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"Feminine technologies": George Oppen talks at Denise Levertov.

In 1958 George Oppen returned to New York City determined to resume the literary career he had suspended in 1935, when he and his wife Mary joined the Communist Party. But the New York cultural scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s was very different from the one Oppen had left behind in 1935. By 1959, various currents which would later issue in the New Left and the counter-culture of the 1960s were already stirring in New York City. In this paper I want to focus on Oppen's response to one movement which would swell in force throughout the 1960s: the new wave of feminist consciousness, which revived a movement largely dormant since the victory of women's suffrage in the early 1920s. A surprising number of the poems that Oppen wrote in the early 1960s and corrected in This In Which--by my count at least, sixteen of the forty-two poems in the book--touch in one way or another on women's distinctive experience and consciousness. Oppen often plays "the feminine" off against what he calls "the Roman," a shorthand term for the male will to, control other people and the natural world, which Oppen sees as having brought us to the edge of destruction. Yet Oppen also felt uneasy about some qualities which he saw as distinctively feminine, especially "feminine self-love"(1) and what he saw as a feminine desire to arrive at "edifying ... or comforting conclusions."(2) Rachel Blau DuPlessis, a friend of George and Mary Oppen from the mid-1960s until the end of their fives and the editor of Oppen's letters, says that "Oppen was fascinated by |the feminine' in poetry and by the task of women poets, about which he was both forthright and ambivalent";(3) and I want to examine both his forthrightness and his ambivalence on this issue. In particular, I want to explore how these attitudes played themselves out in Oppen's response to the person and the work of Denise Levertov, both of which, for a few years, fascinated him to the point of obsession.

George Oppen and Denise Levertov shared some important poetic affinities. Both poets traced their poetic lineage to Imagism--see, for example, Levertov's poem "September 1961" and Oppen's essay "The Mind's Own Place." In particular, both shared an admiration for the poetry of William Carlos Williams, and both adapted to their own purposes Williams's supple open-form line. Oppen and Levertov also shared some common political commitments. By the early 1960s Oppen no longer called himself a Communist, but he remained distinctly a man and a poet of the Left. For example, in "The Mind's Own Place," Oppen declares, "The people on the Freedom Rides are both civilized and courageous; the people in the Peace Marches are the sane people of the country."(4) As for Levertov, by the early 1960s she, too, had aligned herself with the political Left. She reviewed books for liberal journals such as The New Leader and The Nation, where she also served for a time as poetry editor. In a 1962 letter, Oppen describes Levertov as "very determined to be (or become?) a good mother, to enter political (anti-bomb, at least) activity, etc., etc."(5) Later in the 1960s, Levertov's political commitments led her to devote an increasing share of her energies to the struggle against the Vietnam War, and her poetry too became more and more a vehicle for articulating her political views. Oppen sympathized with these views, for he, too, opposed American policy in Vietnam. Clearly, then, Oppen and Levertov shared a considerable area of common ground, both artistic and political.

However, Oppen was also very uneasy about some tendencies that he sensed in Levertov's work. In part this uneasiness stemmed simply from the fact that she was a woman. As an example of the "ambivalence" which DuPlessis sees in Oppen's responses to women writers, we might note that immediately after the description of "Levertov-as-superwoman" quoted above, Oppen says he feels like telling her to "stop writing for a while,"(6) a comment, that suggest quasi-paternal concern edging over into patronizing condescension. More significantly, Oppen worried whether the distinctive combination of woman + poet + political activist might prevent Levertov from acknowledging the hard truths that Oppen saw as fundamental to poetry. Thus the statement about Levertov ceasing to write is immediately followed by an important qualifier: "--if she must, just now, arrive at edifying conclusions. or comforting conclusions."(7) In particular, Oppen seems to have been troubled by what he saw as an impulse in Levertov to lecture at the reader, a failure to keep the focus on "the image, the thing encountered, the thing seen each day whose meaning has become the meaning and the color of our lives."(8) "[T]he 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." Oppen declares at the climax of the "Mind's Own Place" essay.(9) In a letter to his sister, Oppen says that this essay was "almost written at" Levertov "and at her latest poems, some of which are very bad--see the Eichmann poem in her book."(10) In singling out the most overtly political poem in Levertov's book, The Jacob's Ladder (1961), Oppen reveals that he--like another erstwhile friend of Levertov's, Robert Duncan--was disturbed by what he saw as a too-easy importation of political opinions into the poetry, a tendency to make the poetry a vehicle for pre-formed opinions rather than--as Oppen believed it should be--a "test of truth."(11)

