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Close-Reading Denise Levertov Through George Oppen (or Vice-Versa)

By Harriet Staff

Over at Jacket2: Why George Oppen quarreled with Denise Levertov, by Richard Swigg. Swigg notes that while Robert Duncan’s issue with Levertov was on the less fruitful side—”he complained that the subjugation of her poetry to the cause of political activism was creatively damaging,” Oppen’s was the opposite:

The preference [to not politicize his art] remained just as strong after he had broken nearly three decades of publishing silence with The Materials in 1962 and maintained in an essay of the same year, “The Mind’s Own Place,” that the act of writing poetry is the surest test of belief. For him, it was essential to remember that “the great many things one believes or would like to believe or thinks he believes will not substantiate themselves in the concrete details of the poem.”[2]

He is also implicitly directing these words toward Levertov, a poet in a somewhat different lineage from him (D. H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, and Thoreau forming a major part of her inheritance), but who is politically close, in shared opposition to America’s war in Vietnam. For him, though, being on the side of liberal virtue is not enough, even with her kind of religious overlay. So when he says in a letter that his essay “is almost written at [Levertov], and at her latest poems, some of which are very bad,”[3] he is pointing to a notable failure of feeling that he sees in her fifth collection, The Jacob’s Ladder (1961) . . . .

Swigg goes on to look at Oppen’s correspondence with Levertov around particular poems in the book, his direct interest in certain images in her work that “are the cleavings into the ‘authentic,’ which later seem to Oppen as if Levertov ‘had walked out that door, opened the door and gone forth'”; and which he incorporates into his own revising. More:

Helped therefore by an image from Levertov, Oppen’s belief in such brilliant, everyday actuality is remarkably verified. He can even go further and admire other parts of her poetry that have a similar suggestive power, as when she says in the title poem of The Jacob’s Ladder that on this “stairway of sharp / angles … a man climbing / must scrape his knees, and bring the grip of his hands into play.” This to him, with his special regard for figures of substantiation, is “the real stone staircase of your poem,”[9] and he speaks as a poet who has himself stanzaically upheaved the weight of fact in “Chartres” — “That the stones / Stand where the masons locked them” — and evoked the work of “the welder and the welder’s arc / In the subway’s iron circuits” (“Vulcan”). Yet on Levertov’s side the feeling was not mutual. In fact, both poems come from a collection, The Materials, toward which she was largely unsympathetic when she reviewed it. To her, his solidities are more alien than attractive: the mark of a mainly disturbing and complex poetry, where “inner conflict” has been pulled “into the cruel daylight. Man in his environment, man with his machines; ‘how to live, what to do.’”[10]]Indeed, Oppen’s themes could later seem to her so negative, and so hostile to the kind of poetry she sought to write — with his criticisms almost certainly adding to the vexation — that her imagination even conceives him as totally obstructive. In “Who Is at My Window” (O Taste and See, 1965), he is the blighting presence, “the blind cuckoo” mulling over the “old song … about fear, about / tomorrow and next year.” He sings “Timor mortis conturbatWhat’s the use?” while she wants

       to move deeper into today;
he keeps me from that work.
Today and eternity are nothing to him.
His wings spread at the window make it dark.

Go from my window, go! go!

Oppen, however, will not be sent away. Replying to Levertov by poem, he unashamedly declares:

      I distract
Windows that look out
On the business
Of the days

In streets
Without horizon, streets
And gardens

Of the feminine technologies
Of desire
And compassion which will clothe

Everyone

Windows are not darkened here but distracted, with Oppen shifting the viewpoint away from a Levertovian outlook on the world that to him is emotionally all-embracing yet also profoundly restrictive. Whereas she cries out for the immediacy of “Today,” the supposed openness to time is actually for him a vision of closure, with “the business / Of the days” shut in by horizonless streets, as well as by “streets / And gardens” (the emphasis carried over) of a determinedly narrow intent — or, as he says, “Of the feminine technologies,” where the noun has its own distinct suggestiveness. . . .

Read the full essay here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, October 25th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.