In week 8—the first part of which was lost to a much-needed Fall Break—we turned from Beats to two poets of the San Francisco Renaissance (Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer) before moving on to Frank O’Hara as representative of the New York School. In the spirit of the week’s brevity, I will keep this re-cap rather brief as well.
We began our conversation with Duncan and Spicer because they offer extreme versions of the kind of crisis increasingly felt post-WWII poets, a sense of crisis amplified by the ever-receding distance of Whitman and the America he knew. We began not with a poem, but with something more like a letter or note—Spicer’s “Some Notes on Whitman for Allen Joyce” from the late ’50s. The fact that Spicer’s response to Whitman arrives in a prose form is, in itself, quite telling. It seems to refuse a more ecstatic / poetic communion. Already, something seems severed.
We struggled to find a root cause behind Spicer’s level of contempt here. He accuses Whitman of never understanding cruelty; he mocks his “bearded paradise.” The poem takes a gothic turn when Spicer writes that “the comrade you are walking with suddenly twists off your hand.” One can’t help but this of the end of Hart Crane’s “Cape Hattaras” here. In that great modernist poem, Crane walks hand-in-hand with Whitman at the end of the poem. Here, that connection is literally severed. The loss, for Spicer, seems to be rooted in his reading of Whitman’s Calamus cluster—a section of poems that have come to be understood as Whitman’s most explicitly gay-themes poems. If Crane looked back to the Whitman of the Calums poems with tender affection, for Spicer “Calmus is like OZ”—a land of make believe. Peter noted that the rancor here seems directed explicitly at the Calamus poems themselves. Perhaps he found them too removed from the main themes of Leaves, their gay expressions too shrouded in quiet mystery—the tender love of comrades starkly divided from the more robust, manly expression of amativeness elsewhere in Leaves. Or, perhaps he’s upset because Whitman didn’t change anything for the gay community. At the time of his writing, he was largely viewed as national and political poet rather than as a voice for burgeoning gay identity. That said, his provocative suggestion that Whitman had “sucked the cock of the country for fifty years” seems to cast Whitman’s nationalism is specifically homoerotic terms.
Whatever the root cause of Spicer’s oddly Whitmanian withdrawal from Whitman in this poem, he strikes a deep chord in post-WWII poetry that reflects on Whitman. “When I dreamed of Calamus,” he writes, “it was not as of a possible world, but as a lost paradise.” We discussed how the drama of crisis and recovery that we’ve been tracing throughout the semester turns here to a drama of elegy and utopia. Elegy speaks to a more permanent loss—Spicer’s “lost paradise”—while utopia reflects not a possible world of recovery, but, literally, an illusory nowhere. It seems that the very drama of crisis and recovery is losing its luster and efficacy in Spicer.
Robert Duncan’s influential “A Poem Beginning with a Line from Pindar,” positions itself precisely at this difficult crossroads between elegy and utopia. But what makes his poem such an important document in the history of Whitman’s influence is a largely overlooked gesture to lateness, to age. After the first section of the poem, which riffs on the myth of Psyche and Eros, its allegory of innocence and love lost and regained, Duncan shifts abruptly to a pointedly non-mythical landscape as he considers more temporal matters: the kindred concerns of aging and political discontent. Transitioning from the mythical mindscape of Psyche and Eros, he turns in section two:
This is magic. It is passionate dispersion.
What if they grow old? The gods
would not allow it.
Psyche is preserved.
In time we see a tragedy, a loss of beauty
the glittering youth
of the god retains—but from this threshold
it is age
that is beautiful. It is toward the old poets
we go, to their faltering
their unfaltering wrongness that has style,
their variable truth,
the old faces,
words shed like tears from
a plentitude of powers time stores.
A few stanzas later, Duncan mimes the aphasiac speech and strained thought of a stroke victim. We might recall that Whitman himself suffered numerous strokes, which he always attributed to his extreme exertions in the hospitals during the Civil War. Duncan, with this in mind, ties physical disability to declining national health, subtly placing Whitman’s aging body at the center of his unfolding national allegory in which things fall apart:
A stroke. These little strokes. A chill.
The old man, feeble, does not recoil…
demerging a nuv. A nerb.
The present dented of the U
knighted stayd. States. The heavy clod?
Cloud. Invades the brain. What
if lilacs last in this dooryard bloom’d?
On the heels of that loud reference to Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln, Duncan offers a resume of failed presidents and failed politics that lead back Lincoln himself. Hoover, Coolidge, Harding Wilson,” one couplet reads, “hear the factories of human misery turning out commodities.” After this inventory of national dismay, Duncan laments:
How sad “amid the lanes and through old woods”
echoes Whitman’s love for Lincoln!
