George Oppen (An Interview with L.S. Dembo): On "Image of the Engine"

D. The "Image of the Engine" seemed to me to be a very charming poem, the first section in any case. "Likely as not a ruined head gasket/Spitting at every power stroke, if not a crank shaft." And you talk about the operation of this creaky engine, and then you conclude, quite spectacularly, "There hovers in that moment, wraith-like and like a plume of steam, an aftermath,/A still and quiet angel of knowledge and of comprehension."

O. The question is the image of man as a machine. That has been said before, but I think the poem works anyway. It's just the image of man as a machine, with a ghost, the ghost in the machine, that's the phrase. It's the image of man as a machine, and it asks the question, Does one believe, then, just because one can believe? Does one believe just because one is almost forced to believe--in the case of the motor too, is my point. I am a fairly passionate mechanic, but I think anyone will experience that. When the motor finally starts, it's different, it's itself, and it's very different from a lump of steel. Some old-timers used to refuse to feel that about a motor. I remember a fisherman who described--when I was a kid--he had finally gone out on a power fishing boat. "Well, she--yeah, it had a motor, I guess, it had a big lump of steel in it somewhere, a big lump of iron in it somewhere." He was consciously refusing to see a motor. Well, I was using that fact to alter a little bit that phrase about the image of man as a machine. I was saying maybe the image of a machine can hardly be held even in quite that way.

D. Well, that's very interesting. I had been reading the poem completely differently. What baffled me was that I had been reading the engine as an image of the mind, the way the mind works, and the mind really doesn't work well. It works, but it's a blundering machine, the "flywheel blundering/Against compression," for example. That's why it seemed to me that when there was knowledge and comprehension at the end, which all of your poetry denies, I was a little surprised.

O. Well, shall we imagine, then, just because we can imagine it? It's a rather wistful line. Remember Yeats chained to a dying animal? I'm describing the same thing in different terms. A body, and it may be breaking down; it's just a machine. One is tied to this machine. I mean it's implied all the time in the metaphor there. The motor may have something wrong with it, and if it stops, it becomes rather an exact metaphor of a man dying and of the thing blundering, the cough in the manifold. Almost too good, maybe.

D. Then where does the knowledge and compression come in? That's what I'm interested in.

O. Then it finally stops. The man finally dies, the motor finally stops. Shall one imagine then, shall one? In the case of the motor, obviously, one shall not. I mean one knows it isn't true. In the case of the man, just the question, shall one imagine just because one can imagine? There's no reason to believe it, except that one can, or except that there's this impulse to believe. That's really what I meant to say. Even in the case of a motor there's this impulse to feel that. It's difficult to believe in death. I'm just saying that. I didn't try to settle the question. I wouldn't dream of trying to settle the question. If asked the direct question, does one live after death? I would say, I don't know.

D. That's what I didn't understand. It's the knowledge and comprehension of death, not the meaning of life?

O. No, is there a soul which exists, is there a mind which exists, as knowledge, as comprehension? I'm describing the Christian view which suddenly achieves knowledge, comprehension.

D. A soul, a spirit?

O. A spirit that sees eternity, that sees infinity, that knows. The direct question I wouldn't try to answer, except as against occult stories. I would say the evidence is preponderantly that, on the event of death, changes do take place. I doubt very much if people find jewels for their relatives and so on, which seems an inadequate change. But the other question I just wasn't trying to answer.

D. The poem is so simple yet so elusive, I didn't really quite know what to make of it.

O. I suppose I was tempted by a conceit there. . . . And I'm not sure that, if someone asked me, I would say I wasn't clear of conceits or allegories. But the roots of a tree as compared to a child, the metaphor, the conceit just worked out in my mind so compellingly in this motor, I'm really doing a little injustice to myself there. The motor really is the same experience as this experience. I used it for that, not for the cleverness of the conceit.

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Title George Oppen (An Interview with L.S. Dembo): On "Image of the Engine" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Burton Hatlen Criticism Target George Oppen
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication George Oppen: Man and Poet
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