Yet the problem here goes deeper than simply the relationship between poetry and politics. In 1963, writing to his daughter Linda, Oppen says, "To believe that one can invent not only himself, but the universe around him I think is the road to the peculiarly modem madness."(12) This statement might be taken as thematic of all of Oppen's work during these years--or indeed throughout his life. That there is a world "out there," an objective, inescapable this in which we find ourselves, seemed to him the necessary starting point for sane thinking. The last lines of the last poem in This In Which state this principle assertively:

The self is no mystery, the mystery is

That there is something for us to stand on.

We want to be here.

The act of being, the act of being

More than oneself.(13)

This conviction leads Oppen to place himself in an oppositional stance, arguing against certain voices which, he fears, insufficiently recognize the ineluctable givenness of the world in which we find ourselves. Some of these voices are proud, aggressive, domineering, masculine--in Oppen's terminology, "Roman": "this is my world," they declare, "and if you don't like it you can go to hell." In responding to such voices, Oppen seeks out allies, in particular among women. But at other times in these poems Oppen is responding to the voices of certain women. Levertov in particular, whom he sees as perhaps too eager to remake the world in accordance with their own desires. Thus while Oppen wanted to and did learn from women, he also wanted them to subject their own words and acts to the "test of truth."

But Oppen did not give up on Levertov. For if he was disturbed that she migh forsake "the arduous path of appearance" (a phrase from Heidegger, quoted as an epigraph to This In Which) in favor of the easy path of the comforting illusion, it was precisely because he believed that women's voices should be heard, and they should speak the truth. So instead of simply condemning Livertov's work, Oppen set out to instruct her on the path she should follow as a poet. Indeed, for a time this impulse to guide Levertov seems to have verged on an obsession. Thus we find Oppen seeking to instruct Levertov publically in the "Mind's Own Place" essay of 1962, which he originally wrote for The Nations, where Levertov was serving as poetry editor. Open also paraphrased some parts of this essay in two letters to her in 1963, both included in the Selected Letters.(14) And three important poems in This In Which are at least obliquely addressed to her: "Technologies," the first poem in the book; "The Mayan Ground," which incorporates an extended allusion to Levertov's Matins"; and the longest poem in the book, "A Narrative," which in its earlier stages of development was titled "To--" and which was, Rachel Blau DuPlessis suggests in her note to Oppen's leters, probably addressed to Levertov.(15) I will concentrate on "Technologies," which, as the first peom in This In Which, is thematic of the entire book. "Technologies" is a difficult poem, but reading it as an attempt by Oppen to articulate his ambivalent responses to "the feminine" in general and to Levertov in particular can, I believe, help us to understand both this poem and the general development of Oppen's poetry during the early 1960s.

In a 1968 interview, Oppen tells L.S. Dembo that he had written "Technologies" in response to a poem by Denise Levertov "in which a hawk howls on the window sill, |Nothing matters, timor mortis conturbat me.'" Oppen adds that she wrote this poem "after a bitter argument with me," and he suggests that the bird in Levertov's poem is Oppen himself.(16) The poem is titled "Who Is at My Window":

Who is at my window, who, who?

It's the blind cuckoo, mulling

the old song over.

The old song is about fear, about

tomorrow and next year.

Timor mortis conturbat me, he sings

What's the use? He brings me

the image of where a boat

hull down, smudged on the darkening ocean.

I want to move deeper into today;

he keeps me from that work.

Today and eternity are nothing to him.

His wings spread at the window make it dark.

