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LangstonHughes2

This is the final part of Brian’s essay.

The final Hughes poem this essay will address is “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” a long, poetic sequence about Harlem published in 1951, a sequence that relies on the rhythms of jazz, ragtime, swing, and blues to address and protest racial oppression. In Hog Butchers, Bus Boys, and Beggars, John Marsh states that not only did the “low-down” folks give birth to jazz, but they also received something back from it. “It gives them purpose and focus,” he writes. “They have invented it because they need it” (167). What Marsh doesn’t address, however, is the way black music forms link “Montage of a Dream Deferred” together, even as poems and voices cut off and another voice and poem begins. In his essay, “Movies, Modernity, and All That Jazz; Langston Hughes’s ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred,’” Bartholomew Brinkman writes that while the jazz rhythms may threaten the lyric stability and unity of the poems, the poem’s use of manic bop rhythms the sequence to “move from a critical gesture to an affirmative one, recouping its loss of a private, lyrical subjectivity and instituting in its place a communal one” (93). Furthermore, Brinkman adds that like a jazz performance, there is a forward momentum to the sequence that depends upon the ordering of the poems (93).

While the poems may seem disparate, when read together, they represent the tension in post-war Harlem, the anxiety over the dreams deferred and the racial inequality that still plagued communities. What separates the sequence from Hughes’ other Harlem-based poems is that “Montage” showcases a class-conscious Harlem.

All of this frustration is reflected in “Montage of a Dream Deferred.” The sequence opens with the poem “Dream Boogie,” which begins with the traditional ballad stanza, a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, “The boogie-woogie rumble/of a dream deferred” (The Collected Poems 388). The sound of music is accompanied by the sound of feet stomping in poetic rhythm, but there is a violent undertone pulsating in the poem, though something is about to break and explode. The “boogie-woggie” sound rumbles in the first stanza, and one of the two speaker asks, “You think/It’s a happy beat?.” The poem indicates potential militant violence, pointing not only to the questions the italicized voice asks about the nature of the beat, but one of the last lines, “Take it away,” which could refer to the dream addressed in the first stanza. The dream is literally and musically taken away. In addition, the meter breaks down in the poem, and stanzas are frequently cut off by the italicized voice, thus creating a back and forth sequence, a question and answer between the notion of the dream and the dream deferred.

In another poem in the sequence, “Ballad of the Landlord,” Hughes uses the traditional ballad form again, while highlighting the poverty and hardships blacks faced. He then smashes the form after the speaker in the poem is arrested. The sonic techniques Hughes employs, especially the use of repetition, are especially effective in showing just how desperate the conditions were. The poems begins:

Landlord, landlord

My roof has sprung a leak.

Don’t you ‘member I told you about it

Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,

These steps is broken down.

When you come up yourself

It’s a wonder you don’t fall down. (The Collected Poems 402).

For the most part, the opening stanzas adhered to the ballad form, especially in terms of the rhyme scheme and meter. The repetition of the phrase “Landlord, landlord” is an effective sonic technique because it shows how much the tenant tried to get the landlord’s attention. Eventually, however, the tenant has had enough, especially after the landlord asks for more money.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?

Ten bucks you say is due?

Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’ll pay you

Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?

            You gonna cut off my heat?

            You gonna take my furniture and

            Throw it in the street?

            Uh-huh! You talking high and mighty.

            Talk-on till you get through.

            You ain’t gonna be able to say a word

             If I land my fist on you. (The Collected Poems 402).

After the tenant threatens violence, the rest of the poem changes. The ballad form, especially the doggerel rhymes and meter, break down. The tenant’s voice is gone, replaced by the landlord’s, who cries out, “Police! Police!/Come and get this man!/He’s trying to ruin the government/And overturn the land!” (The Collected Poems 402). Like other poems in “Montage,” Hughes depicts the change of voice by using italics and altering the rhythm. The final three lines read like newspaper headlines: “MAN THREATENS LANDLORD/TENANT HELD NO BAIL/JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN JAIL” (The Collected Poems 403).

