Essay on Poetic Theory
The Mind’s Own Place (1963)
by George Oppen
In the 1930s, George Oppen was considered a member of what Louis Zukofsky termed the objectivist poets. After publishing his first book of poetry (Discrete Series, 1934), he withdrew from publishing, and, largely, writing, for more than 25 years. He later explained this silence as a combination of political activism—Oppen was first an active member of the Communist Party and then served in World War II—and a commitment to actively raising his daughter with his wife. When his daughter left for college, Oppen rejoined the poetry community and began to publish again.
“The Mind’s Own Place” was originally written in early 1962 for The Nation, who ultimately rejected it. It appeared in the literary journal Kulchur in 1963, and stands as Oppen’s defining statement of poetics. The title is a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place of time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
In the essay, he examines the evolution and responsibilities of the American poet, particularly in terms of the tension between political and artistic action. Oppen does not see poetry as a form of political action, and he dismisses the political poem in which poetry is used as “an advanced form of rhetoric” as “merely excruciating.”
Oppen complicates his assertion, “There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art, and surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning,” by binding it to William Stafford’s sense of a poet’s work: “Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.”
Refusing to simplify the context in which an American poet seeks to write, Oppen sees the existential act of perceiving as the core of poetry. Notes Oppen, “The distinction between a poem that shows confidence in itself and in its materials, and on the other hand a performance, a speech by the poet, is the distinction between poetry and histrionics.”
Sargent is reported to have said to Renoir that he painted “cads in the park.” And Sargent was of course quite right.(1) The passion of the Impressionists to see, and to see more clearly was a desire to see past the subject matter and the art attitudes of the academy. It is true that the artist is not dependent on his subject in the sense that he can be judged by its intrinsic interest, or that the discussion of his work can become a discussion of its subject. But the emotion which creates art is the emotion that seeks to know and to disclose. The cocoon of “Beauty” as the word is often used, the beauty of background music and of soft lights, though it might be an art, is an art of the masseur and the perfumist.
Modern American poetry begins with the determination to find the image, the thing encountered, the thing seen each day whose meaning has become the meaning and the color of our lives. Verse, which had become a rhetoric of exaggeration, of inflation, was to the modernists a skill of accuracy, of precision, a test of truth. Such an art has always to be defended against a furious and bitter Bohemia whose passion it is to assist, in the highest of high spirits, at the razing of that art which is the last intrusion on an onanism which they believe to be artistic. In these circles is elaborated a mock-admiration of the artist as a sort of super-annuated infant, and it is the nightmare of the poet or the artist to find himself wandering between the grim gray lines of the Philistines and the ramshackle emplacements of Bohemia. If he ceases to believe in the validity of his insights—the truth of what he is saying—he becomes the casualty, the only possible casualty, of that engagement. Philistia and Bohemia, never endangered by the contest, remain precisely what they were. This is the Bohemia that churns and worries the idea of the poet-not-of-this-world, the dissociated poet, the ghostly bard. If the poet is an island, this is the sea which most lovingly and intimately grinds him to sand.
