poem index

A Little Heap for George Oppen

Written by

Eliot Weinberger

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October 05, 2001


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The boy lived, in New Rochelle, on one Wildcliff Road: a short street of large houses leading to Long Island Sound. Words then, from the beginning, meant more or meant less than they said: Wildcliff Road has no cliffs and is not wild; and "sound" is the first pun every local kid learns: music and water.

A neighbor, for a few of those years, was D. W. Griffith, whose studio was nearby in Mamaroneck. They may never have met, though the child later mastered and adapted certain of the director's inventions. The close-up and the iris: the isolation of the particular in the panorama of history or of culture. Parallel cutting: the story or poem projected forward through the elimination of transitions, a meaningful blank space between the shots or lines, the play and acts of redefinition that occur through the juxtaposition of similar or opposite images—what Pound called the ideogrammic method.

The second national appearance in print by "Mr. George A. Oppen of Belvedere, California" (after the "Objectivists" issue of Poetry) was again in Poetry, January 1932. Four poems under the title "Discrete Series," only one of which was to be reprinted in the volume two years later. The second reads:

     When, having entered--

     Your coat slips smoothly from your
          shoulders to the          waiter:

     How, in the face of this, shall we remember,
     Should you stand suddenly upon your head

     Your skirts would blossom downward

     Like an anemone.

Inversion, incongruity, contradiction. It should be said, once, that Oppen can be very funny. (In conversation, gnomic one-liners alternate with ironic anecdotes, all punctuated by a bobbing of those unavoidable eyebrows: a gesture that might have been stolen from Groucho Marx.) An Oppen line and a joke are, at times, structurally identical: giving "expression to a whole characteristic by means of tiny detail," so that "where we might have expected something new, something familiar is rediscovered" (Freud). The tension of the minute or the irrelevant, seen in terms of its potential or actual effect: in comedy, the banana peel; in tragedy, Richard II's and Oppen's "little pin."

Objectivism as a topic, or as an approach to Oppen, could be permanently retired. Oppen has one poem, nine lines, in the 200-odd pages of An "Objectivists" Anthology. The book and the Poetry issue preclude taxonomy. The Objectivists included, besides the Oppen-Rakosi-Reznikoff-Zukofsky quaternity, Williams, Rexroth, Bunting, Mary Butts, McAlmon, Eliot, Charles Henri Ford, Parker Tyler, John Wheelwright, Samuel Putnam, Norman MacLeod, Emmanuel Carnevali, Ezra Pound (represented by his worst poem, "der yiddisher Charleston Band") and—Arthur Rimbaud. Forgotten Objectivists include Howard Roskolenkier, S. Theodore Hecht, Henry Zolinsky, Harry Roskolenkier, Jesse Lowenthal, Richard Johns, Martha Champion, Joyce Hopkins, Frances Fletcher, Forrest Anderson, and R. B. N. Warriston. Lorine Niedecker was not an Objectivist. The most famous Objectivist is Whittacker Chambers.

What links the poets is that all were contacted by the editor, Zukofsky. Only a few of their contributions are possibly "objectivist." Of the four poets now known as "Objectivists," there is only one statement (biological or aesthetic) which is applicable to all: They were Jewish, and they were obscure at the time.

Because of his silence, Oppen is (with Cesar Vallejo) the only Communist Party poet who never wrote doggerel. That silence is both admirable and regrettable, given the few interesting American poets involved in some form of radical politics in the 1930's: Rukeyser, Rexroth, Patchen, Fearing, Hughes. One imagines that Oppen, more than anyone, would have been able to transcend paean and philippic. His poetry from that period remains one of the great unwritten works.

Like Thomas Wyatt, a favorite poet, Oppen was a soldier—the only major twentieth-century American poet to participate in combat. Walter Benjamin: "Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?. . .For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.

Like Wyatt, a political exile. And, like many of the best American poets, a literary exile: Oppen has given few readings, has written one book review, has served on no (literary) committees. (". . .one may honorably keep/His distance/If he can.") With the discovery of that "honorably," Oppen could break his twenty-five-year silence.

Oppen constructs a poem as a mason builds a wall. A line is written, and rewritten by gluing a strip of paper over it. A final manuscript page is, in the end, quite thick. Not coincidentally, a frequent Oppen image is Kafka's wall: both the sum of all human endeavor in one particular culture and that which separates that culture from the others. Oppen's metropolis consists of walls within walls: the Great Wall becomes the Forbidden City. Yet among the walls, Oppen's eye, characteristically, picks a brick.

