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George Oppen
Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers
Edited and with an Introduction by Stephen Cope

reviewed by Michael Heller
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

This review is about 5 printed pages long. It is copyright © Michael Heller and Jacket magazine 2008.

Michael Heller

Towards the Incomplete Work:

A Note on Oppen’s «Daybooks»


Stephen Cope’s meticulously edited book of George Oppen’s prose, Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers (University of California Press, 2008), referred to here as the Daybooks, arrived just as I was turning in a volume of my essays on Oppen. I felt I had to say something quickly about the Daybooks, but this note in no way does sufficient justice to the richness of the book Cope has produced for us. That will have to come later. For now, this short essay will try to outline some of its contours for further study.

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In form, the Daybooks resemble previously published excerpts from Oppen’s archives such as “The Circumstances,” “Philosophy of the Astonished” and “Meaning Is To Be Here” that I have referred to throughout my essays. The section of the Daybooks entitled “Twenty Six Fragments” was previously published in much the same format in Oppen’s Selected Poems, edited by Robert Creeley. Besides adding much new material in the Daybooks, what is significantly different from the previously published work, as Cope describes it, is that the material collected here was bound up into little packets stapled or held together by paper clips and pipe-cleaners. Each single page, Cope tells us, constitutes the compositional unit for the thoughts, sentences and phrases that make up the work. A number of the actual pages are reproduced photographically, and we can see that the pages have a somewhat disorderly and even crude appearance with their mixtures of typed and handwritten material and the hastily drawn boxes with which Oppen occasionally surrounded passages.


Describing his efforts to retain the spontaneous and improvisional character of the Daybooks, Cope writes that “they comprise an incomplete work — a partial and diffuse commentary the nature of which requires that they remain so” (D 16). There is no linearity, no tight unity of subject matter or time to these compilations, and, as he reminds us, they were a continual ongoing work in progress, added to, edited, scratched out and rewritten at various periods in Oppen’s life. Cope has excised the rough drafts of poems and sections of poems that were originally in these pages. However, as one reads, one finds echoes and even near-variants of many lines found in the poetry, many of these usefully annotated by Cope in the endnotes. Despite the off-hand feel of the page, the “booklets” often seem to make up a number of meditative or processual units, and form an extended if somewhat decentered whole in which certain subjects are ruminated on across a number of entries, then dropped only to resurface again. The work may require new strategies for understanding on the part of its readers, but there are over-arching themes that are continually reflected upon and rethought.


“Daybook I,” for example, begins with an entry reading: “real proletarians,” “salt of the earth,” references to Herbert Biberman’s blacklisted film of 1954, Salt of the Earth, about a zinc miners strike in New Mexico. Biberman used blacklisted writers and crew to make the film. This information must have set off a string of associations for Oppen who, in a sense, blacklisted himself from both poetry and the United States in that dark era of the fifties. The entries that follow description of the film move on to left- and right-wing politics, to comparisons between peoples’ rights in capitalist and socialist countries, “reactionary attitudes,” and hints of the politics in the intersections of history and the lives the Oppens led:


The 60 generations of historical time — We are an old race:   that is,
there must have been a lot of us.
That must face age

We feel it was ourselves who live through history. No other people
do? — The orphan blitheness of “others” (D 53).


Right after these thoughts, Oppen seems to interject a note about poetry, one that also suggests the language of propaganda: “Words are a constant enemy: the thing seems to exist because the word does.” As Cope notes, the words echo an important and much-commented on passage from the poet’s “A Language of New York,” that reads “Possible to use words/provided one treat them as enemies” (NCP 116). The leap here between meditations on thinking about politics and poetic language is not illogical; the Daybooks, more than any other document by Oppen can be seen as a laboratory in which every aspect of his poetry from its diction to its technique and reception is tested ethically as well as literarily. In my essay “The Voice of the Impersonal: Oppen and Celan,” I reflect on how the poem in which the phrase “words as enemies” appears is tied to the poet’s political experience and use of language.


The following entries in the Daybook return indirectly to the economic and political. Technically, they resemble Pound’s use of the metonym to concretize and vivify a subject, to create an aura around a word that operates not only to signify but to create an opening on the social, cultural and historic dimensions of the material:


The assistants, the suppliers, the managements:
The iron ships in the harbor, the iron locomotives at the
             the edge of the city
The black pilings driven into the sea’s bottom, the
             divers, the pilings gathering sea growth in the
             disturbed harbor-water


A hand-drawn box surrounds the next entry, and it looks almost like a small poem captured out of the flux of Oppen’s thinking:


The light of an office window shining on the window ledge of snow


This entry is followed by a passage returning to the subject of poetry:


(Inert? Inert poetry? Inert steel?)       (D 54)


What becomes clear, page by page, is that Oppen’s writings here are a simulacrum of the manner in which his finished poems move along the page, alternating images with tensed rhetorical constructions that seem to have gone through their own refining poetic fire.


