Saturday, January 5, 2019

George Oppen

I usually read several books at once, though they each occupy different spaces in my routine. I usually have a book I only read on the train during my commute. These tend to be non-fiction, philosophy, biographies, literary criticism. I have one or two books, usually science fiction, that I read odd times during the day, mostly on weekends. And I always have a bedside book--usually poetry--which I read just before bed.

My recent bedtime reading was the Collected Poems of George Oppen. I had read them before, but it was a long time ago and the reading had been casual, just getting the feel of the poems.

Reading the poems this time, I read only a poem or two each night and tried to give them some of the attention they deserved.

I liked the early "Objectivist" poems with their straight forward, slightly Marxist images, and simple statements of the poet's observations or feelings. Here is an excerpt from a poem called "Product."

There is no beauty in New England like the boats.
Each itself, even the paint white
Dipping to each wave each time
At anchor, mast
And rigging tightly part of it
Fresh from the dry tools
And the dry New England hands.

Clear clean observations. "Objectivist" was Zukofsky's word for it. A new poetry movement based on the facts, the objective experience, of the poet in his place and time.

But, I actually like his last poems better, particularly the volume Myth of the Blaze. In these poems, Oppen abandons the clear syntax of the earlier poems. He composes in phrases and even sentences are broken up and distributed across stanzas. Here is an example from "THE BOOK OF JOB AND THE DRAFT OF A POEM TO PRAISE THE PATHS OF THE LIVING."

of the sea's surf    image   image

of the world its least rags
stream among the planets    Our
lady of poverty the lever the fulcrum
the cam and the ant
hath her anger and the emmet
his choler the exposed
belly of the land

There is still a sentence here, but it twists and winds its way among phrases. Punctuation is abandoned for the most part with spaces and stanzas used to separate clusters of related materials.

I find this more powerful and more interesting than the earlier poems, though I do like them. There seems to be more emotion, more mystery. They require more attention to follow and digest--a good thing I believe. (Jameson argues in Marxism and Form that modern poetry is difficult in order to force people who--haveing become conditioned to not pay attention to words and images because of advertising--to pay attention.)

Attention is the price you pay to enter the poem.

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