Thursday, July 15, 2010

Oppen on Young Poets & Workshops

As my last installment on Oppen’s Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, I’ve found some things in Daybook IV on young poets and workshops that interests me. [I’ve changed his gender designations to conform to current style, so consider these paraphrases. And this is a collage of fragments, so keep that in mind as well.]

* * *

Protected from despair by youth. I do not mean animal high spirits, but that the young poet is not all there is, there are others in front of him or her and the undertaking of the young poet is to get where the others are. With no need for discovery or invention, with no effort on his or her part, the young poet has a place to go.

But one cannot lead a life preparing for life, practicing for life, as for a football game. The “game” must finally have a purpose other than to succeed in it—

Each decade a tap is opened
Which becomes the easiest thing to run out of.
It is exhilarating as running water.
This is an image

Of the fact
Of the thousands
Who in the name of originality
Are determined to write
As everyone else in that decade

Less domestic art of originality would demand not so much that one write differently from one’s grandfather as that one should be distinguishable from one’s contemporaries.

[First] the poet must find his or her contemporaries.
[Next] the poet must be distinguishable from them.

With all this pressure between one’s necessary contemporaries and the necessity to break away from them, here’s Oppen on Workshops:

What is wrong [with workshops]? Most of these young people could never have written a line of poetry, could never have entered into that experience, if these groups did not exist, if the mode had not been established. And it is fine that they should, it can only be a gain— It is just my ill temper which bothers me, it is hard for me to contain my impatience when the platitudes of the moment are phrased and re-phrased around a room . . .

[Here he gets to an important moment, I think, in the workshop/artistic experience. It’s important for the development of an artist that that artist exist in a group (one’s contemporaries), but then one must move away from groups (debatable, but it seems good enough advice). But what of the role of a poet who teaches in a workshop? A lot of comments are being directed at these poets recently, that there’s something wrong with poets who would sit there where others would find it “hard … to contain [their] impatience when the platitudes of the moment are phrased and re-phrased around a room.” ]

“Forging a style” if one is sincere, is forging a syntax. We recognize it as a syntax when we recognize it as sincere.

There are risks one must take if one wishes to write poetry—

They are very considerable risks. The risk of exposing one’s mere self, to begin with, that is the first hurdle, and most never surmount it. And the risk of facing what one knows, what, really, we all know, of parting with new statements, including those of the avant-garde of the moment. Which is a serious risk. But the risk of shocking someone? There is no such risk. There is no meaning in the concept of avant-garde today—

There are the groups—. I suppose one has the right, it provides a life and it provides print—Yet I tend to believe very strongly that what one must do is go off by oneself, to make one’s own life, to guarantee oneself as a person, first of all—And write from there. One’s likely to be very old before one’s printed if one does that—But I think there is no other way to write real poetry.

And surely there is no other experiment worth making—

[This seems a variation on the admonition that Franz Wright was making on this blog a few weeks ago, and that others have been making around for years. On the one side, there is a value to going off by oneself, to working on one’s life and the way in which that singular life becomes the art, and on the other side, the necessity to, in some way, have community, which Oppen admits above . . . but I disagree with the “solitude of years” aspect . . . it seems Oppen’s participating in his own story a bit too much, and missing the way youth can inspire as well, with examples such as Keats, for instance.]

There is also the question whether it is any longer possible for an artist or poet to be seen or heard unless he or she is part of a group. If a single artist, not a group, had produced the devastating art which has found the name Pop—would that artist have been recognized at all? Perhaps there are too many claims on attention and response, perhaps no one is willing to take the pains to understand a poet or an artist or in fact to give them enough attention to know what they are saying without the assurance that one is thereby understanding an entire group at a single blow—. I think this is the reason for the extraordinarily delayed recognition of precisely those poets and artists whose work has most value.

[I don’t agree with him in total here (he’s reading the Pop phenomenon a little easily, I think, and not taking into consideration the way influence and shared reactions to the times works), but it is worth holding the idea in mind while we read all these essays and blog posts, etc., where people are continually trying to define groups and track tendencies…]

And ending with an interesting homework assignment from Oppen:

To shift one’s style, shift one’s eyes. Look at something else. Look until one begins to hear, to hear its form and size—the shapes it would fill: it imposes itself.

