George Oppen: One Line
Text for talk given at Dactyl Foundation/NYC (Feb. 22, 2002)


“One moves between reading and re-reading...,” Discrete Series

If I’m reading George, reading this line specifically, it’s 1967, Syracuse. I’ve read The Materials, This In Which, and I’ve published some sections from “Of Being Numerous” in the second issue of Maps. It’s 1967, I’m in the Syracuse Book Center, where I’ve just found Discrete Series in the gold and purple “mother/asphodel” edition designed and published by Ron Caplan. It certainly doesn’t look like a New Directions book. If I’m reading Discrete Series in 1967, I have my doubts. It doesn’t look like a New Directions book. Maybe it’s not real poetry? & 1934? Maybe it’s juvenalia? I’m a young poet. I’m in a hurry; don’t have time for juvenalia.

I’m re-reading this line because I see the 1967 me has put pencil brackets around it. If I put brackets around it--& nothing else in the poem & nothing else in the entire book--the line must be important. It’s 1967. I’ve read Husserl’s The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness. Husserl, brackets.

If I’m reading this line in 1967, I’m a young poet. How do I know I’m a young poet? I see I’ve signed my name in all lower-case letters, something a young poet would do. Signed it at the top of the first blank page. I’m a young poet. I’ve got a poetic signature, but I don’t have a poem, a poem that’s distinctly my poem. I’ve got a poetic signature and a blank page. Why I’m reading George: to make that page unblank, find something in George to help make that page unblank. Also to see how I’m doing. What’s the first thing a young poet reads: date of publication & date of the author’s birth. How I’m doing.

If I’m reading this line in 2002, I’m re-reading. And I’m not a young poet. Sign myself differently.


Curious that the “mother/asphodel” edition doesn’t contain Pound’s preface.

“One distinguishes between young men who have seriously learned the processes of their elders, and who attempt to use extant tools well, and those who merely dress up in old clothes.”

“I salute a serious craftsman, a sensibility which is not every man’s sensibility and which has not been got out of any other man’s books.”

Perhaps the 1966 George no longer wanted to be known as a serious young 1934 man attempting to use the processes/tools of his elders. Perhaps he did not want to be known as an original “sensibility.” Because: he’s not young, he ought to be beyond attempt--ought to have his own tools? Because he no longer signs himself with his young man/family nickname (Buddy).  & sensibility per se beside the point. Sensibility is a poetic signature at the top of a blank page.

Curious that Pound claims to see the difference between the writing of “Mr. Oppen and Dr. Williams.” Which claims a sameness in claiming difference. Which doesn’t see the difference between George’s poem and his own train poem, “In A Station of the Metro.” Difference of an apparition of faces in the crowd vs. a white powdered face from a crowd. Faces, face; in, from. Difference of an apparition vs. “a date.”

Ah, Ezra, I seem to recall your preaching to the mob to go in fear of abstractions. Apparition rather abstract, no? Could it be that you’re being beat by the rules of your own game?


Old tv quiz show, “What’s My Line?” Which could be a quiz show for poets, who are blindfolded & textless. A line is read. Can you identify the line? Can you identify the lines within the line? Line as text and its con-texts? Author and authors?

Contestants object. What do I take them for, mere memorizers? It’s hard to be text-less. Besides, no line is an island. A line is the by-line of other lines, of syntax.

Syntax. French, Late Latin from Greek: syn (with, together with) + taxis  from tasso (to arrange, put in order).

