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The Music of Thought in the Poetry of George Oppen and William Bronk
By Henry Weinfield
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2009 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Oppen, Bronk, and the Story behind "A Narrative"
During a period in the early sixties that coincides with the composition of his sequence poem "A Narrative" (1963), George Oppen was immersed in the poetry of William Bronk. Oppen, a member of the Objectivist circle, had encountered Bronk's poetry in the pages of Cid Corman's magazine Origin and had initiated a correspondence with Bronk, probably in June 1962. It was Oppen, in fact, who arranged for the publication of Bronk's volume The World, the Worldless (still his best-known single collection of poems), and in 1963 Oppen was involved in the editing of this book. The collection was jointly published in 1964 by New Directions and the San Francisco Review, which was edited by Oppen's sister, June Oppen Degnan. As his correspondence during the period indicates, Oppen was profoundly influenced but also deeply troubled by Bronk's work and by the skeptical thrust of Bronk's thought. A Marxist who had for many years been a member of the Communist Party before leaving politics and returning to poetry, Oppen was critical of what he regarded as Bronk's solipsism,but at the same time he resonated with Bronk's vision and to some extent made use of Bronk to distance himself from the Objectivist philosophy of Louis Zukofsky.
All of this emerges in or behind the lines of "A Narrative" itself. In section 8 of the poem, Oppen writes:
But at night the park She said, is horrible. And Bronk said Perhaps the world Is horror. She did not understand. He meant The waves or pellets Are thrown from the process Of the suns and like radar Bounce where they strike. The eye It happens Registers But it is dark. It is the nature Of the world: It is as dark as radar. (153-54)
The conversation memorialized in section 8 of "A Narrative" seems to have occurred in late 1962 or early 1963, during Oppen's first visit to Bronk's home in Hudson Falls, New York. The reader of Bronk can actually hear Bronk's voice, his characteristic turns of phrase, in Oppen's cadences. The absence of quotation marks in the passage, typical of Oppen's technique of layering different and sometimes disparate voices and texts in a montage of his own, heightens this effect. (Oppen was a dialogical poet whereas Bronk was almost entirely a monological one.) If to the reader of Bronk the lines "Perhaps the world / Is horror" and "But it is dark" have a Bronkian weight, this is because words such as "world" and "dark" function as leitmotifs in Bronk's poetry. In "The World," for example, a four-line poem from Finding Losses (1976), Bronk writes:
I thought that you were an anchor in the drift of the world; but no: there isn't an anchor anywhere. There isn't an anchor in the drift of the world. Oh no. I thought you were. Oh no. The drift of the world.
And in "About Dynamism, Desire and Various Fictions," one of the sonnets from To Praise the Music (1972), he writes: "Also the Golden Age was a dark time / if there was one. I think it is now and was not / ever. It is dark now as it always was" (144).
The lines "It is the nature / Of the world" toward the end of section 8 of "A Narrative" have a Lucretian flavor, and a connection can be drawn in this context not only between Oppen and Bronk but also between them both and Lucretius. Moreover, in Oppen's collected poems "A Narrative" can be found only a few pages before "Of Being Numerous," his masterpiece and the greatest of his sequence poems, and I would suggest that there is a connection-marked by their shared Lucretian overtones-between section 8 of "A Narrative" and the opening section of "Of Being Numerous." In the latter (from his 1968 collection Of Being Numerous), Oppen writes: "Of this was told / A tale of our wickedness. / It is not our wickedness" (163). One immediately wants to add the lines from "A Narrative": "It is the nature / Of the world."
The echo of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura serves to sum up a view of the world (broadly speaking existentialist) that puts the Judeo-Christian tradition into question and that asks whether the universe is ultimately meaningful, in the sense of being guided by Providence, or merely a series of random processes. In "Of Being Numerous," Oppen begins with the Adam and Eve story-the story that attempts to explain the origin of misery and suffering as our fault, since otherwise it would be God's fault, the fault of a good and loving god who by definition is faultless. "Of this was told / A tale of our wickedness. / It is not our wickedness.... It is the nature / Of the world"-or "the way things are" (as Rolfe Humphries translates the title of De Rerum Natura). In three lines of radiant simplicity -here he is writing "at the top of [his] ability," to borrow the phrasing of another sequence poem in Of Being Numerous, "Route" (193)-Oppen deconstructs the foundational myth of the West. Like Bronk, he wants us to see that, insofar as the stories we tell ourselves are false, though they may be consoling they are ultimately destructive of our capacity to live full and meaningful lives. Both poets are concerned with truth, and this entails sweeping away false narratives. Thus, the irony behind the title of "A Narrative" is, precisely, that it isn't one. Indeed, this poem (and this is typical of Oppen's work in general) puts the very idea of the "grand narrative" into question: it has a series of metanarratives but not really a narrative, and what one of its metanarratives points to is that, ungrounded as we are (as we now are), the foundational myths or narratives that we hold onto, such as the Adam and Eve story, can no longer serve us as a foundation; at best, they are starting points for rethinking the fundamental questions that confront us. And this, essentially, is what Bronk is saying in "About Dynamism, Desire and Various Fictions"-as we see from the way in which the poem continues:
The thing I wanted to tell you is how we propose a drama, sort of, a story of our lives which requires changes-sequences of time,
such that once there was this or something else -dark, say, or the Golden Age, and then something happened and this came about.
