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Mary Oppen, George Oppen, Swathmore, 1979. Photo Robert S. DuPlessis.

Mary Oppen, George Oppen, Swathmore, 1979. Photo Robert S. DuPlessis.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Oppen from seventy-five to a hundred, 1983–2008

Originally prepared for SUNY, Buffalo: George Oppen Conference, delivered April 24, 2008 (Oppen’s 100th birthday). In revised form, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, Oppen Conference, November 15–16, 2008. All photographs © Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Robert S. DuPlessis, helped by Joel Elliott of the National Humanities Center, North Carolina, in making useable files.

paragraph 1

‘The self is not simply put forward, but rather it is reworked in its enunciation.’
                      — Elspeth Probyn (1993, 2)

That this is I,
Not mine....
                      — George Oppen
                      (‘The Hills,’ The Materials, NCP 75)


Although a hundredth birthday is a moment of official retrospect, I want to talk on an unofficial and pensive level here, a mixed-genre temporal-emotional-intellectual meditation, a one-sided, public encounter with a wily and intense interlocutor. My topic — forget the purely literary critical here — is interactions between myself  and Oppen, with some implications about reception and about a sense of nexus — an ongoing motion-based engagement between literary figures. [1] For the interactions in the past 25 years, Oppen was mostly dead, but so far as I can tell, this didn’t stop things, though it did change them. In the years I have known Oppen and his family, including the years after his death, I have written about Oppen and his work several times, and am therefore aware, as Roman Jakobson has noted, that ‘Every verbal act in a certain sense stylizes and transforms the event [s] it depicts’ (Jakobson, 374).

George Oppen kneeling on their boat. 1968.

George Oppen kneeling on their boat. The silhouette is very characteristic.
Little Deer, 1968. Taken by Rachel Blau DuPlessis.



This paper is situated at the place at which biography and personal contact blur into, motivate, occasion, and propel reception. But it is also about sociality, projection, demands, counter-demands, mixed investments and motivations in one’s literariness. The growth of a poet’s mind is social and psychodynamic. It occurs interactively, with both the living and the dead — with people and with texts.


This is also an Oppenesque reading of literary reception because it is attentive to the accidents, the fluidity, the instability of my own connection with his work, an oeuvre that also entered, both willingly and with shocking waywardness, into the chances and fluxes of time, fate, and situation. I want to highlight the unstable, unsettled moments of interaction that induce the vagaries of reception, textual vagaries, and potential losses. So this is not only an affiliative reading, it is an affective one. [2]


As a prompt, I will reuse a few parts of something I wrote and delivered twenty-five years ago, on April 24, 1983, for the celebration of Oppen’s 75th birthday in San Francisco. [These are the sections marked ‘April, 1983’ below] [3] This event was held in front of the rather fading George. The photograph now in the Selected Letters says a lot — Mary Oppen and Mark Linenthal look like themselves, but George is looking rather odd, a bit queasy and unsure, rather destabilized (SL 351). He was going to die about fifteen months after this celebration, in July 1984. [4]


‘On the Island’ begins with an ascent to their walk-up apartment in Brooklyn for one of our first meetings:


Going up the steps    to the folk masks from Mexico — their collection    hangs on the wall outside the door. [5]

April, 1983


Mexican masks are a forthright popular form; the Oppens did have a striking collection — there were perhaps thirty masks that I saw on the wall in 1965 or so, allegorically 3 masks per year for each Oppen — George, Mary, Linda — for the Mexico years. An interesting motif with which to begin.


The Mexico period remains mysterious, although Peter Nicholls has begun to fill it in using certain recently published memoirs of the time by some red diaper babies, but he cautions in general about ‘the complex dialectic of forgetting and remembering’ that works out of Oppen’s life into his poetic career (along with ‘an ambivalence about origins’) (Nicholls 24 — 27, 5). [6]  There was a painful, pained, volatile community among the exiles. One of his friends from that era, the avant-garde innovator, composer Colon Nancarrow responded to my query for any letters for the Selected Letters with a terse reply expressing his bitterness at how George cut off contact with (at least some of) his friends from that era once the Oppens returned to the States permanently in 1960 (they had left the US in 1950). It was a hurt, hurtful, enraged, smoldering period, as reflected in that brusque aftermath. [7]  


George also ended up with a strong resistance to, a serious distaste for Mexican culture. This derived in part from bribes, arrangements, and stalemate, from being blocked and in an emotional and political cul de sac. But at the same time, one wonders whether the Oppens retained any excitement about radical artists such as Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfero Sequieros or Diego Rivera, for they had visited post-revolutionary Mexico happily and respectfully in 1934 (Meaning a Life abbreviated MAL 149 — 150; Mary does not mention Frida Kahlo; see Nicholls 21 — 22). Oppen never learned Spanish (or said he didn’t, which comes to the same thing). This still chills me, not only for what it says but for the cultural possibilities that it foreclosed.


During those years the Communist/leftist exiles were very beset, spied upon by Mexican police at the behest of the U.S., vulnerable. [8] Indeed, the only dates I found for those years when I was editing the Letters came from the FBI files on Oppen that I asked for and received (though heavily censored to protect names of agents and spies) under the Freedom of Information Act. Further, any illusion of the Soviet dream seems to have evaporated — if it had not already with the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 — with the 1953 show trial of Jewish doctors in the USSR, whose transcript, Jean Butler Rouverol surmises, the Oppens were reading at that time (Rouverol 125 — 26).

George Oppen and Mary Oppen on Little Deer Island in Maine. 1968?

George Oppen and Mary Oppen on Little Deer Island in Maine. Rachel Blau DuPlessis took it in an instant without posing them - she was simply walking in front of them and turned and called out to them. Probably 1968.



The exiles had to deal with the rupture, through the gloating McCarthyite persecutions, of a generation of radical hopes for social and economic justice in the U.S. [9] The ground was cut out from people; they were squeezed from both sides of the deepening Cold War. As John Lowney states in his cogent application of this history to issues of ‘cultural discontinuity’: ‘The ruins of memory evoked in late modernist poetry are at once the ruins of utopian desire, of the revolutionary consciousness associated with the 1930s, and the more tangible ruins of politically contested sites that were subject to cold war historical amnesia’ (Lowney 7).


We can only surmise the working through that was at stake, showing in things like the decisive ‘rust in copper’ dream, whose impact of realizations George described vividly as his split between almost suicidal mania (driving like a crazy person from side to side of the road in a car), and his shock — I could have killed myself: so now what. [10] In that striking incident, often narrated by Oppen (climaxed by the remembered words of his therapist ‘You were dreaming that you did not want to rust’), something finally got decided in the way of facing the long repressed and long deferred literary vocation. [11]


Perhaps recovery from wartime was also at issue — all the scarring, emotional stress, guilt, sorrow and survivor’s luck make, according to veterans, a very fraught minefield. Oppen is pretty clear about this. He speaks to John Crawford as having had two defining dreams in his life (SL 126 — 28). ‘Rust in copper’ was one. The second was — ‘I dreamed that I shouldn’t be trying to kill people’ (SL 126). Which is as much to say I made a mistake trying to. There was a good deal of unspoken guilt in Oppen — untrackable feelings on which the poetry helped him make good. [12] Stephen Cope speaks about ‘negative culpability,’ torquing the Keats phrase, and it has a magnetic rightness (Cope ed., 6).


One passed thru that door to

    inside, barer

April, 1983


This large line break and stanza break in my original piece, preceded an anacoluthon with a gap almost impossible to fill. (Even with this essay.) Oppen as avatar. Oppen as cultural worker. Oppen as astute, intelligent, intransigent. Oppen as an innovator. The eroticism of retrospect and of respect. The example of the middle-aged Oppens mulling what George and Mary had done and what they had become and — this is crucial — what they were still becoming.


When he came back to writing in 1958, Oppen was 50 years old, yet appeared even older, craggy, like an ‘ancient of days’ or ‘old salt’ survivor: sinewy, awkward, wrinkled, and with often unreadable dark-black deep-set eyes (cf. Eliot Weinberger in NCP vii-xii). He was to have just twenty more years of active writing. In 1958, he immediately began three tasks, all inflected with belated literariness. First, he reached out to certain editors — James Laughlin (New Directions in New York) and Henry Rago (Poetry in Chicago), and to his own half-sister June Oppen Degnan who was (for her own reasons) involved with San Francisco Review and was deeply, deeply invested in his literary career. [13] Second, he began the process of reconnecting with the scattered remnant of “objectivists”; for starters, there was a touchingly ill-advised car trip to Mexico with the Zukofsky family.

George Oppen, Swarthmore, 1979.

George Oppen sitting on a deck chair at the DuPlessis house, 211 Rutgers Avenue, Swarthmore, PA, in 1979. Taken by Rachel Blau DuPlessis.


