Commentaries - August 2013

Social reading number one

Erika Staiti lives in Oakland and comes back to New York, where she’s from, about twice a year.
The first thing I notice in the excerpt from The Undying Present is Staiti’s use of multiple and switching pronouns and the determined unnaming of characters. It has an effect of denuding the narrative, by generalizing the action, muting agency.

We readers are instructed that something else is happening, something structural, not personality-based, although the central action is driven by a narrator.

I find it striking that despite the removal of affective signs and deictic relations between particulars, an assertive and deep affect remains palpable.

“Sun warms the skin but burns it sometimes too. They roll down the window for some air and then roll it back when the wind picks up. This is how the days go by. Staring straight ahead. Marching down a city street or running. Statements made and never heard. Hearing fails. Blood sheds daily.”

What do mean when you say affect?
I mean visceral emotion that lingers. The goopy stuff that is between things.
There is something S&M about The Undying Present.

The title is from a poem in Les Guérillères, Monique Wittig's 1969 feminist novel.

"A woman is dancing. She wears a tight silver bodice. Another woman stands against the wall with dark frizzy hair. She wears red. Two men are kissing in the center of the stage. One has a dark moustache and the other is blonde and smooth and looks very young.

Something happens to the dancing woman. She writhes on the ground. Was she shot?"

Ephemerality directed towards the reader to juggle before evaporation.

“After a while one of us pulls our hand away from the other and we both change the positions of our arms and legs.”

Under erasure, constant revision:  questions left by Staiti’s outlines and silhouettes must only be answered in multiples, of bodies, desires, expirations hiding from each other, revealed in the reading, by the readers: for how long can a hand be held?

 “My double is walking through the building probably down the long hallway and when she is ready she will walk down the large and elegant marble stairs in hopes of encountering the arrival of the new the new one of us or maybe it will be me or maybe an old one.”

In a narrative that is about an underground replete with unspoken dynamics that are probably sado-masochistic, the open field of the mystery is significant. The narrative is not master of its own mystery. The narrator is not in control.

“False harmony warms the network. Secrets eat through the spaces between bodies.”

There is something going on in The Undying Present but it's a secret. There is a necessity of uncovering the mystery, the structural body of the scene that can't be addressed singularly by the author who is included in it. How are we going to be asked to question the surface? To get to the matter, when intimacy lapses. The reader is being asked to help.

(1) Image & Melos: a Letter, 1960, to Robert Duncan
[From New York City]

September 27, 1960

... following with great interest your interchange with Kelly. On the basis of your first letter to reach here (only one I’ve seen, other 2 being described) I feel no real disagreement as to melos, etc., being other vehicles for manifestation of “floating world” (source) within the poem, tho if you define yourself as a poet of “word-magic” primarily, my own direction in these last years has probably been toward “image-magic”— yet it doesn’t seem to me that any of the “powers” are totally to be denied, nor can they where the poem is allowed to happen. Certainly I find image occurring at many points in your  work, & can only hope for myself that sound & music do not automatically leave where image enters. In the act of uncovering the poem, in fact, my personal experience has been that the other elements we are said to be slighting are especially insistent; where they don’t assert themselves (emerging concurrently) the image feels unreal and slack — a lightweight, lifeless counterfeit.

But image still appears to me as the thing sought once I am into the poem. Or more precisely the under-world of hidden painful (joyful) forms. As in the Thomas gospel:

 When you see your likeness, etc.

