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Eric Hoffman

Of Hours

George Oppen, Albert Camus and the Illuminated World

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I have come back to my real function, which is to write.
             — Albert Camus


In 1958, George Oppen began writing poetry following nearly twenty-five years of political commitment, having severed his last remaining ties to the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). [1] During this period, Oppen was familiarizing himself with philosophical texts, particularly the work of Martin Heidegger, whom Oppen began reading in 1950, and Jacques Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry[2] If, as Michael Heller argues, “the effect of the degraded Marxist thought under which [Oppen] placed himself… was to let that thought impose itself as a totality” and “make him mute,” [3] then Oppen’s subsequent encounter with an “existential” philosophical tradition helped him to end this creative silence and is therefore instructive to an understanding of the intellectual milieu in which Oppen’s post-communist poetry was written.


Oppen was clearly not an existentialist, as some critics have come to view him [4] and his reading of the existentialists, according to the evidence, was far from comprehensive. [5]  As Heller observes, Oppen


read not for omnivorous knowledge of a subject but to find a passage or even a phrase which would show him an opening or way out of intellectual, emotional, or even philosophical impasses. It would seem, from the evidence, that such a passage, or the writer it represented, was an intense transformative nexus from which something enormous or significant might begin.  [6]


In a 1975 interview with Kevin Power, Oppen explained that his agreement with the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre began and ended with the belief that existence precedes essence, or, as Oppen writes elsewhere, that we “get born into the thing, we just find ourselves here and we are as we are” (SL, 184); “you do what you do and that is the answer,” [7] Oppen declares, pointing to the moment in his poem “Route” where a French civilian, conscripted into Hitler’s army, commits suicide by driving his bicycle into a tree. Sartre, Oppen observes, lacked “a wide enough experience of the world — it’s a café experience, a Parisian experience, and I find it lacking over and over in just those human depths and elements that matter to me.” [8] While Sartrean existentialism can (and has) in some ways been interpreted to complement Oppen’s latent intellectual Marxism, [9] Oppen came to disagree strongly with what he perceived as Sartre’s “dislike [of] the world,” [10]  as in the character of Roquentin in Sartre’s novel Nausea, a man who feels overwhelming disgust when contemplating the absolute fullness of the existence of things, and who desires to “drive existence out.” [11]  “My difference with Sartre,” Oppen continues, “is that I don’t in the least dislike the world. There isn’t the horror of the roots, the horror of it being there, not at all, and I think it’s very definite in the poems.”


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Oppen and his wife Mary were instead interested in the work of Albert Camus and were “following [his] work fairly closely.” [12]  They probably heard of Camus’ work, first published in English following the end of the Second World War, when his writings first began to appear in English translations. Oppen may have read Camus’ work while on furlough in Paris when stationed in France during the war. Tellingly, there are striking similarities between Camus’ Notebooks (which Oppen read) [13] and the writings most recently published in Oppen’s Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers; both are aphoristic, make generous use of quotes from their reading, use the medium as an opportunity for fleshing out philosophical ideas, or for drafting literary creations. Their descriptions of their creative process are remarkably similar.


Camus: “Notes, scraps of paper, vague musing, and this for years on end. One day the idea, the conception that causes these scattered fragments to coagulate, comes along. Then the long and painful tasks of setting everything to order begins.” [14]


Oppen: “I write stacks and stacks of notes — literally stacks of paper — and mull them over, and sometimes wonder what I meant, and switch them around — and so on” (SL, 24).


