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“That they are there”: On George Oppen and the Role of Poetry

Jonathan Farmer

March 18, 2021

The last poem George Oppen ever wrote may have been this five-line statement:

A poetry of the meaning of words
And a bond with the universe

I think there is no light in the world
but the world

And I think there is light

The poem is called “The Poem,” and save for the grace it lays over the eventual dissolution of Oppen’s mind, it would fit more comfortably into his earlier work, the books he published in the 1960s after nearly 30 years of writing no poems. That prolonged silence resulted from Oppen’s belief that poetry was incompatible with his political commitments, which says a lot about his political commitments, and nearly as much about his poetic ones. Poetry, for Oppen, could not be compromised, not even for the causes for which he was willing to risk his life.

That’s because poetry, for Oppen, was necessary to believe that there was light. It was necessary to safely believe anything at all. Anything else, even the company of others, risked isolation in illusion. Poetry was a “a test of truth,” as he put it in “The Mind’s Own Place,” one of his few extended prose statements on his chosen art. The title recalls Satan’s boast from Paradise Lost, and the essay implies that that place was itself hell, whatever Satan might claim. He continued, elaborating on that idea of a “test,” “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.” The truth needed to be nailed down, which was, the way he did it, a remarkably physical process. A skilled enough craftsman to make his living with his hands through much of his life, including when he and his wife fled to Mexico during the McCarthy years, Oppen often drafted his poems as if he were working with hammer, nails, and wood, layering pieces of paper with new words over old ones (and writing in notebooks he made with paper and nails) until the paper was too stiff to take any more.

Oppen was an essentialist about poetry, as he was about many things. (Including gender: His comments about women in many of the poems are, at best, absurd.) And yet he offered very few definitions of poetry. You knew it when you heard it, he seemed to imply, and you needed to spend a long time listening (and layering—revising, experimenting) before you would hear[1]. But there was no alternative to that work—or at least, none that was, to use a word that seemed to matter immensely to him, honorable. Or even tolerable, except when something even more intolerable—such as fascism—was at hand.

So many of his best poems seem to be regulated, structured by a kind of logical severity—or, more rarely, as in “The Poem,” a playful imitation of logical structures that mimics the experience of revelation or discovery. The faux syllogism of that maybe-last poem is similar to the final stanza of “The Forms of Love,” a poem based on the night he and his soon-to-be wife, Mary, stayed out together until morning, ending both of their college careers. The poem, which braids past-tense sentences in which the subject is “we” with sentences that begin “I remember,” not so much setting the “I” and “we” apart as anchoring the present-tense, singular consciousness in something shared. The poem ends with a single, long sentence whose sole independent clause belongs again to the “we,” so that the lingering, gently-revoked illusion takes on its own reality through its involvement in a—to borrow Oppen’s term—“substantiated” love:

                   We groped 
Our way together 
Downhill in the bright 
Incredible light  

Beginning to wonder 
Whether it could be lake 
Or fog 
We saw, our heads 
Ringing under the stars we walked 
To where it would have wet our feet 
Had it been water

It mattered immensely to Oppen that something be true—discernibly, tangibly true. He didn’t write poetry during the years of his political commitment because he didn’t want to bend his art toward the caricatures of social realism. (His subsequent poem “The Street,” which introduces itself “Ah, these are the poor, / These are the poor—,” reads, in part, as an explicit rejection of such generic understandings of people.) Born into wealth and suffering throughout his childhood (his mother killed herself when he was four; his relationship with his stepmother was enduringly painful; his family sent him to a military school where he drank, fought, and was eventually expelled after he crashed a car, killing a friend), he chose a very different life for himself. And in both his politics and his poems, the life he chose—the one he, in cooperation with Mary, made out of some inherited wealth, a remarkable intellectual and aesthetic rigor, obvious, enduring love, political commitments, and a lot of self-discipline—seemed to be cast against his knowledge that the mind could become unmoored, disastrously, from reality, and that an individual life, an individual mind, would inevitably run out. As he wrote in “Image of the Engine”:

Endlessly, endlessly,
The definition of mortality

The image of the engine

That stops.
We cannot live on that.
I know that no one would live out

Thirty years, fifty years if the world were ending
With his life.