Oppen: "Of Being Numerous asks the question whether or not we can deal with humanity as something which actually exists."

Brecht: "We'd all be human if we could."

Defoe's Crusoe and Oppen's have little in common. Oppen takes the fact of shipwreck, the beginning of the myth (though not of the novel) and ignores the capitalist microcosm the sexless colonialist creates. Oppen takes Robinson Crusoe for the same reason that Rousseau selects the novel as the one essential book for Emile's education: "The surest way to raise oneself above prejudices, and order one's judgement on the real relationship between things, is to put oneself in the place of an isolated man, and to judge of everything as that man would judge of them according to their actual usefulness."

A clipping, undated (1969?) from the letters to the editory page of Playboy magazine: Concerning the publication of Mao Zedong's poetry, George Oppen of San Francisco, California, writes: ". . .The piece as a whole—poems and accompanying commentary—gives some inkling of the way in which poetry is deeply involved in a politics that is radical enough to ask questions of purposes and desires. You are to be applauded for publishing Seven Poems. Maybe human voices will wake us before we drown." It is a configuration to ponder: Oppen, Hefner, Eliot, Mao.

Like Wyatt and another favorite, Blake, the juncture of eroticism and the transformation of the social order. It should be said, a few times, that Oppen is a sensualist, author of erotic lyrics of great beauty, rare in English in this century. The great modern love poems in the language are all written by old men and women: "Asphodel," "Briggflatts," "In A Cornish Garden," "Winter Love," "The Love Songs of Marichiko," "Anniversary Poem."

Theodor Lipps, cited by Freud: "A joke says what it has to say, not always in few words, but in too few words—that is, in words that are insufficient by strict logic or by common modes of thought and speech. It may even actually say what it has to say by not saying it." For the word "joke," substitute the phrase "Oppen's later poetry."

Most modern poems require a pause at line's end. With silence in the right- and left-hand margins, the poem becomes a brick amidst nothing. The later Oppen poems usually employ a pause in the middle of the line: the poem is a cylinder, enclosing silence. The still center, Zukofsky's "total rest." Zhuangzi (via Watson): "You have heard of the knowledge that knows, but you have never heard of the knowledge that does not know. Look into that closed room, the empty chamber where brightness is born."

Oppen: "Hopper. . .was very close to us."

Surprisingly, Oppen may be the only major English-language poet in the century to write exclusively from his own experience. No personae, no mythology, no foreign words, no translation, one or two passing historical references, a handful of literary allusions, no exotica, no surrealism, no documentary collage. Oppen, then stands apart from them all: H. D., Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Rexroth, Williams, MacDiarmid, Stevens, David Jones, Hughes, Crane, Bunting—and even from Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Niedecker.

Direct experience, the life of one mind, transformed word by word—less than 300 pages of work in 50 years—into an unadorned yet radiant speech. In a society where the economy is based on extravagance, economy can only seem austere. Thus Oppen as "minimalist," an utterly inappropriate badge. Octavio Paz, reading the four-line section 22 of "Of Being Numerous," remarked: "This is very beautiful. But in Spanish one would not have to use so many words."

O small ones, small lawns, the little seed eyes, little seed, little violent, diligent seed, little sparrow, round and sweet, so little said of it, the dangling small beast, the small towns, little solitude, the small black tugs, small harbors, small harbors, the small rains, blue waves roughly small, the little core of oneself, small like a small hawk, the little landing places, small embarkation points, the small beauty of the forest, the alien small teeth, the small nouns, the small resorts of the small poor, the little hole in the eye, the little hole, the smallest corners of man's triumph, o small boy, the very small coves, the little boat, these small stony worlds, these small worlds, the small prows of the fish boats, the little grain, the little bulbs, the houses small as in the skulls of birds, small hollow in the flesh, a little life, sprouting little green buds, the small trees, the small doors, so small a picture, small objects of wood and the bones of small fish and of stone, the little woods, let it be small enough, a small room, small self-interest, the small mid-ocean, these little dumps, the homes of small animals, small blazing sun of the farms, the cliffs small and numerous, the little skirts, cold little pin unresting, small pin of the wind and the rayne, the small paved area, the rain's small pellets, small fountains, her small voice among the people, the small selves haunting un in the stones, in their small distances the poem begins, thru the airs small very small alien, joy in the small huge dark, the glory of joy in the small huge dark:

Coleridge: ". . .the universe itself—what but an immense heap of little things?"