Commentaries

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.

not enough

The fifth episode of PoemTalk has been released - a 25-minute discussion of Ted Berrigan's list poem, "3 Pages." Joining me this time are Linh Dinh, Randall Couch, and erica kaufman. The program notes (on the PoemTalk blog) are here. The link to the Poetry Foundation site is here; you'll find a listing of all five PoemTalks there as well.

measure for measure

Suzanne Vega at the Writers House last night. We talked a bit about her New York Times blog, "Measure for Measure." With Anthony DeCurtis leading the conversation, she discussed - and played a few songs from - her new album, Beauty & Crime. She also performed a fabulous a capella "Tom's Diner." It's the Blutt Singer-Songwriter Symposium at the Kelly Writers House, in its second year; the inaugural event last spring feature Rosanne Cash. Hear our recording of Rosanne.

photo by John Carroll

doing not enough every day (PoemTalk #5)

A list of Bohemian pleasures. Ted Berrigan's "3 Pages" is a list poem, surely. He mentions ten things he does every day (including "read lunch poems," surely a reference to Frank O'Hara's book of that title) but the PoemTalkers - Randall Couch, Linh Dinh and special guest erica kaufman - had trouble counting them. We got to nine, and pondered. erica then suggested that she "would count 'NOT ENOUGH' as being ten." The last line of the poem.

Those American things (heart attack, Congressional medal, second home) that immediately precede the last line...well, for Berrigan, they don't add up.

So our PoemTalk poem this time is a summing-up poem (Berrigan hinted as such a quality) that sums up by affixing "not enough" to the total. We four liked this sort of life, were turned on by it. Oh, set us down by the waters of Manhattan.

Aside from O'Hara there are further literary references here in this poem about leading the literary life. By the Waters of Manhattan is the novel of another important New Yorker poet, Charles Reznikoff. Al says: "'NO HELP WANTED' as a placard turns around the usual, 'You're an American boy, get a job.'" Ahabian resistance to progress and accumulation and reason, in a world of Starbucks. We found the rhetoric of folk song here, and we saw indeed deep traces of Moby Dick's irrational-rational aestheticism. "Hunting for the Whale" is one of the "ten" things a Berrigan poem does for us every single day.

For the purposes of introducing the idea of the list poem to people not used to seriatic ways of modern and contemporary poetry, we agree that this poem is the perfect instance with which to start. "Teachable" in that sense.

The poem is dedicated to Jack Collom, and our Linh Dinh phoned Jack himself for his thoughts. Listen to PT #5 and find out what Jack told Linh.

Recorded in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia, PoemTalk #4 was produced by Al Filreis, edited and engineered by Steve McLaughlin. PennSound's Ted Berrigan page is a treasure trove of great recordings, including the famous 1981 reading of his Sonnets in their entirety. Our poem can be heard here. The poem was read on the radio show "In the American Tree" in 1978, during an interview conducted by Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson on KPFA, Berkeley.

"3 Pages" was published in Berrigan's book Red Wagon and here is a link to the text.

teaching artificial simplicity

I've been reading the blog of a former student and now someone prominent in marketing (his field is "persuasion"). The blog is called Artificial Simplicity. Here's an advertising guy who quotes George Oppen: "Clarity for my sake. That I may understand my life..." and commends Jane Jacobs.

Scott's entry today is called "Innovation in the classroom: an homage," and it's, in part, about my teaching. "He taught and taught me that the point of the humanities classroom was not to communicate a particular idea but rather to get students excited to think in a new way. (It's still my goal for early meetings with a new client). What his methods--now widely adopted--created was an ongoing discussion and debate which went on all week."