Saturday, October 1, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 8 (George Oppen)

Collected Poems by Michael_Kelleher
Collected Poems, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Oppen, George
Collected Poems

Purchased, I think, at Talking Leaves Books.

There's a little commercial that runs on Turner Classic Movies about the effect of "Pan-and-scan" technology on films shown on TV. Prior to using letterbox formats, TV companies used Pan-and-scan to carve square, TV-friendly images out the horizontal rectangles of cinema. In the commercial on TCM, various directors discuss how this affects our understanding of both the images and the film as a whole. They cleverly show the letterbox image of several classic films, Ben-Hur, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, et al, with a pan-and-scan square superimposed over part of the image. The box shows what you would see in a pan-and-scan image while also showing you what has been cut away at the edges of the widescreen image. Martin Scorcese is not exaggerating when he claims that to pan-and-scan is to re-direct and thus create an entirely different film.

Something similar to pan-and-scan occurs in this volume. One thing I learned from reading Oppen's Collected Poems is how important the correct typographical setting of a poem is to understanding its meaning, and conversely how the improper setting of a poem can virtually destroy the meaning.

When I bought this volume, I bought it to "discover" Oppen. Professors and students alike talked about him in my grad school seminars, yet I'd never read even a line of his poetry. My first impression of his work came from reading the version of "Discrete Series" printed in this otherwise adequate collection from New Directions.

As set here, the poem is divided awkwardly into different parts. In some instances these take the form of section numbers, in others of section titles, and, in most, of several paragraph breaks. These separations between sections can take place at any place on a page, often with two or even three sections breaks on a single page. The fact that some are numbered and titled and some are not makes it very confusing to figure out which parts of the "series" are "discrete" and which continuous. I like a lot of the other work in the book, but I just could not get my head around Discrete Series.

Then one day I visited Mike Basinski in the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo. He showed me the first Objectivist Press edition of Discrete Series. It's printed in a small format hardcover. Inside, each section of the poem -- numbered, titled, or otherwise -- is given its own "discrete" page, thus marking each section off as an autonomous entity whose connection to the other parts of the series both more open and more apparent. Reading through that volume I finally started to get a sense of how Oppen's poems were supposed to look and feel -- both as discrete elements and as parts of the series.

The new edition of Oppen's Collected Poems, which I do not own, goes some way towards correcting this, giving each poems it's own page, similar to the original, though again something lacks that has to do with the shape of the page. The poems are very short, and the original book is small and closer to a square in shape, where as the book that houses them now is more rectangular, leaving a fair amount of white space on each page that was not contained in the original. This is especially true of the shorter poems in the series. It's a big improvement, but having seen the original, I have to take the side of the textual purists and say it won't get fixed until it gets corrected.

from Collected Poems

from Of Being Numerous


My daughter, my daughter, what can I say
Of living?

I cannot judge it.

We seem caught
In reality together my lovely

I have a daughter
But no child

And it was not precisely
Happiness we promised

We say happiness, happiness and are not

Tho the house on the low land
Of the city

Catches the dawn light

I can tell myself, and I tell myself
Only what we all believe true

And in the sudden vacuum
Of time... is not
In fear the roots grip

And beget

The baffling hierarchies
Of father and child

As of leaves on their high
Thin twigs to shield us

From time, from open

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