to save the commonplace save myself Tyger
Tyger still burning in me burning
— from “The Poem”
These two lines of George Oppen’s, from his final book Primitive, encapsulate, among other things, his poetic stance. Oppen’s objective, from his first to last book, was unwavering: he sought the commonplace, which is, if not altogether lost, always being lost, and always of the past. And the loss is always violent, or at least involves some degree of violence; thus, that the imperative to save is repeated twice in the couplet quoted above is entirely appropriate: it is a stutter in a moment of panic.
In poem after poem, Oppen points to the ways in which the present is determined by the past, by attempting to look at objects, things, with a new clarity, or a clarity that is itself a renewal of sight, and a philosophical reflection of what could be called his materialist poetics. In “Civil war photo,” from his first book, Discrete Series, the cannon “of that day,” (i.e., of the Civil War era) remains “in our parks.” But, I would argue, Oppen does not point to the cannon as a reminder of the past, but as an embodiment of it, a sinew holding the past and present together.
Yet, a peculiarity of Oppen’s stance here is that to save the commonplace depends on a rarified, one might even say fanciful, thing: Blake’s Tyger, that machine-like beast of such fearful symmetry. And it’s not only the commonplace that must be saved, but also the poet’s self that must be saved from the Tyger, from the fearful symmetry of the mind, of its absolute dominance over thought, and ultimately over the poet. What becomes peculiar then is not the rarified Tyger but the commonplace. It alone is the only thing untouched by the contagion of the Tyger (through its flame).
The commonplace is also the only thing not mentioned twice: me/myself, the Tyger, the burning, and the movement of saving, all occur twice in the short space of two lines. The commonplace, then — even here, where it is only referred to abstractly — becomes odd, strange. Often represented by “small nouns,” as Oppen called them, the commonplace is perhaps the most uncanny thing. Trees, stones, birds, the sea, a house, and so on, all embody powerful mystery.
Another thing certainly embodied in these two lines is a crisis of consciousness buckling, redoubling, as the poetic mind confronts the imminence of death (Oppen wrote the poems of Primitive in his late 60s, during the onset of the Alzheimer’s that killed him). And perhaps it was this moment of crisis, with its demand for a new logic, that led Oppen to what might be the most peculiar thing about these lines, when read against his poetic nexus: the reference to or appropriation of Blake.
Oppen scholars have often noted how few literary allusions there are in his work. When they are there, they are poignantly there. And, given his predilection toward pointing to the ways the present is determined by the past, we must then extend this train of thought to literary reference. We can trace backward, from this moment of crisis, to Blake’s Tyger as embodiment of the loss of innocence (or as a kind of manifestation of Hell), through Milton, Dante, back to the Orpheus of Metamorphoses. In other words, through the presence of the Tyger, we are linked to a tradition of literary conceptions of Hell, or of the soul’s descent.
In Hell, the poet’s self is burning, and needs to be saved — and to be saved, specifically, by the poet. This sense of self-determination is central to Oppen’s poetic stance, and explicit references to the construction of the self are staunchly peppered throughout his work. Which makes this moment of crisis in “The Poem” all the more remarkable. He has descended, and the poetic self — and therefore the commonplace that can only be saved by the poetic self — is on the verge of smoldering. There is a sense of deep displacement that arises from the presence of these lines in a body of work that is the materialization of a man’s effort to light the world anew, to achieve, as he often put it, clarity.
Yet this would then suggest that Oppen has, by interiorizing the Tyger, quite literally achieved clarity. Billowing out from within, like smoke pouring out of the windows of a house aflame, the burning Tyger within the poetic self is itself the power of clarity.
Trees, stones, birds, water: some of the many common things imbued with mystery, or, as Oppen often put it, marvel. As he writes in “Populist,” again from Primitive : “if I stumble on a rock I speak / of rock.” His is a mode of poetic speech entirely Orphic, or, in other words, giving life to the inanimate. Of course, the obvious counter to this would be: What poet is not Orphic? Are we not all descendents of Orpheus?
Perhaps, though, to become truly Orphic would involve a descent into Hell. Certainly for these two lines in “The Poem” we see Oppen descended, writing from within Hell. Perhaps to become truly Orphic also involves a loss, as of Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice, which I think we see in the crisis moment, in that it has arisen from at least a temporary loss of the commonplace and the poet’s self. Just as Ovid’s Orpheus sang his last, most beautiful song after re-ascending from Hell, perhaps the commonplace and the fractured poetic self can only be restored through a final song after they are lost.