‘The Labor of Revision’: George Oppen’s Sincerity

If the lyric is an instrument of intelligible purpose, and not merely a collection of unsorted verbal fragments, it issues claims to value of some kind and becomes by that fact persuasive and hence rhetorical (Moore 429-30).

The act of testing and the meaning of sincerity were central concerns for George Oppen, as he himself repeatedly claimed in interviews and otherwise indicated in his daybooks and drafts. The 1963 essay ‘The Mind’s Own Place’ specifies many of his own preferences in this regard, even as its rather gnomic qualities still fail to fully clarify them. That essay is, along with his ‘Statement on Poetics’ (1975), amongst the only sustained prose the poet ever wrote concerning prosody and versification. Positioned at a tangent awkward to what is now accepted as canonical modernism, the essay variously mixes endorsements of, with reservations about, modernism’s leading practitioners. At one point Oppen takes aim simultaneously at T. S. Eliot’s conception of the ‘objective correlative’ and Ezra Pound’s imagism, when he writes:

It is possible to find an image for anything, an analogue: but the image is encountered, not found; it is an account of the poet’s perception, the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness (Selected Prose, Daybooks and Drafts 31-2).

Oppen was unabashed in his pursuit of authenticities and truths. His poems, he admits with something more than an iota of embarrassment, were all about ‘this same thing […] Poems about human vision which creates the human universe […] But it is --- O, I do blush, me da pena [it pains me] --- talking about “being”’ (Selected Letters 30-1). Because of his earnestness I think he largely dismissed Eliot (who usually meant his disingenuousness seriously) in favour of thinking more concertedly about the propositions of and consequences for poetic sincerities as suggested by Pound. In fact, I read much of ‘The Mind’s Own Place’ as written in response to Pound’s declaration in the ‘Credo’ section of the 1918 essay ‘A Retrospect’ that ‘I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity’ (Literary Essays 9). Oppen cites with approval what he saw as a modernist attempt to redress the slide of verse written by preceding generations into a ‘rhetoric of exaggeration’ by restoring to it the ‘data of experience’. For modernism, Oppen thought, however hugely and vaguely construed, shifted the means of establishing sincerity away from some purported authenticity of voice and onto things themselves; such restored actuality, Oppen believed, turned the making of poems into ‘a skill of accuracy, of precision, a test of truth’ (SPDP 30).

But Oppen might also have been thinking of Pound—in particular, Pound’s pro-Fascist propaganda speeches delivered on Rome Radio from January 1941 until July 1943—when he wrote in the same essay (Oppen’s esteem of Pound was always profoundly ambivalent):

The distinction between a poem that shows confidence in itself and in its materials, and on the other hand a performance, a speech by the poet, is the distinction between poetry and histrionics. It is a part of the function of poetry to serve as a test of truth. 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 (SPDP 32).

Oppen therefore detected in Pound a certain ‘immun[ity] to the ‘real’ world’ (SPDP 32) managed by a persistent desire to locate validity in passionate expression. ‘There are’, Oppen writes, ‘as poetry intends, clear pictures of the world in verse, which means only to be clear, to be honest, to produce a realization of reality and to construct a form out of no desire for the trick of gracefulness’ (SPDP 32).

Here, the intentional force of meaning must come from the verse itself, not the personality that issues it. More importantly, what sounds like a reinvestment in imagism was, in fact, not. There existed bona fide quarrels between these two poets over the terms of the discourse they otherwise ostensibly shared. Sincerity and image are contested particularly. For it must be noted in Pound’s pronouncement that technique is a test of a man’s sincerity, which is to say, someone’s sincerity. Here Pound is using the word in the modern way, to mean a person’s lack of dissimulation, feigning and pretence. It also implies, when this person also happens to compose verse, a poetry uncontaminated by the rhythms of others. In the ‘Credo’ Pound also says:

I believe in an ‘absolute rhythm’, a rhythm, that is, in poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed. A man’s rhythm is interpretative, it will be, therefore, in the end, his own, uncounterfeiting, uncounterfeitable (LE 9).

