Essay on Poetic Theory

The Mind’s Own Place (1963)

by George Oppen


(1) John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), American portraitist and painter; Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), French impressionist painter.

(2) Oppen is paraphrasing, not entirely faithfully, a recurrent image in Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy used to illustrate the epistemological complications of traditional philosophy. In chapter 1 (“Appearance and Reality”), for example:

It seems to me that I am now sitting in a chair, at a table of a certain shape, on which I see sheets of paper with writing or print. By turning my head I see out of the window buildings and clouds and the sun. I believe that the sun is about ninety-three million miles from the earth; that it is a hot globe many times bigger than the earth; that, owing to the earth’s rotation, it rises every morning, and will continue to do so for an indefinite time in the future. I believe that, if any other normal person comes into my room, he will see the same chairs and tables and books and papers as I see, and that the table which I see is the same as the table which I feel pressing against my arm. All this seems to be so evident as to be hardly worth stating, except in answer to a man who doubts whether I know anything. Yet all this may be reasonably doubted, and all of it requires much careful discussion before we can be sure that we have stated it in a form that is wholly true.

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 7-8. Again, in chapter 3 (“The Nature of Matter”):

[I]t is rational to believe that our sense-data—for example, those which we regard as associated with my table—are really signs of the existence of something in-dependent of us and our perceptions. That is to say, over and above the sensations of colour, hardness, noise, and so on, which make up the appearance of the table to me, I assume that there is something else, of which these things are appearances. The colour ceases to exist if I shut my eyes, the sensation of hardness ceases to exist if I remove my arm from contact with the table, the sound ceases to exist if I cease to rap the table with my knuckles. But I do not believe that when all these things cease the table ceases. On the contrary, I believe that it is because the table exists continuously that all these sense-data will reappear when I open my eyes, replace my arm, and begin again to rap with my knuckles.” (page 27)

(3) Oppen’s adaptation of Heraclitus’s fragment number 7, translated by G.S. Kirk thus: “If all existing things were to become smoke the nostrils would distinguish them.” See G.S. Kirk, ed., Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 232. Oppen later used the fragment as the title to a poem in Primitive (NCP 274).

(4) The dolce stil novo, or “sweet new style,” was the mellifluous style of Dante’s early philosophical love poetry, as well as that of other Italian poets in the late thirteenth century. The phrase itself comes from Dante’s Purgatorio 24.57.

(5) Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931); Carl Sandburg (1878-1967); Alfred Kreymborg (1883-1966); William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). The “Ash Can” school was founded (loosely) by painter Robert Henri (1865-1929) in 1891 in Philadelphia. The group’s dictum was “art for life’s sake” and their aesthetics centered largely on subject matter, rather than form and/or style (see Oppen’s comment on Sandburg’s poetry).

(6) The phrase is misidentified as Williams’s; it actually occurs in Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse,” where Olson in turn attributes it to Robert Creeley. Charles Olson, Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 240. Oppen may have read the phrase in Williams’s Autobiography, however, and misattributed it thus.  

(7) See “West” (NCP 208; SP 124): “In wrath we await // The rare poetic / Of veracity that huge art whose geometric / Light seems not its own in that most dense world West and East / Have denied have hated have wandered in precariousness.

(8) The poem is Levertov’s “Matins,” in The Jacob’s Ladder (New York: New Directions, 1961), 57.

(9) “Williams was a populist,” Oppen says to Burton Hatlen and Tom Mandel in an interview, “but he really didn’t know what he was talking about” (MP 25). The subject is political poetry, and Williams is contrasting Williams’s populism to Pound’s elitism.

(10) A commonly cited proverb in Chinese Buddhism. Oppen’s source is unknown.

(11) A term used by British journalists to refer to a diverse (and otherwise unorganized) group of politically radical British novelists and playwrights. The term gained prominence in the mainstream press after a press release for the first performance of John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger used it to describe the play’s author.

(12) “DAR” refers to the Daughters of the American Revolution.

(13) Oppen misappropriates (purposefully) the famous lines from John Donne’s “Meditation 17” (1624): “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main…”

(14) From Brecht’s poem “To Those Born Later” (“An Die Nachgeborenen”):  “What kind of times are they, when / A talk about trees is almost a crime / Because it implies silence about so many horrors?” See Bertolt Brecht Poems, 1913-1956, ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (New York: Methuen, 1976), 318.

(15) Also in the Hatlen/Mandel interview, in response to a question regarding his return to the writing of poetry, Oppen says: “Rome had recently burned, so there was no reason not to fiddle”(MP 34).

(16) “We want bread and roses” is a slogan associated with a textile strike that took place in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. “Let a thousand flowers bloom” is a misquotation of Mao’s 1957 slogan “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.”

(17) In William Stafford, Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 107. Incidentally, the line appears in the poem as a quotation of the speaker’s father’s advice.

(18) Robert Duncan (1919-88). The quotation is from an unknown source.

(19) Ironic misconstrual of American civil war general William Tecumseh Sherman’s response to the notion that he might be drawn into the 1884 presidential race: “If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.”

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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Audio Article
 George  Oppen


George Oppen, a prominent American poet, was one of the chief exponents of Objectivism, a school of poetry that emphasized simplicity and clarity over formal structure and rhyme. Born in 1908 to a wealth family and expelled from a high school military academy, Oppen and his wife Mary travelled across the country, finding work wherever they could, until he received a small inheritance at 21. With these funds, the couple moved to . . .

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