2 Daybook entries: “...the syntax is arranged to control the order of disclosure....” +
“syntax: a careful packing of a poem to avoid mere shuffling, a deadening, to avoid destroying a word by its relationships.”  (both Ironwood 26, p 29)

1966 letter to his French translator, Serge Faucherau: “I do indeed know that my poems are difficult to translate. The line sense, the line breaks, and the syntax are intended to control the order of disclosure upon which the poem depends....” (Letters, 141)

1970 letter to myself: “the problem being for you as for the rest of us     a syntax or some equivalent of a syntax sufficiently ‘locked’     sufficiently simultaneous----”  (Letters, 20)

Not to forget: “sin tax,” surcharge levied on what you’re more or less allowed to do (smoking) but not supposed to do (smoking). Applied to poetry: unacknowledged use of the language of others; language, words, phrases, and the arrangement or order of words, phrases in lines. The sin of poets is original sin, the sin of “originality.” George called his quotations “thefts.” William Burroughs’ algebra of need, the algebra as a question: “Wouldn’t you?” Which he answers: “Yes you would. You would lie, cheat, inform on your friends, steal, do anything to satisfy total need.” Total need of poets: a syntax or some equivalent. For which poets will do anything but confess how & where they got it.

Prize for appearing on “What’s My Line”: a year’s supply of “My Sin,” a perfume.  If the contestant does more than appear--guesses correctly--, gets a washing machine & supply of “Lux Liquid.” Wash the perfume off with liquid light.


Open up the brackets, consider the whole poem, the whole syntax of the whole poem.

Town, a town,
But location
Over which the sun as it comes to it;
Which cools, houses and lamp-posts,
     during the night, with the roads----
Inhabited partly by those
Who have been born here,
Houses built----. From a train one sees
     him in the morning, his morning;
Him in the afternoon, straightening----
People everywhere, time and the work
One moves between reading and re-reading,
The shape is a moment.
From a crowd a white powdered face,
Eyes and mouth making three----
Awaited--locally--a date.

Prose translation: town is nameless, a town, could be any town, an anyhow town which anyhow provides location, which provides meaning/identity, especially for “those/Who have been born here,” for whom it is a home town. Presumably the anonymous speaker/observer is an “out-of-towner.”

The speaker/observer is on a train coming to a town. The observed “him,” perhaps one for whom the town is home, remains in the 3rd person. The speaker/observer sees him, but sees him in passing. He hasn’t come to see him.

What the speaker/observer’s come to “see”: a date with a face. Individual or focused upon or previously known, sticks out from the crowd Not a blind date.

Reading as observing, looking. Text as exterior scene, text as persons. Existence as a continual process of reading. “Stream of consciousness.” The text/scene is the same but different: him, her. What makes for difference, moving, the train. Not stream, train of consciousness. Can you get on the same train twice? Can you ever get off?

The syntax is train syntax: smooth and not smooth, jerky. What makes for the not-smooth: the line sense, line breaks, punctuation. Little (commas) and larger (dashes) jerks. Also, full colon at end of line, right before “one moves between reading and re-reading.” Also the dashes at the ends of lines: precarious punctuation, no? Train could go off the tracks. Train syntax: a little scarey. Dashes at the ends of lines: train going around a bend; passengers see space & light & no tracks ahead. A little scarey. The full colon: sudden drop in elevation, train takes a sudden drop. Could be end of the ride? Which ends with “one moves between reading and re-reading.” Nice to know as one approaches one’s end? Approaches the non-quick, dead end. Third person neuter end. Famous last words. You hope they’re famous, will become famous. George: “One could approach his own death with poetry--I should think he would” (Daybook entry, Ironwood 26, p. 30). Existential question for poets: will there be some, will there be some in print, i.e., “famous”? Will it be your own? C. told me about her drummer. Near death from a car accident. Is he concerned for his wife and children? Be serious. He could die and he doesn’t even have one CD out yet! Last words. Let them please be my words, words of my poem. George in the foxhole: he remembers Rezi and Wyatt. Modest/noble, no? But: their lyrics are running in his head, his poem.

George, approaching his death as a poet in the final poem of his final book, remembers his own words, the making of his own syntax in Discrete Series. Which is moving & shows how far he moved, how he kept moving. The other voices: how he’ll be kept moving.

But the end of the line is not the end of the line, which is a date with a white-powdered face. Train comes, jerkily, to its destination, a date with a white-powdered face. But the end of the line could be the end. Got a date with an angel, angel of death? Better get moving, moving as writing, to have some famous words.


