English 738T, Spring 2015
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The Code, the Canonical, the Communist, the Commonplace:

Posted by Michael Gossett on Thursday, May 10th, 2012 at 10:27 am


I’ve talked in part about my experience coding the Frankenstein manuscripts, at least from a practical, project-oriented viewpoint, but there seems to me something lost in only talking about that side of things. While step-by-step instruction for a coding-based project like ours is certainly useful information in one sphere, it inevitably leaves out the impetus, the drive, the sheer imaginative hook, that got us roped into such a thing in the first place.

Something there is that doesn’t love the non-canonical: the marginalized, the deleted, the abjected, the notes and writings that never quite make into a final manuscript. This accounts for our fascination with celebrity interviews and bonus footage on DVDs, with directors’ cuts and ‘never-before-seen’ acting spots–and in the literary world (though much less glamorous than the film industry) it accounts for our desire to read the biographies of our favorite writers, to mine their drafts, letters, manuscripts, and notebooks, for glimmering bits of data that might, on one level, satiate our personal fan-boy appetites, and, on another level, serve as keys to unlock, inform, or explain our scholarly impulses and queries.

It’s a curious thing, this love of outside material, one we often pretend to not have (“death of the author,” ad nauseam) but, in the end, wear like chocolate on our faces.


In our recent readings about databases and accumulating information into an archive (where all the non-canonical stuff goes), this quote gets at the heart of the matter as well as anything:

Having “inventory” is a requirement for “invention.” Not only does this statement assume that one cannot create (“invent”) without a memory store (“inventory”) to invent from and with, but it also assumes that one’s memory-store is effectively “inventoried,” that its matters are in readily-recovered “locations.” (1)

Our desire to ‘invent’ something–a paper, an argument–about a text or author we’ve come to revere is inextricably bound to the inventory of information that exists about said text or author: to create something new (newness being part of invention) is to consider all of it, and to then take an extra step.

One of my laments in the Frankenstein coding project was only that, at this stage of things (i.e. early–speaking about the project and about me as a coder/researcher) was that my work had not yet given me sufficient experience with the inventory to truly invent anything–that is, my ten pages of coding is too limited a sample for me to effectively claim anything interesting with regards to patterns or tendencies in the text (“Did Percy cross out monster more often to replace it with creature?” I asked. “Were Mary’s additions typically reiterations/rephrasings, or pieces of new information? Did Percy’s suggestions tend to stay in the spirit of what Mary had written, or did they go in a new direction?” And so on.).

So I’ve since returned to a favorite non-canonical inventory of mine–the poet George Oppen’s commonplace books (he calls them ’daybooks’)–with the mindset of a coder looking for patterns. And though I haven’t actually been coding these daybooks, I’ve attempted to treat the source material with the same diligence and thoughtfulness that I would if I were working with TEI.

(Note: In full disclosure, there’s a part of me that suspects that I will attempt to propose the actual coding of Oppen’s daybooks as an academic project of mine in the future, so some of my research and writing here was/is pre-prepared in some capacity.)


I began this pseudo-project (i.e. this “exploration”) already familiar with George Oppen’s poetry and at least vaguely aware of the rough outline of his life—wealthy family, runs off with a girl, Objectivist poets in New York, Communist party and exile in Mexico, thirty years without writing, triumphant return—so what I was looking forward to discovering in the process of approaching his biography, letters, and daybooks again was not a more holistic understanding of the poet’s life but rather his patterns of thinking, how he, in his own words, understood what it was he was doing in (with?) poetry in those first two books published after the thirty year hiatus (The Materials, 1962, and This in Which, 1964). As a subset of this I was hoping to get a few glimpses into the working-through of the philosophy(-ies) informing the writing of the poem “Psalm,” particularly the I-thou relationship I found the perceiving I/eye establishing with the deer and the strong sense of the uncanny that emerges from such an encounter.

As it happens, Oppen was a generous note-taker and -preserver, which made my hope for retrieving information about this time quickly fulfilled. He was also rather transparent when it came to the cloud of ideas surrounding and appearing in his poems, often including, in writing, his working through a theory or quotation by restating it or reapplying it half a dozen times, then translating that process into a handful of potential poetic lines. In Daybook One, for example, Oppen moves from meditating “I don’t think life should be valued only when it can be sentimentalized (this remark derived from Yeats)” to commenting:

even Keats [felt] that he had to say something profound…[in writing] Beauty is truth truth beauty—If it were true, the line would be beautiful, and it is not. It is not in any case how poetry makes “meaning.” The meaning of [William Carlos] Williams’ poetry, for example, is that life is not valuable only when it can be sentimentalized or only when it can be generalized…and Williams has been important to us: the end of sentiment, the end of generalization is very nearly upon us: it is no longer convincing

to eventually circling the simple poetic phrase “the thread of generalization” scrawled at the bottom of the page. Ultimately this way of thought, the pattern of the mind at work, moving from inspiration to internalization to output, rings true to and intrigues me greatly, which perhaps explains my keen interest in “Psalm” (which begins with an epigraph from St. Thomas Aquinas and proceeds to seemingly enact the quoted idea that “truth follows” something through the I/eye’s watching the deer stand, eat, and move through the forest).

