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George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

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

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The Ratio of Reason to Magic by Norman Finkelstein Dos Madres Press, Ohio

The Ratio of Reason to Magic by Norman Finkelstein Dos Madres Press, Ohio

In February 2006 Andrew Crozier wrote to me concerning the possibility of his poetry being republished and pointed out that he didn’t have ‘enough additional work to justify another collected edition’:

‘Furthermore, I incline to the view that when I have a worthwhile sheaf of new work it would be preferable to publish it as a separate volume rather than as an addendum to older work. The “new & selected” formula has always struck me as rather fainthearted.’

I never really understood what Crozier meant by this last statement and now seeing Norman Finkelstein’s The Ratio of Reason to Magic I understand it even less! This substantial new publication from Dos Madres Press is a landmark edition which places the poetry of Finkelstein within what Mark Scroggins termed the ‘idiom of hieratic quest and questioning, of wanderings within history, philosophy, and scripture both secular and sacred’. The selection is drawn from nine earlier volumes (nearly forty years of poetry) and in order to focus upon one aspect of this remarkable poet’s output I intend to just glance at one of the very fine new poems incorporated into the last section of the book, ‘Oppen at Altamont’.

In 1968 George and Mary Oppen attended the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont Pass, near Livermore, in Contra Costa County and the first of Oppen’s ‘Some San Francisco Poems’ (published in Seascape: Needle’s Eye, 1972) opens with the image of ‘Moving over the hills, crossing the irrigation / canals perfect and profuse in the mountains the / streams of women and men walking under the high- / tension wires over the brown hills’. In an interview with David Gitin (Ironwood 5) Oppen commented on this image:

‘It was necessary to park one’s car and walk a mile. Nobody looked at my wife and me, and people had, what the poem says, before the music started, everyone turned sharply into himself or herself.’

Finkelstein’s poem opens with Heidegger’s concept of ‘Throwness’, that sense of dasein which presents us with the inescapable: we are thrown into the present and this leaves us with

‘The space of possibility
is always limited:
the past is
because it has been
insofar as we
have been thrown
insofar as we
are fallen
insofar as we
may project ourselves
forward

The movement forward felt in the short lines, the urgency, carries not only the speed that becomes ‘they are running / from or toward / the helicopters’ but also the Olsonian inescapability of the dead preying upon us. The entangled and entangling nets of being, the trammels which recur, lead us to the ‘fall of Saigon / re-enacted endlessly / in a musical’. The throwness is there in the music of the Stones:

‘And the music –
something we had never
heard before though surely
it had been heard before
long ago “the songs…
are no one’s own

The italicized words are taken from ‘Some San Francisco Poems’ and throughout Finkelstein’s re-creation of the importance of that attendance at that event we are given echoes from a long gone world which is our present. The ‘sickening acceleration / that no poem may stop’ does not prevent the poet as artist being in the privileged position of almost expecting ‘to see them / walking back toward the car’. The poet stills the moment…for a moment. In an interview with Kevin Power given some few years later and published in Montemora 4 Mary Oppen said

‘After we’d left the car we walked miles and miles. There were cars as far as you could see, up on the mountains in every direction representing millions and millions of dollars.’

They left Altamont before the murder of a concert-goer by a Hell’s Angels bodyguard took place.

Norman Finkelstein wrote the last essay in the Curley and Kimmelman collection from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller, which I reviewed for PN Review 229 earlier this year:

‘…Heller’s poetry, and his concomitant thinking about poetry, establish and maintain an ethics of meaning in the practice of the art. “What sets one free / within the sign and blesses the wordflow // without barrier?” asks Heller in “Lecture with Celan”. For the poet, it is a question which must always remain open, yet it is also one which he must perpetually seek to answer.’

Looking at this admirable collection of Norman Finkelstein’s poems we can see that search continuing.

Ian Brinton 27th October 2016

George Oppen

George Oppen

Eric Hoffman’s new book, George Oppen: A Narrative is one of those compelling books that simply takes one over. Hoffman’s introduction celebrates the connected nature of art and biography as he asserts, boldly and with no apology to the contemporary world of criticism ‘To understand a poet’s work it is necessary to understand the life from which it came.’ In dealing with the importance of the years of political focus which occupied the lives of both George and Mary Oppen we are presented with the fundamental importance of the world of poetry as the 1950s encouraged the same convictions that had resulted previously in a creative silence. Almost as if in response to Heidegger’s 1946 essay ‘Why Poets?’ for George Oppen ‘Poetry provided a way out.’

 

This book not only tells the story of George Oppen but also provides us with some convincing close readings of the texts and this concentrated engagement with the words of the poems themselves brings to our attention one of the phrases Hoffman uses early on: ‘Such a refreshingly measured, carefully weighed and painstakingly crafted verse is especially welcome in an era of countless ephemeral information.’ Poetry is a way of thinking and we are given a compelling sense of how the defining poem of the 1960s, an equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s seminal 1920s modernist poem ‘The Waste Land’, may well be ‘Of Being Numerous’.

 

It is most appropriate that the Preface to this new Shearsman publication should have been written by Michael Heller whose own poetry and prose featured a year ago in Tears 56: ‘For the reader of  the poetry, Hoffman’s narrative carries a kind of electrical charge as event after event becomes both potential and flashpoint for a poem or induces a meditation on the act of writing and remembering.’

 

This November publication from Shearsman is £14.95 and can be obtained via the website www.shearsman.com

 

Ian Brinton December 27th 2013

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