Commentaries

the odious machine

Ron Silliman, who knew Mario Savio fairly well in Berkeley, tells me that Savio did not seek out his leadership role in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement - that he was shy; that he would rather, finally, have been studying his Philosophy. Anyway, his FSM work certainly distorted his life. He had a history of heart trouble and (since this blog is not official biography, nor history, etc.) let's just speculate that the heroic role and its aftermath shortened his life as well. He died at 53 in 1996.

In my own top ten list of great speeches, somewhere up around 5th is Savio's brilliant, stirring, apparently improvised speech on Dec. 2, 1964, spoken from Sproul Plaza in front of Berkeley's main administration building. I have always been stunned by the aptness of his analogy between the big research university (the way it used to treat its undergrads--and to some degree still does) and the factory machine.

I admired this because Savio is turning around the metaphor Berkeley chancellor Clark Kerr already used to describe postwar higher education: it was, said Kerr proudly and patriotically, a "knowledge factory."

I admired the speech even more when I learned that Savio's father was a machine punch operator.

"There is a time," he said, "when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."

In my 1950s site, I've reproduced the New York Times obituary.

writers without borders

Today the Philadelphia City Paper is running an article about our new series, "Writers without Borders".

Our first WWB event features Cecilia Vicuña, acclaimed Chilean poet, filmmaker and performance artist, who weaves time, space and sound to evoke ancient sensory memories.

From the article:

Since the beginning Kelly has hosted international artists, but until now the Writers House has never before had an official international series. Al Filreis, Writers House faculty director, English professor and director of Penn's Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, explains, "If you have a place like the Writers House and you leave it to its own devices, pretty much anything will come through the door. The one thing that won't naturally come ... will be people from New Zealand and China and Nigeria and Chile. It's expensive [and] administratively time-consuming to arrange for the visit of an international writer. There's not an ideological problem, there's no vision problem; the problem is practical."

Oppen at 100

The other night we celebrated George Oppen's 100th birthday. Tom Devaney and Rachel Blau DuPlessis organized the proceedings. Ten of us spoke for ten minutes each. Fifty minutes, a break for food and wine, and then another fifty minutes. It went fast. I could have listened to people to Tom Mandel and Ann Lauterbach and the others for hours more. You can have a look at the program printed for the occasion. And you can already go to the PennSound page with links to audio recordings of each of the 10-minute talks.

My own talk was about the poem "Myth of the Blaze." Here is the recording of that talk. And here is the poem read aloud by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Here is the text of the poem.

In the previous entry I've presented a slightly revised version of that talk, entitled "Oppen's Antifascism: Guilt in 'Myth of the Blaze.'"

myth of the blaze

The blaze in George Oppen's “Myth of the Blaze”, a great poem of war and political ethics and guilt, is the burning bright of Blake's “tyger” in the poem (and spelled that way).

Blake’s “forests of the night”: the woods of the so-called Bulge in the horrendous battle of that name, the Rhineland campaign of winter 1944, through France to the Rhine.

“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” This is a story of tiger and lamb.

The tiger of antifascism beyond theory: In November 1942 George suddenly moves to Detroit, thus triggering the lifting of his draft exemption, and off he goes to fight in, as it turns out, some of the war’s more horrific battles. To fight – in spite of fear, and an inner pacifism (George the lamb here) – and, most startingly at the time, perhaps most dangerously – in spite of the state policy of the Communist Party of the United States.

“Myth of the Blaze” is the most sensitive poetic expression I know of the impossible moment for the communist left of the time, between September 1939 and June 1941, when the party asked its members to support the Nazi-Soviet Pact by favoring peace over war, nonaggression over rapid armament, to turn against the united front against fascism.

We know that George and Mary were most active in the party between 1936 and 1941, and that of course includes two years of suppressing their political impulses. Already feeling guilt over his failure to go to Spain in 1936 and ’37, George goes to war in ’42, now his politics once again aligned, tiger and lamb lying down together, fearful symmetry between Soviet Union and United States struck.

The “myth” in “Myth of the Blaze”: First, the imagination’s burning bright, the folklore of the alluring forest, just a myth. Bunk. Not real. “This crime” – in the poem – “This crime I will not recover / from” or “I will not recover / from that landscape it will be in my mind / it will fill my mind and this is horrible / dead bed.” Second, on the contrary, the myth is real. The imagination is the only thing. As one lies in a foxhole. He is bombarded by mortar fire, and wounded – all those he’s with are killed. More guilt. All he has, his mind and heart racing, are a lyric of Wyatt and “Rezi’s” (Reznikoff) “running thru my mind / in the destroyed (and guilty) Theatre of the War.”