This early mandate towards authentically ‘meaning it’ in poems looks backwards to Whitman’s notion that ‘great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks and by the justification of perfect personal candor’ (Leaves of Grass ix), and anticipates Pound’s later interest for the ethical-aesthetic procedures as defined in Confucius’s Great Learning, which expected righteous princes to cultivate their own purities of spirit, and to manage this through rigorous introspection that results in ‘getting to the bottom of principles and motivations for actions’ (Ta Hio 6); Pound sought to ground this relation in natural methods of ideogrammic metaphor.

According to Lionel Trilling in his Norton Lectures, Sincerity and Authenticity, this model of sincerity, so far as it exists in the Occident, can be traced back to Shakespeare. In Hamlet, Polonius tells Laertes

This above all: to thine own self be true
And it doth follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man
                                   (Act I, Scene iii, lines 78-80)

That Shakespeare gives these lines to such a meretricious character mischievously complicates the moral inscribed therein. Still, in either example of this kind of sincerity, the agent in question plays a role—ruler, in the former case, and, wise counsel or father, and even quite literally, actor, in the latter. I suppose, therefore, that Oppen detected in Pound’s admittedly extreme re-examinations of the various technologies of subjectivity a lingering histrionic that remained radically ‘un-self-testing’, transparently expecting his truths to be both legible to, and then shared by, others. Furthermore, Pound was unable, quite simply, to hold still. In the search for oneself by means of sincere self-expression, Pound writes in Gaudier-Brzeska, one says

‘I am’ this, that or the other, and with the words scarcely uttered one ceases to be that thing. I That Shakespeare gives these lines to such a meretricious character mischievously complicates the moral inscribed therein. Still, in either example of this kind of sincerity, the agent in question plays a role—ruler, in the former case, and, wise counsel or father, and even quite literally, actor, in the latter. I suppose, therefore, that Oppen detected in Pound’s admittedly extreme re-examinations of the various technologies of subjectivity a lingering histrionic that remained radically ‘un-self-testing’, transparently expecting his truths to be both legible to, and then shared by, others. Furthermore, Pound was unable, quite simply, to hold still. In the search for oneself by means of sincere self-expression, Pound writes in Gaudier-Brzeska, one says began this search for the real in a book called Personae, casting off, as it were, complete masks of the self with each poem (85).

This notion of sincerity certainly belies Pound’s stated desires for poetics of an otherwise objective manner. Yet Pound’s emphasis on a word of such ambiguous meaning—Trilling remarks that ‘sincerity’ is so overused we risk failing to define it (11)—suggests he is being at once impishly opaque and confidently arrogant about his ability to restore to the word a degree of lost integrity.

Unlike Pound, Oppen does not speak of sincerity as an attribute or characteristic of a person. Rather, he says that an encountered image is itself a test of sincerity, a test of conviction. Oppen therefore rephrases Pound’s dictum by replacing the word ‘technique’ with the word ‘image’, i.e., something performed by an agent with something merely phenomenal and perceived (the extent to which perception itself is not also an act of volition is, for Oppen, an enduring conundrum). Oppen places the expressive subject—the ‘man’ in Pound’s formulation whose sincerity is tested by technique—under a kind of Heideggerian erasure. And Oppen is able to do this—to delete, as it were, the performative aspect of sincerity—because he understands its meaning in a rather more archaic way than Pound. Though never anything like a philological poet, in ‘The Mind’s Own Place’ Oppen took sincerity to mean not just that which is pure, clean and uncorrupted, but more importantly, he thought the word applied only in reference to things, and in particular, poems, and not to persons or poets. This estimation of sincerity, that a poem can be sincere, but that a poet need not be, is consistent with Oppen’s well-known definition of ‘objectivism’: a word that does not refer to some purported ‘objectivity’, but to an idea that poems themselves are objects. All of which is to say Oppen takes the poiesis in poetry literally.