Go from my window, go, go!(17) The opening line ("who, who") suggests there may be an owl here, but I don't find a hawk, and the only bird identified by name is the "blind cuckoo." So if this old bird is George Oppen, then the poem would suggest that Levertov was indeed, as Oppen says in the Dembo interview, "pretty mad at" him.(18) The basis of her complaint is clear: he wants to talk about those Heideggerian themes, time and death, and about that Hegelo-Marxian theme, history. Instead, she wants to talk about "today," what can be done here and now, and about "eternity"--the young Levertov, as poems like "The Jacob's Ladder" attest, was already drawn to possibilities of mystical vision. But the dark shadow of the cuckoo blocks her view, so she wants him to "Go, from my window."

In the Dembo interview, Oppen says that "he was pretty mad at her ... too," when he wrote "Technologies,"(19) but the poem begins tentatively enough:

Tho in a sort of summer the hard buds blossom

In to feminine profusion(20) The season seems to be summer. The buds have blossomed. We find ourselves in the midst of "profusion," on the point of a new beginning--in nature certainly but perhaps a new social and poetic beginning as well. And this is happening under the aegis of "the feminine." But this announcement of the primavera theme (echoing most immediately Williams's Spring and All--"rooted, they/grip down and begin to awaken," but also perhaps Chaucer's "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote" or even perhaps the Pervigilium Veneris) is hedged about with qualifiers: this is only a "sort of" summer; the buds are "hard"; and the subordinating conjunction "tho" has already signalled us that this renewal will be, at best, qualified--or, more precisely, that this "feminine profusion" can only serve to qualify some tougher reality.

What this reality is we discover as we proceed into the main clause:

The |inch-sized

Heart,' the little core of oneself,

So inartistic,

The inelegant heart

Which cannot grasp

The world

And makes art

Is small

Like a small hawk

Lighting disheveled on a window sill.(21) Standing over against all that feminine profusion is, it seems, "the heart," which remains "small"--the phrase "inch-sized heart" comes, says Oppen, from Lu Chi(22)--and "inartistic." This heart cannot "grasp" the world- understand it mentally, but also hold it, take it into its arms. Yet only this "little core of oneself" can make art. The main verb, when we arrive at it, is the simplest possible: a copulative. And the isolation of that tiny phrase "Is small" in a stanza of its own emphasizes how very small indeed that heart is. But if small it is perhaps persistent, like that hawk which the succeeding simile invokes. In misremembering Levertov's cuckoo as a hawk, Oppen has perhaps unconsciously rewritten her image of him. "Don't underestimate me," he may be telling Levertov by this redefinition. "I can be fierce." But Levertov's bird is huge, darkening her whole window, while Oppen's hawk seems instead a small--not much bigger than that heart--, "disheveled," and rather pathetic fellow; he's just looking for a place to perch.

The period after "window sill" marks the end of one sentence and the beginning of another--which, however, apparently never ends, for the period after "sill" is the last one in the poem. Instead, as we will see, the syntax seems to fray out into indeterminacy. This new grammatical departure begins bravely enough:

Like hawks we are at least not

Nowhere, and I would say

Where we are(23) The "we" here seems inclusive: "all human beings." The only undeniable truth about us is that we find ourselves in a world that is there before us, so we can be sure that we are "not/nowhere"--although the double negative, accentuated by the line break, underscores the difficulty of finding positive terms to name "Where we are," and the qualifying verb "would" also suggests doubt. Nevertheless, the goal of the poet/poem is here clearly and emphatically defined: to name "Where we are."

But now the syntax likes a wild swing:

Tho I distract

Windows that look out

On the business

Of the days

In streets

Without horizons, streets

and gardens ...(24) "I distract/windows"--this locution, in characteristic Oppenesque fashion, pulls us up short. It doesn't seem to "make sense"--or maybe it only half makes sense. Should we read an implied period after "distract, as suggested by the line break? This would give us a quasi-Elizabethan usage: "Tho I distract," a bit like "Tho I digress." And then perhaps the lines about windows, etc., describe what he notices after he "distracts." Perhaps--this is a half-plausible reading, and as it turns out no reading of these lines is more than half-plausible. But in fact there is no period after "distracts." So perhaps we might find an implied passive here: "Tho I am distracted by windows." That would make sense, and it seems appropriate to the context. In other words, perhaps the poet, sitting at his desk trying to "say where we are," happens to look out the window and is distracted from the task at hand, as he is reminded how large that world out there is.

