George Oppen: “Psalm”
A psalm? How so? When I first discovered it, I held George Oppen’s poem “Psalm” suspect as one of those poems about very little at all—one whose title, implying substance, in fact hopes to “cover” the poem’s absence of it. The modes of psalm being two—praise and lament—I was willing to take the poem, at best, as simply an act of witnessing some deer, witness as a form of recognition, recognition as a form of deeming a thing worth recognizing: perhaps a stretch, but a kind of praise, anyway, for one of God’s creatures—given the cues of the title and epigraph, that we should read this poem through the lens of theology. As for lament—well, I found none.
But, the epigraph’s reference to Aquinas notwithstanding, it was via Gerard Manley Hopkins that I came to read the poem differently, and to appreciate more fully the relationship between syntax and narrative. Hopkins discusses (in “The Principle or Foundation”) the praising of God, and the different options for praise available to humans as opposed to the rest of creation. A key difference is that the latter
glorify God, but they do not know it. The birds sing to him, the thunder speaks of his terror . . . the honey [is] like his sweetness . . . they give him glory, but they do not know they do . . . they never can . . . But man can know God, can mean to give him glory. This then was why he was made, to give God glory and to mean to give it . . . (italics his)
By this reasoning, then, it is enough for the deer, “That they are there,” their praise is manifest in their deer-ness itself, be it in the form of tearing at the grass or “merely” startling, and staring out. But in the shift in phrasing that occurs from “That they are there!” (3) to “They who are there.” (13)—from the ecstasy of exclamation, whose punctuation makes the fragment seem somehow complete and/or expected, to the stranded relative clause whose punctuation, in suggesting the end of a finished sentence, throws the fragmentedness into greater relief—in this shift, a stall seems at work, at the level of syntax, a moment of reassessing more soberly what had earlier been surprised outburst; and I believe that this is where Oppen faces squarely the notion that humans have a greater responsibility when it comes to praise. Humans have the ability to articulate praise, via language, and therefore a duty to do so.
Syntax is the chief tool that language has for conveying meaning. And it is at the level of syntax that Oppen puts forward his concerns about praise, our obligation to give praise, and the limits to our ability to do so. Throughout the poem, there are what I’ll call dislocations in the syntax, places where the syntax—as if inevitably—gets derailed. Technically, for example, the subordinate clause “Their eyes / Effortless” (4-5) must modify “the soft lips” (5), but that makes no sense. “They who are there” (11) takes us back to the deer only because the phrase so closely resembles line 3, which described the deer; but by conventional syntax, the phrase must refer back to the “strange woods” of line 10. Again, sense is strained. Another dangling modifier occurs at stanza 4, whose “Their paths / Nibbled thru the fields” seems to modify “the leaves that shade them.” When we get to “the small nouns” of the final stanza, they seem to refer to the deer again, until we realize that the deer won’t appear for another couple of lines; are the small nouns, then, the “distances / Of sun,” or the leaves, or the fields, or the paths through them?
The syntax both embodies and enacts a constant feinting, a casting outward—only to fall short, each time, of “complete” meaning. The tension between the attempt to mean and the routine failure to entirely mean becomes emblematic of a parallel tension: between the duty we have to try to praise God to the best of our capacities, and the limitations to those capacities, finally, insofar as we are human—small nouns—and therefore necessarily flawed.
In its immediate content, Oppen’s poem is an act of praise in the form of granting witness. At the level of syntax, the poem articulates the gesture itself of praise, of attempting to give it; and it articulates the inadequacy inherent to that attempt and subtly laments that inadequacy. Praise and lament. And a persuasive example of how syntax can generate and sustain the psychological narrative of a poem. And Oppen’s “Psalm”? A psalm, indeed.
“On George Oppen’s ‘Psalm’” copyright 2004 by Carl Phillips. Reprinted from Coin of the Realm with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Referred to as “one of America’s most original, influential, and productive of lyric poets,” Carl Phillips is the author of a dozen books of poetry and two works of criticism. He was born in Everett, Washington in 1959, and his family moved frequently around the United States. He earned a BA from...