What is a pebble? Is it an object or a thing? A weapon or a tool? Is it naïve or is it sentimental? Is it a token of the real, or a fragment of ideology? Can you do more than skip it or hurl it or mark a grave with it? What is the pebble to poetry? Of what might the poem make it speak?
One interlocutor of Simone White’s 2016 collection of poems, Of Being Dispersed, is the 1968 collection by Objectivist poet George Oppen, Of Being Numerous. Oppen’s titular long poem, which is the bulk of the collection, is concerned with the development of language to address the condition of living in the multitude. Section three of the poem begins:
Those interested in theorizing lyric must tread lightly these days, for a great deal of recent critical energy has been invested in sounding the interpretive contours of this “super-sized” modern genre. Much of this work seeks to disrobe lyric of its transhistorical pretensions, revealing by way of materialist critique that what we took for an enduring genre is actually a product of deeply codified reading practices.
Those interested in theorizing lyric must tread lightly these days, for a great deal of recent critical energy has been invested in sounding the historical and interpretive contours of this “super-sized” modern genre. Much of this work seeks to disrobe lyric of its transhistorical pretensions, revealing by way of materialist critique that what we took for an enduring genre is actually a product of deeply codified — and distinctly post-Romantic — reading practices.
When Paul Auster in 1980 asked to interview his friend George Oppen, the poet agreed, but with a warning. “What worries me,” wrote Oppen, “is the question of whether or not I can say anything that I have not already said.” Auster flew to San Francisco in February 1981 and spent several days with the Oppens. “There were times,” writes Auster, “when [George] had to grope for his words, but there were also moments of blazing wit.” These moments have indeed been captured in this memorable last interview with George Oppen.
Note: When Paul Auster in 1980 asked to interview his friend George Oppen, the poet agreed, but with a warning. “What worries me,” wrote Oppen, “is the question of whether or not I can say anything that I have not already said — And my own condition at this moment which is something alas, very like senility — I am not being very brilliant these days, and I have not written anything since Primitive.” Nevertheless, Auster flew to San Francisco in February 1981 and spent several days at the Oppens’ house on Polk Street recording George and Mary around their kitchen table.
To understand a poet’s work it is necessary to understand a poet’s life; this is particularly the case with poet George Oppen, whose work, in Michael Heller’s estimation, frequently demonstrates “an urge toward psychic depths” and “take[s] account of contingency, of the life that impinges on us, whether it involves meeting other poets, car wrecks” — referring to Oppen’s poem “Route” (1968) — “or the wrecks of the self and world.”
Telling us what to think is not the same as moving the mind to think differently. Powerful art can slow and stun us. The sense of a shock is something to shake off, and yet to draw the reader into silent attention – this is the power that moves us. The mind slows.
I know when art makes me attend better to the world. How might we know the heart breaks – is it metaphor? – if the fissure was not made perceptible? How would we understand the pain of loss if we could not sense absence? There is the hollow, the what-is-not-there. This is the stuff of slowing.
We interact, react. In this both/and simultaneity of art the experience is “intraactive,” in the words of Karen Barad.
One could write an essay placing “The Search Party,” the first poem in Jose Perez Beduya’s debut collection, Throng, in the context of other poems of landscape and complex orphaning, from Blake’s “The Little Boy Lost” to Roethke’s “The Lost Son” to the William Matthews’s poem with which Beduya’s shares a title.
I was unfamiliar with the poetry of Burt Kimmelman when Jacket2 asked me to take up the assignment of writing about Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 1982–2013. Reading, rereading, pondering the volume — which is a life — has been an education for me in poetry’s use as engagement with writing as a means of being in the world. Why, after all, is anyone writing? Of necessity, I suppose, to figure out how to survive in — even appreciate — being alive temporarily in a world. Kimmelman’s poems surely serve that function for him and his readers.
George Oppen’s poetry first caught the eye of Charles Tomlinson when he singled out The Materials from a number of books that had been sent to him for review. It was a momentous discovery, leading to a prompt exchange of letters and their first meeting, followed by a steadily deepening friendship that lasted until Oppen’s death in 1984.
The following are the collected letters of poets George Oppen and Charles Tomlinson, as transcribed by Richard Swigg for the feature “Addressing one’s peers: The letters of Charles Tomlinson and George Oppen, 1963–1981.” This section of the correspondence spans the years 1972–81.