"The little hole in the eye:"
George Oppen's Critique of Vision

by Grant Matthew Jenkins


In his essay, "Sincerity and Objectification," first published in Poetry magazine in 1931, Louis Zukofsky defines an objectivist poetics in visual terms: "An Objective: (Optics)—The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus" (269). As part of this special issue edited by Zukofsky, George Oppen's work too has been read primarily in the ocular terms initiated by Zukofsky: Specifically, Oppen's poetry presents clear visual images as well as a vision of the world's inescapable ontological reality. In my paper, however, I argue that Oppen's poetry involves an explicit critique of Zukofsky's notion of vision as the primary sense of objectivist poetry. For Zukofsky, vision objectifies because it provides a universal and encompassing perspective, which through his poetry and poetics serves as a way of loving the world but also measuring and containing it. Oppen, on the other hand, demotes vision in his writing due to its propinquity to reduce lyrical subject matter to object and thus exhaust it of its potential to expose us to what is beyond thought, judgment, or measure. This exposure comprises the main goal of Oppen's poetics. Drawing on the critique by Emmanuel Levinas of vision in Western philosophy, I argue that Oppen's demotion of vision within his poetics has an ethical import that challenges the prevailing modern fetishization of sight. Instead of failing Zukofsky's objectivist poetics, Oppen's acknowledgement of the failure of vision in his poetry allows us to rethink the entire experimental poetic tradition in alternative terms, terms that do not value total possession but instead incommensurate otherness.

The second part of the Zukofsky quote above from Poetry is this: "Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars" (269). Emphasizing primarily the totalizing notions of perfection, history, and particularity in this passage, much criticism has overlooked the word "desire" in this famous quote. In asking what does Zukofsky mean by desire, I was drawn to the work of Levinas for whom desire for the Other is a pivotal concept. Shortly after Zukofsky's issue of Poetry, Levinas published his first major book, Existence & Existents, which gives us insight into an alternate current in the 30s and 40s of understandings of "desire." Begun in 1935 but not published until 1947 because of Levinas's imprisonment during the war, Existence & Existents ties desire intimately with the emergence of ethics and justice in "the proximity with another" (ix, xxvii, 98). As opposed to other notions of desire, perhaps that found in Freudian psychoanalysis, defined as need, Levinas understands desire as intending beyond the given world: In desire, one does not possess or lack the Other, instead, one is endlessly drawn toward the Other and ultimately responsible to that Other. (35). To translate this into Zukofsky's terms, desire would not necessarily lead the apprehension of totality; instead, it may lead us to what is not graspable about "historic and contemporary particulars."

Levinas's notion of desire allows us to draw together the threads of critical insights regarding the limitations of the thinking subject, the desire residual in objectification, and the moral responsibility implied in the poetic posture of Objectivist poetics. As his notion of desire develops through the 1950s, Levinas characterizes ethics as the relation to a radical alterity, the absolutely unknowable Other, toward whom the subject is always turned. He then names this turning toward the Other as "Desire," in which the meaning of absoluteness stands in relief:

Desire is absolute if the desiring being is mortal and the Desired invisible. Invisibility does not denote an absence of relation; it implies relations with what is not given, of which there is no idea. Vision is an adequation of the idea with the thing, a comprehension that encompasses. Non-adequation does not denote a simple negation or an obscurity of the idea, but—beyond the light and the night, beyond the knowledge measuring beings—the inordinateness of Desire. (Time and Infinity 34)

The "invisibility" of desire, as Levinas lays it out, can be seen as a "positive" result (if such terms may be used here considering that Desire is beyond positive and negative, Good and Evil, day and night) of the failure of the objectifying, measuring subject. More emphatically, before the failure of thinking, the alterity of the Other, "of which there is no idea," is what sets Desire in motion in me. So, Desire is the relation to an Other before and beyond thought or sight. In addition to this definition, three implications emerge that are relevant to our discussion and that I will discuss in detail: 1) Desire is insatiable in its absoluteness and "inordinateness," 2) Desire, as Desire for the "invisible" Other, precipitates the inadequacy of vision (and measuring) by preventing the marriage of idea with thing, and 3) language (which is not really discussed in this passage but will become clear in the other two points) is the expression and manifestation of Desire itself.

A passage from the second half of Zukofsky's "A-9" (1948-50) — a series of sonnets often taken to exemplify Zukofsky's poetics of immanence and totality — highlights this problem of measured vision as a relation of adequation between word and object, poem and subject matter, subject and world:

An eye to action sees love bear the semblance
Of things, related is equated, —values
The measure all use who conceive love, labor
Men see, abstraction they feel, the resemblance ("A" 108).