Camus and Oppen often quote the same sources: Rilke, Pascal, Eckhardt, Milton, Kierkegaard, Montaigne, Hegel and Kafka. Indeed, the style of their entries are often the same; when quoting they will often write the author’s name, followed by a colon and the passage in question, usually without quotation marks. In Oppen’s various writings, he utilizes some of the same vocabulary as Camus’ translators, particularly “marvel,” “dazzling,” and so on. Images of the sun and sea proliferate: for example, from Camus’ essay “Summer in Algiers”: “Between this sky and these faces turned toward it, nothing in which to hang a mythology, a literature, an ethic, or a religion, but stones, flesh, stars and those truths the hands can touch” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus 151), and this passage from Oppen’s poem “Eclogue”:


Below the window
Flesh and rock and hunger
Loose in the night sky       (NCP, 39) [15]


What initially attracted Oppen to Camus’ work, he explains, was not Camus’ view of existence but rather his  “positivity” and “energy,” his “sense of childhood,” a childhood of extreme poverty, where, “[Camus] would rather be that boy with the deaf and dumb mother than be an industrial worker at whatever pain in the city.” [16]  This optimism is perhaps most explicitly represented by the happiness of Camus’ Sisyphus, reconciled to his disastrous fate of pushing a boulder up a steep hill for an eternity, a fate that “admits,” Camus argues, “that human life is the only necessary good since it is precisely life that makes this encounter possible.” [17]  According to Oppen, Camus’ Sisyphus represents that “moment of choice, of freedom, of the concern of being,” the desire to exist even in the face of absolute despair.


Similarly, Camus’ character of Mersault in the book The Stranger, facing the guillotine for his unrepentant murder of an Arab (and convicted by a jury based on character evidence; namely, his lack of sentiment concerning his mother’s death), realizes the value of life and, even in the face of death, finds happiness; because of the proximity of death, Mersault is reminded of life’s intense fragility, of the need to enjoy the present moment to its fullest.


Where Sartre’s Roquentin seeks solace in darkness, away from the light that illuminates this nausea-inducing existence, Camus’ sun-drenched Algerian Mersault celebrates this illumination. Oppen writes elsewhere of how impressed he was by Camus’ descriptions of the African landscape of his childhood; particularly Camus’ depiction of “the sunlight in Africa, this marvelous sunlight    . . . the way the incidents occur” [18] when lit by perception. This image of an illuminated world is so fundamental to Camus’ sensibility that he would return to it when attempting to explain the absurd, a concept that means to undermine the certainty of any and all metaphysical systems, the triumph of freedom over the indifferent tyranny of the “ism,” be it fascism, communism, or even existentialism itself.


Among Camus’ many influences is Edmund Husserl, whose phenomenological method, Camus argues, shows that there is “no longer a single idea explaining everything, but an infinite number of essences giving meaning to an infinite number of objects.” This plurality of meaning, he explains, makes the world “come to a stop” but also “light up.” [19]  In a passage in his personal papers, Oppen quotes Camus almost verbatim: “Everything is REVELATORY… But never reveals anything… In meaning the world stops, but is illumined. Everything is here, everything is open and visible.” [20]


Camus returns to this theme of a world arrested by the illumination of perception in his short story “The Adulterous Woman” published in English in 1958 in the book Exile and the Kingdom. The story concerns a French woman named Janine who, while traveling with her husband in the deserts of North Africa, discovers a world transcendent of her familiar, domestic life. Standing on the walls of a fortress, under the “limitless expanse” of a “motionless sky” illuminated by “waves of steady light,” Janine senses that “the world’s course had just stopped,” and gives herself to “the void opening before her.” That evening, Janine returns to the fortress and again encounters an experience of pure being, forgetting “the long anguish of living and dying”, feeling that “[a]fter too many years of mad, aimless fleeing from fear, she had come to a stop at last.” [21]  When composing his 1971 poem “Of Hours,” Oppen admits that he “was aware of taking off from that image in Camus.” Janine “looks out into the desert,” Oppen explains in an interview with Kevin Power, “and it changes her forever. She goes back to her husband, but she’s the adulterous woman. She’s had some experience that she can never speak to him about.”


