Of "Latitude, Longitude"

by Peter Nicholls


The poem that begins Oppen's collection Myth of the Blaze is likely to be given scant attention because of its deceptive openness. "Latitude, Longitude" (NCP, 237) is certainly different in manner from the poems that follow - "The Speech at Soli", "The Book of Job and a Draft of a Poem to Praise the Paths of the Living", for example - where the writing is often highly elliptical and compacted. In contrast, this first poem leads off in an attractive lyric register which almost conceals the deliberate awkwardness of its rhythmic structure. We also lack an initial pronoun to situate the verb 'climbed', though the reader automatically supplies a "we" in the vacant indent of the first line, a collective pronoun which, in not actually being there, gives and at once withholds an elegiac inflection to this memory of mountain-climbing (probably an excursion to the Oppens' favourite "peak of Tamalpais" [NCP, 231]). The rhythm of the first five lines mimes exertion as Oppen deftly manipulates the pattern of vowel sounds: "and found / over the flowers at the mountain's /rough top a bee yellow / and heavy as". The open double syllables of "flowers" and "mountains" collide abruptly with a sequence of clipped monosyllables - "rough top a bee" -- an effect which subtly concentrates our attention on the bee, a tiny focal point (at a precise junction of latitude and longitude) that supplants the conventionally sublime and expansive view from a mountain's top. In the ascending thinness of "mountainous air" this bee is "yellow" and "heavy", one with the pollen which it consumes, but at the same time (to use a favourite word of Oppen's) "curious", its legs "a-dangle" and seemingly inadequate to the weight they support.

Moments such as this are well summed up in a quotation from Erich Heller which Michael Heller had sent to Oppen the year before this poem was written: "What really is appears at such times like the vision of a visionary, and the realism of great poetry becomes 'metaphysical': not, however, by wilfully deserting the physical world, but by being left outside through a peculiar contraction of the circumference of the real".[1] (quoted SL, 411 n.6). Oppen replied: "Your namesake's sentence also very fine These things these things that can sometimes be said ! the direct feel of living replacing the abstract 'soul'. And finds, thereby, the soul. The love of the world" (SL, 253). Yet characteristically, the "feel of living" is not so "direct" after all, mediated as it is by the artifice of the poem and, indeed, by another poem not written by this poet. For in Winter 1973 (and this helps date "Latitude, Longitude"), Oppen was "rapt out of myself" by reading Robert Duncan's recently reissued Caesar's Gate Poems 1949-50, a collection of poems which included (as Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes) "What Is It You have Come to Tell Me, Garcia Lorca?" (SL, 269, 413 n.32). Here Duncan writes that "the golden bees waiting / cross to the land of the dead and back". Oppen is struck not by the mythic associations which fascinate Duncan, but by the richly sensuous character of the bees, golden and "enormous with spirit", as the poem has it. In his letter to Duncan thanking him for the book, Oppen writes that "there'll be bees with their heavy legs and furry bodies and their gold in my mind for the rest of my life" (SL, 269) and that promise was quickly made good in "Latitude, Longitude".

But more than simple sensuousness is prized here. As so often in Oppen's poetry, the encounter with something valued is also bound up with the gradual clarification through cadence of the thought it provokes. This thought is unpredictable (not, Oppen always stresses, a thought in advance of the poem but one fully coterminous with it) and (another favourite word) "precarious" in the sense that it shares in the contingent movements of the world. In his Daybooks, he writes that "The mood by which any work ^of art^ is colored has been produced by the impact of simple events, things falling, air moving, the movements of living water, and stone piled on stone, something balanced momentarily—" (SP, 164), and while this principally provides a helpful gloss on the difficult first stanza of "The Occurrences" (NCP, 212), it also relates to both the awkwardly poised position of the bee and the tricky balancing act by which Oppen negotiates his way from the second to the third stanza: "a-dangle if we could // find all / the gale's evidence". In Oppen's late poems, the caesura characteristically defines a particular rhythm of attention, putting a sudden brake on the flowing enjambment and frustrating the progress of propositional development (note how even a grammatically regular sentence is broken by the caesura: "if we could find all the gale's evidence [,] what message is there for us…", where the break between "evidence" and "what" creates a deliberately awkward disjunction.

