The fate of modern poetries.
Jenkins, G. Matthew. 2008. Poetic Obligation: Ethics in American Poetry After 1945. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. $42.50hc. 282pp.
Nicholls, Peter. 2007. George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. $99.00hc. 240pp.
Fifteen years ago, I began a review essay on two books about modern poetry by stating: "Modern poetry studies have a tenuous hold within the various institutional structures that define the academy ..." (1994, 151). Thankfully, this is no longer the case. The three books under consideration here represent a small sampling of the recent rich discourse on modern poetry and reflect the greater purchase such discourse has gained within the academy Many factors account for this relatively higher level of visibility, but certainly one prime mover has been the increased access to and valuation of the archive. What were previously viewed as "paratextual" materials, notably letters, journals, interviews, etc., are not just open to examination--they are sites of editing and publishing activity in and of themselves. This turn to the archive may have been prompted by New Historicism, but by now it has become an integral part of varying critical approaches ranging from the historical to the hermeneutical. Anne Day Dewey's Beyond Maximus might be situated on the historical end of this spectrum, as she attempts to trace the shifting roles of poet and public over the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s (and somewhat beyond). G. Matthew Jenkins' Poetic Obligation situates itself firmly on the hermeneutical side, focusing on depth readings of a range of texts through the critical lens of the philosophical writings of Emmanuel Levinas. Peter Nicholls' George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism gives the initial appearance of being a straightforward "monograph," but it too moves deftly between the historical and the hermeneutic. Taken together, these three studies demonstrate the vitality, range and perspicuity of contemporary approaches to modern poetry.
Dewey's Beyond Maximus is an impressive feat of scholarship, an original, syncretic reading of five poets loosely grouped under the "Black Mountain" heading: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Ed Dorn. Just to dispose of one of my main objections to the work's theoretical framework (and maybe also to identify myself as part of a slightly older generation of scholars), let me say that I don't believe there is a "beyond Maximus"--I think Robert Creeley, for example, would have rejected out of hand the idea that his work represented some kind of "advance" over Olson's. That said, it is impossible to do justice to the complex argument Dewey engages that identifies Olson as an inheritor of the modernist tradition of Pound, Zukofsky and others, an argument mediated by strong reference to the historical theories of Brooks Adams. Dewey sees Olson's "field poetics" as emerging from this tradition: "The significance of the force field as a model of social force for the Black Mountain poets has its origins in modernism" (2007, 17). Summarizing her argument all too briefly: Dewey essentially sees Olson's break with the historicizing, epic aspirations of Pound and others manifested in his attention to natural place, but in turn this is what limits where Olson is able to take his field poetics. As she writes, "Olson's search for the natural ground of cultural forms prevented him ... from articulating positively the new forces that displace cultural subject and natural object as centers of agency driving contemporary history" (54). Hence, Olson's turn in the later Maximus poems to an idiosyncratic mythopoetics that is itself a kind of "failure" to articulate the natural and the social: "Conscious of his invasion by or inseparability from these collective cultural forces, Olson seems to have lost confidence in the individual's ability to create myth that would unify human and natural being" (63). To which 1 would say, if Olson's Maximus Poems are a "failure," at least they are an exemplary failure in the sense of Slavoj Zizek's citation of Samuel Beckett's phrase: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better" (2008, 210).
Creeley's "advance" over Olson, according to Dewey, is his realization that the self cannot maintain a direct relation to a natural order, because language itself intervenes as a social force that challenges the presumed unity of the self. As she says: "Recognizing the power of linguistic conventions as agents defining meaning, Creeley begins to trace the self as indirect expression, as the deformation of the meanings and emotions conventionally associated with set images and phrases" (2007, 71).Thus, Creeley (and to some extent the other poets) broke with Olson's conception of the force field as something taking place with respect to nature: "As Creeley abandoned Olson's (and earlier modernist) view of language as structured by natural reference, his poetry began to explore the structure of language in isolation and its role as an independent agent forming self" (75). Creeley and Robert Duncan begin to "formulate principles of abstract creation to escape the limits of conventional language" (78-79). In a transparent nod to Charles Altieri's magisterial work (1989) on the subject, Dewey describes the two poets' "different adaptations of painterly abstraction to their poetry" (2007, 87). To my reading, this claim resonates more effectively with Creeley's experiments than with Duncan's. Dewey claims that," Just as Creeley moved from personal deformation of colloquial meaning to exploration of the structure of language itself in Words and Pieces, Duncan's writing shifted gradually from creation of personal meaning to discovery of impersonal structures present in the artifacts of culture" (109). While this may work well to describe a certain arc in Duncan's production, that he relies on abstraction per se is less clear.
