Saturday, October 31, 2020

Specific reasons to remember George Oppen

George Oppen

Specific reasons to remember George Oppen

He's a neglected but important modernist poet with an inspiring fidelity to the concrete details of the world

Billy Mills
Tue 29 April 2008


News of a collection of essays by Michael Heller on the American poet George Oppen, published this month to mark the centenary of his birth, has sent me back to this key figure in 1930s American modernism.

Oppen was, with Louis ZukofskyCarl RakosiCharles Reznikoff and others, one of the founding participants in what came to be known as Objectivist poetry, although he always denied that they represented a coherent movement. Oppen's first book, Discrete Series, was published in 1934 by the Objectivist Press, a venture he ran with Zukofsky and Reznikoff. Ezra Pound wrote a preface in which he saluted Oppen as "a serious craftsman" with a unique sensibility.

This was a pretty impressive start to a career, but for a long time it seemed like the promise would never be fulfilled. Discrete Series was a response to the political and economic circumstances that prevailed in the United States in the early 1930s. Shortly after its publication, Oppen and his wife Mary, who was also a poet, abandoned artistic life for political activity and membership of the Communist party. Despite George's active service during the second world war, the Oppens were kept under FBI surveillance and by the end of the 1940s an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee was looming.

The Oppens decamped to Mexico, where George co-ran a furniture-making business. Towards the end of the 50s, he began writing again and in 1959 their FBI file was closed, allowing a return to New York. His second book, The Materials, appeared from New Directions[xi] in 1962, quickly followed by This in Which (1965) and Of Being Numerous, which won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1969.

Oppen was a compulsive reviser with an unusual method of building up versions of his drafts. Every time a line changed, he wrote or typed the new version on a strip of paper thin enough to be pasted down over the old one. As a result, his manuscripts resemble relief maps of the act of writing and rewriting. His effort, always, was to write what he called, in a poem called Psalm, "The small nouns / Crying faith". In other words, his language and poetry is tied to the concrete world of physical fact, wary of abstraction, and, in a sense that is much wider than the obvious political one, engaged. His poetry does not shun the difficult but is always concerned with clarity of expression, and in later years he fell out with Zukofsky, partly because he felt that the latter's work was veering towards the wilfully difficult for its own sake.

Oppen published three more collections and a Collected Poems during his life. In what was a bitter irony for one who paid such meticulous attention to words, he developed Alzheimer's disease, a condition that was to slowly deprive him of language over the last few years of his life. The posthumous New Collected Poems includes some previously unpublished poems from this difficult period. George Oppen died in a convalescent home in California on July 7, 1983.


Monday, October 26, 2020

Collected Poems by Hope Mirrlees

Illustration by Clifford Harper/

Collected Poems by Hope Mirrlees

Hope Mirrlees's 'lost masterpiece'

Patrick McGuinness
Fri 13 Apr 2012 22.50 BST

"A swift, fleeting sense of the past is as near as I have ever got to a mystical experience," wrote Hope Mirrlees in "Listening in to the Past", an essay published in 1926. A little later she describes her interest in creating an "aural kaleidoscope": "disparate fragments of Cockney, Egyptian, Babylonian, Provençal, ever forming into new patterns for the ear".

What this "mystical experience" might feel like, and what the "aural kaleidoscope" might look and sound like, can be seen in her long poem "Paris", written in 1919 and published by Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press in 1920. Woolf called it "indecent, obscure, brilliant", and the poem describes (the word "describes" is inadequate: it dynamically enacts, verbally and with an array of compelling visual and typographical effects) a day in post-first world war Paris.

"Paris" is the product of immersion: not just in Parisian high culture, but in a seamier, more disjointed and immediate kind of metropolitanism. Voices, machine noises and musical notes are caught in mid-air, shreds of advertising, brand names, logos, street signs and even the lettering on monuments, are conveyed in poetry that takes liberties not just with standard verse forms, but with linear writing itself.

It's the Paris of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, of cubism and surrealism, jazz culture and nightlife. It is a place of many pasts, with its ruins and its dead (there are several allusions to the war, and to the 1919 Paris peace conference), but also of multiple presents. Mirrlees writes from the point of view of the "flâneuse": dreamlike, but retaining the broken edges of urban experience, the almost filmic shifts between slow-motion and speedy blur.

