I grew up Mormon, which meant that the Word of Wisdom (Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of LDS scripture) formed the bedrock of my attitude towards ‘mind-altering’ substances. While I’m no longer strictly observant, I’ve still never smoked (anything!) or even tasted coffee, and never have developed a special taste for any kind of alcohol–a sip of wine’s alright, I guess, but doesn’t knock my socks off.
Well, I wrote recently about finishing George Oppen’s Selected Letters. This past week, I’ve been going back through the book, typing up my notes on the letters and organizing the extracts that I think will be of use in my dissertation. Just today I re-read a letter from Oppen to his niece Aubrey Degnan-Sutter (probably written in October 1964) that is probably one of the best “kids, don’t do drugs” messages I’ve ever read.
Mary says you phoned — in evangelical mood [Apparently she was inviting them to come visit her and, among other things, try marijuana]. I answer by letter not for formality nor even for emphasis, but only because I spend so much time at a desk, and do have to change the subject occasionally, so that it is easier to write than to phone. And here are the things I would say, duly numbered:
1. One gets rather well occupied by the time one is 56, and there is simply not time for major excursions. I mean – I really don’t have time.
2. I fight automatically and fiercely against derangement of the senses, and have been consciously doing so since I was nineteen. [This is a key age, and a bit heartbreaking, when you know Oppen’s biography and background. As a teenager, a few weeks before he was due to graduate from the military academy he had attended for high school, Oppen was the driver in a car accident in which one of his passengers was killed. He was driving drunk. After the accident he was expelled from school, and his family sent him to travel in Europe briefly before coming back to the US and finishing high school.] As witnessed by the first poem in Discrete Series, by the fly leaf of The Materials, and will be again on the fly leaf of This in Which: ‘ . . the third path, the arduous path of appearance’
3. That covers some forty years; a considerable momentum. We’re committed, Mary and I, as artists, and therefore very seriously, to the common, the un-doped, the un-staged, the plain and ordinary daylight. Whatever we see now, we’ll see that way – or fight to do so.
4. I believe we can’t be astonished by any hallucination whatever. Whereas we are totally astonished by daylight, by any brick in a brick wall we focus on.
5. And astonishment – which is a form of stubbornness – is the core of our lives.
I speak only for us. It’s O K. Not for us. Eventually not for you either. Bon Voyage, and keep us in sight, waving avuncular and auntly handkerchiefs on the pier and talking to each other about old times.
And really, really do not get hooked; i.e., don’t try narcotics at all. But I’m sure you know that. And don’t escalate marijuana. It’s serious; we can give you horrendous reports from the Mexican hospitals, if you need them. We saw.
Is that not the best DARE newsletter you could ever imagine? When my kids turn 12 [or whatever age kids start doing drugs 15-20 years from now], I’ve putting a poster of this up in their rooms. Oppen apparently also wrote a letter to his daughter Linda with a one paragraph “report on the commerce between me and marijuana” in which he tells her
I do not in the least like it; I continue to believe that I know my actual size, and my actual size seems to me to be an essential part of the matter, as it seems to me that the whole point of anything is that it is as it is. We fall again and again into the idea of higher realms, other spheres, higher and dimmer heavens in which wonderful things will happen and all doubts be answered. But I think in this way we answer the doubt before it is felt, and solve the mystery before we have encountered it. The mystery is that there is something for us to stand on
This closing phrase echoes closely the concluding passage from Oppen’s tremendous poem “World, World–” the last poem in his collection This in Which, which ends:
‘Thought leaps on us’ because we are here. That is the fact of the matter.
Soul-searchings, these prescriptions,
Are a medical faddism, an attempt to escape,
To lose oneself in the self.
The self is no mystery, the mystery is
That there is something for us to stand on.
We want to be here.
The act of being, the act of being
More than oneself.
The next book would be Of Being Numerous.