Frances Richard, courtesy of the artist

A poet examines the place of politics in art

In the midst of a feud with the poet Denise Levertov about the possibilities of politically motivated art, George Oppen wrote his only essay, “The Mind’s Own Place,” in 1962. Frances Richard presents a close reading of that essay for the George Oppen Memorial Lecture, presented annually by The Poetry Center since 1985.

“I always ask myself as an artist, what are the ethical requirements and possibilities for the artist in the political, and what does the political even mean?” Richard said by phone. “And I’m thinking about that now more than ever, just like everyone else. So I had planned this talk before Nov. 8, but it definitely feels urgent to me to think through what are the possibilities of art-making in speaking to political crisis, and I don’t think that’s a question that ever gets solved, so it has to be rethought all the time.”

The question plagued Oppen, who in the 1930s abandoned poetry for political activism.

“He stopped writing poetry because he didn’t think he should write political poetry and he wanted to have a political life,” Richard said. “So he’s really working out his own decisions in this essay, in a lot of ways. It’s intense.”

The essay was written shortly after Oppen returned to the United States — and to poetry — after nearly a decade of living in exile in Mexico. He had just published The Materials (1962), which was his second book; his first was published in 1934.

Richard, a poet and scholar who teaches visual art at the California College of the Arts, chose the topic because she agrees with both artists.

“He is absolutely adamant that political content must not be glib, it can’t be too easy — you can’t make a feel-good statement, or a kind of pretty statement, about the political, and the political can’t be a pretext for making yourself look good in a poem — and I think that’s right,” Richard said.

“But then Levertov writes that if the poet feels the politics deeply, if political thought is one of the thoughts that the poet has and the poem is made out of the poet’s thoughts, then the political belongs in the poem. And I agree with that, too.”

Author of Anarch. (Futurepoem, 2012), The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012), and See Through (Four Way Books, 2003), Richard was pulled to the essay for another reason: The title comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, of which she is a longtime admirer and teacher. The words are spoken by Satan: “Hail horrors, hail/ Infernal world, and thou, profoundest Hell,/ Receive thy new possessor: one who brings/ A mind not to be changed by place or time./ The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Ironically, Oppen “kind of changed his mind,” Richard said. In 1968 he published Of Being Numerous, in which “he tries to figure out how to hang on to personal integrity while being responsible to other people. And I think “The Mind’s Own Place” is sort of a step along the way of him fighting it through with himself, and Levertov is basically his sparring partner in his own mind.”

Oppen won the Pulitzer Prize for Of Being Numerous.


The George Oppen Memorial Lecture: 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17. $10. First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, 1187 Franklin St.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo courtesy of the artist

Other book events

Three surprise performers present an act from Robert Mailer Anderson’s new play, “The Death of Teddy Ballgame,” with the author and the illustrator, Sandow Birk, on hand to sign copies, and live music by Patrick Wolff, Jeffrey Burr and Zach Ostroff (6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, Catharine Clark Gallery, 248 Utah St., free).

Fourteen Hills celebrates the launch of its new issue with readings by contributing writers Nicole Jost, Mua Ayumi Malhotra, Suzanne Rivecca and more (7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., free).

Alley Cat Books presents readings and a chapbook release party for this year’s four resident writers, Denise Sullivan, Paul Ebenkamp, Simon J. Phillips and Eric Sneathen (7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16, 3036 24th St., free).

Michael Chabon presents his new novel, “Moonglow” (4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17, Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, free).

Donald Quist reads from his new essay collection, “Harbors,” with additional readings by Raina J. León, Simon J. Phillips and Melissa R. Sipin (5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18, Adobe Books, 3130 24th St., free).