Husserl, what I see the 1967 me has underlined in red:

The complete apprehension of an object contains two components: the one constitutes the Object according to its extra-temporal determinations; the other creates the temporal position: being-now, having-been, and so on. The Object as temporal matter, as that which has temporal position and temporal extensity, as that which endures or is altered, as that which now is and then has been, springs solely from the Objectivation of the contents of apprehension--in the case of sensible Objects, therefore, from the sensible contents. Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that these contents are temporal Objects, that they are generated in a succession as a continuum of primal impressions and retentions, and that these temporal shadings of the data of sensation have their significance for the temporal determinations of the Objects constituted by means of them. However, their temporal character is of no importance with regard to their nature as representatives of material qualities according to their quiddity. The non-temporally grasped data of apprehension constitute the Object according to its specific state, and where this is preserved we can certainly speak of an identity.
                                                                (P. of Int.-Time Con., 87)

An identity. The white-powdered face is preferable to an apparition, yet it’s not all that identified. Ditto “one.” Could it be that the object of my affection is a poem, poem as object? Myself the “one” sincere maker of that object?

Husserl: All objectification takes place in time-consciousness, and without a clarification of the identity of temporal position no clarification of the identity of an Object in time can be given. (88)

Remember what comes just before the drop-off, just before “One moves between reading and re-reading”--”time and the work/pauseless.” The work is objectification, writing the poem as object, ordering/arranging words into a syntax so that the poem holds together like an object, is complete like an object, endures like an object. The train is moving, and the poet is moving--writing as opposed to reading--, moving to make something that, even as it it may “move” readers, won’t move (as wobble) in itself in/on the train. Name of the train: Zeitschwanz; name of the train: time-train.

J.D. Short, “Slidin’ Delta”

Oh, thought I heard freight train whistle blow,
   Now you a-hear me cryin’ pretty mama,
Thought I heard freight train whistle blow,
And she blowed just like, ooah, ooah, ooah.

Oh, two trains runnin’ now, runnin’ side by side,
   Now don’t you hear me cryin’, pretty mama
Two trains runnin’ now, runnin’ side by side.
Well, these one of the trains, ooah, ooah, ooah.

Not one train, two trains running. Name of the two trains that is one train: Seinundzeitschwanz. Side by side: on the time train of reading in the time-less (bracketed, internal) time of the poem as object--in the moment of the shaping (being, becoming) of the shape/object. Being a poet in that time, in the running/moving of that time. In that time on the time train. Two trains & one train. And the work is pauseless to get the the poem done on time, to have something to bring to one’s date with an angel.

What about Hopper’s trains, which are always reading trains?

“Compartment C, Car 293” (1938) Blonde female passenger dressed all in black. Out the compartment window: bridge & what may be water. She’s reading what looks like a manuscript, book on the seat beside her. Book on top of loose pages. The manuscript & the loose pages are blank. There’s your problem: how (on the train) to get the pages unblank, a book. Your book, your poem.

“Hotel By A Railroad” (1952). Older couple. In a slip, she’s reading a book. He’s standing in front of a window, hand & cigarette pointed toward the window. Gesture of the hand almost a caricature of the “gesture” of painting or writing. Beyond the window a dark blank wall. Perhaps she’s reading his book, their book, a poem about them. But the pages are blank. Can there be another poem. They both wonder: can there be another poem? Can there be another poem if we’re by a railroad and not on the train?

“Chair Car” (1965) One female passenger watches another passenger, also female, reading. Little square of light on the floor just beyond the reader. The question--a reader’s question/a poet’s question--will the reader on the train, in the chair, be able to move into the light?


