Articles - October 2012
Or, why George Oppen quarrelled with Denise Levertov
There are fruitful literary quarrels and their opposite. For while the big, personal rift that opened up between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov exemplifies the latter — when he complained that the subjugation of her poetry to the cause of political activism was creatively damaging — George Oppen’s earlier argument with Levertov was markedly beneficial. It was the means by which he defined a poetic way forward in the 1960s, having known long before, as a Communist social worker during the Depression, the necessity of not politicizing his art. He would have been well aware then, when he stopped writing poetry rather than turn out propagandist verse for New Masses, that there always lurked the temptation to write from the standpoint of grand humanitarian idealism, as distinct from what, in modest plainness, you genuinely felt. Even in the days of his first collection, Discrete Series (1934), when he was still regarded as an Objectivist poet in the company of Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi, he entirely rejected baseless “figures of elocution, or even of mere assertion” for “figures of perception” or images of veracity founded on the “data of experience.” The preference remained just as strong after he had broken nearly three decades of publishing silence with The Materials in 1962 and maintained in an essay of the same year, “The Mind’s Own Place,” that the act of writing poetry is the surest test of belief. For him, it was essential to remember that “the great many things one believes or would like to believe or thinks he believes will not substantiate themselves in the concrete details of the poem.”
He is also implicitly directing these words toward Levertov, a poet in a somewhat different lineage from him (D. H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, and Thoreau forming a major part of her inheritance), but who is politically close, in shared opposition to America’s war in Vietnam. For him, though, being on the side of liberal virtue is not enough, even with her kind of religious overlay. So when he says in a letter that his essay “is almost written at [Levertov], and at her latest poems, some of which are very bad,” he is pointing to a notable failure of feeling that he sees in her fifth collection, The Jacob’s Ladder (1961), as instanced by the poem “During the Eichmann Trial.” There stands the Nazi defendant in the Israeli court, “isolated in a bullet proof / witness-stand of glass”:
telling us something he
does not know: we are members
one of another.
Writing to Levertov, Oppen notably centers on the last lines, with their echo of St. Paul. “Tho I think too,” he says, “that we are members of each other,” she makes no “demand” on her general words of human kinship. Free from any pressure or scrutiny, they “will not substantiate themselves” — as he sees it, repeating his essay’s vocabulary — “in the concrete materials of a poem”; and such concreteness exists, it is implied, not in a ghostly figure of assertion, like the “apparition” of the dehumanized, glassed-in Eichmann, but in the full-bodied life and potency that stem from the genuinely perceptive figure. Oppen speaks as a poet who himself depends on the stimulus of such an image: not a pre-known thing, calculable metaphor, or invented imagery à la Amy Lowell and T. E. Hulme, or the kind of subjective “deep image” in Robert Bly’s poetry, but that which is closer to the solid trouvé of suggestive possibility in Reznikoff’s. Citing so often “a girder, still itself among the rubble,” from Jerusalem the Golden, Oppen sees the image as the encompassing power that can focus experience with an exactness that brings the poet fully inside its meaning. It is the point of concentration suddenly tightened by a chance occurrence, a striking object, a cluster of sensations or a piece of art, begetting from itself a sequence of the as-yet unspoken and unrealized. Out of one small, figurative instance a fresh consciousness can be opened up, as Oppen happily acknowledges in his essay when he leaves behind his implicit dispraising of Levertov’s verse and says of her Jacob’s Ladder poem “Matins”:
Denise Levertov begins a fine poem with the words: “The authentic!” and goes on to define
the real, the new-laid
egg whose speckled shell
the poet fondles and must break
if he will be nourished
in the events of a domestic morning: the steam rising in the radiators, herself “breaking the handle of my hairbrush,” and the family breakfast, to the moment when, the children being sent to school [with the mother in the poem rushing downstairs to give the boy his forgotten glasses],
comes in at the street door.
What takes his attention here is not the language of religious uplift, which gives the poem its title, celebrates the preparation of breakfast (“Stir the holy grains, set / the bowls on the table”), and pervades other poems of the collection: as with lights in city windows glowing as “seraphic or demonic flames” (“A Window”), the “sacred salt” that sparkles on swimmers’ bodies in “The Depths,” and even the “sacramental excrement” in “Five Poems from Mexico.” He enjoys, rather, the clear way into the world’s actuality — a belief in that — offered by the image from “Matins”: the “new-laid / egg,” which must be cracked apart, like the breaking of the hairbrush handle, and the opening of the street door to let through “cold air.” All are the cleavings into the “authentic,” which later seem to Oppen as if Levertov “had walked out that door, opened the door and gone forth.”
But with such an opening imaginatively widened, it would seem that the image had more significance for him than for Levertov. As he suggested to Rachel Blau DuPlessis, he got more poetic nourishment from breaking open the “egg” than its originator cared to discover: “A most wonderful of speckled eggs that I stole from her — with acknowledgement — in Mayan Ground. Not that Denise, so far as I know, thought again about that egg.” Oppen, however, did think again, with major consequences for the image of “speckled” variety, when he rewrote the poem thus mentioned, “The Mayan Ground,” and included it in his next collection, This in Which (1965).
