Imitating George Oppen

For my module ‘American Poetry: 1950 – Present’, we were tasked with a small assignment that required us to write “One or two poems in the style of one of the poets studied on the course, accompanied by a short commentary of 500-1000 words (maximum) in which you outline what you see as the particular formal and stylistic characteristics of the poet whose work you have imitated.”  I chose to imitate George Oppen’s poetry from his Discrete Series.  The poem is very short and you may think, as my professor initially did, that I employed insufficient effort in its creation, but hopefully with the clarification of the supporting commentary you will follow in his footsteps and look upon it favourably by commentary’s end.  Hope you enjoy!

 

II

 

Glasses in the heat

 

They touch–

 

Movement up

Down,

The green rises…

 

They sweat

 

On

The ground.

 

As a founding member of the Objectivist movement of the 1930s, George Oppen created poetry that exists not as a reflection of the movement’s tenets, but as a manifestation of its tenets.  This state of being, rather than representation or evocation, introduces the central aim of his poetry: to be “a test of truth”[1] or at least “a test of sincerity”[2].  For Oppen, a poem should not exist as a distanced or associated version of something, it should exist as that something, “… if we still possessed the word ‘is’, there would be no need to write poems”.[3]  This forces his poetry to take an economical form due to the tendency of language to conjure divergent, unintended meanings, which is reflected in my poem ‘II’.

To achieve this aim, Oppen incorporates the “…imagist intensity of vision”,[4] but rejects what he calls “…the romanticism or even the quaintness of the imagist position”.[5]  Oppen believes that imagism is too whimsical, too loose in its conveyance of its subject.  For example, Ezra Pound’s comparison of commuters’ faces in ‘In a Station of the Metro’ to “petals on a wet, black bough”[6] is interpreted to rely on a strained association that obscures the truth of the moment.  The use of foliage to convey the image of human faces is too removed, too distant from its subject.

Oppen’s desire to create poetry that is “a test of truth”[7], manifests itself in his focus on “…the incomplete phrase… the bare noun”,[8] which enforces a dearth of description.  Adjectives are used infrequently, indeed my poem ‘II’ is absent of them, and those that are used, are reframed to maintain the seemingly truthful state of the noun – the impression that a single noun can provide the truth of the object it describes.  This reframing of the adjective can be seen in the penultimate line of ‘The knowledge not of sorrow…’, “Of the world, weather-swept, with which”.[9]  While, “weather-swept”,[10] is descriptive, it states the objective truth that the world is in fact, weather-swept.  Oppen does not employ abstract, metaphorical imagery, rather he simply states that the world is weather-swept.  This honesty is a key component of his poetry.

The idea that the bare noun exists as truth, is however, inherently flawed, and it injects a source of ambiguity into Oppen’s poetry.  He “…was aware of the word’s tendency, even in clarity of content, to gather meaning to itself, to accrue more meaning or variants than the poet wishes”,[11] and Oppen dedicated himself to crafting poetry with a sincerity that tried to counter language’s tendency to ambiguity.  However, the inherently ambiguous nature of language, even in its smallest components, instilled his poetry with uncertainty and instability.  Consequently, Oppen “seems wary of rhythm, of patterns of rhythm, of connections, of the music a poem can make.”[12]  And he purges these traditional poetic features from his work.  Instead, he isolates his images though line breaks, long dashes and alternating strophe lengths, but rather than strengthening the individual images, this separation constructs new meaning because “Presented with sincerity, the mind… tends to apply… further suggestion”.[13]  The breaks suggest breathlessness, as the reader is subjected to a halting, staccato of words that often reflect the movement inherent to his poetry.  This is demonstrated in ‘Party on Shipboard’, where the long dash and line break suddenly end the image with a sense of movement, like the fall of a party-goer, “Shrieks, unbalanced by the motion – / Like the seas incapable of contact”.[14]

