As I was in the process of writing a post about a George Oppen poem I admire, the story about the shootings in Arizona continued to unfold. I was struck by the sad resonance this event had with the poem I was writing about.
"Armies of the Plain" offers Oppen's reflections on the story of the Kennedy assassination, by way of a study of its two gunmen: Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby.
It's a provocative poem -- speculating not only on a possible motivation behind political violence, but on the connection it might have to poetry and aesthetic pursuits in general.
Armies of the Plain
'A zero, a nothing':
Not nothing. At nineteen
Rifleman of the suffering --
Irremediable suffering -- of the not great,
Hero and anti-hero
Of our time
Despite all he has cost us
And he may have cost us very much
Proud to have learned survival
On the harsh plains -- --
'Of the Jewish faith . . .'
'and it is so stupid . .
And I never use the term . .'
Whose people wrote
Desperate the not great,
Like Oswald the not great
The Art of the Warren Report
When I looked for some background on this poem, I found, in an extremely helpful essay by Stephen Cope (read it here) that it was informed by Oppen's reading of the Warren Report. The phrases in quotes throughout the poem are taken from Jack Ruby's comments about Oswald and himself as recorded by the Report.
Oppen not only found this document convincing -- he thought of it as a masterpiece in its own right. In fact, he looked at the section in which Jack Ruby explained his motivation for shooting Oswald as a kind of American Bloomsday -- with Ruby as a more tragic, because more banal, version of Leopold Bloom from Joyce's Ulysses.
Playing off the actions of these two "nobodies" (who became (in)famous) against a work like Ulysses (and an immortal creation like Leopold Bloom), it seems, helped Oppen speculate on the motivation behind Oswald and Ruby's violent actions.
Oppen related the "desperate" desire for greatness, on the part of Oswald and Ruby, to his own motivation for writing poems. Like him, they were compelled to look for meaning.
But Oppen felt that the social order didn't offer a lot of roles in which one could find such fulfillment. As a result, most were forced to "lead...lives without meaning and without drama and without honor."
The Importance of Being Nobody
Another of the quotes Cope includes in his piece suggests to me that Oppen, in adopting the role of "poet" in answer to a yearning for meaning (or even greatness), realized that one of its advantages was that the literary world itself at times makes a virtue out of what drives many crazy: a lack of recognition. As Oppen puts it:
"It so happens that I well,
happen to occupy a position at the precise apex of the pyramid, there is no one who outranks me. First, because I am a poet, which is what gives me a position somewhere in the upper layers of the cultural pyramid, and finally because I am an unknown poet, which places me in the highest position of our society. I outrank the President of the United States. It is understood that if the President had the temerity to invite me for dinner, I would contemptuously refuse. If I did not refuse, I would no longer be an unknown poet, of course, and would no longer outrank the President."
Oppen isn't just being satiric (or snobby) here. As the late, great sociologist of culture, Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, in esoteric realms like avant-garde poetry, there's a loser-wins scenario.
That is, as if to make a virtue out of the relative obscurity of one's endeavors, writing to achieve "greatness for the ages" (rather than mere fame for today) is often taken as a sign of artistic integrity (i.e., a refusal to sell-out). Thus, lack of commercial/official/public popularity can help increase one's prestige, at least among other poets "in the know."
Of course, Oswald and Ruby (like most) didn't have access to such rarefied aesthetic worlds. But without some such sublimation, the poem suggests, their desires for greatness end up being acted out in the literal world -- with explosive results. As Cope puts it:
"Oswald's act amounts for Oppen to a caveat bearing on the hazards of confusing the literary with the literal, the poetic with the political, and of wanting to achieve historical greatness at a time, and from a place, when and where it is historically impossible to do so."
Granted, few would apply such an aesthetic/existentialist take on the assassins of today. Their actions are usually explained as a result of paranoid psychology meeting gun-toting (or religious) propaganda. But Oppen's poem suggests at least that an additional speculation might be proposed about the causes of our current insanity ...
That, in an age of celebrity, maybe a lack of fame is another thing that drives people nuts.
For an intriguing comparison between today's assassination culture and the 60s', see the posts at Lally's Alley, starting here.