“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.
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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.