Alternating strophes are present in ‘II’, and in following Oppen’s focus upon the placement of each word, the placement of ‘on’ is particularly important.  The whole poem rests on this small word, which reflects the instability and ambiguity inherent in Oppen’s poetry.  I have striven for sincerity and honesty, but ambiguity remains, reflecting Oppen’s view that “precision of statement led deeper into uncertainty.”[15]  The “glasses” accurately convey what the receptacles are made of and the “Movement up / Down,” brutally distils the act of drinking, but when the interplay of these objects is taken into account with the rest of the poem, the “green” glasses which “touch”, move “up / Down,” and “sweat” in the heat could be interpreted to represent the fragile relationship of two people and the peaks and troughs of that relationship.  The incorporation of colour is typical of Oppen’s poetry, but even its honest simplicity creates ambiguity.  In ‘II’, is “green” the colour of the bottle, or new growth in the relationship after the two drinkers touch?  Perhaps, it is the rise of jealousy after the unnamed “they” touch?  Is the “movement” describing motion, or is it political as much of Oppen’s poetry is?

The act of creating ‘II’ challenged me and forced me to put into practise the tenets of the Objectivist movement.  Like Oppen, I found that distilling language to its simplest components did not result in one clear truth, a singular ‘is’.  The ambiguity of language still resulted in divergent interpretations.

 

Sources:

Davidson, Michael, ‘Forms of Refusal: George Oppen’s Distant Life’, Sulfur Magazine (Eastern Michigan University, 1990) p. 133

Dembo, L. S., ‘Interview with George Oppen’, Contemporary Literature, 10.2 (Spring 1969)

Heller, Michael ‘Towards the Incomplete Work: A Note on Oppen’s Daybooks’, Jacket Magazine (2008) <http://jacketmagazine.com/35/r-oppen-rb-heller.shtml&gt; [accessed December 23, 2013]

Oppen, George, ‘The knowledge not of sorrow…’, American Poetry: Twentieth Century, vol. 2 (Library of America, 2000), p.51

Oppen, George, ‘Party on Shipboard’ (from Discrete Series [1934]), from New Collected Poems (2002) p. 15

Oppen, George, The Selected Letters of George Oppen (‪Duke University Press, 1990)

Pound, Ezra, ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (1913) <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15421>[accessed December 20, 2013]

Perlberg, Mark, Poetry Vol. 126, No. 3 (Poetry Foundation, 1975)

<www.jstor.org/stable/20596800> [accessed December 19, 2013]


[1] L. S. Dembo, ‘Interview with George Oppen’, Contemporary Literature, 10.2 (1968)

[2] L. S. Dembo

[3] George Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen (‪Duke University Press, 1990) p. 249

[4] L.S. Dembo

[5] L.S. Dembo

[6] Ezra Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (1913) <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15421>[accessed December 20, 2013]

[7] L.S. Dembo

[8] Michael Davidson, ‘Forms of Refusal: George Oppen’s Distant Life’, Sulfur Magazine (Eastern Michigan University, 1990) p. 133

[9] George Oppen, ‘The knowledge not of sorrow…’, American Poetry: Twentieth Century, vol. 2 (Library of America, 2000), p.51, ln. 13

[10] George Oppen, ln. 13

[11] Michael Heller, ‘Towards the Incomplete Work: A Note on Oppen’s Daybooks’, Jacket Magazine (2008) <http://jacketmagazine.com/35/r-oppen-rb-heller.shtml&gt; [accessed December 23, 2013]

[12] Mark Perlberg, Poetry Vol. 126, No. 3 (Poetry Foundation, 1975)

<www.jstor.org/stable/20596800> [accessed December 19, 2013] p. 173

[13] L.S. Dembo

[14] George Oppen, ‘Party on Shipboard’ (from Discrete Series [1934]), from New Collected Poems (2202) p. 15, ln. 3-4

[15] Michael Heller

© Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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