Tuesday, December 31, 2019

George Oppen’s “if it all went up in smoke”

To continue with George Oppen: His poetry seems to get even more obscure, or perhaps oblique is the better word, by the time of later collections such as Primitive (1978).  “If it all went up in smoke” is a case in point.  It is a poem which conveys its meaning through association and resonance, in which Oppen comments on the origin of poetry, especially as it relates to the American scene.  Poetry, for Oppen, remains tied to nature, though it exists not merely in the placid contemplation of the natural world, but in the “savage” energy it embodies.  Thus, for Oppen the poem is akin to the kind of wild energy that is inherent in uncultivated nature.  This is a force so vital that it cannot be completely dissipated, but only transformed.  Despite the fact that the American landscape has been conquered and tamed, our perception of that landscape as “savage” remains (having long been cast as such in the literature of early English and European explorers and settlers, for example), and can still be tapped into as poetic inspiration.  Yet Oppen moves against the easy Romantic idea of the poet “communing” with nature, where humans and nature are supposed to be able to harmoniously merge.  He suggests that poetry springs not particularly from such a communing, but from the juxtaposition of wildness and civilization, where humans must approach nature from the vantage point of human society.  (In this, he presages some of the thinking of contemporary eco-criticism in regard to the supposed split between nature and society.)

Oppen begins the poem with a statement, or proposition: “if it all went up in smoke // that smoke / would remain” – suggesting the idea that energy cannot be destroyed, but only transformed.  These opening lines (which incorporate the poem’s title, a technique Oppen uses in many of the poems in this collection) are set off by their being put in italics, as if to highlight their importance as an underlying theme.  If America is Oppen’s “forever savage country,” then he is suggesting in this statement that although the American wilderness may now have largely been conquered, its “savageness” still remains in some way.  In this case it takes the form of poetry.  After the initial offering of the italicized theme, Oppen says that “the forever / savage country poem’s light [is] borrowed // light of the landscape…”  This is what first clues us in that the poem is about poetry itself, and that poetry is being connected to nature.  The poem’s “light” – its energy or essence perhaps – is for Oppen still rooted in nature.  “Savage country” specifically implies the sense of nature as being distinct from civilization (the etymology of the word “savage” is ultimately the Latin silvāticus: silva, “woods,” plus the adjectival suffix -āticus).  Thus, poetry for Oppen “borrows” something of this untamed, natural, wild energy found in the forest or the wilderness. 

However, Oppen complicates what could have been a rather simplistic or even Romantic vision of the relation of poetry to nature.  As we have seen, the poem borrows, but transforms for its own purposes.  Oppen as poet consciously co-opts the energy of nature and transforms it into something else (poetry).  They are not equivalent, though they are connected.  That natural energy no longer exists in its original state but has become something else (the “smoke” “remains”).  After describing poetry as “borrowed light of the landscape,” Oppen continues: “and one’s footprints praise” – which explicitly introduces humankind.  We see the human sense of awe or reverence before nature, an early or almost primitive reverence (as in the collection’s title, Primitive).  Humans praise from within “the close / crowd” (society), and they praise “all / that is strange.”  Nature is perceived as strange from within society – still “forever savage” – and Oppen is making no effort to become mystically united with it.  This strangeness, however, remains “the sources / the wells” of poetry.  In this way, the perceived savageness of nature is brought into society, having been transmuted to poetry, which is also inevitably imbued with a touch of that very savageness.

For Oppen, as he continues in this poem, poetry begins “neither in word / nor meaning but the small / selves haunting // us in the stones…”  It is nothing more than that, but “is less / always than that…”  This “less” seems to deliberately undercut the mystique of the poetic process – it is not the grandiose, hieratic conception of the “Poet” put forth by the Romantics.  Poetry is something enacted within human society.  At the same time, there is certainly a relationship between man and the natural world, which we get in the ensuing words: “help me I am / of that people the grass // blades touch…”  Here there is a sense of the fragility of human life in the face of uncivilized nature, but also of a connection in that touching of the grass blades.  For Oppen, there is a dynamism in this relationship, a vitality important not only for life itself but which can also be a catalyst for poetry.  The conclusion of this piece – “and touch in their small // distances the poem / begins” – again implies this connection however “distant.”  So, poetry for Oppen is not simply inspired by the Romantic contemplation of nature, but arises from the particular relationship of the poet (existing within society) to nature, and in the way he engages nature’s “savage” aspect from the vantage point of “society” – and especially their interpenetration.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Two Poems in Coal City Review

I have two new poems in the latest issue of Coal City Review, number 43, 2019. CCR (ISSN 10062-5011), based in Lawrence, Kansas, is a print-only literary journal in the old-school mode, which you have to order through the mail. Nice to get this the other day, and my thanks to editor Brian Daldorph.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

On George Oppen’s “Part of the Forest”

My analysis of George Oppen’s poem “Part of the Forest” came out of my graduate course-work with Professor Jon Thompson.

“Part of the Forest,” from Oppen’s 1962 collection The Materials, offers a particular vision of masculinity.  It is a negative kind of masculinity, however, which Oppen portrays as both alienating to the individuals it affects and damaging to what he sees as the important communal values of human society – love and family.  Furthermore, it is a way of being that diminishes one’s very humanity.  The male figure in the poem has not only lost his ability to use language, but as a denizen of the forest (as in the poem’s title) he becomes something more akin to an animal than a man.  In presenting this vision of maleness, Oppen is inherently critiquing the America from which it springs.  Its expression – the beer-drinking, car-driving loner – can be seen to echo the image of the cowboy, for example, the rugged frontiersman who seemingly has little need for human fellowship, an image central to the American myth.  For Oppen in “Part of the Forest,” however, this is an image which is ultimately destructive both to the sense of community which any society requires in order to thrive, as well as to the individuals within that society.

