On singing and thinking

Taggart, George Oppen, and Ted Enslin, Sylvester’s Cove, Maine, 1975 (photo by Jennifer Taggart).

1. Under the heading “Poetry And Philosophy,” in an anthology of T. S. Eliot’s critical writings, there are several statements suggesting that poetry and thought are antithetical. For instance: “the poet who ‘thinks’ is merely the poet who can express the emotional equivalent of thought.”[1] And, writing of Dante and Shakespeare, Eliot claims that neither did any “real thinking,” but both made use of the thought of their times as “material enforced upon them” for the expression of their feelings.

2. George Oppen expressed high regard for Eliot, made use of Eliot’s poetry for his own purposes, and defined the poem as a process of thought. Which provokes the question: can you “do” poetry and philosophy at the same time, sing and think at the same time? Is it permissible to transgress upon the injunction of the Nike TV commercial “Do one thing. Do it well”?

3. George Oppen also expressed high regard for the painter Edward Hopper. Consider Hopper’s 1959 picture, “Excursion into Philosophy.” Hotel/motel room in a country setting, late morning or late afternoon. Two figures in this space and time. Semi-nude female sleeping on what looks like a hard, crypt-like purple bed. Fully clothed male sitting on the edge of the bed, his back to her back. She appears youthful, he less so. Also on the bed in a mediating position between the two of them is a book. The book is opened and bisected at a 45-degree angle by the shadow of her hip.

4. An excursion is a journey or “ramble” with intention of returning to one’s starting point. If that point is one of the points of your way or path of usual behavior, then an excursion is of relatively brief duration. Philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge, especially that which deals with ultimate reality or with the most general causes and principles of things and ideas and human perception and knowledge of them.[2] “Into”: the journey is not simply “to” philosophy as arriving and stopping at a destination but an arrival and an involvement with. Into suggests depth and motivation. You did more than arrive; however briefly, you decided or were determined to go further, further and deeper.

5. A logical question: what’s he into? Into the doing of the doing of philosophy. What do you do when you do philosophy? You think. We know this because he’s in the same position as Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker.” He’s in the thinker position; he must be thinking. There’s a reproduction of Rodin’s sculpture on the cover of a book by Heidegger, who was also held in high regard and used by Oppen. The title of the book is What Is Called Thinking? This is its conclusion: “the essential nature of thinking is determined by what there is to be thought about: the presence of what is present, the Being of beings.”[3]

6. A logical question: what made him do this doing called thinking? What led him into it? The book did. According to the painter’s wife, Jo Hopper, the book is Plato. Reading Plato makes you think. Honoring the nature of this occasion, let’s say he’s read the Symposium. Let’s say he’s read the passage in which Socrates tells Phaedrus and the others what he had been told by his love instructor, Diotima. It is a longish passage concerning the true order of doing, i.e., of attaining knowledge of “beauty absolute” by a step-wise progression “under the influence of true love” beginning from the beauties of the earth and ascending by way of single to plural beauties, fair practices and fair notions, to the ultimate destination of absolute beauty. Toward the end: “Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality).”[4]

7. The Platonic idea or form of beauty is abstract, an abstraction. Its existence is dependent upon a group of earlier thinkers, the Pre-Socratics. This is what they did to make that abstraction possible. From Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato: “discard both the rhythm on the one hand and the syntax of the image-series [narrative] on the other.” And it is these thinkers who “in fact start as poets … yet their enterprise was undertaken in order to destroy concretion and visibility.”[5] If that’s not enough and with reference to Heraclitus, also used by Oppen, and to that thinker’s employment of the aphorism as a means of breaking the “mindless flow of the bard’s metrical and musical spell. Particularly … it was to discard the accompaniment of a musical instrument.”[6] Getting to philosophy, into the doing of philosophy requires a lot of discarding and destroying. In order to think, poetry itself would seem to have to be discarded and destroyed. For if rhythm and music as well as the concretion and visibility of the image are taken away, what’s left?

8. We have a problem if, after Plato, we want to write a poem and find ourselves trying to write a poem not only after Plato but also after Pound. If we’re American poets, I don’t think such a problem, which is a problem of consciousness or self-consciousness, can be avoided. And of course many others are party to and contribute to this consciousness. It is a self-consciousness as to what the poet, what the poem is — is or can or should be. Besides the definitions and admonitions of Pound himself, its most elegant expression can be found in the prose writings of Louis Zukofsky. Thus good poetry is “precise information on existence out of which it grows, and information of its own existence … the movement (and tone) of words. Rhythm … is the distinction of its technique. This integrates any human emotion … into an order of words that exist as another created thing in the world, to affect it and to be judged by it. Condensed speech is most of the method of poetry.” Or most elegantly: poetry is “an order of words that as movement and tone (rhythm and pitch) approaches the wordless art of music.”[7]

9. We have a problem if we want to write a poem with that self-consciousness in our consciousness and conscience which moves in direct opposition to Plato in claiming the value of poetry and specifically with regard to precision (or the concrete) and rhythm (or cadence, the musical generally). That is, we have a problem if, as George Oppen, we inherit that self-conscious consciousness and would yet define the poem as a process of thought. We have a Plato-Pound problem, a double trouble problem.