There comes a time in any such discussion as this when the effort to avoid the word reality becomes too great a tax on the writer’s agility. The word of course has long since ceased to mean anything recognizably “real” at all, but English does seem to be stuck with it. We cannot assert the poet’s relation to reality, nor exhort him to face reality, nor do any of these desirable things, nor be sure that we are not insisting merely that he discuss only those things we are accustomed to talk about, unless we somehow manage to restore a meaning to the word. Bertrand Russell wrote “If I were to describe reality as I found it, I would have to include my arm.”(2) In the shock of that sentence—out of context—perhaps the meaning of the word maybe restored, or in the fragment of Heraclitus: “If it all went up in smoke” that smoke would remain.(3) It is the arbitrary fact, and not any quality of wisdom literature, which creates the impact of the poets. The “shock of recognition,” when it is anything, is that. If we can hold the word to its meaning, or if we can import a word from elsewhere—a collective, not an abstract noun, to mean “the things that exist”—then we will not have on the one hand the demand that the poet circumstantially describe everything that we already know, and declare every belief that we already hold, nor on the other hand the ideal of the poet without any senses at all. Dante’s “sweet new style” presaged a new content, a new attitude: and it was a new vision, an act of vision that ushered modern art into France, as it was an extension of awareness that forced the development of a modern poetry in this country.(4) The early moderns among painters of the United States found themselves promptly identified as the Ash Can school, and it happens that Lindsay, Sandburg, Kreymborg, Williams—the poets of the little magazine Others which came off a hand press in a garage somewhere in New Jersey about 1918—were almost a populist movement.(5) Though it is hard to register now, the subjects of Sandburg’s poems, the stockyards and the railroad sidings, gave them their impact. Of the major poets it is only William Carlos Williams, with his insistence on “the American idiom,” on the image derived from day-to-day experience, on form as “nothing more than an extension of content,” who shows a derivation from populism.(6) But it is the fidelity, the clarity, including the visual clarity and their freedom from the art subject which is the distinction also of Pound and Eliot and the force behind their creation of a new form and a new prosody; the “speech rhythms” of Pound, the “prose quality” of Eliot. Their intelligence rejected the romanticism, the mere sentimental “going on” of such men as Sandburg and Kreymborg, but for them too art moves forward only when some man, or some men, get their heads above—or below—the terrible thin scratching of the art world. It is possible to find a metaphor for anything, an analogue: but the image is encountered, not found; it is an account of the poet’s perception, the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness.(7) They meant to replace by the data of experience the accepted poetry of their time, a display by the poets of right thinking and right sentiment, a dreary waste of lies. That data was and is the core of what “modernism” restored to poetry, the sense of the poet’s self among things. So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow. The distinction between a poem that shows confidence in itself and in its materials, and on the other hand a performance, a speech by the poet, is the distinction between poetry and histrionics. It is a part of the function of poetry to serve as a test of truth. It is possible to say anything in abstract prose, but a great many things one believes or would like to believe or thinks he believes will not substantiate themselves in the concrete materials of the poem. It is not to say that the poet is immune to the “real” world to say that he is not likely to find the moment, the image, in which a political generalization or any other generalization will prove its truth. Denise Levertov begins a fine poem with the words: “The authentic!” and goes on to define
the real, the new-laid
egg whose speckled shell
the poet fondles and must break
if he will be nourished
in the events of a domestic morning: the steam rising in the radiators, herself “breaking the handle of my hairbrush,” and the family breakfast, to the moment when, the children being sent to school,
comes in at the street door.(8)
These are, as poetry intends, clear pictures of the world in verse, which means only to be clear, to be honest, to produce the realization of reality and to construct a form out of no desire for the trick of gracefulness, but in order to make it possible to grasp, to hold the insight which is the content of the poem.