“Of Hours” addresses, among other things, the idea of the poet’s responsibility in seeking the light of truth by “speaking of plain existence,” where, as he explains to Power, the poet as “questioner” becomes “involved in the question.” [22]  Thus, poem and poet stand equally in the world; the poem is not simply the product of the poet’s ego. In a recent essay, Norman Finkelstein observes that “Of Hours” was first published under the title “Book of Hours” and notes the “elision” of the word “Book” from the title as subsequently published in Oppen’s 1971 collection Seascape: Needle’s Eye. A book of hours is a medieval illuminated book of liturgy, composed according to the specific tastes and sensibilities of its owner, usually a rich lay person looking to incorporate monastic devotional practices into his or her daily life.


“I am not sure why Oppen changed the original title,” Finkelstein writes, yet because a book of hours, which “contains the prayers and scriptural readings appropriate to the canonized hours” points “to regular moments… that take on a charged, even numinous quality of meaning,” and Finkelstein notes, “given what we can broadly term the existential quality of Oppen’s thought, we can understand that any moment may take on such meaning.”


The “book” Oppen appears to be referring to by omission is Ezra Pound’s Cantos, which, like a book of hours, was written with the pretense of a kind of divine infallibility, consisting of its own iconography of Chinese ideogrammes and Egyptian hieroglyphics, and its own list of saints and patrons (Malatesta, Confucius, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, C.H. Douglas and Mussolini, among others), which, instead of illuminating the world, as in Oppen and Camus’ works, instead means to flesh out a repertoire of arguments and opinions using ideas, images, phrases or observances of historical events which are supposed to reveal history’s secret machinations, with Pound acting as the emissary of some imagined historical coherence.


Where Pound remains firmly within the “Book,” relying on what Finkelstein calls a “mythic sensibility” that “depends upon the dichotomy of heroic virtue and despicable venality, the unenlightened machismo of Mussolini and the degenerate corruption of the Rothschilds,” Oppen’s sensibility is attuned instead to what Finkelstein calls “the more basic reality of his situation,” that “existential quality” where “any moment,” however non-mythological, achieves, like Janine in the desert, the quality of numinousness. [23]


Oppen was highly suspicious of Pound’s egoistic and didactic use of poetry, which he felt should not be used to “prescribe an opinion or idea, but to record the process of thinking it” (SPDP, 93). The poem, he writes, is “a means of thought… A poem which begins with an idea — a ‘conceit’ in the old use of the term — doesn’t learn from its own vividness and go on from there unless both terms of the conceit or one at least is actually there” (SL, 388). Though we “feel we can make a book of what we know,” he observes, “we cannot… we… learn a great deal as we write. No one knows enough to make a book before he writes the book.” [24] Therefore, Oppen’s omission of the word “book” implies his belief that the poem exists within a present, unmediated moment of existential contact with the world, where the “known and unknown / Touch” (NCP, 182) and not within the remotenesses of a meticulously fashioned object meant to illustrate some thematic or highly governed set of ideas or principles. Poetry “must be Protean,” Oppen argues, “the meaning must begin there, with the perception” (SL, 22). “The image is what you know,” he suggests in a 1973 interview with Ruth Gruber, “It doesn’t yet have words.” [25]  


Pound’s Cantos, a “poem including history,” in its complex and variegated manifestations, includes only very specific historical data, from which Pound was able to fashion an historical pattern that supports only those principles with which he started, whereas Oppen would come to regard the poem as an act of “discovery,” [26]  consisting of “new vision.” [27] Pound’s refusal to account for the realities of the Second World War in his Cantos, preferring to perceive the war through the distortions of fascist politics or reformist economics, displays a limitation of vision so willful and so profound that Oppen came to consider the work a “failure.” [28] Though “one may cherish / Invention and the invented terms / We act on,” Oppen writes in “A Narrative,” they are a “fallacy / Of words” (NCP, 154). It is the duty of the poet, Oppen argues, to “[disclose] the hidden… not the invented.” [29]  


Oppen’s poem begins with an admonishment of Pound for his aesthetic and moral failure:


Old friend      old poet
Tho you’d walked

Familiar streets
And glittered with change the circle

Destroyed its content
Persists     the common

Place         image
The initial light       (NCP, 217).