This distinction between sincerity as an albeit totally renovated expressive strategy, as in Pound, and sincerity as a feature of reality external to a human being’s capacity to express, was vital. Pound took sincerity, as in The Great Digest as ‘the sun’s lance coming to rest on the precise spot verbally’ (Confucius 20), as a mechanism for definition, where the ‘lance’ suggests a cutting open or penetrative force (later, Rock-Drill). At the same time, consistent with that perhaps spurious etymology of sine cera, without wax, Pound was unafraid of imperfections. Oppen, perhaps counterintuitively, was in some ways more of an idealist when it came to the material universe, believing that impenetrability was a virtue capable of value—the following note notwithstanding: ‘i think a poem should seem to be the work of a man who really means to drive a nail — not to posture or show off’ (SPDP 179). As Peter Nicholls suggested to me recently, the etymological sine carie, without damage, is more appropriate to Oppen’s practice overall. For Oppen ‘It is the poem[,] the structure of meaning[,] which restores the words to clarity. The word is the burden’ (SPDP 69). Words themselves are, perhaps even like the letters that comprise them, without determinable meaning. They are, in that sense, pure. Oppen frets incessantly about the mystery, or the inscrutable opacity of the phenomenal world where words resist the intelligence as a stone weighs in the hand:

(the universe))

withdraws withdrew , and will not live, but holds
its strength, its height, its distances (SPDP 210).

Let me try to say this as plainly as I can: unlike Pound, for example, Oppen was much more worried about fundamental questions of ontology. In ‘World, World—’ he writes ‘The self is no mystery, the mystery is | That there is something to stand on’ (NCP 159). Pound never mistrusted the existence of the phenomenal world that way. For Pound, sincerity is a vexed critical term that applies to the individual as ego, because getting that ego’s meaning across with emphatic accuracy was what concerned him most; for Oppen, sincerity is a vexed critical term that applies to words as things, because their mere existence and meaning was for him an essential risk for communication as such:

…One man could not understand me because I was saying
simple things; it seemed to him that nothing was being
said. I was saying: there is a mountain, there is a lake (NCP 197)

One main criticism Oppen made of Pound was to suggest the latter never had occasion to mistrust the world because he never really looked hard enough. For Oppen, writing was literally auto-didactic: ‘the poet learns almost everything from his own verse, his own prosody’ (SPDP 48). Oppen was always concerted in his efforts—efforts which Pound, in his prefatory remarks to Discrete Series (1934), both advocated in general and identified as particularly operative in Oppen’s verse—not to subscribe needlessly to facts pre-exiting the poem’s composition. ‘i do not mean to prescribe an opinion an idea, but to record the experience of thinking it’ (SPDP 88). On a foolscap sheet in the UCSD archives the point is made even more explicitly:

Pound’s copiousness, for Pound knew what he thought     The fact
ruined much.     (but when the wasp takes him by surprise - - ) !
               whereas for me the writing of the poem is the process of
finding out what I mean, discovering what I mean - - THIS IS
the labor of revision)) (UCSD 16, 24, 14)

Pound’s program was to carry the imperative ‘know thyself’ into action (Confucius 21). Oppen has not been alone in finding this aspect of Pound problematic. Many critics have recognised a certain alienation between belief and fact in Pound’s purported accuracies.

So, whereas Pound sought meaning in relational complexity, and wrote The Cantos to work out some problems involved in that, Oppen sought to investigate matter and its truth poetically (depending on your outlook this is evidence of either intellectual integrity or category error). ‘It’s just one thing’, Oppen wrote to his sister June, of his central problematic in writing verse. ‘Not enormous’ (Letters 21). Neither were the poems. To this modesty he was resigned. From ‘Route:

Of it, the word it, never more powerful that in this
moment. Well, hardly an epiphany, but there the thing
is all the same (NCP 199).

