George Oppen's "Psalm":
Manifest Things and a Poet's Words

by Burt Kimmelman


"Psalm" is one of George Oppen's signature poems. It appears in his 1965 volume This in Which and is the title poem — the book's title derived from an endlessly intriguing and provocative final stanza of a poem about encountering a herd of grazing deer shaded by some leaves in a forest, as they begin to settle down, presumably for the evening. Here is the poem in full:

Veritas sequitur . . .

In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down – –
That they are there!

                      Their eyes
Effortless, the soft lips
Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
Tear at the grass

                     The roots of it
Dangle from their mouths
Scattering earth in the strange woods.
They who are there.

                     Their paths
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
Of sun

           The small nouns
Crying faith
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.

(NCP 99).

I have argued elsewhere ("'That they are there': Aletheia, Thingliness and the Question of Poetry in Heidegger and Oppen," that "Psalm" is a watershed poem; I can also say, here, that it is a key poem for Oppen in two ways. First of all, it attempts to meld language, perhaps even written language, with physical reality. This poetics on Oppen's part — I will only maintain here (I would argue it fully if I were writing a longer essay than the present one, space permitting) — is an aspect of Objectivist poetry, one that helps us to define it as such, which invites a reader's awareness of a tension between the speaker's inner world, his state of mind, and an outer world, that which he sees, that which he encounters, in other words a subjective-objective dynamic. Secondly, the poem sets out, in the form of a testimony, Oppen's existentially philosophical position, one which is especially indebted to the work of Martin Heidegger, a body of writing Oppen was steeped in at the time of this poem's composition.

The scene described in the poem, the encounter with the deer specifically, is sacred for the poem's persona, thus the title "Psalm," a sacred song or hymn. And, for a poet, so is language itself sacred. Oppen's language emerges out of a deep engagement of the world, the things of the world—hence the poet's epigraph, "veritas sequitur…," a fragment of the canonical phrase in Western letters, "Veritas sequitur esse" ("truth follows the existence [of things]"). In this way "leaves" (". . . the leaves that shade them / Hang in the distances / Of sun") and "nouns" ("The small nouns / Crying faith") are merged so that "nouns" are "things" (or "leaves"); thus an ontological ground is established for them both. Yet the "nouns" could possibly refer back to the "eyes" of the deer, or their "teeth," etc., and ultimately could signify the general category of things, so that not only objects but also events, such as the persona's incidental coming upon the deer, can be thingly (to borrow from Heidegger; perhaps the best exposition of thing as dynamic event rather than as inert object in Heidegger's work can be found in his essay "The Thing," which Oppen did not read at the time of the writing of "Psalm" but whose ideas extend back in time to Heidegger's earlier writings that were available to Oppen at that time).

This ontological ground is made possible in the poem through the sheer astonishment the speaker experiences ("That they are there!") vis-à-vis the manifest world. The deer in the woods are beautiful and the speaker responds to the scene with his sense of wonderment. The epigraph "Veritas sequitur . . ." evokes the conceptual framework and spirituality of Thomas Aquinas who in the thirteenth century argued for the Divine as an efficient cause for everything that manifests, that is, for the entire created world. It would be incorrect to understand Oppen as involved in any theology, however, even as the poem possibly demonstrates a religiosity; but what might give rise to religious sentiment is within Oppen's purview.

More importantly, in the posture of the poem's persona we see a way of living, to be more precise a way of being, which Oppen found ample explanation of in Heidegger. "Psalm," overall, communicates a sense of astonishment, awe, and perhaps a gratitude that Heidegger shares. Astonishment is not a word that comes up in Oppen's poetry, but the meaning of this word pervades it? Oppen could easily have encountered it in Heidegger's book What Is Philosophy (which Oppen read by 1963 [Nicholls 194-95]), in which philosophy is conceived of as follows. "In astonishment we restrain ourselves (être en arrêt). We step back, as it were, from being, from the fact that it is as it is and not otherwise. And astonishment is not used up in this retreating from the Being of being, but, as this retreating and self-restraining, it is at the same time forcibly drawn to and, as it were, held fast by that from which it retreats. Thus astonishment is [a] disposition in which and for which the Being of being unfolds" (85).

Oppen's persona is grateful to be alive and in the moment the poem records, and he is overwhelmed by the world's beauty, which is iconographically typified in the moment of deer "bedding down." This is a peaceful, exquisitely delicate scene, and hence, arguably, it is a haunting scene (maybe made more so through the use of adjectives like "alien," "strange," and the repeated "small"). More largely, Oppen's persona is also touched, arguably haunted, by language, especially the usually least important particles of language — to quote Oppen in an interview with L.S. Dembo, "[t]he little words that I like so much" ("George Oppen" 162). In this interview, moreover, Oppen comments, "I'm really concerned with the substantive, with the subject of the sentence, with what we are talking about, and not rushing over the subject-matter in order to make a comment about it. It is still the principle with me, of more than poetry, to notice, to state, to lay down the substantive for its own sake" ("George Oppen" 161). In "Psalm" we see Oppen focusing on the particulars of the scene of the deer, the woods, as well as, as if metaliterarily, commenting on his state of attention by invoking his poetics in his use of the term "nouns." When Dembo brings up "Psalm" — quoting lines that end with the exclamation "That they are there!" — he suggests that the poem's persona is not responding to the scene in the poem "intellectually or discursively, but only to the physical tangibility or reality of the object he views" (162). Oppen replies with an important and subtle distinction: "Yes, if one knows what 'physical' means or what it contrasts with. But responds by faith, as I admitted somewhere, and to his own experience" (162).

