A new critical account of the poems of George Oppen is invariably a delight; the arrival of such an intelligent and closely argued text as Xavier Kalck’s has turned out to be is something more.
In his introduction Kalck points to Oppen’s poems “as remarkably readable compositions, which are only elusive if one chooses not to listen to their specific formal characteristics”. He then outlines one of his major concerns:
“The first objective of this book is therefore the exemplification of a new methodology, based on new readings of Oppen’s poems. Bearing in mind that dysfunction often really shows function, I plead for a critical shift toward prosody as interpretive pragmatics.”
We are presented time and again with close critical analysis that reminds one of what it means to read with an engaged concern for what the poet is presenting. As a result we can both see and hear how Oppen builds a song from the common – though shattered – resources of language. The blurb on the back of this new book recognises an aspect of what Kalck has achieved:
“George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace offers the first survey of the critical consensus which has now built up around the poetry of George Oppen, after over two decades of substantial interest in his work. It proposes a comprehensive perspective on Oppen and the criticism devoted to Oppen, from the Objectivist strain in American poetry to the thinkers, such as Heidegger, Levinas, Marx and Adorno, which critics have brought to bear on Oppen’s poetry, to pave the way for the consideration and exemplification of a new methodology which sheds a critical light on the ideas and practices in contemporary poetics, through well-researched close readings.”
And there we have it! What makes this book so important is not only the wide range of its focus and its placing of Oppen’s work within a background of substantial twentieth-century thought but also the fact that it takes one back time and again to the words on the page: we are offered an approach to POETRY .
When Michael Davidson edited the New Collected Poems for New Directions in 2002 he had referred to Oppen’s method of working, whittling and refining his poems “into tough, recalcitrant lyrics that would endure the test of time.” After the publication of Discrete Series, a short volume from the Objectivist Press in 1934, Oppen did not produce a second book of poems until 1962 when The Materials was published by New Directions and the San Francisco Review. Some of the poems in that volume had appeared in 1960 in Massachusetts Review and Poetry making the gap between Oppen’s published poems just over twenty-five years. During that quarter-century he saw active duty in the Battle of the Bulge, being gravely wounded in April 1945, became a custom carpenter in California, fell under the watchful glance of the FBI, went into exile in Mexico in 1950 and only returned to New York in January 1960. The epigraph to The Materials was a quotation from Maritain: ‘We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things’ and it was those lines that Charles Tomlinson underlined in the copy which Oppen signed for him after they had become close friends. Tomlinson also wrote a brief but firmly-held statement just before George and Mary visited him in Gloucestershire in which he recognised that Oppen never wrote poems “where the powers of disquisition begin worrying to death the initial experience before it has been permitted to declare its own terms.”
In a letter from 1959 Oppen had written to Julian Zimet about what it was that so fascinated him about “Things and mechanisms” he said that “I like the things that people have wrested out of the idiot stone…All the poems are about the same thing. The shorter poems are shorter fragments of what I want to say, the longer poems are longer fragments.” In a cancelled opening paragraph to his introduction to the selection of Oppen’s poems edited for Cloudforms No. 4, Tomlinson had referred to making audible Oppen’s “characteristic voice, so distinct from the personality cults of Berryman, Lowell and Plath”. That voice is precisely what comes to the ear and eye in Xavier Kalck’s masterly account of the late poem “Song, The Winds of Downhill” and this book is worth getting hold of if only for those pages of “an architectural representation of the poem’s rhetorical framework”.
In conclusion Kalck refers to another letter sent by Oppen to a British poet. In this case the receiver of that letter was Anthony Barnett and the story behind the correspondence which lasted some thirteen years is told in SNOW lit rev 2. The letter in Kalck’s chapter earns its presence by epitomizing best the several threads which run through this book of criticism. I know that Peter Lang books are expensive but please do put some pressure on your Library to acquire a copy; you will not be disappointed.
Ian Brinton, 31st January 2018