Upon closer inspection into what Pound means by ‘image’, and what Oppen means by that term, another interesting division emerges. According to Pound, an image belongs not to the physical, material world outside of human beings and poets but properly to speech. Nicholls has rightly observed that ‘[f]ar from being an object this “thing” is actually the complex itself which constitutes the image, a verbal and affective assemblage whose syntax incorporates literal spacing’ (‘Poetics’ 57).1 In a significant passage from Gaudier-Brzeska Pound contends that:

The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language […] [O]ne is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective (88-9).

For Pound, image is closer to parole than critics have tended to acknowledge, and based on the larger idea that poetry is a medium in which one writes what or as one thinks (though for Pound ‘thinking’ is not dissimilar from arranging): ‘an image is a super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another’ (GB 89). The image is not an idea per se, but the expression of thought. But it remains testable by speech.

Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity […] nothing you couldn’t, in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say (Selected Letters 48-9).

Conversely Oppen, it is important to note, is absolutely not interested in replicating speech in his poems. His project aimed at a reconfiguration of lyric voice into an order that essentially avoided the allure of verbal rapidity and fluency. Oppen sought to eschew the immediacy of Pound’s image: ‘an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’ (LE 4) or any other such swift perception of relations (Fenollosa Chinese Character 22) important to the efficacity of interpretive metaphors. Implicit in that rejection is a pledge to evade discursiveness: ‘Poetry must be at least as well written as prose, etc. It must also be as good as dead silence’ (qtd. in DuPlessis 123), as Oppen said in a revision of Pound’s mandate. Oppen’s push to circumvent any reliance upon ‘ready-made symbols and images which short-circuit the experience of reality’ (UCSD 16. 24. 3) leads him to take a stance radically opposed to Pound’s. Speech, or even rhythm, is too quick to measure the complexities of the world.

Images in Oppen’s poems—whilst, with Pound, patently not verbal representations of visual phenomena (let’s just kick that idea out for good)—might in large part be described as ‘not speech’, as anti-speech or the inability to speak, as some kind of aestheticised aphasia. I am even tempted to suggest that Oppen tries to ‘image’ in his poems something akin to language itself, so that in reading his poems the experience that comes through is irreducibly the experience of language. He wrote:

For me, in the beginning of the forming of the poem there are no words     and I despair of words - - I find perhaps one          it becomes or I hope it becomes, or I hope it will become, the centre of the circle (or the space) in my mind (UCSD 16.32.8).

The trick of gracefulness is refused from the beginning. In an interview for American Poetry Review, Oppen

1 Nicholls continues: ‘An otherwise straightforward piece of technical advice is thus complicated by yet another claim for the exteriority of the poem’s origin. Indeed, even when Pound speaks in his proposition of “direct treatment of the ‘thing’”, his scare quotes (a warning so far ignored by all commentators) indicate he is thinking not of a material object to be visually represented, but of the basic ‘poetic fact’ in which the poem is deemed to originate’ (‘Poetics’ 57).

said, this time defining himself against William Carlos Williams: ‘I precisely lack Williams’s sense of his own personal grace and the sureness of his own mannerisms. Nor do I want them’ (11). Instead, we are confronted with verse that is, as Heidegger wrote, ‘pledged to the unsaid’. Any survey of the oeuvre will discover poems that unmistakably labour beneath the weight of their obligations to words; this condition is also elevated to a theme. Such lines are representative:


If you can

Speak (NCP 168)

If you can
Oppen jotted amongst his daybooks and papers a note instructive on this point: ‘The moment you have said a word, it is not language or not yours: it contains you, it is something that contains you[.] [T]he etchnical [sic] names’ (UCSD 16.24.7). Here language and being interpolate one another; the neologism ‘etchnical’, combining the penetrative task of ‘etching’ with ‘techniques’ of saying, is symptomatic of this condition. It must be said however that when it came to versification, it was a signature move, especially in Oppen’s later verse, to use enjambment and even new strophes to open interstices within syntactic—and therefore discursive, spoken—units, while at the same time to push the edges of disparate syntactic units together. To further impede the speaking of poems, Oppen took to deleting punctuation so that the integrity of the line is constantly under question, and might we say, revision?