Well I don't think it did. What I want you to know is that nothing happened and nothing can, that stories are fictions, truth doesn't tell one,
that the beautiful is that, nothing more, and enough, no story, nothing to do or tell. (144)
The loss of foundations that both Oppen and Bronk are confronting is one aspect of an epistemological crisis, or crisis of modernity, which, ironically, is already old news by the time these poets come to maturity in the middle of the twentieth century; and it is interesting that Oppen's phrase "the process / Of the suns" in section 8 of "A Narrative" echoes none other than Alfred Lord Tennyson in "Locksley Hall"-the same Tennyson who wrote a dramatic monologue entitled "Lucretius." If we compare Tennyson's lines to Oppen's, however, we can gauge something of Oppen's historical specificity. Tennyson writes: "Yet I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs, / And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns." The optimism that Tennyson is expressing in these lines is shattered not only by the larger poetic context in which they are framed but, if we examine them closely, by the lines themselves. The Victorian emphasis on scientific progress has a dark undercurrent because, even if the thoughts of men are widened with the development of scientific knowledge, this inevitably coincides with an increase in religious skepticism. It may be that Tennyson has no doubt that an increasing purpose runs through the ages, but this would be a human purpose only; and though he doesn't want to say so, he obviously has a great deal of doubt over whether the widening of human thought is guided by a divine purpose; indeed, the two purposes are at cross-purposes for him in these lines. Perhaps this is why Oppen echoes Tennyson-and that he should do so at all, of course, even if unconsciously, is interesting in itself. But clearly, if science has a consolatory function for Tennyson, it no longer does for Oppen. The nature that science "illumines" is all darkness: "It is as dark as radar."
In section 7 of "A Narrative" (the one prior to the section in which he mentions Bronk), Oppen writes:
Serpent, Ourobouros Whose tail is in his mouth: he is the root Of evil, This ring worm, the devil's Doctrine the blind man Knew. His mind Is its own place; He has no story. (153)
The serpent whose tail is in his mouth is an ancient symbol of the Infinite, and hence "the root / Of evil" because the infinite renders the world unintelligible ("as dark as radar"). Oppen's ambivalence in these lines makes it difficult to ascertain precisely where he stands. His collapsed narrative is both a diagnosis of reality and a critique of an ancient narrative-one that contains the seeds of the truth at the same time that it is an evasion of the truth. In Oppen's perspective, Milton-"the blind man"-is partly equated with Satan in that he comes to know what Satan expresses in the famous lines from Paradise Lost: "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." To Oppen, in other words, as to Blake (one of Oppen's favorite poets), Milton was of the devil's party. And if the mind is its own place, if, as solipsism ventures, it is shut off from any external reality, then it "has no story." Or, as Bronk writes: "And enough, no story, nothing to do or tell."
In English literature the locus classicus for the crisis of modernity that Satan's speech registers is Hamlet, and Satan's speech echoes Hamlet's statement that "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." Oppen's trope of the blind man, the symbolic significance of which goes beyond the fact that it is a metonym for Milton, has an immediate antecedent in Wordsworth. In book 7 of The Prelude, Wordsworth has a vision of a blind beggar,
who, with upright face, Stood propped against a wall, upon his chest Wearing a written paper, to explain His story, whence he came, and who he was.
"Caught by the spectacle," Wordsworth adds,
my mind turned round As with the might of waters; an apt type This label seemed of the utmost we can know, Both of ourselves and of the universe.
If the world is as dark as radar, as the figure of the blind man seems to indicate for Oppen as well as for Wordsworth, then our knowledge of the world would seem to be merely nominal or formal. This is a perspective on reality that Oppen clearly associates with Bronk. Not that Oppen fully embraces it: the passage itself, as well as its context in the poem as a whole, indicates that he is ambivalent in regard to this "devil's doctrine." But the poetic power of the passage emanates from his sense that it contains a truth to which he cannot be blind.