The poem appears near the beginning of The Materials, Oppen’s first book after his prolonged withdrawal from poetry. That book has two epigraphs, both telling, one attributed to Maritain (“We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things”) and one revising Yeats (“They fed their heart on fantasies / And their hearts have become savage.”) As in the reference to annihilation above, the epigraphs suggest an overlap between political and personal consequence—that the same realities that can wake us to reality also sit on the far side of a spectrum whose other end is war so profound it could end reality itself.

The section of “Image of the Engine” I’m quoting from ends with the “machine” looking through glass “With all its eyes,” insisting on being more than mere machine, mere mind, and the exclamation “If there is someone / In the garden! / Outside, and so beautiful.” And the poem itself concludes:

                        But they will find
In flood, storm, ultimate mishap:
Earth, water, the tremendous
Surface, the heart thundering
Absolute desire.

It’s worth pausing here to notice one of the paradoxes of Oppen’s poetry. His poems constantly and convincingly posit that we must ground our minds in the material world in order to achieve sanity (a term he used frequently in his poems, always as an inverse of catastrophe and, in politics, immorality). And yet he is not a descriptive poet. In fact, the terms all of these poems rest on are remarkably generic. Here’s a list of pretty much all the nouns and noun phrases I’ve quoted so far: “the meaning,” “words,” “the universe,” “light,” “the world,” “the bright / Incredible light,” “lake,” “fog,” “the stars,” “water,” “mortality,” the image,” “the engine,” “no one,” “thirty years,” “fifty years,” “his life,” “someone,” “the garden,” “flood,” “storm,” “ultimate mishap,” “earth,” “water,” “the tremendous / Surface,” “the heart,” “absolute desire.” And here’s the beginning of another of his most famous poems, “Psalm”:

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

Most of the adjectives he offers here are vague and even a little bit sentimental: “small,” “wild,” “soft,” “Effortless,” and “small” again. (The adjectives in the rest of the poem are “strange,” “small” again, and “wild” again, too.) Only “alien” is surprising, and that’s not so much a description of the deer as a remark on their difference from the person (or people) who perceive them. His descriptive energies tend to spark, when they do, in unlikely pairings and rhythmic density: “alien small teeth.” His poems often exist at one remove, making a case for the consciousness he intends to substantiate rather than trying to enact it. And so why do these poems work as well as (I believe) they do?

I think the answer is in part that they are so relentlessly sincere. Here he is in another poem titled “The Poem,” one that’s also concerned with light: “how shall I light / this room that measures years // and years”—“room,” in all likelihood, punning on its Italian synonym, “stanza.” It ends rapturously:

in the room it was all
part of the wars
of things brilliance
of things

in the appalling
seas language

lives and wakes us together
out of sleep the poem
opens its dazzling whispering hands

Oppen used the word “poem” with remarkable frequency in his poems. In most poets, doing that even once feels terminal, a sudden fall into an infinite loop of self-regard or hopeless, gauzy mysticism (or, often, both). But Oppen is willing to give so much for it, not principally out of illusion—whether I believe in his belief in poetry or not—but out of a profound reckoning with both fear and love, out of his determination to live honorably. For the time of reading his poems—the best of them—poetry does merit belief, for me, because I can sense the human investment in, and therefore presence in, the poems that he made.

The poems often feel remarkably tactile, not because they describe anything with real sensory detail, but because the rhythms he composes, word by word, seem to record the labor of their making—and do so without becoming brittle or stiff (unlike the paper he layered when drafting). The rhythms, especially in the poems of the sixties, slow the poem without ever grinding it to a halt, and the syntax measures the lines into logical units—units that serve not logic but, more often than one might expect, a sentimental attachment to the world.

Take, for example, the opening stanza of “Psalm.” There’s no complete sentence there. The first line is a prepositional phrase, the second a noun phrase, the final one a logical proposition (albeit an exuberant one). As in the first two lines of “The Poem,” Oppen starts by establishing a static reality, one that is unconjugated and so not quite beholden to time, even as, in “Psalm,” he suggests a moment of discovery—a fleeting encounter with something extraordinary.