Yet the degree to which his creative theft from Levertov was vital in solving an inherent problem that the poem originally presented only becomes clear when we go back to its first published version in the journal Thin Line in 1962. For a poet so concerned with art as a test of belief, it was appropriate that he should be struck by the words of the Mayan high priests in the centuries following the Spanish conquest, who can no longer command a people’s faith. As he saw in The Book of the Jaguar Priest, a translation of their sayings, they had lost their power as protectors because they had ceased to be the interpreters of the calendar on which the Mayans’ whole life and agriculture depended. The foreign oppressors, they lament, “will bring to pass the final days and the end of all the protection of the people … and whether they [our daughters] are beautiful or not, there will be no defenders to guard them in the days to come.” Hopelessly appeasing the Spanish with gifts, “We mourned the red cardinal birds and the red jeweled ornaments; likewise the handfuls of precious stones which lie in the midst of our fields.” But in bringing these quotations together in tighter, epigraph form —
… and whether they are beautiful or not there will be
no one to guard them in the days to come …
we mourned the red cardinal birds and the jeweled ornaments
And the handful of precious stones in our fields …
— Oppen is no Charles Olson in Mayan Letters, revering the instinct-based consciousness of a lost civilization. Instead, the helpless poignancy of the cries, concerned less with daughters than a surface decorativeness no longer protectable, clashes against lines that seek a more fundamental ground and standpoint:
Of ghost and glitter, merely rolling now
The tire leaves a mark
On the earth, a ridge in the ground
Crumbling at the edges
Which is terror, the unsightly
Sand of events silting
Where we make our homes …
Unsentimentally pitted against dead images and an impoverished culture (“Poor savages / Of ghost and glitter”) is the image of modernity’s tire pressing into the earth (“merely rolling now”) without any priestly demarcation of times for planting and reaping. All of that is gone when, in stanza-by-stanza insertion — first with a “mark,” then an emphatic “ridge,” then “Crumbling at the edges,” as the earth is broken down into “terror, the unsightly // Sand of events” — an onpouring, shapeless time overwhelms a sense of habitation in the world, “silting / Where we make our homes.” With earth turned into sand and unsure ground, the image can be pushed no deeper, though it has brought Oppen to a level of basic belief, however small, that contrasts with the shallows of faith from which the priests still speak. Harkening to the serpent god Quetzalcoatl with their figure of elocution (“Kukulcan, Kukulcan, // They said, moving on the waters”), they who once had “knowledge of the unrolling face of the universe for the protection of the fathers of the people from ruin and the descendants of our ancestors,” have left their land bereft after their eighteenth-century miscounting of time:
And the count of the calendar had become confused.
They said they had lost account
Of the unrolling of the universe
In those fields where the dust drifts
From the oxen and the heavy sandals.
So we come down from the “unrolling universe” to what is “merely rolling now,” in ordinary time, as “the dust drifts.” The only real Mayan ground to be finally believed in, when the surface tread of beasts and “heavy sandals” succeed the tire, cannot but be a simple, if degraded, temporality and flux.
Revising the poem, however, Oppen burrows deeper than layers of dust and sand by means of Levertov’s image from “Matins.” In changing the original word order from “the unsightly // Sand of events silting / Where we make our homes” to
Silting sand of events —
he gives the last noun and dash a sharp new point, directing the eye along the richer trajectory of time that exists beneath tire-broken earth and sand:
Inside that shell, ‘the speckled egg’
The poet wrote of that we try to break
Each day, the little grain,
Dry grain, father
Of all our fathers
Hidden in the blazing shell
Of sunlight —
This is not just breaking the speckled egg but re-creating it. By line-halts that cut into syntax so that words are jammed together in short-line, unexpected companionship, the ever-changing instant is opened up in its small, ungrandiose accretiveness. “Each day, the little grain, // Electron” — with the capitalized line-starts hitting the eye in their separateness — the granular particle of time is also the kind that orbits an atom’s nucleus, “beating” without divine causation and with a force that equally makes it “Dry grain, father.” In that emphasis and lineal juxtaposition, the small seed holds within it a store of generational potency across the ages — “father // Of all our fathers,” as the further stress demands — which is so great in its containment that its being “Hidden,” in that obtrusive, capital-letter way, makes it bulk all the larger inside a now expanded version of the speckled egg: “the blazing shell / Of sunlight —.” Within such brightness, furthermore, lies the core of new temporal meaning that radically transforms the poem’s last stanzas. The failed priestly guardians of time are still there, but not the depleted scene left in the wake of their miscounting, now
They said they had lost account
Of the unrolling of the universe
And only the people
Stir in the mornings
Coming from the houses, and the black hair
Of the women at the pump
Against the dawn
The fresh light of “Each day” replaces dusty fields. For here the unrolling syntax, in pieced-out single lines or stanzas, provides the smaller time-count that is not to be lost or verbally passed over. Flux now has a value to be inhabited and defined by each separate human moment, when “only the people,” with the new stanza’s pointedness, “Stir in the mornings,” and when their “Coming from the houses,” in that distinct, capitalized instance, is as important as the women’s “black hair” at the pump. Singled out for the eye by the new stanza’s adverb, “Against the dawn,” it “Seems” — leaving behind the faded “beautiful or not” — all the more gleamingly “beautiful.”
Helped therefore by an image from Levertov, Oppen’s belief in such brilliant, everyday actuality is remarkably verified. He can even go further and admire other parts of her poetry that have a similar suggestive power, as when she says in the title poem of The Jacob’s Ladder that on this “stairway of sharp / angles … a man climbing / must scrape his knees, and bring the grip of his hands into play.” This to him, with his special regard for figures of substantiation, is “the real stone staircase of your poem,” and he speaks as a poet who has himself stanzaically upheaved the weight of fact in “Chartres” — “That the stones / Stand where the masons locked them” — and evoked the work of “the welder and the welder’s arc / In the subway’s iron circuits” (“Vulcan”). Yet on Levertov’s side the feeling was not mutual. In fact, both poems come from a collection, The Materials, toward which she was largely unsympathetic when she reviewed it. To her, his solidities are more alien than attractive: the mark of a mainly disturbing and complex poetry, where “inner conflict” has been pulled “into the cruel daylight. Man in his environment, man with his machines; ‘how to live, what to do.’”]Indeed, Oppen’s themes could later seem to her so negative, and so hostile to the kind of poetry she sought to write — with his criticisms almost certainly adding to the vexation — that her imagination even conceives him as totally obstructive. In “Who Is at My Window” (O Taste and See, 1965), he is the blighting presence, “the blind cuckoo” mulling over the “old song … about fear, about / tomorrow and next year.” He sings “Timor mortis conturbat … What’s the use?” while she wants
to move deeper into today;
he keeps me from that work.
Today and eternity are nothing to him.
His wings spread at the window make it dark.
Go from my window, go! go!