Where the dialectic of the poet's expression and the possibility of a "public voice" (instanced from the very beginning in Dewey's title) really comes to the fore is in her chapter describing Duncan's and Denise Levertov's engagement with the Vietnam War. Poetic language thus engaged cannot simply assume a register of realistic description, nor can it take for granted a community of like-minded opponents of the war. As she says," The problems both Duncan and Levertov encounter in writing protest poetry reveal an increasing difficulty in resolving the tension between individual and collective voice as formed in the public arena of mass culture" (Dewey 2007,121). Whereas Duncan's imagination led him in the direction of abstract and impersonal forces, Levertov increasingly allied her poetic voice with the peace activist movement, utilizing a demotic language in principle capable of directly engaging the mass audience. And those who have read The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (Bertholf and Gelpi 2004: esp. 660-98) know where this would lead the two poets in their personal relationship. Dewey tactfully observes, "the stylistic differences between Levertov's and Duncan's war poetry emerge from diverging conceptions of agency based on collective and individual voice. The rupture in their friendship coincides with the end of the close contact among the Black Mountain poets as a group" (2007,154). It would seem that the cause of differently engaged poets enlisted in the battle against the history of their times was too much for mere personal affinity to overcome.
The gap revealed in the split between Duncan and Levertov over the use of poetic language in response to the Vietnam War is given yet another twist when Dewey contrasts the different turns taken by Levertov and Ed Dorn in the 1970s. As she says: "In their divergent approaches to writing political poetry, Levertov and Dorn exemplify the polarization of the field created by this increasing distance between individual and collective voice" (2007, 155). For Levertov, the 1970s saw a turn toward the "personal" lyric, believing as she did that changes effectuated on an individual level could in fact be socially transformative: "Personal experience becomes the measure of justice and the motive of political action. Her focus for political reform through poetry is thus the individual" (158). Perhaps not surprisingly, the poetry Levertov produced during these decades went largely unappreciated by her Black Mountain associates. Ed Dorn, by contrast, had never believed in the efficacy of political poetry, but that is not to say he turned his back on socio-cultural forces. Dewey reads the contrast between the two as follows: "Rather than creating boundaries to bolster individual integrity from invasion by mass media as Levertov does, Dorn shifts from private lyric voice to a representation of this collective imagination in a pop epic," namely Gunslinger, of which more below (178). Bringing these different poets together in her conclusion, Dewey states: "Despite these differences, field poetics, with its modeling of multiple roles for language in different experiential contexts and the varied, open forms that this fluidity can generate, remains a common element in the work of Greeley, Duncan, and Levertov" (205). Dewey's study is a model of critical acuity, fluid enough to range across different though related practices of poetry and producing numerous insights, if not quite the systematic understanding of the poets she might want to claim.
