LYRIC PERFORMANCE George Oppen “In Memoriam George Reznikoff”

who wrote / in the great world // small for this is a way // to enter / the light on the kitchen // tables wide- // spread as the mountains’ / light this is // heroic this is/ the poem // to write // in the great / world small

from New collected Poems edited by Michael Davidson, Preface by Eliot Weinberger (New Directions 2008)

FRAME OF REFERENCE When one refers to something neither universal nor particular, one thinks of the schema in Kant (in the Critique of Pure Reason) as a between in that regard. The schema somehow partakes of both the understanding and the sensuous, and is neither one nor the other. If we fixate on these two, and if we fix them, we fail to realize that more important is the power that passes between them. This has something to do with the imagination. This is a threshold power that is not a self-determining power— it is an endowed power, an enabling that itself is secretly enabled by a source it cannot enable by itself alone. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (University of Columbia Press 2016), 77

George Oppen (1908-1984) remains after a spectacularly varied life a poet’s poet. Throughout his life — which included a long silence preoccupied by ideological struggle within the new international Communist movement—he fashioned poems that had a personal purity about them. “Sincerity” captured what he valued in the modern American movement starting with Pound, whom he visited in his thirties and with whom he honorably and openly disagreed.

His late poem for fellow “Objectivist” Charles Reznikoff suggests both the virtues and vices of the style. For all its simplicity of outline it asserts propositions and depends on universals, assertion and dependence being a little contrary to the devotion to objective things. (Oppen loved mechanical things, especially small boats which he sailed with his wife Mary, and once built a car that was also a boat.)

From the metaxical point of view explored in this blog, perhaps too much has been sacrificed. The lyric narrative here lacks the characteristic energetic shaping of the sequence from equivocity through dialectics. Call it minimalism, it draws on the logic of will: small for this is a way // to enter/ the light … The little word for is the load-bearing member.

Performance is essential to this poetics; indeed it must be taken on faith as presented. It serves the lyric’s central figure of speech. And the per-formance reveals that, like many lyrics, the poem depends on analogy for its power: the kitchen tables — note the lack of apostrophe—wide-/spread as the mountains’ / light… (Note the apostrophe.) The comparison by virtue of the incomparability of the lights, we are entering the “widespread” by writing small, so something in light must be the unknown in the suppressed analogy. This is obscure but tantalizingly heroic.

The image is of tables widespread as mountains. The poem implies the light they share makes the difference. As the tables are to the mountains, the light on the tables is to the light on the mountains?

The value of “small” is not differentiated through the lyric narrative: it is asserted and illustrated. Historically this might be classified as “imagism.” Philosophically? In a poem which literally “points,” the climaxing word “heroic” is served by the self-affirming gesture “this” (see Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §45).

In its final lines the poem reasserts its theme not by lyric going beyond thinking (the poem in some sense only gestures towards the finite other) but by literal repetition, which perhaps draws on “repetition of” formula as performed in heroic rhetoric.

But as devoted, as it were, to “the small” in the great world” this poem addressed to his comrade exhibits the characteristic modesty of George Oppen himself. And his metaphysical chops. The devotion is real, the poem charming, the chops an untold story in the history of American lyric, and Oppen a poet worth returning to for what he does and doesn’t say.

Finally, the FRAME OF REFERENCE provides the most generous context for appreciating Oppen’s imagination as more than gesture. It has something to do with imagination, though that’s not part of the program.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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