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  ‘an actuality / In the mere number of us’:
a review of George Oppen’s New Collected Poems

The six published volumes comprising the major part of George Oppen’s New Collected Poems [2002] cover a span of some 44 years. Oppen [1908-84] continued to produce poetry into his 70s before showing the signs of Alzheimer’s disease and his last dated piece appears from 1980. Always a terse, careful and precise writer these volumes are relatively slim, and are supplemented here both by newly integrated uncollected poems and by pieces recovered from the papers of Oppen’s archive. The large majority, indeed 5 of the 6 books, of this output dates from after 1958 when Oppen was in his 50s. A lengthy hiatus of some 24 years separates Oppen’s first book from his second and is attributable to commitment to political causes, notably Communist opposition to Fascism in the 1930s, and agitation stemming from that time in favour of support for the unemployed and poor relief.

This New Collected Poems
, besides the appearance of additional pieces, comes with highly useful editorial matter from the New Directions American edition consisting of a Preface by Eliot Weinberger, with an Introduction and compendious Notes by Michael Davidson, who teaches at UC San Diego, where the Oppen archive is kept and is an authority on the San Franciscan poets. As Weinberger points out on the question of biographical provenance for Oppen’s activities and motivations, ‘He may never be the subject of a biography, for his life beyond its outline remains a mystery, and for decades left no paper trail’ [p. xi], this despite the fact that Mary, George’s wife and companion for some 50 years, put together an autobiography entitled Meaning a Life [1978], which according to Weinberger omits many ‘untold stories’ including Oppen’s controversial attitude to membership of the Communist Party, his views during the Stalinist era and when he left the Party, leaving what is a ‘carefully edited’ account of their mutual life experiences.

Some of the facts of Oppen’s early years, however, would appear to have a creditable bearing on his later poetic development. He was born on April 24, 1908 in New Rochelle, New York, the son of George Oppenheimer, a prosperous Jewish businessman, and Elsie Rothfeld. The family name was changed to Oppen in 1927. His mother’s psychological condition unfortunately was unstable and following a nervous breakdown she committed suicide in 1912. Three years later his father married again, to Selville Shainwald, with whom Oppen sustained a difficult relationship, with some incidence of psychological and physical abuse. In 1918, the Oppens moved to San Francisco’s fashionable Nob Hill district, where Oppen’s father ran a series of movie houses, and Oppen attended private schools.

By 1926 Oppen travelled to what is now Oregon State University at Corvallis where he met his future wife Mary Colby. After staying out all night on their first date, Mary was expelled and George suspended from the college, and they subsequently left Oregon choosing to lead an itinerant life, hitchhiking across the country. They were married pseudonymously in Dallas on October 7, 1927. George was evidently writing and submitting poems at this time, although he did not typically date his work, and does not appear to have published anything before some poems appeared in the ‘Objectivist’ issue of Poetry
in 1931, a venture promoted by Ezra Pound. Poems for what became Oppen’s first book, Discrete Series, have been dated from 1929. Sailing on a catboat along the Erie Canal from Detroit to New York in 1928 the couple settled there briefly, becoming acquainted with the poets Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff. They returned to the San Francisco Bay area in 1929, and took off again that year to the Var region of southern France. While in France they corresponded with Zukofsky as editor in New York to publish a number of poetry volumes under the imprint To Publishers, an abbreviation of The Objectivists, bringing out books by Pound and Carlos Williams as well as the epochal Zukofsky-edited An Objectivists’ Anthology [Paris 1932; reprinted by Norwood Editions in 1977]. The core group represented consisted of Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Oppen and Carl Rakosi, and was broadened out to encompass Basil Bunting, Mary Butts, Kenneth Rexroth, Rene Taupin, Robert McAlmon and others.

The Oppens did not long remain in France, however, and returned to New York in 1933. There a new publishing imprint was sponsored, the Objectivist Press, among whose output were books by Reznikoff, Carlos Williams’ Collected Poems, 1921-31
and Oppen’s Discrete Series [1934], with a Preface by Pound, although relations with Pound were to separate over his support for Italian Fascism, though they would be reunited many years later in 1969. It was shortly after this that Oppen ceased writing, and in 1935, evidently in opposition to the Popular Front, that he joined the Communist Party. He was notably active, acting as election campaign manager for Brooklyn in 1936 and facing prosecution charges for felonious assault on the police after being arrested at a sit-in at a neighbourhood relief bureau when involved with the Workers Alliance.

