Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Hope and Humility

Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.

                                                                                                         F. Scott Fitzgerald

If great literature does anything it humbles us. We are humbled by its artistry, by the force of its vision, by its insistence upon the messiness and complexity of life. At its best literature checks our need and proclivity to judge. 

This seemingly reflexive human practice of rating and ranking, of calculating, simplifying, typecasting, and generalizing, of pronouncing upon, of presuming to know, seems all but ubiquitous these days, aided and abetted as it is (to a degree I fear we are no longer capable of tracking) by the crass, essentially consumerist nature of the internet, that is, by the corporate, self-centered, often civically inimical logic by which each day we are training ourselves to live.

While founded surely in a natural, even evolutionary, need to organize and classify the world around us, this restless propensity to judge, and judge quickly, with impunity, to compare value, to make ever finer distinctions between celebrities and products and brands, seems more and more to me, and for all the apparent abundance of this age, to signify the opposite, the reverse—that in fact we are happy and satisfied with less.

When I was a student in college I had somehow been convinced (or had convinced myself) that being opinionated and judgmental was synonymous with being intelligent and intellectual. If someone asked me about an issue, about a particular politician or writer or painter, or about some moral or philosophical conundrum, I didn’t even pause to consider the matter but told them exactly, succinctly, what I thought. Yet what I told them wasn’t actually what I thought, for most of the time I wasn’t thinking at all. What I was doing was judging—judging swiftly, prematurely. For all my purported love of books and ideas, I had little patience for analysis, for the taxing, deeply humbling discipline of thought. What mattered was that I had an answer, an opinion. What mattered was that I knew.

I’ve changed a bit since then—thanks to my wife, thanks to the fact and complexity of my sons, thanks to the many good friends and colleagues I’ve known. Of course I am also deeply indebted to the literature I’ve read, to the countless poems and novels and plays, some of which I’ve discussed in this blog. And I must thank my students as well. Over the years they too have helped to shape and temper who I am. Directly and indirectly, they have helped me to refine the way I think about literature and language, the way I think about life.

Often now I advise them, my students, that before they can rightly judge a work of literature (as they are nearly always eager to do), they first need to know what it is. What exactly (to use the term broadly) is the argument it makes? Each time we read a story or poem or essay, each time we read a novel or play, I insist that before they render their verdict on it they must turn it inside-out, describing it as thoroughly and objectively as possible. I ask them to tell me everything they notice about it, everything they see. Not surprisingly this radically changes the dynamic of the class. Instead of judging (with all its inherent pressures, its stakes) they find themselves merely looking, observing, seeing. Without knowing it, they have made themselves susceptible.


Even less surprising to me, now that I’ve done it for years, is the fact that once my students have invested the time required to get to know a piece of literature on its own terms, in its own right, they often find that the need, the impulse, to judge it has faded, if not vanished altogether. This is not to say that they always come to love what we read—certainly not. In fact they often end our study of a given text with clear reservations about it. That of course is their due. They have earned it; it is theirs.

Which brings me to the matter of literature in general, and why the act of reading widely, deeply, patiently, is more important today than ever. “The poet judges not as a judge, but as the sun falling around a helpless thing,” writes Walt Whitman, an insight, an assertion, that applies equally to writers of fiction and plays. Simple on the face of it, what he proposes is astounding—that literature is something different, special, that literature is something else. Milan Kundera, in his defense of the novel, of its power to render the world more justly, truly, insists that “Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel [or poem or play]; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil.”

Literature then is that rare, imaginary terrain wherein moral judgment is suspended, a realm in which characters move and interact “not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws.” As readers we are pressed to see them not as they could be or should be but as they are. That—of all its merits—is literature’s greatest gift.

Judging is easy; I do it every day. It is withholding one’s judgment—taking the time to really know a poem, a person, an issue, a place—that is hard, a discipline that not only requires trust and patience, but humility, forbearance, and hope. 

