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.