Oppen insisted that he wrote a “poetry of statement,”, and, as the passages he writes make clear, his concern was to make them dynamic, to avoid an “inert poetry” even as the tendency of his phrasing to make statements led potentially toward such an effect. He wanted to achieve “the courage of clarity//Intrepidly clear” (D 54). And yet, he was aware of the word’s tendency, even in clarity of content, to gather meaning to itself, to accrue more meaning or variants than the poet wishes. Just after “inert steel?,” he writes: “For each particle of oxygen, two of hydrogen — “ as if describing how language gathers semantic plenitude:


          for this the ship floats
          for this the man drowns


The untoward meanings of words may be dangerous, he thinks. Words must be treated as “enemies.” The Daybooks entries shuttle back and forth between the hope of words and the fear of them — that constant tension I have described above. Oppen remarks on “Oriental art: the thing and its distinction (which of course reveals actually the human subjectivity: human meanings)” (D 55). One of his boxes surrounds “Nevertheless, Truth follows/The existence of something” (D 56). The words are in a typeface larger than the rest of the text, as though shouting back a warning to the poet who has typed them. The re-inforcing underlining is his. We recall that this phrase is from Thomas Aquinas’s Latin “veritas sequitur esse rerum” (translation: truth follows the beingness of things) used as an epigraph to his poem, “Psalm,” with its lines “the small nouns/Crying faith/In this in which” (NCP 99), lines that Oppen maintained expressed his sense of what it meant to be a “realist’ poet. “Thing” and “something” point to what is out there, but “truth” and “subjectivity” are in the realm of the poet’s subjective mind where language which expresses “truth” or “subjectivity” is tested. “Psalm” is Oppen’s near-religious expression of his poetics. His “faith,” as he writes a little further in “Daybook I,” is a faith held against “the threat of generalization” (D 57).


No matter where one looks in the Daybooks, there is a feeling of instability, but also of a deep attentiveness on the part of the poet to know and manage the direction and reversals of feeling, to explore the vertiginous character of passion as both intellection and emotion. “I mean my work to be a process of thought, he writes in “Daybook III”. Which means I am the literary equivalent of the scientist. not of the [   ] — not, that is to say, of the entertainer” (D 156). For the poet, this approach constitutes, as he put it in  one of his ruled boxes, “an ethics of fastidiousness” (D 84).


A wide variety of subjects are touched upon in the Daybooks, theories of poetry, various poets both living and dead, right and left politics, culture, philosophy and the philosophers who deeply interested the poet. The writing itself is at times essayistic, at other times “poetic.” In such a polyvalent mental world, fastidiousness is a process, even a hope, not a fact or quality of the work. For almost every observation is met somewhere else in the text by its contrary, by a feeling or attitude moving in another direction. This back and forth comes as Oppen weighs the history of the words he uses and the thoughts he takes up. For him, truth-value lies not in some essential meaning but in the way the poem can highlight and reveal the accruals and incrustations of language, accruals that are the legacy of worn-out usages and of social and political manipulations.


As Oppen saw it, the poet was to be concerned not with “blind emotion,” but with the “emotion that Discloses.” The truth of disclosure lay in the psychic energy borne on language and on the psychic cost of truth to the poet. “For me,” he writes, “the sense of thinking beyond what I already know ^or what someone already knows^ is terrifying” (D 78). The adjective that comes to mind for Oppen’s “process of thought” with all their contraries, is “Blakean.”


The Daybooks further confirm that for Oppen, precision of statement led deeper into uncertainty. With every formulation of an idea or an observation, the world seems to become more mysterious to him. Instability, uncertainty, these were the atmospherics and risks of enlarging freedom. The poet who followed out their dictates and pressures was that “unacknowledged legislator” of reality. To such a figure, Oppen assigns a major role:  “The culture belongs to us — the poets, artists, professors...intellectuals — precisely as it always has” (D 70). On every page, the Daybooks testifies to this belonging.

Michael Heller

Michael Heller

Michael Heller’s collection of essays, Speaking The Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen is forthcoming from Salt Publishing in 2008. A new collection of poems, Eschaton (Talisman House Publishers) and Marble Snows: Two Novellas (ahadadabooks) will also be published in 2008. His prose/poetry work, Beckmann Variations, was published in the New England Review and nominated for the Pushcart Prizes.

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