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Lessons: Selected Poems Joel Oppenheimer (edited by Dennis Maloney & introduced by David Landrey) White Pine Press / Buffalo, New York

Lessons: Selected Poems  Joel Oppenheimer (edited by Dennis Maloney & introduced by David Landrey)  White Pine Press / Buffalo, New York

In Black Mountain Days, the engaging autobiographical account of the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, Michael Rumaker described his fellow student Joel Oppenheimer as that “fierce-featured poet from the Bronx and refugee from Cornell, whose father owned a luggage shop in mid-Manhatten”. When Oppenheimer wrote a short biographical note for the concluding pages of Donald Allen’s 1960 ground-breaking anthology The New American Poetry, in which he was represented by five poems, he wrote:

“Born for the Depression, but too young to remember any suffering. Too young for WWII – in school and 4 F during Korean. Consequently, having missed the 3 major social calamities of my time, I am always feeling just a little guilty. Now living in NYC”.

There is a clarity in these phrases of self-accounting as well as a wry touch of humour. This is the man who, in a little anecdote told me some years ago by Jeremy Prynne, caused the Zukofsky family a certain amount of consternation. Prynne and Oppenheimer had paid a visit to the Zukofsky home and Joel, being of some considerable physical size, started to throw his arms about in energetic enthusiasm. According to Prynne, Louis Z. was terrified for the safety of the little ornaments with which the flat was decorated!
Dennis Maloney’s new selection of poems by Oppenheimer brings the extravagant and dedicated figure of Oppenheimer back into focus and David Landrey’s introduction directs us to some very good reasons why the poet who bridged the world of North Carolina and New York should be read again now. Landrey writes about simplicity in Oppenheimer’s work not as being opposite to complexity but as being more connected to what Emerson wrote in his 1836 book-length lecture Nature:

“When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of idea is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires – the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise – and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults.”

At Black Mountain College Charles Olson taught the value of limpidity and Rumaker recalled soon after leaving there a letter he wrote to Olson in September 1956:

“Four years ago or so when I first read your work (mostly in Origin) I thought you were straining after an impossible chaos – that it was whimsical, meaningless, sensationally tricky. But what was necessary was a correction of my ear. I didn’t see the form, I didn’t hear the limpidity of your thought and feeling, your rhythm – what you were always after me for, limpidity, telling me that night over the dishrack to go to Williams, as I did, and found, as I find now the same in you, in all I’ve read of you.”

Oppenheimer’s short poem ‘The Gardener’ first appeared in Robert Creeley’s magazine Black Mountain Review 4, Winter 1954:

“on the left branch, a
blossom. on the
top branch, a blossom.
which child is this.
which flowering
of me. which
gold white bloom.
which the force of my life.”

Of course there is Williams in this but there is also a delicately thoughtful contemplation which is entirely Oppenheimer: an awareness of one’s self, a throwing open of one’s arms. Zukofsky might have had justification for his touch of anxiety! In ‘Chaos’ from the 1994 collection New Hampshire Journal there is a further contemplation of the relationship between the poet and his creations:

“CHAOS is where
we come from
FORM we reach
occasionally
then fall back
into chaos
to start again
renewed

INCOHATE
means beginning

comes from the root
TO HARNESS

getting into harness
is just the beginning

how we plow and
what we plant
determines the field

the field
determines
what feeds us
while we wait
to fall back
to grow again”

This is a fine poem which focuses on the link between the present and the future recognising the way in which we can learn from what we have created: this is poetry which has a sense of newness, a sense of the future and yet it contains a limpid grasp of where ideas come from, a humility. It recalls for me that early Olson poem ‘These Days’ which I am so fond of quoting:

“whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from”

In his ‘Poem for the New Year 31 December 1973’ Oppenheimer describes being strangled by Medusa in a nightmare from which he struggles to awake. As he puts it “i am saved / by the old poet, he helps me / break loose”. The old poet is Charles Olson who had died some three years before but whose teaching would continue to have a major effect on American poetry.

Ian Brinton, 12th May 2017

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