Oppen, however, will not be sent away. Replying to Levertov by poem, he unashamedly declares:
Windows that look out
On the business
Of the days
Without horizon, streets
Of the feminine technologies
And compassion which will clothe
Windows are not darkened here but distracted, with Oppen shifting the viewpoint away from a Levertovian outlook on the world that to him is emotionally all-embracing yet also profoundly restrictive. Whereas she cries out for the immediacy of “Today,” the supposed openness to time is actually for him a vision of closure, with “the business / Of the days” shut in by horizonless streets, as well as by “streets / And gardens” (the emphasis carried over) of a determinedly narrow intent — or, as he says, “Of the feminine technologies,” where the noun has its own distinct suggestiveness. As the title of the poem, “Technologies” (This in Which) — originally “Wisdom, a Technology” —derives from Martin Heidegger’s essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” where the technē of the modern world is the instrumentality that, in one of its forms, predetermines purpose. Instead of the “enframing” (Gestell) by which things reveal themselves to the consciousness, this is the delimited kind that “blocks the shining forth and holding-sway of truth.”
Heidegger’s language, therefore, points to what Oppen sees as the problem when he describes Levertov’s work as “Poem after poem of technology, the technological prescription of wisdom literature, specifically How to be good,” because, as he tells his sister, she is “determined to be … a good mother” and an activist against the Bomb. Once more this is not the case of Oppen’s failing to share Levertov’s political outlook, in this case with regard to nuclear power blocs, but of his having earned the right, as a worker on poverty relief in the Depression years, to be humanly frank, rather than piously seeking “How to be good.” In his poem about poor people in modern-day Bergen Street (“Street,” This in Which), he notably observes: “It is terrible to see the children // The righteous little girls; / So good, they expect to be so good.” Such moral predetermining of purpose in Levertov is therefore to be questioned, even while Oppen writes that he admires women’s crucial “intervention and mediation” in the world. “There are times,” he tells L. S. Dembo, that “one is infinitely grateful for the feminine contribution.” But, as he also says, “there are times when “one just has to fight about it, and this poem [“Technologies”] was more or less fighting.” Hence the distinction he makes at the poem’s start when he opposes the “hard” insistencies of great, all-spreading love — as “hard buds blossom / Into feminine profusion” —with an image of something different:
Heart,’ the little core of oneself,
The inelegant heart
Which cannot grasp
And makes art
Like a small hawk
Lighting disheveled on a window sill.
From cuckoo to hawk, the bird has changed, while its potentiality as a small image — capable of being magnified like the contents of the speckled egg — comes from a Chinese disquisition on the art of writing. “In a sheet of paper,” says Lu Chi’s Wen Fu, “is contained the infinite, / And evolved from an inch-sized heart an endless panorama.” Making the “Heart” bigger at the capitalized line-start, without exaggerating “the little core of oneself” — “So inartistic,” as it may seem at this point — Oppen signals that the “inelegant heart / Which cannot grasp the world” in emotionally grandiose encompassment, has nevertheless the tiny word-grasp which does make “art” in its own rhyming way — “small” (as it keeps its tiny yet enlarged status on the single line) “Like a small hawk / Lighting” (emphasis shifting to “Lighting” after “Like,” as with “hawk” after “small”) when it lands with ungainly, lit-up truthfulness (no winged shadow) “disheveled / on a window sill.”
As a bird of hawklike veracity, rather than a miserable cuckoo, it also looks beyond the mind’s “enframing” to what might genuinely be believed in a world without closure seen by the creatures in “Quotations” (This in Which):
‘The insects and the animals
And the insects
Stare at the open’
And she said
Therefore they are welcome.
“She” is Oppen’s wife Mary, and the quotation is derived from the eighth of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, where
with all its eyes the creation-world beholds
the open. But our eyes, as though reversed,
encircle it on every side, like traps
set round its unobstructed path to freedom.
What is outside we know from the brute’s face
It is an animal view of openness which, says Rilke, is shared only by the child who “sometimes gets quietly lost there” before being “jogged back again” to conformity — forced, as the elegy also says, “to look backwards” at the narrower, adult concept of things, and forever made to “retain the attitude of someone who’s departing.” But, as Oppen shows in another poem, such imprisonment and escape to a open world that might genuinely be believed in, are both within the compass of the potent image. Having seen in a New York gallery a miniature copy of the late sixteenth-century marble statue by Giovanni da Bologna, done in the figura serpentinata style, he has a shape “Spiraling its drama / In the stairwell // Of the gallery” (“Giovanni’s Rape of the Sabine Women at Wildenstein’s,” This in Which), which means, in its twisted form, that the female victim, borne aloft by her abductor, is actually facing away from the direction she is carried toward. Therefore, “the girl / On the shoulder of the warrior, calling / Behind her in the young body’s triumph” is victorious in not being fully abducted by the violence of an art which would imprison the “child” in her. “Seeking like a child the eyes / Of the animals,” she reaches, like the ensuing poem, toward the entirety of a world beyond the limits of statue and gallery. “If this be treason / To the artists,” says Oppen at the end,
one needs such faith,
Such faith in it
In the whole thing, more than I,
Or they, have had in songs.
More important than the “songs” of falsifying artistry is “Such faith in it” — the noun stressed by repetition — “In the whole thing” — with the stress on the world as a believable entirety again achieved by repeating and expanding the phrase — that for Oppen is the close, verbal pointedness that makes language a substantiating power. He disagrees strongly with William Carlos Williams’s notion that “A poem is a machine made of words,” because words are what come after the wordless event, as attendants on its supremacy. But equally he strives away from the “song” of an art in which the diction of hallowed mystery exists without pressure of meaning. Levertov’s reverential manner, for example, in “Come into Animal Presence” (The Jacob’s Ladder) could never be his when she acclaims the independent otherness of the creaturely world — a “lonely” rabbit who twitches its ears, a llama who folds its legs, and an “insouciant / armadillo” who glances at us but refuses to hasten his trot — by declaring: “Those who were sacred have remained so … An old joy returns in holy presence.”