           On multiple levels, “Montage” illustrates the inequality that plagued Harlem. The poem is a drastic shift from “Harlem Night Club” and “Harlem Night Song.” Not only does Hughes experiment with form, mixing traditional ballad forms with frantic bebop rhythms, but the content marks a stark contrast to the optimism of his Harlem Renaissance-era poems. “Montage” is a sequence written after the Harlem riots, a period when Cold War politics silenced dissent and nearly disrupted the growing call for civil rights and equality. The poetic sequence stands as a fine critique of American capitalism and racial inequality and draws attention to a country that fought in a world war under the banner of freedom and justice, while ignoring growing tensions at home.

           By using sound, specifically laughter, blues, and jazz, as an essential part of his work and defending black music forms and black art in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes challenges the sonic color-line and ideas from the Enlightenment Period that can be seen in the early 20th Century. For Hughes, these sounds are not mere noise, but an essential part of black culture, an extension of the slave songs, a way to protest racial segregation, and an escape from the “weariness” of a white world. Furthermore, Hughes’s use of sound documents Harlem from the 1920s to the 1950s, capturing the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance period and the frustration of the later years.

 

 

Works Cited

Brinkman, Bartholomew. “Movies, Modernity, and All That Jazz: Langston Hughes’s ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred.’” African American Review. Spring/Summer 2010. Vol. 44: 85-96. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

Chaser, Mike. “The Sounds of Black Laughter and the Harlem Renaissance: Claude McKay, Sterling Brown, and Langston Hughes.” American Literature. March 2008. Volume 80, Number 1: 58-81. EBSOhost. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

Cullen, Countee. “Poet on Poet.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Davis, Arthur P. “The Harlem of Langston Hughes’ Poetry.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Goodale, Greg. Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Record Age. Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print.

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Harlem Nocturne. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2013. Print.

Halliday, Sam. Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture, and the Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2013. Print.

Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Arnold Rampers and and David Roessel, Eds.New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Dana Gioia, David Mason, Meg Schoerke, Eds. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. Print.

Jemie, Onwuchewa. “Hughes’s Black Esthetic.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Johnson, Charles. “Jazz Poetry and Blues.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Marsh, John. Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Petry, Ann. “Harlem.” Holiday. April 1949. Volume 5, Issue 4: 110, 112-116, 163-166, 168. Print.

Radano, Ronald. “Hot Fantasies: American Modernism and the Idea of Black Rhythm.” in Music and the Racial Imagination. Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman, Eds. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.

Stoever-Ackerman, Jennifer. “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” Social Text 102. Spring 2010. Volume 28, Number 1: 59-85. Print.

Stoever-Ackerman, Jennifer. “The word and the sound: listening to the sonic colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative.” Sound Effects. 2011. Volume 1, Number 1: 20-36. Web. 7 November 2013.

LangstonHughes2

 

Hughes’s ideas about jazz and blues were echoed by other black intellectuals only a few years after “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” was published. In Duke Ellington’s 1931 essay “The Duke Steps Out,” he says that jazz is more than the American idiom, but rather an essential part of black history, the result of transplantation to American soil and the evolution of the slave song, thus jazz has a history much deeper than mere dance music. “It expresses our personality, and, right down in us, our souls react to its elemental but eternal rhythm,” Ellington states (qtd. in Halliday 147). Like Hughes, Ellington makes a fine defense of jazz as an essential part of black culture, a music form that stems from slave plantation songs, a music that does not lead to laziness, nervousness, or hysteria, but rather a music that was necessary to survive in a white-dominated culture.