But that's not what "Technologies" actually says. Although the meanings traced above seem floating somewhere in the vicinity, this text treats "distract" as an active verb, and thus as a transitive verb with a direct object: "I distract windows." This odd locution now invites (forces?) yet a third reading. The "I" here may be the hawk, or Oppen-as-hawk. The arrival of the hawk on the window sill "distracts" the window--or, metonymically, the person inside the window, which now becomes Levertov, distracted from her quest for eternity by the bird that darkens her window, blotting out the view. The grammatical ambiguity has thus generated an epistemological disequilibrium: the poet seems to be both inside that window looking out and outside looking in; and insofar as the poem is addressed to Levertov, he seems to be asking her to accept a similarly perilous position--not to drive the bird away, but to look in at her self from the bird's perspective.

And what lies beyond these windows? First, "the business/of the days," just things going on. This business happens in "streets/Without horizon," perhaps acknowledging that there is a kind of "eternity" out there. But the syntax tumbles on

... streets

And gardens

Of the feminine technologies

Of desire

And compassion which will clothe

Everyone ...(25) Interviewing Oppen, Dembo is troubled by these lines. What exactly did Oppen mean by "feminine technologies"? Oppen explains, "... the feminine technologies I take to be a kind of medical pragmatism ... There are times one is infinitely grateful for the feminine contribution, and times one just has to fight about it, and this poem was more or less fighting. ..." Dembo responds, "Well, then |feminine technologies' is something bad in this particular poem." And Oppen replies, "A kind of pragmatism, an unrecognized pragmatism. |What's true is what's good for us.' And |why will you be a hawk yelling timor mortis conturbat me? What's the use of yelling that? ...' That's what nice women say to us, women as nice as Denise Levertov, but sometimes one objects."(26) One more quotation may help to elucidate what Oppen means by "technologies." Writing to Rachel Blau Du Plessis in 1965, Oppen sharply attacks Levertov for writing "poem after poem of technology, the technological prescriptions of wisdom literature, specifically How to be good. The trap which has ingulfed most women poets. ..."(27)

In context, the phrase "feminine technologies" is linked specifically to gardens. Women, Oppen seems to suggest, want to build and tend enclosed places, refuges. These places are built out of desire and are dedicated to compassion. Women want to invite "everyone" into their gardens, to clothe and shelter all the strangers, the outsiders--starting, perhaps, with that hawk on the window sill. But Oppen describes this impulse as issuing in "technologies," a word with strong Heideggerian overtones. Certainly there is "care" here, but there is also an impulse to "take care of" these visitors from "outside"--clothing them may be a way of holding them at arm's length and thereby tacitly denying their Dasein, their Being-in-the-world. "The essence of technology," says Heidegger, "lies in enframing," and "Enframing conceals that revealing which, in the sense of poiesis, lets what presences come forth into appearance."(28) In Heidegger's usage, then, the "technological" is deeply antithetic to the poetic, and Oppen may suggest a similar judgment here.

In any event, we can move now to the remaining lines of the poem:

Everyone, arriving

Out of uncivil



As a hawk

From a hawk's

Nest as they say

The nest of such a bird

Must be, and continue

Therefore to talk about

Twig technologies(29) There are obscurities aplenty here, but let us plunge in.