 Here I have to enter without any of the old certainties: to go out and search for that world, never knowing for sure if what I find is real or dross, except in so far as I can accept the data emerging from the poems—mine and others. In this way the poem creates the reality that then exists for us: a unique (one hopes) and certain thing, that can yet be shared. It is, I think, because of the initial disbelief / skepticism (perhaps despair) that prompts the surrender to the under-world (to find & create forms & images therefrom) that I cannot—as you can, perhaps—really utilize other data—allusory, historical, etc.—in the composition of the poem; & in the presence of other poems I can surrender only where the impact of the search & the resultant world it has created overwhelms me with its presence.  So for a while much of your writing in the [Opening of the] Field, etc., was closed to me, largely for the “intrusion” of the tradition you prize so highly—and I too, once I understood the way to the source, to the reality of the poems. But, for myself, as a way of making the poem, I must still come on the source directly, as a head-on confrontation; in other words, I can’t build it up yet through intermediaries, but have to create it new in order to accept it.  For this reason, I think, the image becomes for me the prima materia.  If I were fixed enough in a tradition (able to write from it, not just in its light) so I might build with blocks of data largely—as I find you doing—then melos, logos, etc. might come first to hand—the image-symbols being there to start with. (This happens in translation.) But it has not yet become, for me, a question of arrangement (I don’t use the word disparagingly) but discovery at every point I meet the poem.  Now, where this is really the case (& I find it historically in the poetry of the “deep image,” whether along among 20th Century disbelievers or earlier figures—isolated mystics, etc., figures cut off from the mainstream of dogma), I feel a new power released, nameless for now, a result of that “self-abandonment to that which is not known”.  So that I don’t take the “rootlessness” you’ve spoken of in earlier letters as a liability—I don’t assume you mean lack of precedents, history being full of the uprooted—rather it seems to me, once met in its own terms, like the dark voyage Melville described in the great Lee Shore chapter of Moby Dick:

But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, etc.

 For, then, this seems to be the great adventure of spirit in our time, & (why not) particularly the burden of the American poet, where the destruction of the old certainties has gone further & strange cultures oppress consciousness with their conflicting demands.  In your work I see this answered, partly, by a re-arrangement of older elements—probably not far distant from the new-creations of the deep image poets.  In this way I find it stronger and fuller than the early poems of Creeley (before the Door, etc.) where melos, etc., seemed to me to be pursued in isolation from any real sense of deep image, almost as a decoration of the trivial. (Stein seems to me the better example of how far the under-world can be explored without utilization of deep image, & I’m glad for that reason that you mention her.)

 (2) From Seneca to English: a Letter, 1968, to Robert Duncan
[Steamburg, New York, to Buffalo, New York]

                                                 Box 117
                                                Steamburg, N.Y. 14783
                                                July 16, 1968

 Dear Robert—

 Here we are only 50 miles south of you & having a good summer of it, the project working out better than I’d hoped with a fair possibility not only of seeing the “problems” more clearly but of getting some works of interest into english.  Dick Johnny John, the man I’m working with chiefly, is himself a songmaker, which at this point means that he composes almost exclusively in the “secular” area (what they call Woman’s-Dance songs), the verbal part of it being mostly sound-poems, not improvised scat-singing but always a fixed order f sounds; a little boastful too about the almost unlimited variations he can pull from that.  I think it’s about the last song-form in which they feel free to do new things, even drawing from the world we have in common, as in the following which has real words & all: 

                                          i.e. roughly:  
ah-way-on-jay                                    just let it go
has-on-ko-nee                                   we’ll have to
dan-yah-gwa-yay-no      heya      get out & help
o-dee-gay-es ee-guy                        the longhaired ones
o-dya-non                                            their song
a-yah-gwah-den-no-deh                is what we’ll sing
aa-yaa-yaa-yaa-yaa                        yah-yah-yah-yah-yah
hey-wah-don                                      that’s what it says
ah-way-on-jay-son                          just let it go
Indian Beatles a-wan-don            we’re turning into INDIAN  BEATLES

All the songmakers of the Cold Spring Longhouse Singing Society now have tape recorders & one of them, Avery Jimerson, composes by himself recording the two parts (leader & chorus) onto a single tape, so he can, before the group works with them, get a better idea of where he’s at.  (He also has a special large drum of his own carving – not the standard piece of equipment around here – which he uses in working up a song.)  They’ve been using tapes too in setting-down some of the ceremonial music, particularly of the older men, but that part of it is all pretty haphazard with a kind of resignation to the fact that the sacred works will sooner or later disappear as men forget them.