STRANGE ARE THE PRODUCTS           of draftsmanship     zero
that perfect


of distances terible [sic]

thru the airs small very
small alien

on the sidewalks thru the long
time of deaths

and anger

of the streets leading

to streets brutal pitifully

brutal the swaggering
streets you cannot

know all

my love of you o my dear
friend unafraid

in saturnalia   All
hallows Eve more

beautiful most
beautiful found

here saturnalia the poem
of the woman the man our dark

skull bones’ joy in the small
huge dark the

glory of joy in the small
huge dark (NCP 282)

It is almost as though in avoiding discursive structures in the poems, he also could avoid the paradox of being a poet, i.e., of having to say something, on the one hand, and feeling entirely uncomfortable with such an activity on the other. I think Oppen does succeed, for the most part, in more effectively diminishing in his poems a subjective interference he found so toxic to his idea of sincerity. But he cannot escape from the obligation to adopt a subject position, can he? If not, this tactical diminishment risks adopting a more tremendously rhetorical posture: that of ‘not posing’ at all.

Clearly in this poem Oppen dissociates himself from authorship. Strange are the products not of that authority, but of draftsmanship, of drawing up detailed plans or drawings for something that remains by definition provisional. ‘Zero’ continues the negation, but insofar as it denotes, linguistically, an absence of words or morphemes to realise a syntactic phenomena, its isolation out at the end of the line starts to look patently gestural, even mimetic. Thematically, the poem is occasioned by Halloween, a night where innocent youths dress-up as things they are only notionally afraid of, for boon. Once the means of marshalling the contradictions of a poetics into a figure of speech that can divest itself of both figure and speech is identified, the move becomes conspicuous. In ‘A Statement on Poetics’, Oppen shifts voice from people to things: ‘all speaks, when it speaks, in its own shape. I do not know why. Perhaps we may call it music. The word, the right word, seems to stand outside of us’ (SPDP 48). Whitman is legible again behind these ideas about prosody: ‘[e]very existence has its idiom . . . . every thing has an idiom and tongue’ (Leaves of Grass 86).

It may seem like either an obvious or a facile distinction, but Oppen conceived of poetry not as a noun describing a genre of literary objects, but as the ardent activity of composition. Yet even from this position, the fundamental disconnect between what a poet knows and what a poem knows remains open. The present participle writing is enigmatically also a kind of hearing oddly distinct from the thinking subject actively engaged in drafting copies of it. Writing is indistinguishable from revising:

There is a mystery: the mystery is that the ear knows. If one revises and revises and revises—perhaps weeks and months and years and cannot revise, then there is something wrong with what you are trying to say. The ear knows, and I don’t know why (SPDP 48) […] The poem: correcting, one hears a line or a word as wrong, as against some idea of the good, the perfect—Correcting word by word, line by line, toward a concept which you hold, have never experienced ?’ (SPDP 174).

But exactly how does Oppen suppose the prosodic language of poetry self-reflexively test itself? The question cuts to the heart of what is for Oppen the very essence of an image: a kind of congregation of various resistances managed more by syntactical pattern validated by sensual perception rather than replicated expression. In this model, the poet is addressed by his work, which is an aesthetic as well as a moral: ‘a false statement makes bad verse’ (Letters 21). The act of composition, then, is the act of working syntax with conscious technical ingenuity into some kind of satisfactory shape until it proves its own soundness. But the test is not merely moving around things already named; Oppen calls that mere argument (or proposition). The manipulation of syntax during revision might be how the test is administered, even though it is not the test itself: the test is to see the word not from within the language system, but from without; the process deprives the poet of a control over the medium he is supposed to know how to use. This facet of Oppen’s work issues a robust challenge to the compelling, and now increasingly smart, critical work concerned with making interconnections between verse and cognition, even though Oppen also made the connection explicit (SPDP 136). Ever sober in his intensity: ‘A man unable to distinguish the subjective from the objective is capable of fanaticism, but not of an ethic’ (SPDP 65).

