John Palattella is literary editor of The Nation. His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including The Nation, the London Review of Books, Bookforum and Boston Review.
In 1958 John Ashbery sailed for Paris to gather materials for a thesis he intended to write about Raymond Roussel, who at the time was an all-but-forgotten French poet, playwright and novelist.
It wasn't until 1996, when President Bill Clinton declared April to be National Poetry Month, that the eminent translator and poet Richard Howard truly grasped the significance of the opening wor
Manhattan is a tight little island. Around thirteen miles long, it has a width that varies from two miles to a few hundred feet.
Many rhetorical bombshells were lobbed by British and
American poets during the political turmoil of the 1930s, but few
detonated as loudly as this cluster of words: "Today the deliberate
"That was a benefit shooting." So said a shaken Kenneth Koch to a
stunned audience seconds after a tall, scraggly man fired a pistol at
him on January 10, 1968.
The day that Kenneth Rexroth died was not a dark, cold day.
Late in her life, Lorine Niedecker collected several dozen of her poems
in handmade books that she gave to three friends. One poem common to all
three books is "Who Was Mary Shelley?," a Gothic ballad in which the
author of Frankenstein dwells not in possibility but anonymity.
"What was her name/before she married?" Niedecker wonders. What was she thinking
when she "Created the monster nights/after Byron, Shelley/talked the
When Niedecker died in 1970 at the age of 67, her work was shrouded in
mystery as well. During the half-century she spent writing poems,
Niedecker published in the best little magazines and earned the praise
of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky.
Nevertheless, opinion of her poetry remained dominated by hearsay and
caricature. The view of George Oppen, who had met Niedecker just once,
during her stay with Zukofsky in Manhattan in 1933, is typical.
Niedecker was "a tiny little person, very, very near sighted always,"
Oppen told a friend in 1963, adding that she "was too timid to face
almost any job. She took a job scrubbing floors in a hospital near the
run-down farm she inherited, and is still living in that crumbling farm
house and scrubbing floors. Someone in Scotland printed a tiny little
book of her poems, which are little barely audible poems, not without
loveliness." In a similar vein, the Jargon Society published Epitaphs
for Lorine in 1973, and several contributors memorialized Niedecker
with the diminutive "poetess."
The portrait of Niedecker as the Grandma Moses of American verse can't
be attributed entirely to the provincialism or paternalism of the
avant-garde poetry world. When Oppen wrote to his friend, Niedecker had
just two books in print (the second being a redaction of the first), and
both books contained, well, poems rarely longer than four lines. But
Niedecker didn't write just "little" poems, and access to the rest of
her oeuvre improved in 1985 with the publication of Cid Corman's
The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker and
Robert Bertholf's From This Condensery: The Complete Writing of
Lorine Niedecker. The problem was that Corman and Bertholf presented
contrasting Niedeckers. Corman's text contains less than half of
Niedecker's poetry, and it emphasizes her lyrics about nature and
domestic life on Black Hawk Island in south-central Wisconsin, her home
for all but a few years of her life. Bertholf's volume includes those
lyrics plus Niedecker's poems about history and politics, but it teems
with textual errors (misattributions, mistranscriptions), and so its
emphasis on the Niedecker who probed the world beyond Black Hawk Island
"Isn't it glorious? Let's trim green thought in one place and let it
grow wild in another," says a character in "The Evening's Automobiles,"
one of two short stories that Niedecker wrote in the 1950s. Jenny
Penberthy has let Niedecker's green thought run wild by restoring poems
that either went unpublished in books or periodicals during Niedecker's
lifetime or were trimmed from or mangled in posthumous editions.
