Clarity or, Late Modernism
(A Photological Midrash)

by Patrick Pritchett


From the outset, George Oppen equates clarity with knowing. In the very first poem of Discrete Series Henry James's Maude Blessingbourne approaches the window "as if to see/what really was going on … the road clear from her past the window-/glass" (NCP 5), a window that lets on to, not clarity itself, but the weather of the 20th Century. Of all the Objectivists, Oppen's is the most unwavering gaze – but tempting as it is to think of his obsession with clarity beginning this early, it would be more accurate to say that it doesn't takes its place as the chief element in his modernist agon until after a decades-long dialectical struggle between silence and speech. From the late 60s to the end of the 70s, this struggle evolves as a poetry of crystalline concentration, a series of increasingly refined iterations focused on repairing the ravages of first-wave modernism's scandalous dalliance with Hegelianism.

What I want to look at here is the prominent place Oppen assigns in his late work to clarity. Clarity recurs with such considerable frequency throughout the later poems and daybooks that it takes on the weight of a shibboleth, an apotropaic password invoked again and again against the failures of modernism. Oppen, who as Peter Nicholls shrewdly notes, does not resume writing poetry until about the time of Pound's release from St. Elizabeth's in 1958, invests clarity with a specifically ethical valence. As I will argue, clarity also serves as the key term of his engagement with Pound. Both a rejoinder to the older poet's moral opacity and an amplification of the abundant photological tropes employed throughout The Cantos, Oppen's revision of Pound proves central to the resumption of his poetic practice. It is also, I maintain, essential to our understanding of the shift that occurs in the 60s and 70s as modernism moves into its late phase.

Late modernism, I will submit, very briefly and very provisionally, is developmentally distinct from postmodernism. It is less a periodizing marker than a descriptive category for an ongoing commitment to the unfinished project of modernism. A late modernist constellation of poets might include, but not be limited to, second-generation modernists like Oppen, Niedecker, Zukofsky, and Bunting, as well as younger poets ranging from Olson and Duncan, to Michael Palmer, Susan Howe, Ronald Johnson, John Taggart, Gustaf Sobin, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Nathaniel Mackey, each of whom works in and against the grain of a Poundian poetics. I locate the claim for late modernism's vitality between Albrecht Wellmer's assertion that modernity remains for us "an unsurpassable [cognitive, aesthetic and moral] horizon" (vii) and Marjorie Perloff's bold reassessment that "from the hindsight of the twenty-first century [the] fabled 'opening of the field' was less revolution than restoration: a carrying on … of the avant-garde project that had been at the very heart of early modernism" (2). Late modernism may be viewed as the persistence of modernism through revision, rather than its entropic burn out. For Anthony Mellors, "late modernist writing continues to invest in modernism's esoteric and organicist project of cultural redemption while disavowing its reactionary politics" (144). By rescuing the fortunes of quotation, caesura, and parataxis, techniques pioneered and promoted by Pound, from their downgraded status as symptoms of shock, Oppen hopes to recharge the poem as an experiential field for cognitive and moral acuity. Peter Nicholls is quite right to assert that for Oppen, The Cantos "refused to reckon with the brutal facts of political disaster." ("Pound, the encyclopedic," Oppen dryly notes, "didn't speak of the gas chambers"). Nevertheless, Oppen's debt to Pound is larger than Nicholls seems willing to claim. Oppen is very much concerned with throwing out the ideological bathwater of Pound's poetics, while saving the aesthetic baby he reared up.

