June 17, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

George Oppen’s Daybooks

Last April 24th marked what would have been poet George Oppen’s 100th birthday. There were Oppen Centenary celebrations all around the world, from Edinburgh to Buffalo to San Francisco to Philadelphia. Oppen is easily one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. His story is incredible: after publishing books initially as a member of the Objectivist group in the 1930s, Oppen wrote no poetry for nearly a quarter of a century before writing the books he is most known for. During his period of silence in poetry, Oppen lived variously and intensely: he and his wife joined the Communist Party and fought for workers’ rights in New York; he saw action in WWII and was seriously wounded by artillery fire, earning him the Purple Heart; he raised a daughter, eventually moving his family to California where he worked as a carpenter. In 1958 he began writing again, and reached what many believe to be the height of his powers in 1968 with the publication of Of Being Numerous. Unbelievably, there is no biography of the man, but I assume that the project is underway somewhere. While we have no comprehensive account of Oppen’s life, we do have some key insights into his writing life in his own words, thanks to the publication of Oppen’s Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers last year by University of California Press, edited by Stephen Cope. Included in the volume are several daybooks, all from the late 1960’s in which Oppen jotted down his thoughts on poetry, some early sketches of poems and quotations from other texts. They are each handmade, one being bound by pipe cleaner, another by glue, and a third is nailed to a board in its upper left corner (!!). What I’d like to do is just present a collage of material from the daybooks. I think even in this small sample, it becomes clear how dedicated he was to poetic exploration, and how unbendingly ethical his viewpoint was.

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I can see nothing at all except that one encounters the thing. And, it is impossible not to say, encounters oneself. And encounters in himself the passion of logic which, like the young man’s desire to sleep with the latest movie star, is unlikely to be satisfied, but can lead to crimes of violence.

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The simple fact: art is not good for us.

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I THINK THAT A POEM SHOULD BE THE WORK OF A MAN WHO REALLY MEANS TO DRIVE A NAIL–NOT TO POSTURE OR TO SHOW OFF–AND WHO KNOWS FROM CHILDHOOD–HOW A HAMMER SHOULD BE HANDLED

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OBJECT in the poem: its function is to burst

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they will write a ten page poem with less effort and care than they will expend on capitulating how much money they will need for a trip to Philadelphia.–because that last will have to be right, if they are going to “see it differently” they will have to “see it differently” in fact.

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These ordinary words

come to mean

everything

In a way I live on words, forget words

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Something about failure–the idea of being hovers over the face of failure hovers more clearly over the face of failure than over the brilliance of success. The successful: a parade of scarecrows.

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If poetry is an instrument of thought, and a fairly powerful one, he cannot simply put his convictions into verse. And therefore he takes some risks.

NOT the risk of technical innovation. What risk? except of having to

re-write perhaps at worst

the risk is something else

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If a man looks about at all, which is to say, if he appears as a new poet at all, he is bound to be in some sense local.

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Since one does not in any case live forever, and since the furthest possible extremes of age may not be desirable to experience, it is entirely reasonable to risk one’s life for a purpose, far more reasonable than people say. But since one can give his life only once, it is true that he must be guided simply by his feelings, by what happens to matter to him–

If we are to understand anything–and I do not believe we are to understand anything, to understand absolute truth or to know anything which is relevant to absolute truth, but if we are surely we must start at the beginning. And surely not with a bloody and murderous institution, which has been the bloodiest institution on the face of the earth.

Returning from the country:
“It is all still out there”