A Test of Poetry

A Test of Poetry

More than any other American poet, George Oppen begs us to consider the elusive relationship between aesthetic and political responsibilities.


George Oppen, who wrote some of the most austerely beautiful poems of the twentieth century, is known best for not writing at all. After publishing Discrete Series in 1934, at the age of 26, he entered a period of silence that would not conclude until a quarter- century later, when The Materials appeared in 1962. Oppen called himself the oldest promising poet in America, but after Of Being Numerous appeared in 1968, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

All poets spend more time not writing than writing; what distinguishes Oppen’s silence is not so much its length as its circumstance. Having joined the Communist Party in 1935, Oppen organized the Farmers’ Union milk strike, made patterns for Grumman Aircraft, landed in Marseilles with the 103rd Antitank Division, received a Purple Heart, moved to Mexico to avoid being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, built houses, made furniture and devoted himself to his wife and daughter. More than any other American poet, Oppen begs us to consider the elusive relationship between aesthetic and political responsibilities–from the domestic to the civic to the global. The long-overdue Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers not only allows us to witness the integrity with which Oppen negotiated these responsibilities; it also suggests why the integrity makes some people–even Oppen’s admirers–nervous.

Neither before nor after his silence was Oppen inclined toward didactic poetry; he considered the rhetorical excess of political poems–like the rhetorical excess of political meetings–to be “merely excruciating.” In the early 1930s Oppen was associated with the Objectivist movement, a loose association of avant-garde poets that also included Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff and Lorine Niedecker. And while Discrete Series, his first book, is starkly elliptical, his later work combines Objectivist precision with a tender lyricism that his more staunchly experimental colleagues disdained:

Miracle of the children the brilliant
Children  the word
Liquid as woodlands  Children?

When she was a child I read Exodus
To my daughter  ’The children of Israel…’

Pillar of fire
Pillar of cloud.

No other poet sounds like this. However adamant Oppen’s convictions, his meticulously shaped lines embody a music of deference–a constitutional unwillingness to dominate the world by virtue of having understood it. True poetry, says Oppen in an essay collected in Selected Prose, is written in “a language that tests itself.”

This volume contains nine essays, four of which are brief reviews of other poets (David Antin, Thomas McGrath, Charles Olson), the most important of which is “The Mind’s Own Place,” an extended essay on the responsibilities of the poet at large. But Selected Prose is taken up primarily by selections from the daybooks (collections of fragmentary thoughts, observations, quotations) that Oppen began keeping when he returned to poetry around 1958. These undated pages were variously typed and handwritten; scraps of paper were glued on top of other scraps; pages were held together with staples, pipe cleaners and (on one occasion) a nail hammered into a block of wood. Making his selection, Stephen Cope excises ephemeral material such as shopping lists, but he strives to preserve the layered, palimpsest-like quality of the pages, recording Oppen’s deletions and insertions, marking the distinction between handwriting and typing, and occasionally combining material from multiple layers into single entries. In contrast to Oppen’s poems, in which every syllable is weighed, every line ending calibrated, the daybooks reveal the painstaking process through which he achieved his burnished but equivocal authority.

“I work sometimes for eight hours or so,” says Oppen in one entry, “fiddling with corrections. But sometimes I am so tired in two or three hours of effort that I’m shaken.” On the same page: “a poem may be devoted to giving clear meaning to one word.” Everywhere in evidence is Oppen’s devotion to the unfashionable values of authenticity, conviction and sincerity. “If the poet begins to ask us to accept a system of opinions and attitudes,” says Oppen, explaining why Allen Ginsberg’s exhortations seem to him unconvincing, “he must manage the task of rigorous thought.” Rigorous thought, for Oppen, is registered in language that, by testing itself, reveals the flaws of its author’s opinions: “If one revises and revises and revises–perhaps weeks and months and years and cannot revise, then there is something wrong with what you are trying to say. The ear knows.”

Did Oppen consider such devotion to language political? Generally, twentieth-century American poets recognized two strategies by which a poem might register a political effect: a poem might express a political position thematically or it might embody a position formally by disrupting aesthetic norms. Oppen rejected both these strategies as self-congratulatory, untestable: “We must cease to believe in secret names and unexpected phrases which will burst the world.” Without fanfare, he refused the notion that a poet could fulfill his social responsibilities by writing any kind of poem, and neither did this refusal engender any contempt for poetry.

“Is it more important to produce art or to take political action,” he asks in the daybooks.

Of course I cannot pretend to answer such a question. I could point out, however, that art and political action are in precise opposition in this regard: that it can always be quite easily shown that political action is going to be valuable; it is difficult to ever prove that political action has been valuable. Whereas art is precisely the opposite case; it seems always impossible to prove that it is going to be valuable, and yet it is always quite clear that the art of the past has been of value to humanity. I offer it only as a suggestion that art lacks in political action, not action. One does what he is most moved to do.

What one is “most moved to do” may take different forms, all of them equivocal; it isn’t possible to predict the efficacy of any human action, whether in politics or art. Oppen needed to stop writing poems in order to do what he was moved to do, but he never imagined that the terms of his own life could be transformed into categorical imperatives about the relationship of politics and art. In his “Statement on Poetics” he insisted that he could describe “how to write a poem. Or rather, how to write that poem.” His sense of the power of any human action–writing, organizing, raising a family–was similarly consigned to its occasion.