Seemingly based on a relational notion of existence, this passage purports to make measure a feeling/seeing of resemblance, which is an act of love, and that act is consummated in the sentence as a whole and in the balance of the stanza as a quatrain. "Measure" in this passage thus exemplifies Zukofsky's totality of values, while "values" as a verb makes "measure" the ultimate goal of action. Unmistakably, Zukofsky contextualizes measure here with words that imply closure and adequation: the word "all" is universalizing and totalizing, while "semblance," "resemblance," "equated," and "see" all imply the adequation of (visual) representation to thing. In fact, the poem states quite clearly that "related is equated." In other words, the measure (of the poem) conceives and bears the labor of things—the measure is equal to what is measured. Almost literally, the poem is sealed within its own enclosure.

Unlike Zukofsky, Oppen poetry never provides us with such closure; in fact, it continually dramatizes the failure of totality implied in vision. But to understand this failure as ethical rather than as human frailty, we must reconsider how vision works in objectivist poetics. In the earlier passage in which he defines Desire, Levinas undoes the priority of vision, which is the main sensory stimulus for the Objectivist poets, by invoking the Desirable as "invisible," a theologically charged version of the Other who is transcendent like God. The Other for Levinas must be "invisible" because vision, as theorized in the history of philosophy, has become the privileged mode of relating to the world; the problem arises when what is seen is taken for the totality of what is. In other words, vision objectifies because it takes its perspective to be universal and encompassing, which leads us to a failure of ethics, the violent exclusion of otherness. In order to conceive of an ethical relation to the Other, then, vision must be demoted from its primary and founding position in the phenomenology of relations. This does not mean that sight has no place in the subject's being in the world; it simply means that it is not the first way of relating to the Other. Desire, beyond the measuring eye and brain, rises then to a new status in ethics, and such a move is prevalent, I believe, in Objectivist poetics.1

As Oppen somewhat ironically states, "We see. And so we possess the earth" (NCP>/i> 86). Vision is portrayed as the only way to bring reality into focus, yet the problem for objectivism is that even sight is inadequate and possibly violent—it leads to the hubris of the fantasy of possession. Not all that can be seen, Oppen implies, can be mediated or articulated, nor can everything within a field be seen or translated into visual terms. The problem may be stated like this: Vision is limited by perspective and judgment, yet vision assumes that what it sees exhausts and stands for "reality." As an act of possession, as Oppen describes it, vision's attempt to encompass, totalize, and know is rendered impotent by the Other who, infinite and radically different, is beyond such visual measuring. In the apocalyptic poem, "Time of the Missile," Oppen exposes the destructive tandem of sight and knowledge:

Place of the mind
And eye. Which can destroy us,
Re-arrange itself, assert
Its own stone reaction.     (NCP 70)

This example shows the enclosing, destructive aspect of vision which is made complicit with nuclear technology, in that the pronoun "which" can refer to the "eye," the "mind," and to the bomb. The eye can destroy as quickly as weapons of mass destruction. The metaphors of vision also function the same way in Oppen's poetry as they do in Zukofsky. In the poem titled "The Little Hole," which is one of "Five Poems about Poetry" in This In Which (1965), Oppen inscribes the inadequacy of the poet or the poem to totalize the world through

The little hole in the eye
Williams called it, the little hole

Has exposed us naked
To the world

And will not close

Blankly the world
Looks in

And we compose

And the sense

Of home
And there are those

In it so violent
And so alone

They cannot rest       (NCP 101).

The multiple themes of this poem depend upon Oppen's use of ambiguous pronoun reference. The "it" in the third-to-last line refers to, among other things, the pupil, little hole in the eye itself. However, Oppen reverses the direction of vision: sight functions not the active operation of the observer; instead, vision violently exposes us – the "they," those so alone – to the things in the world. Not only are "they" so enmeshed violently in "it," the world, that "they cannot rest," but the world violates them in return by seeing them "naked." This not Zukofsky's ideal scene of the virile subject objectifying, measuring, and loving the world through his incisive vision. In fact, the world looks in our "little hole" whether we like it or not–we are subject to the gaze of the Other, the proper meaning of "subject" in a Levinasian context.

In addition to the lonely subject, the "it" of the third-to-last line of the poem also refers to the poem itself or, more precisely, what is composed: those very things in the world are in the sight of the poem so "violent" (an adverb modifying how they are, not only an adjective describing "those") that "they [things] cannot rest." This slippery "it" implies that the violence is inflected by the poem in its desire to see and that the poem perpetrates the violence of possession. Paradoxically, though, vision is a failure for Oppen. Desire prevents seeing from being violent to the world because the desired object is never really seen but is the seer, so sight does not bring totality and rest (as for Zukofsky) but unrest, separation, and Desire. "They" can refer also to the Objectivist poets, who cannot rest in their desire to see things as they are. The confusion caused by unclear pronoun reference makes vision an act of unrest (failure) more than a simple act of mastery (success). In either case, the "rested totality" of Zukofsky's objectification is rendered impotent by the very spectacular desire to see.