Oppen's stressing of the physical also finds articulation in his reading of Heidegger. The concept of the Greek term physis is taken up at length by Heidegger in Introduction to Metaphysics Oppen's copy of this book contains the handwritten note "'This in which' all truth is contained— the universe contains all truth— [illegible]" (in Nicholls 64). Introduction to Metaphysics begins with the most fundamental philosophical question: "Why are there essents [i.e., 'existents, things that are'] rather than nothing" (1). As Oppen must have been well aware, the term physis for Heidegger comprehended much more than it does now: For the ancient Greeks, Heidegger writes, "the essent was called physics" (13). Yet, Heidegger writes, "[t]he realm of being as such and as a whole is physis — i.e. its essence and character are defined as that which emerges and endures" (16). Ultimately physis "signifies the being of the essent" (17). Heidegger then equates physis with the idea of shining light and by implication appearance. Likewise in "Psalm" (and in a reprise of this poem published in 1978, titled "If It All Went Up in Smoke") light serves a key dramatic and evocative function. Following his discussion of physis in Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger equates being and appearing: "for the Greeks standing-in-itself was nothing other than standing-there, standing-in-the-light. Being means appearing. Appearing is not something subsequent that sometimes happens to being. Appearing is the very essence of being" (101) [and since] "the essent as such is, it places itself in and stands in unconcealment, aletheia. We translate, and at the same time thoughtlessly misinterpret, this word as 'truth'. [….] For the Greek essence of truth is possible only in one with the Greek essence of being as physis. On the strength of the unique and essential relationship between physis and aletheia the Greeks would have said: The essent is true insofar as it is" (102).

What Heidegger sets out here is the basis for an Objectivist poetry that presumes the physical world the poet details is anything but inert, and so the tension in Oppen's poetry between concealment and disclosure is palpable. Furthermore, Oppen's attention to the world in its process is as one for whom appearances are of the utmost importance. There is a physically tangible landscape, there is a human being's language, and there is the appearance of the moment that comprehends them both and may possibly be a function of their interaction. When Dembo asks Oppen, "What exactly is the faith?" he replies, "Well, that the nouns do refer to something; that it's there, that it's true, the whole implication of these nouns; that appearances represent reality, whether or not they misrepresent it: that this in which the thing takes place, this thing is here, and that these things do take place" (163). Oppen wants to celebrate those little words by highlighting them and giving them parity with all the little, exquisite details in the scene, which contribute to the scene's haunting beauty, and which are enhanced by the adjectives that describe his state of being at the moment of the encounter, when he is beginning to be transformed by the beauty of the scene. The little details that add up to more than the sum of the parts, the eyes, lips and teeth of the deer, the leaves, the dirt being sprinkled back to the ground from the tufts of dangling grass that the deer are eating — all these details are the substance, and finally the heart and soul of this poem. These physical facts are linked inextricably in the sentient poet's mind to the language with which he engages them, thinks of them in relation to himself, a living language, perhaps, as vibrant as, and a part of, nature itself.

Works Cited

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Ed. "'The Philosophy of the Astonished': Selections from the Working Papers of George Oppen," Sulfur 27 (1990): 202-220.

Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Tr. Ralph Manheim. New Haven, Yale UP, 1959.

_____. "The Thing." Poetry, Language, Thought. Tr. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 163-86.

_____. What Is Philosophy? Tr. and Intr. Jean T. Wilde and William Kluback. New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 1956, 2003.

Nicholls, Peter. George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2007.

Oppen, George, and L. S. Dembo. "George Oppen." Contemporary Literature 10.2 (Spring 1969): 159-77.

Oppen, George. New Collected Poems. Ed. and Intr. Michael Davidson. Pref. Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 2002.

I am grateful to Eric Hoffman for pointing out to me that astonishment "may not come up in the poems, but it does come up in [Oppen's] personal papers; in fact, he uses the word to describe the experience that in his poetry he attempted to convey. Refer to DuPlessis, Sulfur 27, 'The Philosophy of the Astonished'. Specifically, 'I do not care for "systems," what I read is the philosophy of the astonished"' (Email of 22 September 2008; cf. Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Ed. "'The Philosophy of the Astonished': Selections from the Working Papers of George Oppen," Sulfur 27 (1990): 203).  


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