Finding the Phenomenal Oppen

Written by

Forrest Gander
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Year

2009
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It is in his attitude, his attitude toward words

that George Oppen finds the ground for being and so

creates poetry that is, for me, a source for a richer and more

communal life. In "World, World—" he goes so far as to say,

     The self is no mystery, the mystery is
     That there is something for us to stand on.

     We want to be here.

     The act of being, the act of being
     More than oneself.1

In 1927, Heidegger's Being and Time was published in Germany.

At about the same time, Oppen began Discrete Series,

"consciously attempting to trace," he would later note,

"the act of the world upon the consciousness."2 As translations

became available in the 60's, Oppen read Heidegger

extensively and recognized many convergences

in their thinking. He wrote the poem "Route" in Of Being Numerous

after wrestling with Heidegger's essay "Identity and Difference." And in

his notebooks, Oppen scrawled: "Heidegger's statement that

in the mood of boredom the existence of what-is

is disclosed, is my Maude Blessingbourne in Discrete Series

who in 'boredom' looks out the window and sees

'the world, weather-swept, with which / one shares the century.'"3

Both Oppen's and Heidegger's descriptions of experience

are characterized by a world-directed

intentionality. And both men were drawn

to the pre-Socratic philosophers. For each of them, too,

awe is a critical word.


Heidegger wanted to overturn Platonism, to crack the frame

of constraining metaphysical oppositions. But

in his work after Being and Time, he concentrates on fundamental

ontology, the inquiry into Being, at the expense, arguably,

of examining other kinds of perception. It might be said

that he becomes more absorbed with Being, capitalized,

than with beings in particular. But in Oppen's oeuvre, being

remains writ insistently small. It is evidenced in small words, in the small

marvels of the commonplace. Oppen is less interested in the edifice

than in the way the eye selects a single brick. If he worries

that as the clarity of seeing increases, his distance from others

also increases, he nevertheless identifies himself

as an ordinary person touched by the grasses.


Oppen takes his stand on the mineral fact of the world where,

mediated by language, he coexists with objects and others. He writes

in his notebooks, "THE SUBJECTIVE IS NOT OUTSIDE

OF NATURE, IT IS INCLUDED IN

NATURE, IT IS INCLUDED IN THE WORLD."4 Even so,

Oppen's phenomenological sensibility shifts between Discrete Series,

with its confederation of syntaxes and its helical mix of observations,

and Of Being Numerous, with its more

meditative investigation into intersubjectivity, with its query

into how it might be possible to come to terms

with existence among others, human and inhuman,

in a place awash with preconceptions and logocentrism. In many of

the poems after Of Being Numerous, Oppen turns his attention to a less

urban landscape and to the act of writing. Yet book by book,

Oppen's words continue to emerge

from a stance that acknowledges perception as the product of

a participatory relationship with the world, a relationship

that closely aligns his poetics

with the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.


In those sections of his notebooks published so far5,

Oppen mentions Heidegger, Maritain, Schelling, Wittgenstein, and a few

Pre-Socratic philosophers, but not Merleau-Ponty

whose book The Phenomenology of Perception was published in English

in the same year (1962) as the English version of Heidegger's Being in

Time
. We know, though, from his correspondence with Michael Heller,

who recommends MP's The Visible and the Invisible to him, that

Oppen "read quite a bit of Merleau-Ponty."6 Certainly

Oppen, himself, focuses on connecting the visible and the invisible—

the "Bolt/ In the frame/ Of the building"7 as he writes in Discrete Series—

and in his notebooks he refers to "The seen and the unseen"

in connection with his own work. Oppen and MP equally insist

that Being-in-the-world means bodily being. Likewise,

the experience of silence is critical to

both men; each uses the word

talismanically. They share other key terms as well. In The Visible

and the Invisible
, MP asserts "We are not co-eval"8 and explains

that time must constitute itself, must always be seen

from the point of view of someone who

is in it. Oppen, in Of Being Numerous, claims,

"We are not coeval/ With a locality/ But we imagine others are".9


Repeatedly, in salient themes and in

strikingly comparable phrases

their critical thinking intersects. To highlight

the affinity between MP and Oppen is to open up

fruitful ways to read the poems and see more clearly,

in both poetic structures and concerns, in the angular

syntax and in the angle of inquiry, those specifically

phenomenological aspects of Oppen's poetics.



     * * *

What MP proposes, essentially, is that

the sensory-motor act of perception

constitutes consciousness. We can't be satisfied to say

I think, therefore I am. Our bodies, in dialogue

with world from the get-go, shape our thinking. As our

perceptual habits narrow that primary, bodily relation with the world

into more rigid and predictable patterns, we see

the things of the world

as familiar objects isolated from us but subject to our control. We

find ourselves caught in a dialectical

world of subject and object where everyone and everything

is independent, disconnected. But, MP exclaims,

"The momentum of existence towards

others, towards the future, towards the world

can be restored as a river unfreezes."10


Our bodies,

which evolution on earth has coaxed

into the upright, bipedal shapes

we recognize on the subway absently paging the NY Times

with nimble fingers and opposable thumbs, these bodies,

fashioned by the world and always present in a world,

affect what and how we perceive and so influence

the modes of our consciousness. With the bodies

of staghorn flies, we would experience an utterly

different reality. It is the human body, says MP.

located in the context of the world, which provides a means

for our relation with everything else.


