Essay on Poetic Theory

The Mind’s Own Place (1963)

by George Oppen
It happens, though, that Brecht’s statement cannot be taken literally. There is no crisis in which political poets and orators may not speak of trees, though it is more common for them, in this symbolic usage, to speak of “flowers.” “We want bread and roses”: “Let a thousand flowers bloom” on the left: on the right, the photograph once famous in Germany of Handsome Adolph sniffing the rose. (16) Flowers stand for simple and undefined human happiness and are frequently mentioned in all politi­cal circles. The actually forbidden word Brecht, of course, could not write. It would be something like aesthetic. But the definition of the good life is necessarily an aesthetic definition, and the mere fact of de­mocracy has not formulated it, nor, if it is achieved, will the mere fact of an extension of democracy, though I do not mean of course that re­striction would do better. Suffering can be recognized; to argue its definition is an evasion, a contemptible thing. But the good life, the thing wanted for its elf, the aesthetic, will be defined outside of anybody’s politics, or defined wrongly. William Stafford ends a poem titled “Vocation” (he is speaking of the poet’s vocation) with the line: “Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.”(17) And though it may be presumptuous in a man elected to nothing at all, the poet does under­take just about that, certainly nothing less, and the younger poets’ judgment of society is, in the words of Robert Duncan, “I mean, of course, that happiness itself is a forest in which we are bewildered, turn wild, or dwell like Robin Hood, outlawed and at home.”(18)

It is possible that a world without art is simply and flatly uninhab­itable, and the poet’s business is not to use verse as an advanced form of rhetoric, nor to seek to give to political statements the aura of eter­nal truth. It should not really be the ambition even of the most well-meaning of political and semipolitical gatherings to do so, and to use verse for the purpose, as everyone perfectly well knows, is merely ex­cruciating. Therefore the poet, speaking as a poet, declares his politi­cal nonavailability as clearly as the classic pronouncement: “If nomi­nated I will run: if elected I will hide” (I quote from memory).(19) Surely what we need is a “redemption of the will”—the phrase from a not-yet-produced young playwright whose work I have read—and indeed we will not last very long if we do not get it. But what we must have now, the political thing we must have, is a peace. And a peace is made by a peace treaty. And we have seen peace treaties before; we know what they are. This one will be, if we get it, if we survive, like those before it, a cynical and brutal division of the world between the great powers. Everyone knows what must be in that document: the language of both sides has been euphemistic but clear. A free hand in Eastern Europe to Russia: to the United States in Western Europe and in this continent and some other places. And the hope that China will not soon acquire a bomb. And where is the poet who will write that she opened her front door, having sent the children to school, and felt the fresh authentic air in her face and wanted—that?

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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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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