The poem is constructed as a series of images, separate vignettes that contrast and play off each other.  It begins with a vision of lovers “who recall that / Moment of moonlight. . . .”  The second stanza, though, presents the reader with a sudden shift: someone (male, we glean slightly later) alone with a tree, and thus presumably in the forest of the poem’s title.  “To be alone,” Oppen writes, “is to be lost. . . .”  The third stanza lets us know that the tree in question “is an oak.” The oak is traditionally associated with strength, impassivity, and this resonates with the willful isolation of the male figure here.  Following the word oak there is a colon: “It is an oak: the word / Terrifying spoken to the oak—”  These lines are obscure, but the word that Oppen is apparently referring to is the word “oak” itself, as if speaking it in isolation, alone in the forest and devoid of human interaction – addressing the word only to the tree which it signifies – it is as if this act strips the word of its meaning, thus alienating its speaker from the comforts of society, and from language itself. So I wrote in 2007. Rereading the poem, it appears to me that the oak is not meant to accord so much with the masculinist narrative of America, but instead represents a kind of equanimity of being in nature that is foreclosed to the lone male figure for whom the word “oak” means something vastly different from that which is the oak itself. The oak’s “roots / Are there” – but not so for the male figure who we soon see must always speed around in his car.

“Young men therefore are determined to be men,” begins the following stanza, and to be men in the almost stereotypical ways of being a man in America: “Beer bottle and a closed door / . . . Or car.”  At this point, about halfway through the poem, a sort of narrative takes shape.  The reader is now with the young man in a car, as if taking flight.  A town is approached, and the car, the man, must slow down for a woman: “kids / In hand. She is // A family.”  The woman and the family are here presented as something undesirable, an impediment to the car’s progress along the road, or merely a brief dalliance.  What seems to be Oppen’s voice then interjects, suddenly presenting a differing viewpoint: “Isn’t tenderness, God knows, / This long boned girl—”  But for the man all this “is a kind of war. . . .”  He is at odds with the idea of the woman and a family.  In the setting of the family, the man is likened to “A tower // In the suburb” – in other words he is isolate and stands aloof.  The poem then ends with “the road again. The car’s / Companion.”  And unlike with the romanticism of, say, Kerouac, Oppen is certainly not suggesting that this is a good thing.

“Part of the Forest,” then, is a meditation on male alienation, an alienation that Oppen implies is unhealthy.  He is critical of this version of maleness, which springs from a particular type of American myth – a cool reserve, beer bottle, a car, the road, a tower of one, the “strong silent type” – which we often see in older male film leads, for example, or which in fact permeates most of American society, what we might now call toxic masculinity.  The man who allows himself to be inculcated with these qualities, Oppen is saying, cuts himself off from love.  His opening vision of lovers recalling a moment of moonlight is not what is in store for that man alone and lost on the road.  The moment of moonlight is a “lit instant,” which suggests the light and the enlightenment of love, while the forest suggests darkness, a lack of clarity, confusion for the man, though perhaps its mystery could have offered its own kind of enlightenment if the man were attuned to it.  Likewise, the tenderness of the “long boned girl” is out of reach, along with the satisfaction of genuine relationships (yes, it is a hetero-normative framework, but perhaps there is a latent critique of this in the poem as well).  For this sort of man, at least, the tower in the suburb is a kind of prison, from which he is impelled to escape in order to get back out on the road, doomed to wander forever in his car.  It is not so much that the suburb itself is desirable, but the man has trapped himself in a set of untenable choices: the suburb, the road, the forest?  He can be happy nowhere now.

So Oppen doesn’t just give us a meditation on a particular kind of masculinity, but a critique of it as well.  He enumerates certain masculine values in this poem – silence, isolation, the classic cowboy almost (but with the automobile in place of the horse) – all of these being male images which for Oppen are negative values damaging one’s ability to achieve fulfillment.  The male figure seems to have lost control over his destiny.  He is identified with the car, and it is the car which now seems to dictate what the man will do.  In the fifth stanza, when they approach the town, it is the car, “the big machine,” which does the “negotiat[ing],” not the man.  Or rather, the town is approached by the car – the passive voice further diminishing the idea of either the car or the man as having the freedom of will that his investment in masculinity promised.

The male figure here is unable to carry on a successful relationship with the woman, and thus, Oppen implies, unable to play a real part in the human community (“lost”).  In this regard it should also be remembered that early on in the poem he has metaphorically lost his capacity for language; he cannot communicate.  Next to the oak, the idea of speaking becomes something terrifying.  And because the man is in this way mute, he is forever, as the title says, “part of the forest,” yet even there denied the camaraderie of the oak.  Contrasted with all of this are Oppen’s brief visions of lovers under moonlight, a tender woman, a family, all of which are unavailable to a man who cannot express feeling.  This alienation is not, Oppen argues, in any way desirable, but is instead a kind of warping straitjacket, which makes the man something less than human.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Bill Hughes, The Electric Compartments & The Burning Buildings at Dawn

I did the layout (cover and text) for Bill Hughes’s new poetry collection, The Electric Compartments & The Burning Buildings at Dawn, out now from Six Gallery Press.  His poems are surrealistic, visionary, and as André Breton would say, marvelous. The cover paintings are by John Menesini.

Order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Electric-Compartments-Burning-Buildings-Dawn/dp/1989305083/