Like Ellingston, Hughes did connect jazz to black history, and he saw the music form as an essential part of Harlem, using it to chronicle Harlem from the 1920s to the 1950s. His music-based poems of the 1920s celebrate Harlem’s swinging nightlife, while his post-war music poems address racial segregation and class inequality. In several of Hughes’s early Harlem poems, specifically “Harlem Night Song,” the city comes alive at night when the bands take the stage.

Come,

Let us roam the night together

Singing.

I love you.

Across

The Harlem roof-tops

Moon is shining.

Night sky is blue.

Stars are great drops

Of golden dew.

Down the street

A band is playing.

            I love you.

            Come,

            Let us roam the night together

            Singing. (The Collected Poems 94)

More so than most of Hughes’s other poems, “Harlem Night Song” has a romantic quality, a speaker who implores a lover to roam the night with him or her while the band is playing and the moon is out. Even the night imagery is given a romantic quality. The moon shines, while the sky is blue and the stars are “great drops/of golden dew.” The poem, particularly the music of the band playing, represents a break from the daily grind, from the “weariness of the white world.” The couple is free to roam at night, to enjoy the music, despite whatever hardships they may face in the day. Like a lot of Hughes’s other poems, “Harlem Night Song” also draws on elements of the blues, particularly the use of the refrain, in this instance the phrases “Come/Let us roam the night together/Singing” and “I love you.” Hughes somewhat subverts the blues form, however, because “Harlem Night Song” is not a lament over a broken heart or racial oppression. Instead, it focuses on promise, of a budding love, a love that is made possible against the backdrop of music and a lively night life.

Harlem Night Song” is reflective of a 1920s Harlem, what critic Arthur B. Davis refers to as “Jazzonia,” a “joyous city” a “new world of escape and release” (136). He also notes that the time, while the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, Harlem experienced a cabaret boom. Furthermore, Davis point out that when Hughes came to Harlem at 22 years old as a sailor and beachcomber, it was natural for him to be attracted to Harlem’s nightlife and to view it as “a new world of escape and release, an exciting never-never land” (136). Hughes was one of many immigrants that came to Harlem, and according to Farah Jasmine Griffin’s book Harlem Nocturne, about 1.5 million African Americans moved north between 1916-1930 (7), thus places like Harlem experienced an artistic boom, creating an optimism reflected in Hughes’s early poems.

In later poems, particularly “The Trumpet Player,” Hughes blends African ancestry with the continuing struggle for equality, moving away from depictions of Harlem as a place of cabarets and dancehalls. The poem also reflects Ellington’s idea that jazz is an extension of previous black music forms and black history. The first stanza begins:

The Negro

With the trumpet at his lips

Has dark moons of weariness

Beneath his eyes

Where the smoldering memory

Of slave ships

Blazed to the crack of whips

About his thighs. (The Collected Poems 338).

Published in 1947 in the collection Fields of Winter, “The Trumpet Player” does mark somewhat of a change from earlier poems, particularly the use of African imagery. Davis states that “in this new Harlem, even the jazz players are infected with sectional melancholy” (139), meaning that the ideals of freedom and liberty promoted during World War II were not evident in Harlem. He adds:

The Depression of 1929, having struck the ghetto harder than any other section of New York, showed Harlem just how basically ‘marginal’ and precarious its economic foundations were. Embittered by this knowledge, the black community had struck back blindly at things in general in the 1935 riot. The riot brought an end to the New Negro era; the Cotton Club, the most lavish of the uptown cabarets, closed its doors and moved to Broadway; and the black city settled down to the drab existence of WPA and relief living (138).

The African imagery evoked in the poem shows the long history of inequality blacks faced, dating back to slavery and continuing after World War II. The opening stanza contains the image of “smoldering memory/of slave ships/blazed to the crack of whips/about his thighs.” This haunting memory of the past has a physical impact on the trumpet player, evident by the “dark moons of weariness/beneath his eyes.” By the third stanza, the poem shifts from memories of the past to the present music.

The music

From the trumpet at his lips

Is honey

Mixed with liquid fire.