There is no continuity then. Only a few
posts of the good remain. I too
that am a nation sustain the damage
where smokes of continual ravage
obscure the flame.
It is across great scars of wrong
I reach toward the song of kindred men
and strike again the naked string
old Whitman sang from.
Duncan’s invocation here is at once powerful and pitiful. The gesture is strong, but from this lonely outpost, the vista seems bleak indeed. Duncan does his best to work from perpetual damage back to the proud dream of that naked string. But Whitman is stricken, damaged, and we get the sense that the old song that Whitman continued to sing was old already in Whitman’s late years.” If Duncan does not allow Whitman to speak from that vantage, he at least points the way: “it is towards the old poets / we go, to their faltering / their unfaltering wrongness that has style.”
During the last half of class, we turned to Frank O’Hara finally. In class, we discussed the ways in which O’Hara is fully Whitmanian. He strolled around the bard’s “city of orgies,” documenting the sights and sound, attending to all things around him, taking delight in the contrastive energy of the place in his catalogings and noticings. But at the same time, he doesn’t bear the weight of Whitman. He has his own crises and doubts—and they are very powerfully rendered—but he doesn’t feel the need to be Whitmanian or to revive Whitman. He doesn’t lament the loss of Whitman, and he doesn’t seem drawn into the grand drama of crisis and recovery.
In short, it was absolutely refreshing! We enjoyed his ability to deflate the sense of cultural and historical crisis in an over-the-top poem like “To a Film Industry in Crisis.” We also marveled at his ability to deflate poetry itself in “Personsism: A Manifesto,” where it seems like high praise indeed to admit that Whitman is better (gasp!) than the movies. Having read so many poets who place such supreme weight on their poetic choices, its pure joy to hear O’Hara say “Now, come on. I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded structures.” Of course, we noted that O’Hara could only eschew the game because he had learned to play it so well—kind of like T.S. Eliot’s call for an impersonal poetry, qualified by his concession that a poet must first have a personality before they can learn to avoid it. For more on O’Hara and Whitman, I invite you to read an exchange I had with Jared on the blog. O’Hara’s not a prophet-bard or a solitary singer, but he’s a fine and funny and dead-serious poet all at once (and often at the same time).
To go from O’Hara to George Oppen is an utterly stark contrast. When I think of Oppen I think of words such as “clear,” “silent,” “materials,” “honest,” “truth,” “sincere,” “objective”—not descriptors shared with O’Hara in many cases.
I think of the precise ethical stance announced at the start of “Of Being Numerous”: “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves.’”
I think of the epigraph he chose for his book The Materials (1962): “We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things.”
I think of some lines in his serial poem “Route” which read: “Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world , / A limited, limiting clarity // I have not and never did have any motive for poetry / But to achieve clarity.”
And yet Oppen’s poetry seem at once easy and hard, utterly “clear” in its often simple language and yet so opaque in their meaning and import. Sometimes I feel that I read too much into him. I try to find a “meaning” or a “message” too quickly. I try to “decode” him, which is frustrating because there are few symbols here that we can probe for meaning. Thus, I often find that Oppen’s poems evoke more of an (often ethical) mood or orientation. A way of being or standing toward the world. They reveal something, and the trick is to forget the mystery and engage the hard material truth of each poem.
The inevitable question: How is Oppen Whitmanian? Oppen is deeply concerned with a crucial problem that Whitman announces in “One’s Self I Sing”–the first “Inscription” to Leaves of Grass:
One’s Self I sing–a simple separate person;
Yet utter the word Democratic; the word en masse….
The Modern Man I sing.
For Oppen, this becomes the tension between the “shipwreck of the singular” and “being numerous.” While those two tensions are most fully realized in “Of Being Numerous,” they persist in bits and pieces in many of his other poems as well. Look for that tension throughout.
On Tuesday, I will offer a brief lecture on Oppen and the Objectivist poets before we begin discussing the shorter poems on our way to “Of Being Numerous.” I’m most interested in two things for Tuesday: what you found most moving or true or gripping in Oppen (if you can’t find something, keep reading and you will), and what you found most difficult and hard to figure out. These are very broad questions, I know, but I think they’ll lead us to interrogate particular elements of particular poems quite quickly. I shared something of my own experience of reading Oppen above, and I’m curious to learn more about your experience. When we feel that poems somehow resist us, finding why and how they do this can often provide keys to learning more about the poem and what it tries to do.
These questions—what you found most moving/true and what you found most difficult—will likely be your quiz questions for Tuesday, so it’s important to have an intelligent answer even regarding what you’re still struggling to understand. It’s important to know what we don’t know. And I’ll be the first to admit that I find Oppen, at times, to be extremely difficult at time, oddly opaque for all his talk of clarity.