The Oppens became parents when Mary gave birth to a daughter, Linda Jean, in May 1939. After serving in the War, the Oppens moved again, after George built a camping trailer, and they settled at a trailer camp in Redondo Beach, Southern California. George found employment in house building and subsequently in a small cabinet making business. During the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, the Oppens relocated to Mexico, where Oppen with a partner ran a furniture-making business. When restrictions on issuing passports eased in 1958 the Oppens felt at liberty to visit the United States, where their daughter Linda was attending Sarah Lawrence College. They moved back to New York in 1961, where they renewed acquaintances with Zukofsky, Reznikoff and Rakosi. Travelling widely and sporadically, with numerous sailing trips, they shifted location again, returning to San Francisco in 1966, where Rakosi by now was also living, remaining there until Oppen was compelled to give up his home to move to the Idlewood Convalescent Home in Sunnyvale, California, where he was to die.

Ron Silliman, in an article for Paideuma
[‘Third Phase Objectivism’, 1981], has remarked that the progress of Objectivism can be understood in three phases, with the inaugural phase dating from the 1930s, a period of silence or exile from 1940 to 1958, and a third or ‘Renaissance’ phase from 1960 on. Plainly it is the first and third phases with which we must predominantly concern ourselves here, the second phase being shrouded in some obscurity as well as its controversies.

Oppen’s first book, Discrete Series
, is notable for its brevity, containing just 29 poems, only two more than a page in length, and all but two untitled, with some entries as short as just four lines. It is possible to find in this early work a confutation of two source doctrines, Zukofsky’s ‘sincerity’ [from his ‘Sincerity and Objectification with Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff’, Poetry 2/31] and Pound’s ‘Imagism’. With respect to Imagism, as Davidson notes, ‘Unlike Reznikoff or Williams, Oppen’s aesthetics is decidedly nonvisual. He places his faith in parts of speech and speech acts rather than images’ [p. xxxii]. When it came to Zukofsky, Oppen’s criticism was that he ‘used obscurity and incomprehensibility as a tactic, leaving the reader behind’ [p. xxiii], while Oppen argued for greater clarity.

Consequently, while frequently oblique and abstract, punctuated by terseness and elision, Oppen’s poems find scattered instances of the objectified and concrete, as in

                  Closed car ­ closed in glass ­
                  At the curb,
                  Unapplied and empty:
                  A thing among others
                                    [Discrete Series
p. 13]

There are also numerous sightings from the urban environment, though also from circumstances offshore, as

                  Wave in the round of the port-hole
                  Springs, passing, ­ arm waved,
                  Shrieks, unbalanced by the motion ­
                  Like the sea incapable of contact
                  Save in incidents (the sea is not
                  water)
                                    [‘Party on Shipboard’, Discrete Series
p. 15]

and another short poem:

                  The edge of the ocean,
                  The shore: here
                  Somebody’s lawn,
                  By the water
                                    [a complete poem from Discrete Series
p. 18]

A lengthy interim then enters in and Oppen does not formally return to writing poetry until 1958. Here a familial connection has a fortuitous bearing in that his stepsister June had been publishing the San Francisco Review
which undertook a collaborative venture for a series of volumes with James Laughlin at New Directions, who were to publish Oppen’s next two books, also his longest and fullest, The Materials in 1962, and This In Which in 1965. The dedication of the latter book is ‘For June / Who first welcomed / me home’.

The Materials
consists of a large number of shorter poems, some 41, several of which had been begun in Mexico prior to Oppen’s return to the US. The first poem Oppen wrote on returning to poetry was ‘Blood from the Stone’ which contains fragmentary reflections on returning home, the difficult experiences of the ’30s and war time incidents and encounters, where Oppen was himself wounded in action with the infantry. Here in the late ’50s Oppen comments on the communal connotations of

                  Blood from a stone, life
                  From a stone dead dam. Mother
                  Nature! because we find the others
                  Deserted like ourselves and therefore brothers. Yet
                 
                  So we lived
                  And chose to live

                  These were our times.