First, that "arriving" seems to hover indeterminately between two possible senses: "feminine technologies arrive out of uncivil air," i.e., are "natural," gratuitous; or "the feminine technologies want to clothe everyone that arrives out of uncivil air," like, for example, that hawk. The two readings are contradictory; yet both are semantically and syntactically possible, and the reader is required to hold both in suspension, at least for a time. But what is that loaded word "Evil" doing here, syntactically? Now we don't even have a comma to guide us. If we see the "feminine technologies" as "arriving out of uncivil air," then these technologies now seem to be "Evil," a reading that seems improbable. The alternative is to assume that "everyone who arrives out of uncivil air" is "evil as a hawk." But who "says" this? We are not prepared to have Oppen suddenly label that hawk as "evil," and the "they say" suggests that we may have a quotation here. Is it possible that "they" are the apostles of "feminine technologies," and that "they" are describing as "Evil" everything that comes in from outside the "civil" domain, as does the hawk? Is it possible that "they" are further suggesting that the nest from which the hawk comes must also be evil? And precisely who "continues ... /to talk about/Twig technologies"? The verb here has no apparent grammatical subject, unless it be that "they," which it no grammatical antecedent.

As we puzzle over these lines, some syntactic possibilities begin to crystallize. In particular, if we temporarily bracket the word "Evil," see it as an interjection, the syntax may become simpler: "the feminine

technologies/Of desire/And compassion ... will clothe//Everyone arriving/Out of uncivil/Air/[such] As a hawk//From a hawk's/Nest. ..." Further, we can perhaps now see "them" as seeking to "clothe" that hawk, create a nest for it, in accordance with how "they say/the nest of such a bird//Must be"; and perhaps to this end "they"--reading the pronoun as the subject of the floating verb--"continue/Therefore to talk about/Twig technologies." That is, they're trying to figure out what sort of nest to build. As an overlay to this reading, we might also hear a suggestion that the hawk comes "From a hawk's/Nest as they say/The nest of such a bird//Must be"--ie., we don't really know what sort of nest the hawk comes from, and we have nothing to go on except "their" speculations as to what this nest must be like. This reading seems reasonably plausible, and it would seem consistent with Oppen's previously quoted comments about "technologies." That is, according to this reading, the proponents of "feminine technologies" would be busily but presumptuously trying to construct a nest for that bird, out of their imagined notion of what the bird "needs."

But that hard rhyme of "uncivil" and "Evil," underscored by the line breaks, pulls against the reading I have here just proposed. "Uncivil" suggests merely impolite--but also wild (as that hawk is wild), coming from outside the city. The sudden equation of the "uncivil" with the overtly "Evil" comes as a shock. Who is making this equation? Are "they" muttering under their breaths that the hawk is "evil," even as they set about building a nest for it? Is the poet slipping in this word, to suggest that their behavior really implies such a judgment, however they may act? Or is it even possible that the poet is judging as "Evil" the proponents of "feminine technologies"? This last reading seems to me improbable, but either of the first two readings suddenly opens up a new perspective. All that compassion is, Oppen may perhaps be implying, bitterly judgmental: what it cannot grasp, encompass within its garden, it repudiates as evil. And in the sudden eruption of that brutal epithet "Evil," perhaps we can hear some undertones of the anger which Oppen, in his conversation with Dembo, described as lying behind this poem.

However, the syntactic shifts and ruptures in this poem tend to make the question of "who" is speaking and "where" this person is speaking from increasingly problematic. If the poet's goal was to say "Where we are," then the movement of his language has rendered the identification of this position deeply uncertain. Both in the "Tho I distract" line and in the syntactic shifts of the last three stanzas, we experience a kind of grammatical double vision, leaving us simultaneously inside the window looking out and outside looking in. As a consequence, while we may be reasonably certain that "we are at least not/Nowhere," that's about all we can say--or perhaps we can only say that we are "in" language. Furthermore, if the "feminine" locates itself inside looking out, as Levertov's poem suggests, and if Oppen's poem therefore begins by locating the "masculine" on the "outside" looking in, the syntactic shifts that render these locations problematic also have the effect of disrupting the gender categories which, in Levertov's poem, seem reasonably stable. These encroaching ambiguities are perhaps clearest in the last phrase of the poem. The phrase "feminine technologies" carries, as we have seen, negative connotations. But are "twig technologies" necessarily the same thing as "feminine technologies"? Dembo didn't ask this question, but we may wonder whether this last line does not represent an at least partial turn back toward those "materials" which Oppen had affirmed in his previous collection of poems, toward the raw whatness of what is: not a technology of desire,and compassion, but a technology of twigs, the thing itself. And perhaps the implied subject of "continue" is therefore "I"? "Because they say the nest must be such and so, I will continue--in defiance of |them,' or perhaps in co to their discourse--to talk of twig technologies, the bricks and boards we will need if we are actually to build a nest." And this final, teasing possibility suggests the depth of the ambiguities that this poem finally pushes into.

