Thursday, February 20, 2014

elsewhere was elsewhere, always | Nathaniel Mackey and the Transposition of Travel

                     Whatever it was we were
                    on. Wherever it was
                      we were. Elsewhere was
                    elsewhere, always. . . No way
                       we'd end up there. . .
            Whatsaid Serif, 84

In a 1998 interview with Nathaniel Mackey, Brent Cunningham asks about the many references to place in his work, specifically in Africa and the Caribbean, and whether he has been to those regions. Mackey goes on to reply:

I went to the Bahamas a few years back, in the mid-eighties. One of the reasons I was interested in going to the Bahamas is that I have family lineage that goes back to the Bahamas. My father, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone, was actually Bahamanian. His mother and father were from the Bahamas. They went to the Canal Zone, as did many West Indians, to work on the canal. I remember talk of the Bahamas and of Bahamians from my childhood, growing up in Miami, and after, when we moved to California.1

Earlier in the interview, Mackey talks about the lack of explicit autobiographical reference in his work, a topic that may have eased the way for this account of historical, or even ancestral, circumstance. I had read the interview before but recently was drawn back to it. I remembered certain remarks on travel, but having lived in Panama for some months, the above passage struck me as it hadn't on first reading. The experience of rereading it, from a different place, at a different time, seems akin to what Mackey mentions about the shifting quality of location in his work: "It's hard to see it for what it is because it's layered or refracted or brought into some kind of play with multiplicity" (322). Here also in Panama, speaking of multiplicity, I've been translating late poems of Du Fu written in Hunan, a province of China where I lived some years ago—poems that mark one after another the hopes and frustrations of travel.

Mackey states that his first time traveling abroad was in 1975, a trip that included a week in Morocco. Since then, he hadn't been back. But the experience, he says, resurfaces in his work:

A lot of Whatsaid Serif comes from my experience of travel and gets transposed in various ways. That's the term I've seized upon in recent months to talk about that concern: transposition. It's a word that speaks to those kinds of complications, one's fulfillments and disappointments as a traveler. It's finding out that you had an appointment other than the one you thought you had.... That disappointing travel experience in 1975 is one of the places that the figures out of North Africa come from, all that concern with the Bedouin and the desert. Some of that is me revisiting that experience, keeping appointments I only come to see later. (325)

Transposition, then, in the sense of being moved across, placed elsewhere. The disappointment in experience becomes an appointment in writing. But for Mackey it's not a matter so much of writing about such frustration than of being haunted by it:

One of the things I had to deal with was a romance of travel that I had absorbed, which the traveling didn’t live up to. I was quite disappointed. It has figured into, I think, a lot of the concern with location, locus, and dislocation that comes into my writing, the sense of itineracy that is increasingly accented, say, in Whatsaid Serif, where tropes of vehicular movement—bus, boat, train—recur and senses of arrival and/or frustrated arrival are articulated over and over again. (325)

Such frustration becomes not the subject of the poem but one factor in the broader concern with travel, a concern itself splintered into the various senses of "location, locus ... dislocation."

In his preface to Splay Anthem (2006), Mackey writes of the Dogon funeral rites that at a certain point

Song subside[s], [and a] lone voice eulogizes the deceased, reciting his genealogy, bestowing praise, listing all the places where he set foot while alive, a spiral around the surrounding countryside. Antelope-horn trumpets blast and bleat when the listing ends, marking the entry of the deceased into the other life ....1

This occurs during the song of the Andoumboulou, a 1956 recording of which Mackey took as the title of one of his two ongoing serial poems. About the second of the two, "Mu," Mackey writes:

The places named in the song of the Andoumboulou, set foot on by the deceased while alive but lost or taken away by death, could be called 'Mu.' Any longingly imagined, mourned or remembered place, time, state, or condition can be called 'Mu.' (x)

Mackey's serial poems partake of that space of recitation that follows song. They exist as echo, both subsequent to and desirous of the fuller resonance that precedes them. And yet this space of recitation is itself followed by a moment of non-vocal music, when the "Antelope-horn trumpets blast and bleat," as though the more subdued, recited language were only holding at bay, or building up to, an expression of pure music.

Within that echoic space, the poems are not situated in the places named, but in the activity of naming itself. As Mackey writes in Whatsaid Serif, "No known locale / though names accrue" (18). Or again:

                don't go there, they said,
                  no sooner said they they were
                      there, albeit there defied location. . .

