Core Concepts: Poetic Schools / Objectivists:
In our post-WWII work so far, we have surveyed, however briefly, a number of poetic schools—you have Ginsberg and the Beats; O’Hara and the New York School; Duncan and Spicer of the San Francisco Renaissance. These “schools” were largely concocted by critics and poets looking to carve out an identity for poetry in the wake of the massive accomplishments of the modernist poets. The various schools came to provide a kind of anchor of identity for poets and for critics alike, however much engagement and overlap there was between the schools themselves.
This week, we discussed the Objectivists—a school that began almost accidentally. Poet Louis Zukofsky came up with the name in the early 1930s on a kind of whim after the editor of Poetry magazine told him he needed to name the special issue he was editing—an issue with a number of poet friends he admired, including Oppen. Though it is difficult to define the poetic project of this group, Rachel Blau DuPlessis comes about as close as possible. For her, “Objectivist” has come to mean a “non-symbolist, post-imagist poetics, characterized by a historical, realist, anti-mythological worldview, one in which the detail, not mirage, calls attention to the materiality of both the world and the word.” Along with this definition, we discussed ideals of honesty, clarity, sincerity that seem to be important for Oppen in particular.
Before receiving a proper definition of what Objectivist poetics entailed, we took a quiz which asked, in part, what we might intuit the word “objectivist” as meaning after reading Oppen’s poetry. Peter suggested that there is a necessity of distance of impersonality when attempting to understand an object and gather its overall truth by observation. James noted that objectivist poetry seems focused on precision and clarity and Marco described it as the “poetry of perception.” There was some consensus that emotion and thoughts were objectified in a somewhat ungrounded way. Professor VZ tied up some of these ideas by saying that for the objectivist, perception is filtered through the thick space of the brain, which may not allow for the clarity that we were wanting. That tension is part of what makes the Objectivists—and Oppen in particular—so interesting. In a way, Oppen and other Objectivists are convicted by simplicity, but inhibited by distance. In this way, Oppen’s work crucially revisits a core Whitmanian problem between the one and the many, the self and the en masse.
We then began discussing “The knowledge not of sorrow you were,” the first poem from Oppen’s first book, Discrete Series. We used our initial discussion of the poem as a building block for understanding Oppen’s style. We attempted to differentiate between boredom and sorrow (“The Knowledge not of sorrow, you were/ saying, but of boredom” (3)). Professor VZ suggested that to Oppen, boredom means to be vacant. While our connotations of boredom are negative, Oppen would have seen boredom (or vacancy) as a door to objectivity because there is a lack of concern for one’s self. Sorrow, however, is entangled in self-regard; it is essentially an existential angst that creates distance. In terms of the poem itself, Marco noted how attention to one line distorts all the other lines, so that in effect, moments of clarity change the way we see surrounding things. This is an evident technique throughout Oppen’s poetry; he uses line breaks, commas, and dashes to force the reader to consider all circumstances (i.e. read a line as a single entity and as a member of the whole). This is taken to a larger scale in “Of Being Numerous,” because as a serial poem the individual sections function on their own and as contributors to a bigger picture.
Next, we turned another poem from Oppen’s early collection Discrete Series, “The Edge of the Ocean.” This poem is particularly baffling because of its condensed intensity. It is a great example of how each word contains such heavy meaning for Oppen. For instance, the word “here” hinges: when read separately (“The shore—here”) there is a sense of pure presence—to be here, right now. However, when read with the whole poem in mind it can be seen as a general reference (here = in this case) about this particular shore being somebody’s lawn. Interestingly, Charles saw this poem as five ways to describe one place: the edge of the ocean, the shore, here, somebody’s lawn, and by the water. This reading of “The Edge of the Ocean” matches up with what we know to be true of Oppen—he finds cohesiveness in multiple accruing components.
To finish off class on Tuesday we looked at “World, World” by Oppen. We noticed that the title creates expectations of something general, but within the poem something gets in the way. After a careful reading, we saw distinct evidence of distance in the poem that seems to get in the way of succinct movement. In the first stanza, there is already a distance seen in class divide between what could be read a representative of higher and lower classes, but which we, given Oppen’s military experience, saw as a General and a soldier: “nothing seen/ From prominence,/ Too much seen in the ditch” (80). Stanza two contains the same distance in the lines, when he refers to those who, “Tho they feel on their skins/ Are not pierced.” Oppen’s use of the word “pierced” in these lines is interesting in light of the essay we read by Zach Finch. Finch noted an emphasis on a more glancing touch as opposed to a penetrating touch in early Oppen, but this poem seems to argue that to be “pierced” by what one sees is to be “counted,” to be a person in close touch with the world. Nevertheless, Oppen instantiates a sense of distance here again continues when he dismisses the opinions of those who disagree with him because they are not aware of some crucial reality.
Class Thursday began with a quick overview of John Berryman’s poem, “Despair” and Louis Simpson’s poem, “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain.” Professor VZ discussed these two poets as examples of Post-WWII poets who adopt Whitman’s sense of loss and a distance from the American (or Whitmanian) dream. Both of these poets still reluctantly join Whitman on his journey, even though the sadness is incredibly overwhelming. Oppen differs from these poets because rather than merely harness some Whitmanian sense of crisis, he re-visits one of Whitman’s crucial problems: that between the one and the many.
