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Writing Not Writing: Poetry, Crisis, and Responsibility

Writing Not Writing: Poetry, Crisis, and Responsibility

by Tom Fisher
Writing Not Writing: Poetry, Crisis, and Responsibility

Writing Not Writing: Poetry, Crisis, and Responsibility

by Tom Fisher



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The poet George Oppen comments, “There are situations which cannot honorably [be] met by art, and surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning.” To write poetry under such circumstances, he continues, “would be a treason to one’s neighbor.” Committing himself, then, to more direct and conventional forms of response and responsibility, Oppen leaves poetry behind for twenty-five years. The disasters of the 1930s, for Oppen, put poetry into a fundamental question that could not be resolved or overcome. Yet if crisis is continual, then poetry is always turning away from the neighbor in need, always an irresponsible response in a world persistently falling apart.

Writing Not Writing both confirms this question into which crisis puts poetry and explores alternative modes of “response” and “responsibility” that poetry makes possible. Reading the silences of Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Bob Kaufman, the renunciation of Laura Riding, and other more contemporary instances of poetic abnegation, Tom Fisher explores silence, refusal, and disavowal as political and ethical modes of response in a time of continuous crisis. Through a turn away from writing, these poets offer strategies of refusal and departure that leave anagrammatical hollows behind, activating the negational capacities of writing and aesthetics to disrupt the empire of sense, speech, and agency.

Fisher’s work is both an engaging and detailed analysis of four individual poets who left poetry behind and a theoretically provocative exploration of the political and ethical possibilities of silence, not-doing, and disavowal. In lucid but nuanced terms, Fisher makes the case that, from at least modernism forward, poetry is marked by refusals of speech and sense in order to open possibilities of response outside conventional forms of responsibility. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609384814
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 07/01/2017
Series: Contemp North American Poetry
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 194
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

TOM FISHER is associate professor of English at Portland State University. He is the author of two books of poetry, Convivium (with Jessica Jackson Hutchins) and Sorsere. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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A Political Poetics

The Essential Life of the Poem


In the sense of transparence, I don't mean that much can be explained Clarity in the sense of silence. GEORGE OPPEN, "Of Being Numerous"

In a posthumously published short essay from 1964, Langston Hughes writes, "Politics can be the graveyard of the poet" ("Draft Ideas" 408). Hughes, who had some ten years earlier been called before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (SPSI) and its chair, Joseph McCarthy, for his Communist Party affiliations during the 1930s, articulates the lesson he learned the hard way: poetry best steer clear of politics, for the sake of the art as well as for the sake of the poet. Hughes, of course, wrote many directly political poems throughout his career. During the thirties, however, he engaged in an especially explicit leftist poetry; and, as Wallace Best relates, it was the notoriety of "Goodbye, Christ" that, in part at least, brought Hughes to the attention of the SPSI. Hughes survived the scare of the 1950s by, to a certain degree, distancing himself from the propaganda poems he produced in the thirties, a dissociation he would perpetuate and nearly canonize through their exclusion from his widely read and self-edited Selected Poems (1959). Indeed, not until the publication of his Collected Poems in 1994 did the fullness of his political writing from the thirties become readily available.

In reviewing the Collected Poems in 1995, Helen Vendler refers to these committed poems as "pedestrian Soviet flag-waving" (qtd. in Ehlers 139) and offers this critical assessment of propaganda writing generally: "Hack propagandists do not know how to write genuine poems; but a genuine poet who writes propaganda (as many have done) engages in a conscious faithlessness to art" (qtd. in Walkowitz 501). Vendler's assessment imbues the enterprise of propaganda with an immoral "faithlessness" that exceeds mere formal error or incompetence. Propaganda poetry, that is, is bad poetry in two ways: as a formal and rhetorical amateurism and as a morally corrupt violation of the sacred, separate laws of "art." Vendler's dismissal of propaganda writing is consistent with the broader critical tendency in the postwar period to denigrate directly engaged political writing, especially as the narrative privileging the work of so-called High Modernism becomes authoritative. Yet this diminishing of propaganda poetry is not merely at the service of a pseudo–New Critical insistence on and valorization of the autonomous "text itself"; it also opens up a possible rethinking of the relation between politics and poetics in provocative and important ways. While Hughes distances himself — whether for political or aesthetic reasons, or both — from his "engaged" work of the 1930s, he by no means renounces political writing. "Politics can be the graveyard of the poet," unless, as Hughes writes, it is "disguised as poetry." Or, as Rebecca Walkowitz comments, the poet's post-1950s work "is the resurrection of politics as poetry" (518). Indeed, this is not the abnegation of politics but, to borrow a phrase from Rachel Blau DuPlessis — which she borrows from Theodor Adorno — its "migration" to poetics.