The locale, the location, that builds here, that asserts itself as animate presence, is the poem itself, or, again, the ongoing activity of it, entwined and braided with its pair. The poems move, but more by language than actual arrival anywhere:

            Sought movement, markers of
                movement, tongues numb with
              not having moved. . .

It is this emphasis on the spirit, on the animacy of language itself, that seems to efface—or to make porous, implicate, open to echo—the individual self. In the greater order of the poem, the self is only one aspect among others. And if anything, reading Whatsaid Serif and other of Mackey's books of poetry, what is most audible is the sense of ancestry, the persistent echo of other voices and other travels, either unrealized or yearned for, yet to be.

  image: from the University of Arizona Poetry Center
[available here]

1 Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 324.

2 Splay Anthem (New Directions, 2006), ix.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

the equivalent proportion | Charles Olson's Mayan Letters

As the activating presence behind The Mayan Letters (Divers Press, 1953), Robert Creeley comes readily to mind as the person most intimately involved in the working life of Charles Olson during the nearly six months that Olson lived on the Yucatán Peninsula in 1951. Olson's correspondence with Creeley and others, along with his other writing of the time, reveal, however, a much more complex network of association and assistance. Or collaboration, as Olson terms it with regard to the graphic artist Hipolito Sanchez in a proposal he wrote that May in hopes of securing funds to continue fieldwork toward a study of the Mayan glyphs.1

Olson had met Sanchez in February, about a month after his arrival. Sanchez, working at the time at the museum in Campeche, had recently produced, as Olson relates in the proposal, "a collection of 115 pen-and-ink drawings completely and brilliantly recording all the stone inscriptions" (98) at the archaeological site of Copán, in Honduras. Olson meant to conduct his own field study at a number of sites and publish the results, complete with illustrations by Sanchez, as a book to be titled "The Art of the Language of Mayan Glyphs."

While the project never materialized, the effect of the drawings on Olson is palpable. In the proposal he praises them for how "they preserve the very quality of the carving of the stone," restoring the design of the glyphs, otherwise long since "weathered and broken" (98). He portrays Sanchez's work as a "perfect fit" for his own, and Sanchez as

a man of great plastic feeling and skill who was already at a great work, recording the glyphs in so sharp a way that one could feel and read them as freshly as they must been the day the came from the sculptors' hands. (98)

To work with the same disposition as those sculptors was certainly Olson's ambition, to live like the ancient Mayans who were, as he wrote to Creeley in late March, "worth remembering because they were hot for the world they lived in & hot to get it down by way of language" (56-57).2

If Sanchez presented the original face of the glyphs, it became Cid Corman's responsibility to accurately portray Olson's own poems. Beginning in October 1950 Corman and Olson were in correspondence about the publication of the first issue of Corman's new magazine Origin.3 Corman had initially granted him the first forty, extended later to fifty, pages of the issue for his own work. As revealed in his letters to Corman, Olson was extremely anxious to see proofs of the poems. In a letter dated "March 22?" (he seems not to have been sure himself), he writes:

you haven't sd anything abt proofs—and it begins to get close to April 15.   Is it hopeless?   If so, please, go over all olson with someone, will you?   that is, watch carefully for (1) the spacing, that, it keeps the same proportions I get fr this machine (print or varitype space is different, and it is the feeling of the equivalent proportion that i am after) (39-40)

"The feeling of the equivalent proportion": this is very close to the language Olson uses to characterize the design of the glyphs. As on April 1, he writes Creeley:

What continues to hold me, is, the tremendous levy on all objects as they present themselves to human sense, in this glyph-world. And the proportion, the distribution of weight given same parts of all, seems, exceptionally, distributed & accurate ... (66)

The typewriter here takes the place of the sculptors' tools, making Corman's proofs equivalent in Olson's mind to Sanchez's drawings.

And he wanted them to be published, the poems and the glyphs, side by side, or least one after the other. In Olson's previous letter to Corman, dated March 12, after asking after the proofs he immediately raises "another idea, for future no.," explaining how he met Sanchez and the significance of his drawings:

... Now I don't know how you are
going to be set up for repros, ahead.   But keep in mind
that, if any such thing becomes possible, no more
beautiful and interesting presentation of the force of
this language-design which is called Maya can be gotten
than Sanchez's unpublished drawings. (38)

Later that month, in a letter dated March 28, as Corman was preparing the first issue of Origin and Olson continued to look over the drawings with Sanchez, it all seemed to coordinate into one system in Olson's mind:

The more it unfolds under hand, the more I think you have the hottest of hot ideas for an auxiliary dramatization of ORIGIN's force in contemporary culture:   and to dramatize it by way of GLYPHS, fr the oldest and purest origin on this continent, this hemisphere!   WOW.... (41)

Olson would take, or levy, exact—breathe in, almost—or touch, what he could of the glyphs as they existed in stone, and on paper, and from, as he wrote Creeley the day before, on March 27, "being here where that life was that i pick up on same" (56-57).

