Oppen “wakes us together out of sleep”

Although I confess too many of Oppen’s later poems leave me confused and frustrated, I keep reading because I also find a considerable number of poems that I love, poems like this one:


how shall I light
this room that measures years

and years not miracles nor were we
judged but a direction

of things in us burning burning for we are not
still nor is this place a wind
utterly outside ourselves and yet it is
unknown and all the sails full to the last

rag of the topgallant, royal
tops’l, the least rags
at the mast-heads

to save the commonplace save myself Tyger
Tyger still burning in me burning
in the night sky burning
in us the light

in the room it was all
part of the wars
of things brilliance
of things

in the appalling
seas language

lives and wakes us together
out of sleep the poem
opens its dazzling whispering hands

Although I’d personally prefer different line breaks, the ambiguity provided by the arrangement often adds another dimension, a level of ambiguity, to the ideas. For instance, I still find myself wondering whether Oppen really intended to say, “a direction of things in us burning, burning, for we are not still” as I read the poem.

Perhaps I respond to that line because I continue to write because I have something inside of me saying, “I may not be important, but This is important, this needs to be told before it is too late, before it is irrevocably gone.

I might say “I’m Satisfied,” and I am satisfied with my own life and where I’m at, but I’m not satisfied with the world I see around me, nor can I totally separate myself from my world, “for we are not still nor is this place a wind utterly outside ourselves.”

If I cannot “save the commonplace,” then how can I “save myself?”

The language of all great poetry, all great literature, “lives and wakes us together out of sleep.”

2 thoughts on “Oppen “wakes us together out of sleep””

  1. re: “personally prefer different line breaks”

    I’m always interested in why I misread lines – even my own sometimes – or imagine them differently. Does reading always involve a tacit ‘re-writing’ when we struggle to understand acquire navigate these “appalling seas”?

    Sometimes I imagine my own jottings taken up and re-written. I’d hate it of course. But after I got over myself, I think it would be interesting and revitalizing.

    Thks. 🙂

  2. Some lines in Oppen’s poems serve more than one purpose,
    which is why they don’t break where a reader would
    expect them to:
    “out of sleep the poem”
    is such a line. Your reading from the line above
    it through “sleep” reveals one purpose. For me to
    read the final line properly (as I feel it) I need
    to read:
    “out of sleep the poem
    opens its dazzling whispering hands”
    That some of my best ideas come to me when I am
    waking likely figures into why. Some say that using
    adjectives in poems is a bad practice, but I think
    the gerund-form adjectives Oppen used (and the order
    in which he used them) raises the whole of what
    “The Poem” says/is to a mystical level.

    Brian Salchert

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