And third, he began looking for young people. He needed a circle, a coterie, a cenacle, and sought actively to sustain that intellectual, social and poetic network. In her Mexico memoir, Jean Rouverol said that ‘friendship with the Oppens... was a little like being admitted into an enchanted kingdom’ (Rouverol 175); this was true enough for some who knew George and Mary in the early to mid-1960s. Oppen’s main task was, of course, writing. And he really was writing, he says five, even eight hours a day — making up for lost time (Sulfur 26, 150 — 151, Cope, ed. 3, SL 18). Because of the gigantic fold or crimp in the middle of his literary career, Oppen had the intensity, enthusiasm, curiosity and stamina of someone young. But he had no time to waste, either. The sense of his responsiveness was incredible, the sense of a searching mind was exemplary. And a little frightening.


What I was first most grateful for was Oppen’s sense of mutual comradeship and striving. I saw our bond as affiliation in the service of poetry, not as forms of filial piety on which I had to deliver. This finding is inflected by my own family of origin; Oppen was, let’s say, less patriarchal than my own father, and that was rather helpful. He seemed to be a mentor without colonizing aspirations; others may feel differently. (He also emphatically did not want to be used by others. [14]) As someone struggling then invisibly (to me!) with the daughter position in the university and the female position in culture (meaning at least obedience, charm, and concealed, confused ambition as well as disposibility), I was grateful that he was a person who tried to respect another’s struggles.


The ethos of critique and resistance and droll, biting humor one saw in him; the smart practicality, life knowledge, and wit from Mary had quite an impact: pretty overwhelming; pretty welcoming, too. For all these reasons and more the Oppens were a door to an extraordinary space for a number of people; one wants (perhaps vainly) to resist mythologizing that charisma. The auratic experience of ‘seeing Shelley plain’ is only part of this story. But it is one part; such commitments constitute a serious stage in poetic reception.


inside, barer

The earnest girl climbed up the shredding stairs    passed thru the door

April, 1983


Oppen had a correspondence with many people seeking whatever response they could responsibly give. (Letters then were like email now; the post office delivered twice a day.) If this activity was self-instruction for George, if it provided a tain-thick mirror in which he could see his own opacity, his own capacity, his own thinking, this instruction was also formidable for his interlocutors. Poets self-create by using others, connecting with others, sometimes fervently, ruthlessly, excitedly; they help create other cultural workers by these connections.


The letters and the papers, daybooks, aphorisms, and continuous writing, the poems and poetic drafts that were edited in our turns by myself, Michael Davidson and Stephen Cope are on a continuum, and all derive from the intense work Oppen did during the years from 1958 until his death. [15] Oppen began proposing complex thought through writing — thinking with himself dialogically on the page; setting down propositional insight at the extreme, even propositions and feelings that almost contradicted each other; talking back to and through certain key texts of contemporary philosophy and theory (as Peter Nicholls has incisively shown); and engaging seriously with poetics and politics in letters. Negotiating interchange was a very key part of the twenty-plus years from 1958 on. Oppen needed contact very badly, yet he was moving so fast that it was hard sometimes to keep up. [16]


The word ‘nexus’ helps frame the nature and unfolding of such literary interchange. Proposed in the DuPlessis/Quartermain introduction to The Objectivist Nexus — this is ‘a linkage among production and transmission...a three [or four] dimensional model of participation, production, and reception over time’ that emphasizes mutual interactions of poets (and critics) — even negative and unpleasant interactions — in the construction of their poetry and poetics (DuPlessis & Quartermain, 21, 22). Nexus thinking assumes that no artist and even (perhaps in another sense) no artwork can possibly be only self-made, made alone, made without the input of others (no matter how hidden that input is). Certainly ‘the pleasure/ of companionship’ plays a role (NCP 158).

Mary Oppen, George Oppen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Swarthmore, 1979.

Mary Oppen, George Oppen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis sitting on the deck of the DuPlessis house, 211 Rutgers Avenue, Swarthmore, PA, in 1979. Taken by Robert S. DuPlessis.



To analyze the filiations of various kinds of relationships and emotions among artists and their support staff (helper figures, family, friends, publishers, desired figures, lovers, enemies, interlocutors, the merely curious, etc.), to examine artist’s links with various discursive formations, rhetorics and debates, as well as various contestations with texts and positions, and finally, even, to detail the deployments and interpretations offered by readers and users of a work across time, all are nexus moves that undercut vestiges of ‘genius thinking.’


That is, nexus thinking limits idealization of the pure work, the pure focus of pure artists, and makes a critique of ideas of reception based on universal aesthetic standards that never change. This nexus-based position, proposed here by someone working as both speaking subject and historical object, looks at filiations and personal/aesthetic dynamics across time and also acknowledges the scrambled and suspicious relations among people, the unevenness, the oddities, the missed connections, the projections, the mixed motivations. Nexus thinking and discussing affiliative relations will allow discussion of many features of the literary life that otherwise could get dropped and sealed off as ‘biography’ — an inadequate box. To think in terms of nexus is to move the framing given by biography into another paradigm.


One of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me in my literary life was receiving a draft copy of  ‘Of Being Numerous’ in the mail. In 1965, I was a graduate student sort of, and sort of a poet, wayward, conflicted, yearning — and, of course, female. [17] I had met Oppen for the first time barely two months before. Nothing, absolutely nothing had prepared me for this experience — of knowing instantly that I had received a major poem, a work of great poetic force and intellectual originality. It was like having a meteor land in your backyard. Should I use the word ‘masterpiece,’ even all deconstructed? Should I bother to say ‘genius’ when I disagree with that concept? Let’s at least say — this poem was sufficient to the day.


The poem belonged to the thought of a generation ripped apart by the Vietnam War, which was the ripping apart of the US, and Oppen was giving it back to some of that generation — it was a measure of what he learned from the thirties and the fifties, what he had observed that was parallel — the unfinished business of radical hopes brought forward, and yet infinitely compromised and compressed. The poem is in part a ferocious meditation on a staggering set of circumstances: government malfeasance and lies, Realpolitik calculation, aggression that, as always, rebounds, the literal horrors of war, with the backdrop being a historically rupturing assassination of a popular president and other political figures as well. This along with the questions that derive from 30’s activism: is social transformation possible? what are the ethical goals and political values of community? how can one create aesthetic and formal meanings from the desire for social justice? [18]


In sending this work to a few people, Oppen might even have had the idea beforehand to incorporate their responses into the on-going poem. He was certainly committed both to the idea of a watchful community and to the vectors of seriality, with its conflictual leaps of self-debating thought and its acknowledgement of emotional and epistemological gaps. [19]  


So what do you do when you get something that sufficient in the mail and you hardly understand it? Well, as William Carlos Williams might say, you got to try hard. Stunned by the poem, astonished by it, moved by it, ‘frightened’ by those words, and also proud of him for the shift this poem represented from its shorter seed poem, I managed to write back and, incidentally, to send my response special delivery (a gesture that touched Oppen). [20] Cobbling together any response at all, being inadequate (even embarrassingly so) for almost the full 2 pages of a single-spaced letter, I, finally, as in the statement emerging at the end of a therapeutic hour when you turn away and are about to leave, managed ‘Whether as the intensity of seeing increases, one’s distance from Them, the people does not also increase....’


Oppen’s use of my query to him, now at the beginning of section 9, told me something fundamental: a poem occurs when a person begins seriously to state honestly the most truth that can be managed brought into the page — a large multi-dimensional space symbolizing one’s reality inside the real. I learned this because he answers me (and all of us) quite openly, in a tone I recognize — testily, impatiently, wonderingly, working between the words know and no, testing thought out in the moment of statement.


‘Whether. as the intensity of seeing increases, one’s distance
     from Them, the people, does not also increase’
I know, of course I know, I can enter no other place

Yet I am one of those who from nothing but man’s way of
     thought and one of his dialects and what has happened
      to me
Have made poetry

To dream of that beach
For the sake of an instant in the eyes,

The absolute singular

The unearthly bonds
Of the singular

Which is the bright light of shipwreck (NCP 167)


As if to say, there is nothing to do about that distance between self and others; one envelops the distance in other ways, and yet also enacts it in a dangerously seductive desire for pure singularity, almost synonymous with the desire for one kind of working in poetry.


One of the things I admire in that frighteningly insoluble dialectic is the rhyme (me and poetry), me capping a very long line — arguably a twelve-stress line, far overreaching the epic alexandrine and surveying his life to date. The rhyme poetry joins this line with a very short line (2 stresses only). I don’t worry much about ‘man’s’ in this case, as there is a move in from the range of people as conscious beings, to English as one language among many, to a particular set of events and findings, the accidents that define one. It might be possible to worry a bit more. That conical focus nonetheless takes in many terms — all of which are plural. [21]


My main mis-step? I had suggested that George drop section 7. That section reads:


Obsessed, bewildered

By the shipwreck
Of the singular

We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous. (NCP 166)


What was I thinking, exactly? Well, probably overvaluing the Poundean-ly hermetic, the not-overt, the clandestine. I think the section appeared too bald or ‘obvious’ to me at the time. How wrong can one be? At least with my being so wrong, Oppen defended, in an important letter, his choice to keep the section that — after all — articulates his major theme (SL 121; see also NCP, Davidson’s notes 382 — 83). [22]


The apparently lyric basis of the poem is putting its own singularity at stake, testing it, resisting it, reluctantly reaffirming some kind of communality through particular, even tentative addresses out of singularity. Yet this is one of the trickiest poems of late modernism. It is perfectly unstable in this finding of reluctant reaffirmation: to have ‘chosen the meaning/ Of being numerous.’ ‘We” and “chosen’ are vital words, but at the same time, that meaning gets infinitely compromised, by what communality was (‘credulous’ tribal societies yet ones with some effective community) and what it is (‘brutal’ ‘shoppers,/ Choosers, judges’ and loathsome warmongers) (NCP 166 and 170). The generality — the people, ‘“the pure products”’ (Oppen cites from WCW), the ‘rootless mumbling,’ the moves made by a collectivity (like a murderous war), the upper middle class jet setters and the commodity identification of many folks compromise and rip through conviction — the people, whoever they are, are regarded with suspicion and wary distance.