A similar kind of poise, gesturing to the future while mindful of past events occurs in ‘Return’:

                  This is not our time, not what we mean, it is a time
                  Passing, the curl at the cutwater,
                  The enormous prow
                  Outside in the weather. In that breeze,
                  The sense of that passage,
                  Is desertion,
                  Betrayal, that we are not innocent
                  Of loneliness

In another piece from The Materials
Oppen adapts a theme from Whitman before recapitulating an excerpt from one of his Thirties poems, in ‘Myself I sing’, where he is given an ambivalence to say ‘all I’ve been / Is not myself? I think myself / Is what I’ve seen and not myself’, and continues

                  On the beach
                  The ocean ends in water. Finds a dune
                  And on the beach sits near it. Two.
                  He finds himself by two.
                  Or more.
                  ‘Incapable of contact
                  Save in incidents’
                  And yet at night
                  Their weight is part of mine.

Oppen’s next book, This in Which
, shows considerable continuity with the earlier work, with an abundance of short poems, although Oppen does venture into a number of long poems, notably ‘A Language of New York’, whose contents would subsequently be adapted for ‘Of Being Numerous’. The piece ‘A Narrative’ in its 11 short sections encompasses meditations on place and the use of language, with Oppen as offspring of an immigrant family asserting from the outset, with perhaps intimations of the McCarthyite hearings:

                  I am the father of no country
                  And can lie.

                  But whether mendacity
                  Is really the best policy. And whether

                  One is not afraid
                  To lie.
                                    [‘A Narrative’ 1]

Elsewhere Oppen reflects on how in seafaring ‘events / Emerge on the bow like an island’, ‘Above the tide line / and its lighthouse’ and how they ‘explain each other, / Not themselves.’ [‘A Narrative’ 3] Later there is the observation

                  I cannot know

                  Whether the weight of cause
                  Is in such a place as that, tho the depth of water
                  Pours and pours past Albany
                  From all its sources.
                                    [from ‘A Narrative’ 6]

The final section concerns itself with ‘River of our substance / Flowing / With the rest.’ [A Narrative’ 11] Drawing on his sailing experience, Oppen comments on

                  The marvel of the wave
                  Even here is its noise seething
                  In the world; I thought that even if there were nothing

                  The possibility of being would exist;
                  I thought I had encountered

                  Permanence
                                    [from ‘A Narrative’ 11]

as he goes on ‘For in that sea we breathe the open / Miracle // Of place’ [‘A Narrative’ 11] with an imperative for making speech in how we might ‘rescue / Love to the ice-lit // Upper World a substantial language / Of clarity, and of respect.’ [close of ‘A Narrative’ 11]

The piece ‘A Language of New York’ acts as a precursor to ‘Of Being Numerous’ in several ways, notably for excerpting the Whitman epigraph with which the piece closes: ‘The capitol grows upon one in time...’ [‘A Language of New York’ 8]. Oppen stresses the city’s materialism, beginning with ‘A city of the corporations’ and ‘the pure joy / Of the mineral fact // Tho it is impenetrable’ [‘A Language of New York’ 1]. By the middle section Oppen is asserting that it is

                  Possible
                  To use
                  Words provided one treat them
                  As enemies.
                  Not enemies ­ Ghosts
                                    [‘A Language of New York’ 4]

Later he observes how it is ‘Strange that the youngest people I know / Like Mary-Anne live in the most ancient buildings’ and how

                  The ancient buildings
                  Jostle each other

                  In the half-forgotten, that ponderous business,
                  This Chinese wall.
                                    [conclusion to ‘A language of New York’ 7]

Here, as elsewhere, Oppen’s attitude to the materialism of the city is sceptical, scrupulous and mindfully attentive.

Oppen’s writing takes a departure with the following book, Of Being Numerous
, [New Directions 1968], winning the Pulitzer Prize, according to Eliot Weinberger ‘to everyone’s surprise’ [p. xii], which includes just seven poems being dominated by the extensive title poem in its 40 sections, by far Oppen’s longest integrated piece. This long, highly diversified poem appears to concern itself with questions of creative generativity through the generations, working in seven of the eight sections of ‘A Language of New York’, including at the conclusion the Whitman epigraph. An oft cited moment here occurs in the seventh section:

                  Obsessed, bewildered

                  By the shipwreck
                  Of the singular

                  We have chosen the meaning
                  Of being numerous
                                    [‘Of Being Numerous’ 7]

Further along, however, Oppen refers to how ‘It is difficult now to speak of poetry ­’. ‘One would have to tell what happens in a life, what choices present themselves’ though

                  One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads
                  in his hands,
                  He must somehow see the one thing
                                    [from ‘Of Being Numerous’ 27]

And further,

                  Tho the world
                  Is the obvious, the seen
                  And unforeseeable,
                  That which one cannot
                  Not see

                  Which the first eyes
                  Saw ­
                                    [‘Of Being Numerous’ 36]

‘is / Knowledge’, and may bring an inclination towards

                  Clarity
                 
                  In the sense of transparence
,
                  I don’t mean that much can be explained.