I became particularly interested in watching this thinking-pattern unfold in Oppen’s writing from 1960 to 1963 (the years around his return to poetry and publishing of The Materials and This in Which). The letters from this time reflect Oppen’s having to defend his new work to a tremendous degree—arguing hard for his individual prosody on a regular basis—while pitching the book manuscripts for publication. What emerges in these defenses, I found, generally falls into three major themes: (1) the poem as an immediate object… (2) an object which figures and configures honest experience… (3) and that honest experience requiring an understanding of the mystery of the world (man’s place in it and account for the things that are beyond him) through sight, through the eye: “I mean to be a part of a discussion among honest people,” Oppen writes, “without inventing imaginative geometries—we HAVE only our sight” (January 1962). This ‘honest discussion’ ultimately becomes an argument for Oppen’s desire for clarity and understanding manifest in poetry, a mode of philosophy he would return to in his daybooks and letters (and subsequently, in his poems) quite regularly.

In one letter Oppen contextualizes his philosophy of clarity within the larger framework of the philosophies (or ‘traditions’) informing other Objectivist poets, namely Charles Reznikoff, Williams Carlos Williams, and Louis Zukofsky. “The members of this group had a very strong sense of their own histories,” he explains:

Rezi’s awareness of the Jewish past, Williams’ sense of America and its roots, Louis’ relation to Bach and other ‘sources we tide from,’—I am sort of short-winded historically, but not blind. I remember my father and my grandfather: I think of my daughter. I’m aware that the subways are pretty old…and that the Queen Mary is fairly new. The ground seems very old to me. I write about nothing else…I don’t remember discussing ‘tradition.’ If we had, Williams would have spoken as in the American Grain, Louis might have used the word in a more classic sense, Rezi might have thought we were all talking about the day before yesterday. And I would have been. I was twenty-four. (February 1961)

For Oppen, then, the ‘tradition’ he was operating within, as he understood it, had an immediacy to it, a loyalty to the lived experience as it was lived (and seen!). Thus, there appear fewer (if any) loyalties to meta-narratives, such as Zukofsky’s classics or Reznikoff’s Jewish history or even Williams’ American heritage, in Oppen’s own work. “I DO NOT MEAN TO PRESCRIBE AN IDEA, BUT TO RECORD THE EXPERIENCE OF THINKING IT,” Oppen proclaims in one of his daybooks, furthering the point more explicitly (Daybook II.III); “I do not easily give myself to such things. I do not insist on knowing who’s my papa, who’s my mama, and whom I love, but I do very much want to know—while we live—which is north and which is south, where the ground is, and where it ends” (Daybook II.I). (Note: This last statement is followed, in what I can now consider ‘typical’ Oppen fashion, with the poetic phrase “Door—meaning a common door, with a door knob—& panels,” which seems to me to echo in a distant but familiar way the idea of saying the thing as it is in small words without overcomplicating the experience.)

In another letter, Oppen refers to this concept of knowing “which is north and which is south, where the ground is, and where it ends,” as ‘coming to terms with’ the “physical conditions of life” (June 1962), and later again as one’s “becom[ing] aware of himself as…a part of reality,” registering in that same moment “the existence of what is not himself, what is totally independent of him, can exist without him, as it must have exist before him, as it will exist after him” (September 1963). In short, Oppen’s primary concern in poetry, particularly after his return to writing, is reconciling the individual to his individual experience of the world sincerely and truthfully, in a way that fully captures the oddness and intrigue implicit in the act of sight—sight as a uniquely human experience, i.e. perception and meditation for meaning—and the resulting and lingering sense of the uncanny (the object of perception’s being strangely familiar and foreign simultaneously). This sense of the uncanny, I find him saying (albeit in not so many words and without the term itself), is the human experience, the unique position of ambiguity the individual must and does find himself in as a living, seeing thing.

Given how true all of this rings with me, what strikes me most having read Oppen’s commonplace materials, in the end, I suppose, is how little this philosophy tended to resonate with Oppen’s peers in the publishing industry (this constitutes the bulk of Oppen’s letters between 1960-63) and even with some of his fellow Objectivist poet friends. In closing, two of my favorite moments in Mary Oppen’s (George’s wife’s) Meaning a Life, an autobiographical memoir of her life with George, hinge on two linked conversations between Oppen and Louis Zukofsky upon the shopping of Oppen’s first manuscript (The Discrete Series) and, later, his second manuscript (The Materials). On both occasions Mary recalls Zukofsky asking of Oppen, “Do you prefer your poetry to mine?” or “Do you like your poetry more than mine?” Though eventually having to answer yes—leaving Zukofsky “pale” and “noticeably hurt”—George is said to have, understandably, attempted to soften the blow; Mary writes:

George, insisting on clarity and understanding…implying that Louis used incomprehensibility and obscurity as a tactic, said “You’re tougher than I am, Louis,” referring to Louis’ disregard of the reader. [But] to George, ‘tough’ meant an operator, a schemer. (209)

And so I suppose this is the lasting impression of George Oppen I gleaned from a coding-minded approach to his ‘outside’ works: that of a steadfast poet and thinker whose loyalties to truth and to his art (and to the truth of his art, it stands to reason) exceeded those to his poetry community, whose poetry and poetics each had embedded in them an ethical, moral, obligation to quantify and objectify human experience in such a way as to do the odd beauty of merely existing some ounce of justice. 



(1) Carruthers, Mary. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. p. 12.

Oppen Materials: 

Oppen, George. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.

—. The Collected Poems. Michael Davidson, ed. New York: New Directions, 2008.

—. Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. Stephen Cope, ed. Berkeley: U Cal P, 2007.

Oppen, Mary. Meaning a Life: An Autobiography. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978


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One Response

  • Daniel Kason says:

    This is really interesting. I definitely see how the encoding project may address and problematize the conflicting notions of the “death of the author” approach vs considering history and outside sources. It seems like your Oppen example served in part as an exploration of this issue, and one that necessarily ends up in the second camp. It’s interesting to think about what your “code-mining approach” means in terms of privileging outside sources.

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