The rhythm

From the trumpet at this lips

Is ecstasy

Distilled from old desire—

Desire

That is longing for the moon

Where the moonlight’s but a spotlight

In his eyes,

Desire

That is longing for the sea

Where the sea’s a bar-glass

Sucker size. (The Collected Poems 338).

            In Harlem Nocturne, Griffin depicts the 1940s as especially important to black artists in Harlem because of the realization of dreams deferred. In July 1941, there was a plan for a major march on Washington for jobs and equality. However, FDR issued an executive order calling for an end to discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus, thus the march was called off. However, as late as 1940, 90 percent of New York’s defense plants refused to hire black workers, and a number of bars and restaurants did not serve black patrons (7). Furthermore, throughout the 1940s, J. Edgar Hoover called for a crackdown on black newspapers sympathetic to left-wing causes. He even urged FDR’s administration to use wartime sedition powers to indict members of the black press ( 92).

           These issues eventually led to the Harlem Riots, and by August 1, 1943, property damage was estimated to be over $5 million, hundreds were arrested, and six blacks died (Griffin 120). Writing about Harlem for Holiday magazine in 1949, novelist Ann Petry stated, “Rioting mobs broke plate-glass windows, looted stores, causing property damage estimated in the millions. And in the process they seem to have permanently rubbed out that other hackneyed description of Harlem –the dwelling place of dancing, laughing, happy-go-lucky, childlike people” (110). The “hackneyed description” of Harlem Petry refers to is certainly evident in Hughes’s early depictions of Harlem; however, his work evolved to capture the tension Petry refers to and to critique capitalism and inequality.

           In his other poems from the 1940s, Hughes addressed the issue of segregation and inequality directly, using sound to do so. One of his poems, “I, Too,” echoes Walt Whitman’s iconic poem “I Hear America Singing,” particularly Whitman’s idea that the downtrodden are also part of America and deserving of praise. Hughes extends the conversation by including blacks as part of America, while using sound, particularly laughter, to protest racial segregation.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America. (The Collected Poems 43).

           Written in 1945, about a decade before the Civil Rights Movement, “I, Too,” addresses the service roles blacks had and the segregation that existed, in this case the way the “darker brother” is sent to eat in the kitchen when company comes. Especially striking about the poem is the use of laughter as the one act of protest and challenge to white power.

Regarding form, Hughes isolates the lines “But I laugh/And eat well/and grow strong.” Those lines can also be read as end-stopped lines, meaning there is a natural pause at the end of each line, thus slowing down the rhythm and causing the reader to pause after the persona laughs, eats, and grows strong. Because of the form of those lines and the natural pauses, the acts are given more weight, and they come before the white space and shift to the following stanza, where the speaker is confident that one day he will have a place at the table. Not only is the laughter associated with the act of eating and growing strong, but the idea of one day transcending restrictive racial confines. The laughter is an act of protest that allows the speaker to imagine his body in a place it is currently forbidden in the poem, and it gives the speaker the confidence and strength to imagine one day he’ll have a seat at the table.

Part 3 of this essay will be posted on Friday.

LangstonHughes2

This is essay is divided into three parts. Part two will post on Wednesday, and part three on Friday.

 

          While many critics have noted the influence of blues and jazz on Langston Hughes’s poetry, little has been written about Hughes from a sound studies standpoint. His sonic landscapes not only chronicle Harlem from the 1920s to 1950s, but  also challenge the sonic color-line, specifically ideas from the Enlightenment Period about sound and logic, ideas that still persisted in the first half of the 20th Century, evident through early criticism of ragtime and jazz. In defending black music forms and using specific sounds in his work, including blues, jazz, and laughter, sounds of interwar and post-war Harlem, Hughes challenges 19th Century notions that only white speech is clear and reasoned and sounds unable to be pinned down, particularly sounds of the racialized Other, are purely emotional and non-logical; Hughes’s sonic landscapes also serve as a protest against racial segregation and a critique of American capitalism.