Collected Works includes Niedecker's two published collections,
New Goose (1946) and North Central (1968); three complete
unpublished manuscripts, "New Goose" (a collection of twenty-nine poems
in the same style as the forty-one poems in New Goose), "For Paul
and Other Poems" and "Harpsichord & Salt Fish"; the gift-book poems;
uncollected poems, both published and unpublished; and published and
unpublished fiction and radio plays. Though one regrets the exclusion of
essays Niedecker wrote on Zukofsky and Corman, the range of forms and
ideas is still electrifying. Not since the appearance of the facsimile
version of The Waste Land in 1971, which clearly established how
T.S. Eliot's poem had been transformed by Ezra Pound's editing, has a
new edition of an American poet's work shattered the prevailing sense of
that writer's art. Niedecker may have lived in a marshy backwater, but
thanks to Penberthy's meticulously edited volume she can no longer be
treated as an unintellectual pastoral miniaturist. Isn't it glorious?
"The old words have reached the age of retirement. Let us pension them
off! We need a twentieth-century dictionary!" This is Eugene Jolas,
writing in the pages of transition in 1932. With contributors
like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, Jolas's transition crackled
with Surrealist-tinged linguistic experiment. It was also one of several
little magazines that Niedecker read faithfully in the early 1930s. The
standard story of Niedecker's career is that she became a disciple of
Zukofsky after reading the Objectivist issue of Poetry he edited
in 1931. Collected Works opens with several dozen poems from the
early 1930s--all previously unpublished in book form--and they reveal
Niedecker's preoccupation with a surrealism at odds with Zukofsky's
focus on the affectless object. Typical is the beginning of "Synamism":
"Berceuse, mediphala/and the continent. German and therefore
unidentified./Cricket night, seismograph and stitch. All tongues backed/by a
difference." Absent from Niedecker's early poems are Surrealism's heroic
sadism and insane hallucinations. Instead, she prefers a surrealism of
language, a poetry that takes root in neologisms and portmanteau words
and swirls into an aural collage of illogical but syntactically sound
phrases. "Close the door and come to the crack quickly./To jesticulate
in the rainacular or novembrood//in the sunconscious...as though there
were fs/and no ings, freighter of geese without wings," she writes in
"Progression." By mixing the abstract and discursive, Niedecker sought
to create a poetry capable of evoking different levels of thought and
feeling. She sought the "rainacular," a nonsense not without sense
because it records its own kind of testimony--a fluid vernacular, lived
In the late 1930s, Niedecker recalibrated her explorations of language's
subliminal texture. She started to use idiomatic phrases, casting them
into the hey-diddle-diddle artifice of Mother Goose: "She had
tumult of the brain/and I had rats in the rain/and she and I and the
furlined man/were out for gain." Though not hermetic, Niedecker's "New Goose" poems still create an aura of deceptive lucidity, due in part to the
unwavering march of their trochaic rhythms. In poem after poem the
ephemeral suddenly turns serious, but one isn't exactly sure why.
"Scuttle up the workshop,/settle down the dew,/I'll tell you what my
name is/when we've made the world new." Niedecker had tapped the cryptic
sounds of Mother Goose, but she wasn't writing bedtime verses. In
the late 1930s, she was employed by the Federal Writer's Project,
working as a research editor on Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger
State. In New Goose and its many corollary poems, Niedecker
extends the study of local speech and lore she had undertaken for the
What a woman!--hooks men like rugs,
clips as she hooks, prefers old wool, but all
childlike, lost, houseowning or pensioned men
her prey. She covets the gold in her husband's teeth.
She'd sell dirt, she'd sell your eyes
fried in deep grief.