In Poetic Obligation, G. Matthew Jenkins likewise proposes a syncretic reading of a range of modern and contemporary poets, grounding his hermeneutic approach in a flexible and assured reading of Levinas' ethics. In part situating his understanding of Levinas in the philosopher's distinction between "saying" (le dire) and "the said" (le dit), Jenkins explores an ethics of reading that is attentive both to what cannot be said in poetic language, as well as an excessiveness found in some acts of saying, that which exceeds what is said (2008, 18, 46). As Jenkins explains in his introductory chapter:
Poetry responds to the "impossible" because the saying, the obligation of the one-for-the-Other, occurs where form de-forms and is impossible to read as a said. Thus, in a poetic form that is open to the impossible--discontinuity, disruption, interruption--we should be more likely to trace the trace of the saying and its poetic obligation. (Jenkins 2008, 19)
This is a dense statement, no doubt, but one that engages the difficulty of Levinas' thought as part of a transformative move to establish the work's philosophical underpinnings and describe cognate ways of reading poetry. As with Dewey's study, there is an overt systematic method in Jenkins' reading of the six poets he studies: George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Susan Howe, and Lyn Hejinian. In each instance, he proposes to allow his readings to be guided by attention to " The Ethical Turn" or the ethics of the poetry, "The Other" or how the poetry responds to the call of the other, "Language," or how each poet uses the ethical function of language, and "Form" or "How do formal choices work beyond the intention of the poet" (20-21; italics in original).
In many ways, the model of an ethical practice of poetry is exemplified most forcefully in Jenkins' reading of the poetry of George Oppen. Oppen is often seen as a daunting poet, as Peter Nicholls explores in his full-length work discussed below; Rachel Blau DuPlessis, one of our foremost Oppen scholars, expresses this when she says: "When a person writing poems is frightened by George Oppen, she may have started" (2006: 186). Jenkins rightly, I think, situates the obduracy of Oppen in his lifelong sense of "obligation." As Jenkins says:
Even on this thematic level, Oppen's poetry is replete with an inescapable sense of obligation of self for others that arises out of the desire for the other we find in Zukofsky and earlier Objectivist poetics. In short, Oppen's poetics is an exploration of how alterity evinces obligation from a subject. (Jenkins 2008, 37)
Jenkins chooses as his primary text for analysis Oppen's poem sequence "Of Being Numerous," part of Oppen's book of that title which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. Through detailed readings of the poems in this sequence Jenkins shows how "Oppen's poetry reveals the relevance of language to ethical relations by exploring it as a medium and making that medium opaquely visible" (43).This linguistic impenetrability relates to the very difficulty in making ethical decisions, or as Jenkins says, "there is a certain opacity to Oppen's language that has an ethical effect because it draws attention to how language works in the rendering of moral decision" (49).
If the poetry of George Oppen demonstrates a kind of exemplary ethical practice, then to my reading, Ed Dorn's Guns linger presents the greatest challenge to Jenkins' method of analysis. Anne Day Dewey, as we recall, attempts to read Dorn's work in the historical context of competing models of communication and public utterance. For Dewey,
The radically changing and discontinuous narrative world of Gunslinger reflects history driven by systems rather than by individuals. Dorn calls this historical development "mutation," the radical change in the dimensions of character or reality produced by these interacting sign systems. (Dewey 2007,184)
Jenkins takes a different tack on these same phenomena, claiming that "with reason no longer left unchallenged as the basis of moral or political judgments, the focus in Gunslinger is on ethical uncertainty" (2008,93).This leads him to claim that Dorn's ethical stance thus represents an "ethics of excess" (92; italics in original). On one level, this "ethics of excess" is related to the collapse of the individual consciousness as the locus of reasoned judgment, leading to something like a collective or community-oriented ethos. Jenkins explains this move in the following terms:
The ecstatic alternative to the unified subject lies in the excess of the "collective" subject that proprioception [the subjects self-orientation in physical space] enables as "active social life" [cf Olson 1997]. If boundaries cease to exist between the subject and the world of objects ... then boundaries cease between subjects, so all subjects are somehow bound. (Jenkins 2008, 98)
How this might lead to a properly ethical practice is Jenkins' conceptual leap, so to speak. In his terms," Gunslinger envisions an ethical relation between the ecstatic subject and the community through an excess ... which creates not vision but ... a visionary ethics of how things could be" (105). So Jenkins ends up with a more Utopian view of the poem than Dewey's historically-determined reading. That the same text can receive such diametrically opposed readings suggests to me that Gunslinger still stands outside, or remains radically unassimilable, to even the most advanced critical models--and, something tells me, this is just as Dorn would have wished it.
