Thus he takes no word, no matter how slight, for granted. Oppen does not simply use words, he employs them. That is to say, he pays a price for them. Nothing is said unless his personal experience teaches the meaning of a word and that word comes to maturity through his personal experience of it in life. The significance of a word is restored through the experience of it in daily life.

It is the business of the poet
‘to suffer the things of this world
and to speak them and himself out.’
("The Building of the Skyscraper")

Thus we know in Oppen’s poetry, he is the speaker. The artful persona is nowhere in Oppen, for it is contrary to everything in his poetics. He does not separate his aesthetic concerns from daily ones, his life as a poet from his life as anything else. Thus, that famous, long silence was not without its poetic validity even though it was a consequence of pursuing a goal beyond the capacity of poetry. During that time Oppen experienced language and recovered it for his later poetic projects. Without that rescue in actual life experience, his poetry would have been mere linguistic exercises. But as we have them, they are one of the greatest authentic poetic pronouncements of 20th Century American poetry.