Yet the ‘bright light’ carries distant overtones of the emanation of the nuclear bombs publicly tested during the 1950s; it is also the ferocity of the singular ego. There is going to be a very small place to stand in this poem, and that space consists in small (or utopian) warmish spots that might promise something — a ‘new generation’ already wounded, a ‘spot of light on the curb,’ a solitary man sweeping a basement, a few female family members, and the overburdened women who cannot (apparently) think their way out of this dilemma because of their responsibility in general to care for and to sustain others (NCP 178, 169, 180, 183). [23]


The secret word here may be ‘generation’ in all its senses, not to say gender; Oppen’s peculiar argument that he could not be frank enough (about fear and danger — e.g. about nuclear war) nor ruthless enough in his poetry until after Linda grew up constructs his own version of feminine care, familial inhibition and pulling one’s punches to shield others. [24]  The poem thereupon rejects this compromise by off-loading it on female figures. The little space he creates may involve a feminine (female-inflected) caring empathy coupled with a masculine ruthlessness or intransigence of thought that could indicate a couple, or a fused individual sensibility, or both. [25] That apparent gender opposites are not truly opposite is a finding linked to Nicholls’ existential reading: ‘In a curious way, then, the “shipwreck of the singular” and the “meaning of being numerous” are not antithetical options, as might first be thought, but are rather mutually implicated possibilities’ which one negotiates and ‘lives between’ (Nicholls 97 — 98, 108).


The ‘I’ is no longer singular — it has moved among and sometimes entered (as with ‘we’ and with ‘you’) a full range of pronouns. And part-whole relationships are thematically central. How does an individual feel inside a collectivity? A family? a city? a nation? an army? a neighborhood? a consumerist imperative? We want to think pure isolation is a problem (Crusoe), but we also idealize it — that purity and intensity of experience, that (apparent) self-sufficiency. [26] One cannot adhere to the illusion of an authentic transcendent subjectivity, but rather must ‘seize the self as a historically constituted being’ (Noland 85); a modern lyric self exists only in its endless inconclusive relation to its sociality, or numerousity.


In this analysis of singularity as resistance, I cite Carrie Noland: ‘Ultimately, as Adorno implies ... the lyric “I” must be preserved as a kind of reminder of the resistance to total standardization it represents. In the right hands the “I,” or the category of the subject, may become a thoroughly dialectical entity’ (Noland 82). In Oppen’s poem, ‘I’ has become a ‘thoroughly dialectical entity’ — ‘I’ argues back and forth with itself, alternating between ‘affirmation and regret, faith and suspicion’ (Noland 88). Oppen’s poem is unresolved between lonely singularity and community, between ruthlessness and care — this is both a social vision and one inflected with gender ideas. It is ‘so curious.’


Furthermore, Oppen explores a version of this ‘thoroughly dialectical entity’ through career modes and mechanisms as well as thematically and formally inside texts. First, Oppen has a lifelong dialogue with Mary Oppen, a fundamental if mainly untrackable baseline, often acknowledged by Oppen, thoroughly clear in all personal contact with them, and visible in the ‘we’ of the interviews. Then certainly his offering  ‘Of Being Numerous’ for commentary (and his incorporating disparate voices from that discussion) is dialogic. [27] There is the curious phenomenon of the textual variants that he played with — double poems with the same title, poems sent off that are different from the finally published versions, but in some sense also authorized. [28] And finally, closely related to the textual variants of individual poems, there is the modular form of some draft poems and some of the work late in his career that just about ruptures the iconicity or fetish of the ‘final’ — so that different line bundles were set into various/ different relational networks, and these were sometimes named as poems, but sometimes they were working drafts. It is very difficult to draw the line between late poems and late drafts, very difficult to say ‘finished.’ [29]


In all these modes, he puts at stake both the lyric self (category of the subject) and the lyric icon (the category of a finished poem). Both become instead ‘dialectical entities.’ His rejection of the iconic by making a poem porous, fluid, unstable, shimmering is something I return to again and again. [30] As in 1983,


The immense charm and satisfaction in Oppen’s texture of affiliation where word or phrase can go sideways and forward     positioned over several readings, for several inflections    the cadences expressing dialogic and social roots, exposing poetry as Bakhtin’s ‘elastic environment’ of discourses   (Bakhtin 276)

April, 1983


Textural openness, open weave syntax — an open ‘distance,’ and attenuated affiliation catch me every time. It’s the hovering line breaks, the startling leaps, how ‘the familiar becomes extreme’ in syntax and statement, the sense of mystery and materiality at once, the traveling outward via dialectical images, the structural mobility yet ontological intransigence, the situational movement among unresolvable contradictions.


Oppen’s lines create the sense of Jetztzeit, Benjamin’s Now-Time — ‘time filled by the presence of the now’ in which every object or insight seems suffused both with its own enormity and with its own possibility (Benjamin 261). This is Oppen’s compelling and impossible model for a poetics of awe. One of Oppen’s last poems contains the lines


........ the poem begins

neither in word
nor meaning but the small
selves haunting

us in the stones and is less

always than that help me I am   (NCP 274)


The linebreaks do not dramatize, but they shadow the text with doubles created by negotiating ‘the sequence of disclosure’ via segmentivity (Oppen, Sagetrieb 1984, 26). Immediately to continue ‘ me I am/ of that people the grass// blades touch’ is to be poised on the double subjectivity of the Whitmanic sublime and its compromise and the post-War poet (the small selves haunting, the grass blades covering the unthinkable). In Oppen, the unheimlich is right at home.


As well as section 9 of ‘Of Being Numerous,’ there was one more time my words were, at Oppen’s initiative, interwoven with his. Oppen used part of a poem of mine in ‘The Speech at Soli’ (NCP 238 — 39, 402 — 03). The citations in ‘The Speech at Soli’ are from ‘Elegies’ in Wells; I had sent him a much longer draft around 1971 or 1972 with the words ‘bringing to birth’ and ‘in the green storm’ in it, as well as the ‘young girls fall into [open] wells’ that he cites. [31] I was uncomfortable at the time with what he meant by the appropriation, and tried to scry the meaning, to read the entrails of that gesture. When he said (in the poem) that the citations were from  ‘a letter,’ not from a poem, I was unhappy — was I not a poet? One could imagine that I wasn’t. Trained by the somewhat infantilizing apprenticeship in the university (even as I claimed to resist this), I took every gesture of beloved authority and assiduously over-read it, probably missing the central point. I didn’t understand then that Oppen probably just liked the words; I couldn’t acknowledge easily or gracefully (graciously?) that they meant something to him. The power differential was too overwhelming.


And he even told me, in a letter of 21 March 1975, that he had ‘used your words because they were perfect’ (SL 301). Perfect, that is, for ‘thinking of the young women, the young women in small towns and farmlands...’ (Ironwood 24, 1984, 136). The poem is strikingly sympathetic to the compromised, eager, aggressive striving of those ‘young girls’ of the 1920s and their ‘new freedom,’ with which he clearly identified (Oppen, cited from an interview, NCP 402). Is it hard generously to credit that a man may identify with a girl? Yes, it is, when the man also has a lot of power. Yet it is a moving identification, too.


The poem also cites Pound quite critically! me far less so — therefore...what was my problem? [32] I simply didn’t understand what Oppen meant when he said in effect, I didn’t use you, ‘but your words     I simply stole   ‘em’ (SL 301). Of course I confused me and my words — who wouldn’t? Or better, I didn’t understand (in the words of my epigraph from Oppen) that this is ‘I’ but not ‘mine’ (NCP 75). No surprise — in so many ways young females had reason to feel possessive of their smallish goods when they were not feeling muse-like and generous. Aggression and claim did not then come easily. Yet now I’d say I then had only a limited and guarded sense of how poetry often constituted itself by means of a grasping and contentious set of debates and positionings; my understanding of the dynamic of torquing, borrowing, refashioning, subversion by trumping, allusion, citation has improved considerably since then. And that, in no small measure due to my identification of, and participation in feminist revisionary practices facing general culture and its products.


