Tuesday, April 15, 2008

All This is Discourse (Statement)*

Reading Oppen’s Daybooks and selected prose recently I was struck again by the diversity of Oppen’s philosophical sources, which include Neoplatonism, Jacques Maritain, Aquinas, Leibnitz, (William) James, Karl Jung, and of course Martin Heidegger. While there is no denying Oppen was invested in philosophical problems and discourse, he also realized philosophy’s limitations as they relate to poesis. For Oppen philosophy could never be anything more than a stimulus for the work at hand, if not also another object to be incorporated into the work, another set of words to be tested as things with which to think, to generate, to know as much as anyone knows. I wonder in fact if some damage has not been done to the reception of Oppen’s work by the focus on philosophy, as well as by such self-mythologizing accounts as Oppen’s own letters concerning his suspected “plagiarism” of Heidegger. Eschewing any rigorous analogization of Oppen’s poetry and philosophical concepts and systems, it seems more important that we, as scholars and poets, put to use our own experience about how philosophy and theory infiltrates our work, potentializes the imagination, and lends itself to poetry’s toolbox, if only to the ends of inoperativity (those tools breaking). For it seems, as Zukofsky notes in *Bottom: on Shakespeare*, that poetry and philosophy do not usually get along, and yet at the same time would jealously put on the mask of the other. Oppen’s work for me is proof that the poet may be every bit as rigorous as the philosopher in thinking one’s existence in relation, however the thing philosophy does not often do which Oppen’s poetry does is enact. Philosophy lacks action. And where philosophy becomes active, when it does the thing it would otherwise propose and systemetize, it broaches poetry. Poetry’s enaction (what Stein famously called “composition as explanation”) proves Spinoza correct when he writes “the eyes are demonstrations of the mind.” However I would extend this proposition to the poem’s movement. To read the poem as a kind of field of meaning a la “composition by field,” but also the wonderful event horizons of Oppen’s late-work, is to move with the line and into lines as lines intend meaning in their motions, the measure and sound and consequence of those motions. This “saying of saying” or “pure expression” exceeds conceptualization embodying what is perhaps most ethical about the poem as an act of meaning: that the poem exceeds what can be said and thus thought about it beyond its own reenactment. The way we make it active by reading it and thinking with it beyond any convenient recourse to criticism or theory per se.

*presented as an opening statement for The Shape of Disclosure George Oppen Centennial Symposium panel, "The Literary-Philosophical Spectrum," organized by Poets House April 8th, 2008 at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

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