            Anyway, all that just because it’s what I’m mostly involved with right now & thought you’d sense some kinship in it.  I’m to go thru initiation myself (i.e., adoption & naming) at time of the Green Corn in September & have to, before then, decide between two names: hai-wa-no (Keeper-of- High-Words) or hai-wa-wens (Transmitter-of-High-Words), both of which I dig very much.  Maybe after that I’ll settle down here & make sound-poems with them.

            Being so close we’d like very much to get up to Buffalo within the next couple of weeks; hope it may be possible to drop in on you then. Are you scheduled for a reading or something, which might provide an occasion or date to aim for?  Or maybe too you’d like to come down this way, be our guest for a couple of days – Allegany State Park just a short drive away & good for swimming & walking etc.  I might also be able to work-in a session of the Singing Society to mark the occasion.  Anyway,  if you can send us your address or a phone number, that would be helpful.

            Otherwise, a copy of the primitive anthology [Technicians of the Sacred] arrived here a week ago, the only sour note being that the printers made a last minute fuckup on Jess’ “Imagine a margin,” about which I’ve already written him a full explanation & got a very kind letter in return.  I hope your copy has reached you or will soon, & that some of it may be of use, etc.

                                    Be well & in touch.
                                                Love from all of us

 [The first of these letters will appear in Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, scheduled for publication next month from Black Widow Press.  I was at that time (1960) immersed in ideas of “deep image” & neo-surrealism, which by the time of the 1968 letter was transforming – for me at least – into ethnopoetics.  The pleasure of exchanges with Duncan & others was central to the process as it then unfolded.  (J.R.)]

Anne Tardos and Jackson Mac Low, 1981.
Anne Tardos and Jackson Mac Low, 1981.

Dear Kenny,

Your piece “The Burden of Artists’ Crap” posted over a year ago in Harriet (, has just been brought to my attention. I am shocked and dismayed by your characterization of me. Kenny, we’ve been down this road before. Only weeks after Jackson’s death you publicly accused me of interfering with his legacy by not immediately publishing all his recordings on your web site. May I also remind you that later you apologized profusely for your behavior, albeit in private.

I feel compelled to comment on your profound misunderstanding of the partial sale of Jackson’s library. I have devoted years of my life to archiving Jackson’s papers and little known publications. His archive was placed at the Mandeville Special Collections at UCSD, two years ago. To make this possible, I had to organize his works with the assistance of several devoted young poets over many years. Without going through the immense amount of unsorted papers, and cataloguing them, no institution would have been able to recognize the scope of the work. As for the Mac Low library, I made extraordinary efforts to place it in its entirety with reputable institutions. I am saddened that you don‘t realize that parting with these books was heartbreaking for me, too. 

I hope it doesn’t embarrass you too much to know that the books you describe are duplicates. Perhaps you are unaware of the enormity of the collection, and that most of Jackson’s books are still in my possession. Your own books, the ones you are so sure were gone with the rest, and which you had inscribed to both of us, remain on a bookshelf next to my desk.

You write that “evidently the poet’s widow wanted to get rid of it all.” Your condescension is both reckless and misguided. The comparison you make with Charles Ives’s heirs is laughable. Are you not aware that Ives’s studio is being kept as it was during his lifetime, intact and complete at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which has meticulously recreated his studio, down to the radiator piping? Jackson wasn’t so lucky.

Your reference to my reasons for selling part of the library are too offensive to answer.

To bring you up to date, in addition to my own books of poetry, I am currently editing the third posthumous book of Jackson’s. I have also preserved and conserved all of his heretofore unknown visual works, some of which are currently on exhibit in major European museums and galleries, all over the world.

You and I have known each other for many years, and over those years I’ve discovered that conjecture formed from incomplete information nearly always proves wrong. The heartbreak of a friend’s death is one thing, but the heartbreak of maligning and vilifying a friend is quite another. I hesitate to characterize it.



Thanks to Richard Swigg, PennSound is pleased to make available a recording of George Oppen reading poems and talking with Eric Homberger at the University of East Anglia, May 7, 1973. Swigg also provided us with this transcript.     

(20:38): mp3 

George Oppen: [Reads poems, concluding with “The Forms of Love.”]

Eric Homberger: This is a poetry that no Englishman could have possibly  written. But can you actually hear it? Can you actually hear the rhythm, the movement, the length of the line?

