Commentaries

PoemTalk on Oppen released

PoemTalk's third episode - on George Oppen's "Ballad" - is just out. Please have a listen and let me know what you think. As always, I'm at afilreis [at] writing [dot] upenn [dot] edu.

Don't know how to say (PoemTalk #3)

George Oppen, "Ballad"

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Joined this time by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, the PoemTalkers wasted no time grappling with George Oppen's grappling with the real. The rock of the island he's visiting - its locatedness to be cherished - "outlived the classicists." Is this anti-academic? Yes, we agreed. On an island in Maine, he meets a lobsterman and his wife and finds them super-articulate and at the same time admirably, wonderfully halting in their speech (like Oppen himself here). Oppen: "Difficult to know what one means." The lobsterman's wife: "I don't know how to say." We are all in this real together. Jessica was just back from Vegas, Linh from Iceland, Rachel from teaching a class on the other side of town. Which instruments - archaic and etymologically historical or local, broken-toothed and ready-at-hand - are the tools that will help us understand where exactly we are? "Geo-positioning" seemed to be the word of the day.

Ballad

Astrolabes and lexicons
Once in the great houses—

A poor lobsterman

Met by chance
On Swan's Island

Where he was born
We saw the old farmhouse

Propped and leaning on its hilltop
On that island
Where the ferry runs

A poor lobsterman

His teeth were bad

He drove us over that island
In an old car

A well-spoken man

Hardly real
As he knew in those rough fields

Lobster pots and their gear
Smelling of salt

The rocks outlived the classicists,
The rocks and the lobstermen's huts

And the sights of the island
The ledges in the rough sea seen from the road

And the harbor
And the post office

Difficult to know what one means
—to be serious and to know what one means—

An island
Has a public quality

His wife in the front seat

In a soft dress
Such as poor women wear

She took it that we came—
I don't know how to say, she said—

Not for anything we did, she said,
Mildly, 'from God'. She said

What I like more than anything
Is to visit other islands...

Linh Dinh blogged about our Oppen session the evening after we recorded #3, so why shouldn't Linh take it from here?

Rachel is a great Oppen scholar, knew him for twenty years, edited his collected letters, so of course she made many sharp points, which I won't misquote here, but being gaseous, as usual, I observed that there is an alluring tension between the poem's stately, majestic tone and its choppy, fumbling syntax. I hazarded that Oppen's probing, drifting language, free of embellishments, reflects a tentative, doubting relationship to the real. There is a tourist logic working here. ((What the fuck am I talking about?)) My mind is still in Iceland, I fear, not the Swan's Island, Maine, of the Oppen poem.

Island, insular, isolated, all derived from the Latin insula. Hawaiian-raised Zach Linmark told me that, as a teenager, he couldn't wait to get out of Oahu. And yet, after bouncing around the U.S. mainland, England, his native Philippines and even Japan, he's back on his lava spill for at least a portion of each year. Ólöf Arnalds, "Iceland's acid folk angel," and I've heard her sing, and she's very good, told me that many of her compatriots also want to get out. Of the younger generations, almost everyone has travelled overseas. Those who haven't are either very weird or very poor. Many Icelanders have settled abroad, but most would return home to live. It's very odd, she thought. Ólöf herself has spent a year in Berlin.

We were riding back to Reykjavik after the farewell dinner for the Nýhil's Poetry Festival. The organizers had hired a bus to take everyone to a fine lobster feast in the village of Stokkseyri. Our conversation turned to the hegemony of English. English syntax is creeping into Icelandic, Ólöf informed me, "Sometimes I hear things said in Icelandic that appear to have been constructed in English."

"That's incredible! You mean Icelanders are thinking in English while speaking Icelandic?"

"Yes, sometimes. Many Icelanders are so proud that we have come up with new words for "computer" and "software," for example, but they don't realize that English is creeping into our syntax. Icelandic grammar is very different from English. The language itself is very compact, whereas English is stretched out."

Suddenly we were engulfed by a funny, rotten egg smell, similar to the tap water funk back in my bathroom. "It's the sulfur in the hot springs," Ólöf laughed. It came from outside, in the darkened landscape. "I didn't want you to think it was me!"


PoemTalk #3 was recorded in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House, that 1851 Tudor-style cottage on Locust Walk in Philadelphia which was taken over in 1995 by a gang of learning-community-starved writers. The show was produced by Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay, directed and edited by Steve McLaughlin. Oppen's "Ballad" was recorded in 1979 in Brooklyn, by Verna Gillis and Michael Heller. Visit Oppen's PennSound page.

o, words' sleepy family habits - awake!

Thinking about Stein (again) - I mean, probably: how to teach Stein. Those in my life who don't read Stein - can't "get" her - invariably ask, when I push, if there's an easy way in. There isn't, probably, but I do store up a bunch of quickie critical comments that seem (at least me) alluring as touchstone first approaches. I'll feature these occasionally in this blog. Here are two for today:

1) Long ago Edith Sitwell wrote, in her Poetry and Criticism, that Gertrude Stein "bring[s] back life to our language by what appears, at first, to be an anarchic process. First she breaks down the predestined groups of words, their sleepy family habits; then she rebrightens them, examines their texture, and builds them into new and vital shapes."