He goes on to point out that no thing

is utterly inert, no thing can be seen in only one way. In fact,

our seeing is never complete

since there is always more to an object

than we can possibly make out. Instead, we might say

that phenomena unfold, they draw us

into relationship, they disclose themselves to our perceptions.

Oppen, who writes, "The play begins

with the world,"11 would certainly concur.


Both writers were reacting against

rationalism and calling for a pre-reflective engagement

with alterity. This imagination

of a first vision MP calls the primordial. Oppen

uses the word primitive in a remarkably

similar way, linking it to first things.

Meditating on Primitive,

the title he gives to his last book,

Oppen comments: "The Primitive fact:

the existence of the world and that the light of the world

is our humanity (our humanity is the light of the world. . .

'Primitive' i.e.: first things"12. Like MP, Oppen

nourishes a faith in a primary perception, one that is pre-linguistic,

an urge, as he writes, "To feel oneself

at the very beginning of language."13


Whether one ever can climb out of language to see the world

as it really is or map some realm of reality

that is language-independent

are questions I will not argue here. As for MP and Oppen,

the condition they describe is not unlike

the Zen Buddhist state of No-Mind, an epistemological

nakedness. In sloughing presumptions

that circumscribe our thinking, both writers suggest

we might step from the ruts of a conditioned perception

into the clarity that each prizes. "It is absolutely necessary,"

Oppen advises, "to be able to forget what one knows of 'the act';

to be able to begin each poem from the beginning."14 Even as

MP argues that intellectualism fails to "give us any account

of the human experience of the world,"15 that we need to make

ourselves ignorant of what we are looking for, Oppen,

on a parallel path, writes "I THINK THAT IF WE FOLLOW

VERY SCRUPULOUSLY THINGS AS WE FIND THEM, WE

ARE DRAWN BEYOND OLD CONCEPTS AND, PERHAPS,

BEYOND THE POSSIBILITIES OF CONCEPTS".16


For both writers,

perception is initial and

reciprocal. Oppen believes that "Poetry has to be protean; the meaning

must begin there. With the perception."17 In his notebooks

he says that "the present, the sense of the present arrives

before the words—and independent of them."18 He paraphrases

Jacques Maritain: "we awake in the same moment to ourselves and

to things."19 But even as he recognizes that neither the self nor

the objects of the world can be seen apart from the world

that contains them, Oppen does not obliterate their

differences. He avows,


"a blurring of the distinction

between subjective and objective—There has been no instant in my life

when such a blurring was possible for me/ for one thing:

too much a carpenter: I know what a blue guitar is made of".20 In The

Phenomenology of Perception
, MP similarly notes how, even though

we may incorporate them, even for instance

when the steering wheel, as we drive,

seems to become an extension of our body,

objects and subjectivities are distinct, however

mutually implicative. MP speaks of a coexistence or

coincidence
of embodied subject and world. And Oppen

writes: "'one's soul': it means the image of the world, the image

of the world in yourself."21


Given their experiential grounding, it is no wonder

that they both loved Cezanne's work. In his essay on

"Cezanne's Doubt," MP rehearses the painter's break

with Impressionism, Cezanne's quickening desire to recover

the density of things, their tangible presence, from the

fuzzy dissolve of the Impressionistic style. He suggests

Cezanne was driven to recuperate black and earth tones

in order to "represent the object, to find it again behind

the atmosphere."22 Oppen makes an analogous distinction, albeit

in different terms. He writes in his notebooks that surrealism,

its influence extending to most of modern art, "means to produce art

not out of the experience of things, but out of the

subjectivity of the artist."23 His own way of making

poetry, Oppen remarks,

is atypical. "My work," he emphasizes, "is produced

from the experience of things."24 Oppen even quotes Cezanne

who held that "Painting from nature is not copying the object. It is

materializing one's sensations."25 And in his

contemplation of Thomas Hardy, Oppen

reconfigures Cezanne's dictum. He writes: "As to Hardy's 'realism'/

phenomenology—I carry the matter

considerably further I would not say

that a landscape is dour—I cannot imagine myself

saying that, I would

say that we feel it so—"26 When Oppen writes

"THE THOUGHT: IT IS NOT/ IN US, WE ARE

IN IT"27 or it is "not that the world is meaningless

but that all meaning means the world,"28 he

fashions corollaries to Cezanne's

famous assertion that "Nature

is on the inside."

