[To read an introduction to this column, please see the first paragraph of the initial post here]
This week’s post is a little different from the last few. Featured is one of my favorite poems that for some reason embedded itself in my mind and has never left. I wrote a short essay analyzing the poem, and by sharing it I hope to give a small taste of how poems can work, even really short ones like this one. I hope you enjoy it!
Defining Divinity: George Oppen’s “A Theological Definition”
A small room, the varnished floor
Making an L around the bed,
What is or is true as
Windows opening on the sea,
The green painted railings of the balcony
Against the rock, the bushes and the sea running
– “A Theological Definition” by George Oppen
What does it mean to define God? What would a definition look like if we were to try? This is the question that poet George Oppen asks by writing the poem “A Theological Definition,” from his Pulitzer Prize winning collection Of Being Numerous.
The poem itself is deceptive; it is only three stanzas long, seven lines in total, and makes little use of punctuation or grand statements. It begins simply, domestically, in the home: “A small room, the varnished floor / Making an L around the bed,” but considering the question Oppen poses before writing these lines, we can see their significance. For Oppen, anything that one might consider “God,” anything that one might consider their theology, their spirituality, will always begin in the bedroom, the most personal, intimate space one can have. Whether or not Oppen is religious, he is speaking to a near universal value, one of a space which contains us, contains our innermost Self, but which exists outside of ourselves, in the world.
There is another important note to make about the first two lines, which is that in the first line, an action has been performed, and in the second line, an action is being performed, perpetually. A wooden floor is varnished in order to protect it and make it last. I think this is a symbolic action undertaken for a bedroom, a detail that I am sure Oppen recognized. Thinking of the bedroom as a personal sacred space, the floor is its foundation, and must be protected, as in turn this will keep you protected. To begin anything, anywhere, to stand, to live, one needs a solid foundation. In the second line, the floor is now providing its function. It creates a space around the bed for you to stand, to move, to live. Perhaps that is what the “L” symbolizes in that line. Living, the performative action of the subjective experience; and realizing this leads us to the heart of the poem.
The second stanza, I think, is just that – a moment of contemplation. Oppen uses the emotion happiness, but in this instance, it seems to be more than the emotion of the subject, the speaker of the poem, and instead becomes a subject itself. Our emotions take on lives of their own, and from Oppen’s perspective, begin in the bedroom, as do we. Our emotions and our subjective experience exist as one, and more or less make up who we are. I believe that Oppen identifies happiness here because that is the best, at least the most comforting, expression of the divine as it relates to our personal Self. When we are happy, we are closest to divinity.
The first line of the third stanza marks a return to the external world, after the introspection of the second stanza. Here, again, is action, seen in all three lines. We move from walking around a bed in a small room to “Windows opening on the sea,” where we look out to see “The green painted railings of the balcony” which are set “Against the rock, the bushes and the sea running.” Every action in this poem is undertaken by an object of the external world from the subjective perspective of the speaker; the varnished floor moving around the bed, windows opening on the sea, painted railings set against the rocks and bushes, and the sea running, all demonstrating the subjective experience. The speaker does not walk to the window and look out at the ocean, no, the floor twists about the small room, around the bed, carrying the speaker to the windows which open themselves for the speaker to see the railings of the balcony which stand before the sea running about the earth. And this is the final part of Oppen’s theological definition: the subjective experience animates the world around us, alive on its own as much as its being a part of us, connected. The bedroom is our sacred space on this earth, but the earth itself is what makes us sacred, as it is as much a part of us, of our experience, as we are a part of it and its experience. The subjective experience, the act of one perceiving the world, is an act of divinity, as well as its source.
I remember a moment from my childhood which I think about whenever I read this poem. I must have been only about six or seven years old, looking out of my bedroom window, and I saw my parents tending to our little garden in the yard. It was springtime, and the sun was shining vividly, a breeze moved the trees behind them, and although I could not hear them, I saw them smiling at each other. The moment feels frozen in time for me but alive also. My father in his bright orange shirt watering the plants, my mom in her dark cardigan gathering some herbs for dinner – it was a moment of peaceful clarity, one that seems completely part of me. Perhaps such a moment from Oppen’s memory is captured in this poem.