In Oppen's sequence poems, figures or tropes that appear in early sections recur in later ones, often in different guises and in association with different ideas. Thus, in section 8 of "A Narrative," Bronk-or rather the figure of Bronk-is associated with the idea of the "blind" inexorability of natural processes. Metaphorically, there is in fact a double blindness here: we, as human beings, are blind to the ultimate intentions or causes of the universe (and hence the figure of the "blind man" in section 7), but also the universe is "blind," has no ultimate intentions, is merely a series of random processes. "The waves or pellets," writes Oppen, "Are thrown from the process / Of the suns" (154), and it is interesting that the metaphorical waves of physics mentioned here are anticipated, in section 6 of the poem, by the image of an actual river, an image that engenders a Heraclitean meditation:
I saw from the bus, Walked in fact from the bus station to see again The river and its rough machinery On the sloping bank - I cannot know Whether the weight of cause Is in such a place as that, tho the depth of water Pours and pours past Albany From all its sources. (152-53)
The river pouring "past Albany / From all its sources" connects the poem to the town of Hudson Falls, which is about forty miles north of Albany and near to the source of the Hudson, and thus to Bronk, who lived in Hudson Falls all his life. "The river and its rough machinery / On the sloping bank" refers obliquely to the locks on the canal along which Bronk frequently walked and where he took his friends when they came to visit. "The river and its rough machinery" is shorthand for the blind inexorability of natural processes and for the attempt on the part of human beings to control or regulate them, an attempt that itself inevitably falls victim to natural processes. (Oppen was always taken with what he termed "the materials" of life, particularly those connected with boats and shipping. His 1962 collection was entitled The Materials.) The passage puts one in mind of Bronk's poem "Displacement: The Locks on the Feeder Called The Five Combines," by which in fact Oppen was tremendously impressed and to which he refers on several occasions in his correspondence. The connection between section 6 of "A Narrative" and "The Locks on the Feeder" (which is how Bronk and his friends always referred to that poem in conversation) is so interesting, indeed, that one is tempted to think that Oppen was in dialogue with the Bronk poem; but in fact, he didn't actually come across it until about September 1964-which makes the connection perhaps even more uncanny.
In the opening stanza of "The Locks on the Feeder," the way in which the falling of the water level in "the Feeder" (i.e., the feeder canal) leads to the cracking of its lock walls becomes a metaphor for the inexorability of nature, for how things "drive down" (as Bronk says in a much later poem, "The Destroyer Life" [209-10]):
The Feeder falling, its lock-walls crack, as once their gates would open while they held fast against the barges bumping, washing water. Now, they tumble, going the way the water went and had to go, though locking west, uphill, seemed sucking upward, always it was down. (89)
The cracking of the walls, occurring with an imperceptible slowness, becomes in turn a metaphor for the ruin of cities and civilizations, and the fact that we are unable to perceive this process becomes associated with our habitual evasion of reality or denial of death.
The cracks are puzzles, like natural apertures, corollas of flowers, caves where, looking in, we look for something that happened, and hold our breaths on the hoped-for chance it should happen again as we look. We inspect how nearly, with our never knowing, stone lay against another, their two sides faced to fit, and fitting all that dark, long time when what seemed surfaces was always depth, and look in there as into empty rooms in ruined cities, not quite imagining what life they ever held, such as it was, no vivider than ours, grown indistinct. But more to marvel at than this is the freed courage of cut stone, the assured assumption devised to convince our minds, as it always does, that cutting, facing, piling stone is a way to meet reality, impress it, that what our forceful show has dealt with here is the same reality that years of cutting stone or moving water have failed to bring us to. (90)
In cutting stone or moving water, we construct a reality in order to evade a truth that would otherwise make it impossible for us to live in the world. Thus, as Oppen will write in "Of Being Numerous," "We stand on // That denial / Of death that paved the cities" (178).
The poem concludes as follows (without an additional stanza break):
We know all this-our pledge of debt to evasiveness-that almost everything we do is beside the point: as though our courage were that we give an answer, however irrelevant, not having willed to answer the questions risked. We sham responses. The shunting details pretend another question. We are displaced. We bear ourselves as into a house across the street and live as though a neighbor's life until we ready a death there and bear him away and bury him. And what of it was ours? We invented for him the whole of the tangible world, the birth and death and all such things as we found distracting to do, as cutting stone, the skills to lay it close. I hurt for the double waste, the falling ruin of all the uselessly built, and turn for nearer home-I covet it, though no one there and not the sill of a house. (90)
Excerpted from The Music of Thought in the Poetry of George Oppen and William Bronk by Henry Weinfield Copyright © 2009 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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