Unbracket the poem further to include the poem before and the poem after
the “one moves between reading and rereading” poem.

poem before: From this distance thinking toward you,
                    Time is recession

    Movement of no import
    Not enountering you

    Save the pulse cumulates a past
    And your pulse separate doubly.

poem after:  Near your eyes----
  Love at the pelvis
  Reaches the generic, gratuitous
        (Your eyes like snail-tracks)

  Parallel emotions,
  We slide in separate hard grooves
  Bowstrings to bent loins,
       Self moving
  Moon, mid-air.

Poem before: thinking toward you because I’m not yet near or with you, and movement’s meaningless unless I encounter you. What gives movement meaning is teleology, and you’re the telos. You = you; you = my poem. One pulse, but “separate doubly”; one pulse, but two: you, you. Poem after: which doesn’t sound like reading! (Maybe Abelard & Heloise reading.)

The syntax, the inclusive syntax (all three poems), is train syntax. Movement of train of thought to movement of focused reading on a train to movement of co-movement like a train (parallel emotions, separate hard grooves) Movement in each case punctuated, made conscious by punctuation, by the moments of punctuation, relative moments or relative shapes of moments of motionless, arrested motion. Another sort of punctuation, the closing counter-point motion of the self moving moon.


Doesn’t sound like reading but is reading; doesn’t sound literary but is literary. Text as other person, sexual act, external scene. Reading means distance, a necessary distance for focus, a distance between text and reader, especially an observant “critical” reader. A critical reader: one who does not get lost in the act of reading the text, doesn’t get lost in the text. Stays focused. Critical reader as poet, a reader who’s already read other texts, other poems, other texts like “An objective--rays of the object brought to a focus.” Stays focused on bringing the objective to a focus, the objective of a poem. My poem.

Between. OF betweonum from Greek bi (by) + tweon (two). George, “Myself I sing”:
“Two. He finds himself by two.” George, 1976 letter to Serge Faucherau: “the existence of another--finds himself by confrontation, the existence of another” (Letters 327). Two: you, you. There’s a me/myself because of you and you.

The anonymous speaker/observer kisses with his eyes open and keeps reading while kissing. He knows what her eyes look like, he’s aware of the moon. Keeps his distance, a distance between. Keeps his distance and keeps literary: a simile for her eyes, alliteration (generic, gratuitous) for love which is not single--not two moving as one--not single emotion but parallel, plural emotions. A critical reader who’s read other texts before reading this text. Romeo is supposed to kiss by the book. This one kisses from the book and for the book, i.e., the poem, my poem. How do I love thee? As a source, sweetheart, as a source text. (Ironic, knowing lover to poet-lover, ironic version of Aretha: You make me feel like a natural text! Not so ironic, straight version of Etta James: Damn your eyes, pronounced I’s.)

Keeps literary, there’s more alliteration: “We slide in separate hard grooves/Bowstrings to bent loins.” Which is an image. & a rather parabolic, rather literary image, no? Perhaps an image from another man’s books. William Carlos Williams, “The Black Winds” (from Spring And All):

Now I run my hand over you feeling
the play of your body--the quiver
of its strength--

The grief of the bowmen of Shu
moves nearer--There is
an approach with difficulty from
the dead--the winter casing of grief

How easy to slip
into the old mode, how hard to
cling firmly to the advance--

Which is from another man’s books. Ezra Pound, “Song Of The Bowmen Of Shu” (from Cathay):

The horses are well trained, the generals have ivory arows
   and quivers ornamented with fish-skin.
The enemy is swift, we must be careful.
When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring,
We come back in the snow,
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirst,
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know of our grief?

Which may have something to do with LZ’s “A”-3 (Objectivists Anthology version) where fish-skin is introduced, in quotes, with regard to the old naval/navel encounter. Which may have something to do with the beginning of Discrete Series:the knowledge, not of sorrow, you were/saying....”

So: the earlier focused on him is plural, the hymns of Pound, WCW, LZ (& the anyhow town =  the community of writers who already have location & identity, citizenship, in the town?) What’s focused on en route to her, my poem. “I concentrate on you.” And you.