The poem could be disorientating, but it holds together because Mirrlees lets us enter the dream, reassuring us from the start that any disorientation is part of the experience and not a barrier to it. "I wade knee-deep in dreams … the dreams have reached my waist", she writes, and there is a sense of a poetic voice being both crowded out and submerged. At the same time, she notes everything with precision: she sees, reads, hears, smells, tastes and touches, and there's an exhilarating mix of sophistication and rawness in the writing. One minute we're in the Louvre, the next we're catching wafts from the Paris sewers:

It is pleasant to sit on the Grands
Boulevards –
They smell of
Hot indiarubber
Poudre de riz
Algerian tobacco

There's a lot of poetic product-placement going on (usually for food and drink – this is a city to ingest, not just look at) and Mirrlees enjoys the siren song of consumerism, the closeness of advertising to art, of publicity slogans to poetry. In the line "The Scarlet Woman shouting BYRRH and deafening St John of Patmos", Mirrlees invokes a famous apéritif poster featuring a woman in a red dress beating a drum, and yokes it to the "scarlet woman" of the Book of Revelation. As with TS Eliot and other modernists, myth and reality, past and present, are not separated but braided together. The modernist experience, as distinct perhaps from the merely modern one, is grounded in a recognition that our lives today are lived alongside, rather than merely "after", our lives yesterday.

There is also a real engagement with lived reality: war, displacement, poverty, venereal disease, rural depopulation (Paris may be the world's artistic capital but it is also "a huge homesick peasant"), and urban hardship. The poem plays on metaphors of surface and depth: the Métro, the sewers, the shady demi-monde on the one hand, the art works, monuments, galleries on the other. The most ferocious instance of this metaphor comes in the line "Freud has dredged the river and, grinning horribly, / waves his garbage in a glare of electricity", where the unconscious is posited as modernity's own underworld, our own cloacae.

Despite this, the dominant feeling in the poem is of happy excess. There is no sense in Mirrlees, which we find in her friend Eliot, that modern life cheapens and dulls us. On the contrary, there is always more in one minute of modern life – "Little funny things ceaselessly happening" – than there is space for in any book, symphony or canvas. "Paris" predates The Waste Land by two years, and though it is less achieved and resonant than Eliot's poem, it is, in an English context, just as experimental and unprecedented. It is also full of wit, freshness and clever bilingual punning – "silence of the grève" for a workers' strike, "an English padre tilt[ing] with the Moulin Rouge", it is a sort of cousin to The Waste Land, and perhaps even its optimistic antidote.

Mirrlees was born in Kent in 1887, and died in 1978. After "Paris", she published no poetry for nearly 50 years, and her poems of the 60s bear no sign of her earlier radicalism, though many are impressively stringent in their thinking.

This edition includes several essays, an introduction by Sandeep Parmar, and a definitive commentary on "Paris" by Julia Briggs, who did more than anybody else to bring Mirrlees out of obscurity. It is a pleasure to see Briggs's careful, elegant advocacy of what she calls Mirrlees's "lost modernist masterpiece" finally bear fruit in this fine edition.

• Patrick McGuinness's Jilted City is published by Carcanet.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Louise Glück / A Fable


by Louise Glück

Two women with
the same claim
came to the feet of
the wise king. Two women,
but only one baby.
The king knew
someone was lying.
What he said was
Let the child be
cut in half; that way
no one will go
empty-handed. He
drew his sword.
Then, of the two
women, one
renounced her share:
this was
the sign, the lesson.
you saw your mother
torn between two daughters:
what could you do
to save her but be
willing to destroy
yourself—she would know
who was the rightful child,
the one who couldn’t bear
to divide the mother.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Louise Glück / Celestial Music