To look at the poem "Psalm" from This In Which or

"A Theological Definition" from Of Being Numerous is to recognize

a subjectivity opening out onto otherness, the draw

into relationship with things, the bouleversement of "in" and "out",

and the mingling of language (even letters) with

emotion-laden experience. Oppen remains astounded

to find that his "Self=presence," as MP has it, "is presence

to a differentiated world"29 of beings and things. Astonished

simply "That they are there!", Oppen places his faith in

words, "the small nouns," that they might communicate

something of the feeling of being present to "what is",

the worldly THIS

"in which the wild deer/ Startle, and stare out."30

In "If It All Went Up In Smoke,"31 printed below, meanings

are figured in the play of closeness and distance, in the shift of pronouns

from one to us to I. Notice the contention that the poem begins

in a pre-linguistic, selved world, the emphasis on small things,

the Whitmanesque identification with grass blades and touch. Is

"savage" another word for primitive, the world

burned clear of preconception? Is the object of the verb "praise"

the distant clause "all/ / that is strange"? Is the sudden cry of "help me"

an acknowledgement of the poet's vulnerability or is it

a solicitation of the reader to help make the poem, to

participate in its experience, to bring the poem

to its beginning in the reader?


If It All Went Up in Smoke

that smoke
would remain


the forever
savage country poem's light borrowed

light of the landscape and one's footprints praise

from distance
in the close
crowd all

that is strange the sources

the wells the poem begins

neither in word
nor meaning but the small
selves haunting

us in the stones and is less

always than that help me I am
of that people the grass

blades touch

and touch in their small

distances the poem
begins


Oppen writes in his notebooks, "I choose to believe

in the natural consciousness, I see what the deer see, the desire NOT TO

is the desire to be alone in fear of equality/ I see

what the grass (blade) would see if it had eyes".32

Instead of the traditional Western account of a consciousness

that digests the external world, Oppen honors a consciousness interwoven

with the world of objects, a consciousness that is nothing

if not a collaboration with the world.


     * * *

For me, bolting from college in 1978 with a degree in geology, Oppen's phenomenological poetics was revelatory. Engineering sciences had given me an analogy for understanding some of his syntactical strategies. I knew that unlike thermodynamic entropy, which measures loss, informational entropy measures the richness of possible messages carried by a channel. A channel that carries one single message, newspaper language one might contend, has the lowest informational entropy. But the messages channeled through Oppen's syntax are rich and allow for alternative readings, many kinds of information. Instead of developing from subject to verb to object and resolving logically, Oppen's sentences sanction a syntactical flexibility that promotes simultaneous, collaborative meanings. His poems, frequently enjambed and eschewing periods, are characterized by their high informational entropy.

I came to San Francisco from Virginia in 1979 and met him that summer. He was already suffering from Alzheimer's, although no one used that word, and Mary, his wife, protected him from strangers. When I visited, I came with Michael Cuddihy, the editor of the literary magazine Ironwood. Cuddihy, in fact, had begun the magazine by soliciting work first from Oppen, who sent, according to the editor, a minor poem. Although Oppen was his hero in many ways, Cuddihy rejected the poem and Oppen wrote back to him, "Ahh, a serious editor." Then sent the new poems with which Michael Cuddihy launched his first issue.

In his poems, George Oppen wanted words to act out "truthful, lived experience."33 His poetry is very literally a practice of perception. He even speaks of emotion "as the ability to perceive."34 The syntax of an Oppen poem rivets our attention to both word and world in an enactment of intentional consciousness, the very act of perception and thought coming into being, of language and feeling arising as experience. His poems can be intricate, the syntax polyvalent, the disclosure nonlinear and difficult to render into anything like statement. And as such, his poetry might be considered an expression of life. As the Biblical Isaiah reminds us, "it shall be a vexation only to understand." Clarity is not the same thing as simplicity.

Finally, in Oppen's poems I feel the momentum of an existence toward others and toward the world. That is how I found him. And that is how his work finds me.


1Collected Poems, George Oppen, (New York, New Directions 2002), 159
2Ironwood 26, ed. Michael Cuddihy (Tucson, AZ, 1985), 14
3 ibid.
4Sulfur 26, ed. Clayton Eshleman (Ypsilante, MI, 1990), 154
5 Stephen Cope is editing a selected volume of Oppen's notes for University of California Press
6Selected Letters of George Oppen, pp. 310-11
7Collected Poems, 23
8The Visible and the Invisible, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, (Northwestern University Press, 1968), 184
9 Collected Poems, 164
10 The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1962)
11Collected Poems, "A Morality Play: Preface" from "Some San Francisco Poems," 222
12Sulfur 26, 162-163
13Sulfur 27, (Fall 1990), 212
14Iowa Review, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall 1985, 5
15The Phenomenology of Perception, 255
16Iowa Review, 3
17 Poetry has to be protean; the meaning must begin there. With the perception.
18Sulfur 26, 149
19Iowa Review, 17
20Sulfur 27, 209
21Conjunctions, ed. Bradford Morrow (New York, NY, 1987), 188
22Sense and Nonsense, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Northwestern University Press, 1964), 12
23Iowa Review, 1
24 ibid.
25 quotes Cezanne: Painting from nature is not copying object... It is materializing one's sensations
26Sulfur 26, 158
27Conjunctions, 202
28Sulfur 26, 154
29The Visible and the Invisible, 191
30Collected Poems, 99
31Collected Poems, 274
32Iowa Review, 14
33 truthful, lived experience.
34 Emotion as the ability to perceive