Likewise, even if everything in the world is available to sight, as in this passage from Oppen's 36th section in "Of Being Numerous," sight cannot exhaust the otherness of the Other:

Tho the world
Is the obvious, the seen
And unforeseeable,
That which one cannot
Not see

Which the first eyes

For us
Also each
Man or woman
Near is

Tho it may be of the noon's
Own vacuity

–and the mad, too, speak only of the conspiracy
and people talking–

And if those paths
Of the mind
Cannot break

It is not the wild glare
Of the world even that one dies in (NCP 185-86).

The "unforeseeable" is obvious yet not in the world, like death or "each man or woman," for they are inexplicable, or in Levinas's word, "Other." 2 Oppen expresses in this poem an implicit paradox here in seeing: these things, "the seen and unforeseeable," are "that which one cannot not see;" i.e., Death is everywhere, people are all over, yet such "things" do not lie in "the wild glare of the world." The "Glare" is a doubled one as in "Little Hole:" first, the sense of the subject looking at the world and, second, of the world looking at you. Thus, we have the dramatization characteristic of objectivist poetics of the self being called into question by the Other. These unforeseeable others are, even in their conspicuousness, the mark of the beyond–invisible, beyond sight, yet desired in the poem.

In fact, that the unforeseeable others are beyond sight prompts Desire in Oppen's poetry. Even the metaphors that describe "things" cannot escape this slippage from sight to Desire:

Or see thru water
Clearly the pebbles
Of the beach
Thru the water, flowing
From the ripple, clear
As ever they have been ("Of Being Numerous 26," NCP 179).

This passage about clarity is not as clear as it claims to be. The problem with this metaphor of the beach, often cited as representative of the process of objectification, seems to be that of intention. The poem longs not to present the reader with the rock, sand, and foam of the beach but, rather, with the clarity achieved in representing those objects. The poet wants us to "see" what he means, desires to intend meaning, not visual mimeticism, so clarity is not something through which we see objects; it gives sight itself, and the desire to present meaning is itself clarity. Yet, presenting meaning itself as an object presents problems for Oppen. In the 22nd section of "Of Being Numerous," Oppen explains what he means by "clarity:"


In the sense of transparence,
I don't mean that much can be explained.

Clarity in the sense of silence      (NCP 175).

Rather than being that which is seen, clarity here requires transparence, or the disappearance of the apparatus that enables seeing. In this context, this apparatus is the poet's sensory and perceptive organs, yet at the moment that such absence is called for, the "I" must return to account for the words that can't explain much, and this return attempts to explain by not explaining. Ultimately, the clarity lies in "silence," beyond words, sight, and representation because the desire for immediate objectivity cannot be spoken. Thus desire works here as the return to (and reworking of) a supplement in the form of visual metaphors. Because visual clarity must result in silence, Oppen's poem suggests that language does not and cannot re-present the world; rather, language bears a desire that, in its brilliance, exposes the failure of sight. This failure is the mark of the poet's desire for otherness beyond vision.

At the point when the violence of vision seems so inescapable, Oppen's objectivist poetry renders vision incapable of totalizing otherness, which, of course, puts into question many readings of Zukofsky's theoretical writings. However, this critique is not simply a rejection of vision; rather, the disparity between visual representation and the object enables what Don Byrd calls "a generative source of abundance" (33). 3 Thus, the vision that Zukofsky places at the center of objectivism is necessary for its own failure and overcoming in the production, not of a thing, but of Desire. In the poetry, this overcoming occurs as a failure of vision: the dependence upon visual metaphor leads to the failure of vision. For metaphor relies on describing something in terms of what it is not and is a re-presentation whose relation to the object presented is tenuous. Edward Said, in The World, the Text, and the Critic, states that "writing therefore cannot represent the visible, but it can desire and, in a manner of speaking, move toward the visible without actually achieving the unambiguous directness of an object seen before one's eyes" (101). The ensuing "blindness" exudes a desire for "true" sight, but it is only desire that can "move us toward the visual." In Levinas's terms, the invisibility of the Other causes me to desire (TI 34), so the Other is crucial to the inadequacy of vision. This desire is enacted in Oppen's poetry by that "manner of speaking" which we call metaphoric. For Oppen, the metaphor of vision is not the comfortable end of a poetics, but the beginning of a troubled ethical relation to a demanding world.


1 See also Hooker who points out that Oppen's poetry is "not primarily visual" (97-8).

2 In Oppen's use of the word "unforeseeable," we can see the difference from Heidegger's use of "unforeseen," as read by Fredman. The former implies an impossibility of ever being seen. The Ineffable analogized from sound to sight.

3 Although Byrd is speaking here of the tension between speech and writing, the disparity has the same effect in the visual field. In fact, the two (visual and textual) may not be distinct.

Works Cited

Byrd, Don. "The Poetry of Production." Sagetrieb 2 (1983): 7-43.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Existence and Existents. Pittsburgh, Pa: Duquesne UP, 2001.

_____. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonzo Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.

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

Said, Edward. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.

Zukofsky, Louis. “A.” Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

Zukofsky, Louis. “Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff.” Poetry 37 (1931): 268-85.


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