I first emerged from my obsession with Ezra Pound in the early 1990s. Then like a lot of Poundians, I went to the poets I’d heard were collected in the New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen, but not to the anthology itself; to the critical books of Marjorie Perloff, themselves full of generous chunks of poetry a British beginner poet of the time otherwise would not have encountered.
It could be that this led me to years of hoping to produce a quotable verse that would fit well in an academic treatise about poetry, and not an anthology, of course. But I like to think it didn’t, except in one regard: that I subconsciously set about making small intense fragments, that didn’t force the reader to seek out the poem they came from. Poetry lines as chunks of enigma, happenstances of colloquialism fluking some gold. This subconsciously appealed.
When John Lennon describes his songwriting as bits that he puts together (which I later used for years as a songwriting method), I recognised immediately the desire to make lines almost quippy. When Peter Porter pronounced that poets tend to achieve most fame because their great lines become titles for other people’s novels, I recognised too the common sense feeling that, yes, poets should know their place in the wider world of writing. After all, most people don’t follow poetry like poets talking to poets about poetry: they probably like the odd line, as long as the overall context of introducing to them doesn’t get laden with baggage, boredom and guilt trips.
So I loved loved loved George Oppen. His work seemed so angular, so sculpted.
The small nouns
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.
I could see it would be worth memorising the whole poem, even though to date I never have. Still, “the small nouns” and “in this in which” just pop into my mind whenever I think of Oppen. The modus operandi of this poetry wasn’t any of the usual: it isn’t line break as breathy pause, there isn’t a regular line length, but it isn’t a skittish and jazzy whole either. Nor is it bardic passion, as I found as a teacher seeking out audio files of Oppen to play to students. It just doesn’t particularly have accumulative power as speakable verse.
What it does have is something you have to turn in the light. It’s been bevelled to show edges, and to look almost geometric but with ordinary language (in the audio, all one hears is the ordinary language). It pauses are ones of consideration: that the line might mean something else, something eerie and uncanny. But not gothic-uncanny. More moral-uncanny. Like noticing one’s privilege. Not for nothing is Oppen’s major work called ‘Of Being Numerous’.
So, a poetry of fragments, that isn’t the poet raising the eyebrow and winking and lowering the voice as he or she jumps from fragment to fragment. And an overall effect that is very milled: very like a careful gallery hang. Visually pleasing (if we are developing that sense in poetry). That’s my thing. Or one aspect of my thing. If two fragments can sit next to each other and one can take words away so that they DON’T mean much separately but DO mean both things when kept together, all the better.
That’s my upbraid to a lot of condense-and-trim poetics: stop getting hung up on every sentence being a unit, every observation, every phrase. Don’t think that you have to produce a minimalised result that must be read aloud as if said by a real person in a real moment under real emotional pressure. Instead, make an object to live with, like art. That’s why Oppen was part of a movement called Objectivism. The poems were maybe trying to be “objective” in the sense of politically left-daring. But the best of their poets were also making objects: gallery-things.
Learn the rules of the poem in six lines or less and sculpt vivid fragments that do the work of whole stanzas, on Ira’s upcoming online course Minimalism: from Within and Without. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.