Compounding all this — let’s say this differential comprehension of intertexual relations (his and mine) by virtue of degrees of maturity and specificities of gender, this 1975 letter also included an identificatory yearning of Oppen to my poem-less vulnerability. One might call this countertransference. [33] He kindly, but also seriously stated ‘I feel sometimes too armored with all those poems written - - - - - written, I would like to be adrift again - -  I am afraid, I mean, that I might lose the sea’ (SL 301). This is perfectly remarkable, touching and revelatory. His own revulsion at the existence of an oeuvre to inhabit, his sense of being bound by what he had already done does explain his striking identification with the young and struggling from which so many of us benefited.


Yet at the same time, this letter ends with a postscript: his advice to ‘stop writing poetry’ and to write prose, which I heard then as a terrible blast, as you can imagine, not to speak of a pushing aside of my small powers to formulate my own agendas. However, what I’d now (perhaps self-interestedly) say the translation is — stop writing poetry that strains to be poetry, stop writing ‘poetry’ in quotation marks — just write. [34]  Do this as if you were writing prose; don’t get all balled up with some idealizing sense of the special status of poetry or the posturing of the poet-function. Taken this way, it’s actually quite reasonable advice.


That letter of 1975 was difficult for me; there is that strange sense in dealing with Oppen of ending up with almost no ground to stand on. But that little bit is worth a great deal. If you read the 1978 Kevin Power interview, it becomes clear enough that his poem tries to talk in muted autobiographical terms — Oppen actually says ‘confessional’! — about his own sense of yearning and rage, and that my words got mixed into this (NCP, Davidson’s note, 402). (Was it a mirror of my own yearning and rage? Do I finally understand this?) In any event, ‘The Speech at Soli’ is (in its quick montage of lines including the Pound critique in the middle of the poem) almost like a chronological career review of Oppen’s own motifs, with allusions to Crusoe, to the Maine poems, to ‘needle’s eye’ imagery of the horizon seen low on the water.


What shall I honestly say about appropriation and gender? I had to learn some fundamental and difficult things by being on the receiving end of appropriation. There are primary — ‘primitive’ — literary modes or gestures that involve the following kinds of activities: collaboration, quotation, copying, appropriation, influence, critique, imitation, adaptation, refashioning, borrowing, transmission, allusion and versions. Sometimes subversion and torquing. And stealing, as George cheerfully said. Plus, as if we don’t already know this, gender is (at least) a two-way, dialogic, power-laden street — everyone has some, and everyone has some situations variously inflected by it. (This is quite visible in his yearning to be like me, ‘adrift’ as an almost poem-less young woman. But then again, he was not me — he was a man sixty-seven years old, just about my age now.) But as I have said several different ways across my career, any gender differential or power differential certainly gets mixed in with appropriation. I felt then as if someone else had taken the interesting part of me, and I didn’t even know (or I couldn’t then figure out) what he meant by it or how I might respond. It is a curious feeling mixing the honored, the honorable, and the bereft. Yet there is also a necessary ruthlessness in taking what you need, something I now absolutely recognize. And honor. (In myself as much as in anyone.)


And thus in a recent poem I followed the urgency of my need to talk to and talk back to George. [35] ‘Draft 85: Hard Copy,’ written in 2007, was mapped, section by section, on the 40 sections of ‘Of Being Numerous.’ I wrote this work because I wanted first to speak to him at a parallel juncture in U.S. history (a shocking war, the criminal malfeasance of the U.S. government, a crisis of the civic), but I also clearly wanted to construct a somewhat different finding for some of the sections, particularly those about gender, sections that have bothered me since I wrote my first article about Oppen, published in Ironwood 5 in 1975.


I have had over the years to sort through all these feelings about appropriation and gender, and many more. Thinking that any one of George’s poems was even slightly addressed to you (by the use of your words, or something like that) was a terrific responsibility and almost a terror — out there on that cliff with those words, faced with the enormousness of space and the vast arc of his words — what was one to do? It was like sort in another sense — a fate.


So what about gender? What about this friendship between a young woman and an older, more magisterial man? In attitudes, Oppen was rather more egalitarian and accepting of women as artistic producers than many males I ran into, or up against, in 1965, when we had first met. This may have been his ‘young’ affect. He seemed curious as to what would emerge from women, and seemed intuitively to recognize that ‘sector’ as under-represented in culture. For instance, he didn’t brush off considerations of gender, as many would have done at that time. [36] This attitude, while also mixed and sometimes unstable, may have had several sources. First of all, George was feminine in certain ways, undefinable. Very gendered, very male, and yet vulnerable, feminine, proprioceptive, intuitive, pensive, willing to identify with and as a girl. [37] Then, he had complex feelings toward all the women in his family — among other reasons, he was the only male in that family. For instance, he showed an empathetic, if still very binarist sympathy to Diane (Andy) Meyer, his niece, in a letter that says ‘It is not a feminine culture, it is very hard for women. Terribly, terribly hard’ (SL 185). Mary and he were very frank with each other, and she was deeply engaged with her own observations of women at that time, particularly as the feminist movement came into being and drew some of her friends and herself into discussion. [38]


George also may have been affected in his relatively egalitarian gender attitudes by the political culture of the left, including the CP ‘line’ on the principled rejection of male chauvinism (whatever the actual impact of this ‘line’ on practice). Mary certainly had endured, in the 1930s, some forthright struggles in left circles to be a coequal (MAL 157 — 58). Certainly, to a larger extent than most, Oppen saw women, younger women, as comrades in the same way he saw younger men, with the added attraction that — they were women. For he also had a kind of deep and abiding and almost fantasy-laden love for women — as vulnerable, as strong, and desirable, as independent, as a very special kind of companion. As chosen companions. [39]


He also wavered on women, let’s say. It’s visible in the aura around the women in his family in ‘Of Being Numerous,’ particularly interesting where sexuality is concerned. The sections about desire speak about mutuality on one hand and speak from the gaze (and a kind of awe-struck wonder) on the other. It’s very much like the dialectic between us and one, between numerous and singular; a similar dialectic enters gender. So sometimes the generative couple is us, but then sometimes the couple is split into the pronouns I and her, a more familiar lyric topos.

Mary Oppen and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Swarthmore, 1979

Mary Oppen and Rachel Blau DuPlessis sitting on the deck of the DuPlessis house, 211 Rutgers Avenue, Swarthmore, PA, in 1979. Taken by Robert S. DuPlessis.



Another issue — more than a wavering, a pronouncement — comes in statements thoroughly powerful if problematic in the extreme — ‘THAT WOMEN HAVE NO HISTORY,’ and, as reported by Kathleen Fraser in conversation (and exists possibly elsewhere) that women cannot do philosophy, cannot think abstractly (a curiosity for someone who cited Simone Weil but also a commonplace at the time) (Cope ed. 72). So one might venture that Oppen might have been ambivalent to, and even unfair and wrong about aspects of women’s potential, but it was quite clear that he disliked and resisted masculinist stances with terrific fervor. The ‘elephantine masculinity’ he calls it in one 1970 letter (see note [49]). Was he anti-patriarchal, yet sometimes sexist? It is neither an un-useful nor unfamiliar position, certainly variably mobile. Was the glass half-empty for others? It was more than half-full for me, and my comments here reflect this.


So George challenged me, and I tried to learn something. My learning was all mixed up with my own imperfect abilities to enter and to process my own literary desires, but I did try. Thinking about this time now, one must remember how drenched in a gut-wrenching disregard for women and girls our culture was just a few decades back, how difficult it was to be a promising women artist, how blasting it was to navigate the kinds of hypocrisies and barriers that many men old and young (and ‘even’ some women) threw in your direction. And how internalized both complaisance and minority and even suspicion were in young women. It was really pretty amazing.


One of the first poems really by me (‘A Poem of Myself’ in Wells) still had been cut by George from a draft of about five times the size. [40] There is the motif of ‘I’ but not ‘mine’ again. This editing was so obvious in retrospect; the better artist has an X-ray vision for the real lines, the rest are easily declared excrescent, and the poem falls out, neat as a nut. [41] Which is to say, George helped me learn how to read myself. And finally, the defining acts of a poet are: to know how to read oneself, and to write the poems one wants to read. My benefit in having ‘ear training’ with Oppen was enormous.


‘A Poem of Myself’ is also notable as being about female vulnerability and a kind of incipience. Thus I still remember how thrilled I was that he recognized, in 1970 — 71, how important the feminist movement was to me. I began reading and writing about women, with a deep connection to the second-wave re-invention of feminist cultural thinking. Oppen recognized in a flash how vital was my political and cultural arousal to feminism. I think he recognized political yearning as a kind of utopian social erotics; it probably paralleled his arousal to the left. It seemed clear enough to him, in any event, how important it was for a woman to be inside the materials and issues of her gender — that is to stand in her own issues and contradictions, and to examine gender positions in culture, to work in her time, through this paradigm-shattering breakthrough.