We then we listened to a recording of George Oppen reading, “Of Being Numerous”. We agreed the reading was powerful because Oppen’s voice was weighty and he so clearly emphasized the ambiguity in the syntax. Professor VZ asked divided us into three groups and asked each group, respectively, to analyze three aspects of the poem: (1) the philosophical and epistemological (how one “knows”) tension between the singular and the numerous; (2) where senses enter this poem and either magnify or close that distance between the one and the many, and (3) how the serial form of the poem becomes a metaphor for the interaction between the individual and the many.
The first group noted that Oppen often runs into difficulty when he approaches that grounded problem of the one and the many in more abstract of philosophical terms. The space of the mind always gets in the way. They highlighted Section 26 as an example of this problem . The second group noted that for Oppen, touch affirms existence; or as Jared said, something doesn’t come into fullness until it comes into contact with another. They took us to Section 38, a powerful section (that could be referring to Whitman as ‘nurse’) that grapples with the idea of “knowing” being more penetrating than touch—but touch ultimately emerges as a more intimate, or at least caring, way of knowing. When open find himself in contact with others—crowds, his wife, the human body—he seems momentarily to forget philosophical problem of being numerous. Finally, the third group noticed that the serial form of the poem allowed the reader to see (through comparison of the sections) the ways that Oppen struggles with the singular vs. the numerous. They saw a clear example of this in a comparison of Section 13 and 14. In Section 13 there is a deep sense of separation, “one may honorably keep // His distance / If he can,” but then immediately in Section 14 he says, thinking of those he faught with during WWII: “I cannot even now / Altogether disengage myself” (91). We see in the serial form that Oppen strung together single, separate units to make a whole. Of course, all of these questions deal with the overriding conflict in Oppen’s poetry, “the shipwreck / Of the singular” versus “the meaning of being numerous” (86).
Quote and Tell: “Of Being Numerous”
There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.
By the shipwreck
Of the singular
We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.
Chorus (androgynous): ‘Find me
So that I will exist, find my navel
So that it will exist, find my nipples
So that they will exist, find every hair
Of my belly, I am good (or I am bad),
You are the last
Who will know him
Not know him,
He is an old man,
How could one know him?
You are the last
Who will see him
Or touch him,
Oppen opens his serial poem “Of Being Numerous” asserting “There are things / We live among and to see them / Is to know ourselves.” This essentially means that of Oppen, to see (and touch) is to know. In the beginning of the poem, touch affirms existence. Like Jared said in class, something doesn’t come into fullness until it comes into contact with another. It is this very human connection that Oppen seeks in section 15. The speaker implores us to “find me so that I will exist.” This yearning command seems to be the culmination of Oppen’s quest for human connection. It is as if he is saying, “See me and touch me so that I can be, so that you can know me.” However, the human connection is severed in Section 38, when the speaker asserts that seeing and touching are not knowing, or that they are not sufficient for knowing. Or as Zack Finch says in his article, that knowing is more “penetrating” than touch. It is a really sad moment in the poem, creating a profound distance between the “nurse” and “patient.”
In Zack Finch’s article, he explains that Oppen’s “the singular” “derives from mathematical models for threshold limits.” The idea that there is a limit to being singular calls to mind the discussion in class Thursday when someone in the first group suggested that as humans we are aware that we are individual (we cannot have any certainty except our singularity), but that there is distress in being alone. Section 7 of Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” and the opening lines of Whitman’s “One’s-Self I Sing” (“One’s Self I sing–a single separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic the word en masse“) both address that central tension between singularity and numerosity, or alone-ness and connection, a tension that is very crucial to both poets throughout the entirety of their work. In an interview with Dennis Young, Mary Oppen remarks, “I mean there isn’t anything like being clear outside of everything, or at least where there aren’t people. And to be together was somehow…it was better than being alone because, after all, solitude really is the human condition, and George and I didn’t suffer an awful lot from that. I think most people do. I meant we could just be alone even though we were together. Somehow it was possible” (19). Perhaps being together with his wife but separate from the world allowed George Oppen to ultimately negotiate the space between singularity and numerosity.
During week 10, with your research papers in mind, we’ll be engaging in “model” units combining literary research, questions of Whitman’s influence, and close attention to poems themselves. On Tuesday, we will focus on Whitman’s response to Native Americans–and, more importantly, the Native American response to Whitman. We’ll revisit certain poems Whitman wrote about Native Americans alongside subsequent poems by Native Americans (including Simon Ortiz and Sherman Alexie) that invoke Whitman. In addition, we’ll read a handful of prose reflections (both non-fiction and literary criticism) that shed light on this complex topic. On Thursday, we’ll be doing a similar model unit on the question of Whitman and women.
For Tuesday, should a quiz arise, I expect you to be able to write, briefly, about whether you agree or disagree with Maurice Kenny’s argument in his article, “Whitman’s Indifference to Indians.” Be sure to provide evidence–from Whitman’s own poetry or from Alexie, Ortiz, Bruchac or Nolan–to support your argument.