Before I proceed with a discussion of Oppen's late work, I want to revisit how Pound deploys images of light. While the pre-"Mauberley" work carries strong traces of a lushly phantasmal, at times mystical, photology, inflected with a Theosophical strain of Neo-Platonism, the most prominent trope of light from the early period is undoubtedly his critical advocacy of the Luminous Detail, later translated into the Taylorist precepts of Imagism, before suffering a final transmogrification into the Vortex. Pound's photology lays Dantean mysticism over modernist totalitarianism. Thus we read in Canto 34 of "the white light that is allness," and throughout The Pisan Cantos variations of Erigena's "omnia quia sunt, lumina sunt" ("all things that are are light"). "Light, tensile, immaculata," does double duty in The Pisans and his translation of The Unwobbling Pivot. In Canto 84, which closes the Pisan sequence, we find: "These are distinctions in clarity/ming (which Carroll Terrell glosses as "degrees of decency in action"). Canto 91 gives us the luscious: "Light & the flowing crystal,/never gin in cut glass had such clarity," while Canto 93 offers up a moving prayer: "That the child/walk in peace in her basilica,/The light there almost solid." And the core of Poundian poetics, the ideogram, is itself an instrument of vision, offering a kind of ultimate graphemic clarity which for Pound reveals "the swift perception of relations."

In Canto 116, Pound plaintively asks, in a phrase poised midway between pathos and parody: "I have brought the great ball of light/who can lift it?" (said heavy lifting a topic addressed at a previous conference panel here). As Pound puts it in Guide to Kulchur: "The book should be a ball of light in one's hands" (55). The ball of light, of course, is The Cantos – but also the tradition it draws on. Hope for continuity with that traditions mingles uncertainly with the abject acknowledgement (however egotistical) of failed transmission.

Perhaps the most tellingly ironic instance of Pound's use of light as a metaphor for ethical knowledge is his Objectivist-tinted definition of the Chinese ideogram for sincerity: "the sun's lance coming to rest on the precise spot verbally … to perfect, to bring to focus" (20). The suturing of optics with epistemology recalls Zukofsky's insistence that writing look to "the detail, not the mirage, of seeing," or as he puts it in one of his titles, conflating the pronominal with the visual, "I's" pronounced eyes. Though Leon Surette's places Pound's investigation into light philosophy as early as 1906, the invocations which appear with increasing frequency roughly midway through The Cantos mark a new iteration of light as a messianic agent capable of redeeming the cultural catastrophes of 1914 and 1939. Light, for Pound, and the clarity it brings, is of a piece with the modernist agenda to make a bargain renovation, if not a brand new, Paradiso.

But where Pound fails to mandate Confucian principles of order in his own work, Oppen succeeds by turning from the great ball of light to the simpler light of clarity. As Kung says: "He who defines his words with precision perfects himself and the process of this perfecting is in the process" (177). Clarity is not first principle, but what comes after experience: after modernism, after Pound, after the failure of the Old Left, after Auschwitz and most especially, after the belated disillusionment with Stalinism, so painfully detailed by Eric Hoffman. Clarity is a code word for restitution and more. After such shipwreck, what forgiveness? That Oppen categorizes disaster – personal and cultural – as illumination – "the bright light of shipwreck" signals that clarity is not synonymous with mere intelligibility. It is certainly not the sort of clarity Adorno condemns, in his essay on how to read Hegel, as "the cold and brutal commandment [that] … amounts to the injunction that one speak as others do and refrain from anything that would be different and could only be said differently" (Hegel 106). (The essay's title, incidentally, is "Skoteinos," or "the obscure one," a moniker attached to Heraclitus, but which could be applied with some justice to Pound's cloudy sense of history). Adorno's attack on Hegel is instructive for reading alongside the differences between Oppen's conception of clarity and Pound's:

Constellation is not system. Everything does not become resolved, everything does not come out even; [i.e. it doesn't always "cohere"]; rather, one moment sheds light on the other, and the figures that the individual moments form together are specific signs and a legible script (Hegel 109-110).

In other words, constellation is Hegelian dialectics as it ought to have been, just as clarity is what Pound should have striven for instead of a paranoid totality (though one wonders, really, if there's any other kind). In a similar vein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis observes that where parataxis in Pound operates in a totalizing way, forcing together the incommensurate and the incompossible, in Oppen it maintains a generative negativity that calls for the poem to reject mere expressivism in order to take up the more demanding, and indeed, necessary task of ontological thinking (189).