10. Let us consider how Oppen deals with this problem, concentrating on song announced as such in certain of his poems. “Giovanni’s Rape Of The Sabine Women At Wildenstein’s” from This In Which. The poem, describing the statue, recreates the historic scene of sexual violence by which Romulus arranged marriages for his warriors and families for Rome.

  The dust

 Settles into village clarity

 Among the villagers, a difficult


 Full of treason


 To one’s fellows?

 To old men? In the villages,

 The dwindling heritage

 The heart will shrivel in

 Sometime —[8]


Clarity is equated with song even as here it must be a song full of treason, the villagers’ realization that they’ve been swindled. The repeated three questions, however, question song. From the close of the poem:

                                                         If this is treason
To the artist, make the most of it; one needs such faith,
Such faith in it,
In the whole thing, more than I,
Or they, have had in songs.  

The poet’s faith, as we know from an earlier poem, “Psalm,” in this same collection, is in the finite/empirical “whole thing” world and in the small nouns which body forth the disclosure of that world. What he doesn’t have faith in is songs. He is an artist who would willingly commit treason against art, if only to maintain fidelity to the world.

11. “Route,” section 10, from Of Being Numerous.

Not the symbol but the scene this pavement leads
To roadside — the finite

Losing its purposes
Is estranged

All this is reportage.

If having come so far we shall have

Let it be small enough.

What was there to be thought

Comes by the road[9]

Oppen’s route is not Plato’s stairway to heaven. It is precisely an image-series, of images as moments of clarity in terms of finite instances of the finite encountered along the way one’s life has taken. As a whole, the poem is a report of those encounters. (The line “All this is reportage” is a constant refrain throughout all its sections.) Song’s place in all the reportage is equivocal. If it is to be had, perhaps as a celebration that something and not nothing was encountered, it must be small, in scale with the finite. Something, say, a little less than Dryden’s “heavenly harmony.” The concern of the report, what it finds valuable, is thought not song.

That the Virgin should be part of Oppen’s route is peculiar. It recalls William Bronk’s “Virgin And Child With Music And Numbers” poem from The World, The Worldless, a volume which Oppen helped edit.

               … Lady, if our despair
is to be unable to factor ourselves in song
or factor the world there, what should our joy
be other than this same integer that sings
and mocks at satisfaction?[10]

Bronk’s poem ends with a pronouncement of non-fulfillment and of being held in the void of “whole despair,” where he says the world endures. The final line is: “Lady, sing to this Baby, even so.” Going by his blurb statement for Bronk’s book alone, there can be no doubt of Oppen’s high regard, praising the poems as “a part of the living stream of thought.” The appearance of the Virgin in Oppen’s poem is a reminder that some of the incidents encountered can be finite textual incidents. One word is a finite enough incident.

Bronk’s poem asserts that the singing (Mary’s to Elizabeth that her soul magnifies the Lord) was and is. It was because the Bible (Luke 1:46) says so and is because it becomes the magnificat of later singing in celebrations of faith. Bronk’s “we,” however, cannot define themselves or the world in this song or integer because they don’t have faith. Oppen has faith, though not of any orthodox religious variety. He will allow the Virgin to sing but she has to keep it small, a minificat, and she’s reminded that what matters is thought.

12. “Song, The Winds of Downhill” from Seascape: Needles’s Eye.[11] Although the title puts song first, it again comes last. The beginning posits an art povera, a lack of the “common/wealth of parlance” (the tone and pose of inherited language, the elocution and eloquence enabled by tradition) as a positive starting point. In that condition, words such as “would,” “with,” “and” take on substantial meaning. These are not exactly the small nouns crying faith, but they’re small enough in themselves and in their number. A small tone row. They act as handholds and footholds. The suggestion is of an arduous progress. It is a progress having nothing to do with the residential lots. Rather it goes beyond the already laid out, the “small lawns” of the safe suburbs of what is already known. And it is no kind of ascent or ascension. Significantly, what the poem arrives at in its closing lines is not thought in opposition to song but “a poem / which may be sung / may well be sung.” The poem, even in declaring itself a poem, does not give us the poet “singing” but at least the possibility of singing. There’s been a shift, an accommodation, and an acknowledgement: that a poem can have meaning and be a song; that small words may take on substantial meaning, disclosing presence and being, and be a row of tones; that the valuables may be lyric valuables. This arduous progress beginning in a deprivation of inherited language/tradition can become a poem and be recognized as a poem because it’s singable, may be sung.

