Trobar: the masculine form of the Provençal verb meaning to find, to invent, or to compose verse; formed from the same root as the word troubadour.
In his recent New Yorker essay "Late Bloomers," Malcolm Gladwell offers a binary of artistic genius: the precocious youngster on the one hand (represented by Picasso) and the late bloomer on the other (represented by Cezanne). While the Picassos of the world dazzle us with blasts of seemingly ex nihilo innovation, the Cezannes plod along, obsessively seeking out the thing, planting themselves ever deeper in their craft. In the former, inspiration comes from above; in the latter, it comes from below. Aether vs. Earth.
Much of the mythology surrounding George Oppen (his 25 year silence, the glacial slowness of his compositional methods) would place him firmly among the late bloomers. Gladwell cites David Galeson's book Old Masters and Young Geniuses, in which the late bloomers "consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it."
Certainly this could also describe Oppen's poetic process. Yet he was profoundly concerned with discovering not the image—many of the elements we'd refer to as images in his poetry are the commonplace, the already-there—but the what of the image, of finding not the ground but its being-there. That is, he sought after discovery itself in the disclosure of the unspoken, and at the places where "the known and the unknown touch."
While the first word in the title of this essay is trobar, I am aware that Oppen would have taken offense at the association of his work with its secondary definition—"to invent"—something he thought antithetical to what he would have called truth in poetry. In "Daybook II:V," from the recently published Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, Oppen writes that certain (unnamed) artists are:
searching for an invention
which will make them artists
and leave behind the field and … roads of
and the scenes of humiliation
and their non emotion
Oppen's attitude toward poetic invention is made clear: those that are "searching for an invention" do so to escape "the scenes of humiliation" and their own incapability of feeling, or their "non emotion." And the scenes of humiliation to be left behind are the commonplace: the country, roads, fields (or, in Oppen's poetry: the foxhole, ditches, the sites of war and car crashes—"these little dumps"). To invent, then, would be to obfuscate, to hide, and ultimately to shirk one's responsibility to, as Oppen misquoting Heidegger has it, "the arduous path of appearance."
In a talk given at the Poets House Oppen Centennial on 4-8-08, Stephen Cope cited another passage from "Daybook II:V:"
It is approximately the distinction between a poem and an essay. A man, finding himself in possession of a number of opinions which he would like to express, writes an essay
Cope posits that the "it" here is the form of the daybook itself. Neither essay nor poem, Oppen used the daybook as a means toward exploration—or the exploration before the exploration that is the poem's adventure. The passage continues:
an explorer or mathematician also knows what he thinks—but doesn't know what he will find a man applying a method of thought as which is powerful in itself, which is more powerful than the ordinary forms of discourse, doesn't know what he will find, or what he will think
Oppen has proceeded from reflection on the form of the daybook to reflection on the process of poetic thought, "which is powerful in itself," and "more powerful than the ordinary forms of discourse." It is a place to go in order to find what one knows and what one doesn't know; as he writes in "Of Being Numerous:" "To know / In my life to know / What I have said to myself." He continues this train of thought by actually breaking into verse:
the man who refuses labor has decided in advance not to love
I could not have invented this, this I found
The first line is his thought's arrival, the second a reflection upon the process by which the first arrived. There is a circularity here: the labor being referred to—love's labor—is the labor of thinking in the dark, of reaching toward the unknown by means of what one knows, the laboring toward an actual encounter: something, or someone, is to be found.
In a 1965 letter to Diane Wakoski, Oppen responds to the fifth issue of Wakoski's newsletter Hardware Poets Occasional Software, which included a subsection called "The Dream Sheet." Oppen claims that
these dreams are more becoming to the Young Ladies than to the men, The men are continually in danger of arriving at something like the line … 'dreams are real'
whereas the intransigent fury of a DW or Carol Bergé seems at the least newer, sharper – to be something. A root of poetry.
