The Narrative of Oppen’s “A Narrative”

Of the many kinds of poetry, there should be a name for those that resist paraphrase, gloss and interpretation. These poems are born of a Modern aesthetic, perhaps … or at least to an anxious aesthetic, one in which the poets or their readers worry about distinctions, about what separates poetry from prose or the poetic from the prosaic. Plenty of poems were written by design to resist; others are just too damn good to be subjected to exposition. Of these, I would include George Oppen’s “A Narrative”. I am tempted to re-type the entire poem here, all eleven sections, and end this note with the poem’s last lines. But that will not work. I write here to remember, not to conquer, the poems I admire … or, in other words, and (conveniently) to quote from the poem: “we / Dwindle, but that I have forgotten / Tortures me.”

Here I will attempt to answer a simple question: What is the narrative of “A Narrative”?

The poem is not, I believe, itself a narrative. Nor is it truly about any particular “narrative”; that is, the poem does not expound on (for example) a creation narrative. Instead, the poem addresses the search for and the makings of narratives. We need them, or we feel that we do, but they are unreliable. At worst, our narratives are lies, at best (and not much better) they are built on “the fallacy / Of words”. A narrative self-told detaches us from the substantial, from a place, and launches the person into a self-referential hell. We may not like our place, our substantial existence, but to reject it (even for something apparently more permanent), is to reject Love and life itself.

What breath there is
In the rib cage we must draw
From the dimensions

Surrounding, whether or not we are lost
And choke on words.

Finding a place or reconciling oneself to a life lived in a river of substance, a river in which we are but as silt “flowing / To no imaginable sea”, allows us to reclaim our language. It gives us a foundation on which to be honest. It is from “the open / Miracle / … / Of place” that we can speak and live with “clarity” and “respect”.

And so, this is the narrative of “A Narrative”: the poet wishes to tell the truth, but while the truth is hard, the telling is harder; where does one begin, if not with this river, this body of dust passing us by?

George Oppen’s “A Narrative” (from his book This in Which) can be found in:

George Oppen. The Collected Poems of George Oppen. New York: New Directions, 1976. 132-140.

A recording of Oppen reading “A Narrative” followed by other poems is available from PennSound at:  PennSound: George Oppen | MP3


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