But to verify the immediately “there!” in an animal scene and to keep attending on such presentness by a language of unrecondite surprise is the very different effect of Oppen’s “Psalm” in This in Which. No sacred song or praise of God, it is religious only by its careful devotion, stanza by indented stanza, to the secular wonder of place and time: a sequence of disclosure to which Oppen points in the epigraph with a significantly curtailed quotation from Aquinas, “Veritas sequitur …” Instead of “Veritas sequitur esse rerum” (“Truth follows upon the existence of things”) what follows from sequitur, as the open-ended dots lead into the poem, is not necessarily a divine truth implied by Creation, but a moment-by-moment test of truthfulness in uttering a continuity beyond human predetermining:
In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down —
That they are there!
Effortless, the soft lips
Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
Tear at the grass
The roots of it
Dangle from their mouths
Scattering earth in the strange woods.
They who are there.
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
The small nouns
In this in which the wild deer
Startle and stare out.
“In this in which”: for what is solely inside the temporal, visible world, neither to be transcended or rushed past, is as much the poem’s concern as the collection to which it gives a title. Yet being so inwardly there, “In the small beauty of the forest,” where no onward-pushing verb disturbs the stillness, Oppen fastens on a moment that is imagelike in its spell and potentiality. It is not now the speckled egg or the miniature version of Giovanni’s statue which holds a suggestive power, ready to be unfolded, but the smallness of a “beauty” that has within it “The wild deer bedding down,” as a calm forcefully arrived at, an animal wildness unclamorously bent on simply being there and nowhere else. “That they are there!” — place and animals as inextricably linked as the word-matrix which utters them — is the cry both of energy and stasis, as the word “That” seemingly leaps forward to a greater syntactic destiny, yet is tensed to a halt by what is “there!” The latter word, however, has the verb-free impetus which homophonically keeps the next stanza’s “Their” inside the same core of force and rest, where aspirates are pressed against each other —
— and the humble adjective of nonexertion is given an invigorating charge. Raised to capital-letter height, it takes on a visual prominence which is equally remarkable at the next line-start when, in the poem’s first verb,
the soft lips
What might have been a word of fuzzy lingering has been enjambed into striking definiteness. No less magnified by sight and sound, as the poem opens out the forest image, is the action of “the alien small teeth” that, for all their smallness, “Tear at the grass” — not, however, with overblown savagery, as the casual and the energized keep their tense partnership. For “The roots of it” — a force of necessary emphasis carried over to visual prominence by the verb — “Dangle from their mouths,” with the harmlessly loose and the firmly intent brought together to produce the most vehement effect of the poem so far, “Scattering earth in the strange woods.” Torn-up roots and the stress on scattered earth, however, pin attention all the more fervently upon the visionary yet solid ground of the “strange woods”: a place of sheer being where
They who are there
are no more separable from the scene, with pronoun stuck hard against adverb in a verbless, invigorated resting-point, than is “there” from “Their paths” in the following stanza. Since these, moreover, are “Their paths / Nibbled thru the fields,” the participle of small-toothed action shares kinship with the other little bites or jerks of energy that have also been visually and vocally magnified, like “Nuzzle,” “Tear,” “Dangle,” and “Scattering.” With appropriate emphases and capital letter enlargements, therefore,
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
But here the miniature is scaled up in a further sense. Out “thru the fields” and back again to the forest, the small-bitten paths bring expansion to the scene of the animals, as the leaves which shade them on the now-extended verse-line, “Hang,” not just in big, emphatic suspense on the next line but as a crucial shelter amidst “the distances / Of sun.” For despite those vast, cosmic “distances” — or the extra-large white gap created on the page by cutting back the stanza’s last line to two words only — a close-up actuality, big in its littleness, adamantly persists. As a syntactic continuation from “Hang,” the first words of the final stanza hover in space —
The small nouns
— yet emphatically clutch again at the confines of the cherished, immediate world. At the same time they are loudly “Crying faith,” by sound and capital letter, “In this in which”: the accents driving words and solidities inseparably together yet sending the poem’s final lines into terrain past utterance. For as if roused by the cry, the wild deer “Startle and stare out” — out indeed from the close-knit intrication of human language, as verb jolts free from verb and the animals gaze right beyond the page into the yet-unspoken and unknown.
So words remain faithful to wordless existence. Not “small nouns” alone, but their little heightened counterparts, the adverbs, participles, adjectives, and unspeeding verbs, wait upon temporal reality as it gradually reveals itself. It is the same vigorous deference to fact and the unfaked which has made Oppen quarrel so valuably with Levertov’s poetry and gain from it one particular revealing image: a pursuit of the provenly felt which has engaged him, we should remember, since he first returned to writing poetry and asked in “Blood from the Stone” (The Materials), “Belief? What do we believe to live with?” Then he could only say, “all / That verse attempts.” But as he goes further in his poems of the early 1960s, with the same quest for verifiable, shared meaning which decisively heralds “Of Being Numerous” in 1968, a very different answer suggests itself: not what verse attempts as a test of belief, but what it here amazingly wins in the bright light of achievement.
1. Oppen to Charles Tomlinson, 5 May 1963, in The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 82, and Oppen, “The Mind’s Own Place,” in George Oppen: Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers, ed. Stephen Cope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 32.
11. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 28. The title essay was first published in 1954. See also Burton Hatlen, “‘Feminine Technologies’: George Oppen Talks at Denise Levertov,” American Poetry Review, May–June 1993, 9–14.
14. Oppen: “I am very, very happy with women and very, very fond of women, and I do feel their intervention and … mediation in this”: interview with Oppen by Reinhold Schiffer, May 1, 1975, in Speaking with George Oppen: Interviews with the Poet and Mary Oppen, 1968–1987, ed. Richard Swigg (McFarland and Co., 2012), 82. “I was also interested there [the Discrete Series poem “Fragonard”] in the women themselves as almost a mediation of the culture”: interview with George and Mary Oppen by Kevin Power, May 25, 1975, in Speaking with George Oppen, 88.
16. Shih-hsiang Chen, trans., “The Joy of Writing,” in Essay on Literature, Written by the Third Century Poet, Lu Chi, trans. Shih-hsiang Chen (Anthoesen Press, 1953). Words from the chapter recur in the poems “Guest Room” (This in Which) and “Route” (Of Being Numerous).