As I hear it, the first line is dominated by unstressed syllables, which are twice as common as the ones that are stressed: “In the small beauty of the forest.” The phrase feels readily comprehensible—the forest’s beauty is composed of a compilation of small things—and persuasive: the brief density of the unexpected phrase “small beauty,” so quickly relaxed, gives it an added weight and highlights the surprising combination. This is the context for the second line, where what he sees is not only in the forest but in its small beauty. Here, the rhythm gets much more crowded (a crowding compounded by alliteration), picking up the density of “small beauty” and carrying it much further. All of this slows the line as the poem moves from the situation to the thing itself: “The wild deer bedding down.” The line implies action, but the grammar does not: “bedding,” here, is a gerund, the thing that exists in the small beauty.

The last line contains a complete sentence (even though the line is not a sentence; the first stanza is essentially a list) that hinges on existence. But to my ear, “are,” for all the weight it carries, is the least-stressed syllable in the line; “they” and “there” get the emphasis, and that emphasis is once again accentuated by alliteration, though a much softer one in this case. (The alliteration also has the effect of making “are” stand out as the only word that doesn’t begin with “th.”) The rhythm here seems to become regular—I hear it as two iambic feet, with the second foot providing a greater contrast between unstressed and stressed syllables, which seems to resolve the rhythmic variety of the first two lines, however briefly, even as the statement pulls away from the particulars of the scene.[2]

That rhythmic complexity is characteristic of Oppen, as is the fact that the stanza resolves in exuberant abstraction. “That they are there,” that anything is there, is the point (because existence needs to be confirmed, forms of “to be” frequently play a dramatic role in his poems), so much so that the third stanza ends in a modified version of the statement, this one a fragment separated, by periods, from everything else: “They who are there.” In fact, the deer remain “they”—a word that feels surprising resonant—until the penultimate line of the poem, when Oppen once again uses the word “deer,” this time as the poem’s last noun.

All of this, including the frequent lack of predication—which adds a small, subterranean drama, my ear encountering each new phrase wondering if it will resolve grammatically—contributes to the poem’s feeling of rigor. And that rigor feels inseparable from the poem’s sentimentality, a term I use here without intending any judgment. We are sentimental creatures, and that sentimental tendency—the lengths that Oppen goes to in order to make sentiment sustainable—is what gives these poems their human urgency.

The poem’s last stanza seems to mirror the first:

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

Here, again, is a mention of “wild deer.” Here again, the word “small” used in a surprising way in the stanza’s first line. Here, again, the second-to-last line begins with “In.” But this time the stanza begins in abstraction, and this time the stanza ends in action, even if both of the concluding verbs are in fact tucked inside two layers of clauses, and even if the stanza as a whole is once again an incomplete sentence. The action nonetheless carries the day, and maybe just as importantly, it suggests the presence of the speaker, of someone who might be seen by the deer in turn.

Asked what “faith” that last stanza referred to, Oppen wrote:

Well, that the nouns do refer to something; that it’s there, that it’s true, the whole implication of these nouns; that appearances represent reality, whether or not they misrepresent it: that this in which the thing takes place, this thing is here, and that these things do take place. On the other hand, one is left with the deer, staring out of the thing, at the thing, not knowing what will come next.

There’s a circular logic here: The nouns cry faith in themselves. But it’s not a closed loop. The nouns (and it matters, I think, that it’s the nouns in this poem with so few independent verbs) cry faith through the human use of them. They prove, when used well, when substantiated, that it is worth believing that the world (the light) is there.

Oppen repeated himself, coming back to the same stories, using a few handfuls of words—including “word”—over and over again, even repurposing earlier poems. Perhaps his best-known work, “Of Being Numerous” began as the eight-part sequence “A Language of New York” from This in Which. The expanded poem, the title piece of his next book, spans forty sections. Polyvocal, at times exhausting, at times elusive, relentlessly beautiful, relentless, worthy of awe, it’s a hard poem to pin down. But it doesn’t feel coy or careless—not to me. Instead, it feels like someone working hard to say something he can’t quite work out, that he’s been trying to work out so long that it’s become tangled in voices and allusions whose potential obscurity for others (for readers) he no longer sees, having stitched them so thoroughly into his own thinking. In fact, the book bears a dedication to his wife, Mary, “whose words in this book are entangled / inextricably among my own.” And the poem opens with the first of many unattributed quotations:

There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves.’

