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.

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