Essay on Poetic Theory

The Mind’s Own Place (1963)

by George Oppen

Introduction

In the 1930s, George Oppen was considered a member of what Louis Zukofsky termed the objectivist poets. After publishing his first book of poetry (Discrete Series, 1934), he withdrew from publishing, and, largely, writing, for more than 25 years. He later explained this silence as a combination of political activism—Oppen was first an active member of the Communist Party and then served in World War II—and a commitment to actively raising his daughter with his wife. When his daughter left for college, Oppen rejoined the poetry community and began to publish again.

“The Mind’s Own Place” was originally written in early 1962 for The Nation, who ultimately rejected it. It appeared in the literary journal Kulchur in 1963, and stands as Oppen’s defining statement of poetics. The title is a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

            Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place of time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

In the essay, he examines the evolution and responsibilities of the American poet, particularly in terms of the tension between political and artistic action. Oppen does not see poetry as a form of political action, and he dismisses the political poem in which poetry is used as “an advanced form of rhetoric” as “merely excruciating.”

Oppen complicates his assertion, “There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art, and surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning,” by binding it to William Stafford’s sense of a poet’s work: “Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.” 

Refusing to simplify the context in which an American poet seeks to write, Oppen sees the existential act of perceiving as the core of poetry. Notes Oppen, “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.”

Sargent is reported to have said to Renoir that he painted “cads in the park.” And Sargent was of course quite right.(1) The passion of the Im­pressionists to see, and to see more clearly was a desire to see past the subject matter and the art attitudes of the academy. It is true that the artist is not dependent on his subject in the sense that he can be judged by its intrinsic interest, or that the discussion of his work can become a discussion of its subject. But the emotion which creates art is the emotion that seeks to know and to disclose. The cocoon of “Beauty” as the word is often used, the beauty of background music and of soft lights, though it might be an art, is an art of the masseur and the perfumist.

Modern American poetry begins with the determination to find the image, the thing encountered, the thing seen each day whose meaning has become the meaning and the color of our lives. Verse, which had become a rhetoric of exaggeration, of inflation, was to the modernists a skill of accuracy, of precision, a test of truth. Such an art has always to be defended against a furious and bitter Bohemia whose passion it is to assist, in the highest of high spirits, at the razing of that art which is the last intrusion on an onanism which they believe to be artistic. In these circles is elaborated a mock-admiration of the artist as a sort of super-annuated infant, and it is the nightmare of the poet or the artist to find himself wandering between the grim gray lines of the Philis­tines and the ramshackle emplacements of Bohemia. If he ceases to be­lieve in the validity of his insights—the truth of what he is saying—he becomes the casualty, the only possible casualty, of that engagement. Philistia and Bohemia, never endangered by the contest, remain pre­cisely what they were. This is the Bohemia that churns and worries the idea of the poet-not-of-this-world, the dissociated poet, the ghostly bard. If the poet is an island, this is the sea which most lovingly and intimately grinds him to sand.

There comes a time in any such discussion as this when the effort to avoid the word reality becomes too great a tax on the writer’s agility. The word of course has long since ceased to mean anything recogniz­ably “real” at all, but English does seem to be stuck with it. We cannot assert the poet’s relation to reality, nor exhort him to face reality, nor do any of these desirable things, nor be sure that we are not insisting merely that he discuss only those things we are accustomed to talk about, unless we somehow manage to restore a meaning to the word. Bertrand Russell wrote “If I were to describe reality as I found it, I would have to include my arm.”(2) In the shock of that sentence—out of context—perhaps the meaning of the word maybe restored, or in the fragment of Heraclitus: “If it all went up in smoke” that smoke would remain.(3) It is the arbitrary fact, and not any quality of wisdom literature, which creates the impact of the poets. The “shock of recognition,” when it is anything, is that. If we can hold the word to its mean­ing, or if we can import a word from elsewhere—a collective, not an abstract noun, to mean “the things that exist”—then we will not have on the one hand the demand that the poet circumstantially describe everything that we already know, and declare every belief that we already hold, nor on the other hand the ideal of the poet without any senses at all. Dante’s “sweet new style” presaged a new content, a new attitude: and it was a new vision, an act of vision that ushered modern art into France, as it was an extension of awareness that forced the development of a modern poetry in this country.(4) The early moderns among painters of the United States found themselves promptly identified as the Ash Can school, and it happens that Lindsay, Sandburg, Kreymborg, Williams—the poets of the little magazine Others which came off a hand press in a garage somewhere in New Jersey about 1918—were almost a populist movement.(5) Though it is hard to register now, the subjects of Sandburg’s poems, the stockyards and the railroad sidings, gave them their impact. Of the major poets it is only William Carlos Williams, with his insistence on “the American idiom,” on the image derived from day-to-day experience, on form as “nothing more than an extension of content,” who shows a derivation from pop­ulism.(6) But it is the fidelity, the clarity, including the visual clarity and their freedom from the art subject which is the distinction also of Pound and Eliot and the force behind their creation of a new form and a new prosody; the “speech rhythms” of Pound, the “prose quality” of Eliot. Their intelligence rejected the romanticism, the mere sentimen­tal “going on” of such men as Sandburg and Kreymborg, but for them too art moves forward only when some man, or some men, get their heads above—or below—the terrible thin scratching of the art world. It is possible to find a metaphor 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.(7) They meant to replace by the data of experience the accepted poetry of their time, a display by the poets of right thinking and right sentiment, a dreary waste of lies. That data was and is the core of what “modernism” restored to poetry, the sense of the poet’s self among things. So much depends upon the red wheel­barrow. 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. It is not to say that the poet is immune to the “real” world to say that he is not likely to find the moment, the image, in which a political generalization or any other generalization will prove its truth. Denise Levertov begins a fine poem with the words: “The authentic!” and goes on to define

the real, the new-laid
egg whose speckled shell
the poet fondles and must break
if he will be nourished

in the events of a domestic morning: the steam rising in the radiators, herself “breaking the handle of my hairbrush,” and the family break­fast, to the moment when, the children being sent to school,

cold air
comes in at the street door.(8)

These are, as poetry intends, clear pictures of the world in verse, which means only to be clear, to be honest, to produce the realization of reality and to construct a form out of no desire for the trick of grace­fulness, but in order to make it possible to grasp, to hold the insight which is the content of the poem.

George Oppen, "The Mind’s Own Place" from Selected Poems, copyright © 1962 by George Oppen. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Originally Published: October 8, 2009
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 George  Oppen

Biography

"George Oppen," wrote Michael Adams in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, "had one of the most unusual careers of any American poet." Oppen was one of the chief exponents of Objectivism, a school of poetry that emphasized simplicity and clarity over formal structure and rhyme. He established the movement with William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukosfky, and other poets in the early 1930s. In 1932 Oppen helped found the . . .

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