In other lights, Oppen was Oppen, with flaws, annoyances, blind spots, needs, repeated anecdotes, a sometimes annoying, unanswerable bluntness. For example, he was, as I found when looking at his archive in the mid- to later 1980s, unsympathetic to, indeed moderately-to-heavily dismissive of some of the modern women writers on whom I was then working long and hard as a scholar and whose work has sometimes affected my poetry and its cultural tasks: H.D., Marianne Moore, Lorine Niedecker, Denise Levertov. [42]


Levertov is particularly fraught as a case, since you can see Oppen’s opinion shifting about her work. It’s plausible to consider that she was a touchstone or a symbol for something that changed or modulated in himself. Hence his vehemence in casting her out. Particularly with his long dialogue with (and sometimes monologue against) Levertov, he at first reluctantly, but then repeatedly thought of some women as ‘too nice’ — that is not following through enough, backing off, diminishing into sweetness  (See Blue Studios 191). Was this objectively true? was it situationally true? historically true? It probably was true enough at times. After all, Adrienne Rich used to say a similar thing as one of her many condensed insights about the situation of women in her important diagnostic poem ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.’


But what does it mean that a male writer notices this, particularly when he had (for a time) claimed that he has not written in order to ‘protect’ his daughter? Does the gender-location of the speaker matter? Yes, positionality generally does. The stricture can feel more judgmental in one mouth than in another. It is then arguable that younger women like myself benefited in all ways, bad and good, from his comments about the slightly older woman Levertov. Bad — the loss of solidarity and empathetic engagement with other women; that is, we younger women were not like that ‘older’ woman; yet judgment of that female literary figure is still held in the hands of the male figure. Good, the sense of freshness and possibility — we were not held to whatever female achievement had occurred (even in the near past); we could strike out on our own.


Oppen wanted a great deal from women; he wanted them always to manage to be co-equals, and sometimes they wouldn’t, couldn’t, and didn’t. That a man might get frustrated and annoyed at this is possibly annoying to the women involved — are his expectations an imposition? unfair? too high a standard, given ‘sexism’ in general? is he walking the walk or just talking the talk? does he care so much, but peculiarly, that it makes you run for cover? Let me be clear; there is no simple finding on this issue. Oppen was not simplistic; he was rather faceted about gender, much more so than many people were at the time. Unlike many men of his generation, he clearly was actively and sometimes sympathetically considering these issues — even just before the women’s movement began (as if he had a preternatural political sixth sense). And he actively encouraged women just as he encouraged men — which meant, of course, that he also discouraged them at times. It would be good to think that these facets and struggles could all be accounted for in any discussion, while it’s also clear that this material will continue to be debated.


And just an observation — between the reception of the exchanges in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, and Oppen’s then much less public strictures, I would like simply to observe that Levertov currently is getting seriously squeezed from two sides. Squeezed out? Is this how women writers disappear? through perfectly interesting and reasonable judgments by male writers, that nonetheless structure reception unto erasure...? [43] Differentials of gender power are very complicated indeed in the literary realm; if women cannot play on equal playing fields, they develop defensive and aggressive ways of not playing there; this then becomes their “fault” and their “fault” only?


[The Oppens had] a generational fluidity, as well as a class fluidity...The spectrum and spaces of generations they inhabited.

April, 1983


made them infinitely attractive  and they did have a gift for friendship
George was tough    George was wiry     George did not suffer fools gladly. And neither, though in a kinder way, did Mary [44]


Hunting, George searches the orts and scraps for a palimpsested poem in the dark house and comes into the soft kitchen mumbling in one or another line no this won’t do so that the contestation enters cadence; poem articulated and questioned    he disappears into the darkness.

We would sit in the dark, never turn the lights on. In Maine, at Henry Street, the sunset pulled away. Voices up and down, out of blackness. George’s tufted silhouette stands against the window. The acrid spot of his pipe. Someone pulls words out of darkness. People there, but hardly see the people. In the darkness the universe is thinning.

April, 1983


In his recent, exquisite book on Oppen, Peter Nicholls emphasizes Oppen as the isolato. Oppen is viewed as a singular, heroic, struggling figure in dialogue with philosophers and critical theorists. Peter Nicholls is quite well-versed in European philosophy, and this is the Oppen he creates; it is both a new and a welcome one. And Oppen clearly did work through his reading of the key philosophers whom Nicholls so precisely identifies, tracking the actual passages that Oppen was using — and that he was torquing, appropriating. Oppen’s reading is acutely traced; this is both original with Nicholls and yields seriously generative analyses, since Oppen did study and enter, gloss and appropriate certain texts. However, the sociality of Oppen, his relations with others (as dramatized in the letters), the intense familial connections also important to his poetry and poetics are underplayed (not absent, but underplayed) in Nicholls’ interpretation. For in addition to the theoretically intense Oppen, the letters and even some of the working papers suggest a ready, if sometimes ascerbic, challenging sociality with a group of people whose presence was important, perhaps crucial, to the formation of his second career. [45] It’s odd to be at a moment when one may have different Oppens — it appears as if a purely spiritual one may be forming too (a sort of Michael Heller, John Taggart kind of Oppen), only grazing lightly on the philosophical and resisting the political/ internationalist. I would like to keep my Oppens together. (Is this melancholia, not mourning?)


George is in a boat. His black  cave eyes resist the personal    will not let you see deeply into him, only ‘it’

George sailing   Bird, shifting his head side to side quickly    He  sees the wind rasping, a dark patch scratches the water    ‘see, there’

Karitas and intransigence

April, 1983


George and Mary, sitting as if on the ocean    sitting on the water, with the raft low to the water    paddling    a photo I have of Mary George and Bob as many as the silver inner dinghy would bear, that little kayak everyone breathing and heaving over the water    everyone laughing over the water    I watch from the boat   I will come across next


Always interstitial    between the generations,    George forever names the moment of leaving: his departure: mary-ied

and from the ego, liminal to himself; not only the departure as a couple, but from the ego, liminal to itself.

George Oppen not wanting to be in only one place
wanting to be rocked    to wobble   moving sideways    tacking over
the land
wanting a certain risk
wanting to test the universe by risk
the universe of politics and of the sea
a combined universe    never one or the other    but together:
the materialism of awe

For with his prosody, Oppen makes a critique of syntax  (the usual way of relating things, the usual sequence) given what syntax can imply, for its stance towards the world, for its control. That subject is distinct from object: me and not-me. That Verb is named, whether by Subject or by Convention, and given onto, unto the object, which is founded, itself, in the current off of a streaming. That we can describe the outside of something. Oppen delegitimates, debates that politics of syntax, the ordering of the world and of the self implict in, assumed by that syntax.

But how do we recognize as story that which would not tell any viable story    recognize as poem those wobbles of seascape   how to we recognize as happening    as an event what has given itself, willed itself, chosen    and also been swept (unresisting, resisting) into the absence    the negation    of presence that would fill, syntax that would complete, power that could become narcissistic and expand

Gigantic spaces between atoms construct all matter
The spaces inside objects as vast as those between stars

April, 1983


As in any strong relationship, though quite differentially, Oppen helped to create me, and I, though in a particularized and specific way, helped to create him — mainly from 1990 on. I mean when the Selected Letters were first published. This project started somewhat modestly, but also (paradoxically, given these gender meditations) as an act of care for his reception. In 1980 (four years before Oppen’s death), I had asked George and Mary whether I could edit his selected letters. Why? It was extremely simple at first — I had received some terrific letters from him, letters filled with issues in poetics and politics, with obiter dicta, with wit, charm, intelligence. I knew that a few other people (for instance, John Crawford) had received such letters also. My desire was to make a small book, perhaps like a gift book among friends. I would collect these as statements in poetics, since, in contrast to many poets — to Eliot, Pound, Williams, Moore, Stein, even to Zukofsky, ‘Oppen had done almost no critical writing.’


One must now, in light of Cope’s edition (along with the several other presentations of parts of Oppen’s papers and these letters), definitely revise the ‘no critical writing’ topos:  one might now say that Oppen hardly did any public (and at the time, published) critical writing. However, in private and semi-private realms, his critical sensibility was prolific and engaged, insightful and, despite using the fragment and aphorism as modes, almost monumental in its incisiveness and range.


So in 1980 with a list of potential correspondents originally developed with the help of Eliot Weinberger, I sent out a call for photocopies and outlined an editorial project in a framing document. Oppen’s correspondents proved very generous and willing, and the list developed apace; some papers were already in archives, and tracking people down was a wild ride, too.


As soon as I began receiving material, something shifted in my conception of the project. I saw that the letters to me, the high seriousness, the link both with a particular person and beyond her, the wit, the intensity, the engagement, even the charm were not unusual in the correspondence. Further, Oppen talked of poetics and politics continuously — there was hardly a word of gossip in these letters. Thus I realized that the letters were a striking contribution to poetics in our time. I was not documenting a cenacle, but helping to propel an oeuvre. This project then became for me a matter of putting into and onto the record important and defining literary activity, a remarkable mind and poetic sensibility, someone I (clearly) saw (and/or idealized?) as a staggering poet, whose statements were memorable, filled with integrity, and made with a kind of implacable judgment, too.


