Sunday, September 07, 2008


A reading at The Five Spot, 1964, Joel Oppenheimer standing in the doorway to the left, Allen Ginsberg reading with hand to forehead at the piano, Gregory Corso at front of Piano. Photo by the great Fred McDarragh.

Another lengthy email on Joel Oppenheimer on Saturday, this time from Bob Bertholf in Buffalo. I’ve corrected the spelling of some names. I’m tempted to ask why, if it’s true that language poetry “submerged the accomplishment” (a curious verb phrase that suggests drowning the baby or some such, I suppose) of Oppenheimer & his peers, is this discussion taking place here?

Ron Silliman’s comments about the disappearance of Joel Oppenheimer from the current discussion of poetry brings back an idea that bewildered me during the years I worked in SUNY at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection. No adequate answer or explanation came forward to explain or define the nature of literary fame or even notoriety. Literary notoriety seems not to be linked completely with literary accomplishment, but does have something to do with contexts and community: the group of John Logan, Robert Bly, and James Wright was strong in Buffalo and elsewhere, but after Logan and Wright died (and Bly went to the wilderness) requests for their works stopped, as if this well known group had fallen directly of the table. Despite the efforts of Ralph Maud and others, Charles Olson’s place as a poet and poetic thinker has slipped terrible. Here one could discuss the continued negating power of the Iowa workshop poems and the poets now in alliance with Poetry (Chicago) and the Poetry Foundation. But Olson and his associates—Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn and Joel Oppenheimer—have produced a library of poetry and poetics which challenged literary conventions and released the active creative imagination. Yes, the persisting romantic imagination so scorned in the twentieth century first by T. S. Eliot and the New Critics and then later by Charles Bernstein, and powerfully by Marjorie Perloff.

          Joel Oppenheimer realized the maturity of his writing at the same time that Bernstein, Andrews and Language Poetry flooded the contemporary discussions of poetry and poetics with essay and after essay commanding poetics, and then another flood of poetry that was supposed to live up to and into the essays. The publicity was ponderous and its influence submerged the accomplishment of a group of poets which included Joel Oppenheimer, Ted Enslin, John Taggart, Nate Mackey, Michael Palmer and Susan Howe. Palmer and Howe were first claimed as language poets, but later declined its restricting appellation. Oppenheimer’s first serial poem, The Woman Poems, appeared in 1975; other serial poems followed— At Fifty (1982), New Spaces (1983), and New Hampshire Journal (1994). Oppenheimer knew that one poem did not define its own structural conclusion, and that he was engaged in writing one long poem with parts having separate names but no conclusion. He also cultivated, especially in New Hampshire Journal, a keen sense of the rhythm of the poetic line and the precise statement of perception. Lyric poetry was his medium. He was exemplify a process of living and writing which made the lyric poem the experience itself not the report of the experience.

The ideology of Conceptual Poetry of Kenneth Goldsmith, and Christian Bök and then the “Flarf” cloud of Gary Sullivan, Rod Smith and Christina Strong have taken over the weakening influence of the language program to offer a complete dismissal of the sentient life of the poet. Yes, right, another dismissal of the romantic imagination in its newest forms ploughed over again with an ideology at the same time that the controlling doctrines of Poetry the Poetry Foundation make and take the headlines and plot out the dubious notoriety of its poets.

No doubt I’ve begun and not finished a complex concept of literary history. There will be another time. But it light of what I’ve suggested it is no wonder Joel Oppenheimer and his poetry looks lost. But he is not; he is part of the great literary deposit under contemporary writing waiting to emerge. His books are also available on the home page of the Poetry Collection:

Robert J. Bertholf , ed. Collected Later Poems of Joel Oppenheimer ed. and intro. with eleven drawings by John Dobbs. The Poetry Collection, 1997.

Jonathan Williams ed. Names & Local Habitations (Selected Earlier Poems 1951-1972) The Jargon Society, 1988.

Robert J. Bertholf and David Landrey, eds. Drawing From Life: A Selection of Joel Oppenheimer’s Village Voice Columns. Moyer Bell, 1997.

Lyman Gilmore, Don’t Touch the Poet: The Life and Times of Joel Oppenheimer: A Biography. Talisman Press, 1998.


Robert J. Bertholf, Remembering Joel Oppenheimer. Talisman Press, 2006. (which will be available there).


Robert J. Bertholf
Charles D. Abbott Scholar of Poetry and the Arts, Emeritus
The Poetry Collection
SUNY Buffalo


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