15 September 2010

Further Reflections on Mark Linenthal's life (plus excerpts from his brilliant Oppen Lecture)

This from Beverly Dahlen:
During Mark's final years of illness, I visited him, often with Rob Halpern. The last time we saw him, he had been thinking of Oppen's "The little hole in the eye/ Williams called it, the little hole..." and so on. Mark was disturbed by the "violence" in the poem, asked why are they violent.

Truly, there is no good answer to that question. It is a statement of fact so simple and profound that could we answer, for the world, we would know how to live.

At the funeral, I read Rob's introduction to the (now) last reading. And I have been playing Lester Young recordings in Mark's memory since then.

This from George Stanley:
Yes, i did know Mark, not very well, but we were always friendly, and i valued his, it seemed, constant good nature and openness. When i think of him i think of the gatherings we used to have at his and Frances' house, somehow associated not just with poetry but with watching the Vietnam war on television, and so becoming politically aware. Mark took on that essential role of being the older brother to all of us, wise and friendly and reliable.

This from Steve Dickison:
Mark Linenthal's voice and presence runs throughout dozens of readings collected in the Poetry Center's American Poetry Archives, occasions which he organized and introduced. He read his own poetry for the Poetry Center numerous times, and on December 10, 1992, delivered the George Oppen Memorial Lecture. Again, on April 26, 2008, he revisited Oppen's work, opening the Poetry Center's Salute to George Oppen, for the poet's Centenary. He was a dedicated teacher, and his influence on his contemporaries and younger writers has been significant...

His colleague in the English Department at San Francisco State University, Peter Weltner, writes: "I want to say...how sad I was to learn this morning of Mark Linenthal's death. I remember him first from an early evening in November of '69 when he introduced George Oppen at a reading in the old A & I building. For nearly forty years, off and on, we talked. Once, at an intermission between two readers, I watched and listened as he talked to students who surrounded him. It was his intensity more than anything else that swept everyone up, the wide, strong eyes, the hands always gesturing, as he leaned forward, his voice alive with the love of poetry. At the moment, he was speaking about Oppen's "Psalm," how the deer are there: in this in which the wild deer startle and stare out. You could experience Oppen's astonishment in Mark himself, the poem incarnate again in him. I loved the man."

Peter Linenthal, Mark's son, is preparing a website of photographs and reminiscences by family and friends, to be launched soon at marklinenthal.com

And here are the opening remarks from Mark's Oppen Lecture, delivered on December 10th, 1992:
George Oppen was a friend of mine for the last seventeen years of his life and ours was a friendship I was proud of. I saw him as a great writer and an important thinker. For me he was the fundamental poet. His work pointed out for me the direction in which the poetry of our time, my own included, ought to proceed; and his beliefs about the poet’s role and the nature and value of poetry established themselves firmly in my mind where they continue to sit in judgment—often harsh judgment—on my own work and that of my contemporaries. I read him with the excitement and pleasure of discovery: the special pleasure of finding what, until I found it, I only dimly knew I wanted. I discussed poetry with him in earnest, listening closely to what he said, considering it in relation to his own practice and that of others, and remembering it. He was a major influence on my life, a valuable one, for which I am grateful.

Perhaps the wonderful advice he gave me when I had grown desperate trying to write a poem I found impossible to write, perhaps that will suggest at least a small part of my indebtedness. I was at work on a long sequence, addressed to a brother who had died, when I discovered that my chosen direction had disappeared in a swirl of contradictory impulses. I was scornful and sympathetic in turn, justifying my own survival while maintaining a directness which had not been possible while my brother was alive. I ran aground in the third section of the poem, able neither to proceed nor to work on something else, when I, with fear and trembling, showed the piece to George. He liked the first section. He liked parts of the second. What I had written of the third, he said was so bad it did not worry him. He found a passage in part two which he liked, and advised me to begin with that. He assured me that it did not matter what I said, that I should, as he insisted, do it by the cadence. And he directed me to my desk, and told me to “just be there.” I realized later that his assurance that what I said did not matter freed me from the net of arguments I had walked into. It gave me permission to consider what I had not known I needed to say. His remark “just be there” opened me to whatever might occur during the actual process of composition. George regularly associated meaning with space, with spaciousness. It was his advice which enlarged the world and delivered me to myself.

Over years of teaching, I have tried to make clear the nature and importance of Oppen’s achievement. What I say this evening is inevitably an extension of that effort; and some if it, I’m sure, for some of you, will be all too familiar. But the task now is more daunting than usual. I’ve been reading his letters, the superb collection edited by his friend, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and I’ve read many of the published selections from Oppen’s working papers, which are housed at the University of California at San Diego. I am coming to see him as a grander, as a more audacious presence than I had imagined. I am finding a depth and an urgency surrounding, underlying, and permeating the poetry, which I always felt, but which now seems overwhelming. Urgency and depth. One suggesting the pressure of personal necessity, the other, a gravity, a more than personal weight or resonance.

I realize that when I try to set down my thoughts about Oppen’s work, I habitually employ some pair of terms which will indicate some unusual combination of qualities. Ten years ago, for example, I argued that whereas some poets—and Gerard Manley Hopkins was my example—initiate an act of attention, others—and I thought of Blake1—seem to conclude one, that is to conclude an act of attention. Oppen’s work seemed to me to combine a quick lightness of movement and an intensity of concentration. There was not only the liveliness and immediacy of beginnings, but there was the authority of achieved insight. Well, lightness, I thought, came from a constant shift of attention between the word and what it points to, from a process both skeptical and assertive, from the sense of search, of words in motion, words seeking their connections within and beyond the poem. The concentration, on the other hand, the concentration or intensity or weight, came from what I called an abstemiousness, a plain-speaking, a determination to say and say only what is so for him.

After his death eight years ago, I wrote that “although Oppen was a proud man, he had an important kind of humility.” The latter term, which I borrowed from Wallace Stevens, would probably have embarrassed Oppen, so insistent was he upon his chosen role and chosen method. The term, “humility,” appears in a Stevens essay called “On Poetic Truth.” Stevens welcomes what he calls “an authentic note in contemporary religious thought: the insistence on a reality that forces itself upon our consciousness and refuses to be managed and mastered. Both art and religion share in this rejection of denial,” says Stevens, “both art and religion mediating for us a reality not ourselves. The supreme virtue here,” he says, “is humility. For the humble are they that move about the world with the love of the real in their hearts.” Lightness and concentration, the two in combination. Or, pride and humility. And now, urgency and depth.

Donations to the Poetry Center can be made in Mark's name here.

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