T. W. Adorno has a precise formulation for the kind of shift I am suggesting here when he speaks in an essay on Bach of ‘the emancipation of the subject to objectivity in a coherent whole of which subjectivity itself was the origin’. The subject is liberated from an impotent privacy into a world of material beings through the objectified form of the artwork. For the reader, such ‘emancipation’ derives not from some identification with the poet’s feeling, but from the syntax of the work, from a particular arrangement of words which, like the conjunction of planes in a painting, produces a sense of a materiality resistant to conventional grammars of thought and design. And, rather like the relation of abstract art to representational art, a language of ‘objectification’ amounts to a reconfiguring of the semantic field so as to accent particular items in a non-discursive way. Prominent features are inverted word order, indeterminacy or ambiguity attaching to pronouns, the emphatic use of prepositions to substitute for usual narrative markers, heightened attention to ‘minor’ parts of speech such as conjunctions, and a resulting disfigurement of anticipated speech-patterns. Such devices assure us that we are dealing not with ‘a performance, a speech by the poet’ but rather with ‘the poet’s self among things’ and a ‘thinking with the things as they exist’.
Here are two points on Oppen’s poetry that have made a significant impact on how I think about my own work.
On the multiplicity of voices that speak in a single poem:
“Quotations are everywhere in Oppen’s poetry, especially in his later work, where he began to distinguish them by using italics rather than quotation marks, thus marking them not as speech but as another layer of text. Increasingly, the incorporation of ‘foreign’ materials does not point outside the poem, but functions rather to disrupt any sense of unified poetic ‘voice’ even though sources are often obscured.”
On poetry as a form.of knowing:
“The poet may recall a past experience, then, but that experience is fundamentally recast, perhaps so as to be almost unrecognisable, when caught up in the force-field of present perception. We are dealing not with a situation in which a given subject appropriates something other as an object of knowledge, but rather one in which (as for Heidegger) thinking and being are somehow elided. In this sense, the poetic imagination intuits rather than knows…”