George Oppen in conversation with Eric Homberger at the University of East Anglia, May 7, 1973
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.
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.
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?