Oppen: In the print?

Homberger: In the print.

Oppen: I know, because the question has been raised. William Cookson wrote me a questionnaire about that, and I’ve been in trouble about it. It’s not only a question of an Englishman — how a Southern American reads it. I don’t know. A man in Maine — I once saw a young boy in Maine read Alexander Pope, and he didn’t read it as iambics, and he wasn’t aware of them as iambics. I think, however, I said before, we really are not helpless in the hands of the language. We hope at least — we think an enunciation can be wrong and an accent can be wrong. Here, I’ve written all that. We mean to isolate words and to place words so that they must be understood, even if precisely the sound is not the same. But their impact, their musical impact, remains the same. We mean at least to do that. Now, as for — it’s a problem, of course it is a problem. If I could find this poem, it’s written directly to that, and it’s a short poem, so it’s better than discussing it. This is “Song, The Winds of Downhill.” [Reads poem from Seascape: Needle’s Eye]  If  “the words // would    with   and   take on substantial // meaning  handholds    footholds // to dig in one’s heels,” can we rely on something like the music? And I’m not interested, after all. It would be interesting, if any poetic experts are listening to this program, if you should now read a poem to me, and see how different it is. We could test this. It won’t be interesting to people who are not involved in the techniques of poetry. What would happen if you read some poem my way — “Father  I must get out here” [“Of Hours,”  Seascape: Needle’s Eye]?

Homberger: What page?

Oppen: “Of Hours.” It’s page fifteen. The most dramatic part of that poem is on sixteen. It’s “Father,” seventeen, “Crevasse Father ” — the bottom of sixteen — “Crevasse    Fought //  No man.”

Homberger:  [Reads from “Of Hours,” from “Crevasse   Fought //  No man” to the end of the poem]

Oppen: It’s all right. That was you caught in a foxhole in Alsace. Wasn’t me caught in a foxhole in Alsace. It’s all right. This poem turns out fairly well. It is different. But one’s me, one’s you. I think the poem — the words were the same.

Homberger: An Englishman might respond —

Oppen: I knew an American —

Homberger: An Englishman  might say for us the language isn’t problematic. We all know how it is and how it works. And there you are, starting all over again.

Oppen: The language an Englishman knows, as an American knows, is — there you go, right on. The language — there are the things you say. But “Crevasse    Fought  //  No man but the fragments of metal,” and just the fragments and the metal and the fighting’s there. Yes, some of the emotionality of the rhythms may be lost. Nothing I can do about that. People are full with systems of notations, of course. They really become more obstacle than not, I think, and they don’t work without a metronome. I don’t want to — I  do — because I make a long line-ending I use capitals, which is not the current fashion — I do use spaces as carefully as I can, with a great deal of thought. I do what I can.

Homberger: And the space gives you a sequence, a length of time, in reading a line.

Oppen: Right, it does, and yet I think of it on the page essentially. I think of it as space rather than time.

Homberger: Did you write on a typewriter?

Oppen: Well, I copy out as I correct. I revise a thousand times, and look at it on my typewriter. But I can’t actually write because of that part of it, I guess.

Homberger: There are these theories about the impact of the typewriter on the language of poetry. [Charles] Olson talks about Projective Verse.

Oppen: Well, I write very fast. I have my own — I revise it — I can’t count the number of times when I change a line, I type it and, after I’ve written it out, I paste it on. When that manuscript becomes too thick with pastings, I start a new one. But I’ve always written it in hand, I think. The typewriter simply disturbs me. If you clatter on a bit, if you don’t mind the implication, the typewriter seems appropriate.

Homberger: You’re conscious, then, as you write, of the eye, how it looks to the eye.

Oppen: Very much. The eye and the consciousness, you might say. Space. The consciousness of space. Of how soon, where it happens. There’s a left- and righthand side of the lines, and most poets don’t know it. They talk so much about the breath. A line is a line. It’s not just a line-ending, and the current — what I guess we’d generally call California poetry, treating it as the breath; well, not always in practice on both sides of the line. But in theory, from this theory, they tend to. The line has a lefthand side and a righthand side.

