Sunday, June 27, 2010

George Oppen - Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers

George Oppen
Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers

It’s been out awhile, but I’m just finding some time to read it all the way through. In case you don’t have a copy, as a teaser, here are a few snippets from Daybook I:


Words are a constant enemy: the thing seems to exist because the word does

Truth must follow after things

IF NOT this deluge of bric-a-brac, Nothing

I don’t think life should be valued only when it can be sentimentalized (this remark derived from Yeats)

—even Keats’ feeling that he had to say something “profound”—Keats weakening—writes Beauty is truth and truth beauty—if it were true, the line would be beautiful, and it is not. It is not in any case how poetry makes “meaning.” The meaning of Williams’ poetry, for example, is that life is not valuable only when it can be sentimentalized or only when it can be generalized. To be able to say that, as I have said it here, does not constitute great poetry, of course; the achievement of the poet is to prove it by the aesthetic success of the poem. And Williams’ vision------ . . .

And Williams has been important to us: the end of sentiment, the end of generalization is very nearly upon us: it is no longer convincing. Williams therefore
/ . . .

It can not be said that Rezi was as “important” as Williams, Pound, Eliot, because he was not important to the development of modern poetry. Simple, almost none of the poets had read him. He could have been of great importance, it is even true that it would have been a very good thing if he had played an important role: he would have presented at least an alternative to the influence of Williams, the aridities derived from Eliot—We might have avoided a great many difficulties; Williams’ model has rather made fakery easy, Pound

and the obfuscations of Ezra Pound

invite even easier imitation, and tho Auden and the Eliot school are perhaps not altogether easy to imitate, it is at least true that the manner apparently can be acquired with a certain amount of education even by those who possess no poetic intuition at all.

but it is probable that nothing of
importance in Rezi can be imitated. And it is likely that
which explains the neglect of his work


In Oppen’s bit here from Daybook I, it’s interesting that he mentions neither Gertrude Stein nor Wallace Stevens. But I think, if he did, he would say that Stein fits in with the Williams bit, where fakery would be easy, and Stevens would fit with the Eliot, that the manner can be worn by those with education but no intuition. But I’m guessing. (Actually, it's really not that difficult to imagine why he didn't mention them, as, at that time, neither had the buzz that they do now, at least compared with WCW, Eliot, and Pound. And then Pound. Is there anyone who still talks about Pound?  And this was the late 50s, early 60s, when poetry was still a boy's club ... )

A step that he couldn’t have foreseen in the early 60s, is that the sentimentality and generalizations that Williams was going to be the wall against, would be breeched by Deep Image and Confessional poetry, and their various strands through the 70s and 80s. (And then, in countermeasure to that, the rise of Ashbery and the second look at Stevens which is a very different thing than either.)

But I adore Oppen’s version of the WCW inoculation against generality and sentimentality. It makes me want to go walk up town and pick at the courthouse bricks.

And what of the work of Charles Reznikoff [the Rezi above] and William Carlos Williams? Well, it seems that George Oppen’s doing quite well these days, and WCW, while not getting all as much name-dropping as Oppen or Stevens, is still doing fine. But Reznikoff, indeed, his work isn’t wearing well. What was precise and specific, now is starting to look a bit misty. This is “Similes” from By The Well of Living and Seeing and The Fifth Book of the Maccabees (1969)


Indifferent as a statue
to the slogan
scribbled on its pedestal.

The way an express train
snubs the passengers at a local station.

Like a notebook forgotten on a seat in the bus,
full of names, addresses and telephone numbers:
important, no doubt, to the owner—
but of no interest whatever
to anyone else.

Words like drops of water on a stove—
a hiss and gone.


At 6/28/2010 5:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please, what year are those entries from? They seem like they must be early. Discrete Series era? Maybe not. Oppen's own tendency toward statement and exemplary detail (detail that makes a rhetorical point) seems pretty darn close to the very kind of generalizing he here bemoans. And don;t get me wrong: I think there's all the dynamism in the world in Oppen's bald use of statement. The earlier style wouldn't have been sustainable. Much hay is made now about the political reasons Oppen's long silence. But there's an aesthetic one too: he simply ran into a wall. And, to paraphrase Hugh Kenner, it simply took him a long time to find a way to write a new poem.

Also, Oppen is wrong about Keats. He's *factually* wrong. Because, as he should have known, it's not Keats who says "beauty is truth" but the *urn.* And of course it's in the urn's interest to say that.

At 6/28/2010 5:59 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Daybook I dates, as far as the editor can tell, from the late 50s through the early to mid 60s. When he first came back to poetry.

Oppen's suggesting that Keats, as the author is talking through the urn . . . as it doesn't seem to be ironic. Or maybe it does. I'm not much of a Keats fan. So, wrong or right on Keats, I think what he has to say about Eliot and WCW to be quite interesting.

Oppen has moments where I decide to pass in silence. He was a "product of his time" in matters of sexuality and gender (though not without some contradictions, which helps a bit), as his notes show. But it's less of a problem than, say, Stevens's attitudes on race (which also held contradictions) . . . we must take these boys with a few grains of salt.


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