18. William Carlos Williams writes, “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words” in Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1954), 256. He similarly saw the poem as “a workable mechanism” in his 1934 review of Discrete Series, to which Oppen replied forty years later: “a poem is not built of words, one cannot make a poem by sticking words into it, it’s the poem which makes the words and contains their meaning” (interview with Reinhold Schiffer, in Speaking with George Oppen, 85).
19. Jacques Maritain’s translation in Existence and the Existent (1948), trans. Lewis Galantiere and Gerald B. Phelan (Image Books, 1956), 21. But Veritas sequitur esse rerum (the epigraph to his first chapter, from which Oppen almost certainly took the words) does not occur at all in that form in Aquinas’s writings, according to the Index Thomisticus. Maritain has probably created one dictum out of textually separated words in a work such as Aquinas’s Quaestiones disputatae de veritatate.
It’s difficult to say exactly what’s going on in Scottish poetry right now. But it’s definitely something exciting.
When I first moved to Edinburgh from Toronto five years ago, I uncovered only a couple of poetry series and one small press fair. Despite the general reverence for Rabbie Burns (I mean, a national holiday for a poet!) and the significant number of well-known Scottish poets like Tom Leonard, Jackie Kay, Brian McCabe and Carol Ann Duffy (the current British poet laureate), there didn’t seem to be the same ground-level exuberance for poetry that I’ve experienced elsewhere.
Now Glasgow and Edinburgh boast so many poetry events and book fairs that I can’t possibly highlight them in this limited space. You trip over poets like you trip over bad bagpipers swindling tourists on the High Street. We have page poets, stage poets, language poets, lyric poets, slam poets, vispoets, sound poets, found poets, conceptual poets. We have a particularly interesting scene of poets fusing text with dance, visual art, film and/or music.
Scotland is a small and sparsely populated “country” (I will return to the quotation marks anon), and the current trend in varied and explorative poetics seems antithetic to the number of people here (some paltry 5.2 million) — especially when you still find an inordinate number of bad rhyming poets in a huge place like London.
Which takes me back to the quotation marks. Perhaps we can credit this surge in Scottish work to the fact that Scotland is finally coming into itself again. The devolution process — Scotland’s separation from the United Kingdom in terms of certain political powers, marked by gaining its own parliament in 1999 — might result in full independence in the next five years. There will soon be a referendum, and odds are we might be a real country again.
As a poet raised by a Scottish father and grandfather (the latter especially queen-loathing) and French Canadian mother, I rather like the idea of independence — though I’m a bit wary of nationalism proper. What defines a nation? Where does colonialism end? But these are big questions. Let’s just say it’s an exciting time to be in Scotland, despite high unemployment, racism, sexism, ableism and homo/transphobia. We are on the cusp of something, and that something might be better than what we have as part of “Great” Britain.
We were speaking of poetry. The poets I’ve chosen to feature here are by no means representative of all of Scotland. For example, very few of the works are in Scots and none are in Gaelic. Most of the poets were born or live in Glasgow or Edinburgh. And when asked about the “Scottishness” of their work, most of them pretty much shrugged. Perhaps the (now-defunct) Scottish Arts Council’s efforts to produce officially Scottish™ poetry backfired? It’s hard to stuff a poet into a mold.
In this small survey, I offer you seven short examples of some of the people raising the bar of poetry in Scotland. Alison Smith’s British Sign Language performance poetry is a haunting and beautiful depiction of deafness, disability, and lesbian desire. Colin Herd’s versatile and often humorous texts evoke a wee taste of Frank O’Hara, with a distinctly Edinburgh twist. In a tour-de-force sequence, Jim Ferguson searches eloquently for links between nature, feminism, and working-class Scottish men.
Lila Matsumoto ensnares her readers with deceptively simple lines; her poems slowly take shape into creatures that seem to breathe on their own. Using everyday texts, Marvo Men perform something between sound poetry and improvised music, drawing on what’s left on the page after it has been read. Nuala Watt centers the disabled poet’s voice, skillfully separating the poetics of blindness and cerebral palsy from the simplistic symbolism of the Canon. And ShellSuit Massacre electrify listeners with their class-conscious found-poetry-techno, augmented by Sacha Kahir’s politically charged video.
Worth noting is that many of the people publishing and presenting work in Scotland are migrants — or, like myself, from here yet not from here. Arguably, it’s the mixture of home-grown and migrant poets that’s creating the new excitement in Scottish writing, the flourishing hybrid forms, the experimentation, and — dare I say it — the, um, Scottishness.
If you’re interested in accessing more new Scottish poetry, here are a few highlights of many possible recommendations:
Gutter, Glasgow (Adrian Searle, Colin Begg)
anything anymore anywhere, Edinburgh (Colin Herd)
SCREE, Edinburgh (Lila Matsumoto)
Forest Publications, Edinburgh (Ryan Van Winkle and Forest Editorial Board)
Reading series and literary events:
Words Per Minute, Glasgow (Helen Sedgwick, Kirstin Innes, Kirsty Logan)
Seeds of Thought, Glasgow (Ernest and Tawona Sithole, Tarneem Al Mousawi)
Neu! Reekie!, Edinburgh (Kevin Williamson, Michael Pederson)
Inky Fingers, Edinburgh (Alec Beattie, Mairi Campbell-Jack, Harry Giles, Rachel McCrum, Katherine McMahon, Rose Ritchie and Tracey S. Rosenberg)
Clark Coolidge's 'Crystal Text'
“That mind artifact is mutable, thank the lord” — Clark Coolidge
A few facts about crystals:
Once only mined (mind), most quartz crystal now is grown.
Quartz is the most common mineral on Earth.
Many crystals are piezoelectric: they emit a (thin) electric charge under pressure.
Crystals rotate the plane of polarized light.
Certain crystals are biogenic. Trilobites used calcite to form the lenses of their eyes.