And indeed what message is there for us in this discovery of a bee on a mountain-top? As we read on into Myth of the Blaze we shall soon see that the "gale" of the third stanza is the whirl-wind in which God appeared to Job.2 This wind will be invoked in many of the poems in this collection and in Oppen's last book, Primitive, and it always prefigures the astonishing vision God gives to Job of the enormity of His creation, a vision at once wonderful and terrifying. In some of the late poems, Oppen will emphasise the fear that the perpetual "blazing" of the real may produce, a fear linked to humanity's insufficiency and finitude. In "Longitude, Latitude", however, wonder is foremost, and as the title suggests, there is a sense of finding a place to stand when confronted by "the impact of simple events" and the magic of "something balanced momentarily", or, if not exactly a place, a voice, perhaps, with which to speak of it. The "message", then, will not be a message as such – not a moral, not a proposition about something which can be plucked from the "glassy bottles" carried by the ocean – but rather the gradual disclosure of a cadence and form of words which might render the "simple" otherness of things in the world ("the cadence," remarks Oppen, "produces the statement of 'out there"' [SL, 261]).

On this matter, it seems, "the Encyclopedist // was wrong", an error amplified by the ponderous enjambment across two stanzas. The Encyclopedist – Voltaire, not Diderot, as is clear from Oppen's interview with Reinhold Schiffer -- was "wrong" not because he wished to sacrifice poetry to reason, but because in fact he had too elevated a notion of poetry. 3 Voltaire, of course, wrote poetry himself and one of his best-known and most frequently quoted dicta was that "Poetry is the music of the soul, and, above all, of great feeling and feeling souls."4 This, perhaps, is the "dishonest music" whose "long cost" will be deplored in 'The Little Pin: Fragment' (NCP, 254-5), a music which turns out to be "histrionics" rather than "poetry", to use the distinction drawn in Oppen's essay "The Mind's Own Place".5 But the thought in the last stanza of "Latitude, Longitude" is a little more intricate than this suggests: does Oppen mean to say (presumably with gentle irony) that the matter of the bee on top of the mountain might be thought by some to be "foolish" and thus to belong not to the elevated register of poetry as music or "song" but to the "matter-of-fact" manner that "defines" authentic poetry? Has his position shifted significantly, then, from "A Mind's Own Place" where he says in words which are clearly echoed in both his comments to Reinhold Schiffer and in "Longitude, Latitude" itself that "It is possible to say anything in abstract prose, but a great many things one believes or would like to believe or thinks he believes will not substantiate themselves in the concrete materials of the poem" SP, 32)? Here, as in the comment to Schiffer, it would seem that what is "foolish" will not be "substantiated" in the poem which functions as a "test of truth", whereas "Latitude, Longitude" seems to suggest that the thing which seems "foolish" because inordinately "simple" may yet find its place in a language content to "say" rather than to "sing".

This reading is probably a natural one, but it is also, I think, the wrong one, and if we have been misled it is because we have assumed a level of discursive continuity and identity across the poem that in his late work Oppen habitually denies us. After all, it seems reasonable to expect some connection between the initial evocation of the bee and what is subsequently said to be "foolish", but if we do read with that expectation, then we also have to construe Oppen's hyphenated "matter-of-fact" as a reference to his poem's own simplicity of statement. But what if there is no such connection between "saying" and "matter-of-fact"? In that case, the final lines would seem to make the rather different proposal, that since some things are too foolish to be sung but can be said, that possibility of a "matter-of-fact" utterance effectively establishes the difference between prose and poetry upon which the very possibility of "song" might now be said to depend. So the bee, we are glad to find, isn't after all something too "foolish" or trivial to write about, but provides instead the occasion for a poem which, in the words of "Song, The Winds of Downhill", still "may be sung / may well be sung" (NCP, 220). The "lyric valuables" are safe, but only just.

Abbreviations used: NCP: George Oppen: New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002); SL: Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed., Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990); SP: George Oppen: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, ed. and introd. Stephen Cope (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2007).


1 SL, 411 n.6.
2 For a detailed discussion of this motif in Oppen's late work, see my George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), Chapter 7.
3 See Michael Heller, Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen (Cambridge: Salt, 2008), 57 who reads the poem as 'an attack on the rationalist's conception of knowledge as exemplified by Diderot and the encyclopedists'. According to this account, Oppen 'doubts the attempt by the encyclopedists to distinguish [rational] knowledge as the privileged product of reason, one successfully divorced from the so-called subjectivism of poetry.' In Reinhold Schiffer, 'Interview with George Oppen', Sagetrieb, 3. 3 (Winter 1984), 20 Oppen remarks that 'I've said various times that the poem is a test of conviction and I've been tempted to say it's a test of truth. It happens that Voltaire was wrong. Anything at all can be said, you see. There are a great many things which turn out to be too foolish to be sung.'
4 See, for example, Rene Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950, 39.
5 'The Mind's Own Place', SP, 32: 'The distinction between a poem that shows a confidence in itself and in its material, and on the other hand a performance, a speech by the poet, is the distinction between poetry and histrionics.'


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