Friday, April 26, 2013

before the words | George Oppen and the Limits of Discourse

One curious fact about George Oppen is that as his own poems drifted toward the dizzying and seemingly groundless lyricism of his last volume, Primitive (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), an increasing number of young admirers began writing critical responses to his work. Far from being disinterested, Oppen's letters from the 70s reveal his active engagement with such essays, dissertations, and requests for interviews and other forms of information. Yet his resistance is just as palpable. He himself wrote very little critical prose, and seems to have had little interest in making himself clear in that way. When asked about his poems, he often quoted from his poems.

In response to an essay written by Rachel Blau DuPlessis (an essay praised, during a visit, Oppen mentions, by Paul Auster, whose own essay on Reznikoff Oppen had praised), he remarks in a letter from April 1976:1

... you analyze too much: you set yourself too much of a program- - - The program prevents you from sinking in ((into the-thing-before-the-words)) (316)2

And another remark, to John Taggart in a letter from September 1974:

I have of course – as you have too – some reserves about a doctoral thesis which much seem to absorb the poem into itself, into the thesis   For the poem is of course not that, the poem is the moving edge [...] (289)

Oppen clearly respected and encouraged both DuPlessis and Taggart, but his reservations about such critical discourse, the intellect cast in prose, seem almost to have encouraged his own move back to all that it is not, the sea, the line of the horizon, the space between words, phrases, clauses before they harden into sentences.

image: from Ironwood 26 (1985)

1 The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Duke UP, 1990), 316.

2 In an earlier letter, to Alexander Mourelatos, sent sometime before February 14, 1972, Oppen writes:

- - a place     a place at least to begin.   But place in another sense: place without the words, the wordless sphere in the mind – Or rather the wordless sphere with things   including a word or so     in it . . . . That I still believe to be, as they say, Poem:     the thing in the mind before the words     to be able to hold it even against the language - - - (236)