2) In his essay on Tender Buttons for The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, Robert Grenier wrote that Stein was concerned with language not "as object-in-itself" but as "composition functioning in the composition of the world."

I don't think the Sitwell idea holds up, but it's helpful for starters, and I love the word "family" there.

from Robert Grenier, "Tender Buttons," in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (1984), p. 206

the child is in the mother of the woman

Earlier this evening I saw Mary Frank's presentation at the Writers House. She began by showing slides of some of her recent work (in a current show at D.C. Moore Gallery) and ended by reading poem-like lists from rounded bark-like pieces of parchment. Here's a rough 5-minute video made of the hour-long program with my handheld.

One of the pieces Mary showed us was Childhood, a recent work that is part of the new show. She told us that when was a child she knew that the baby-in-utero was inside the mother but did not know that it was small and curled up - and down low. She imagined it fully stretched out, arms in the mother's arms, legs out toward the legs - so that the mother is a ghostly after-image of her fetus. Here is Childhood:

Marianne Moore's 9/11

"Finding the Words"

About eight weeks after the September 11 attacks, the Writers House and Rosenbach Library collaborated on an event held at the Writers House featuring, of all things, the modern American poet Marianne Moore. Moore's 9/11, if you can imagine that. Well, it turned out well, I think. The idea was that a number of us would dip into the Moore papers at the Rosenbach and find something apprarently relevant to say. Then several poets - Greg Djanikian, Tom Devaney, Bob Perelman, Jena Osman - would each read a poem for the "occasion." (Jena and Bob read poems they had just written.) Audio recordings of each presentation - and of the whole - program are available. Tom Devaney sent to the Writers House core community a summary of the event.

The event was webcast live and a number of people, especially in Philadelphia, watched us on their computers (somehow the Rosenbach directors had persuaded the PECO people who own the tall skyline building that runs messages across its top floors to announce it). So you can watch me and others "finding the words." Yes, that was the title we gave the event - "Finding the Words." Jena Osman's piece, "Dropping Leaflets", I admire very much and to this day teach it at the end of my course on modern and contemporary American poetry.

My own piece was called "Mending the Break in Time." Below is the text and here is the RealVideo recordings, and here is downloadable mp3.

- - -

MENDING THE BREAK IN TIME, by Al Filreis

The wartime letter exchanged between and among modern poets was a place "where the fragments met," as Marianne Moore put it in "Nevertheless" - forming a temporary whole that was nevertheless no illusion of enduring wholeness. In 1944 Moore's book Nevertheless was published, mutedly proclaiming that the old perfectly shaped lyric fruits were marred although delicious as ever--but, again, marred so that the hard process of fruition now bore in the final sweetness. "Nevertheless / you've seen a strawberry that's had a struggle." Frost kills rubber-plant leaves but can't destroy down to the roots. A prickly-pear leaf clings to barbed wire, but roots shoot down for a later greener day. "Victory won't come / to me unless I go to it." In his charming November 7, 1944 letter to Moore, William Carlos Williams wrote to her about--exactly as we've categorized it tonight--"the uses of art" in a time of worldwide crisis. While in November '44 it was "hard to focus the mind on praise," Williams said he especially loved the title poem of Moore's new book, which she had sent him: "Nevertheless."

I cannot think of a better gloss on Moore's wartime poetics than what Williams wrote here about what "we get from writing": "All artists are secretive and fly from a style which has been found out." This is why H.D. in her moving 1940 letter is "so keyed-up and happy in our fortress"-that fortress being London hunkered against the Luftwaffe which at the time many believed augured the destruction by air of England. In her poem "May 1943" H.D. wrote that the carpenter "has his chisel" while "I have my pencil": "he mends the broken window-frame of the orangery, / I mend a break in time." And it is precisely why Winnifred Ellerman, a.k.a. "Bryher," could speak of the "irreality and great beauty" of a wartorn night sky, not to say that beauty made sense but precisely that it didn't, any more. It is why she, too, received Moore's homefront letters, as physical things, "with such joy," personal impressions on paper, the crabbed inimitable handwriting, seen immediately upon the postman's delivery, that announced the arrival of what Bryher calls Moore's "strength." Williams's typewritten letter ends with the briefest handwritten postscript: "Paul Sr. is at sea--a destroyer."

We can sense here, in this letter--but also everywhere in Williams' writing at this time--how worried about his son he was. Paul eventually made it all the way to Tokyo, part of the time on an aircraft carrier--in the vicinity of the most terrifyingly difficult fighting of the war. What could the father do? Well, he was putting together the first drafts of Paterson I, another hard-bitten place where the modern fragments would meet.

But with Paul in the Pacific, he did what homefront grandfathers do. He took the disconsolate Paul Jr. on an outing-the perfect Williams outing, down to the dirty but stately Hackensack River, to a "marvelous old-car dump," with "hundreds of junked cars." Paul was beside himself with joy as the grandfather poet "paraded him up one alley and down another, old cars on all sides." He, too, so keyed-up and happy in his fortress. "The weak overcomes [the world's] menace," Moore wrote in "Nevertheless," "the strong over- / comes itself. What is there / like fortitude! What sap / went through that little thread to make the cherry red!"