Ultimately the air / Is bare sunlight where must be found / The lyric valuables. From disaster // Shipwreck, whole families crawled / To the tenements, and there / Survived by what morality / Of hope // Which for the sons / Ends its metaphysic / In small towns of home.
from AMERICAN POETRY: the twentieth century, volume 2. Library of America, 2000
FRAME OF REFERENCE Without granting that horror is the first word or the last, I would say that these two directionalities [up and down] have to be acknowledged and traversed: we must go down into the darkness, we must climb again into the light above us; there must be reversion to the idiocy, there must be the extroversion to the others of love; there must indeed be the supervision, if that is a word, the elevation of erotic to the superior. The intimate is never out of play, the universal is sometimes occluded but not dissolute. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 307.
Beginning with his mother’s suicide when he was four, George Oppen (1908-1984) suffered mutability in various circumstances but there’s a golden thread of lyric transcendence running through it all. Today his poems quietly tell the story of lyric resourcefulness in the American century. Amidst all the “no’s” he kept saying “yes.” He joined the Communist party and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, earning a Purple Heart. His alliances with experimental poets like Pound and Zukofs helped him become known for small celebrations of “the small hours / Crying faith.”
“From Disaster” exhibits his gift for phrasing. Both musical in the clarity of its syntax and startling in the large clarities of its narrative, the poem begins where many end and becomes more urgent with every stroke. It unwinds from the classic chiasmus invented by Augustine — outward to inward, lower to higher, with the metaxological finesse revealing the lower in the higher. (We’ve recently noticed this version in the Daoist text of the Zhuangzi.) And the sonority increases stroke by stroke.
I emphasize this form of forms (chiasmus) because Oppen’s alliance with the Objectivism of Zukofsky may tempt one to categorize it as Movement poetry. On the contrary, it draws strength from recognizing the archaeology of the good, and this strength has an open unequivocal tenderness toward the flesh often lacking in modernist poetry. Oppen seems impervious to the corrosion of modernist nihilism. Here the lyric movement through equivocities of language (bare sunlight/lyric valuables) and historical dialectic (shipwreck) become ground for “that morality of hope,” which threatens to harden the lyric to the opening of its energies to erotic flowering.
The tonal complexities of the final stanza do not preempt a more doctrinaire nihilism of the suburbs. Notice the care taken: FOR THE SONS evokes a biblical point of view and it’s not reassuring. That “morality of hope” is not a given — WHAT morality?—WHICH ends ….then the final perplexingly luminous image. Lyric takes no prisoners. But the self has been emptied of terror. Finesse always already seals the lyric from ideological invasion, reduction, resentment.
That said, as Desmond suggests in the FRAME OF REFERENCE, through all the musts of the contingencies of life, “the intimate is never out of play.” Oppen’s openness to the great experiences of his time paradoxically prepared him as a poet to leave behind him lyrics perfect in their kind. One might say in clumsy praise that he saw through the egoism of Eros to the intimate universality of kindness.