T.S. Eliot’s immense reputation was already established by the end of the twenties: Pound’s somewhat later. It is within the present decade that Williams has achieved a comparable position. It was Eliot’s influence, far more than Pound’s, and Eliot’s influence by way of Auden which formed the tone of the so-called Academic poets who dominated the field during the forties and early fifties, and whom the Beats assailed. It is quite possible that both Eliot and the Academic poets tend at this moment to be underrated: the Academics are perhaps suffering the difficulties of middle age. They are not Young Poets nor Old Masters, nor are they news in the exhilarating sense that they might bite a dog. But they too are not writing in complacent generalities, and the word academic can give a false concept of their content and form. The fact is, however, that the poets of the San Francisco school, the poets called Beat, took off not at all from Eliot, but from Pound and still more directly from Williams, and to varying degrees from Whitman, and the influence—perhaps indirect—of such men as Sandburg and Lindsay and even Kreymborg is, as a matter of fact, perfectly evident in their work. But it is to Williams that the young poets of this school acknowledge the greatest debt, and if the word populism applied to Williams may not be entirely justifiable, it is at any rate true that Williams is the most American of the American poets of his generation, and these young poets have been markedly and as a matter of course American.(9) I think it has been part of their strength, and in fact I fear the present pilgrimage to Japan and the exotic arms of Zen. I feel quite sure, to begin with, that Hemingway has expressed Zen to the West about as well as is likely to be done. The disciple asked: “What is Truth?” And the Master replied, “Do you smell the mountain laurel?” “Yes,” said the disciple. The Master said, “There, I have kept nothing from you.” What Master was that? “The archer aims not at the target but at himself.”(10) Nor, as we have read, at the bull. If we are to talk of the act performed for its own sake, I think we will get more poetry out of the large fish of these waters—even out of the large fish in these waters—than from all the tea in Japan. But this may be because I belong to a generation that grew more American—literarily at least—as it approached adult estate: we grew up on English writing—and German fairy tales—as I think no American any longer does. Starting with Mother Goose—in the absence of “It Happened on Mulberry Street” or “Millions of Cats” or whatever has become current since my daughter grew up—and proceeding to Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson and the Rover Boys, perhaps the only American writing we saw was in the Oz books and in Mark Twain. I have not discussed this with other writers, and risk the statement, but I believe that many a young American writer-to-be was astonished on reaching adolescence to discover that he was not easily going to take his place as the young master, or even as a Thackerayan young man who manages, with whatever difficulty, to equip himself with fresh linen and varnished boots for his crucial morning call on the Duchess. We found ourselves below stairs, possibly: certainly among the minor characters. Which was a factor I believe in our need to make our own literature. Huck Finn, if this were a scholarly work, might be contrasted to Tom Brown, or even to Christopher Robin of Pooh Corners. Alice wandered from her governess; Dorothy of Oz ran too late for the storm cellar and was caught in a Kansas cyclone. Together and contrastingly they dawned on our infant minds, and may have contributed to the aesthetic, if not social sentiment, which went in search of the common, the common experience, the life of common man. Or it may be, more simply, that the more open society made possible the literary career of the obviously non-aristocratic spokesman who, once he tired of Invocation to Someone Else’s Muse, had to make his own poetry. I myself was not the barefoot American boy. Having been born near New York, like many of these young poets, I was undoubtedly shod by the age of three months. But neither the barefoot boy nor Robert Frost is really the most American thing in the world, and there are facts to consider beyond the orthopedic. I am constantly amazed by the English response to the Angry Young Men,(11) whose news-value appears to be that they are not of the aristocracy and are bitterly concerned with that fact in all its ramifications, whereas I have not met an American writer who had ever wondered what Vanderbilts or Morgans or Astors felt about his accent, his vocabulary, or his neckwear. Or if he wondered, he would not know, as the English seem to know, and the setting of Henry James’s novels is to us—and even to Henry James—a curiosity, a literary paradox. And the search of the Beats, the thing which they have in common with the Ash Can school of painting and the Chicago literary renaissance of the twenties is an authentic American phenomenon, a search for the common experience, for the ground under their feet. I have strained matters considerably using the word populist: certainly no more specifically political word could be used. The poet means to trust his direct perceptions, and it is even possible that it might be useful for the country to listen, to hear evidence, to consider what indeed we have brought forth upon this continent.