Naturally formed by the combination of oxygen and silicon, quartz crystal has a habit of growing in the dark, its long prism always forming a perfect sixty-degree angle to the adjoining prisms. Calcite, on the other hand, occurs in limestone and other rocks that are formed biogenically, out of the fossilized shells of tiny dead sea creatures. In The Crystal Text, Clark Coolidge writes, “Transparency a matter of slowly mattering,” torquing noun into verb and revealing in a flash both the semantic and scientific senses of ‘matter.’ The transparent matter of crystal accrues, slowly mattering itself into being. In the same way, the potential (however slight) for “transparency” in writing is “a matter of slowly mattering.” By turns transparent and opaque, The Crystal Text returns to the object of its contemplation — the crystal — and also to the grounds of its own composition. Matter amalgamates in gradual improvisation of poetic language and thinking, as Coolidge’s long poem accumulates its matter, layer by layer, letter by letter. It contains itself in much the same way a crystal does, and is a crystalline record of its growth.
In his study of jazz drumming and the work of Jack Kerouac, Now It’s Jazz, Coolidge writes, “I had thought the writer must first have it all in his head and only then put it into words, but no. I began to see how it was really excitingly done: You wrote from what you didn’t know toward whatever could be picked up in the act. Poetry starts here.” Writing begins with accretion, accumulating bits both biogenic and inanimate, toward some structure as yet unknown. Coolidge, whose interests around poetry (he’s a jazz drummer, a caver, and a collector of fossils) so lucidly and plainly inform the poetry itself, mentions trilobites in several of his works.
After first reading The Crystal Text, in depth and amazement, I bought a piece of calcite crystal. It is clear, naturally formed in the shape of a rhombus, and it fits comfortably in the palm of my hand. (The Greeks felt a crystal “cooled” the hand when held. Pliny the Elder believed that quartz crystal was a permanently frozen form of water, and the word “crystal” comes from the Greek for “ice.”) There is a Moroccan trilobite on the desk next to the calcite. It is brown and spiny, like a chrysalis, and it’s about 250 million years old. It reminds me of the armored, anomalous horseshoe crabs that inhabited a beach in Delaware where I went every summer as a kid. Off past the beach houses with towels slung over porch railings and satellite dishes, the crabs crawled like dazed prehistoric visitors. I picked them up, walking with my father, and threw them back in the bay. Trilobites, which were killed off in the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, had compound eyes, with lenses like prisms that were made of calcite. These two remnants seem to have hurtled through space and time to land aligned on my desk: the raw, unpolished sandy rock fossil of an ancient marine animal and the clear, mysterious rhombus of calcite that composed the lenses of its eyes.
From ignorance toward (the impossibly small potential for) certainty, back out. At the outset of The Crystal Text, Coolidge writes, “Senseless this arrival at a subject for a start” (9). And later, “start / with something. Begin here” (67). The point is made, slowly and carefully, over the long series of poetic speculations, sprawling ruminations, and koans of which the text is composed:
One could divide it all up into
those who know how the work should be
and those who never know before the work.
But then those who did not know began to know
the materials, an intimate action
and can one go too far with material causes?
(will and would
shall and should) (33)
To whatever extent the object is an object-lesson (here, as elsewhere, an emphatically silent one), the crystal provokes a strain of thinking (among a number of other lines of inquiry) about writing as improvisation. As doing to see where the doing will lead. A slow process which takes place in the dark, almost an improvisation resulting in rock —beautiful, transparent and cloudy — to be harvested from a cave or simply to be seen. Or as the gradual accumulation, as sediment, of millions of creatures’ eyes. Yet: “can one go too far with material causes?” The poet seems to defer an answer with the parenthetical aside. On closer inspection, however, Coolidge is making a statement about inevitability. The “intimate action” of engaging with material causes — word, stone — is exactly the responsibility the poet takes up in writing. There will (rather than “shall”) be a call and response, however quiet, maybe even nearly mute, between writing mind and the external world of objects the crystal inhabits. It sets itself forth in the action: starting to write, an impulse to music.
In Now It’s Jazz, but elsewhere also, Coolidge makes it clear how deeply his interest in music coincides with his writing. This influence permeates the poetry at every level, and the vocabulary of jazz can be usefully borrowed to think through Coolidge’s project in The Crystal Text. Syncopation, improvisation, the downbeat, the head or standard: all of these ideas are native to the generous and alien landscape of the poem. Originally published by the Figures Press in 1986, The Crystal Text is a long (168-page) poem comprised of short bursts of lyric. It almost has the feel of a captain’s logbook, with daily entries detailing the crystal at the center of its attention. Like At Egypt, published two years later, it’s an epic lyric poem. Both are sustained meditations on a single subject; however, unlike At Egypt, The Crystal Text affords its subject more formal variation. Some of the poem’s sections are a single line; others run across several pages. Line lengths and sound patterns mutate, and there are fewer refrains.
If poems contemplating mute vessels (urns, jars) could be considered “standards” (in the sense of “All the Things You Are,” or “How High the Moon”), The Crystal Text returns to its head, or main theme, with a deliriously clear love of the form. Just as a crystal improvises its form (albeit — crucially — according to certain unseen constraints and systems), the poem stands as a record of its own improvised composition. Its form is a record of its relationship over time to the mute object of its inquiry, the crystal, in chunks of lived days, the sometimes clipped, sometimes sprawling sections of poetry which make up the long poem The Crystal Text. In Now It’s Jazz, Coolidge quotes Kerouac writing (in Visions of Cody) about jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz: “He can take care of himself even though he goofs and does April in Paris from inside out as if the tune was the room he lived in and was going out at midnight with his coat on.” Coolidge continues, “Yeah. That has the feeling of improvisation starting at a base and going out and you can get back if you want since you know where that is but you can also go anywhere and take whatever form in the going you want” (44). The tune, like the poem, records this form of departure from and return to theme. As obscure, dissociative lines snap in and out of focus, the crystal remains The Crystal Text’s base, a refrain strangely familiar in all its variations. The image of the clear piece of rock is suddenly and clearly summoned to the reader’s mind out of some piece of otherwise alien phrasing: as “Sky flake in a water pocket” (133), or “Stable portion, sense lesson, icicle twilight” (61), or “unlit candle” (114); as “a jet stripe of firm” (111), or “A scarf that is the weather’s edge / a rig of partial light” (83). These variations on the theme of the crystal are the matter of the poem; the poem’s transparency (or, turned to view from a different facet, its opacity) a matter of their mattering. As in good jazz, it’s all in the phrasing — fidelity to the theme and headlong, syncopated departure from it.