From 1972-78, Oppen's final period of significant work, which includes Seascape: Needle's Eye, Myth of the Blaze and Primitive, the desire for clarity announces itself as an intransigent refusal to settle for the doctrine of the Image. The details are still luminous, but they're no longer written with capital letters. As early as 1963, Oppen jots in his daybook, as if steeling himself for an assault: "The courage of clarity. Intrepidly clear" (SP 55). And in a letter from 1966, he writes: "I think that poetry which is of any value is always revelatory … it must reveal something" (SL 133). Clarity, for Oppen, proceeds by means of scission: "There is one gap in the mind, the space of the mind, in which everything may be held at arm's length, everything may be seen from outside, and in which the will moves" (SP 166) – a statement that resonates strongly with Merleau-Ponty's comment that: "Perception is a nascent logos; it teaches us, outside all dogmatism, the true conditions of objectivity itself … it summons us to the tasks of knowledge and action" (25). Clarity for Oppen does not provide the unmediated vision of the mystic, but strives rather to keep thinking free of dogmatic over reach, alive within the constellating possibilities of contingency.

In Of Being Numerous, Oppen affirms the power of and need for clarity twice, in the title poem, and again, in "Route:"


In the sense of transparence,
I don't mean that much can be explained.

Clarity in the sense of silence (NCP 175)


Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful
thing in the world,
A limited, limiting clarity

I have not and never did have any motive of poetry
But to achieve clarity     (NCP 193)

The desire for silence signals the final crisis of the trope of light as it is brought to a self-nullifying fruition. It does not speak: it shows. By contrast, Pound's silence, at the end of The Cantos, is the silence that surrenders the power to speak. "Let the wind speak/that is paradise" (Canto 117). It is a melancholic silence, a silence of the broken, the terminal. Oppen's silence, on the other hand, is one that continues to speak out of and as the broken.

Oppen's late style begins with these meditations on clarity and silence, which exemplify the logic of art's survival after Auschwitz, even as they recall Wittgenstein's "Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent." Late style, according to Adorno, is not ripeness, or completion; not some quintessential distillation of spirit as the purely subjective (idealist) expression of final plenitude. Instead, he says, it is "the sudden flaring up" with which a work of art abandons its own status as art (Auschwitz 297). Late style is the style of ruins, the scorched earth policy of form. As Shierry Weber Nicholsen explains, "the essential feature of late work [is] the disjunction of subjectivity and objectivity, so that as work becomes late it becomes increasingly inorganic" (8). Late work is not about transcendent summations, but radical discontinuity. Adorno's remarks on Beethoven are apposite for a discussion of Oppen's late style: "The caesuras, the abrupt breaks that characterize the late Beethoven more than anything are those moments of eruption; the work falls silent when it is abandoned and turns its hollow interior to the outside world" (300). The mystery, he writes, of the relation between compositional fragments is never resolved, only held in a perpetual field of tension. "What is objective," he concludes of Beethoven "is the crumbling landscape; the subjective side is the light that alone illuminates it." "In the history of art," he concludes with a Teutonic rumble, "late works are the catastrophes."

"To The Poets: To Make Much of Life" (from Myth of the Blaze, 1975) can be read in light of these remarks. Though not typically grouped with Oppen's sharp ripostes to Pound such as "Of Hours" and "The Speech at Soli," its central image of a crystal center nevertheless echoes Pound's light imagery.

return of the sun)        no need to light

lamps in daylight working year
year the poem


in the crystal
center of the rock image

and image the transparent

present tho we speak of the abyss
of the hungry we see their feet their tired

feet       (NCP 60)

Here Oppen refines the Imagist method beyond the logic of the ideogram in order to, as he puts it, "construct a method of thought from the imagist technique of poetry – from the imagist intensity of vision" as he tells L.S. Dembo (interview, 1969). "The abyss" can be read as either end-stopped or enjambed, as a figure for the socially disenfranchised or the hermetic enclosure of the crystal center. To isolate one set of meanings from another is to set the tensile reticulation of the poem's structure at risk. The line break suspends both relations, illuminating without resolving them.

