From a letter Oppen sent his niece Dina Meyer in 1964.
Language’s ability to perform is variable and site-specific, mind, ear, eye, air, page, and other sites conducing to particular powers and effects. Ezra Pound’s “phanopoeia, melopoeia and logopoeia,” echoed by Louis Zukofsky’s “sight, sound and intellection,” touches on this multisitedness to an extent, but by congeries of apprehension something more multiple and involved than a trinarism is gotten at. Taking not only eye, ear, and mind into consideration but acknowledging mind’s eye, mind’s ear, and, further, mind’s nose, mind’s tongue, and mind’s touch as well, to say nothing of synesthetic amalgams and exchanges, considerably complicates the mix.
I try to write poems whose words perform on multiple fronts. I’m as attentive, to speak only of two such fronts, to the placement of words on the page (the use of variable margins, intralinear spacing, page breaks, and such to advance a now swept, now swung, sculpted look, a visual dance down the page and from page to page) as I am to the rhythms and inflections with which they’re to be read when read aloud. It’s not that the former serves as a score for the latter, as Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, and others have insisted. Such placement, to the silent reader, can suggest the unfolding of thought or composition (its hesitancies, tenuities, accelerations, leaps, and so forth) while speaking, by way of the eye, to a mind’s ear that hears every line break as a caesura, every break between sections or pages as an amendment or an addendum or even a new beginning, additional space between words as a pause. This is the poem performing on the stage the page amounts to (and on the stage the reader’s mind amounts to by way of the page). I don’t, however, feel obligated to read the poem aloud in the manner such placement might suggest—obligated or even able. What, after all, do varied margins sound like? (What, for that matter, does an unvaried margin sound like?) To avail oneself to graphic amenities peculiar to the page is not to disallow the poem behaving differently when read aloud but to recognize that it does. The ultimate untransmissibility of vocal dynamics (timbre, accent, pace, volume, inflection, and so forth) by print—and vice versa—makes variance inevitable. The poem’s articulation is as various as its locations.
I have come to believe, or think, or understand, that when someone dies, the most acute sense of loss is that of his or her voice. (For a while, one can “hear” a person’s voice in one’s inner ear, but slowly that fades.) This is odd, since sound is of course immaterial; one would think that the body would be the most felt absence. But sound is a distinctive marker of living presence more than any material object can possibly be; sound and lived time are indissoluble: they are, so to speak, part of the continuity of a landscape rather than the singularity of a portrait. Sound is embedded in spatial context.