The beat is everywhere. Much of Coolidge’s poetic genius resides in his sense of stress, in his deliverance of language to its plain percussive value. At its most basic, syntactic level, the compression of Coolidge’s lyric exerts a sort of pressure of sound on sense. The words are struck, brushed, rolled, and dragged. Like Harry Partch, the iconoclastic twentieth-century American composer, Coolidge invents a field — a junkyard — of instruments, as well as a corresponding way to play them, in order to create the richly atonal, contorted rhythms of the poem. Through torque and compression of language toward pure sound, sense gets heightened and bent:
emitting his bulbs back behind the fog and fan factory
when evenings they laid out docked china and had
themselves a paid laugh. One knocked over the ocean
and sold his boat, walked away forever into the thicket
New England of brought ice turned into new green house.
Another plans wicked bop pranks in the L.A. smear (108)
That’s where poems (Coolidge’s, spectacularly) yield electrical charge, as do crystals when pressed. Their atoms (in quartz and calcite, for example) are so tightly and regularly formed that when pressure is exerted, the positive and negative charges of which they are constituted are momentarily divided. This momentary division produces a slight electric charge called piezoelectricity (from the Greek “piezo,” meaning to press). This is the principle behind a cigarette lighter on a car dashboard, or the push-start button on a propane barbeque grill. Crystal radios also operate on piezoelectricity. So too, if an electrical charge is applied to the crystal, it will bend. This strange and beautiful physical characteristic of the crystal seems apt to satisfy the lunging percussive urges of the poem. Every torque of syntax or stressed syllable, each hammered word, seems to emit a faint but distinctly glowing electrical charge amid the slow darknesses and changing lights of the poem. Here is Coolidge talking about the one-word poems of Aram Saroyan:
I had a reason for getting to the place where I started to write that kind of thing, which I was trying to explain in being influenced by Saroyan putting his one word. He put so much pressure on one word, is what it was. He insisted that that word was the poem. You could talk about art being insistent emphasis. The words really came to me very strongly, as strong things. And I began to think: but I want to put them together with that kind of intensity.
That intensity, the charge of Coolidge’s percussive lines, generates flares of electricity through the long sequence of poems that constitute The Crystal Text, as it spans changing seasons and the poet’s own slow, assiduous concentration.
“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness!” Keats addresses his famous object of poetic contemplation, an ancient vessel painted with an unchanging pastoral scene. The poet studies it closely, looking all around it, as though there might be something within or beyond its form that would come to illuminate its enigma. Immutable and transfixing, cold stone alive with imagery, silent vessel abruptly given voice, the urn’s narrative remains static, its outcome made unknowable by its own unchanging form. The poet of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” finds grim solace and unearthly beauty in the permanence of the urn’s imagery. Keats’s poem enacts the object’s painted, changeless activity, detailing the “flowery tale” of the (silent) “Sylvan historian” which is the urn. For Coolidge, the crystal occupies an even more radically ambiguous relation to time. Coolidge writes:
The crystal is always showing a world
that does not exist except in remission.
It does not contain but transposes. (37)
Throughout The Crystal Text, the inert, immutable object filters the changing light of day through the prism it is. As Keats, in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” narrates the flux the vessel points toward while always precluding, Coolidge watches hours, days, and seasons pass through the changeless facade of the crystal. Like the poem, it rotates these lights. The Crystal Text is strewn with cryptic glitches that point to the object’s temporal undecidability: it is “A scatter dance held rigid, knowledge is that?” (27) and “This place where morning is permanent” (34). Looking at it, Coolidge asks, “Why are there places where some thing is not happening?” (72). The crystal pends, it’s both in medias res and unfinishable: “During, see during, see the end of the line always receding” (46). It remains, like the urn, emphatically silent: “It does not say. It stay” (61). “Silence in the presence of the occulting lights” (104), writes Coolidge, baffled by the crystal’s strangely forceful reticence. It is almost as though the very silence of these objects — urn and crystal — were what both Keats and Coolidge find magnetic. In Keats, there is something to narrate: the urn is painted, and although the action depicted is endless and changeless, the poem’s attempt to speak for it constitutes the force and central dilemma of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The crystal, however, offers less to narrate; its presence is even more radically ambiguous. The temptation somehow to “narrate” it persists, alongside the impossibility of doing so. “It’s taking my light? It’s taking my words” (137): of course, it is taking Coolidge’s words — and yet the crystal remains almost completely inscrutable as a cipher for the Text.
Senseless thing, crystal, say you of yourself?
And all the other things I would say of you. Unto you,
and for you. (95)
As Keats’s poem comes to speak for the painted urn, it paradoxically acknowledges that the object’s silence sets it always ahead of the poem itself: “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (238). As the ode gains reflexive momentum, ecstatically listing the halted action of the imagery painted on the urn, it comes to speak for the silent urn, before running aground at the final, gnomic couplet:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (240)
The urn’s silence becomes insurmountable here. The desperate, enticing equation for which the poem is known is just as much an admission of the futility of trying to find something beyond the object’s form as it is a mere affirmation of the significance of beauty. More than anything, it is an irreducibly powerful statement about the silence of the object. The urn may be looked at from all sides but keeps its silence and is set during. It can, for these reasons, disclose finally nothing but its form: its beauty is the truth it discloses, the only truth we need to know since it is the only truth knowable. The oldness of the object, its permanence and silence prompt questioning and preclude certainty:
He thought he knew that. He wondered
if the crystal would still be warming in the sun after
all the humans had died. He imagined it standing
on a sandy plain like a fire in the fire.