All of which altered his verse. As perhaps he had hoped it would. And it is to his own poems in June that he returned after the "straight suffering" of the proposal.4 He seems to have been after some other equivalent for poetry, and it is in the content (or really the form, as he doesn't seem to have actually understood the content) of the glyphs that he found it. As he wrote Creeley on March 15, "it's hieroglyphs, which are the real pay-off, the inside stuff, for me ... the intimate art" (50). And again, later that month, on the 20th:

Here is the most abstract and formal deal of all the things this people dealt out—and yet, to my taste, it is precisely as intimate as verse is. Is, in fact, verse. Is their verse. And comes into existence, obeys the same laws that, the coming into existence, the persisting of verse, does. (43)

A different equivalent for poetry, and along with it a different proportion for the human in relation to all other "objects" of existence, each with its own place in the larger ecological field.

image: from The Complete Correspondence of Charles Olson & Robert Creeley, Vol. 4
ed. George F. Butterick (Black Sparrow Press, 1982).

1 Excerpts from the proposal were first published in Alcheringa 5, spring-summer 1973, as "Proposal (1951): 'The Art of the Language of Mayan Glyphs'."[available here]

2 All page numbers for letters to Creeley refer to the later, English edition of the Mayan Letters (Jonathan Cape, 1968).

3 The letters are collected in Letters for Origin: 1950-1960, ed. Albert Glover (Paragon House, 1969).

4 This from a letter to Corman, dated May 28, once Olson had finished the proposal:

truth is, though it has been straight suffering, because it is both too early & too late to do it, yet, in the doing, I have straightened out several problems of glyph procedure, & of application of my aesthetic generally (55).

As this passage suggests, Olson was deeply ambivalent about writing the proposal. It helped him clarify matters of procedure and application, as he states, but he also felt something vital was also being kept at bay in the straightening confines of the discursive style. Earlier in the month, in a letter to Corman dated May 18, he writes:

... god help me there is nothing harder in this life for me to do than to make such statements—and now, the problem is even greater than it ever was, simply because my own prose ways (say, G & C) have to be broken back to the universe of discourse, and that, is unbearable // —so night & day i try and try to state the thing, and it boggles, is not // what i want ... (54).

It's curious that to be there, or really, to return to, later that fall, the place where he meant to "dispose of argument" and logic, to get "far beyond them" and return to an experience of "direct perception," he had to spend nearly a month writing such a proposal (54). Even at the time of these two letters, not long before he would leave for the summer session at Black Mountain College, he writes to Corman that "to this very day I have not broken beyond to anything like a sustained life in the universe beyond the universe of discourse" (54). From the energy that still carries through the Mayan Letters (a selection from which, not without coincidence, the month of May is entirely absent), it's rather hard to believe.

Friday, August 16, 2013

as when air traverses the windpipe | Edgar Garcia's Boundary Loot

Launched on December 21, 2012, the last day of the Mayan long count, Edgar Garcia's Boundary Loot, published by Richard Owens's Punch Press with a prefatory note by Dennis Tedlock, situates itself along a cultural faultline where another conception of time might fruitfully be set against our own. The chapbook is "split in two," as Garcia notes in his postface, by a poem that seems of central importance, "Apocalypse And/Or Apocalypse," which appeared first in the "Crisis Inquiry" issue of Owens's Damn the Caesars, a lengthy volume of material gathered largely under the sign of the 2011 Occupy Protests.

