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afterword “It is difficult now to speak of poetry ,” Oppen writes in section 27 of “Of Being Numerous,” a crucial passage to which I now want to return: One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands, He must somehow see the one thing; This is the level of art There are other levels But there is no other level of art (180) If these lines have the ring of truth, as I think they do, they are all the more persuasive for having been written by a poet who did indeed have a thousand threads in his hands and who believed that truth claims are always conditional. In order to have written them, Oppen would have had to see the truth of what he says, for only thus would he have been able to articulate it in precisely these words. That is what is being said in those lines. But this is a conception of poetic seeing, and hence of the poetic process, that is antithetical not only to Objectivist theory in general but, as we saw in chapter 1, to Oppen’s own theoretical assertions, such as can be found in his essay, “The Mind’s Own Place.” In Oppen’s assertion that the poet “must somehow see the one thing,” seeing is not strictly speaking visual but rather a metaphor for the mind’s ability to grasp something in its entirety and all at once.1 What Oppen is seeing in these lines, furthermore, is that if art is not defined in terms of the capacity to “see the one thing,” then ultimately it is an empty category (“This is the level of art / There are other levels / But there is no other level of art”). Art depends not only on a selection process of some kind, a way of sorting through the multiplicity of things seen and of going beyond the phenomena, but on a capacity to find unity in multiplicity, the one in the many. How this happens is always going afterword 200 to be mysterious, but clearly the process of selection has to come from the mind and not merely from experience; for without the mind, the individual would merely be passive to experience and no selection could occur. Objectivist theory, emerging from Imagism, tends to emphasize physical vision—“the lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus,” in Zukofsky’s phrase; but from this empiricistic standpoint, which (as is always the case with empiricism) seeks to bypass the mind, there can be no explanation for how art comes to be.2Perhaps one could say, in an effort to preserve Zukofsky’s conception, that it is a question of focusing; but this does not tell us why one might tend to focus on X rather than Y. No doubt the process cannot be theorized. Oppen tells us only that one must somehow see the one thing. At various points in his work, Oppen gives us metaphors to illuminate the kind of vision that, in his vision, distinguishes poetic vision from ordinary vision. “Imagine a man in the ditch,” he writes in “Route,” The wheels of the overturned wreck Still spinning—— I don’t mean that he despairs, I mean if he does not He sees in the manner of poetry (198) Oppen may sometimes have been deluded into thinking that the clarity for which he strove was solely sensory, a clearly delineated physical image, but his poetry tells a different story. It tells us that what is configured, metaphorically, as a quality of the light, is essentially the mysterious mental or spiritual process that enables the poet to see the one thing. For Oppen, to see “in the manner of poetry” is to see both “the bright light of shipwreck” (this is the recurrent, dominant motif or symbol of “Of Being Numerous”) and also in the bright light of shipwreck, for the particular angle or quality of light that enables him to see poetically is also, finally, what he sees. The vision of ruin that Oppen shares with Bronk, and that sometimes has the effect of estranging both poets from the quotidian, has a quasi-mystical origin in that it is connected to an influx of light. “Objects are nothing,” writes Bronk in “The Annihilation of Matter”: “There is only the light, the light!” (35). In both poets, one could say that the visible is sublated to the visionary and that what is seen is subordinated...


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