Charles Bernstein Ironwood 26 (1985); collected in My Way: Speeches and Poems
George Oppen's "Of Being Numerous" is a poetry of constructive witness: the witness of a social becoming that "presses on each" and in which each, all, are impressed.
Oppen's achievement has little to do with speech or sight, but for speech as sight, site of the social. Not perception but acts of perception, not the given but the encountered, as Oppen suggests in "The Mind's Own Place". Sight in Oppen's work is not a passive looking onto the world but a means of touching that invests the world with particular, site-specific (historical, material) meanings. Without this touching – tooling, tuning – the world becomes empty, voided.
"Near is / Knowledge" [CP 176]. Or, as Holderlin has it in "Patmos", "Near is / And difficult to grasp." Oppen's engendering witness stipulates both the integrity of things seen and their contingency – "the known and unknown". "Because the known and unknown / Touch, // One witnesses – " [CP 172]. The intersection of these vectors of response creates the "here" of a "real" we confront, a real which we come to know by participating in its making. ("Here still" [CP 177]). This poetics of participatory, or constructive, presentness – akin especially to Creeley's – is Oppen's response to "the shipwreck / Of the singular" [CP 151]. The "singular" that has been lost is, in one sense, a unitary system of value or knowledge based on reason or theology ("The unearthly bonds / Of the singular" [CP 152]). For Oppen, there is no neo-Nietzschean rejoicing in this loss. Rather, "The absolute singular" is related to what Walter Benjamin has called the Messianic Moment – out-of-time, out-of-history. "To dream of that beach / For the sake of an instant in the eyes" [CP 152]. For Oppen, however, there is another singularity, the potential for social collectivity: "one must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands, / He must somehow see the one thing; / This is the level of art / There are other levels / But there is no other level of art" [CP 168]. "Not truth but each other" [CP 173].
Which is to say that, in "Of Being Numerous", the loss of the "transcendental signified" does not necessitate the abandonment, or absence, of knowledge but its location in history, in "people". This view entails both a rejection of the crude materialism of things without history and the crude idealism of history without things. Materials in circumstance, as Oppen puts it [CP 186]: the "actual" realized by the manipulation of materials by human hands, tools. It is this process that is played out in Oppen's poetry by the insistence on the constructedness of syntax: the manipulation of words to create rather than describe.
"Of Being Numerous" forges a syntax of truthfulness without recourse to the grammar of truth – "that truthfulness / Which illumines speech" [CP 173]. The poem's necessarily precarious project is the articulation of a form that would address the commonweal, a project most fully realized in the two long poems in Of Being Numerous. For Oppen, the demands of the articulation of an ideal communication situation necessitate a winnowing of vocabulary and tone that entail the exclusion of anything that would extend, displace, amplify, distort, burst – indeed, question – the vocables of an enunciated truthfulness. At his most resonant, Oppen creates a magnificent, prophetic, imaginary language – less voice than chiseled sounds. His writing evokes not the clamor of the streets nor the windiness of conversation nor the bombast of the "dialogic" but the indwelling possibilities of words to speak starkly and with urgency.
Yet Oppen's often claimed commitment to clarity, however qualified, annuls a number of possibilities inherent in his technique. He hints at this when he writes, "Words cannot be wholly transparent. And that is the heartlessness of words" [CP 186]. ("Clarity", he has just said, "In the sense of transparence" [CP 162]). In contrast, it is their very intractability that makes for the unconsumable heart (heartiness) of words. Inverting Oppen's criticism that Zukofsky used "obscurity in the writing as a tactic" , I would say that Oppen uses clarity as a tactic. That is, at times he tends to fall back onto "clarity" as a self-justifying means of achieving resolution through scenic motifs, statement, or parable in poems that might, given his compositional techniques, outstrip such controlling impulses.
Oppen's syntax is fashioned on constructive, rather than mimetic, principles. He is quite explicit about this. Carpentry is a recurring image of poem-making. His poems, as he tells it, were created by a sort of collage or cut-up technique involving innumerable substitutions and permutations for every word and line choice. The method here is paratactic, even if often used for hypotactic ends. This tension, which can produce the kinetic, stuttering vibrancy of some of Oppen's most intense poems, is at the heart of his use of the line break as hinge. In contrast to both enjambment and disjunction – as well, of course, as more conventional static techniques – Oppen's hinging allows for a measure of intervallic "widths" of connection/disconnection between lines. The typical Oppen hinge is made by starting a line with a preposition, commonly "Of"). At its most riveting, this hinging taps into a horizontally moving synaptic/syntactic energy at the point of line transition.
Discrete Series uses this orchestration of lacunae in the most radical and open-ended way. (Could the 25-year gap between Discrete Series and The Materials be Oppen's grandest hinged interval?) In some of the later works, he abandons any angularity in his lineation, at the same time allowing an almost symbolic or allegorical vocabulary ("sea", "children") to take hold. Nonetheless, the possibilities of his use of the line as hinge are omnipresent in the work – and influential. Indeed, the hinge suggests an interesting way to sort through aspects of Oppen's influence, since there is some work that may resemble his but which misses the radical (in the sense of root) nature of his lineation.
were generated using an acrostic procedure (G-E-0-R-G-E
select lines, in page sequence, from Collected Poems. I
this procedure from Jackson Mac Low. That these poems are so
Oppenesque is, I think, less the effect of familiar lines or
than the way single Oppen lines can be hinged to "each other"
to create the marvelous syntactic music found throughout his
work. I hope
the structural allegory is apparent: the autonomy of the root,
individual, allowing for the music of the social, the numerous.
Generations to a Sunday that holds
Out of scale
Good bye Momma,
— I cannot know
Gave way to the JetStream
Glass of the
sea shadow of water