It is a minor but nevertheless significant alteration of Pound’s idea that ‘the poetic fact pre-exists’. Pound’s technique is designed to ‘find’ poetic facts, hence his research into the annals of obscure and unpopular literature. Oppen’s writing is not a matter of discovering by digging down into the recesses of the language, but of seeing if anything is there at all that will hold up under the pressure to mean; the poet creates the conditions for meaning, not meaning itself. It is the nature of Oppen’s ‘test’ to reject as insincere anything which is already known at the time of writing; which is to say anything unlearned during the process of writing itself is corrupt. Oppen tries in his poems to think—to borrow Zukofsky’s phrase—‘with things as they exist’, rather than think of, say, an existential problem in advance of composition and then use verse as a sort ornamental delivery mechanism (see, in this regard, the introduction, ‘Poetic Thinking’, in Simon Jarvis’s Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song).

It is difficult to describe to the reader who has not seen Oppen’s drafts just how extraordinary they are as records of process. His manuscripts and papers at UCSD are replete with copious amounts of typing and handwritten annotations crammed onto haggard-looking foolscaps suggesting incessant reworking. He revised sections of poems by retyping the lines undergoing correction onto a new strip of paper, and then put this new layer over the old; as Michael Davidson observed, Oppen was engaged in literally building the poem upwards from its base in a ‘thick textual impasto’ (Ghostlier Demarcations 77). Oppen writes:

I try one word and another word and another word, reverse the sequence, alter the line endings, a hundred, two hundred rewritings, revisions—This is called prosody. How to write a poem. Or rather, how to write that poem (‘Statement on Poetics’ SPDP 47).

Of course for Oppen, the structuring of the poems, or perhaps more aptly, the building of them, is an organic record of the ‘minimal geometries’ (Kenner Homemade World 171) of meaning, which are not patently to be differentiated in Oppen’s prosody from the mere registration of detailed attention. What ‘truth’, and by extension the ‘true’, means to a poet like Oppen—who was skilled in carpentry and sailing—is going to be at least somewhat different than what it means to the pragmatist we all of us are as mere users of the language. Here the truth of language has got to be its sincerity, not ours. What that means as a problematic for revision is easier for you to see than for me to say:

each other in little distances
of grasses his poem

each other in little
distances of grasses the poem

each other in little distances
of grasses     the poem

each other in distances
of grasses the poem

each other in the small
distances of grasses the poem

each other in the small

of grasses
[e]ach other
in the small


of grasses

each other
in the small

of grasses the poem

each other in the little

of grasses the poem

each other in the little

of grasses
the poem
begins (UCSD 16.26.10).

Bear in mind looking at this that Oppen was adamant that part of the test of revision, and of prosody itself, was that line endings ‘must create meaning, not merely emphasise’ (UCSD 16.26.4). I leave the efficacity of that achievement to the reader’s estimation.

But these revisions look to me a lot like rehearsals: that is, practiced acts of writing and hearing again as much as of that of seeing again—I note in passing that ‘rehearse’ takes its meaning from ‘harrow’ or rake, thus bringing it into the distinctly agricultural etymology of ‘verse’ itself. So versifying might then be construed as the process of placing language into positions that maximise its strangeness. The opposite of this is ‘actual speaking’, which is why Oppen rejected conversational verse form. What you, as a poet, are trying to do, is to get words as far from meaning—especially your meaning—as proves functional. So that

as the image deepens the words
save themselves the doors
if he is blessed have no[t] [illegible]
closed Is it the paper the white
paper it is the poem (UCSD 16.24.2)

