Oppen and Whitman

Henry David Thoreau, in a letter to Harrison Blake, discusses the latest edition of Leaves of Grass and reveals after a mostly congratulatory review: “To be sure I sometimes feel a little imposed on” (Walt Whitman, P. 156). Thoreau expands upon this imposition by describing the effect of Whitman’s work as taking him to uncomfortable places that would normally be either unavailable to him or uncomfortable.

This charge, although not scathing, illuminates the very themes I wish to explore with Whitman, namely in his poem Song of Myself. I too feel as Thoreau; at times I am moved to places of acceptance I would not normally adventure. At other times, heavily imposed upon. This imposition seems, for me, to appear in Whitman when, by expanding the boundaries of his body, he attempts to subsume America and at times, the world, in order to solve multifarious crises. As a result, the detail of the specific loses its potency, and becomes washed in the miasma of Whitman’s ever-expanding body.

Oppen, in his long poem, Of Being Numerous, as well as in other poems of his selected works, maintains the precision of boundaries while engendering love and connection. In being patient with his subject, by concentrating on describing its most illuminating details, he reveals his care.

My overall project would be to examine the Whitmanian intrusion of boundaries through an attempt to create a unified humanity. Then, to contrast this with Oppen’s long poem, Of Being Numerous. What I hope to find is that in many ways, Oppen is successful in creating a sense of a connected humanity without transgressing the boundaries of its constituents. Moreover, in a similar analysis of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a poem where Whitman does not cross the boundaries of touch in the reader, I will argue that when a poet keeps the boundaries of a subject through respect and precise observation, the level of transcendence is actually increased.

So, as if the poems were on a continuum, Song of Myself would be most solipsistic, and least transcendent, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, transcendent, less solipsistic, and Of Being Numerous, as most transcendent, and most careful of object’s boundaries.

Annotated Bibliography:

Nathanson, Tenney. Whitman’s Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in ‘Leaves of Grass’. New York: New York University, 1992. Print.

A large critical monograph about the presence and affect of Body, Voice, etc, and writing in Whitman. Nathanson provides a largely favorable diagnosis of the immediacy of Whitman’s voice, describing it as ‘preternatural’, ‘magical’, ‘mythical’. Yet, an undercurrent of unease exists when he approaches the most intimate moments of Whitman, with words like: ‘unnerving’, ‘unsettling’, ‘overflowing boundaries’, ‘omnivorous’, etc. Boundaries are a consistent theme in this larger work.

Nicholls, Peter. “Of Being Ethical.” The Objectivist Nexus. Ed. Rachel Blau Duplessis and Peter Quartermain. Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1999. 240-253.

One of the ways I hope to discover the effect of Whitman and Oppen’s poetry is through their disparate uses of language. In this particular article, Nicholls explores how language constitutes a integral facet of representing an object ‘ethically’, and that ‘Objectivist’ poetry, focused on sincerity and clarity of vision through a rigorous attention to the form of the poem, attempts this fair treament. Their langauge, therefore, is a crucial element; being precise, clear, and sufficient in respect to the object’s depiction/exploration.
This provides a useful counter-weight to Whitman’s use of language, which, much like his omnivorous poetic appetite, flows off the page. This article will provide a nice contrast to Nathanson’s discussions on writing in the book mentioned above.

Oppen, George. Personal Interview with L.S. Dembo. Contemporary Literature 2.10 (1969): 159-177. JSTOR. Web. 11.17.10

Most interesting are the clarifications to the misconception that Oppen sees in the contemporary conception of the Objectivist poetry, described as, “psychologically objective in attitude”. Oppen disagrees and states that Objectivist poetry is the process of forming the poem as an object. The implications of creating a poem as object are crucial to the discussion of boundaries in relation to the actual object of the poem. Not only, according to the Objectivist essay by Zukofsky, does the lens, or the perceiver, or, most specifically, the poet, dial into focus the way of an object’s being in the world by taking careful consideration of its particular physical existence in relation to its surroundings, the form of the poem becomes object as well, creating a set of boundaries that are in themselves aspects that the poet must take into careful consideration.

Oppen’s further discussion on this topic creates a further apprehension of his poetic tendencies when he mentions his book of poetry, Discrete Series. The title has important implications. As described by Oppen, the title is a mathematical term, defining: “a series of terms each of which is empirically derived, each of which is empirically true”. The purpose of the poem remains tied to: the object it address, the creation of the object out of or in the poem itself, and, within the boundaries of the poem, certain ‘truths’ from experience. Oppen later clarifies the ‘truth’ of a poem may actually be a ‘sincerity’: in a certain moment, one felt something was true.

And, after this long winded annotation, the crucial aspect of this interview arrives: through a temperament of ‘sincerity’, Oppen means to create the poem as an object (with intense considerations to the form and display of this object), while finding the ‘objective perfection’ of the object within the moment of the poem’s perception. When the object becomes, as in Of Being Numerous, the human condition of existence, startling realizations are made under an astringent lens of focus and respect.

Zukofsky, Louis. “Program: ‘Objectivists’” Poetry 5.37 (1931): 354-365. JSTOR. Web. 11.17.10

The essay introducing the debut of Objectivist poetry. Zukofsky provides a useful explanation of Objectivist tenants by defining ‘objective’ in reference to the field of ‘optics’, ‘military’, and ‘poetry’. What arises contextualizes Oppen’s own foundations and further clarifications that will take place over his career. By valuing the object’s perception, Zukofsky elevates the importance of an object to the ultimate purpose of the poem. In doing so, the illumination of an object, including its boundaries, retains respect in the focus of the poetic lens.

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