In her notes to The Selected Letters of George Oppen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis cites the opening of the Bergé poem Oppen refers to:
i piss on you
in your bed
in your navel
where you lie
because I say
you must not dream
Certainly the "intransigent fury" here is "more becoming" than the dull frankness of what Oppen typifies as the male poet's expression of dreams: "dreams are real." He then goes on to parody Bergé in a passage that would later be revised and included in "Of Being Numerous:"
'I, I I I I, find me, find my navel, so that I will exist, find my nipples, so that they will exist, find every hair of my belly, find…' It is a root of poetry, it is indeed, well, I don't know. … Because it seems to me the pitfall that has trapped every woman poet who has written in English: I am good (or I am bad); find me
Was Emily Dickinson "trapped" by the "pitfall," as I understand it, of being fixed to a singular I awaiting (assumedly male) approval or disavowal? Or, for that matter, was Carol Bergé? Oppen is displaying in this letter his rootedness in stereotypical gender binaries: dreams = feminine, while reality = masculine; passivity (being found) = feminine, while assertiveness (finding) = masculine; and so on. Yet it would seem that Bergé is playing with this feminine/masculine dynamic that Oppen is playing into. For instance, her lowercase I, pissing on what is assumed to be a lover, could be the subversive I of dreams, while the capital I is commanding, assertive, possibly awake, whispering in the lover's ear. But while the gender of neither the dual narrator nor the poem's addressee are specified, it seems quite clear that a major subtext of the poem is that it is by a woman. (Consider, for instance, what these same lines would mean in terms of gender and power if they were written by a man.)
Clearly this subtext is what Oppen is responding to. Perhaps he later learned something from Bergé when he revised the passage cited above into the androgynous, pseudo-Greek chorus that chants at this root of poetry, in a chant of love's labor: "Find me / So that I will exist."
In an attempt to highlight this poetic root in Oppen's work, the text that follows includes every instance where we can see the poet scraping his tongue against the rhizome of poetry's tree—that is, Oppen's every use (in his published poetry) of the verb "to find." Charles Bernstein, who composed a set of acrostic poems using Oppen's lines to conclude his essay "Hinge, Picture," writes of his result: "That these poems are so characteristically Oppenesque is, I think, less the effect of familiar lines or typical references than the way single Oppen lines can be hinged to 'each other' to create the marvelous syntactic music found throughout his work."
I think the same is true of the text I've produced. It follows the sequence of both Oppen's books as well as the order of poems within each individual book, starting with The Materials and ending with "Twenty-Six Fragments," his reputed last writings. (For the sake of inclusiveness, I incorporated all relevant quotes from the "Uncollected Published Poems" and "Selected Unpublished Poems" sections included in New Collected Poems alongside material from the books.) Curiously—or not curiously at all if we consider Oppen the typical late bloomer—the verb "to find" doesn't appear in Discrete Series, which means that all of the following material was written in roughly the last 26 years of his life. This text, then, can be seen as a highly self-reflexive record of one man's sincere striving toward discovery through the middle and late stages of aging, into the beginnings of death. But rather than simply distilling the issue of discovery, what follows is intertwined with and includes the many other roots and motions—placed against the "rootless mumbling" of the generalized masses, as Oppen has it—in the whole of his poetic: seeing, building, knowing, dreaming, losing, desiring, fearing, singing, and loving.
But they will find
In flood, storm, ultimate mishap
Populace, seaborne and violent, finding
Incredibly under the sense the rough deck
Ultimately the air
Is bare sunlight where must be found
The lyric valuables
Nature! Because we find the others
The bow soars, finds the waves
The hull accepts
What I've seen
Is all I've found: myself
Half private down the eight lane roads,
To find it–find their own
To find his generation, his contemporaries
And man may find his catastrophe,
His Millennium of obsession
'I found it'
At the beginning, the fortunate
Find everything already here
Chorus (androgynous): 'Find me
So that I will exist, find my navel
So that I will exist, find my nipples
So that they will exist, find every hair
Of my belly, I am good (or I am bad),
We might half-hope to find the animals
In the sheds of a nation
Who if they cannot find
Wither in the infirmaries
Find a force
Find a word for ourselves
Or we will have nothing
Semite: to find a way for myself
to find a way
for myself now
In Alsace, during the war, we found ourselves on the edge of the battle
of the bulge.
They thought of tattooing the children's names and addresses on their
chests so that perhaps they could be found after the war.
He is punished by place, by scene, by all that holds
all he has found, this pavement, the silent symbols
And it is those who find themselves in love with the world
Who suffer an anguish of mortality
as if there were something that could
Find her and approve her
To find now depth, not time, since we cannot, but depth
Not in the doors but the hinges
Finds the secret of motion
climbed from the road and found
over the flowers at the mountain's
rough top a bee yellow
sideways down the wind I cannot find
a way to speak
I was here during the war, I was
in a house and I cannot find it
in Saturnalia All
hallows Eve more
here saturnalia the poem
I find I am forgetting