           Before addressing Hughes’s poetry and his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” it is important to give definition to the sonic color-line and understand some of the key ideas regarding sound from the Enlightenment Period that Hughes’s work reacts against, especially since such ideas still persisted just as Hughes’s career was beginning. The idea of the sonic color-line can be attributed to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s work on sound studies, specifically her essays “The word and the sound: listening to the sonic colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative” and “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” In her first essay, she notes that the sonic colour-line describes race through “aural signifiers as well as visual ones” (21). The racial etiquette of the 19th Century distinguished between white sounds and black sounds, and included aural behavior, such as musical tastes, public displays of emotion, vocal tones, and accents in speech (22). Furthermore, the dominant cultural of the time labeled black sounds as non-logical. Because the sounds did not conform to white European standards, they were considered non-logical, overly emotional, and wild.

           In her other essay, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” Stoever-Ackerman notes that the idea of the sonic color-line stems from W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of the visual color-line in the Souls of Black Folks and his re-imagining of the color-line in Dusk of Dawn (65). She adds that we see race as well as hear it, and “sonic phenomena like vocal timbre, accents, and musical tones are racially coded, like skin color, hair texture, and clothing choices” (65).

           Stoever-Ackerman’s work points to several examples of the sonic color-line existing in the 19th Century, but it was also evident in early criticism of jazz and ragtime music, specifically the way critics linked the black music forms to wildness and nervousness. In Anne Shaw Faulkner’s 1921 essay “Does Jazz Put Sin in Syncopation?”, published in Ladies’ Home Journal, the author writes, “In almost every big industry where music has been instituted, it has been found necessary to discontinue jazz because of its demoralizing effect” (qtd. in Halliday 144-145). She adds that after the workers indulged in such music, there was an unsteadiness and unevenness to their work product.

          Other critics and record companies saw a distinction between jazz for a white audience and jazz for a black audience. Greg Goodale notes in his book Sonic Persuasion that record companies tried to manipulate Americans into categorizing music based on race and forced black bands to play “hot jazz” to cater to what they perceived to be the black sound (82-83). Hot jazz often had poor connotations and was frequently associated with drunkenness and sexual frenzy. These negative depictions of jazz, constructs of race, and ideas left over from the Enlightenment Period drew strong reactions from Hughes not only in his poetry, but also his manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” First published in 1926, the essay is critical of black poets that try to be white and avoid using black music forms. Hughes writes:

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing ‘Water Boy,’ and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too (151).

The essay was published shortly after critic George S. Schuyler criticized Hughes in The Nation for his reliance on black music forms. Schuyler’s criticism echoes Counte Cullen’s review of Hughes’s debut poetry collection, The Weary Blues, for Opportunity in 1926. Though the review was generally favorable, Cullen was critical of Hughes for relying so much on jazz and blues.

Taken as a group the selections in this book seem one-sided to me. They tend to hurl the poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple. There is too much emphasis here on strictly Negro themes; and this is probably an added reason for my coldness toward the jazz poems—they seem to set a too definite limit upon an already limited field (39).

To Hughes, however, jazz was a fundamental part of black life and essential to Harlem, what he labeled in the “Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain as “the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world” (150).

Hughes’s defense of jazz may have come because he realized jazz was a way for whites to transcend their racial identity and subvert negative constructs of black sound, thus realizing the music does not lead to hysteria or drunkenness. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, black jazz musicians played with white musicians in recording studios and in bars. In 1931, Louis Armstrong was arrested outside of a club in Los Angeles for smoking marijuana with white drummer Vic Berton (Goodale 83). It became more and more common to see integration on stage, even if major record companies tried to construct sound in terms of race and market to white and black audiences.