While the Occupy Movement and the end of the Mayan long-count cycle received a great deal of attention at the time of their occurrence, efforts to reflect on and develop implications from the two events have been few and scattered. The material that Garcia is working with, Mayan culture and its forms of art, exists in the present only precariously. Its earliest glyphs and scripts seem on the verge of disappearance, or fragmentation so complete as to render decipherment an effort of the future. Part of Garcia's work here, then, is a matter of recovery, gathering remnants, or, as he discusses in a review of Tedlock's recent 2000 Years of Mayan Literature, harvesting mist, a figure apparently for the Mayan poet herself. Garcia, in the fourth poem of the chapbook, "Obsidian Membrane," writes:

I read   across an erasure   a dream
that is not a dream or hallucinated
but collected from elsewhere
like a glow   trhough a moonless night
what didn't discontinue with a life's passing
certain violence   a terrible emotion

The typo in the fourth line is not my own but Garcia's, an error he includes and develops, opening a space for possible reflection on the shifting constitution of language, and, I would say, the possibilities that lie outside the enforcement of present linguistic boundaries. It's curious that in such a context Garcia doesn't move into the Mayan language itself. Instead, he follows back through historical layers of English, as though testing, at this conjuncture of capitalism, the continued vitality of such linguistic sediment, much as the earlier forms of Mayan script had to be assessed by Mayan writers after the Conquista.

The poem continues:

             Running a cord through her pierced tongue
a Palenque writer draped it
splotching and shedding an asemic aperture
onto a cloth upon which her ancestors
had done the same   by this way
speaking with them   as through a phone

The Palenque writer, as Tedlock explains in his anthology, is Ix K'ab'al Xook, or Lady Shark Fin, one of the wives of the king who ruled the city of Yaxchilán from 681 to 742. The scene is depicted on a lintel over the door of a palace dedicated to her. Tedlock elaborates on the bloodletting ritual:

The cord, studded with thorns, is draped over the open book, creating a direct physical link between the organs of speech and a surface prepared for writing. The bloodstains made by the cord are left to chance, suggesting that Lady Shark Fin is creating a text whose reading will require an art of divination. (105)

Asemic aperture, indeed. An open gap across which Garcia here seems to be attempting some subsequent form of communication, the mystery now as much the previous attempt and its representation in limestone as whatever content may have been harvested from the ritual itself at the time of its occurrence. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

out of context | Susan Howe's Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker

With a slight shift, the replacement of the demonstrative "this" with the indefinite "a" in reference to the 1996 collection it was originally commissioned for,1 Susan Howe begins the second version of her essay "Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker," recently published by New Directions as the first in its Poetry Pamphlet Series. We read the essay now, of course, in light of Marker's death.2

Also, however, as an elegy for her first husband David von Schlegell, who died in 1992, we read "Sorting Facts" in the context of her most recent book of poetry, That This (New Directions, 2010), a work written in memory of her second husband, Peter H. Hare, who died in 2008. Even the latter's title registers the temporal shift signalled by the republication of the essay, as That, at a distance, in the past, becomes This, near at hand, present again.

Halfway through "Sorting Factings," Howe reflects on Andrei Tarkovsky's struggle to define the nature of his film Mirror (1975):

The constantly changing quality of this work in progress confirmed his feeling that scenario is fragile and constantly changes with the material as well as with qualities individual actors bring to it. (32)

What enabled Tarkovsky to finish the film to his satisfaction was the insertion of newsreel footage (of Soviet soldiers crossing Lake Sivash in 1943) into the middle of what otherwise had seemed mere lyrical autobiography. Howe works by a similar method in That This, in which the 18th century diary entries of Hannah Edwards, sister of the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, serve as the enabling document that allows her space in which to work through the death of her husband. Marker's films, specifically La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983), along with those of other filmmakers, serve the same purpose in "Sorting Facts." Each of these works gives the impression of having been created under a great pressure of silence, as though, were it not for the documents that enable them, they might never have been.

In an 1994 interview with Lynn Keller,3 Howe remarks that since the death of her husband she had been unable to write poetry, but was working on an essay of film criticism, what would go on to be published as "Sorting Facts." The essay served, then, as a way "to document," as she writes in the essay itself, "his life and work" at a time that his absence made it impossible to write poems. The truly breathtaking moments in the essay occur when the surface of the discourse falters or opens onto what typically might be considered poetry. The line between the two becomes unclear, as though the one were clearing the ground for the other.

Overcoming the pressure of silence was, however, nothing new to Howe's practice. One very interesting aspect of her initial shift in the late 1960s from a purely visual to a more verbal form of art, as she explains in the Keller interview, was her fear of writing sentences: "I was scared to begin writing sentences. I'm not sure why" (5). She situates this shift at a time when she had begun to read Charles Olson and felt a need to move beyond the word lists that had been occupying her. Howe, in the same interview, further reflects on the element of fear in writing sentences, the basic component of prose, and therefore of the essay:

Writing an essay, I want to say something specific. I can't figure out how to say it. I'm very nervous about my scholarship; I'm very anxious to be scholarly correct.... Then there is sound. The power of sound never changes between poetry and essays.... So the essays are accoustically charged just as poems are, but they originate more from fear, from a feeling of needing to write or say something but having no idea how to say it. They are stutters. (26-27)

And stutters lead back to fragmentation, back, that is, to poetry, because, for Howe, poetry seems based not simply on the line but on the fragment, fundamentally precise and suggestive, which, in its openness, allows for a kind of freedom. As Howe says recently in an interview for the Paris Review about her process of scanning and collaging juxtapositions of fragments from Hannah Edwards's diary entries:

As I moved between computer screen, printer, and copier, scissoring and reattaching words and scraps of letters, I thought, I've never gone as far or felt as free. (8)

Despite her move in the 1980s into textual criticism with My Emily Dickinson, which led her eventually to the film criticism of "Sorting Facts," the stray fragment of text or piece of paper still seems for Howe the essence of her practice, what, with anxious necessity, she moves from, and, with renewed freedom, returns to.

1 The original essay begins: "I was asked to contribute to this collection of essays because of a book I once wrote about Emily Dickinson's poetry." The pamphlet: "I was originally asked to contribute an essay for a collection called Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film, edited by Charles Warren, with an Introduction by Stanley Cavell, because of a book I once wrote about Emily Dickinson's poetry." This change is remarkably minor, but interesting, I think, for how the essay is raised into its own space out of the previous context of the collection.

2 Rebecca Ariel Porte, for instance, has written a review in the LA Review of Books that focuses as much on Marker as on Howe. [available here]

3 Contemporary Literature, vol 36, no. 1, spring 1995, 1-34.

4 Interview by Maureen McLane, no. 203, winter 2012. [available here]

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

ritual to pray for good harvest | Wang Xizhi and the Paratextual Present

... the artist is always there, in the work, in his mark. This is a truth established at the very beginning of the Western tradition—when Protogenes recognized the presence of Apelles in a single line, the beginnings of connoisseurship—and it is central to the aesthetics of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.

—David Rosand, "'My I': Toward an Iconography of the Self”1

It is a nearly unassailable article of faith in the Chinese tradition that through the trace of the brush, the remnant of ink left on paper, a person might be known. Wang Xizhi (303-360) stands at the historical source of this belief. As Robert Harrist explains it:

It was outside the domain of official life that calligraphy became a major art, more or less as the term is understood today, during the Eastern Chin dynasty (317-420). Founded after the north of China was lost to foreign invaders, the Eastern Chin had its capital at Chien-k'ang (modern Nanking) and was dominated by aristocratic émigré families. Among these aristocrats was Wang Hsi-chih [Wang Xizhi] ...2

The dominant mode of writing at the time as it had been established in the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) tended toward the monumental, in particular stone stelae engraved with governmental decrees and commemorations. Exploiting the recent invention and increased availability of paper, Wang and his circle developed an artistic subculture enamored of individual expression and exchange, manifested in personal letters written in new running and cursive scripts, "forms of calligraphy," as Harrist writes, "in which characters are abbreviated and strokes linked in continuous motions of the brush" (89).

The real pleasure was not so much the often trivial content of the letters, "not," as Roland Barthes writes of the art of ikebana, "to read it (to read its symbolism) but to follow the trajectory of the hand which has written it."3 None of Wang's letters survive. Only copies are left, the oldest being tracing copies from the early Tang dynasty (618-906). One of these, now known under the title "Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest,"4 contains only half of the original letter. Many of the characters, particularly from other half, which survives as a separate copy, are indecipherable. When they can be deciphered, the biographical circumstance surrounding them remains hopelessly opaque. The remainder of this process of semantic erosion is calligraphy itself, a form of pulse, graphic evidence of what was.

Despite the cult of personality that still pertains around Wang Xizhi, what is now most strikingly present is not his particular work, or even calligraphy itself, but rather the whole paratextual complex that developed around and beyond it. The tracing copy measures only about 24 by 9 centimenters, while the scroll in which it is mounted stretches horizontally over a space of 12 feet, paper having been repeatedly added to make room for additional seals, colophons, and inscriptions. The material traces of artists, emperors, and collectors seem hardly distinguishable—a dialogic chain kept up over centuries but only recently evident as the single, fertile field of soot, cinnabar, and fiber that it is.

image: from The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection, eds. Robert E. Harrist and Wen Fong (The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999). 

1 in Robert Motherwell on Paper, ed. David Rosand (Henry H. Abrams, 1997), 26.

