Oppen on Clarity, Opacity, and Prosody:
Passages from the Daybooks

by Henry Weinfield


In the last year, our understanding of Oppen's poetry and thought has been deepened and enriched by the publication of three extraordinary books: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, edited by Stephen Cope (University of California Press, 2007); George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism by Peter Nicholls (Oxford University Press, 2007); and Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen by Michael Heller (Salt, 2008). Nicholls's brilliant and beautifully written study shows us an Oppen consistently contesting "two extremes" of modernism: traditionalism and avant-gardism (p. 2). At the same time that it offers us a much fuller understanding of Oppen's relationship to Heidegger, Hegel, and negative theology than anything previously written, Nicholls's study poses a serious challenge to those critics who have tended to view Oppen along with the other Objectivists as on a continuum with Language Poetry and other avant-garde tendencies. Heller's book, gathering the essays he has written on Oppen written since his groundbreaking study of the Objectivists, Conviction's Net of Branches (Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), will be valuable for the reflection it opens up on Oppen's relationship to such figures as Stevens, Celan, and Wittgenstein, and for the light it sheds on the different phases of Oppen's career. Whereas Language-oriented critics, especially in the U.S., have tended to emphasize Discrete Series, Heller argues (in this respect agreeing with Nicholls) that "the poetry Oppen wrote after his Communist period does not 'return' to anything that he had done previously," and that after the famous twenty-five year hiatus, poetry held very different possibilities for Oppen than it did in the earlier period (p. 6).

The Daybooks (on which I shall focus in this brief essay) are fascinating for the light they shine on Oppen's thought process, work habits, and obsessions. Their two hundred-odd pages were gleaned from thousands contained in the Oppen archive at the University of California at San Diego, and so it's difficult to tell how representative the volume really is. I found myself unexpectedly irritated by Oppen's obsessive repetition of certain generalizations and idιes fixes about truth and art – though I imagine that anyone nosing around my own or anyone else's notebooks over the course of many years would be similarly irritated. On a single page, for example, written apparently in the mid-sixties, we come upon the following assertions: "[T]ruth is empirical, has to be encountered" and "The simple fact: art is not good for us" (143). The first of these assertions confuses phenomenological immediacy with empiricism, a confusion that was apparently habitual with the philosophically self-taught Oppen, and the second is mere leftist claptrap – although perhaps Oppen was reacting against the debasement of art by the fashion industry. But there are also astonishing passages in the Daybooks, passages that bring home to us Oppen's sheer genius and the depth and sincerity of his struggle with the meaning and significance of poetry in and for our time.

A number of passages in the Daybooks seem to offer new insight on the connection between Oppen's relationship to language and the continual struggle in his work between clarity and opacity, and I want to focus on several of these. Everyone remembers the lines from "Route" in which Oppen writes, "I have not and never did have any motive of poetry / But to achieve clarity" (NCP, 193); but when one reads the Daybooks we see that the story is complicated by the poet's ambivalent relationship to conceptual language. Consider the following passages (separated by two pages):

Surely language has not created the real, but has made it visible. We do not see if we are dazzled, dazed, confused, tho we hear when we hear confusedly and we feel if we feel at all. Submerged in the world, we hear and feel; without a word we remember the taste of an apple. (147)

Without the word, we can feel as if from the inside. The taste of an apple, the sensation of sunlight – with the word, we see, we see from outside. (149)

In these passages, at least, reality for Oppen seems to inhere in and to be tantamount to opacity, not clarity. Language ("the word") provides clarity, but at the same time removes or distances us from the phenomenological immediacy of reality. Not to possess language, to be "without the word," coincides, metaphorically, with being on the inside (of experience), whereas to possess language coincides with being on the outside. Yet it is only from the outside that one can see – i.e., grasp or understand reality or one's experience. The paradox here is that one can only construe the real when one is removed from it. Oppen's conception is ambiguous and difficult to parse. In one sense, we grasp the real (from the inside) when we are confused, dazzled, and without language; in another sense, we grasp the real (from the outside) through language, but through a language that removes us from reality in its immediacy.

Later on in the Daybooks Oppen seems to construct a conception of prosody (at least with reference to his own poetry) that is based not on clarity, as in those lines from "Route," but again on opacity. In a passage entitled "On the Prosody and Numbers of X," he writes:

The peculiar attributes of words is that they spring spontaneously in the mind, they flow continuously in the mind. They provide, if not hope, at least opacity. (201).

The previously quoted passages are from Daybook III – that is, from the early to mid-sixties; this one is from Daybook IV, probably from a few years later. In the earlier passages, Oppen suggested that language provides clarity, but at the expense of reality; but now he seems to be suggesting that language can give us access to opacity and that this constitutes something like hope – perhaps because opacity is tantamount to reality.

If we abstract the prosodic conception that Oppen is developing in this passage, it would seem to be as follows. On the one hand, words spring spontaneously and flow continuously in the mind; but on the other (as Oppen writes in "Route"), "Words cannot be wholly transparent. And that is the / 'heartlessness' of words" (NCP, 194). The poetic act, arresting the continual and spontaneous flow of words, consists in grasping them in their opacity; for only then do they go beyond mere information. (It is peculiar that in "Route" Oppen sees the opacity of language as constituting its "heartlessness," whereas in this passage in the Daybooks the same opacity seems to offer a kind of hope, that which allows us to take heart.) Prosody, as Oppen conceives it, is thus a way of imparting clarity to opacity; but this implies not the elimination of opacity through the rendering of language transparent but, on the contrary, the unveiling or illuminating of opacity itself through a language that reveals it for what it is. Such a conception is Heideggerian and recalls Heidegger's emphasis on the Greek idea of truth as aletheia, a kind of unveiling or bringing into the clearing. Chapter 3 of Nicholls's book fills in the blanks as far as Oppen's relationship to Heidegger is concerned; but what we see from these passages in the Daybooks is how Oppen's relationship to poetry flows from his paradoxical understanding of the relationship between language and reality. For Oppen, language enables us to "see" or grasp reality, but only from "the outside" – i.e., only at the expense of removing us from reality. Poetry alone has the potential to bridge the gap between understanding and "the wild glare / Of the world" ("Of Being Numerous," NCP, 186).


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