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, April 17, 2017

Feels Like An Old Friend

Joel Oppenheimer, Lessons (Selected Poems)

That's Francine du Plessix Grey ("beauty") with Joel Oppenheimer {"the beast") at Black Mountain College in 1951. Oppenheimer was a free spirit, and his poems reflect a dedication not only to craft, but to the joy he felt in the pleasures of ordinary life:

The Lover

every time
the same way
wondering when
this when that.
if you were
a plum tree. if you
were a peach

Oppenheimer drank from the same lower-case font as cummings and Creeley--he wrote modest poems whose rejection of the complexities of the better-known poets of that era--Bishop and Lowell, Auden and Robert Duncan--fit the rebellious spirit of the age. Oppenheimer turned his back on romantic sentiment, on the bloated diction of the moderns, on allusiveness and ambiguity, but at the same time he eschewed the reveling in the morbid self-analysis--see Lowell, Sexton, Plath or Snodgrass--that was a staple of post-War verse. Oppenheimer's self-reflections are wry and self-deprecating; he took many things seriously, but treated his own ego with delicate irony.

Oppenheimer was an outlier: I've checked the two touchstone anthologies of 1969--Mark Strand's The Contemporary Poets, and Berg and Mezey's Naked Poetry and Oppenheimer isn't included in either collection (Oppenheimer's first book appeared, to the best of my knowledge, in 1951). It's hardly fair to generalize about this rich era of American verse--it's mind-boggling to read through these anthologies and to consider the remarkable poetic genius of the period 1945-1970--but sad to see nothing of Oppenheimer's included. This fact makes Dennis Maloney's Lessons all the more welcome. 

Oppenheimer's best poets are transparent, under-stated, and quietly moving. He reminds me of Kenneth Rexroth and early Robert Bly (of Silence in the Snowy Fields), producing the same loose-jointed, Japanese-inflected pinpoints of introspection and wry observation that still feel fresh and immediate. I love this one, reproduced in part, written on the death of his colleague, William Carlos Williams:

now you are dead
no more to see
flowers or women,
no more great
mullen in jersey
salt flats, now
you are bones that
dog can worry, now
you have eternity to
consider those mysteries
your life was
built on, now, if
like marc antony you
too are listening in
heaven, you are even
permitted to laugh
at all of us working
in your woodpile, where
you knew enough to
settle anyone
              ----and yet, you
                    were always a loudmouth, did
                    it have to be so silent, and
                    you who all of us knew
                    the waste of news, how does it
                    happen i hear of your death in
                    the middle of music, and ......

I was fortunate to hear Oppenheimer read a couple of times in New York back in the 60's. He was funny and sly and erudite. All of the great ones from that period had imbibed Shakespeare and Milton, Dante and Chaucer, Donne and Eliot and Yeats....the canon as we used to say, all those dead white males who have fallen on hard times, not so much because they are DWM's but because who reads Paradise Lost or The Canterbury Tales anymore?  So much of contemporary poetry feels unmoored from tradition; as a result, a great deal of what I read in Poetry and The American Poetry Review feels pretentious and inscrutable. But the generation that came of age right after World War II was full of men and women who wanted to make a place for themselves in F.R. Leavis's great tradition, in Frye's universe of language.  Oppenheimer wore his learning lightly; he knew what he was doing and went about his business simply, but if you read his criticism, his pieces in the Village Voice, you saw first-hand his intelligence and passion for literature, music, politics.  In this way too he reminds me of Bob Creeley and Rexroth, polymaths who happened to write poems but whose interests in literature and languages ran deep.

The Black Mountaineers must have had a grand old time drinking and sleeping around, writing poems that were loose-limbed and irreverent--thumbing their noses at the buttoned-down Fifties. Always I imagine the age in the black and white tones of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, the finest novel of the era, and then think of how good these poets were at prose--Oppenheimer wrote brilliantly on every subject under the sun.  It would have been grand to live in those days when literature was something more than a commodity, when being a writer was brave and eccentric and important. Not that there weren't philistines galore, but philistinism wasn't our culture's default setting. Never mind that. There never was a golden age, and if I project false happiness on the now distant past it's because the present feels so unbearably awful. Progress, we must recall, is a myth.


Oppenheimer died at 58, far too young.

...in the quiet 
light of early spring one
comes on strange things in 

(A line from "The Fourth Ark Royal")


on the left branch, a
blossom, on the
top branch, a blossom,
which child is this.
which flowering
of me, which
gold white bloom,
which the force of my life.

("The Gardener")

Lessons: Selected Poems, edited by Dennis Maloney, is published by White Pine Press

 George Ovitt, Easter Sunday, 2017