Occurrence, a part
Of an infinite series,

The sad marvels;

Of this was told
A tale of our wickedness.
It is not our wickedness.

‘You remember that old town we went to, and we sat in the ruined window, and we tried to imagine that we belonged to those times—It is dead and it is not dead, and you cannot imagine either its life or its death; the earth speaks and the salamander speaks, the Spring comes and only obscures it—’

I lose track fast. By the time he refers to “this,” I’m not sure how everything fits together: does “this” refer to “occurrence”? the “infinite series” occurrence is part of? the “marvels”? all of them? And what do any of them have to do with wickedness? I’m not sure, either, whether the negation of “It is not our wickedness” means that it’s someone else’s wickedness, or that “we” are wicked in some other way. I’m not even sure what the “marvels” are—or why they merit the adjective “sad.” But I don’t feel lost. That opening quotation, with its echo of the Maritain epigraph from The Materials, feels sincere to me, and the revving and rupture of the syntax, the confident trying on of terms and methods, is sufficiently pleasurable and—odd as the term may seem amidst so much confusion—precise, that I still feel grounded in the human drama of someone trying hard to sing his way to something sustainably true.

The first and fourth stanzas both introduce a “we,” but in the first case I read “we” as something broad and fairly impersonal—humanity writ large, most likely. That shifts a little with “It is not our wickedness,” at which point, even if it’s still all of humanity, it’s also, apparently, personal. It’s something, someone, he seems determined to defend. Part of his interest here, among the “things” and “occurrences” and even the “marvels” is a reality that precedes us (or, “us”) and that we need to figure out how to see and to live, honorably, within.

The meaning of “we” seems to shift again, to drop down another register towards personalization, in that spiraling last paragraph where another voice begins by directly addressing “you,” someone with whom that speaker shares a memory (as in “The Forms of Love”), and then speaking, in the particulars of that memory, about a “we” so pronounced it appears as the subject in each of the four clauses linked up in rapid succession. And then, as soon as it’s over, that speaker spirals out into something much larger and more abstract as well, one in which “you” seems to refer to a generic person. But partly because the speed remains from the previous sentence and partly because it is so directly in response to the memory, those otherwise-abstract concerns seem to have profound stakes for the couple that once tried to imagine, to see, the history they had entered in that old town.

Oppen doesn’t seem like the kind of person who could have found much comfort in infinity, but being able to stay in touch with the past mattered immensely to him. History was a stay against illusion for him (even if his view of the past seemed overly romantic at times)—and illusion was inseparable from loneliness. In “The Mind’s Own Place,” Oppen claimed that “the emotion which creates art is the emotion that seeks to know and disclose.” Then, a few sentences later, he went on the offensive, beginning with a description of the modernist use of “verse” as “a skill of accuracy, precision” and, the phrase I quoted previously (he uses it twice in the essay), “a test of truth.” “Such an art,” he wrote, “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.” Later in the same paragraph he concluded his assault: “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 lovingly and intimately grinds him to sand.”

And so one meaning of “being numerous” was being swept up (and ground down) in collective illusion, such as that of the fashionable Bohemians. (He saw the same fate in “the gray grim lines of the Philistines,” which he treated as both inverse and equal to the Bohemians, both groups insulated from insights, “never endangered by the contest” between them.) The second section describes one version of New York:

A city of the corporations

In dreams

And images—

“Glass” is another of the words Oppen kept coming back to. A substance one was meant to see through rather than see, it appears in his poem like a hermetic seal, another form of terrible isolation (though the lines tremble with their own beauty), all the more terrible for being so widely shared. Unlike poems, which he wanted to be material, tangible in their demonstrations, active in their vision, crying faith, glass merely encases us in airy “dreams / and illusions,” many of them no doubt confected by corporations. He ends that section with a contrasting possibility:

And the pure joy
Of the mineral fact

Tho it is impenetrable

As the world, if it is matter,
Is impenetrable.

