Tuesday, June 28, 2005

George Oppen


Writing on Devin Johnston’s Aversions last December sent me back to reread his first book, Telepathy. This time, tho, it gave me a different sense of his later work – not that Aversions doesn’t achieve, as I wrote, a “high degree of torque,” but rather that it does so because it’s more relaxed – which is to imply “more confident” – than the earlier volume. And this in turn made me think about relaxation as a dimension in writing.

Not long ago, I had a chance to read some of Phil Whalen’s college poetry & was struck by how these early works were very nearly examples of closed verse, a far cry from the more permeable, personable & chatty style we associate with his mature writing. In a similar sense, Charles Olson’s early poems – the works gathered in The Distances, say – look “like poems” to a degree that the later non-Maximus (and even later Maximus) ones do not, but seem almost notational. Likewise, Paul Blackburn’s early works are little set pieces, whereas the later ones are far more content to just note whatever is there without worrying “does this contribute to the narrative or expository flow” of the poem. One can make the same kind of argument, I think, with regards to John Ashbery. Well into the 1970s, each new volume was a staging of a new approach, a new assault. Now the books flow one into the other with a certain sameness, the poems still quite wonderful, but far less concerned with how they impact the social landscape of the poem. Flow Chart is the book that I think first gives this away – but it’s true of everything that’s come after, the closest thing to an exception being perhaps Girls on the Run. One can make the same argument, I think, concerning Robert Duncan’s two final collections, Ground Work I & Ground Work II.

But the most pronounced – and perhaps most controversial – example of this might be Robert Creeley. For 25 years, every book he wrote changed how poetry itself was written in this country. Then, in the 1970s, his style loosened and the poems became more truly personal. I know some folks who cast this into a narrative of decline – or worse – and say to this day, “I like For Love the best.” But I don’t this was what happened at all.

What I do think happened – what I think happens for every writer, really, tho the details vary from individual to individual – is that one writes only what oneself truly needs. And these needs have a lot to do with stage-of-life issues, among all the other little things that can & do go on. In one sense, it would be truer to say that the arc of Robert Creeley’s career was such that for 25 years everything he wrote also happened to change poetry – rather like two celestial bodies passing & sharing for a time their gravity – but that for the following three decades, Creeley continued to write just what he needed, while poetry moved in a somewhat different direction.

That Creeley’s poetry relaxed, post-Mabel & A Day Book, at the same time can’t be denied, but this I think is ancillary to the phenomenon, not causal. Most poets go through a period, early on, of sensing a need to “prove” that they can write a poem & that, further, they can write a poem that is in some way uniquely their own. So early works & first books are full of pieces very much “in the tradition of” the tradition itself, however one cares to define it. One could make this same argument, I suspect, of Lowell or Berryman. Yet at a certain point in a writer’s career – if they are persistent enough – one realizes that one can do this, but that there is no longer anything to prove in only doing this, whatever this might be. This I think is the pulse point when what I’ve been calling relaxation sets in. In fact, one need not relax at all – one could push ever further in some direction, just to find out what’s there. I think that this is what you see in Creeley’s work from Words through Mabel & A Day Book. One sees it in Robert Grenier’s ever deeper move into the psychology of scrawl. One sees it in Zukofsky, from “A”-14 onward (but more about LZ anon).

This impulse to relax is telling us something very important about the poem itself, actually. In Olson, in Whalen, in Blackburn, in all these writers there comes a recognition that the well-wrought urn itself has no particular inherent value, even as variously defined as it might be, say, in the first volume of Maximus. It’s like a visual artist coming to recognize that one need not finish the drawing to get the value of the drawing, whatever it has to offer. So that one focuses instead not on the finished-ness of whatever, but on the value, on what one is after. Whether it’s in the last, fragmentary Cantos of Pound, or in the late works of Williams that Mark Scroggins was disparaging the other day, one sees this again & again in the writing of poets “of a certain age.” Oppen actually says it in Seascape: Needle’s Eye, a work that is almost antithetical to the hard edges of his earlier books:

Poem      Not mine      A ‘marvelous’ object
Is not the marvel of things

That, in part, is what is so interesting about the exceptions. Louis Zukofsky was very nearly 70 when he wrote his finest poems, “A” - 22 & “A” – 23. 80 Flowers is, in fact, more relaxed, but only in comparison to those two poems – as a project, it is more dense than virtually anything else any other poet has ever written. Density has its own value – condensation breeds polysemy & no art rewards the multiplicity of meaning more than does the poem. It is, however, not the only value that a poem might seek or obtain. And it’s rare that it should be the value an older poet would seek.

But relaxation – by which I mean, finally, that sense of giving the poem its head, letting it determine where it needs to go, rather than fixing it on any idea prior to (or otherwise outside) the writing – is something that occurs not only late in a poet’s career, but rather in stages throughout the whole of it, as if it were a lesson we need to learn over & over. One might say, in fact, that the difference of the Williams of, say, Spring & All, from the writer of Keatsian-inflected works only a few years early might also have been exactly this same distinction. Yet one could draw the same comparison between Paterson & Spring & All as well. Or between the poems after 1950 & the main body of Paterson. In a sense, it’s this same demarcation I see between Devin Johnston’s first two books. It’s a lesson we’re all learning, all of the time.