I do not think that questions of drama implicit in the description of rehearsal are inappropriate, however incongruous in light of what I have said about Oppen’s suspicions of performance (so much so that the cessation of revision becomes itself literally ‘catastrophic’, the final turning point of the drama or the last act of versification). Oppen openly admits drama as a feature in his writing:

It is true that my own temperament, my own sense of drama, enters into this: I like to seem to be speaking very simply—and a sense of drama is dangerous, I know that, this is again a question of modulation, as is music: a question of honesty, a question of sincerity—the sincerity of the I and the we, it is a tremendous drama (‘Statement on Prosody’ 49).

When Oppen’s poems are at their most sincere; when he can realise in them most fully that familiar ‘recalcitrance’ and ‘refusal’ (Davidson ‘Introduction’ NCP xxix-xxxiv); when they present their words, or even a single word, in the overwhelming, maximally signifying as well as fantastically obdurate light of a dislocated and dislocating syntax; when they shine out with all due urgency against the white space of the page; which is to say, when the poems are displayed in a limited, limiting clarity, they are also at their most dramatic, almost at their most rhetorical, even as every feature of the verse seeks to mitigate that end. As Frank O’Hara wrote perceptively, though antagonistically, not of Oppen but of post-Objectivist minimal lyricists, ‘the amazing thing is that where they’ve pared down the diction so that the experience presumably will come through as strongly as possible, it’s the experience of their paring it down that comes through more strongly, and not the experience that is the subject’ (23).

While O’Hara meant this as a criticism, identifying a confusion between ends and means, it strikes me as something Oppen wanted, an intended effect. That his impacted fragmentation remains, despite pledges to the opposite, very much beholden to albeit stilted rhetorical articulation is a failure he might have been willing to countenance. How useful, after all, would a poetics committed to acting out a demonstrative critique of rhetorical form have been if that critique were actually persuasive? The degree to which we are persuaded of Oppen’s anti-rhetorical sincerity might be the measure of the strength and proficiency of his histrionics and their interpellation of us. If the reader makes a survey of Oppen’s verse, she will find that Oppen speaks repeatedly about not being able to speak. This aporia—itself another rhetorical device—it elevated into something of a modus operandi. Even the iconicity of Oppen’s drafts, best described by Davidson, begins to feel, from such a vantage, at least moderately theatrical: ‘another batch of pages is held together by a nail driven into the upper left-hand corner and into a piece of ply-wood. A better definition of objectivism cannot be imagined’ (Ghostlier Demarcations 77). Along strictly textual lines, which given the really dynamic ‘materiality’ of the drafts is always something that risks being maligned, oddly enough, Oppen’s proclivity to continually restate himself across various poems is, ultimately, an attempt to inscribe into them the impermanence of revision. And yet, the ear knows; the poet, effacing his ability, lets the language do the talking, which is what Aristotle in Rhetoric called ethos: ‘a habit’ or ‘an accustomed place’. Look again at the ‘little distances’ revisions; ignore the blatant antistrophe and prolepsis of ‘begins’, and ask yourself whether that one word also starts to look like an ethical position indistinguishable from its rhetoric (UCSD 16.23.11):

Happiness being to|see its possibility
The play begins with the world

A nature poem?
Yes.     Nature,     Physis

The play begins with the world

To begin:

Michael Kindellan

All quotes from the George Oppen Papers at UCSD are copyright of Linda Oppen. The author gratefully acknowledges her permission to cite therefrom. The author also wishes to thank Michael Davidson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Peter Nicholls for their advice and assistance.


Works cited

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___. ‘Introduction’. New Collected Poems. Ed. Michael Davidson. New York: New Directions, 2002.

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___. ‘The Poetics of Modernism’. The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry. Eds. Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 51-67.

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

___. Selected Letters. Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990.

___. Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. Ed. Stephen Cope. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2007.

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