Many of the New Goose poems are ballads that distill a specific
local incident to its pungent emotional essence. Together they tell the
history of an old, weird Wisconsin, a place of desire and Depression,
betrayals and bombs, politics and privations. What's remarkable about
New Goose is Niedecker's ability to blend a surreal aesthetic
with a documentary impulse without diluting local character or dulling
her sometimes caustic attitude toward it. Had Niedecker used a camera
instead of a typewriter to make her art, her photographs would have
resembled the early work of Walker Evans. Like Evans, Niedecker conveys
the abstract textures of everyday life without reducing everyday life to
an abstraction. "There's a better shine/on the pendulum/than is on my
hair/and many times//I've seen it there." New Goose is
Several years before New Goose appeared, in 1946, Niedecker began
a job as a proofreader for a local trade journal, Hoard's
Dairyman. Deteriorating eyesight forced her to quit Hoard's
in 1950. Seven years later, amid financial difficulties, she started a
job as a cleaner at the Fort Atkinson Hospital. (Niedecker's poor
eyesight and floor scrubbing are the two facts Oppen got right in his
letter to his friend.) Until she retired from the hospital in 1963, when
she married Al Millen, Niedecker had little time for writing poetry, or
at least for further refining the variety of forms and styles of "For
Paul and Other Poems," which she composed in the early 1950s. Addressed
to Zukofsky's son, "For Paul" includes persona poems, ballads, quasi
epigrams and blues songs. They are written in brisk free verse or
stanzas bristling with riddling rhymes and range in length from four to
204 lines. Niedecker developed a new style during her six years at the
hospital: a concentrated five-line stanza in which lines of one to six
syllables are organized more by sonic stresses than syntax. The role of
sound as the poem's organizing force is intensified by ellipsis, with
verbs and transitions being the most frequently omitted words.
The virtues of such compression are apparent in one of Niedecker's most
remarkable poems, "Lake Superior," which she wrote following a road trip
through Wisconsin, Canada and Minnesota that she and Millen made in
1966. "Rock creates the only human landscape," W.H. Auden told a friend
in 1948 while he was writing "In Praise of Limestone." Auden was
speaking figuratively, for in his poem he uses the limestone terrain of
the Italian island of Ischia as an allegory of the human body. Some of
the oldest rock in North America is exposed around Lake Superior. That
azoic rock is the core of Niedecker's poem, and her approach to it isn't
In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock
In blood the minerals
of the rock
Niedecker sustains this taught, unpunctuated equilibrium through the
next six sections, as she considers the fate of several explorers who
have preceded her. Among them is the fur trader Pierre Esprit Radisson,
who in the mid-seventeenth century became the first European to traverse
the lake. "Radisson:/'a laborinth of pleasure'/this world of the Lake,"
Niedecker writes, "Long hair, long gun//Fingernails pulled out/by
Mohawks." Niedecker's estimation of the cost of wonder--for humans and
the landscape--is interrupted in the eighth section of the poem by an
eruption of sensuality.
Ruby of corundum
from changing limestone
kicked up in America's
you have been in my mind
between my toes
Instead of possessing the landscape's mineral wealth, Niedecker is
mesmerized and possessed by it. But that wealth is linguistic too, for
Niedecker's description vividly echoes her early Surrealist poems.
"Corundum" is a mineral that crystallizes into ruby and sapphire, but it
might very well be a corruption of "conundrum." "Sard" is a type of
quartz but could also be a fusion of "snarl" and "bard." It's as though
the rainacular had percolated through fissures in Superior's limestone.
"The North is one vast, massive, glorious corruption of rock and
language," Niedecker remarks in her notes from the 1966 trip, and in her
poem she portrays Superior as a Precambrian compost pile, a place where
words and things are pulverized and transformed, where North American
rocks acquire Greek names, where "Sault Sainte Marie" becomes "the Soo."
In the poem's penultimate section Niedecker synthesizes these issues.
The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
the leaf beside it
once was stone
Why should we hurry
These lines, and their uncharacteristic surfeit of verbs, would be
unsettling if they opened the poem, but coming at the end, after
Niedecker's geological meditations, they are soothing. Niedecker has
found a home, in both an eschatological and epistemological sense. The
stone may preordain her end, but it also is the product of a profound
creative pressure, which "Lake Superior" answers in kind. Niedecker
acknowledges the stony transformation that awaits her and her reciprocal
desire to compress and recompose that fact ever so briefly into the
sensuous, fleeting order of her poem.