                  Clarity in the sense of silence.
                                    [‘Of Being Numerous’ 22]

This long poem touches on many topics, on conditions of living and experience, and cannot easily be summarised or digested, although as Eliot Weinberger has commented, Oppen ‘wrote short poems and series of short poems, and what is remarkable is that nearly any of the short poems could have been placed in one of the series, any of the series poems could have been a separate short poem, and almost none of them can stand alone as self-contained “anthology pieces”.’ [p. xi]

Oppen’s subsequent book, Seascape: Needle’s Eye
[Sumac Press 1972], is shorter but adopts a similar structure by focusing on an extended serial piece ‘Some San Francisco Poems’ which takes up half the volume’s length. By this time, of course, the Oppens had relocated back to San Francisco, where Oppen grew up. The long poem takes in numerous impressions and experiences of living in and around the San Francisco Bay area. Midway through Oppen writes of ‘the liquid waves / In the tide rips’, of how

                  One writes in the presence of something
                  Moving close to fear
                  I dare pity no one
                  Let the rafters pity
                  The air in the room
                                    [‘Some San Francisco Poems’ 6]

Elsewhere, with another instance of leaning to the future, Oppen evinces

                  Sanity to redeem
                  Fragments and fragmentary
                  Histories in the towns and the temperate streets
                  Too shallow still to drown in or to mourn
                  The courageous and precarious children
                                    [conclusion to ‘Some San Francisco Poems’ 9]

Oppen’s last book was the slim volume Primitive
[Black Sparrow 1978], which came out after the publication of his first Collected Poems, in London from the Fulcrum Press in 1972 and in 1975 from New Directions of New York. Primitive reverts to the previous pattern of featuring an assembly of short poems, of which there are 13. The volume concludes with a somewhat anachronous invocation of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ in a frequently cited passage recalling Oppen’s youth:

                  writing

                  thru the night (a young man,
                  Brooklyn, 1929) I named the book
                 
                  series empirical
                  series all force
                  in events the myriad

                  lights have entered
                  us it is a music more powerful

                  than music

                  till other voices wake
                  us or we drown
                                    [conclusion to ‘Till Other Voices Wake Us’]

although elsewhere in this volume we find

                  the seed

                  is a place the stone
                  is a place mind

                  will burn the world down alone
                  and transparent

                  will burn the world down tho the starlight is
                  part of ourselves
                                    [conclusion to ‘Waking Who Knows’]

Some 60 or so pages of this New Collected Poems
are given over to uncollected and unpublished pieces, as well as there being included a dozen poems that were first published under the title Myth of the Blaze in the 1975 Collected. There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, no startling inroads here, it rather being a case of filling in spaces of omission, of what Oppen was in a position to publish. Two memoirs of close writerly friends set some of the tone here. In recalling a meeting with the elderly Carlos Williams he comments on ‘Bill before his death / Bill very old / Still like a boy’ although as testimony indicates

                  a leg
                  Dragging, his speech
                  Impeded ­ ‘You cannot
                  Imagine’, he said,
                  ‘What has
                  Been happening
                  To me ­’
                                    [‘(Bill Before His Death’)]

There is, besides, a memoir of Charles Reznikoff, ‘who wrote / in the great world // small for this is a way’ where

                  spread as the mountains’
                  light this is

                  heroic this is
                  the poem

                  to write

                  in the great
                  world small

                                    [‘In Memoriam Charles Reznikoff’, uncollected]

Oppen’s style has been as Weinberger notes ‘impossibly inimitable’ [p. vii]. Nonetheless there is the commitment to clarity and an adherence to material circumstances that may influence other poets, perhaps conscious of the Objectivist cluster of which Oppen was part. It is an alive and aware, a rare, poetry, written through a thorough process of introspection, of self awareness, highly attuned both to the natural environment and to Oppen’s situatedness at different times in conflicted social settings.

                                    © Clark Allison 2003


New Collected Poems
by George Oppen, 433pp, £14.95, Carcanet