Sunday, May 19, 2013

there are still wolves left | Halpern on Oppen

We have come to the end – we have seen the end of the assumptions of the generations of the immediate past.   It is that, and not some alleged stuffiness in the arts, which creates the cultural crisis. It is the poets who discuss the real crisis in whom a future generation would naturally be interested.

—George Oppen,
letter to June Oppen Degnan, May 19631

In his 2010 George Oppen Memorial Lecture,2 Rob Halpern extends a line of thought on the concept of "patiency" that he began a decade earlier in an essay titled "Of Truthful 'I's'."3 In the lecture excerpt, he writes:

By patiency, I mean a situation of suspended agency .... Its grammatical mode is subjunctive—expressing contingency and desire: a perennial state of as-if-ness. 'As if' creates a distance—and a pathos—an affective space of expectancy within the act of desiring to know ....

I take agency here to be the forward drive of history and its attendant diasters. One reason Oppen seems so relevant now in our own time (as evidenced, among other things, by the outpouring of activity occasioned by the centenary of his birth in 2008) is his direct involvement in that forward drive and his subsequent suspension of it in favor of an openly engaged practice of poetry. Halpern emphasizes Oppen's involvement in both the Popular Front in the 1930s and the Second World War in the 1940s. The traumatic effects of such experience lend a very real sense to the concept of "patiency": Oppen was, physically, a patient after his injury in the foxhole in Germany, and certainly had to be patient during his political exile in Mexico.

What resurfaced in Oppen on his return to the States in the late 1950s was not only the desire to write again, but to actively engage a community of other poets. Oppen's letters, in particular, are a remarkably moving document of the fine points of such social nagivation. Halpern seems likewise aware of the self as essentially relational, that any one person (one poet) is part of a complex social ecology. What is needed now seems, then, neither the aggrandizement nor the denial of individual subjectivity, but, as Halpern writes in that earlier essay, echoing Marker's preoccupation with the future anterior, "a subjunctive poetics: to write from that other place where 'I' might be or might have been" (90).

1 The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Duke UP, 1990), 84.

2 An excerpt from the lecture, titled "Becoming a Patient of History: George Oppen's Domesticity and the Dislocation of Politics," was posted by Michael Cross on his blog. [available here]

3 Tripwire: A Journal of Poetics 3, summer 1999, 75-90.