"Lake Superior," like much of Niedecker's late poetry, expresses a
fundamental Modernist idea: All ages are somehow contemporaneous. "'The
ancient present. In me the years are flowing together,'" as the narrator
of "The Evening's Automobiles" explains. Niedecker, however, never
overlayed her lyrical historicism with an epic mythology. She drew a map
of the world but never pretended that it was anything other than her
own. Consequently, despite the riches of its localism, "Lake Superior"
is unlike, say, Williams's Paterson because it does not seek to
be a perfect, absolutely metaphorical America.
This is most clear in "Darwin," Niedecker's final poem. Her Darwin is
neither the avid reader of Shakespeare nor the eccentric who played the
trombone to his French beans. He has the intellectual bearing of the
Darwin in Auden's 1940 "New Year Letter," who "brought/Man's pride to
heel at last and showed/His kinship with the worm and toad." But unlike
Auden, Niedecker doesn't portray Darwin as a dark angel of intellectual
cataclysm. Instead, her Darwin suffers doubts and frustrations as he
struggles to reconcile his understanding of the animal appetite for
survival with the precarious pleasures of human intelligence. The
struggle consumes him even on his sickbed. Stricken by a fever in the
Andes, he writes to his wife, "'Dear Susan.../I am ravenous/for the
sound/of the pianoforte.'"
In fact, the person whom Darwin most resembles is the Niedecker of "Lake
Superior," the poet mesmerized by the geological remnants of lava,
glacier and sea. The naturalist's and poet's temperaments are blended
through the very form of "Darwin"--a collage of elliptical quotes from
Darwin's writings that gain the tincture of Niedecker's voice as they
are recast into stepped four-line stanzas. Just as when Niedecker
catalogues Superior's minerals in a melodious trance, Darwin's senses
open his mind to matters beyond his mastery.
I remember, he said
those tropical nights at sea--
we sat and talked
on the booms
Tierra del Fuego's
shining glaciers translucent
blue clear down
(almost) to the indigo sea
Darwin stands not against the world but within it, conscious of its
awesome mutability as well as of the need to understand that force on a
human scale so as not to be philosophically annihilated by it. (The
possibility of nuclear annihilation was on Niedecker's mind at the time
as well. In "Wintergreen Ridge," from 1968, she writes: "thin to nothing
lichens/grind with their acid//granite to sand/These may survive/the
grand blow-up/the bomb.") Like Niedecker, Darwin realizes the world is
something he knows but can't control or own. Yet he still possesses an
idea, and it encompasses more than the fact of his kinship with the worm
not built by brute force
but designed by laws
The details left
to the working of chance
"Let each man hope
what he can"
"Darwin" is a defense of the individual task of imagination and
understanding, and Collected Works allows one to appreciate how
passionately and carefully Niedecker took up that task. Like Darwin,
Niedecker felt at home even when she was away from home, her subtle and
sensuous words disclosing her belief that the actual earth is often
"There are things/We live among 'and to see them/Is to know ourselves.'" These three lines are among the most stirring written by George Oppen, a poet whose modesty and honesty permitted him to look for meaning only in the knowable. He was preoccupied with the world outside his window, and writing about it in a clear language was always a struggle: "say as much as I dare, as much as I can/sustain I don't know how to say it."
For all his commitment to clarity, there is much about Oppen himself that remains unknown. He was a Modernist, but unlike his mentors Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, he was not prolific. When he published his Collected Poems in 1975, he had written exactly one book review and one essay. No manifestoes, no dissertation, no autobiography. When he died in 1984, he had given only a handful of interviews. A Selected Letters was published in 1990, but its paper trail begins in 1958, the year Oppen and his wife, Mary, returned to the United States from political exile in Mexico. The Oppens had been members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, and they went into exile in 1950 to escape the dragnet of McCarthyism. Even George's FBI file, a crucial source of information about the Mexico years, is riddled with black-outs. To know Oppen one must live among his poems, a pleasure that has been greatly enhanced by the publication of George Oppen: New Collected Poems. Housing Oppen's seven full-length books, plus fifty-seven pages of previously uncollected poems, the volume is an astonishing record of the development of an indigenous American avant-garde style by a poet of great intelligence and humanity.