This refusal of romance is what sometimes makes Oppen’s admirers nervous. Especially for those readers who are prone to believe that writing itself constitutes political action, Oppen’s silence is rankling. So is his lyricism: the poems are a little too pretty. To such a reader, Oppen’s remark that “there are situations which cannot honorably be met by art” is problematic enough; more troubling is Oppen’s sense that “some ideas are not politically useful, or useful to the childhood of a daughter”–as if to say that since we’ll never know the ultimate value of our work, writing poems is probably less important than being a good dad. That wisdom may not be very glamorous, but everything Oppen did suggests that he believed it to be true.

Cope seems embarrassed that Oppen is not more glamorous, and his annotations are geared toward making the kinds of large claims for writing that Oppen avoids. One footnote suggests with weird evasiveness that a quotation is “likely” to be from Martin Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, raising the possibility that the quotation may not be from Heidegger at all. Another note, while admitting that it is “highly unlikely” that Oppen knew Theodor Adorno’s work, claims that Oppen echoes Adorno’s contention that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” When Oppen references a well-known verse from the Gospels (“The truth shall make us free”), Cope’s tendency to add unearned weight to the daybooks is given free rein: “The phrase that Oppen quotes was also used as an ironic slogan by German revisionist historians who wished to deny the Holocaust, as its German formulation–‘Warheit macht Frei’–echoes the Nazi Party dictum ‘Arbeit macht Frei’ (‘Work will set you free’). Given the context here, however, it is unlikely that Oppen is referring to the latter usage.” Cope wants desperately for Oppen’s words to be freighted with world-historical significance, but his wanly associational notes disregard the values most dear to Oppen himself–precision, clarity, integrity.

Cope’s manner of reading Oppen is not unusual. In a study of Oppen’s FBI file, recently published in American Communist History, Eric Hoffman rightly notes that Oppen and his wife insisted that they never served as spies for the Soviet government. But because Oppen became outraged when an FBI agent asked if he had ever engaged in espionage, Hoffman asks, “is it possible that…either of the Oppens or both were working in some way for Soviet intelligence? Was Oppen’s tirade the result of his fear that they might be discovered as having been involved in Soviet espionage?” There is no way to answer these questions–except inasmuch as the questions are meant implicitly to answer themselves. While Hoffman does discover a record of messages sent by an agent named “Oppen,” the messages were intercepted while Oppen was in basic training in Louisiana in 1943. Positing that the messages were sent by Oppen’s wife, Mary, Hoffman wonders if the reference in the interception to Oppen as “he” may be “a typo.” The argument feels desperate: because Oppen could have put his writing to political ends, only the most daunting responsibilities could have silenced him.

Peter Nicholls, the author of one of the first book-length treatments of Oppen’s career, refuses this kind of aggrandizing logic. George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism is a densely written academic book, but it is not showy; it attends to Oppen’s life and work with a modesty that feels seductive, not shy. For instance, Nicholls tracks Oppen’s longstanding engagement with Heidegger meticulously, and while highlighting Oppen’s one remark about the “danger” of Heidegger’s fascination with nation and folk, he admits that “there is little evidence, published or unpublished, that Oppen himself was much concerned on this score.” At the same time, Nicholls maintains rightly that Oppen did not simply exchange his Marxism for Heideggerian existentialism: “It was actually a matter of rediscovering politics, but this time in the ‘existential world’ of being and making rather than in that other world in which ‘knowledge’ had been devalued to the currency of conspiracy and surveillance.” No matter what world he lived in, Oppen wanted the limitations of his language to be recognized.

For this reason, as Nicholls demonstrates, Oppen’s poems rarely contain philosophical arguments, just as they rarely contain political arguments. The wonder of existence is registered not only in what Oppen’s poems say–

In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down–
That they are there!

–but in their manner of saying: rather than providing the evidence of completed thought, the poems disclose the process of thinking as it happens. Nicholls is more interested in Oppen as a thinker than as a poet, but he allows Oppen to be everything that he was, refusing–like Oppen himself–to ask poetry to shoulder responsibilities it cannot bear.

“I could not have continued as I was going with my early poems,” says Oppen in the daybooks, looking back on his years of silence. “And we devoted ourselves to creating happiness for the three of us, and for a few friends and their children so far as possible.” This unwillingness to exaggerate the importance of his actions–an eagerness to honor family life as much as any other social institution–is Oppen’s signature. It may not be glamorous to suggest that Oppen stopped writing in large part to devote himself to his family, his friends and their children, but whatever else he was, Oppen was a man whose mother had shot herself when he was 4 years old. Half a century later, he could recite the suicide note from memory: “We’ve been happy–I love you–I worry about the children and school and their clothes–it seems–since I did this and don’t know why–that I am not fitted for the business of life.”

“Art [is] as old as civilization,” says Oppen in the daybooks. “If one can add one thing to so long a history, one color or shape or tone, one perception to so long a history, that is a great deal to do.” Here, in the concluding lines of “A Narrative,” is the tone Oppen added to the history of poetry:

I thought I had encountered

Permanence; thought leaped on us in that sea
For in that sea we breathe the open

Of place, and speak
If we would rescue
Love to the ice-lit

Upper World a substantial language
Of clarity, and of respect.

Oppen is thinking of Orpheus here, the poet who failed to rescue his love, the dead Eurydice, to the upper world. To test oneself, Oppen recognized, is to know failure. Oppen’s victories are no less great for being small.

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