Hence I had to take up some attitude to the task. Service was certainly one; but Oppen was not respected in general. His reputation — except for the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 — extended not too far beyond his circle. So my choice to edit this edition was also risk-taking service toward the future — indeed, it soon became clear, toward his posthumous career. The edition thus became a deeply motivated intervention into Oppen’s reception. Yet at a number of times during this process, I thought it — just the sheer effort and time involved — was going to compromise my developing career as a literary critic — what was I doing this for? Why was I endlessly typing a ‘great man’ ‘s words?


This project took ten years. I had to teach myself how to do an edition of something — I figured since no one was going to redo it any time soon, I had to do it right — as right as I could. That meant, among other things, inferentially dating and sequencing about 95% of the letters that I found and was given, which were almost universally undated by Oppen. [46] (This fact is more than a quirk; it is a deep attitude about his time, his sense of presence, his career, yet difficult to interpret. It may bespeak a sense of now-time at every minute — why date something when you were so deeply into this time of writing now.) It meant developing a working chronology — which, reappearing in the recent Selected Poems edited by Robert Creeley, was even added to by Linda Oppen, as memory is a bubbling and irregular spring. It meant reading Oppen’s handwriting, which is one of the worst going. It meant writing a brief biographical account, which (along with interviews by others and Mary Oppen’s Meaning a Life) is now used by virtually everyone who writes on Oppen.


As the first work of editorial scholarship on Oppen, the Selected Letters provided a baseline — yet of course any baseline can be raggedy. For example, the biography came though members of his family whom I consulted (by the time I did this, Oppen could not contribute much to the discussion); it was subject to the vagaries of memory mediated and motivated variously. If I had faulty judgments about importance (as I might have had, curiously, modestly, perhaps understandably, with a few more letters to me about gender than appear in the Letters), that would become a fact of the edition. The Letters became a record of the people to whom he was talking on the page, of the issues he faced, so long as this occurred, of course, in letters. Clearly face-to-face contacts and conversations were relatively lost. As for the correspondents, I might have missed some; one always hopes not. [47]


One hopes, too, even almost 20 years later, that there is not a cache of what I used to call ‘good’ letters (letters really About Something) that someone could not or would not make available at the time, letters unfound, or hidden, or held back. [48] The paradox of wanting to put Oppen on record, yet imagining the end of the record with the end of your project — it is the ridiculous, palpable and unconcealed narcissism of the textual editor. (Though I actually do know better.) [49] That attitude is part of the strange service-oriented commitment that allows a person to do this in the first place. Another attitude, ‘compromised editorial humility’ was one I spoke about in my discussion about normalizing the visual text (SL xxvi). One might certainly extend that attitude to my remarks here.


There were also things I could not go further with at that point — the Mexico years (now worked on by Nicholls) were the biggest gap, though there were apparently no surviving letters from that period, nor from the war. As well, I could not and did not have the time then to develop some really fuller understanding of the complex issues around literary production and the left, including the arc between the 30s and the 50s. Happily Alan Filreis, John Lowney, Cary Nelson more generally have done a lot of this work recently, not necessarily specific to Oppen.


Editing the letters meant annotating things for different levels of ‘visitors’ to this artifact. And it finally meant indexing (more than a name index), which is not an obvious problem unless you have done this kind of task with a truly oblique writer. Many of Oppen’s topics or bases of meditation were rather opaque and had to be inferred; you had to be inside that world and interpret outward, for others, what his actual topics were. The service function is large, and there were some hard moments for me both in the relentless ancilla-like nature of the tasks (as the female helper, after all) and in the beating against the brick wall aspects of convincing appropriate publishers of the interest of this artifact, since I was doing this edition completely on spec, that is, without a contract.


During that time (1980 — 1990), I also published two books of feminist criticism, Writing Beyond the Ending (1985) and H.D.: The Career of that Struggle (1986). There is no doubt that my attitude toward Oppen, the fear of losing Oppen’s dimensionality as a literary figure (by the potential scattering or erosion of his letters) was definitely and absolutely formed by my sense about the understudied and disparaged generations of female modernists, necessitating the recuperative work of scholarship, editions, criticism and teaching inflected by second-wave feminism that my whole generation pioneered.


Did Oppen therefore benefit from my application to him of feminist cultural insight? Is this ironic? Well, in this nexus and in this text, ‘nobody’s perfect.’


Eagle Island:


To walk across the field from their cabin to our cabin (those little camps) is a long trip under those stars. Islands lengthen and thicken the world, make the world world-y    do you feel it?  the crystal arc    transparent but impermeable


An atmosphere. It is like a pool or a spring which one approaches hesitat — -   tentatively sidles     on a walk, maybe, elsewhere     picking up stones with white intrusions in them the writing embedded

April, 1983


They gave me the horizon    they gave me the field    the ocean is harder    they gave me the shores of the ocean and the spring


On Eagle Island with them, Mary found that I knew the names of no wildflowers. With their flower book in hand, I took on the task, marching happily to the next flower, nose down, right in the ground — fragrant bedstraw! eyebright! I learned the names.


In the boat going from Little Deer Inlet to Eagle:


George gave me the tiller. Nor sure what I expected but the sea pulled hard in every which direction. It was heavy and it wobbled with force and weight. The poem is then George on the sea, steering, the sea pulling: the poem changes force and weight at every word but moves continuing forward. The syntactic sense then of a tension-filled linearity, not an argument to excise or control the force and gravity of the pulls but rather to honor and allow them to be propelled by the intensity of the vectors.

And then he took it back. He showed me — this is sailing. This is the ambiguity of direction; this the gravity of forces.

Every conjuncture?   the shopping cart still here in that very drainage ditch they showed me. California. Standing on the border   always on the border   ‘the edge of a nation’  between the nation and the sea

these little dumps
the poem is about them
                    (NCP 224)

April, 1983


One had the feeling with them that one was living in an allegory of Bildung.


Liminal. Between. Not status, not prizes, not honors. But spaces in the poems. A leaping, negotiating the undoing of syntax; an amazement, awe.

in the play the actors cry out
but in the poem the words themselves cry out

          [George’s wall] (now in the Cope edition)

My heart wrapped in his words. I stand in a little space
It is his now half-used room,

April, 1983


                  it is maybe 1982 or 1983


tacked up, taped on the wall
a nest of horizon lines
each one enough tangent for a lifetime    tears in my eyes
I have certainly invaded a space

April, 1983


my grief because he was now virtually incapable of working
and yet the work shone forth in this space


One saying is pasted flat on the window
When light streams thru the paper
the half decipherable phrase stroked in the paper is gleaming

As the cadences are found, the poem stands
in the room
          [George’s wall] (now in the Cope edition)

April, 1983


A serious poet, he wrote on the wall: ‘perhaps we recognize a serious poet by this doubleness, this tension      Art and the doubt of art, art and the hatred of art’


He said
‘I try to describe the sense of existence’


Walking along the beach, looking at another bridge, not the Brooklyn Bridge where we had once walked together, but the other great one, the Golden Gate, George says that poetry is an awakening to awe.


There is the universe and one is in it. Wide arching arc of his arm reaches up.

 — 1983/ 2008

Works Cited

Anhalt, Diana. A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico, 1948 — 1965. Santa Maria, CA: Archer Books, 2001.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Michael Holquist, ed; translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Duncan, Robert and Denise Levertov. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi, eds. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. ‘George Oppen:  “What Do We Believe to Live With?”‘ Ironwood 5 (1975) [11, 1, The George Oppen Issue]: 62 — 77.

———. Wells. New York: Montemora Editions, 1980. Duration Press, 1999.

———. ‘On the Island.’ Sagetrieb 3.1 (Spring 1984): 113 — 118.

———. Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.

———. ‘Draft 85: Hard Copy.’ Web Conjunctions (September 2007):

DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain, eds. The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.

Epstein, Andew. Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Filreis, Alan. Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945 — 1960. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Golding, Alan. ‘George Oppen’s Serial Poems.’ In DuPlessis and Quartermain: 84 — 103.

Hatlen, Burt. ‘Opening Up the Text: George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous.” ‘ Ironwood 26 (1985): 263 — 94.

Jakobson, Roman. Language in Literature. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy. eds. Cambridge: Harvard  University Press, 1987.

Lowney, John. History, Memory, and the Literary Left. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.

Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910 — 1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Nelson, Maggie. Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007.

Noland, Carrie. Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Oppen, George. ‘Statement on Poetics,’ Sagetrieb 3, 3 (Winter 1984): 25- 27.

———. ‘Letters to Rachel Blau DuPlessis.’ DuPlessis, ed. Ironwood 24 (1984): 119 — 138.

———. ‘An Adequate Vision. From The Daybooks.’ Michael Davidson, ed. Ironwood 26 (George Oppen Special Issue) (1985): 5 — 31.

———. ‘“Meaning Is to Be Here”: A Selection from the Daybook.’ Cynthia Anderson, ed. Conjunctions 10 (1987): 186 — 208.

———. ‘The Circumstances.’ Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed. Sulfur 25 (Fall 1989): 10 — 43.

———. ‘The Anthropologist of Myself.’ Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed. Sulfur 26 (Spring 1990): 135 — 164.

———. ‘The Philosophy of the Astonished.’ Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed. Sulfur 27 (Fall 1990): 202 — 220.

———. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990. Abbreviated SL.

———. New Collected Poems. Michael Davidson, ed. preface by Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 2002. Abbreviated NCP.

———. ‘Alpine’ 1968 — 9 for Walter Hamady of the Perishable Press. (Accessed March 29, 2008)

———. Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. Stephen Cope, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Oppen, Mary. Meaning a Life: An Autobiography. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978. Abbreviated MAL.

Probyn, Elspeth. Sexing the Self: Gendered Positions in Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 1993.

Nicholls, Peter. George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Rifkin, Libbie. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan and the American Avant-Garde. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

———. ‘ “As if the Sheer Clarity of Pointing”: Testing “Objectivist” Ethics in Drafts.’ Modernist Studies Association, 2007. Unpublished mss.

———. ‘“Radical Means, Rather Than Radical Thinking”: Oppen, Levertov, and the Gender of “Judgment.”‘ Delivered February 2008, the New England Poetry Conference at University of Mass Lowell. Unpublished mss.

Rouverol, Jean [Butler]. Refugee from Hollywood: A Journal of the Blacklist Years. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

Weinberger, Eliot. ‘A Little Heap for George Oppen.’ Paideuma 10. 1 (Spring 1981): 131 — 136. Also in Works on Paper, 1980 — 86. New York: New Directions, 1986.


[1] A nexus-based reading will explore institutions of poetic practice and initiation. Affiliative networks have been a recent, and very important topic in poetics: the ‘career’ for Libbie Rifkin, the ‘coterie’ for Lytle Shaw, the gendering and sexing of poetic development in Maggie Nelson, the notion of aggressive friendship in Andrew Epstein. My work here concerns mentoring, editing, and following as key activities, processes, situations; it will also discuss gender.

[2]In emphasizing affiliative networks and the loop of personal and literary formations, another recent model is the collective autobiography of The Grand Piano project, in which poets themselves both analyze their formation and provide data for this kind of affiliative and affective reading.

[3] I think I am responding, belatedly, to Oppen’s letter of April 17, 1975 — ‘( my birthday’s the 24th Take a plane and I’ll have a birthday party’ (Selected Letters, abbreviated SL 302). ‘On the Island’ was published in Sagetrieb 3.1 (Spring 1984): 113 — 118. My selections from this piece will be italicized here.

[4] In this context I want to note that Mary Oppen is not as central to this paper as she was to George’s life.

[5] This was the apartment they rented on Henry Street near Brooklyn Heights, not then a fashionable part of Brooklyn.

[6] Nicholls’ finding about the film by Buñuel, Robinson Crusoe, screened there and thus arguably seen by Oppen is very suggestive and exciting, 24. The SL were completed before the publication of the left memoirs that Nicholls uses.

[7] More recently, in December 2007, a declassified document from the FBI, widely reported in the international press, revealed that, in July 1950, immediately after the Korean War began, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover proposed a plan to President Truman for putting at least 12,000 American citizens in permanent detention (at military bases and in federal prisons) facilitated by the suspension of the Writ of Habeus Corpus. The names came from the index that Hoover had been crafting for years of people allegedly disloyal or dangerous to national security. There is no evidence that Truman approved this proposal, which was not implemented, but the left at that time seems to have gotten wind of this possibility.

[8] Although Mexico was technically a sovereign country. Perhaps Oppen resisted learning Spanish so he could not be accused of doing political work — absolutely forbidden to the exiles.

[9] See also Nicholls 52, with Oppen’s indictment of the ‘lies’ of communism, yet the engagement with hopes that he could and would not repudiate.

[10] In MAL, in personal communication, in Sulfur 26 , 144; in SL e.g. xvii, 127, and in several interviews. The dream had presented him with a memo — how to prevent rust in copper. The joke — copper does not rust. Thus ‘you were dreaming you did not want to rust.’

[11] This is a correction to NCP xxi, which leaves out the word ‘not’ in its mention of the dream. In SL I track one potential condensation from copper to Oppen/communist/poppa, xvii.

[12] Nicholls speaks about ‘anxiety’ — particularly in The Materials (50), and as well at the sense of ‘working through’ in Oppen marked by a folding over of a prior time, both forgetting it and then readdressing it (Nicholls 57 — 58); it is an interpretation with serious stakes.

[13] She had her own version of what that would be; a central figuration of that fantasy was George as another Norman Mailer with his big, blockbuster, successful novel about the war (see SL). The complexity of the relationship with June remains among the Oppen mysteries.

[14] When the Archive for New Poetry acquired my Oppen letters, I gave them; I did not sell them. My ‘profit’ from this relationship is incalculable; it has no monetary value.

[15] Those who edited the working papers and writings also include Cynthia Anderson, Davidson, Dennis Young and myself, published in Conjunctions, Ironwood, Iowa Review and Sulfur.

[16] One imagines that someone writing continuously — suddenly after a long hiatus — would seek ‘the pleasure of being heard, the pleasure / of companionship’ (as he cites back to Charles Tomlinson) with an almost overwhelming urgency (NCP 158).

[17] That’s not just a gender. It is a position. At that time, it meant ‘probably professionally disposable.’

[18] In stating that this poem distills two different chronological times I am echoing John Lowney from a political point of view and Peter Nicholls from a psychoanalytic point of view.

[19] Which makes the poem somewhat communitarian in its subjectivity, somewhat dialogic (as I’ve said, as Hatlen says, as Lowney says). Formally, part-whole relationships are incredibly interesting and unstable as is shown by Hatlen’s analysis of the rhetorics of negation, interrogation, interruption, dialogue, repetition, and my analysis of structures of dilemma. Alan Golding on seriality should also be noted as bearing on part-whole issues. In the serial form, in the subjectivities, Oppen interrogates ‘linguistic patterns of relation’ in order to ‘[rethink] the grounds for community’ (avers Lowney 196). He also undoes this rethinking, and the poem becomes an intervention into its own processes, something reflected in the incorporation of quotations.

[20] The source of the pride was that he had done something remarkable in extending a poem ‘A Language of New York’ (NCP 114 — 119) that those of us who knew his work knew at least a little. One recognized that some enormous leap had been made from one poem to the other.

[21] On the other hand, there is no doubt that part of Oppen’s ‘materials’ investigated was gender. The Materials is notable for trying to weigh and evaluate man’s world and woman’s world — the existential activities of making and working that were particularized by conventions of gender.

[22] On the other hand, John Lowney said recently that my [section 9] ‘quoted proposition cogently articulates the central socio-aesthetic problem of the poem’ (Lowney 205). ‘Thank goodness, you managed,’ I might say to my long-ago self. In that ‘socio-aesthetic’ concern, the statement is certainly proleptic of some of my other critical and poetic work.

[23] This last point is indebted to the work of Libbie Rifkin (as yet unpublished) on Oppen and Levertov, and on Oppen and myself, in two recent papers. My point: it appears that one thing he disliked in Levertov was what he had first enacted, and then resisted in himself — too much ‘care’ leading to self-censorship.

[24] See SL xvii-xviii — I comment that this use of his child when growing up is a curiosity of evasion to which she did not willingly accede. The meditations about male and female are everywhere in Oppen, particularly in his first three books — see also the characterization of male and ‘feminine’ in a letter to Andy [Diane] Meyer (SL 185). See Lowney 200 — 01 for a somewhat different version of this idea. Lowney, in what may be the best chapter on ‘Of Being Numerous’ to date, tries ‘to articulate an interdependency of conventionally male and female modes of experience and knowledge’ (218) in this poem, making a positive reading of the turn to female figures at the end of the work. This combination of male/female, public/private spaces invest the poem with ‘a feminized version of resilience and renewal that contests the masculine authority of the modernist epic hero.’ But in my view even the male-female materials are perfectly unstable.

[25] About little — that Oppen-esque word, it was Eliot Weinberger who first pointed out, to Oppen’s shock and some recoil at the exposure, how often he uses the word ‘little’; it has the same suggestive function for him as the word ‘new’ seems to have for modernists. See ‘A Little Heap for George Oppen,’ particularly 135 — 36.

[26] However, I have always loved that Defoe — in a deus ex machina move at the beginning of his plot — makes a whole ship’s cargo available to Crusoe; the character simply has to go to the shipwreck and fetch a set of nurturing commodities that help him out before he can fend for himself by invention. The ideal of bourgeois singularity and striving allegorized in Defoe is thus, from the outset, secretly dependent on existing, available social and material goods; his ‘independence’ depends on the labor of others and is not solely an individual act of coping.

[27] See Nicholls for some interesting tracking re. both Mary Oppen and Stephen Schneider on Bonnefoy (Nicholls 88 — 93). What I would now — at a 40 year distance — want to wonder aloud is — having sent this work to this select band — including John Crawford, Armand Schwerner, Steven Schneider, Diane (Andy) Meyer, one wonders whether it was also sent to — e.g. Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Harvey Shapiro, Bronk, or maybe Rothenberg.