The same, I argue here, can be said for George Oppen. Unlike Hughes, Oppen does not produce, despite his formal Communist Party membership during the thirties, a body of propaganda poetry. Indeed, as Oppen repeatedly insists, his avant-garde sensibilities and his concomitant aversion to writing "communist verse" combined with his leftist commitments, made, for him, the writing of any poetry at all impossible — so he stopped for twenty-five years. However, in his "post-silence" writing — his poems, letters, and working papers or "daybooks" — he insistently, almost obsessively, returns to the question of the political and its relationship to poetry. Oppen's return to poetry in the late fifties does not leave politics behind to pursue the sacred and separate world of "art." Instead, as with Hughes, politics is resurrected as poetry. Oppen, then, refuses the ties of what he calls the narrow demands of the "already determined" to practice a threshold poetics that opens writing to the instabilities, uncertainties, and contradictions of what might be considered a fundamental politics anterior to the "issues" and "messages" that Oppen deplored as subjects for poetry.

"At No Time Not a Poet"

Shortly after the publication of his first collection of poems, Discrete Series, in 1934, Oppen formally joined the Communist Party and stopped writing poetry. Oppen's departure from it was to last some twenty-five years until the late fifties when he begins work on "Blood from a Stone" and the poems that were to become his second volume of poetry, The Materials, published in 1962. That same year he also explains, in the letter to the Peppers already quoted, that during the disasters of the 1930s to write poetry constituted a "treason to one's neighbor" that forfeited an essential responsibility. Oppen here foregrounds, in a fashion that is typical of one way he often explained and made sense of his silence, the fundamentally moral and political dimension of his refusal of poetry's "fiddling" in the face of crisis. As he elaborates in a 1969 interview with L. S. Dembo: "If you decide to do something politically, you do something that has political efficacy. And if you decide to write poetry, you write poetry, not something that you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering. That was the dilemma of the thirties" ("A Discussion" 174). Here, as in many passages from his letters, interviews, and "daybooks," Oppen decisively frames his earlier silence as a refusal of poetry as a politically or morally inadequate response. Poetry, that is, cannot directly intervene on "human suffering" or respond to the "direct call for help" that Oppen heard so clearly in the thirties. In this way, Oppen's silence indicts poetry as, to echo the terms of Levinas, an "evasion" of an essential "responsibility."

Oppen, then, fulfilled his responsibilities otherwise than writing, principally through his activities as a CP member in the 1930s and then as enlisted infantryman during the war. However, Oppen's silence was not only grounded in a skepticism of poetry's capacity to respond to "the catastrophe of human lives in the thirties" (Selected 186), but was also an outcome of his refusal to write "committed" or "propaganda" poetry. As he comments in a letter, "I did not write 'Marxist' poetry. I made a choice. Stopped, for the crisis, writing" (qtd. in Nicholls, Fate of Modernism 19). While I will elaborate the reasons for Oppen's refusal of "Marxist" poetry in more detail later, it is important to note here that Oppen often figures the relationship between his early poetry and Marxism as symmetrical. In a 1973 letter, for instance, he emphatically writes, "from discrete series to marxism was not a 'break'— — by any means" (Selected 255). Although this seems to contradict Oppen's frequent insistence upon, for him in the thirties, an opposition between the political and the poetic, Oppen's first book indeed demonstrates the poet engaging what might be called "Marxist" themes, albeit in a fashion that might not suit the editors of, say, The New Masses. Consider, for instance, the second poem of Discrete Series:

Thus Hides the Parts — — the prudery Of Frigidaire, of Soda-jerking — —
Like Oppen's later work, this early poem is marked by what Nicholls calls "syntactical opacities" (Fate of Modernism 15) that act as impediments to our easy apprehension of it. The repetition of the dangling "thus," detached from its causal referent, the typographical slipperiness, the purposely awkward occlusion of prepositional clarity in the final line, the subordinating dashes (of unconventional length), and parenthesis all disorientate our reading of the short poem. Despite this grammatical and lexical obstruction, however — or, rather, perhaps because of it — the poem is legible as a fairly orthodox Marxist critique of "big-Business" commodity culture that "hides" from consumers its determining agency as it "removes" to "private acts" labor and consumption. Michael Davidson comments about the poem that "by refusing syntactic closure, Oppen participates in the very 'prudery' he castigates, pointing to rhetorical power by emptying it of meaning" (Introduction xxxix). Yet Oppen's syntactical and thematic convolutions and obstructions not only reproduce but also unveil and resist the obfuscations, concealments, and privatizations of "big-Business." The labor that capitalism "removes" to the private, invisible sphere of Frigidaire's domestic appliances and the newly possible privatized labor of "soda-jerking" are recovered through the poem's demand on the creative labor of the reader. Oppen's poem, that is, restores, through the formal devices that require an elevated readerly agency, the fact of labor as the public and communal activity that "big-Business" obscures.

In this way, Discrete Series was, as Oppen comments later in a letter, "avant-garde alright" (Selected 254), not least of all because, in the way I have outlined, it "migrates" its politics onto the form of its composition through the "syntactical opacities" and obstructions that restore labor — "removed" and concealed by capitalism's "bigBusiness" — to its proper place of priority by way of demands on readerly engagement. I will pursue further the place of labor in Oppen's poetics as well as in Carl Rakosi's. Yet for Oppen, in the thirties, poetry could not make a legitimate claim on labor, not only because the "avant-garde" then, as now, was associated with a social elite removed from a laboring class, but also because, for Oppen in the thirties, poetic activity was itself, qua labor, inauthentic. As Oppen tellingly relates in a letter to Harvey Shapiro in 1972, "When I quit writing I was writing a poem that began: [']twenty first birthday / stitch taken without thread' ('twenty first' because twenty third or fourth, whichever it was didn't go as smoothly)" (Selected 247). Oppen, as he remarks in an interview, "writes about the world ... and wanted to know a great deal about it" ("Poetry and Politics" 25). His departure from poetry, then, might be seen as an attempt, at the age of twenty-three or twenty-four, to find some "thread" for future poems. As Mary Oppen comments in Meaning a Life, "By the time we were finished with the politics, there was plenty for the poetry" (151). In this way, Oppen's silence was not an abandonment of poetry, but rather the pursuit of its subject matter. Also, however, the metaphor in Oppen's account to Shapiro evidences an anxiety about poetry as a kind of genuine craft or labor. To Oppen in the thirties, poetry seemed a "threadless" stitch that could offer only a false image of labor, which was especially anathema to someone significantly involved personally, despite his "aristocratic" background, in "work" as an activist, a munitions worker in a Detroit factory, and a carpenter, as well as a writer keenly aware, in both Discrete Series and his post-silence poetry, of the "worker." Oppen, as I will discuss, comes to rethink the "work" that poetry does — politically, aesthetically, ethically — after his return to writing; but in the thirties it seemed an irrecoverable "luxury" hopelessly disconnected from "the human catastrophe."

Oppen in the thirties was incapable of reconciling politics and aesthetics, labor and poetics, activism and poetry, and "chooses," as he says above, not to write. Oppen's silence has attracted much attention and fascination — indeed, to the point of, as DuPlessis comments in "'The Familiar / Becomes Extreme': George Oppen and Silence," "the mystification of that silence, an obsessive return to it ... almost as if it and not the oeuvre which follows it (and the vital 'prologue' of Discrete Series which precedes it) is the paradoxical artifact of Oppen's poetic career" (18). This relatively early essay by DuPlessis remains exemplary in its attempt, as she has it, "to think about that silence speaking"; to explore the ways in which Oppen's poetry is continuously coming into contact with and being shaped by the "silent double — the Doppelganger — of writing" (19, 28). Offering a way to read Oppen's silence inside his writing, DuPlessis bypasses that "mystification" she indicates, identifying instead the "use [of] silence and space as a main prosodic element" in Oppen's poetry (28). Silence, in DuPlessis's reading, is not the antithesis to poetry but one of its generative forces.