2 The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection, eds. Robert E. Harrist and Wen Fong (The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999), 89.

3 Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (Hill and Wang, 1982), 45.

4 This tracing copy is the subject of an essay by Harrist titled "A Letter from Wang Hsi-chih and the Culture of Chinese Calligraphy" in The Embodied Image (241-259).

Sunday, May 19, 2013

there are still wolves left | Halpern on Oppen

We have come to the end – we have seen the end of the assumptions of the generations of the immediate past.   It is that, and not some alleged stuffiness in the arts, which creates the cultural crisis. It is the poets who discuss the real crisis in whom a future generation would naturally be interested.

—George Oppen,
letter to June Oppen Degnan, May 19631

In his 2010 George Oppen Memorial Lecture,2 Rob Halpern extends a line of thought on the concept of "patiency" that he began a decade earlier in an essay titled "Of Truthful 'I's'."3 In the lecture excerpt, he writes:

By patiency, I mean a situation of suspended agency .... Its grammatical mode is subjunctive—expressing contingency and desire: a perennial state of as-if-ness. 'As if' creates a distance—and a pathos—an affective space of expectancy within the act of desiring to know ....

I take agency here to be the forward drive of history and its attendant diasters. One reason Oppen seems so relevant now in our own time (as evidenced, among other things, by the outpouring of activity occasioned by the centenary of his birth in 2008) is his direct involvement in that forward drive and his subsequent suspension of it in favor of an openly engaged practice of poetry. Halpern emphasizes Oppen's involvement in both the Popular Front in the 1930s and the Second World War in the 1940s. The traumatic effects of such experience lend a very real sense to the concept of "patiency": Oppen was, physically, a patient after his injury in the foxhole in Germany, and certainly had to be patient during his political exile in Mexico.

What resurfaced in Oppen on his return to the States in the late 1950s was not only the desire to write again, but to actively engage a community of other poets. Oppen's letters, in particular, are a remarkably moving document of the fine points of such social nagivation. Halpern seems likewise aware of the self as essentially relational, that any one person (one poet) is part of a complex social ecology. What is needed now seems, then, neither the aggrandizement nor the denial of individual subjectivity, but, as Halpern writes in that earlier essay, echoing Marker's preoccupation with the future anterior, "a subjunctive poetics: to write from that other place where 'I' might be or might have been" (90).

1 The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Duke UP, 1990), 84.

2 An excerpt from the lecture, titled "Becoming a Patient of History: George Oppen's Domesticity and the Dislocation of Politics," was posted by Michael Cross on his blog. [available here]

3 Tripwire: A Journal of Poetics 3, summer 1999, 75-90.

Friday, April 26, 2013

before the words | George Oppen and the Limits of Discourse

One curious fact about George Oppen is that as his own poems drifted toward the dizzying and seemingly groundless lyricism of his last volume, Primitive (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), an increasing number of young admirers began writing critical responses to his work. Far from being disinterested, Oppen's letters from the 70s reveal his active engagement with such essays, dissertations, and requests for interviews and other forms of information. Yet his resistance is just as palpable. He himself wrote very little critical prose, and seems to have had little interest in making himself clear in that way. When asked about his poems, he often quoted from his poems.

In response to an essay written by Rachel Blau DuPlessis (an essay praised, during a visit, Oppen mentions, by Paul Auster, whose own essay on Reznikoff Oppen had praised), he remarks in a letter from April 1976:1

... you analyze too much: you set yourself too much of a program- - - The program prevents you from sinking in ((into the-thing-before-the-words)) (316)2

And another remark, to John Taggart in a letter from September 1974:

I have of course – as you have too – some reserves about a doctoral thesis which much seem to absorb the poem into itself, into the thesis   For the poem is of course not that, the poem is the moving edge [...] (289)

Oppen clearly respected and encouraged both DuPlessis and Taggart, but his reservations about such critical discourse, the intellect cast in prose, seem almost to have encouraged his own move back to all that it is not, the sea, the line of the horizon, the space between words, phrases, clauses before they harden into sentences.

image: from Ironwood 26 (1985)

1 The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Duke UP, 1990), 316.

2 In an earlier letter, to Alexander Mourelatos, sent sometime before February 14, 1972, Oppen writes:

- - a place     a place at least to begin.   But place in another sense: place without the words, the wordless sphere in the mind – Or rather the wordless sphere with things   including a word or so     in it . . . . That I still believe to be, as they say, Poem:     the thing in the mind before the words     to be able to hold it even against the language - - - (236)