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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


Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice Xavier Kalck Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015

Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice  Xavier Kalck  Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015

A close friend of mine used to herald the onset of winter each year with a re-reading of MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’. There always seemed to me to be something apt, a string plucked with a tone of melancholy leisure, about the opening of that fine poem:

‘Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall…’

A little like the taste of an almond cake, lying beneath the burned parts, in the opening pages of Proust, MacNeice’s rhythms brought to mind those shadows ‘on the perfect lawn’ that were the ‘shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served’ some forty miles from London in Henry James’s most famous novel about how an archer’s aim had been brought low by a genius for upholstery. This is a world of muted strings and Xavier Kalck’s title for his book about MacNeice’s posthumous collection of poems, The Burning Perch, has been chosen with great care:

‘Muted Strings draws attention especially to the dynamic that exists in MacNeice’s poems from The Burning Perch between muting as a means to soften the tune of the song, and muting as a symptom of the deadening of the song.’

This delightful little introduction to the late poetry of Louis MacNeice clearly adheres to a formula and is aimed at students who are going to write essays and dissertations on the volume of poems published in September 1963, some ten days after the poet’s death. With a quietly unassuming sense of dignity Xavier Kalck, who lectures in American literature at the Sorbonne, tells me that the whole affair is rather standard although ‘I hope there was room enough for some small measure of originality’. There certainly is!

I had a good feeling about this book when a review copy arrived quite recently. This feeling was partly based upon my awareness of the careful attention Xavier Kalck had given to the poetry of Anthony Barnett, whose Shearsman Selected Poems he introduced ten years ago. In that introduction he had written

‘The origin of poetry, much like that of language itself, is a matter of the poet dealing with whatever origin he finds, finding out when and how it resists, letting the poem originate its own resistance, a language pared down to its first poetics.’

Given that focus it was no surprise when I opened up this little introduction to MacNeice to discover a quotation from Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (1938): ‘However much is known about the poet, the poem remains a thing distinct from him’. I was cheered by the knowledge that this book, however much it may adhere to a formula, would focus upon the poetry itself and therefore introduce readers to the ‘formal gymnastics’ of a poem ‘rather than psychological or biographical concerns’.

The opening poem in The Burning Perch is preoccupied with space and time. ‘Soap Suds’ presents a circular movement and Kalck quotes from Peter McDonald’s criticism of the poem before going on to suggest some subtle new approaches:

‘In terms of imagery, visual and otherwise, the poem resolves into an expanding (or contracting) series of circular figures: the soap, the ball, the globes, the gong, the hoops, and finally again the ball and the soap. The circular movement of the poem itself brings the reader back to the adult hands of the beginning.’ (MacDonald)

‘The pattern is unquestionably relevant. We are told the speaker visited the house with the lawn “when he was eight” (1), and mathematically, the return visit doubles that time into sixteen lines. However, the lines do not only pick up speed as they stretch within this highly circular poem. To put it tautologically, the linearity of the lines works against, as much as in accordance with, the overall cyclical pattern. The length of the lines conveys the distance that separates the childhood recollection from the speaker’s present.’ (Kalck)

Perhaps the real quality of this little book is that it takes one back, again and again, to the text itself and by looking with such care at Louis MacNeice’s last volume of poems one is compelled to recognize how good this poet is.

Ian Brinton 21st December 2015

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