On Reading Oppen Once Again

by Rachel Blau DuPlessis


The poem "Ballad" that closes Oppen's magisterial volume Of Being Numerous presents a curious mirroring situation in its oblique narrative (NCP 207-08). The poem draws upon what was undoubtedly a real incident. The Oppens in Maine, having sailed to, or taken the ferry to Swan's Island, encountered ("by chance") figures who become, in the course of the poem, both their doubles and a representation of issues central to Oppen. The two figures—a lobsterman and his wife, also correspond, in a shadowy way, to the two strange words that begin the poem: "Astrolabes and lexicons"—both being tools for orientation and for knowledge, ways to take the measure of the stars and of words. As Linh Dinh remarks in the PoemTalk radio broadcast devoted to discussing this poem, given that Oppen's self-presentation here and elsewhere is both grounded and adrift, suspicious and wary of language, he needs both astrolabe and lexicon.

The "poor lobsterman," like Oppen himself, was "A well-spoken man// Hardly real/ As he knew in those rough fields." He is invested in giving a hospitable welcome to these strangers and in the techne of his profession: "Lobster pots and their gear/ Smelling of salt." Like the shadow phrase suggested at the end of the poem—no man is an island—this phrase contains a "salt of the earth" encrypted suggestion. Social class is at issue, and yet the poem does not dwell on either difference or sentimental outreach, but on the basic encounter that the unmarked title word "Ballad" evokes.

As the lobsterman drives the two couples around, the poem simply "points" to

…the sights of the island
The ledges in the rough sea seen from the road

And the harbor
And the post office
                      (NCP 208)

This purely deictic set of lines with their list structure is followed abruptly, pensively, by a test of poetry, a couple of interrupting lines asking a fundamental question of the poet's own techne. The tone in which Oppen speaks (in the 1979 reading featured on PoemTalk) is meditative

Difficult to know what one means
--to be serious and to know what one means—
                      (NCP 208)

And this is not simply what one means to oneself but to others, because (in the quickly juxtaposed, apparently unmotivated lines coming next)

An island
Has a public quality
                        (NCP 208)

This island, like its inhabitants, is given the task of setting a standard for the poet's words. Those words must not be decorative, filler. They are elements as present and palpable as bedrock. They are the rocks, and "the rocks outlived" both any academic fussing and the Graeco-Roman world, both represented by the word "the classicists"—with an interesting embedded pun on social class. (There is a later poem from Primitive, called "Populist" which makes some of this reasonably clear, if not unambiguous in its phrasing: "…tho if I stumble on a rock I speak/ of rock if I am to say anything     anything" [NCP 276]).

In this identificatory encounter between two couples, one is reminded that guest and host have the same etymology in the lexicon, and that to be a visitor to someone may be to represent (as in some myths) a visitation to them. The lobsterman's wife speaks the final words; the words "she said" are repeated three times, once in the striking formulation: "I don't know how to say, she said" which puts the issue of speaking (in both direct and indirect discourse, incidentally) at the center of the poem's concerns.

She took it that we came—
I don't know how to say, she said—

Not for anything we did, she said,
Mildly, 'from God'. She said

What I like more than anything
Is to visit other islands…
                     (NCP 208)

[The ellipses ending the poem are Oppen's. The period after the word "God" is the only mark of terminal/closural punctuation in the poem, although there are five em dashes.]

Her words at the end of the poem don't surprise me on one level, as they may be taken (if they too are based on a real incident) as summing up the personal impact the Oppens could have on even casual acquaintances. The Oppens had a striking, sympathetic and charismatic presence; that presence could indeed draw out and induce insight in their interlocutors. But the words also sum up two central aspects of Oppen's own poetry: its ontological uncanniness (some might call this the spiritual or philosophical) and its social curiosity, desire to see, and sense of hope even amid fear (some might call this the political).

This floating sense of wonder, a groundedness yet otherworldliness end the poem. It is almost as if, in this encounter, Oppen were meeting himself, as if the Oppens were meeting another couple like themselves, but it is certainly as if, in both the male and female figures depicted by the poem, Oppen is meeting, once again, his vocation.

Reading Oppen, one begins by saying "I understand that," "I see how that abuts; there is a rationale to this leap and that." Yet then, and quite suddenly, the number of variables in play multiplies exponentially, and there are too many to comprehend. (This may be true of even a relatively simple poem, but it is emphatically true of more complicated ones.) Thereupon how Oppen will get from one statement to another becomes unclear, if also striking. However, the reader feels the jump is both authentic and necessary, crucial rather than willful, basic and fundamental, not decorative or showy. "'Thought leaps on us'…" ("World, World--" final poem of This in Which, NCP 159).