Gustave Klimt

by Louise Glück
I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she’s unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.
We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I’m always moved by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality
But timid also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
According to nature.  For my sake she intervened
Brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down
Across the road.
My friend says I shut my eyes to God, that nothing else explains
My aversion to reality.  She says I’m like the child who
Buries her head in the pillow
So as not to see, the child who tells herself
That light causes sadness–
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
To wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person–
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me.  We’re walking
On the same road, except it’s winter now;
She’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
Look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
Like brides leaping to a great height–
Then I’m afraid for her; I see her
Caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth–
In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact
That we’re at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.
She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
Capable of life apart from her.
We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, The composition
Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering–
It’s this stillness we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Louise Glück / Parousia


by Louise Glück

Love of my life, you
Are lost and I am
Young again.
A few years pass.
The air fills
With girlish music;
In the front yard
The apple tree is
Studded with blossoms.
I try to win you back,
That is the point
Of the writing.
But you are gone forever,
As in Russian novels, saying
A few words I don’t remember–
How lush the world is,
How full of things that don’t belong to me–
I watch the blossoms shatter,
No longer pink,
But old, old, a yellowish white–
The petals seem
To float on the bright grass,
Fluttering slightly.
What a nothing you were,
To be changed so quickly
Into an image, an odor–
You are everywhere, source
Of wisdom and anguish.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Louise Glück / Nostos


by Louise Glück

There was an apple tree in the yard—
this would have been
forty years ago—behind,
only meadows. Drifts
of crocus in the damp grass.
I stood at that window:
late April. Spring
flowers in the neighbor’s yard.
How many times, really, did the tree
flower on my birthday,
the exact day, not
before, not after? Substitution
of the immutable
for the shifting, the evolving.
Substitution of the image
for relentless earth. What
do I know of this place,
the role of the tree for decades
taken by a bonsai, voices
rising from the tennis courts—
Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut.
As one expects of a lyric poet.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.

Casa de citas / Manuel Borrás / Louise Glück


Saturday, October 17, 2020

Louise Glück / Penelope's Song

    by Louise Glück

Little soul, little perpetually undressed one,
Do now as I bid you, climb
The shelf-like branches of the spruce tree;
Wait at the top, attentive, like
A sentry or look-out. He will be home soon;
It behooves you to be
Generous. You have not been completely
Perfect either; with your troublesome body
You have done things you shouldn’t
Discuss in poems. Therefore
Call out to him over the open water, over the bright
With your dark song, with your grasping,
Unnatural song—passionate,
Like Maria Callas. Who
Wouldn’t want you? Whose most demonic appetite
Could you possibly fail to answer? Soon
He will return from wherever he goes in the
Suntanned from his time away, wanting
His grilled chicken. Ah, you must greet him,
You must shake the boughs of the tree
To get his attention,
But carefully, carefully, lest
His beautiful face be marred
By too many falling needles.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Ren Hang / Gift


Photo by Ren Hang


by Ren Hang 

 Ren Hang / El regalo

Life is really one
Precious gift
But sometimes I feel that
It has been given to the wrong person


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Louise Glück / Love Poem

Love Poem

by Louise Glück

There is always something to be made of pain.
Your mother knits.
She turns out scarves in every shade of red.
They were for Christmas, and they kept you warm
while she married over and over, taking you
along. How could it work,
when all those years she stored her widowed heart
as though the dead come back.
No wonder you are the way you are,
afraid of blood, your women
like one brick wall after another.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Louise Glück / Parable of the Swans


Parable of the Swans


On a small lake off
the map of the world, two
swans lived. As swans,
they spent eighty percent of the day studying
themselves in the attentive water and
twenty percent ministering to the beloved
other. Thus
their fame as lovers stems
chiefly from narcissism, which leaves
so little leisure for
more general cruising. But
fate had other plans: after ten years, they hit
slimy water; whatever the filth was, it
clung to the male’s plumage, which turned
instantly gray; simultaneously,
the true purpose of his neck’s
flexible design revealed itself. So much
action on the flat lake, so much
he’s missed! Sooner or later in a long
life together, every couple encounters
some emergency like this, some
drama which results
in harm. This
occurs for a reason: to test
love and to demand
fresh articulation of its complex terms.
So it came to light that the male and female
flew under different banners: whereas
the male believed that love
was what one felt in one’s heart
the female believed
love was what one did. But this is not
a little story about the male’s
inherent corruption, using as evidence the swan’s
sleazy definition of purity. It is
a story of guile and innocence. For ten years
the female studied the male; she dallied
when he slept or when he was
conveniently absorbed in the water,
while the spontaneous male
acted casually, on
the whim of the moment. On the muddy water
they bickered awhile, in the fading light,
until the bickering grew
slowly abstract, becoming
part of their song
after a little longer.
"Parable of the Swans" by Louise Glück
From Meadowlands, 1996