Waldrop on Oppen: the Distrust of Language

Saturday, December 12, 2009 Rosmarie Waldrop delivered the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University's George Oppen Memorial Lecture held at the Unitarian Center in San Francisco.

Despite the fact that is was a dark and stormy night, Poetry Center Director Steve Dickison and Elise Ficarra had to dig up extra chairs because the room at the Unitarian Center was packed to capacity with eager audience members. Waldrop's talk--Words, There are Words--pulled from Oppen's Daybooks, Letters, and Poems, made excursions into Agamben, Heidegger, Blanchot, Stein, Rilke, St. John of the Cross, and then returned to Oppen. Some of the poems Waldrop rested upon included "Parousia," "To Make Much," and particularly, "Psalm."


Veritas sequitur...

In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down --
That they are there!

Their eyes
Effortless, the soft lips
Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
Tear at the grass

The roots of it
Dangle from their mouths
Scattering earth in the strange woods.
They who are there.

Their paths
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
Of sun

The small nouns
Crying faith
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.

Waldrop's talk included a nuanced reading of the myriad and disparate ways Oppen wrestles with the vexing problems and possibilities of language and the relationship of words to experience, being, and perception. In Daybook IV, Oppen writes: "relevant thought begins with the distrust of language" (181). Does language enact a kind of separation--"with the word we see from outside" or are words also a mode of being? In Of Being Numerous, thinking and writing seem to be one. Do things exist because the word exists? Must we keep singing to keep the world existing? Waldrop's talk was expansive and my notes on it are, well, notational. Here are some of the lines jotted down in my notebook:

Oppen's valuation of thought over words.

Pregnant with the holy word will come the virgin walking down the road if you take her in (See Poems of St. John of the Cross)

all that was to be thought comes down the road.

words are a mode of being
words come down the road

See the poem "To Make Much" from Primitive

right word and music of the poem

the fatal rock that is the world

Oppen's struggle with everyday speech and the struggle for the "right" word

Things don't know their name

words bring things/beings into linguistic "being" out of the material

Drawing attention to Oppen's use of rhyme in "there," "there," "stare," Waldrop's reading of the poem "Psalm" closed with the observation that the indented first lines of each stanza--

Their eyes

The roots of it

Their paths

The small nouns

--enact Aquinas's proposition that truth follows the existence of things.

Waldrop's talk performed a rich reading of Oppen that wasn't focused on producing a radically new reading of his preoccupations but rather stopped and luxuriated in the work's complexities and ambiguities.

You might want to check out Jacket Magazine's Special Section on Oppen. Thomas Devaney edited this and you can find it HERE. Stephen Cope's article also includes a discussion of "Psalm."

1 comment:

Burt Kimmelman said...

Hi Rosmarie and All,

Shameless promotion but anyway I have a piece on "Psalm" in the new issue of Big Bridge (and it's part of a large Oppen section edited by Eric Hoffman). My piece is here:


and the entire section is here:



Burt Kimmelman