Where Jenkins' work truly shines is in his attentive readings of very different texts by the contemporary poets Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian. Jenkins shows how a Levinasian ethics can provide added insight to the differently oriented ethical feminisms of Howe and Hejinian. In Howe's case, as Jenkins presents it, it is the nearness or "proximity" of the body that gives a gendered inflection to her texts (2008, 163 ff.).The resulting ethical obligation he sees as operative in Howe leads to a textual practice that challenges customary reading habits. In relation to a text from Howe's The Nonconformist's Memorial, Jenkins asks:
How are we to read this poem? What are we to make of the upside-down passages and the words written over or too close to each other? Perhaps there is no key. ... Any way we decide to read it, we must respond to that alterity. We cannot pretend the poem is final or ordered. (Jenkins 2008, 178)
So Howe's ethical feminism results both from her choice of (often marginalized) historical figures and her practice of challenging readers' habitual assumptions of how to read.
If Howe's poetics demonstrates through proximity the historical, gendered body of the text, Hejinian's feminist approach causes her to interrogate the level of language itself. Jenkins focuses here primarily on the poems from The Cell, arguing that:
This notion of the social as syntax--as "public grammar," the syntax as social in all its myriad and fluctuating forms--permeates Hejinian's texts and makes them permeable. In this permeability, found at all levels of her poetics, we find an ethical relation to the Other. (Jenkins 2008, 189)
I find Jenkins's emphasis on the "permeability" of the texts from The Cell works well to extend Hejinian's famous discussion of open versus closed forms (1996). In her theorizing of the open or permeable text, Hejinian emphasizes the active role of the reader in making meaning, or as Jenkins describes it: "In this collaboration between poet and reader, invited by the gap in meaning unfilled by any existing literary figure of speech, emerges an ethics of form" (2008, 199).The indeterminacy of language calls attention to a similar fluidity of relational space, especially as this space is gendered. As Jenkins expresses this: "Hejinian's poetics of coincidence foregrounds the contingency of the relation between sex and identity. ... The effects sexual difference will have on a particular body depend mostly on interpretation and inflection" (200). Here, as throughout this provocative and highly readable study, Jenkins demonstrates both the linguistic and social dimensions of the hermeneutical project.
The opening of (or towards) the archive has been especially propitious for the literary fortunes of George Oppen. Beginning with the publication (in a model of scholarly craft) of his Selected Letters (DuPlessis 1990) and continuing with the appearance of Oppen's Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers (2007), the three facets of his literary achievement--poetry, letters, working papers--are now fully available to a new generation of readers. There are even plans to re-issue his New Collected Poems (2002) in a corrected edition (Davidson 2007). Peter Nicholls' fine new study George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism demonstrates, among many other virtues, that the archive has still more to yield with respect to this important poet and poetic thinker. In fact, the main richness of Nicholls's study is the "way he traces Oppen's poetic progression in his last two productive decades (1958-1978) by uncovering source texts in philosophy and related fields that engaged Oppen's thinking, and by exploring through detailed readings how those texts related to his ongoing thinking and his poetic project.
Since Nicholls's study is essentially a chronological review of the stages of Oppen's career, he has the wisdom to provide a historical grounding of Oppen's early beginnings in the Objectivist movement (early 1930s), his twenty-five year silence, and his return to poetry in the late 1950s. Nicholls' discussion of the period of the Oppen's forced exile in Mexico (esp. 21-29) is probably the best account of this period in Oppen's life that we are likely to get. What emerges is a rather somber portrayal of a community of like-minded exiles, blacklisted Hollywood figures and political activists, who even in their exiled state were so oppressed by the constant threat of U.S. government surveillance and harassment that they generally shunned any discussion amongst themselves of the causes and ideas that had brought them into conflict with the government in the first place. This kind of huis clos, or closed and claustrophobic environment, serves as an important background for George Oppen's return to the U.S. and to writing poetry in 1958. It also serves as a crucial backdrop for Oppen's sense of engagement through his poetry as this relates to his politics.