13. “The Little Pin: Fragment” from Myth of the Blaze.[12] The poem has a noteworthy headnote: “The journey, fortunately [said the traveler] is truly immense.” (This is Oppen’s slight modification of the last line from Kafka’s “My Destination” in Parables and Paradoxes). The opening of the poem would have us recognize the physical world, finite and empirical with its vectors of rain and wind as a pin, a bare bodkin, acting to puncture human pride and presumption. If history is the record of those things, it punctures history and the assumption that meaning resides in history.

At the close we find “song” but with a question mark and repeated as “astonishing song?” This is the response to those questions:

                             … the world
sometime be

world the wind
be wind o western
wind to speak

              of this

The lineation matters: “the world / sometime be.” The words matter, especially “sometime” as opposed to the more usual and perhaps expected “sometimes” (or Zukofsky’s “some time”). In sometime there can be disclosure of Being, the presence of all those presences and beings that constitute the world. And, as those presences/beings give witness to Presence and Being, the first word of the next line completes a sentence: “the world / sometime be / world.” It does not have to be only a dwindling or shriveling of the heart even as I would hear Oppen’s “sometime” as a lowercase, humbling modification of Heidegger’s metaphysical “Zeit.” This is amplified, musically enough, by “the wind / be wind.” And with another sort of musical amplification, a quotation from the fifteenth-century lyric “O Western Wind.” The lineation breaks up the lyric (o western) — doesn’t discard or destroy it — and connects it with speaking/stating/reporting (wind to speak / of this).

What does this “response” sound like? It sounds astonishing, like no other poetry before it. Or it sounds like Thelonious Monk playing Webern. As language — normative statement language or normative/traditional poetry — it must sound fragmented, fragmentary. We’re back to Heraclitus, with regard to whose fragmentary sayings Havelock remarks: “English and indeed any modern syntax cannot cope with the original compression.”[13] We’re back to the beginnings of philosophy as we’re back to the beginnings of English poetry. It is a poem of statement made to sing or be singable. To adopt a phrase from Celan, it is the “singable remnant.” And it is not merely a remnant as leftover and tattered garment as it is not merely a heap of broken images but rather a new song.

14. Each poem is a journey, a process of thought that comes to song. Each is a journey within a larger, immense journey which, insofar as a mortal traveler is involved, necessarily has death as destination. Each and all amount to much more than an excursion. And each is a song in the very process of that process, however intent the poet may think himself to be on thought. This would seem to answer the question of whether one can sing and think at the same time. But the fullest answer is provided by Oppen himself in his ca. 1975 “Statement On Poetics” as reprinted by Stephen Cope in his edition of the poet’s Selected Prose.[14] What follows is a “musical” restatement of Oppen’s statement. Musical because only some of it is used, because I have substituted “poetry” for Oppen’s “prosody” and “song” for his “music.” It’s something of a minor improvisation.

“And that’s poetry, it is a song but it is a rigorous song — a song that refuses all trumpets, all sweet harmonies, all lusts and emotions that aren’t there, it is a song, quite simply, of image and honest speech — image because image is the moment of conviction.”

“Poetry is a language, but it is a language that tests itself. Or it tests itself in song. … It tests the relations of things; it carries the sequence of disclosure.”

“And actualness is poetry, it is the purpose of poetry and its achievement, the instant of meaning, the achievement of meaning and of presence. …”

“Which means again that the poetry and the ‘philosophy’ cannot be separated …”

15. In sum, as a not minor improviser, Duke Ellington, said: “Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”[15]

This essay was first delivered as remarks for The Shape of Disclosure: George Oppen Centennial Symposium, Tribeca Performing Arts Center, April 8, 2008.



1. T. S. Eliot, Points of View (New York: Hyperion Press, 1980), 35 and 37.

2. Concise Oxford English Dictionary, ed. Catherine Somes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 770.

3. Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, trans. J. Glennora (New York: Harper Perennial, 1976), 244.

4. Plato, “Apology,” in Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Easton Press, 2008), 1:335.

5. Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1982), 294 and 289.

6. Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 246.

7. Louis Zukofsky, “A Statement for Poetry,” in Prepositions (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 20.

8. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2008), 111 and 113.

9. Ibid., 199.

10. William Bronk, The World, The Worldless (New York: New Directions, 1964), 19.

11. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 220.

12. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 254.

13. Havelock, 241.

14. Oppen, Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers, ed. Stephen Cope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 49.

15. Duke Ellington, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (New York: Brunswick Record Corporation, #6265, 1932).