“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.