While Oppen's little lecture to Denise Levertov may have begun in anger, then, it appears to end more in puzzlement, in a disequilibrium approaching--and this in one of Oppen's favorite words--vertigo. Perhaps, the poem may suggest, the only place we can locate ourselves is on that window sill, ambiguously between "inside" and "outside." Language itself, especially as it moves toward syntactic closure, locates us "inside": inside a culture, a community, a history, an illusion that we have grasped and possessed the world. But there is, Oppen wants always to remind us (and, here, to remind Levertov in particular), always a world "out there," a "wild" (one of the most potent words in the vocabulary of This In Which) place from which things (and people) come to us, as that hawk came to us. Our words cannot lay hold upon what is "out there": at best they can point toward it (Wittgenstein) or allow it to "presence" itself (Heidegger). For if our words could grasp that world, then it would no longer be "out there"--rather it would be "in here." As our words, vainly reaching toward what is "out there," begin to disintegrate, so do the categories in which we willy nilly entrap ourselves--including the gender categories which have proved the most stubborn and seductive of all the systems we use to organize the world. Oppen himself, as some of the prose statements quoted herein demonstrate, was subject to the distorting influence of such categories. But as he pushes the words of his poem toward the brink and then over, these categories fray out, like bits of cloud whipped away by the wind. As the absence of a period at the end suggests, poems like "Technologies" invite us into processes which in fact never end. And perhaps a willingness to surrender to such processes offers us, finally, a more human way to live than does the illusion of closure suggested by words like "eternity."


(1.) "[T]he weakness of Imagism has been this affectation and feminine self-love, the strength of Imagism its demand that one actually look." From The Selected Letters of George Oppen, edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 146. (2.) The Selected Letters of George Oppen, edited by Rachel Blau Duplessis (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 58. (3.) Ibid., 392. (4.) George Oppen, "The Mind's Own Place," Montemora 1 (Fall, 1975), 136. (5.) The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 57-58. (6.) Ibid, 58. (7.) Ibid, 58. (8.) George Oppen, "The Mind's Own Place," 132. (9.) Ibid, 137. (10.) The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 57. (11.) See Robert Duncan, Before the War, (New York, NY: New Directions, 1984), 44-46, for his response to Levertov's political poetry. But note, too, that unlike Duncan, Oppen expressed some sympathy with Levertov's political poetry: in 1970, he writes of Relearning the Alphabet perhaps Levertov's most political book, "surely a great poem.... I was dazed and drunk with the life of the poetry"--from The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 218. (12.) The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 87. (13.) George Oppen, Collected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1976), 143. Copyright [C] 1965 by George Oppen. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. (14.) The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 79-86. (15.) Ibid., 383. (16.) George Oppen: Man and Poet edited by Burton Hatlen (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1981), 209. (17.) Denise Levertov, Poems 1960-1967 (New York, NY: New Directions, 1983), 122. Copyright [C] 1964 by Denise Levertov. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. (18.) George Oppen: Man and Poet, 209. (19.) Ibid, 209. (20.) George Oppen, Collected Poems, 71. (21.) Ibid, 71. (22.) The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 86. (23.) George Oppen, Collected Poems, 71. (24.) Ibid, 71. (25.) Ibid, 72. (26.) George Oppen, Man and Poet, 209. (27.) The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 393. (28.) Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, translated by William Lovitt (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1977). Heidegger is using "presences" as an active verb. That Oppen was studying Heidegger carefully during the 1960s is evident from several quotations in his poetry, a well as from many references in his letters--see The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 393. (29.) George Oppen, Collected Poems, 72.
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Author:Hatlen, Burton
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1993
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