Homberger: Isn’t Williams responsible for the theory?

Oppen: Yes. He thought he talked in the vernacular, Williams filled with his own spirit in expression. And Williams might have been in a worse shape than I am on this question of slightly different accents, because your accent is no longer American. Did you know that, Professor?

Homberger: Yes, regretfully. It’s disappeared, it’s evaporated. “My God, you’re talking like an Englishman.” There’s a great deal of that. I’m not sure I’m talking  like an Englishman at all. But I’m hearing your lines with a kind of luminous [...] about them in a way I don’t hear English poetry, and maybe that’s —

Oppen: That’s a technical question. I take it you’re pretty [much] interpreting this as a kind of homily to my poetry.

Homberger: [Laughing] But it’s something that you’ve fought for, and you’ve achieved. It’s not just me that feels that. I’m sure it’s much more than a personal reaction on my part to the work itself. It’s something in the poems.

Oppen: Yes, yes. That’s right. I meant what I meant to do, and that’s what I think passes accent, habit of speech, colloquialisms of speech —

Homberger: But you’ve moved a great deal, from East Coast to West Coast.

Oppen: That’s true, yes.

Homberger: You’ve said that you reject the dialect, the purely local aspect of language.

Oppen: Yes.

Homberger: But how do you achieve that final quality of — the sensuous feel of it — because, from the reader’s point of view, you do use that quality.

Oppen: Yeah, yeah. Remember Tolstoy’s What Is Art? He’s disturbed by an opera singer as well as any qualities that could be considered artistic. He must also have the lungs of a glassblower. Of course it is a disturbing fact. I have some not particularly artistic qualities which make it possible for me to be a poet. I would not have been a poet without them. I’ve no facility in writing whatever. I write the most godawful first copies that anybody has ever written. I happen to have a tireless ear. I can revise a hundred and two hundred times, and it doesn’t tinkle for me. I can also carry in my mind what I haven’t said and is still in my mind, and I haven’t found words for it. I can hang on to it, and I can find it the next morning, and the morning after that, and the morning after that. And that’s how I write. And I match the words to it — the sound, the fall, the syntax of the words, to it. Laboriously. It’s not a practical work, and it’s not laborious from where I suffer, and would like to stop. But, yes, it takes me time. What doesn’t disappear is that thing, and that’s why I think I may be translatable into the English language, into the English accent, at least I hope so. We are very fortunate. We’re talking about the difference between American and parts of American English and different parts of England. Think of the Finnish writer or the Basque writer. It’s a nightmare. We’re very fortunate, and I do think —

Homberger:  Let me take up another question. You read early Pound, and you read early Yeats, and you read early everybody. You’re hearing other tones, other voices, mixed in together. When you’re reading early and late Oppen, you’re not hearing other voices, you’re not hearing the influence of other poets. Could this possibly be related to that quality of ear that you were talking about? Of hearing it before you found the words for it, and then sticking to it?

Oppen: I think the things said it to me. My secret belief is that the thing finally says it to me, as if it’s shone out. It’s what phenomena means, a shining-out. I think the things said it to me. What I’m talking about is consciousness. I’m not manic, in that people think I’m saying this. Likewise Dr. Johnson: “My God, Sir, it’s there.” I am not that. I’m not Dr Johnson. I’m talking about consciousness, I know I’m talking about consciousness. But I have this point to make about consciousness. It’s like Descartes’s proof about the cogito. You know your own consciousness exists, and your own consciousness is actual, and therefore consciousness in itself, and by itself, creates, affirms the fact of actualness. And we are plunged into this miracle of actualness. And that’s why the little objects mean so much to me. I’m not playing with little objects.

Homberger: I can understand critics who read your work and feel this, what you’ve just been saying. My God, just like what they’re doing in the paintings in New York City, The Art of the Real, Kenneth Noland, and so on. There may not be any necessary connection. But would you grant the power to an extent?