The binary clarity of something “pure” doesn’t hold up for long. Even before the turn of “tho,” the heavy echo of those two adjective-noun combinations (“pure joy,” “mineral fact”), each one following a similar, two-syllable, unstressed phrase and ending the line on the hard stress of an abstract, monosyllabic noun, is pulling purity back to earth—as is the contrast between “pure joy” and “mineral fact,” a contrast echoed in their different rhythms. Here, too, Oppen’s lines build energy inside of stasis. There is no independent clause—no complete sentence—but the grammar, and the logical formulations, insist on the movements of the mind within the stasis of phrases controlled by nouns.

But the risks of corporate illusion did not mean one should retreat into the isolation of the individual either. Writing under the shadow of the US war in Vietnam, admiring (as he noted in “the Mind’s Own Place”) the activism of the Civil Rights movement, with its collective action based on, as he saw it, individual experiences (those generally excluded from the dominant story of America), Oppen described “the singular,” over and over, as a “shipwreck.” In “Statement on Poetics,” Oppen wrote:

I am not apolitical, and it is possible to mock poetry, it is certainly possible to mock poetry just as there are times when one is sick of himself, but eventually, I think, there is no hope for us but in meaning. For Voltaire was wrong you know: anything can be said, there is a great deal too foolish to be sung. Those who merely chatter await an interruption that will save them from themselves.

To be saved from oneself, one needed reality, actuality, “the mineral fact,” but one also needed other people. The poem’s ninth section concludes with another reference to “shipwreck”:

To dream of that beach
For the sake of an instant in the eyes,

The absolute singular

The unearthly bonds
Of the singular

Which is the bright light of shipwreck

And in the next section he waxes almost Whitmanic (Whitman was a tricky figure for him):

But I will listen to a man, I will listen to a man, and when I speak I will speak, tho he will fail and I will fail. But I will listen to him speak. The shuffling of a crowd is nothing—well, nothing but the many that we are, but nothing.

And here he is, once again, in “Statement on Prosody”: “the sincerity of the I and the we, it is a tremendous drama, the things that common words say, the words ‘and’ and ‘but’ and ‘is’ and ‘before’ and ‘after.’”

Oppen’s understanding of poetry assumes a shared relationship to language—that his long listening could result in something another could hear. Just as much as it assumes an external reality to which words can refer, it assumes the reality of other people to whom one could speak—the “tremendous drama” of “I” and “we.” It assumes, I think, it seeks, a way out of loneliness, of keeping the gift of consciousness from lapsing into mere “onanism.” Here, in full, is one of my favorite of Oppen’s poems, one from the 1970s, when Oppen’s poems started to emphasize speed, removing the logical bolts the earlier poems so often displayed and breaking phrases over lines, letting those phrases tumble over each other—but then occasionally braking at something whole that trembles with the rush that it arrests:

Who Shall Doubt

                  in itself
of itself carrying

‘the principle
               of the actual’ being


itself ( (but maybe this is a love

Mary) ) nevertheless


the power
of the self nor the racing
car nor the lilly

              is sweet but this

If you take out the strange double-parenthetical that interrupts the poem halfway through, the poem changes significantly. It sounds, as I read it that way, too brief, the sudden stop too easy, too soon, as if he hadn’t yet broken into a full run, as if he was always getting ready to stop. Sonically, that parenthetical acts like the curve in a track that slings the car forward with greater awareness of its own speed. And more important, the sudden presence of another, of a beloved, provides a different image of consciousness, a reminder that what we behold includes something far more important than a flower or a car—or even our mere selves. It suggests, at least to me, that consciousness and actuality have been proven, or even redeemed, by love.

Oppen saw plenty that was awful in his life—his mother’s suicide; the extensive, brutal poverty of the Great Depression, during which he and Mary worked so hard to help as many people as they could; the horrific violence of World War II, in which Oppen was wounded and saw his fellow soldiers die; his sister’s death in 1960, which was also ruled a suicide. And so to celebrate consciousness could not have been a simple thing for him. One of his many love poems ends, speaking of Mary as someone who

Has changed the aspect
Of things, everything is pierced
By her presence tho we have wanted
Not comforts

But vision
Whatever terrors
May have made us
To the earth, whatever terrors—

That’s the end of the sentence that dominates most of the poem (and concludes it). The sentence begins:

