Friday, April 1, 2011

War wardrobes

Visualize these words crawling up the screen while percussion and low strings fill the darkened room with martial sound.

Oppen . . . had fought and had been seriously wounded as an infantryman in World War II, perhaps the only enduring American poet to participate in ground combat since the Civil War.

The words' author is Eliot Weinberger, and their place on the page is a preface (p. xiv) to George Oppen's New Collected Poems (New York: New Directions, 2008). They sound solemn. They aim to find a place in the history of his country and his language for a poet who is only now, years after his death, beginning to be recognized.

But they refuse to enter into an honest reading. They meet a reader's elementary objections by squirming away into technicalities. It's both true and well known, for instance, that Kurt Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger were emotionally scarred for life by their experience as infantrymen in World War II, but neither Vonnegut nor Salinger was a poet.

It's true too that the poets John Ciardi, James Dickey, and Howard Nemerov flew combat missions and the poet Frank O'Hara served on a destroyer that earned sixteen battle stars, but that wasn't ground combat.

However, the poets Kenneth Koch, Anthony Hecht, and Louis Simpson did participate in ground combat, and wrote about it. Simpson was wounded twice. In World War I, the poet-infantrymen Joyce Kilmer and Alan Seeger were killed. After a century, do they endure? Perhaps they do, at least as quoted lines that have made it into folk anonymity: Kilmer's "I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree"; Seeger's "I have a rendezvous with death / At midnight in some flaming town."

Yet the verse by Oppen that follows Weinberger's evasive prose is as honestly rigorous in its demand on the mind as an accurately perceived shape is in its demand on the eye. It's as scrupulously opposite as it's possible to be from Weinberger's decorative fabulation because it serves a different purpose. If it were modeled on body as it's modeled on language, we'd say it wears its clothes differently. Look:

Great Photographs from Daguerre to the
Great Depression (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008),
image 033. Click to enlarge.

Taken just days after the surrender at Appomattox, this photograph by Mathew Brady shows General Robert E. Lee with his son General Custis Lee (left), aide-de-camp to President Davis, and his own aide-de-camp, Lieutanant Colonel Walter Taylor. From its periphery inward, this is a picture of defeat. Colonel Taylor's uniform seems to have been borrowed from somebody else, or perhaps inherited from the dead or found in a nearly empty supply depot. In any case, it is several unsoldierly sizes too large. And perhaps the photographer asked the two aides to move in close and flank the seated figure, but it still seems strange that Custis Lee is almost standing on his father's tiny foot, and his father doesn't seem to notice.

In this image, does Robert E. Lee see anything?

His gaze seems shuttered, closed down. But in "The Lighthouses" (New Collected Poems 256-57) George Oppen saw the way Mathew Brady's lens did:

clarity plain glass ray
of darkness ray of light

Such words clothe an armature of clarity purified to the brink of invisibility.

Whereas Weinberger's words are brightly colored, and their color serves a double purpose of textual decoration and extratextual function, like this.

The First World War in Posters, ed. Joseph Darracott
(New York: Dover, 1974), image 42.

Oppen wrote 

We are able to live
Only because some things have been said
Not repeated

("The Students Gather," 296-97)

but Marianne's gesture motivates us toward death, every time it's repeated. It worked for Delacroix and now it works for the propaganda artist Georges Scott. Pour le drapeau, undrape! And the more wordy drapery you had on to begin with, the better. We don't even need to see; all we have to do is wordlessly imagine how it would feel to attain that patriotic nipple.

By cutting it back as far as he could, Oppen reduced the integument of verbality to the minimum amount needed to make sense impression consciously perceptible. It is, literally, the bare minimum. But Weinberger's descending crinoline cries to us, "I cover outlines, but see how moral that makes me. I'm about to kill you. Souscrivez!"


Acknowledgment and technical note: 

This post owes much of its information to the biographical appendix in Harvey Shapiro's anthology Poets of World War II (New York: Library of America, 2003), with its frontispiece photograph of radio gunner Shapiro beside his B-17. 

As reproduced in The First World War in Posters, Scott's "Pour le drapeau" is brown and faded. Above, I've tried to restore it with Photoshop to something like its 1917 state. The reproduction in the book looks like this.