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—