Discrete Series, Oppen's first book, was published in 1934. At first glance its thirty-one lyrics look like offshoots from Williams's Spring and All. Both Oppen and Williams favored spare, compressed lines divested of emotional subversions and devoted to sight and sound. But for all their quotidian scenes, Oppen's poems lack Williams's drama and localism. Instead, they are general, almost categorical, building a moment of perception from prepositions, generic nouns and pauses. "On the water, solid--/The singleness of a toy--//A tug with two barges.//O what O what will/Bring us back to/Shore,/the shore//Coiling a rope on the steel deck." What's equally notable about Discrete Series is that Oppen hewed to a Modernist style without endorsing Modernism's abiding themes; no blood-dimmed tides are loosed, no fragments shored against ruins. But Oppen didn't only defy Modernism. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, and instead of abiding by an orthodoxy that had corralled Pegasus and led it to the Socialist Realist glue factory, he stopped writing altogether. He was a left-wing thinker who did not believe that poetry had the same kind of efficacy as political action, a view that made him "A most inappropriate man/In a most unpropitious place," to borrow a few lines from Wallace Stevens's "Sailing After Lunch." Oppen did not write again until 1958.
What to make of Oppen's silence? Hugh Kenner called it a mere pause between poems; Charles Bernstein has wondered if it is the longest line break in Oppen's oeuvre. While it would be inaccurate to say that the hiatus did not cause Oppen any anxiety as a poet, it's certainly misleading to describe it as just another pregnant pause. Oppen did many things during those years; none were poetic, but all nourished his thinking as a poet. He and Mary organized a farmers' union milk strike in 1937; they became parents in 1939. George worked as a tool-and-die maker at Grumman Aircraft during the early years of World War II and then served as an infantryman in the US Army. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944; later, near Alsace, he suffered serious shrapnel wounds from German shellfire. After the war he built houses near Los Angeles.
"And Bronk said/Perhaps the world/Is horror," Oppen writes in "A Narrative." The poem is from This in Which (1965), and Oppen is most likely referring to a few lines from William Bronk's "The Nature of the Universe": "we/are the inner mirror of those stars, who find/only an ecstasy to outfeel/horror." When Oppen was writing in the 1960s, he returned over and over to the political and philosophical dimensions of horror. He was terrified and disgusted by the proliferation of nuclear weapons ("My love, my love,/We are endangered/Totally at last") and the escalation of the Vietnam War ("Now in the helicopters the casual will/Is atrocious"). Elsewhere he takes a longer view, wondering about "a lone universe that suffers time/Like stones in sun. For we do not." Oppen's struggles with horror and suffering, however, did not turn him into either a nihilist who sneered at a meaningless universe or an aesthete who walled off that universe with intricate formal masonry. "Survival: Infantry," from The Materials (1962), is an important poem for understanding why. Oppen returns to his wartime experience in Alsace, with memories of an artillery barrage--"Where did all the rocks come from?/And the smell of explosives"--mixed with memories of recovery:
We were ashamed of our half life and our misery: we saw
that everything had died.
And the letters came. People who addressed us thru our
They left us gasping. And in tears
In the same mud in the terrible ground
The crucial word is "addressed." Oppen does not say that people "wrote" to him; they addressed him, spoke to him, through their words and hence through his life. Those words in turn create an experience of awe ("They left us gasping"), and while they fail to deliver Oppen from a devastated world (he remains stuck in the "same mud"), they alleviate his despair.