The blaze is real, the fire this time. The blaze is real and not a myth.

The blaze – in Rezi’s poem about the blaze of the real in the imagination – is the myth. Guilt about thinking poems when the world is coming to an end, while one’s friends are dead and one is alive. (“[W]hy had they not / killed me – why did they fire that warning?”)

Guilt about surviving. Guilt about suppressing one’s political instinct for the two years of the party line. Coming to help Europe, to stop the slaughter of the Jews, too late. Where were we when they needed us?

Guilt about (now that the war is over) the awarded Purple Heart awarded, about leaving the party for the return to poetry, to the beautiful quiet peaceful “shack on the coast” of Maine (looking back out across the Atlantic), doing nothing much but smelling the scent of the pine needles. A scent that, anyway, reminds him of the French forest.

The knife at the end of the poem is perfectly opaque: the knife of the lamb – merely to butter one’s daily abundant American? Or the sharp killing knife-likeness of the war, the war-like imagination.

George Oppen at 100 bespeaks the reason to – and also the reason not to – affirm the reality of the political act outside the poem. The best thing about the problem is that, here, it is inside it, as follows:

I believe

in the world

because it is

Or:

I believe

in the world

because it is
impossible.

To hear a recording of the above, and to get some context for my interpretation of this poem, see the entry just above.

Oppen at 100

The blaze in “Myth of the Blaze,” a great poem of war and political ethics and guilt, is the burning bright of Blakes “tyger” in the poem (and spelled that way).

Blake’s “forests of the night”: the woods of the so-called Bulge in the horrendous battle of that name, the Rhineland campaign of winter 1944, through France to the Rhine.

“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” This is a story of tiger and lamb.

The tiger of antifascism beyond theory: In November 1942 George suddenly moves to Detroit, thus triggering the lifting of his draft exemption, and off he goes to fight in, as it turns out, some of the war’s more horrific battles. To fight – in spite of fear, and an inner pacifism (George the lamb here) – and, most startingly at the time, perhaps most dangerously – in spite of the state policy of the Communist Party of the United States.

“Myth of the Blaze” is the most sensitive poetic expression I know of the impossible moment for the communist left of the time, between September 1939 and June 1941, when the party asked its members to support the Nazi-Soviet Pact by favoring peace over war, nonaggression over rapid armament, to turn against the united front against fascism.

We know that George and Mary were most active in the party between 1936 and 1941, and that of course includes two years of suppressing their political impulses. Already feeling guilt over his failure to go to Spain in 1936 and ’37, George goes to war in ’42, now his politics once again aligned, tiger and lamb lying down together, fearful symmetry between Soviet Union and United States struck.

The “myth” in “Myth of the Blaze”: First, the imagination’s burning bright, the folklore of the alluring forest, just a myth. Bunk. Not real. “This crime” – in the poem – “This crime I will not recover / from” or “I will not recover / from that landscape it will be in my mind / it will fill my mind and this is horrible / dead bed.” Second, on the contrary, the myth is real. The imagination is the only thing. As one lies in a foxhole. He is bombarded by mortar fire, and wounded – all those he’s with are killed. More guilt. All he has, his mind and heart racing, are a lyric of Wyatt and “Rezi’s” (Reznikoff) “running thru my mind / in the destroyed (and guilty) Theatre of the War.”

The blaze is real, the fire this time. The blaze is real and not a myth.

The blaze – in Rezi’s poem about the blaze of the real in the imagination – is the myth. Guilt about thinking poems when the world is coming to an end, while one’s friends are dead and one is alive. (“[W]hy had they not / killed me – why did they fire that warning?”)

Guilt about surviving. Guilt about suppressing one’s political instinct for the two years of the party line. Coming to help Europe, to stop the slaughter of the Jews, too late. Where were we when they needed us?

Guilt about (now that the war is over) the awarded Purple Heart awarded, about leaving the party for the return to poetry, to the beautiful quiet peaceful “shack on the coast” of Maine (looking back out across the Atlantic), doing nothing much but smelling the scent of the pine needles. A scent that, anyway, reminds him of the French forest.

The knife at the end of the poem is perfectly opaque: the knife of the lamb – merely to butter one’s daily abundant American? Or the sharp killing knife-likeness of the war, the war-like imagination.

George Oppen at 100 bespeaks the reason to – and also the reason not to – affirm the reality of the political act outside the poem. The best thing about the problem is that, here, it is inside it, as follows:

I believe

in the world

because it is

Or:

I believe

in the world

because it is
impossible.