A Note on "The Lighthouses"

  by Mark Scroggins


"The Lighthouses," which appears in the final Myth of the Blaze section of Oppen's Collected Poems, was almost certainly written in the first half of the 1970s. It shares a phrase, "neither Roman / nor Barbarian," with "Semite," which Peter Nicholls dates to the period of the Yom Kippur War (October 1973), and the second half of its dedication — "(for L Z in time of the breaking of nations)" — indicates a period of military strife. "The breaking of nations" is from Jeremiah 51.20: "Thou art my battle-axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations"; but more proximately the phrase is from a haunting little poem of Thomas Hardy's, written in the second year of the Great War:

In Time of 'the Breaking of Nations'


Only a man harrowing clods
        In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
        Half asleep as they stalk.


Only thin smoke without flame
        From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
        Though Dynasties pass.


Yonder a maid and her wight
        Come whispering by;
War's annals will cloud into night
        Ere their story die.

The persistence of the quotidian in the midst of the Dynasts' wars; the cycles of agrarian labor, the ever-renewed "story" of adolescent love and desire, these are the "low" epos — Hardy implies — that will outlast the annals of nations and world-historical figures (like Napoleon, whose career Hardy had dramatized the decade before in his massive The Dynasts). In the time of "the breaking of nations," perhaps the poet should reserve some of his attention for the human experiences that escape the history books.

"if you want to say no say / no if you want to say yes say yes," Oppen begins "The Lighthouses," and it is here that the significance of the poem's dedication becomes clear. The word's are more or less Louis Zukofsky's, from a May 1968 interview with L. S. Dembo. Dembo had asked him, "What do you mean, you got rid of epistemology in Bottom [: on Shakespeare]? The work seems to me to be all epistemology." To which Zukofsky replied, (mis)quoting his own "The Old Poet Moves to a New Apartment 14 Times": "'The questions are their own answers.' You want to say 'yes,' say 'yes'; you want to say 'no,' say 'no."'

Zukofsky's words may seem delivered ex cathedra; indeed, they rephrase the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus's condemnation of the verbal display of extravagant swearing: "But let your communication be, 'Yea, yea'; 'Nay, nay': for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" (Matthew 5.37). (The version of this admonition in the Epistle of James 5.12 is also close to Zukofsky's formulation: "But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay: lest ye fall into condemnation.") The Dembo interview is frankly a comedy of crossed wires, Zukofsky insisting again and again on the fundamental straightforwardness of his writing, Dembo constantly puzzled and tangled in the obliquities of Zukofsky's poetry.

By the time of the composition of "The Lighthouses," Zukofsky and Oppen's friendship — the intense exchange of ideas of the late 1920s, the collaboration on To, Publishers and The Objectivist Press, the whole Objectivist "moment" of shared artistic endeavor of the early 1930s — was long in the past. The two men were no longer speaking — or at least, Zukofsky was no longer speaking to Oppen. Dembo had hoped to arrange a conference of the four original Objectivists (Zukofsky, Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff) at Madison in 1968; Zukofsky would not appear with the other three. In 1964 he had refused to read on a double bill with Oppen at the Guggenheim Museum.

It is abundantly clear that Zukofsky resented Oppen's return to poetry after his nine-year exile in Mexico; more precisely, that he resented his immediate return to publication with 1962's The Materials. While Oppen had taken a quarter-century sabbatical from poetry after 1934's Discrete Series, Zukofsky had continued steadily to write in the face of scant public encouragement; by the time he and Oppen reestablished their friendship in 1958, Zukofsky had become considerably embittered, not least at the difficulties he encountered in seeing his poetry published. He enormously resented that New Directions (in collaboration with the San Francisco Review, published by Oppen's sister June Oppen Degnan), who were printing Oppen, Reznikoff, and Rakosi, would not publish his collected short poems. It is this resentment — what one might class among the vicissitudes, ultimately, of "pobiz" — that lay at the root of Zukofsky's break with Oppen.

Oppen was personally saddened by Zukofsky's rejection; but his differences with his older contemporary were ultimately deeper than arguments over publication. After his hiatus, Oppen had returned to writing a poetry that had little in common with the corruscating complexities of Zukofsky's work, early and late. The watchword was "clarity," "a substantial language / Of clarity, and of respect" ("A Narrative"). In "Route" Oppen wrote, "Clarity, clarity, sure clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world, / A limited, limiting clarity // I have not and never did have any motive of poetry / But to achieve clarity." Such clarity, he felt, had little part in Zukofsky's poetry. "I stripped myself," he wrote in a Daybook, "while you, Louis, have hung on yourself every fancy rag you could find." And it was more than a matter of ornamentation; on some level, Oppen believed that Zukofsky "used incomprehensibility and obscurity as a tactic" (Mary Oppen's words), a purposeful obfuscation.

One can only imagine with what emotions (scorn? disgust?) Oppen would have read "A"-22 and -23, those two 1000-line, intensely compacted, relentlessly quotational, relentlessly obscure capstones to Zukofsky's "A", which Zukofsky had completed around the same time he was writing "The Lighthouses." I suspect the two men were no longer reading one another at all.

But not quite at all: for "The Lighthouses" records a moment when Oppen, rereading the interviews Dembo had published in Contemporary Literature in 1969 as "The 'Objectivist' Poet: Four Interviews," found Zukofsky enunciating his own principles of "clarity," his own vision of the poet whose "yes" is "yes" and whose "no" is "no," whose probity of speech serves as "lights // of safety for the coasts // are danger…" Despite their estrangement, the two men share at least two essentials: their Jewish heritage, their status as "neither Roman // nor barbarian" (in Oppen's paraphrase of Decimius Magnus Ausonius), and their sense of the valuable musicality of the poem — "the turn the cadence the verse / and the music…" And more important than these, and in memory of the most important friendship of his youth ("He taught me everything," Mary Oppen quotes her husband on Zukofsky), Oppen celebrates a moment in which Zukofsky looks past the "fancy rags" of his late modernist poetics and agrees with Oppen in an assertion of "essential // clarity plain glass ray / of darkness ray of light."

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