The letters, in other words, gave Oppen a language of survival, and of his many attempts to create this language himself the richest is the serial poem "Of Being Numerous," which appeared in the 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title. "Urban art, art of the cities, art of the young in the cities--/The isolated man is dead, his world around him exhausted," Oppen writes, and he tries to understand and repair that failure through the very construction of "Of Being Numerous." Some of its poems begin with "Or," "So" or "Because" while others redact lines from Oppen's earlier poems, as if the poet was publishing excerpts from an endless conversation with himself. Yet "Of Being Numerous" is not Oppen's song of himself. Self-reflection is knitted into a larger conversation with friends, family members and other writers, whose words Oppen lifted from correspondence or essays and incorporated into his jagged little lyrics, sometimes in quotation marks, sometimes not. To write a language of survival is to be numerous, but to be numerous is not necessarily to contain multitudes. Rather, it is to startle the self into a meditative drama of reversal and qualification, interruption and invitation, of being pressed into dialogue with others.
Oppen's last book, Primitive, which appeared three years after the publication of his Collected Poems, is perhaps his most haunting vision of survival. Oppen wrote its thirteen poems under some duress; he was growing increasingly disoriented and forgetful, battling the Alzheimer's disease that went undiagnosed until 1982 and claimed his life two years later. Yet it is difficult to determine the impact of the disease on Oppen's poetry, since Primitive is the culmination of the vibrant, attenuated syntax that Oppen had introduced in Of Being Numerous and continued to hone in his next two books, Seascape: Needle's Eye and Myth of the Blaze. In poem nine of "Of Being Numerous," Oppen proposes an ideal: "To dream of that beach/For the sake of an instant in the eyes." Primitive is the dream of that beach, a linguistic "sea-surge," as Eliot Weinberger writes in his lucid preface to this volume, "of contradictory forces: assertions and their negations, declarations couched in double-negatives, questions without answers." The poems are the work of "a returned Crusoe," a poet entranced by mysterious images of war, water, light and rescue. From "The Poem":
in the room it was all
part of the wars
of things brilliance
in the appalling
lives and wakes us together
out of sleep the poem
opens its dazzling whispering hands
The inclusion of Primitive is not the only reason Michael Davidson's edition of Oppen's Collected Poems is "new." The volume also contains the twenty-nine poems that were published in magazines or anthologies but not collected during Oppen's lifetime, and sixty poems that were not published at all. Among the uncollected poems are some gems, including Oppen's last published verse and an epitaph for his close friend and fellow poet Charles Reznikoff. The unpublished poems are fascinating as well and of more than a scholarly interest; one can better appreciate Oppen's technique by considering what he chose to leave in the drawer. Some of the unpublished poems are derivative of Williams's work, relying too much on parochial images or idiomatic speech to convey an idea or emotion. Still others are a heap of images and phrases that Oppen had yet to refine into a few radiant and haunting parts of speech. "The New People," for instance, which dates from the late 1950s, opens with a description of a neighborhood's gentrification: "Crowding everywhere/Angrily perhaps/The world of stoops,/The new young people//With their new styles, the narrow trousers/Of the young men and the girls' bee hive/hair-do's this year they seem a horde." The scene is a messy version of the milieu portrayed in poem twenty-five in "Of Being Numerous": "Strange that the youngest people I know/Live in the oldest buildings//Scattered about the city/In the dark rooms/Of the past.... They are the children of the middle class.//'The pure products of America--'//Investing/The ancient buildings/Jostle each other." It's telling that like most of Oppen's unpublished poems, "The New People" lacks the generic adjectives and nouns that Oppen treasured: thin, strange, home, populace, little and, most important, small.
Davidson's arrangement of the uncollected and unpublished material is curious. Instead of organizing the entire volume chronologically, which would have involved interspersing the uncollected published poems between the contents of the seven published books and placing the unpublished poems (which are often difficult or impossible to date) at the end of the volume, Davidson has placed the uncollected and unpublished poems in a single annex following Primitive. If you want to compare published, uncollected or unpublished poems, which Davidson's editorial notes to individual poems often encourage, be prepared for some page-flipping between poem and poem and poem and note.