(How do I know this, these undisclosed disclosures? Syntax and sin tax. Because I can smell them. All poems smell, some more than others. “Fish-skin” was cut from the final version of “A”-3. You can be too funky. LZ’s “Poem beginning ‘The’”  gives 26 lines of sources, including himself, before the poem begins. Sometimes the perfume precedes the person of the poem. Avant-garde “My Sin.” How can you have the knowledge? Scratch & sniff.)

Keeps literary: the syntax--line sense, line endings, punctuation--not unlike that of Pound, Williams. LZ, the syntax, train syntax, carefully packed, staying on track, to disclose one word, which is image, carefully packed not to disclose one word, which is I. Which discloses that--between reading and re-reading--perhaps one doesn’t really move at all. Perhaps I doesn’t really move at all. Or: how hard to cling firmly to the advance one I hopes to make. The advance called “my poem.” Advances & advance.


Tighten up the brackets around the one line, taking out the between of “and,” which yields: “reading re-reading.” Which sounds like Gertrude Stein mumbling to herself, which sounds like Krapp, Beckett’s character, mumbling to himself. And which, some might say, sounds like me mumbling to myself.

Stein: “When I was a child I was always completely fascinated by the sentence, he who runs may read. In England running and reading is one because any one can read, and since any one can read does it make any difference how or why they run. Not on an island. In fact insofar as they run they are there there where they read just as much as not.”  (from “What Is English Literature” in Writings & Lectures,1909-1945, p. 35)

Beckett/Krapp: “These old P.M.s are gruesome, but I often find them--a help before embarking on a new...(hesitates)...retrospect.”

                  “Krapp’s Last Tape,” 16

Me: He has closed the door to his room and he is reading
 he has closed the door and he is reading a poem
 he is reading a poem he is rereading one of his own poems
 it is one of his own poems a poem about singing
 it is a poem about singing about reasons for singing
 reasons one of the reasons for singing
 the reason was to light the most quiet light
 the reason was to light the light that was radiantia
 radiatia that was a singing light in darkness.

first stanza, “Rereading,” Standing Wave,

Stein: he who re-reads may re-run? May be a re-run?

Beckett/Krapp: A new retrospect? A new retro?

Me: time to open the door, time to write a poem I haven’t already written? Time to get a move on.


Not so fast. Re-reading. Sounds discomforting, depressing. But isn’t. We’re inescapably on the time train. At least part--inescapable mortal part--of us, our identity inescapably on that train. And that train is pauseless. If the poet’s completed the poem, gone back to re-reading the text of the world + plural hymn texts, there’s no movement, right? Re-reading poet = the totally arrested poet? (House arrest, citizen arrest.) No. Time train keeps moving; re-reading is done from a different position of identity on that train. 2002 is different from 1967.

But one line?! Which can’t be progress, can only be Zeno’s Paradox progress? No. It’s how the poem (and the identity of the poet, the I in the poem) can have movement, keep moving beyond one line. The poet as re-reader re-reads--among other things-- himself, his previous poem as object. Doing so, as a critical reader, he expands or contracts the brackets around his poem. Doing so, he provides a basis for a new poem. Keeps moving only insofar as he keeps reading/re-reading.

But one line: “Having a line     a place to stand     it is possible to take another step” (Daybook entry, Sulfur 25, p. 16).

What’s moving about George: the tenacity with which he kept re-reading himself. There are references to Discrete Series throughout all the later work, right up to & including the last poem of the last book. What’s moving about George: the tenacity with which he clung to the need to advance upon advance, to keep moving. Syntax as evidence of movement, punctuation making the movement evident. The punctuation derived (stolen) from the elders, then--especially from Seascape on, the punctuation changes. Commas/dashes replaced by negative commas/dashes, the various space gaps. The punctuation changes, the syntax changes. Becomes carefully unpacked. Carefully as consciously. George, in a 1975 letter to Jonathan Griffin: “the syntax!     moves of its own force, moves in the force of the world, it restores light and space to poetry.” (Letters, 313)  Conscious, though modest: as with the locked & simultaneous syntax letter to me, perhaps letters to himself in the form of letters to others. Carefully unpacked & unlocked to disclose light & space.