Using words, Oppen distrusts words. In a section cut from the seed poem for "Of Being Numerous," a work in eight sections called "A Language of New York," Oppen proposes, rather desperately and warily one imagines:

To use
Words provided one treat them
As enemies.
                          (NCP 116)

This is immediately modified, qualified and varied to

Not enemies—Ghosts
Which have run mad
in the subways. And of course the institutions
And the banks.
                         (NCP 116)

Hysteria, social disruption, powerful, but equally uncontrolled major social and economic institutions have damaged and destroyed language. The root metaphor is of a war in which he is a soldier:

…If one captures them
One by one proceeding

Carefully they will restore
I hope to meaning
And to sense.
                         (NCP 116)

There is no equivalent section in "Of Being Numerous." However the same section of the related poem, "Route," has altered the indictment enough for a lifetime's worth of discussion to "Words cannot be wholly transparent. And that is the 'heartlessness' of words" (NCP 194).

This set of concerns about language motivates the deictic aspect of Oppen. Getting to the place where there is nothing but pointing seems (it is an interesting illusion) to solve the "problem" of words that he articulates by saying "Words cannot be wholly transparent" (NCP 194). This is the place at which some hope that I can't follow has been expressed. This is because the non-transparency, the historical density of words is more vital to my practice as a poet.

In any event, deixis is central to "Route." Pointing is, or is claimed to be, the (only?) rhetorical activity that may be trusted. "I might at the top of my ability stand at a window/ and say, look out; out there is the world" (NCP 193, "Route"). Or even "If these things are true they are perfectly simple, perfectly impenetrable, those primary elements which can only be named" (NCP 197, "Route"). Note, however the sub rosa presence in these and other passages of words like "say" and "named" and "speak." This last statement is followed by the most extraordinary list of absolutely implacable and unargued solutions to ethical dilemmas, life and death dilemmas—whom would you die for, and what. They are primary or basic elements only when one is in extremis. Which is, of course, one of the main premises of "Route" and of many, many of Oppen's subsequent poems: how to name being in extremis. Or Being, in extremis. Which is the every day, the now, and our condition of life, socially and ontologically. The deictic aspect of Oppen motivates the extraordinarily porous and fragmented texture, the odd strings of a-syntactic words that one finds in his later work. One has just a taste of this in the dream-like scanning of an event that occurs in "Ballad."

Then there is the observation about reading comprehension that incredibly comes in "Route" just a word or two after that last statement of the most extreme questions (for whom or what would you give your life): "…One man could not understand me because I was saying simple things: it seemed to him that nothing was being said. I was saying: there is a mountain, there is a lake" (NCP 197, "Route"). Oppen sometimes makes ethical dilemmas—and even some answers--as concrete and material as a lake. It is one of the most generative category errors in poetry.

Thus in reading Oppen, opacity and clarity meet; one has a pile-up of experiences of breathlessness and awe (his and your own) facing his statements of a sweeping authority and absolutism. Reading him you are constantly shifting yourself to follow. The compass spins. Suddenly you have crossed a few borders of sense and implication and are truly in the unknown, with aphorism, proverbs from another zone, philosophic fragments, grammatical anacoluthon, emotional extremity and political skepticism. The number of variables set into motion in any given poem has enlarged drastically; the selves implicated—both reader and writer—seem wary of the findings in which they are nonetheless saturated and deeply challenged by the universe and by the language that has generated these variables.

One might then state that Oppen wrote poems in which were presented "the social and historical dimensions of our innermost selves" (Mohanty, 221). One might also say that Oppen wrote poems in which were presented the ontological and epistemological dimensions of our innermost selves. The particular intertwining of these dimensions are part of what his poetry offers us.

Reading his poems is like experiencing a visitation. The usual gets swept away, and one is in a state of arousal to seriousness, nobility, and wonder that have created a standard for the meaning of poetry as an act, a choice, and a use of language. The verb "to speak" recurs as the refrain of the last poem in Primitive. "Neighbors" ends with a compromised credo about Oppen's recurrent questions: the adequacy of language and the adequacy of the community represented by the word "we."

in time we see
the words fail this
we know this
we walk in and is all
we know we
will speak

to each
other we
will speak
                         (NCP 285)


Satya Mohanty, Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multiculturalism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997.

George Oppen, New Collected Poems. Ed. Michael Davidson. New York: New Directions, 2002.

PENNsound www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound
for recordings of George Oppen and for the archive of the radio show PoemTalk, coordinated by Al Filreis, which discussed the poem "Ballad." Thanks to Al Filreis for the invitation to me to participate in this (and other) discussions on PoemTalk.


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