Recently I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my divergent tastes in 20th-century poetry and what that may mean for the writing I produce. On the one hand, I enjoy the wild, fantastical power of the Surrealist movement, and on the other hand I have a great respect for the reserved, particular Objectivist school and its affiliates – George Oppen in particular, on whom I will be giving a lecture at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in a couple weeks. Oppen seems to always be searching to get to “the heart of the matter” – that is, his poetry, his language is always a most economic distillation of experience. To put it in physical terms, he packs an incredible density in the relatively small volume of his poems. It is a poetry that is not designed to dazzle but rather to accomplish what he would call “clarity.” From a reader’s perspective, the “object” of the poem may not be incredibly clear (at least upon the first reading), as this clarity is incredibly personal, and in fact goes to such a great depth that it is pushing each word on the page to perform a massive duty. No word, no matter how small, is insignificant. There is no “filler.” It is, to my mind, the poetic form of implosion.
The surrealist attitude is in some ways the diametric opposite of objectivist works. I’m going to speak in broad strokes here: surrealist art is post-romantic, decadent, expansive, highly symbolic, and gives the most “speaking power” to the dream. To say that the difference between surrealism and objectivism boils down to “the psychological vs. the physical” is dangerously over-general. But perhaps it is the objectivist who views his/her psychological state as a physical fact that reveals its humanistic and “spiritual” aspects. I believe the surrealist moves in the opposite direction – the spiritual manifesting itself into objects and symbols. Through automatic writing, the surrealist poet is exploring the psyche by allowing all that is hidden in the brain to rise to the surface, free of scrutiny. Oppen, I think, would rather scrutinize each thought, each droplet of language that forms from the brain. As Williams said “A chance word, upon paper, may destroy the world.”
I’m sure I’ve made a number of miscalculated assessments, but I nonetheless find this perceived dichotomy [of objectivism vs. surrealism] problematic. Surrealism and Objectivism, as movements, are no longer active, but their influence has been inescapable in the world of innovative poetics. In fact, aspects of these styles have already been successfully merged (Leslie Scalapino comes to mind – especially her series “Instead of an Animal”). It looks like I will need to research more contemporary poets in order to get some fresh ideas.
A book was recently published on the subject (Poetry and Language Writing: Objective and Surreal, by David Arnold), which I plan to pick up in the near future.