Easy to set up the experiment: look at a flower in a crannied wall—if there’s one to be found, or such as one can find—and look further, with all we know, with all that has happened—


At 7/16/2010 3:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank God for the few sane, like Oppen who, like Rilke, understood the deep places of silence and solitude and actual lived experience REAL poetry comes from. My own point is simply this, two-fold: the moment poetry becomes an academic subject--is this not obvious--it loses at least half its power, it cannot produce anything more than competance, never shocking genius, because being in a classroom with other young blind people doing something so fragile and secret and so long to learn, well, it is not going to happen with the opinions of others who don't know what the fuck they are doing looking over your shoulder. Poetry on college campuses. It would have made everyone from Rimbaud to Blake to Kerouac weep with laughter.No. 2 You are participating, like little conformist sheep to slaughter, in one the most successful and sinister capitalist scams ever perpetrated on those "suckers born every minutes" in this country. Oh how those deans and other moneymen love you all.
The great poets of the past learned their craft--if they had talent to begin with, which perhaps one half of one percent of the people going into writing programs have--by studying the works of the great masters before them. They didn't have to go to school and get and little diploma to do it. They offered and risked their lives. I can understand how all the not-actually-poets who are students and teachers in MFA programs sleep at night, but not the handful of real poets who spend thirty of their best years teaching in them. I have watcvhed with horror as the poets I knew in my youth to be potential great poets dwindled into poets content to put out book after book of pale imitations of their earlier best work.

At 7/16/2010 5:42 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

You really have two points here.

1.That having the workshop at a university is an abomination.

2.Poets who once produced great work, no longer do.

As for number one, I’m more with Oppen, who seems to be saying that the community, the group [a group of some sort], or the workshop is necessary for a beginning poet. He adds that it seems a questionable endeavor for the teacher to endure and, since I don’t teach in an MFA program (though I do teach an undergraduate class in creative writing), I can let it pass.

There are many terrible books published every year, but there are also some books of true genius published every year (or if not every year, at least every now and then). James Tate and Charles Wright are two workshop graduates from a generation before you that prove, I think, that the workshop can help, as both, Wright especially, cite the workshop as the place where they found something of real value.

Somehow a beginning writer needs to be brought into the reading list and mystery of the art. Some can do it by themselves. But others could use a guide. I needed a guide, as I came from a background that was a far away from the arts as a background could be. I’ll not defend all university-based writing programs, as a lot of them seem to be pushing reductive and simplistic agendas, but I’m not going to do that whole throwing the baby out with the bathwater thing either. Silence can be found anywhere, as the silence that is artistic production is an internal thing. Once a person is tuned to it, the location fades. Streets and trains are also a silence.

Number two, though, is a continual problem. It seems almost inevitable it’s so common! The examples are overwhelming (the above two poets are examples that deeply sadden me). But it doesn’t seem to be the fault of workshops, as far as I can tell, as it seems so nearly universal. And some poets who teach at universities (Rae Armantrout is a great example) are writing as well or better than they ever have. There’s a malaise that tends to set in when an artist gets to a certain level of achievement. It’s a warning to the rest of us. It’s as if (to use a football metaphor) they go into prevent-defense.

At 7/18/2010 2:48 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

What I get from this, both from Oppen and from the comments, is:

Stay an amateur (root word, "love"), i.e. stay in love with your art. Don't let it become professional, a job rather than a love affair.

I have said for many years that the one thing workshops cannot teach is inspiration, or the hunger to write. All any workshop can teach is the mechanics of craft; which is like a piano player learning how to play better every year. But just playing the notes isn't musical in itself. All too often poets come away from MFAs with amazing skill and craft, but with nothing to say. So we tend to get an emphasis on craft in poetry, in general, because that's easier to talk about and teach. If I were to teach a workshop class, it would not be in a room, it would have to be outdoors, or at the mall; places where one can find things to write about, that are not just ideas in the mind.

I don't think workshops are evil. But I do think they have severe limits that are often not discussed.

The need for solitude and being part of a group are both necessary, yes. In my own life, those needs have alternated, periodically. You have to go off and follow your inner compass for awhile. Then maybe later you can workshop some with others. Then off again. It can be cyclic. It doesn't have to be exclusionary.

At 7/19/2010 2:19 PM, Blogger Rondell said...

Hey everybody. Rondell back in town! Which one of you gentleman finna take Rondell out for a tall glass of Carlo Rossi?

At 7/20/2010 5:57 AM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

"Be an artist, not a careerist."

This, and everything else comes after, MFA or not, workshops or not.

Sure, they would have laughed; I often do too, even sitting in the middle of an MFA myself. But Rimbaud-after-a-workshop still would have been Rimbaud, the others still wouldn't have been.

At 7/20/2010 6:50 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


THe same can be said for whatever one does. Your life and work will be better if you do it with passion. So yes.

Hopefully one has the hunger to write and to be in the presence of writing before one enters a workshop . . . but inspiration, sure, that's mostly an internal thing, a way one is tuned to attending . . . but perhaps the circumstance of the encounter can be aimed toward that moment. It won't force inspiration, but I think a workshop (or group, etc) could make itself hospitable to inspiration.


What's the famous Flannery O'Connor bit? When asked if Workshops stifle writers, she replied, "Not enough of them."



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