            What distinction
I have is that I have lived
My adult life
With a beautiful woman, I have turned on the light
Sometimes, to see her


I wrote earlier about Oppen’s sentimental worldview. It wasn’t just sentimental. He was determined to tell the truth about injustice; he faced his own mortality in more poems than I can count; he recorded the horrors of war; he reckoned with power that was capable of extinguishing most human life; and he saw evil with enough clarity and outrage to both enlist in World War II, from which he had first been exempt, and, along with Mary, to work in service of a cause that would eventually force them out of their native country. To have done otherwise, for him, would have invited dishonor and pushed against the bounds of sanity. But all of that was inseparable from a profound human vulnerability that poetry seemed to serve and stabilize: a need to be at home in the world—to build a home that he could share with someone else. In Oppen’s New Collected Poems, Michael Davidson includes almost forty pages of what he refers to as “Selected Unpublished Poems.” Here is the last of them:


her long quiet hands
sometimes it seems

almost strange it seems

sometimes the almost fifty years
has been a dream I hear sometimes those other

voices             voices

of my childhood
and fear I’ll wake

The poem, the draft—whatever you want to call it—inverts Oppen’s usual terms, including (as Davidson notes) those of the final poem in Primitive, his final book, “Till Other Voices Wake Us.” That poem ends:

            the myriad

lights have entered
us it is a music more powerful

than music

till other voices wake
us or we drown

And here’s one more quotation before I get to my point. This comes at the end of “To Make Much,” also from Primitive, and it seems to refer to the same period that “The Forms of Love” describes:

                        the way away
from home arrow in the air
hat-brim fluttered in the air as she ran
forward and it seemed so beautiful so beautiful
the sun-lit air it was no dream all’s wild
out there as we unlikely
image of love found the way
away from home

In “Mary,” the voices of his childhood—of the life suffered through and left, finding “the way / away from home”—are aligned with wakefulness. The fear he articulates is that they are real, and that the distinction of his life with Mary was merely illusion. It seems, in the way of many love poems, to be a sort of sincere exaggeration—one that registers the desire to say something worthy of the beloved more than it represents a literal truth. But those repeated “voices” feel frighteningly real. And however important it is to keep in mind that Oppen chose not to publish that poem—that it did not, perhaps, succeed as a test of truth—those voices seem to describe something fundamental.

Oppen spent much of his life trying to prove that the world he needed and constructed was real. That was, I suspect, the belief he most needed to substantiate. In “To Make Much” he draws a line, via negation, between the beautiful beginning of his life with Mary and dream—which in this case seems to imply both wonder and illusion. Their life together, he suggests, even at the root, was both wonder and real. In order to say so—in order to say that not only about love but about much of life—he had to say a lot of other things, too, some of them outraged, some of them terribly bleak, many of them fascinatingly complex. And his saying of those things seemed no less urgent or necessary. But the frequent severity of Oppen’s poems is inextricable from their enchantment.

In the 1970s, Oppen wrote of his decision to enlist in World War II:

If I killed, I would suffer guilt. If I did not, I would suffer… I don’t even know a word, a name for what I would suffer

—that I did not exist and never had, the terrible knowledge of a fake, a lie, that nothing had been as I said, pretended, that I had loved no one, that those who had loved me or anyone like me had deceived themselves, pitifully, tragically had deceived themselves, had drawn the simplest, delusory mere warmth from my presence, had been deceived, betrayed, demeaned, had given all they could for nothing, to nothing, had been nothing—In the last moments they would know this.

The stakes for Oppen were always severe—the truth frequently terrifying, potentially, eventually, annihilating, leaving one afloat in the isolation of a horrible unreality. But if one wrote carefully enough, listened long enough, one might also be able to hold on to something like the concluding stanzas of “Guest Room,” which seem, in some ways, to reverse section nine of “Of Being Numerous,” the one that starts “To dream of that beach / For the sake of an instant in the eyes” and ends, still alone, “Which is the bright light of shipwreck.” “Guest Room” begins with “The risk that the mind reach / Reach / Into homelessness, ‘nowhere to return’” and spends a fair amount of time excoriating “the rich” but eventually works its way back to the promise of memory—of “we,” seeing—restored:

Of the dawn
Over Frisco
Lighting the large hills

And the very small coves
At their feet, and we
Perched on the dawn wind
Of that coast like leaves
Of the most recent weed—And yet the things

That happen! Signs,
Promise—we took it
As a sign, as promise

Still for nothing wavered
Nothing begged or was unreal, the thing
Happening, filling our eyesight
Out to the horizon—I remember the sky
And the moving sea.