The DAR is not a notably liberal organization.(12) I am aware that there must be descendents of Old Families in all possible political groupings, but a considerable portion of the population, and I think a considerable proportion of the most liberal population, is made up of the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants. Certainly the DAR is of that opinion. But I need not assume statistical facts which neither the DAR nor I know. The oldest families are of puritan background, and the American family histories of the descendents of later immigrants begin typically with men and women who found refuge in the tenements of these shores from political and financial shipwreck. There they developed a morality of crisis, an ethos of survival, a passionate philosophy of altruism and ambition. To a puritan morality—or I should say a puritanical morality—they added altruism in some cases, solidarity in others, and thereby completed a political morality. But neither ambition nor solidarity nor altruism is capable of establishing values. If the puritanical values proved themselves in material well-being, in the escape from danger of starvation, in TVs and radios, electric toasters and perhaps air-conditioners, electric razors and strawberry corer, and are now pushing the electric toothbrush, then altruism demands these things also for the other man. It cannot, of itself, get beyond that. We can do so only when, with whatever difficulty, with whatever sense of vertigo, we begin to speak for ourselves. Be-razored and be-toastered, and perhaps anarchist and irresponsible, the grandson of the immigrant and the descendent of the puritan better begin to speak for himself. If he is a poet he must. If he is not, perhaps he should listen. For mankind itself is an island: surely no man is a continent, and the definition of happiness must be his own.(13) The people on the Freedom Rides are both civilized and courageous; the people in the Peace Marches are the sane people of the country. But it is not a way of life, or should not be. It is a terrifying necessity. Bertolt Brecht once wrote that there are times when it can be almost a crime to write of trees. I happen to think that the statement is valid as he meant it.(14) There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art, and surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning. If one goes on to imagine a direct call for help, then surely to refuse it would be a kind of treason to one’s neighbors. Or so I think. But the bad fiddling could hardly help, and similarly the question can only be whether one intends, at a given time, to write poetry or not.(15)
It happens, though, that Brecht’s statement cannot be taken literally. There is no crisis in which political poets and orators may not speak of trees, though it is more common for them, in this symbolic usage, to speak of “flowers.” “We want bread and roses”: “Let a thousand flowers bloom” on the left: on the right, the photograph once famous in Germany of Handsome Adolph sniffing the rose. (16) Flowers stand for simple and undefined human happiness and are frequently mentioned in all political circles. The actually forbidden word Brecht, of course, could not write. It would be something like aesthetic. But the definition of the good life is necessarily an aesthetic definition, and the mere fact of democracy has not formulated it, nor, if it is achieved, will the mere fact of an extension of democracy, though I do not mean of course that restriction would do better. Suffering can be recognized; to argue its definition is an evasion, a contemptible thing. But the good life, the thing wanted for its elf, the aesthetic, will be defined outside of anybody’s politics, or defined wrongly. William Stafford ends a poem titled “Vocation” (he is speaking of the poet’s vocation) with the line: “Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.”(17) And though it may be presumptuous in a man elected to nothing at all, the poet does undertake just about that, certainly nothing less, and the younger poets’ judgment of society is, in the words of Robert Duncan, “I mean, of course, that happiness itself is a forest in which we are bewildered, turn wild, or dwell like Robin Hood, outlawed and at home.”(18)
It is possible that a world without art is simply and flatly uninhabitable, and the 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. It should not really be the ambition even of the most well-meaning of political and semipolitical gatherings to do so, and to use verse for the purpose, as everyone perfectly well knows, is merely excruciating. Therefore the poet, speaking as a poet, declares his political nonavailability as clearly as the classic pronouncement: “If nominated I will run: if elected I will hide” (I quote from memory).(19) Surely what we need is a “redemption of the will”—the phrase from a not-yet-produced young playwright whose work I have read—and indeed we will not last very long if we do not get it. But what we must have now, the political thing we must have, is a peace. And a peace is made by a peace treaty. And we have seen peace treaties before; we know what they are. This one will be, if we get it, if we survive, like those before it, a cynical and brutal division of the world between the great powers. Everyone knows what must be in that document: the language of both sides has been euphemistic but clear. A free hand in Eastern Europe to Russia: to the United States in Western Europe and in this continent and some other places. And the hope that China will not soon acquire a bomb. And where is the poet who will write that she opened her front door, having sent the children to school, and felt the fresh authentic air in her face and wanted—that?
(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.”