The notes themselves are usually informative, providing snippets of relevant biographical and bibliographical information. A few notes could stand to be more precise. The fifth poem in "Of Being Numerous" begins with one of Oppen's most famous images: "The great stone/Above the river/In the pylon of the bridge//'1875.'" Here is Davidson's gloss: "Probably a reference to the Brooklyn Bridge, which was built between 1869 and 1883, making 1875 a likely date for one of the pylons." A glimpse at any good history of the bridge's construction will reveal that its two granite pylons (or towers) were completed in 1875, and that on the eastern and western facades of the Manhattan pylon, centered between the apexes of its great gothic arches, is a stone engraved with the digits "1875." (The Brooklyn pylon is undated.) The engraved stone is easily seen from the pedestrian walkway that runs above the bridge's roadways.
Verifying the location of the engraved stone is important, and not merely for precision's sake. "The great stone" is a central poem of Oppen's canon because it symbolizes the poet's relationship to the visible world. He seizes on a public object--the engraved marker--as an image of consciousness: "Frozen in the moonlight/In the frozen air over the footpath, consciousness//Which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,/Which loves itself." Clarifying that Oppen is referring to the Brooklyn Bridge helps to underscore the unromantic nature of his aesthetic. Oppen's stance is the antithesis of Hart Crane's, who in the opening lyric of his long poem "The Bridge" pleads with the granite and cables to "lend a myth to God." In Oppen's poem, the bridge does not become heroic or mythical in the poet's eyes. And even though "1875" hovers at a height that, in the topography of Oppen's poetry, is usually cluttered by the absurd parapets of office buildings, the engraved stone is hardly above it all. Instead, both stone and poet remain public, functional and objective, firmly lodged within the bridge's design as well as the various streams and cycles of space and time churning below and above: the East River, automobile traffic, pedestrian traffic and the moon's orbit.
Oppen was well acquainted with the Brooklyn Bridge. It loomed over the building where he rented a workroom and was not far from the three different apartments in Brooklyn Heights where he and Mary lived at different times between 1960 and 1966. Brooklyn Heights occupies a bluff directly across the East River from lower Manhattan, and while walking around Oppen's old neighborhood it's impossible not to wonder what he would have thought about the devastation of September 11. One recalls an image of Manhattan in "Of Being Numerous":
A city of the corporations
Or a line Oppen used repeatedly in his correspondence, "the girder/Still itself among the rubble," which is a misquotation of a line from Reznikoff's Jerusalem the Golden ("Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies/a girder, still itself among the rubbish"). But these images, though provocative, are mere fragments, and Oppen's work is likely to disappoint someone who thinks that poems of the past can somehow divine the physical and emotional dimensions of the recent catastrophe. "The events of Sept. 11 nailed home many of my basic convictions," the poet Mary Karr explained recently in the New York Times, before describing her September 11 reading list, "including the notion that lyric poetry dispenses more relief--if not actual salvation--during catastrophic times than perhaps any other art form."
I can't imagine a sentiment more alien to Oppen's work. How peculiar to have one's aesthetic convictions "nailed home" by an act of mass murder, and how more peculiar still for Karr to proclaim, after having assimilated September 11 into poetic accounts of past disasters, "Here I stand, bat cocked, ready for whatever impossible pitch history flings." Oppen wrote often about disasters, but he never counseled a quick flight into culture as a remedy for them. His poems are as void of softball pitches as they are of similes. Things are not "like" other things; they appear and exist before your eyes. In this respect, Oppen's work offers no figurative or topical premonitions of what occurred on September 11; neither thing is like the other, which is precisely why his work remains remarkable and relevant. Hardly a self-contained world of words, the poetry of George Oppen is a place where words about the world must be earned--phrase by phrase, line by line, poem by poem.