Nicholls's understanding of Oppen's political and ethical engagement underpins his discussion of Oppen's complex relation to the literary modernism he saw represented in the poetry and theories of Ezra Pound, among others. This leads to Nicholls' rather harsh assessment of this relation:
Witness to Its own redundancy, the avant-garde can stake its claims to the new only in the realm of the aesthetic which, marked now by closure and solipsism, is doomed to mirror the totalitarian structures which it had failed adequately to recognize or to repudiate. This was, finally the fate of modernism, as Oppen now saw it. (Nicholls 2007, 42)
Although this passage yields the title to Nicholls's study, it is thankfully not representative of the overall approach in the book, which, as I indicated, is oriented in a dynamic way by the currents of thought that did engage Oppen's mind and so his poetics. Thus, there is significant discussion in relation to the writings of Jacques Maritain and Marxist thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre. In a formulation that nicely echoes with Jenkins' discussion of Oppen's "opacity," Nicholls states: "I want to suggest that it is by means of such opacities that Oppen stages the irruption of the existential in the political ..." (52). This relates to Nicholls' analysis of the (misquoted) epigraph from Maritain that opens The Materials (1962), "We awake at the same moment to ourselves and to things" (Oppen 2002: 38; cf. Nicholls 2007, 53).
What can only be hinted at in a short review is the truly revelatory hermeneutic scholarship that provides the main thrust of this book. For example, following up on Oppen's well-known interest in Heidegger's thought, Nicholls provides the reader with an in depth discussion of the Heidegger texts Oppen is known to have read (2007, esp. 64-72). This discussion then grounds Nicholls' specific readings of Oppen's poetry from the 1960s. Nicholls also finds less obvious intertexts in the poetry of Yves Bonnefoy and the philosophy of Hegel (88-93, 120-133 respectively), and the richness of the discussion of these intertexts allows Nicholls to characterize Oppen's practice in an especially perspicuous way. So we find statements such as the following:
[P]oetic language, in Oppen's view, allows us not to grasp "truth" as concept, but, quite the opposite, to accept limits to our cognitive ambitions by creating a language which recognizes what is now firmly established as the "impenetrability" of the world. This sense of encountering the world as something irreducibly other gives poetic language an unresolved, lacunary quality, with syntactical openness and hesitancy constantly proposing shared relationships and experiences without formulating them absolutely. (Nicholls 2007, 117)
Such a formulation may also serve as an index of Oppen's continued place in the attention of our contemporary generation of poets, notably DuPlessis and Hejinian among many, many others. So perhaps in addition to the poetry, letters and daybooks, we can add exemplary scholarship to the constellation that continues to insist on the relevance of George Oppen to our current concerns. Indeed, the fate of modern poetry, if we are to judge by these three recent works, is to be an ongoing artistic and social force well into the future.
Altieri, Charles. 1995. Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry. 1989. Reprint. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Baker, Peter. 1994. "Languages of Modern Poetry." College Literature 21.2 (June): 151-55.
Bertholf, Robert J., and Albert Gelpi. eds. 2004. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Davidson, Michael. 2007. Communication to the MLA Convention. Chicago. 28 December.
Dorn, Ed. 1989. Gunslinger. 1989. Ed. Marjorie Perloff. Durham: Duke University Press.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, ed. 1990. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Durham: Duke University Press.
--. 2006.'"Uncannily in the Open': In Light of Oppen." In Blue Studios': Poetry Mand Its Cultural Work. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Hejinian, Lyn. 1996. "The Rejection of Closure (1984)." In ONWARD: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, ed. Peter Baker. New York: Peter Lang.
Olson, Charles. 1997. "Proprioception." Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Oppen, George. 2002. New Collected Poems. Ed. Michael Davidson. Berkeley: University of California Press.
--2007. Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. Ed. Stephen Cope. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Zizek, Slavoj. 2008. In Defense of Lost Causes. London:Verso.
Peter Baker is professor of English and Cultural Studies at Towson University and the author or editor of six books on modern poetry and theory. He is currently co-editing Robert Creeley's Selected Letters with Rod Smith and Kaplan Harris.
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|Title Annotation:||books on modern poetry|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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