Likewise, Seascape: Needle's Eye (1972) begins with the cryptic, fragmentary lines:

In                    back                    deep the jewel
The treasure
No       Liquid       (NCP 211)

And closes with the equally elliptical:

The brilliant children                 Miracle

Of their brilliance        Miracle
of       (NCP 234)

John Taggart, one of Oppen's most discerning readers, says of this verbless, stone-mason poetry, as he calls it, that it gives every appearance of having been written with a painstaking "difficulty beyond craft," as if the situation of the poem demanded such an extraordinary degree of compression to produce revelation without the gloss of resolution (10). It's as if the only way for Oppen to write clarity is through these sharp incisions of white space.

In his final three books he will push this quest to utter clarity to its limit. Clarity becomes a kind of invisible ideogram, a para-notational blank space, a scission cutting into the material body of the poem. No longer satisfied with referencing clarity, Oppen performs it through these lacunae, suturing aesthetic practice to cognitive process. As he writes in "26 Fragments":

Clarity means, among
other things, to know how
the words come to

to experience how the
words come to meaning     (SP 235)

Clarity, finally, is not what can appear through means of the orthographical sign alone, but only as and from the pauses within the overall shape of the poem, the white caesuras of its metrical breaks. In "The Book of Job," for instance (again, from Myth of the Blaze) we find this enigmatic cluster of lines:

bony    bony     lose me the wind cries               find
yourself          I?

this?            The road
and the traveling        always       (NCP 244)

I extract these lines, with considerable violence to context, to drive home my point about the inassimilable quality of Oppen's use of caesura. By that I don't mean that his lines defy parsing somehow, but rather that they invite the reader to join him in the difficulty of his actual thinking through of the poem. Michael Heller's suggestion that meaning in an Oppen poem proceeds via just such a complex negotiation between different parts of the poem that each claim for themselves the single word necessary for their syntactical completion can be taken with equal aptness as a model for reader reception (SE 90-91). I would only add to this that sometimes that single word is not a word at all, but the interstice of the caesura.

Derrida reminds us in his essay on Jabes, caesura is what causes meaning to emerge (though in Oppen emergence can easily be mistaken for something more gnomic). "Without interruption," he warns, "no signification could be awakened" (78). Likewise, Blanchot's analysis of the function of interruption points to the "fundamental anomaly that it falls to speech not to reduce but convey, even if it does so without saying it or signifying it ... it is to this hiatus – to the strangeness, to the infinity between us – that the interruption in language itself responds" (77). Or as Oppen puts it in "The Little Pin: Fragment" (Primitive, 1978): "of this/all things/speak if they speak the estranged" (NCP 254).

Estrangement and interruption are central to Oppen's late style and to his complicated engagement with Pound. The gaps and fissures that pervade his poems from the 70s hover between the substantial and the spectral, partaking of two meanings, two lexical events, or else emptying out both into a lacuna of pure potentiality, where the poem – signifying "ming" as "the distinctions in [a limited and limiting] clarity" oscillates between contingency and determinacy, clarity and opacity.

At the hinge connecting silence and speech, caesura lets Being in. Not quite speech, but not quite not-speech, it offers what Rudolph Gaschι calls a model for relation predicated on distance, rather than proximity. It joins as much as it divides (78). Hφlderlin calls caesura, "the pure word" – a beat, a pulse, a touch: the very touch of the poem's inner skin. The caesura is Oppen's late modernist theodicy; as the very signature of clarity it justifies the right of lyric to continue speaking against the pressures of history and totality.

I think (writes Oppen) there is no light in the world
but the world

And I think there is light     (NCP 309)

In the history of modernism, clarity is the late expression of catastrophe.

Works Cited

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Weber Nicholsen, Shierry. Late Work, Exact Imagination: On Adorno's Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.


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