Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Josh Hanson, whose blog I've just become aware of, has this response to what I said about Oppen yesterday. Got all that? Hanson (to avoid confusion I won't call him "Josh") argues that since Oppen operates from a presumption of Heidggerian "in the worldness" or "being-with," the transcendental dichotomy that I extrapolated from his letter doesn't make sense. Of course, Heidegger's position is, literally, hard to determine: always already in the hermeneutic Kreis? It's been impossible for me to determine the vantage point from which Heidegger is able to make his observations about authentic being, etc.—how did he manage to escape the conditioning of modern inauthenticity? Sheer geniusness? Poetic thinking? Etymology? But anyway, we don't entirely escape dichotomy even if I accept Hanson's description of Oppen's stance, because the poem takes on a dual nature: it's an object (another object in-the-world on the same playing field as the objects that compose it—both the words and their referents) but it's also a "sincere document" of being-in-the-world (which is more or less synonymous with object-ness, no?). So already the poem is not identical with itself; a document is another object-in-the-world, but one that refers. I guess now I'm wondering if the act of referring is not automatically transcendental; even on the linguistic level, the semiotic is transcendental to the semantic, or vice versa. One could insist, I suppose, that the poem-as-object and the poem-as-document-as-object exist on the same horizontal plane. But the passage of time—the retreat into the past of the event-objects documented by the poem while the language the poem does its documenting in remains perpetually present-tensed—irresistibly introduces an elevated vantage point occupied by the reader, and probably the poet too. Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility" becomes Oppen's "object recorded in language." Oppen can then, through a kind of rhetorical force of skepticism or scorn, push language back down onto the level of its objects. But he goes against language's grain to do this, and it pushes back.

Well, even if I have managed to make a case for the (resisted) transcendental in Oppen, this doesn't address Hanson's point that Oppen's nominal poetics precludes anything resembling engagement, leaving us with the paradox of a leftist man with an artistocratic or decadent artistic stance resembling l'art pour l'art. This actually makes a good argument for Oppen as a pastoralist in Empson's sense of pastoral being about but not for "the people." Oppen's politics can only manifest in the poetry as another object for sincere documentation. Or perhaps they can manifest in/as language, which insists on its difference from the object-life it refers to. Stripped nude, almost obscenely so, his langugage nonetheless continues to manifest the strange Odradek-life that words display more antically in the mouth of a "Radical Dogberry" (to borrow a title from Chris Stroffolino), expressing themselves as objects almost simultaneously with the objects they express. Insofar as language always exceeds intention, it retains at least a subversive potential. But "subversive" isn't democratic, is it? I'm merely making the same argument by which Ezra Pound can be found to be deconstructing his own Fascist project for coherence. Language asserts its own autonomy and attacks all intentions, good or bad. I'm not prepared to accept this argument, which is too simple by half, but I can't think my way out of it just now.

Funny though to realize how I've taken Oppen's extreme aesthetic ascetism, which famously led him to renounce poetry altogether for decades, as a badge of his political goodwill, if not his efficacy: the existence of a leftist politics coupled with a refusal of the usual luxuries of poetic subjectivism led me to assume a causal connection that may not actually exist. It could even be read as a moment of classically Modernist snobbery. The refusal of poetry's usual pleasures does and will exclude many readers; I am reminded here of Adam Kirsch's claim in the new Poetry that a "poetics of authenticity" (back to Heidegger?) has been the dominant one in the past half-century of so; I don't agree with him at all that it's a failed project (Kirsch focuses willfully on a conception of totally bourgeois, individual authenticity, excluding alternative political possibilities and social imperatives) but I do think he might be on to something when he refers to the acesticism of such a poetry, its Puritan refusal of pleasure. Of course the pleasures he refers to are very specific ones, primarily the pleasures of meter and rhyme that we associated with conventional poetic beauty. That beauty might take other forms does not seem to occur to Kirsch, and he is also clearly uninterested in the notion of a sublime or Brechtian anti-beauty or unpleasure that does another kind of work on its reader. I'm tempted to call Kirsch's conception of beauty aristocratic, but if so it masquerades as populism—"it's not a real poem if it don't rhyme" and so forth. But here I am again using political metaphors to talk about aesthetic questions whose separation from politics (a capital-M mode of being-in-the-world) I've just demonstrated. It's a powerful habit which may itself have something to tell us about how language manages to both be in-the-world and also about-the-world. More on this later, maybe.

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