Essay on Poetic Theory

The Mind’s Own Place (1963)

by George Oppen
T.S. Eliot’s immense reputation was already established by the end of the twenties: Pound’s somewhat later. It is within the present decade that Williams has achieved a comparable position. It was Eliot’s influence, far more than Pound’s, and Eliot’s influence by way of Au­den which formed the tone of the so-called Academic poets who domi­nated the field during the forties and early fifties, and whom the Beats assailed. It is quite possible that both Eliot and the Academic poets tend at this moment to be underrated: the Academics are perhaps suf­fering the difficulties of middle age. They are not Young Poets nor Old Masters, nor are they news in the exhilarating sense that they might bite a dog. But they too are not writing in complacent generalities, and the word academic can give a false concept of their content and form. The fact is, however, that the poets of the San Francisco school, the poets called Beat, took off not at all from Eliot, but from Pound and still more directly from Williams, and to varying degrees from Whit­man, and the influence—perhaps indirect—of such men as Sandburg and Lindsay and even Kreymborg is, as a matter of fact, perfectly evi­dent in their work. But it is to Williams that the young poets of this school acknowledge the greatest debt, and if the word populism applied to Williams may not be entirely justifiable, it is at any rate true that Williams is the most American of the American poets of his generation, and these young poets have been markedly and as a matter of course American.(9) I think it has been part of their strength, and in fact I fear the present pilgrimage to Japan and the exotic arms of Zen. I feel quite sure, to begin with, that Hemingway has expressed Zen to the West about as well as is likely to be done. The disciple asked: “What is Truth?” And the Master replied, “Do you smell the mountain laurel?” “Yes,” said the disciple. The Master said, “There, I have kept nothing from you.” What Master was that? “The archer aims not at the target but at himself.”(10) Nor, as we have read, at the bull. If we are to talk of the act performed for its own sake, I think we will get more poetry out of the large fish of these waters—even out of the large fish in these waters—than from all the tea in Japan. But this may be because I be­long to a generation that grew more American—literarily at least—as it approached adult estate: we grew up on English writing—and Ger­man fairy tales—as I think no American any longer does. Starting with Mother Goose—in the absence of “It Happened on Mulberry Street” or “Millions of Cats” or whatever has become current since my daughter grew up—and proceeding to Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson and the Rover Boys, perhaps the only American writing we saw was in the Oz books and in Mark Twain. I have not discussed this with other writers, and risk the statement, but I believe that many a young American writer-to-be was astonished on reaching adolescence to discover that he was not easily going to take his place as the young master, or even as a Thackerayan young man who manages, with what­ever difficulty, to equip himself with fresh linen and varnished boots for his crucial morning call on the Duchess. We found ourselves below stairs, possibly: certainly among the minor characters. Which was a factor I believe in our need to make our own literature. Huck Finn, if this were a scholarly work, might be contrasted to Tom Brown, or even to Christopher Robin of Pooh Corners. Alice wandered from her gov­erness; Dorothy of Oz ran too late for the storm cellar and was caught in a Kansas cyclone. Together and contrastingly they dawned on our infant minds, and may have contributed to the aesthetic, if not social sentiment, which went in search of the common, the common experi­ence, the life of common man. Or it may be, more simply, that the more open society made possible the literary career of the obviously non­-aristocratic spokesman who, once he tired of Invocation to Someone Else’s Muse, had to make his own poetry. I myself was not the barefoot American boy. Having been born near New York, like many of these young poets, I was undoubtedly shod by the age of three months. But neither the barefoot boy nor Robert Frost is really the most American thing in the world, and there are facts to consider beyond the orthope­dic. I am constantly amazed by the English response to the Angry Young Men,(11) whose news-value appears to be that they are not of the aristocracy and are bitterly concerned with that fact in all its ramifications, whereas I have not met an American writer who had ever wondered what Vanderbilts or Morgans or Astors felt about his accent, his vocabulary, or his neckwear. Or if he wondered, he would not know, as the English seem to know, and the setting of Henry James’s novels is to us—and even to Henry James—a curiosity, a lit­erary paradox. And the search of the Beats, the thing which they have in common with the Ash Can school of painting and the Chicago liter­ary renaissance of the twenties is an authentic American phenomenon, a search for the common experience, for the ground under their feet. I have strained matters considerably using the word populist: certainly no more specifically political word could be used. The poet means to trust his direct perceptions, and it is even possible that it might be useful for the country to listen, to hear evidence, to consider what indeed we have brought forth upon this continent.

The DAR is not a notably liberal organization.(12) I am aware that there must be descendents of Old Families in all possible political groupings, but a considerable portion of the population, and I think a considerable proportion of the most liberal population, is made up of the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants. Certainly the DAR is of that opinion. But I need not assume statistical facts which neither the DAR nor I know. The oldest families are of puritan background, and the American family histories of the descendents of later immigrants begin typically with men and women who found refuge in the tenements of these shores from political and financial shipwreck. There they developed a morality of crisis, an ethos of sur­vival, a passionate philosophy of altruism and ambition. To a puritan morality—or I should say a puritanical morality—they added altruism in some cases, solidarity in others, and thereby completed a political morality. But neither ambition nor solidarity nor altruism is capable of establishing values. If the puritanical values proved themselves in material well-being, in the escape from danger of starvation, in TVs and radios, electric toasters and perhaps air-conditioners, electric ra­zors and strawberry corer, and are now pushing the electric toothbrush, then altruism demands these things also for the other man. It cannot, of itself, get beyond that. We can do so only when, with what­ever difficulty, with whatever sense of vertigo, we begin to speak for ourselves. Be-razored and be-toastered, and perhaps anarchist and irresponsible, the grandson of the immigrant and the descendent of the puritan better begin to speak for himself. If he is a poet he must. If he is not, perhaps he should listen. For mankind itself is an island: surely no man is a continent, and the definition of happiness must be his own.(13) The people on the Freedom Rides are both civilized and courageous; the people in the Peace Marches are the sane people of the country. But it is not a way of life, or should not be. It is a terrifying necessity. Bertolt Brecht once wrote that there are times when it can be almost a crime to write of trees. I happen to think that the statement is valid as he meant it.(14) 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. If one goes on to imagine a direct call for help, then surely to refuse it would be a kind of treason to one’s neighbors. Or so I think. But the bad fiddling could hardly help, and similarly the question can only be whether one intends, at a given time, to write poetry or not.(15)

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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