This uncertain line between poetry and silence marks Oppen's oeuvre and in fundamental ways unsettles the easy distinctions we tend to make between writing and not-writing. For Oppen, as we will see, not-writing, silence, and political activism are subsumed within the poetic project; at the same time, however, he contradictorily, but repeatedly, insists on poetry's practical and essential apolitical character. Norman Finkelstein's succinct summarization — "There comes a point when poetry is no longer serviceable; it becomes a luxury" ("Political Commitment" 26) — distills nicely the predominant character of Oppen's own account of his twenty-five-year "silence." Poetry, and all art, is a "luxury" in the face of crisis, an inconsequential, even indulgent act that, like any other extravagance, is incumbent on the good conscience to renounce. If disaster, crisis, catastrophe put writing, and all aesthetic production, into question, then this period was a time of acute interrogation. Many writers, Oppen included, concluded that, to quote Peter Nicholls once again, "There are emergencies that demonstrate the incommensurability of art's resources to the demands of the real" ("Avant-Garde" 5).

The poet Tom Mandel articulates the difficulties such a reading produces as we think through Oppen's commitment to, and the more general possibility for, poetry as a socially or politically adequate expression. Mandel writes in a postscript exchange with Burton Hatlen after their joint interview of Oppen,

A certain suspicion attaches to George ... for having given up the task during 25 years ... just because it seems a questionable move when someone abandons the art as not holding enough for him, "not the most important thing in the world," as if, a seeker, one would go only to that "most important thing." But wouldn't that be just the poet's task, to make it important? (49)

Although Mandel's question seems somewhat confused (is the problem that Oppen was drawn only to the "most important thing" or that he failed to make poetry sufficiently important?), he raises the salient question of why Oppen needed to "abandon" writing in order to engage his political activism. Why, in other words, could he not work as both a communist and a poet at the same time? Yet, for Oppen, this was precisely the "dilemma of the thirties" — the apparent need to choose between politics and poetry, a choice that obviously is grounded in an assumption that the two are fundamentally antithetical. Indeed, Oppen, as he remarks to Hatlen and Mandel, "distinguished between poetry and politics" in a way that precluded engaging either by way of the other and that closed off for him the possibility of writing communist verse (33). Poetry and politics were, for Oppen in the thirties at least, radically separate and incommensurate. As DuPlessis comments, "[P]oetic silence is not essentially necessary to activism; [Oppen]'s was a historical choice" that was in many ways dictated by the terms of the time ("The Familiar" 21).

Yet, too, Oppen will frequently figure his silence as an "extension" of his commitment to poetry rather than its refusal. For example, Oppen was fond of recalling the critic Hugh Kenner's remark to the poet, "In brief, it took twenty-five years to write the next poem." While Oppen is quite clear that his withdrawal from writing was complete, he nonetheless finds appealing the suggestion that his silence was somehow part of his poetic project. Clearly, Kenner's comment erases the historical context and political resonance of Oppen's silence in a problematic way. Yet Oppen himself will frequently reflect to a similar end that his withdrawal from poetry did not constitute its abandonment. Rather, as he remarks to L. S. Dembo, "During those years I was perfectly aware of a lot of time before me and I at no time thought I wasn't a poet" ("A Discussion" 175). Oppen here anticipates Mary Oppen's account of the Oppens' epiphany upon their return from France in 1933 to a Depression-ravaged US: "Let's work with the unemployed and leave our other interests in the arts for a later time" ("A Discussion" 151). In this sense, Oppen's "silence" seems less a refusal of poetry than its deferral, a waiting for a more favorable time for its composition.


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Table of Contents

Contents Preface Introduction: “No More Words” 1. A Political Poetics: The Essential Life of the Poem 2. Laura Riding and the End of Poetry 3. “Waiting for a Poem”: Work and Writing 4. The Audible and the Inaudible: The Politics of Silence Conclusion: Writing’s Refusal Notes Works Cited Index

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