"Poetry must be at least as good as dead silence." George Oppen
A few poets have chosen dead silence, at least--in Laura [Riding] Jackson's case--if "dead silence" can be said to be contained within capacious prose. LRJ pointed to the word "good," noted that value, because it involves interpretation, also invokes human vanity. Riding's shit-detector did double-duty as a decibel detector: the noisier the poem, the less value it had for her.
Oppen ended in silence, but it was not his choice, rather that of his Alzheimer's. His chosen silences occurred in mid-life, not at its end. He believed in miracles, ordinary ones. Merleau-Ponty: "it is easy to strip language and action of all meaning and make them seem absurd . . . But that other miracle, the fact that in an absurd world language and behavior do have meaning for those who speak and act, remains to be understood" (quoted by Michael Heller in Shoemaker, 190).
If language is ordinary material, then it is both miraculous and base. Its metaphors can too quickly be literalized; the "value" we associate with aesthetics turning into the "value" that operates in capitalism. As a publisher I know all too well how difficult it is to sell--in the most literal sense--books of poems. As a publisher, I need to make sales. But I also value the freedom given me as a purveyor of experimental poetry; I do not need to sell much to survive, and so I can publish unpopular work. The Retro Chapbook series that Tinfish Press is currently embarked upon (12 chapbooks in 12 months, $3 each) appeals to me because it goes under the radar of distribution (no ISBNs on these chaps) and each book costs less than a gallon of gas. That each chapbook comes in a run of 100 only (before possible reprints) is at once problem and liberation.
When does the act of reading become one more of consumption than of filtering, weighing, meditation (meditation being to thinking what small press is to Hollywood)? When, in some sense, we do not even ask readers to read, but simply to consume, and to pay us back in the materials of money and awards and fame? When we care less who reads our work than that it is somehow "getting out there"? Large audiences are not always best ones.
If we seek to "sell" our work, then that effort has an effect on audience. An audience that "buys" is different from one that absorbs (even anti-absorptively). An audience that "buys" is looking for something other than meaning, which is intangible. They are looking for effect, affect, the work that will punch them in the gut, or make them cry, or DO something. They want to be provoked. We want to say something strong so that they will react. No matter if we do it in poems or in polemics, we give them what they ask for.
The effect on words is to make them into objects to be traded, sold, rendered "poetic." As in aristocracy, the highest value goes to that which will not sell, but without possessing it you cannot otherwise become wealthy. Oppen wrote to Rachel Blau DuPlessis in 1965: "And the poem is not built out of words, one cannot make a poem by sticking words into it, it is the poem which makes the words and contains their meaning. One cannot reach out of roses and elephants and essences and put them in the poem. . . " The word "essence" has nothing to do with essence, in other words.
"When the man is writing is frightened by a word, he may have started."
For Oppen, the poem's content was his journey toward the poem. Poem was thinking, often thinking about thinking. There are images, yes, of shipwreck and foxholes, but they dare not stay put because movement ("ripeness") is all. The emphasis was not on poet, or poem, but on ordinary revelations found in words. "Not that it reveals or could reveal Everything, but it must reveal something (I would like to say Something) and for the first time" (to Charles Hanzlicek, 1966).
Much as I love meditative poems, I don't want to put all my eggs in the thinking basket. One of the huge gaps in creative writing curricula is any emphasis on content. We get so caught up in technique, in matters of craft, that we neglect to talk about what to write about, how necessary it is to write about necessary matters, and to do it ethically. We have so neglected this that when it's brought up, students sometimes say, "but we're here to learn how to write, not to think about writing." We especially neglect thinking about those matters of content that do provoke. Not that provocation is always a bad thing, but that we need to do it with care. Audiences matter, too, whether because they take pleasure in a poet's work or because we wish to engage them in relationships of teacher to student or friend to friend or bard to sitters by a bonfire.
There are words that flag these kinds of content. They are words like "race," like "gender," like "class," like "land," like "money," like "adoption," like "sex." These are our own "roses" and "elephants" and "essences." Because they are more than words--which have affect--but also content, they ask the audience to meditate. They need to be weighed, considered, thought through as means and as ends. Flags are never what they symbolize, however, and it's our work to defuse the knee-jerk meaning of "flags" (especially red ones) and offer readers the space for their own skepticism, which is where so much thinking starts.
For Oppen, "poet" was less important than "person." He wrote of one friend, "I am trying to say that I don't think Jo can be a poet--I think probably she can--but the fact is I don't primarily care. I think of her as a person and I don't think it of terrible importance that she should be a poet. We get so Obsessed. That part of 'being a poet' which resembles being a weight-lifter or a jockey or a driver of racing cars is a disease. That part of poetry which is a realizing, a revealing of the world--O, that's something else, and is more often than not unconnected with print" (to J. Crawford, 1966).
That means that the poet must also think of herself as person first. "That one must not, at least, stake himself on becoming famous. No way to guarantee it, and in any case if he is serious it will be a long time to wait . . . He must establish himself and his life, whatever himself means to him--but he must not find himself living--living entirely, I mean, living totally--in a dream of impersonal fame, dreaming of himself as being anything but what he knows he is--I keep thinking of the word 'blasphemous' lately, tho I'll not try to defend it" (in the same letter to J. Crawford).
Hard to do this, as so many writers have noted during the MFA era, when doing creative writing involves having a job teaching creative writing, when getting published is so crucial to getting a job. And so on, backwards in a hall of big mirrors. Oppen had the luxury of not participating in the market many of us know too well. But that doesn't mean his wisdom shouldn't still apply. Ambition for the self is in many ways different from ambition for the work. The work is what matters, for poet, for publisher, and for audience (whose responsibilities are significant, if not written of as frequently as are the poet's responsibilities). And so the "game" is to get the work out while holding oneself in. Not easy, but then neither are any of the good ones. Oppen himself acknowledged happiness at being awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
"It is impossible to make a mistake without knowing it, impossible not to know that one has just smashed something. Unearned words are, in that context, simply ridiculous--. Tho it is possible to be carried astray little by little, to find oneself, quite simply, trying to deceive people, to be 'making a poem'" (to Rachel Blau DuPlessis, 1965).
That I will "publish" this post on blogger.com, then advertise it on Facebook, where my list of friends includes hundreds of people I've not met in person, implicates me in everything I've just written. Ever fertile, implication.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Editor. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.
Steve Shoemaker, Editor. Thinking Poetics: Essays on George Oppen. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009.