One might be able to say that and find that it was true. One might find that the world is worth thinking about—and that thinking is worthy of the world.

[1] Consider this, from the posthumously published “Statement on Prosody”:

The word, the right word, it seems to stand outside us—like the shining of rails in the night, and even the way away from home. I suppose it is music. There is a mystery: the mystery is that the ear knows. If one revises and revises and revises—perhaps weeks and months and years and cannot revise, then there is something wrong with what you are trying to say. The ear knows, and I don’t know why.

[2] If this all seems too nearly atomic a consideration to actually reflect Oppen’s interests in the poem, it might be worth considering this passage from “Statement on Poetics,” in which Oppen is describing one of his own poems:

Should the word be “seemed”? Or should it be “seems”? Is the past more vivid? Or is it the past raised into the present, the past present in the present? It is not a matter of syntax alone: the s of seems brings the line into the present—it seemed to me that the d of seemed was needed there, whatever the “story,” the line of the story may be, that stop of the d must be there—that stop which might be revealment. All speaks, when it speaks, in its own shape.

Jonathan Farmer is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems and the poetry editor and editor in chief of At Length. He teaches middle and high school English, and he lives in Durham, NC.
Every spring, Grist welcomes submissions of unpublished creative work for our ProForma contest in fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and/or hybrids that explore the relationship between content and form. Our contest is open to all forms of literary expression. “Pro forma” often means an established way of doing things. For the contest, we look for work that makes the most of its form, whether that’s an essay that breaks from traditional expectations, a set of poems from a sonnet sequence, a short story that blends or bends its genre, a hybrid text or a genre-less piece. However you define the relationship with form in your writing, we want to see your best work.

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Alizabeth Worley lives in Utah with her husband, Michael, and their two sons, just north of BYU where she received an MFA. She was a 2016 poetry winner of the AWP Intro Journals award and her essays, poems, and illustrated works have appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Hobart, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at

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What Is Poetry For? | by James McKee

James McKee enjoys failing in his dogged attempts to keep pace with the unrelenting cultural onslaught of late-imperial Gotham. His debut poetry collection, The Stargazers, was published in the spring of 2020, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in New Ohio Review, New World Writing, The Ocotillo Review, Illuminations, CutBank, The Raintown Review, Flyway, Saranac Review, THINK, The Midwest Quarterly, Xavier Review, and elsewhere. He spends his free time, when not writing or reading, traveling less than he would like and brooding more than he can help.

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More Craft Articles

The Nonfiction of Skin | by Alizabeth Worley

Alizabeth Worley lives in Utah with her husband, Michael, and their two sons, just north of BYU where she received an MFA. She was a 2016 poetry winner of the AWP Intro Journals award and her essays, poems, and illustrated works have appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Hobart, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at

Read More »

What Is Poetry For? | by James McKee

James McKee enjoys failing in his dogged attempts to keep pace with the unrelenting cultural onslaught of late-imperial Gotham. His debut poetry collection, The Stargazers, was published in the spring of 2020, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in New Ohio Review, New World Writing, The Ocotillo Review, Illuminations, CutBank, The Raintown Review, Flyway, Saranac Review, THINK, The Midwest Quarterly, Xavier Review, and elsewhere. He spends his free time, when not writing or reading, traveling less than he would like and brooding more than he can help.

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Poets of Dos Lenguas | by Alejandro Lemus-Gomez

Alejandro Lemus-Gomez is a Davies-Jackson Scholar of Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge. He was a finalist for the 2020 C.D. Wright Emerging Poet’s Prize and a 2019 Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets fellow. His poetry and academic work is forthcoming or has appeared in The Journal, the Afro-Hispanic Review, storySouth, The Indiana Review Online, and other journals.

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