This integration is represented in Hughes’ 1926 poem “Harlem Night Club,” and like a lot of his other 1920s poems, it represents the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance that black art forms could be a way to transcend racial barriers, or more specifically a way for whites to enjoy black music forms and overcome racial constructs and identity.

Sleek black boys in a cabaret.

Jazz-band, jazz-band, ––

Play, play, PLAY!

Tomorrow…who knows?

Dance today!

White girls’ eyes

Call gay black boys.

Black boys’ lips

Grin jungle joys.

Dark brown girls

In blond men’s arms.

Jazz-band, jazz-band—

Sing Eve’s charms!

White ones, brown ones,

What do you know

About tomorrow

Where all paths go?

Jazz boys, jazz boys—

Play, PlAY , PLAY!

Tomorrow…. Is darkness.

Joy today!

  The poem presents a mixing of races, brought together by the jazz music, a scene that would have been common in the larger cities in the 1920s and 1930s. The “white girls’  eyes/Call gay black boys” while “Dark brown girls” dance “in blond men’s arms.” The speaker of the poem implores the jazz band to keep playing so racial barriers can be overcome and young whites can transcend racial identities, particularly the ideas that whites should not like this type of music, but the poem also poses the question “Tomorrow…who knows?”.  That question can be read two ways. Either the speaker believes that the jazz movement could lead to the erosion of racial barriers, or the speaker understands that once the music stops and once the listeners step outside, they will be re-introduced to racial constructs.  The later idea is more likely since the speaker admits in the final stanza, “Tomorrow…Is darkness/Joy today!.” For at least the moment, however, while the band keeps playing, racial barriers are non-existent and the whites realize that listening to this music has no negative effects.

Furthermore, the poem mirrors the syncopation of ragtime music and early jazz, employing syncopation so no regular meter or rhyme scheme is established. The opening stanza has a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-c-a. Two out of the lines in the stanza rhyme with nothing else, thus disrupting the pattern. Hughes does this throughout the rest of the poem as well, establishing what appears to be a rhyme scheme, before breaking it with one or two lines that do not adhere to the structure. In addition, Hughes changes the capitalization of the words “play” in the first and last stanza, also disrupting the rhythm. Like a lot of Hughes’s poems that employ music, his form mirrors the content.

Visit TheThe again on Wednesday for part two.

I came by Oppen in 1979 via the wonderful–to my way of thinking–historically significant anthology, A Geography of Poets. I remember liking his poem, “Street” and memorizing it, then going no further. I was never one to devour poets (except Roethke, Williams, Stevens, and, weirdly, May Swenson). I preferred anthologies where, if the editor was wise, you would begin to hear the poems holding court and having a conversation with each other. I knew all the chestnuts by Frost, the major poems of Dylan Thomas, the typical schmeer of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Donne, Byron, Langston Hughes, Whitman, Dickinson, and so on and so forth, but I was never as interested in poets as in certain poems: “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” the Dickinson poem that begins “I dreaded that first robin so,” Dylan Thomas’ “The Boy’s of Summer” and so on. Roethke, Stevens, Williams, Yeats, and Swenson I devoured. Later in 1979, I would devour Robert Francis, and through him, return to Frost, but I was not, by nature or inclination, a fan. Williams pleased me because I saw in him the struggle, sometime hysterical, yet valiant struggle between being experimental and reconciling it with the banality of the local–a poet who was always in flux as he stayed put, who could not settle down and would do something striking and to my way of thinking, the one thing a great or significant poet must do: blaspheme against all good taste and the temptation to be competent at all times. He wasn’t afraid to fall on his ass. Stevens just knew how to sound definitive and to play with ideas the way others play with images: not as philosophy (you’ll find most of his ideas already in Pater and George Santayana) but as decor–an amazing feat no one has equaled.