Oppen: Yeah, all right. Yes, we say this about those artists. I’m not an art critic. I feel it in Hopper. I feel it in Chardin. I feel it in Watteau. He looks like a boudoir artist with that pure rose, surrounded by a metaphysical tag. In pictures I also am eclectic, and we also — the “we” again — just found our way. I don’t want to — I’m avoiding making a critique of the artists you’ve mentioned, as you see them that way, yes.

Homberger: But it seems to me that in The Art of the Real, as they call it — there’s a show at the Tate with that title, and it was a very powerful show — there was a body of artists, amongst them there’s perhaps the most famous who — [Frank] Stella was another — were attempting to find a mode of art built on the irreducible. They were talking about it in terms of the irreducible object. They were basically talking about it in terms of a consciousness that was not reducible to anything.

Oppen: I am indeed. “The primary elements can only be named.” I’m not naive about the object, and I think they are. The primary elements could be named. What I’m talking about — yeah, it’s consciousness.

Homberger: But we had a long conversation before about George Eliot — the way that George Eliot uses consciousness, ethics, sympathy, to work upon her readers in a very didactic way. She’s got an idea of human behavior in mind, doesn’t she? Do you?

Oppen: Hers — yeah, I do. Hers, incidentally now, isn’t an idea. It’s an art of the real in a sense. It tests morals as against what really happens to people, and what people really want. That girl in the flood [The Mill on the Floss] runs back to her brother. There is no popular moral point in this. She’s just telling what — you’ll excuse me — a heart (says). And she thinks an ethic and a society must be based on, you know, what you do want. It’s nice once in a while for somebody ever to mention that, aside from theories.

Homberger: But George Eliot wanted sympathy. She wanted her readers to break down the barrier of class-consciousness and the barriers of selfishness, and to feel with other people. And that was, I think, for her the highest state of consciousness.

Oppen: I do too. Her morality can be attacked, and will be attacked now by a great many people, and it’s absolutely nonpolitical. It doesn’t put forward a program. And as to women, it seems to accept how women are at that moment. Now I — the point about this — this is a little bit difficult. There’s a metaphysic of morality, and I don’t know if George Eliot covered that. I mentioned it somewhere. You see, this is a question “of being numerous.” That is, of a concept of mankind. Now, again, I’m not moralizing. I didn’t invent this. I just say it exists and we can’t be happy without it. I pointed out (people of a certain age — a certain age, I might well say!) the length of time we might possibly live is not an unimaginable length of time, you say at least. It’s all a short length of time in terms of one’s memory. It’s less than one has experienced. If they had said, twenty years before, the world was Oppening to end, they would probably not bother to live it out. The end of one’s own life is by no means equivalent to the end of the world. There is something called “humanity” which makes it possible for us to live. It’s a metaphysical concept. The old men in the Indian tribe in that poem [“Narrative,” This in Which] were dancing to the return of the sun. They’re not going to be alive very long. They care. There is a metaphysic of morality which absolutely must be taken, and I’m talking about a pure hedonism: what we want. But the metaphysic is there, it’s in us. We can’t disregard this little factor. Socrates tried to, you know. It’s a tragic and touching scene.

Homberger: But so much contemporary writing —

Oppen: Oh, indeed, it does. 

Homberger: — does totally ignore —  

Oppen: Indeed, it does.

Homberger: — the fundamental humanism of what you’re describing.

Oppen: This metaphysical humanism. There is something we believe. There is something we want mankind to be or become, and that’s all we care about, actually. And where we use the word “moral,” it’s one of those funny words. It’s very hard and I believe  particularly it’s hard to make a word mean what it didn’t mean to begin with. We think we did and we don’t. Moralis means the common practice around us, the manners. But we find we use the word “morality” where we think something involves the destiny of mankind. I’m sorry for the pretentious[ness]. But that’s where we use the word “moral.”

Homberger: In conclusion, one wants to talk about how unfashionable this view is.

Oppen: How unfashionable I am.

Homberger: How unfashionable you are, and that seems to me to be a loss for us of the greatest magnitude.

Oppen: I can sympathize with you. It’s a loss for me too ... Yes, you think I should be better known?

 (20:38): mp3

George Oppen at PennSound

George Oppen at EPC