There seemed beauty in this but no knowledge. (The Crystal Text, 114)
In Hugh Kenner’s massive study of Ezra Pound, The Pound Era, he writes: “When Wyndham Lewis writes (Tarr, about 1914) that ‘the lines and masses of a statue are its soul’ (art has no inside, nothing you cannot see), he tells us that we may confront any art as we must confront that of the Upper Paleolithic.” Coolidge, whose friendship with the painter Philip Guston was certainly mutually influential (both are sui generis masters), is certainly familiar with the merits, and maybe necessity, of confronting “any art as we must confront that of the Upper Paleolithic.” In “Arrangement,” a lecture on poetics and process given at Naropa, Coolidge writes, “one of the things Guston likes to talk about most is cave art: the first painters, who are incredible if you look at their work. I’m not sure that anyone is more sophisticated. The mark, the first mark. Of course Guston talks about it like Mallarmé’s statement, ‘being a civilized first man.’ In other words, you’re in the cave and you’ve got your stick, but you know all about art, you’ve been to the Louvre” (159). There is a necessity, when painting or writing an object, to see it as first man might have. This initial seeing — the condition of possibility for the “intimate action” of beginning “to know / the materials” — opens a space where poet and reader, painter and viewer, might see the object as abstract form.
In The Crystal Text crystal can then become “a lock of standages” (44) or “a glow zone” (14). Neil Young, frozen orange juice, Angel Hair magazine, and Dave Brubeck appear in the poem’s frequencies, among many others. But the abiding, initial amazement, a shock of wonder like that of first man at the stone’s oldness runs like a seam through the poem. The crystal’s ancientness, its existence a priori the poet and the modern world are knowledge underlying The Crystal Text:
Crystal not survivable, but will remain me.
It lives in the sun-tipped palace of my regard,
until. One could place no period after it. (89)
The magnetism of ancient things, their materiality in time — calcite, trilobite, the sounds of language — must be a primary obsession of the poet. This is the “will and would / rather than / shall and should,” the inevitability poems start with. The crystal’s persistence in form over time, a nearly musical persistence of quiet shape, is one of the poem’s underpinnings. Like the urn, which “When old age shall this generation waste / … shalt remain, in midst of other woe,” the permanence of the crystal urges the poem toward a recognition of the impossibility of its own completion. Stone, urn, and poem are what “one could place no period after.” For the crystal there is finally no finally.
All of which is crucial to an understanding of The Crystal Text. But also, critically: “art has no inside, nothing you cannot see.” This parenthetical of Kenner’s, an aside, has had a killer effect on me. I wrestle with it because it seems at times to run poisonously counter to the more hopeful uses of writing. There is something monstrous about that idea, but as The Crystal Text, like “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” points out, you point to an inside that is and isn’t there. Keats looks at the urn from every side, and when the silent object speaks, it can disclose nothing but its self, the beauty of its form.
The crystal sits on the poet’s desk. He observes it. It is both alive and inanimate, silent and yet awaiting response. Like Wallace Stevens’s jar, the crystal organizes reality (and thereby, obviously but crucially, the ensuing poem) around itself. Stevens: “It made the slovenly wilderness / surround that hill.” The crystal, like the jar, becomes the poem’s inscrutable cipher, its placement the enactment of the poem’s own making. Coolidge writes, “The world is a baffle that shows through to / you, everywhere” (89). Stevens writes of the jar: “It took dominion everywhere” (76). Of the crystal everything in The Crystal Text comes to surround, Coolidge writes:
Now all I can see is you. Whatever you contain.
Whatever you do to time, not to mention
perform on space. (95)
However, like neither the jar nor the urn, the crystal both is and is not a vessel. “What am I looking at? Into what’s locked businesses?” (45). It contains itself, and is both open and closed, its contents visible to the naked eye.
In, within, withheld, appearance
owns a shifty lock? Back to the thought, the crystal
open while closed (27)
This sense of the crystal as a vessel of itself, which is both open and shut, is conjured throughout the poem. “The crystal holds light but it is not hollow” (151). It is a “box of instruments, padlocked” (36), “any space one can see / is enclosed” (14), and “our encased answer” (71). “Is there a half-broken-open rock?” (57), asks Coolidge. The crystal is “notionless of its fill” (111), “but / crystal itself does fill” (46). What can it mean to think the poem as a vessel both closed and open? To what degree is it “notionless of its fill”? The crystal isn’t, like Stevens’s jar, “of a port in air.” It carries itself, through time, in closed form. “Art has no inside, nothing you cannot see.” And yet the crystal does have a visible inside, through which light passes: integral, visible and invisible. Its contents both inaccessible, yet completely apparent. A closed thing whose visible contents rotate light? A static thing capable of generating electrical current when pressed? Is reading then a kind of pressure put on the poem? The poem, like the stone, is composed of materials that provoke this impossible line of questioning even as they render it moot. They provoke it, like the urn, out of the very beauty of their forms. And preclude it by disclosing themselves only as that: “aporian solid” (14). Like the urn, the poet studies the facets and sides of it, hefts it and stares; like Stevens’s jar, its centrality to the poem is pursuant to the way it “takes dominion everywhere.”
Open while closed. “Into what’s locked businesses?” The static businesses of a form which came into being through improvisation, marks on the wall of a cave: as a “finished,” “discrete,” or “singular” “thing,” the closed form of poem or crystal displays simply the processes by which it was formed. It resists reference to anything else: it pends as the forms of the process by which it was composed. In this way it’s precisely an arrangement, as are cave paintings in Lascaux or an Eric Dolphy solo.
In the midst of writing this short essay I watched The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary by Werner Herzog about ancient cave art. Images of bison and horses seem to race across the walls of a cave our prehistoric ancestors once slept in, those early humans who felt the urge to record what they saw and to draw what they dreamt. In one scene, an experimental archaeologist wearing bearskin robes holds up a flute made of a vulture bone, and plays part of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On this ancient, newfound instrument, the song is beautifully and weirdly unfixed from its familiar significance: it becomes just notes, forms of sound floating into space.
4. Coolidge, “Arrangement,” in Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, vol. 1, ed. Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1978).