Gertrude Stein: “ is something strictly American to conceive a space that is filled with moving, a space of time that is filled with moving....” (from “The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans, 98)

Samuel Beckett, letter to Barney Rosset re work on his novel How It Is: “It all takes place in the pitch dark and the mud, first part man alone, second with another, third alone again. All a problem of rhythm and syntax and weakening of form, nothing more difficult.” (quoted in Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, 489)


Not an old song

in its way
bye-bye to bye and bye

in its way
the recut cut
from what is in memory

if to be exalted is to have room

to have room to breathe.    (from When The Saints)


Tighten up the brackets around one word, “reading.”

George gave what may have been his last reading at Shippensburg in September, 1974. His voice so faint we had to bring down a sound board from the radio station so that he could be properly amplified & “mixed.” I introduced him by reading a poem, a poem I’d written for him.

The Weight

Post card: blue and orange sky
white lighthouse

retouched     wave
trough shadows processed for tourism.

The other side
a map

black ink
over careful (bemused?) pencil lines

a tired, spreading

weighty, the weight the two islands

the weight your own.

Your mark the route
over wavy lines over a bridge

--cat ears--
to a dot beside a house without a roof

a farmhouse where you live.

There’s an apple tree
behind the house

warm grey in the wild grass
going down to the real sea.

But there is no evading
the visible.

Your own hand’s line
goes on

past the house
over the last strong island’s edge, on

that this carpenter
plunge and drip in the sea!

Rick’s invitation: would I be interested in giving a talk on George, said yes with some reservations. Didn’t particularly like the implication his poetry was what you read “in a time of war”; didn’t like the implication his poetry was seasonal poetry. And I didn’t want to be in the position of telling New Yorkers in such a time what they should be doing. Besides, I was in the middle of a poem, not far from wrapping up a new book of poems. Book not done, Poem done with invitation lurking in the backbrain.

Part 3 from “Car Museum,” the poem in question.

Without memory there is no protection
from the flatness of all the fields undeniable unanticipated
no longer a boy or young man
from somewhere else who had to go somewhere else had to and
has to
away from the fields

inexplicable not in a
chapter in the glossy-paper chapters of arts and ideas

Indiana can be explained

the cars cannot
perhaps elegance can never be explained
boy or young man hadn’t known the cars weren’t on the streets then
perhaps rebellion is the unknowing pursuit of elegance.

If you can smell George in the first poem, you have a nose for the obvious. If you can smell him in the second, you have a more than adequate, more than merely functional nose. You could be said to have an initiated gnostic nose, a nose for gnosis. (Initiation: let yourself be “monopolized” & take a ride on the reading & re-reading railroad.) You smell something, fairly faint something, perhaps having something to do with syntax. You’re reading closely, got your nose in it. Hermeneutic nose of suspicion. Scratch & sniff.


Brackets around one word, “read.”

from a Daybook entry entitled “Autobiographical notes”:

I mostly read. Looked for girls. Otherwise, read.

Read,   which meant seeking privacy by any and all means; read all night with a flashlight---the days very painful, painful effort to stay awake: at boarding school discovered hiding places under the foundation of the buildings, and under the roofs. Found I could climb out the window of the dormitory before daylight and read--remember mostly a search for privacy, and the longing for security in privacy (utterly unsuccessful.) Read the Romantics---... Made little difference to me if I understood or not, I was enchanted. Shelley, Keats---I understood them alright....  (Conjunctions 10, p. 194)

& to re-read what George read with understanding:

Poetry ever communicates all the pleasure which men are capable of receiving; it is ever still the light of life, the source of whatever of beautiful, or generous, or true can have place in an evil time.  Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, p. 493, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (Norton)

Poetry does this. George Oppen’s poetry does this.

                                                                       --John Taggart