But on to Oppen: I memorized “Street,” and would recite it to myself sometimes as I walked to my job as a night shift security guard at Elizabeth General hospital (now Trinitas). It was a rough neighborhood then and the poem settled me down, distracted me from hyepr- alert. I was never mugged or attacked, but once I stopped a man from beating his girlfriend (near the hospital), and something told me it wasn’t over. I called the cops, and they came and intercepted the guy just before he walked to my guard house station and blew my head off with a shotgun. If you don’t die you, fall half in love with the adrenaline rush of almost getting killed. At any rate, I walked two miles to work each night and saw the little girls who expected to be so good in Oppen’s poem. They were gangly, and wise-assed and in love with silent, brooding, beautiful boys who would probably either die before age 25 or live to grow fat and poor and sad on some broken down porch stoop. They would get the girls pregnant and not stick around, or come around occasionally. The economy would cut their balls off, and the girls would raise the kid or kids with their mother, and the cycle would repeat itself in all the languor and temporary rush of summer in places like Elizabeth, and Jersey City, and Paterson. So let me write out that Oppen poem before I get to the one I’m going to wrestle with:

Ah these are the poor,
These are the poor–
Bergen street.
Humiliation,
Hardship…
Nor are they very good to each other;
It is not that. I want
An end of poverty
As much as anyone
For the sake of intelligence,
“the conquest of existence”–
It has been said, and is true–
And this is real pain,
Moreover. It is terrible to see the children,
The righteous little girls;
So good, they expect to be so good…

One night at the hospital, after the infamous Elizabeth chemical fire, a little girl was brought in with 3rd degree burns over 80 percent of her body. She was in shock. She was talking. Third degree burns do not hurt until they begin to heal and then they are a pain so unimaginable that coma must be induced, and sometimes, even in a coma, the person whimpers in pain. She looked at me and my partner, Kenny and said: “Don’t worry, misters. I’ll be alright.” We must have looked–not horrified, but stunned out of all thought, all speech. Kenny instinctively reached for her hand, and her flesh sloughed off in his. We both cried. We were supposed to be tough enforcers of security. I was 20 or 21. Kenny was 18. Both of us had grown up in tough neighborhoods, but here was this kid who was obviously not going to make it, trying to console us. She died two days later. The chemicals were the compliments of crooked dumping deals between politicians and organized crime who, as we all know, love kids and give them free turkeys and fireworks every year (in addition to dumping chemicals that cause cancer in their neighborhoods and which burned this little girl to death). That morning I walked home reciting Oppen’s poem to myself, and I could not wear out the truth of it, or stop the overwhelming sense of grief and anger I felt, but also awe–awe at the child’s calm, her soft little voice, poor Kenny’s deep animal moan when her flesh sloughed off in his hand.

Oppen is a hero to many for various reasons: his integrity as poet (poetry defined by Oppen as “a rigorous test of sincerity”), his use of fragmentation, of the object and word as counterpoint, his stripped down line, his pre-minimalist economy, his politics, his courage, mostly–his freeing up of the line from the tyranny of the sentence–words as singular being, words allowed both to relate and to isolate, to be both a schema of meaning and a schema of thingness.

No one gives Oppen enough credit as a rhetorician for they believe he is the opposite of that, but being at the extreme other end, one might make a case for his poems being caught in the intimacy of opposing realms (what Holderlin spoke of). Many apply Heidegger to Oppen, especially insofar as one takes the statement “Poetry drinks at the waters of silence” seriously. I next encountered Oppen while monitoring a class by Mark Rudman called “Modern Poetry and How it Got there.” Rudman could be a bit of a snot ass, but he picked some interesting poets: Williams, Oppen, Lowell, Berryman, and Jabez. We spent the most time on the book of questions and “Of Mere Being.” Oppen was hot in 1992. Just 25 years before, although he had come back after a long exile and silence, he was excluded from such an otherwise general yet comprehensive primer on modern American poetry as Carruth’s The Voice That Is Great Within Us. But I am stalling. Let’s speak of Oppen as master of fractal rhetoric:

The People the People

For love we all go
To that mountain
of human flesh
which exists
And is incapable
of love and which we saw
In the image
Of a woman–we said once
She was beautiful for she was
Suffering
and beautiful. She was more ambitious
Than we knew
Of wealth
and more ruthless–speaking
Still in that image–we will never be free
Again from the knowledge
of that hatred
And that huge contempt. Will she not rot
Without us and die
In childbed leaving
Monstrous issue–

Oppen’s standard rhetorical operating procedure is fully at work in this poem: the use of amphiboly, the interruption of sentence flow, the haltingly and the not quite uttered statement, the fragment, modified variants of anacoluthean in which the dash works as if one began to say something then abruptly abandoned it to say something else (but it is more along the musical lines of a false cadence, which then “resolves” oddly enough, through its digressions). Like Creeley, Oppen is a master rhetorician of the nearly articulated–the “shifting said.” The best effects achieved by this technique is that the prison of the just so, the “that’s it” is avoided, yet one is left to wander about the provisional landscape of fragments, interruptions, odds and ends that may or may not be “it” at all. Such deliberate and rigorous refusal to adopt the traditional clarity of sentence and line integrity is something the Objectivists bequeathed to language poets. The authority of such a shifting articulation derives from the integrity with which it resists the florid, uses minimal forces to maximize ambiguity and suggestion. All poets that resist utterance in terms of definitive statement are “pure” rhetoricians. They are engaging utterance for its own sake, as if the speech had wandered off from the speaker and had begun living its own life. All the halts and stops and starts, the dash marks, the grammatical incongruity are the performed texts of a ghost rhetoric–a speechifying whose purpose is not persuasion so much as process. It is the process of utterance that provides the “rigorous” test of sincerity for Oppens poetics. Let’s look closer:

For love we all go
to that mountain
Of human flesh
Which is incapable
Of love and which we saw
In the image
Of a woman–

Note the reversal at the opening: not, “We all go for love”, but, ” For love, we all go. The only image is actually a rather hackneyed figure of speech: “mountain of human flesh.” Take it out and the poem would read: For love we all go to that which is incapable of love.” An aphorism, and more so, an opening rhetorical gambit, but I insist it is more “pure rhetoric” than functional rhetoric insofar as it borrows an opening gambit and then does not follow through (at least not directly). Oppens’ mission is not to persuade, but to perform the process of someone attempting to enter speech, the difficulty of entering fully into declaration, the constant re-entering, the false start, the The statement, and it is statement is cut off, and either the people or love is then personified as a woman who was beautiful and beautiful because she was “Sad and beautiful” This is a strange statement. Take out the word sad and it would read “she was beautiful because she was beautiful. Sad has a power of earnestness, I suppose, it allows beauty to pass the rigorous test of sincerity, but, lo and behold, this “Woman” turned out to like things and money much more than she let in–she was, in a sense lacking all sincerity. If she is the people, then Oppen is suggesting this abstraction is distorted and must be corrected, and seen for what it is: a lie, a thing which one turns to for love and which is incapable of love. Oppen is completely rhetorical, for all his tricks of fragmentation. He has embraced and mastered the rhetoric of process–the poem as a thing, a well made thing put together with fragments, with sometimes defective parts. If you look at these parts: mountain of flesh, the people as a deceiving woman…they ain’t exactly profound, but what gives the poem power and validity is the rhetorical performance of process–Oppen’s willingness to join, and attach, and hammer and nail, and, taking shards of shattered sense, make windows of high seriousness. Look at the ending, its grammatical ambiguity:

will she not rot
without us and die
in childbed leaving
monstrous issue–

And the silence of ending interrupts the verbal end, and where’s the question mark? Without, there’s far more possible meanings: it could be an imperative urging the reader to “Will she not rot without us.” Oppen calls for the reader to create the house for which he builds the scaffold. Into that scaffold, much can be made (and lost).