[28] For example there is an unpublished typescript variant of 'Alpine' sent by Oppen in 1968 — 9 to Walter Hamady of the Perishable Press. This is posted (possibly without proper permission) at These have GO’s full large signature on the versions, too, so they were in some sense authorized. There are several variant published poems, like the one Peter Quartermain and I cited in the introduction to the Objectivist nexus from Nothing Doing in London (1968) (Objectivist Nexus 1 and 353). This is a very fruitful arena for scholarship.

[29] When I did a selection for Sulfur 25 — it was just by a knowledgeable ‘feel’ — enough good Oppen lines in enough suggestive Oppen order, and something was ‘known’ to be as satisfying as an authorized Oppen poem. See Michael Davidson in NCP, who is clear that his section of unpublished poems, drawing in part on mine, ‘should be regarded not only as a “selected” unpublished poems but a “provisional selection” as well,’ given issues with the manuscripts (NCP 415).

[30] Indeed, in somewhat variable critical language, I seem to mention this feature of linebreak and syntax, both ideological and formal, every single time I have written on Oppen, in Ironwood, in North Dakota Quarterly, in Blue Studios, for instance.

[31] Wells. New York: Montemora Editions, 1980. Selected for the Duration Press Online Out of Print Book Archives, 1999.

[32] This proleptic establishment of the genealogy Pound-Oppen-myself now interests me, of course.

[33] Speaking this way of transference and countertransference imports another model for the mentoring relationship, one from a psychoanalytic arena. So far, with the term nexus and a focus on affiliative relationships, I have emphasized the social.

[34] There is some evidence in Sulfur 26, 152, though this comment treats another issue: ‘Rachel (and others): Stop writing programs for yourself. Address the mind to the empty space. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY TO WRITE A POEM (outside the cults)’ [.]

[35] ‘Draft 85: Hard Copy,’ was published on line in web Conjunctions later in 2007, and will be in the next book of Drafts, called Pitch.

[36] One result was that I deliberately did NOT use several letters to me about gender in the Selected Letters — I didn’t want to pick too many letters to me, since I was editing this work; it didn’t feel right. This might have been a misjudgment from a complex shyness. See a 1966 letter not in SL — it was ‘not of general interest,’ I thought at that time. In the letter, Oppen responds to my something I had said about teaching: ‘It is true as you said that damn it all you’re a woman — the consequent problems, as they have come to light so far, also noted in your letter. Women? women? women are like everyone else except men.’ (Ironwood 24 [1984] 128). Whatever the teasing, even flirtatious tone, this certainly shows he was thinking about gender. This is borne out by John Lowney’s recent work — with his emphasis on Oppen’s intense curiosity and mixed attitudes to women. Lowney devotes a significant part of his chapter to the gender question. Libbie Rifkin has also meditated on gender and Oppen, particularly in his twisting of attitude around the work of Levertov, who was both important to him and criticized, precisely because of a sweetness, a pulling back, a loss of nerve that he attributes to her gender. Rifkin is quite eloquent about this judgment in its many facets.

[37] This can be seen in the notational poem with which I originally ended ‘On the Island’: the ‘girl’ is by condensation, both me and George: ‘Your harsh grass path, your path/ to walk, rustling, like a girl/ foot down bird over the field’s/ fathomless grasses// Again. To begin again./ Girl, Man, who can reach anything? //who can sound/ the living island/ being on it, still to reach it’ (Sagetrieb 117 — 118).

[38] Among these friends in San Francisco was Frances Jaffer; there were also Kathleen Fraser and Anita Barrows and myself (a sometime visitor to the Bay Area) among younger women. On PENNsound is a very interesting tape, made for KPFA-Berkeley that I think dates from 1985 or 1986. In it, of particular interest, the two older women, Frances and Mary, discuss their coming to writing and their belated careers as writers. Mary Oppen is eloquent in her testimony to her felt equality with George and his encouragement of her work.

[39] Gender remains important in letters to June Degnan, Andy Meyer, Frances Jaffer, Jane Cooper, myself and possibly others from 1970 on. In fact, he re-cites and modifies ‘my’ line from Section 9 of ‘Of Being Numerous’ to apply it to women (SL 279). Also Mary and George both loved Diane Wakoski’s work and its bravery, which included a good deal of forthright representation of gender materials. This shows their serious concern for the cultural presence of women even before feminism (a movement to which Wakoski was, if I am not mistaken, quite ambivalent if not downright hostile).

[40] Oppen went over some of my poems  — both in person, and later by mail — when they had moved to the West Coast, and when Bob and I were in France and in Swarthmore. It was good that he pulled no punches, though not everyone who had this experience enjoyed it. (I have spoken a bit about this in Blue Studios, so won’t repeat myself.) He showed me how to cut and suture, lessons that stay with me. He also helped me hear what I think of as an inner ear for the sound of my work, an ear that allows me to test any words that just happen to come along by a deep interior sense of possibility.

[41] He also offered the last line ‘And under wreathe my boughs’ as a terrific gift to the final poem in Wells.

[42] Contra Moore, there is the ironic poem ‘A Cultural Triumph’ (among the unpublished work in NCP 323 — 4) that reads her quirky work (and perhaps the reviewer Hugh Kenner’s) as still resisting any actual sense of the creatures she immortalizes. Contra H.D., he gets annoyed at the use of the word angel (cf Weinberger who points it out, NCP ix-x). Weinberger even states that GO didn’t use such unwon and spiritually inflected words unless they were, for instance, in the window at Chartres. But wait — this is the same poet who uses the term ‘angel’ for the “soul” of the machine (NCP 40) and used the word two striking times in ‘Some San Francisco Poems’: ‘Say angel say powers’ translated, it is true, as ‘Obscurely “things/ And the self” ‘ (NCP 227) and modulating to ‘Archangel // of the tide/ brimming’ said to be the ‘spirit// Of the bent sea’ (NCP 228). In any event, on H.D. there is even an apology in a letter to me in 1977 (SL 337).

[43] An anecdote. Oppen was also incredibly funny, droll, penetratingly witty. When I was visiting them as part of the research for the Selected Letters, consulting with Mary, with George hovering in a half-Alzheimer’s, half-not kind of way, we found a letter he had sent to Lita Hornick criticizing her (as I found later in my research) for publishing in Kulchur a shocking letter, a very nasty treatment of Denise Levertov by Felix Pollock that Hornick had seen fit to print. Pollock’s was not a serious criticism of Levertov, but an act of emotional blackmail trying to leverage his appearance in The Nation (where Levertov was then poetry editor) and to offer narcissistic posturing masquerading as a review. As he hovered, we read to George the lacerating letter he had written in 1965 identifying the cynical manipulations by Pollock and the fact that Hornick had fallen for them. ‘Let’s send it again’ was his immediate flash of wit upon hearing the letter. This response pretty much sums up his sense of the ethics incumbent upon the literary world, as well as being perfect to the occasion (including his diminished abilities but fundamentally spunky decidedness). And this occurred long after his critiques of Levertov.

[44] Jean Rouverol, an interesting confirmation of this, how ‘their warmth and approval, cautiously granted, could also be rescinded’; ‘the glow of their favor’ was one thing, but ‘disapproval’ was almost an abandonment (Rouverol 176). See also Diane Anhalt (interview with the same person, here called Jean Butler), 73.

[45] See Davidson’s Introduction to NCP in which the relation of Oppen to family and small community is also proposed.

[46] Envelopes with postmarks, and date-received notations helped in a small percentage of those cases. The rest was real work.

[47] I also made a quirky, exposed choice. I chose to list, at the end of every year of letters, those with whom Oppen also corresponded that year — according to my best information at that time. This list is a very vulnerable feature — it is emphatically incomplete, and yet it seemed important precisely to establish at least some of Oppen’s network.

[48] I know of at least one person who could not find her letters during the decade of my preparation of the manuscript.

[49] Irony: I gave this paper initially at SUNY-Buffalo in April 2008. In the exhibit prepared for the Oppen conference in the Special Collections was — of course — a (‘good’) one-page letter (one of two to this person) that I had not known about, one that may have been acquired by Buffalo after my edition had been prepared. It was to Douglas Calhoun, the editor of a little magazine called Athanor. Dated by postmark Oct. 31, 1970, it is of the very useful genre of Oppen letters — one-shot responses to very specific questions about his literary past — in this case how he first encountered Middle English lyrics. In his response, he mentions, incidentally, that he stole the Chambers and Sidgwick anthology from the New York Public Library, stating, in a kind of arch confessional turn, that doing so was a ‘moral right’ or a ‘moral necessity.’ This amusing use of the term ‘moral’ may echo the book’s title: Early English Lyrics: Amorous, Divine, Moral & Trivial, ed. E.K. Chambers and Frank Sidgwick, with many editions from 1907 on. Gender issues as well as choices of poetics together take pride of place in this letter — these poems help Oppen resist ‘the histrionic voice’ and offer an ‘escape from elephantine masculinity.’ (Quoted by permission of Linda Oppen.  (c) Linda Oppen. George Oppen, Letter to Douglas Calhoun, 31 October 1970, Box 33/Folder 3, PCMS-003, Athanor Collection, 1971–1975, The Poetry Collection, The State University of New York at Buffalo.)

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