Academic journal article Chicago Review

Becoming a Patient of History: George Oppen's Domesticity and the Relocation of Politics

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Becoming a Patient of History: George Oppen's Domesticity and the Relocation of Politics

Article excerpt


Many of George Oppen's poems that Tin most compelled by now, I first found to be dull or sentimental, doctrinaire or mystifying. Moreover, I found them to be opaque. How is it, I can recall myself thinking, that a poetry committed to the idea of clarity could yield so much interference in its struggle for common sense? But perhaps clarity becomes a privileged poetic value in Oppen's work only to the degree that it can't be separated from its opposite--opacity--much in the way that the familiar can't be cleaved from the strange. Even Oppen's earliest poems arouse this dialectic whereby the most apparent things conceal a fundamental mystification: "Nothing can equal in polish and obscured / origin that dark instrument / A car." These are things "closed in glass" that present "hardly an exterior" (Discrete Series, 1934).

"If the world is matter / It is impenetrable absolutely," Oppen writes in a daybook, suggesting a kind of epistemological finitude, only to continue, "The recognition of impenetrability houses the hope of intelligibility." And again later, "I am speaking of the streets / Tho I know that if the universe is matter / It is impenetrable--." (1) Impenetrable, as in, resistant to language and knowledge. These are formulations that will eventually migrate into the long poem "Of Being Numerous" (1968).

Delivered as the twenty-seventh annual George Oppen Memorial Lecture in Twentieth Century Poetics, sponsored by the San Francisco Poetry Center, on December 11, 2010. While I have faithfully preserved the movement of the talk, I have redacted and expanded some of its sections. I his text is part of a book-length project of the same title.

From sociopolitical concerns organized in the streets to ontological concerns organized in the poems, the dynamic tension between the intelligible and the impenetrable, clarity and opacity, is what concerns me. "The peculiar attributes of words," Oppen writes elsewhere in the daybooks, "is that they spring spontaneously in the mind, they flow continuously in the mind. They provide, it not hope, at least opacity." Words offer no guarantee that things exist, and opacity disrupts the delusion of their transparency. In "Of Being Numerous," we read what might sound like a delayed codicil to this remark: "Because the known and the unknown / Touch." Opposites not only touch in Oppen's work, they persist in and through each other: clear and opaque, intelligible and impenetrable, idea and thing.

Everything I have come to love in Oppen bears the impress of unresolved tensions between these strained values. The quality of these tensions--the way opposing concepts are at once mutually constitutive and irreconcilable--suggests a dialectical approach to lyric poetry and a hallmark of Oppen's verse. And yet, he would deny the dialectic any role in his work as a poet. "NOT A DIALECTIC / BUT VISION," Oppen writes in all caps, as if he needed to shout (SP). Not once, but on at least two occasions Oppen denies the dialectic in his daybook. Perhaps he is insisting on a distinction between ideology and ontology, or between politics and aesthetics, distinctions otherwise difficult to maintain. "I am not displaying a dialectic. I am talking of a vision." Oppen's repeated insistence on vision in opposition to dialectic would seem to ascribe to poetry a linguistic model resistant to the phrasal logic of argument and proposition. At the same time, given Oppen's involvement in the Communist Party in the 1930s, "NOT A DIALECTIC / BUT VISION" declares his distance from a leftist politics that had become contaminated by Stalinism, just as the "dialectic"--a metonym for Marxist materialism--had become haunted by Stalin's appropriation of it as a philosophical alibi for brutality. As if to say, "NOT A STALINIST / BUT A POET."

In fine dialectical fashion, Oppen's most quoted lines from "Of Being Numerous"--"There are things/We live among and to see them / is to know ourselves'"--can be read at once in identical and contradictory ways. …

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