Though Pound has affected change, it is on “familiar streets,” within an “opinion or idea,” affecting only their surfaces, having “glittered” them with change at the same time their “circle” (a symbol Oppen has used elsewhere to represent what he calls “the closed universe, the closed self” [30]) is “Destroyed.” Despite this, their “content,” the universe and self, “persists,” and are disclosed in the purity of the “initial light” of perception. Instead of walking “familiar streets,” Oppen suggests that Pound instead, like Janine, “Walk on the walls // The walls of the fortress” (NCP, 219), to see without the distortions of ego or ideology, in the familiar, the unalloyed image of the “common / Place,” the actual that is available only by a rigorous refusal to allow one’s perceptions to be shaped by arguments or opinions.


Oppen’s use of line breaks (especially in his poetry from the 1970s) opens up the poem to  a variety of meaning in both language and image. Intact, the line offers one possible meaning, a meaning that may be altered or directly reversed when read in combination with the following line, as in “glittered with change the circle / Destroyed its content / Persists.” The circle is both “glittered with change” and “destroyed,” as is its content, though the next line reverses this conclusion: the content rather “persists.” This lineation allows for an ambiguity of meaning and a participation of the reader in locating this meaning along several different possibilities of thought and image. Similarly, this lineation highlights Oppen’s unique compositional process, meant to achieve openness and ambiguity of meaning that, unlike Pound’s Cantos, resists the closure of authority. “I mean to keep my mind open to all I can,” Oppen writes, preferring a poetics of openness, beginning “out of poverty” (“Song, the Winds of Downhill,” NCP, 220). His procedure is a self-described “cadence of unfolding,” [31] a “process of thought”(SL, 161) or “process of perception” (SL, 99) where one finds meaning in a “sequence of disclosure” [32] as opposed to writing from a position of knowledge existing prior to the poem’s composition.


As part of this compositional process, Oppen will return to certain lines from other poems, yet this “self-quotation,” as it is often referred to by Oppen’s critics, is in fact not quotation, which means to reproduce the same meaning within new contexts, but rather a re-casting of the lines within a new set of articulations where the poetic image acts as a “test of truth” (SP, 180). Intact, the line offers one possible meaning, a meaning that may be altered or directly reversed when read in combination with the following line. Oppen’s truths are necessarily provisional and might at any time be rejected or re-envisioned, as in these lines from “A Language of New York”:


To use
Words provided one treat them
As enemies.
Not enemies — Ghosts
Which have run mad
In the subways
And of course the institutions
And the banks       (NCP, 116).


While the Douglasite economist Pound might agree with Oppen’s conclusion about madness in the “institutions” and “banks,” it is Oppen’s envisioning of words that sets him apart from both Pound and Camus, and which place him distinctly outside of the modernist tradition. Unlike Camus (or Oppen’s contemporary William Bronk, for that matter) Oppen did not, to borrow an observation from Robert Creeley, “despair of his inability to fit experience to possible orders of language”; Oppen, like Charles Olson, of whom Creeley is here referring, “would insist that language be returned to its place in experience, neither more nor less than any act.” [33] Therefore it is possible to “use” words, “provided one treat them / As enemies.” Words are not merely the poet’s possessions; rather they represent an “estrangement” from experience; as Oppen writes elsewhere “All things / speak if they speak the estranged” (NCP, 254) a condition which, according to Michael Heller, “literarily, politically, and philosophically is the salient condition of George Oppen’s work.” [34]  


The “primary drama” of an Oppen poem, Heller writes, is that in its


open stance toward phenomena, to incident and impingement, unexpectedness. It’s as though the swerve of syntax, while seemingly isolating the individual words, has caught whole realms of thought. Not free association but a new logic that can only occur when pressure is put on a word or phrase.


The “linear” becomes “spatial,” and, Heller concludes, for Oppen “the very opposing pulls on language are what make poetry possible.” [35] Poetry is an act of “discovery” at the same time it is a “test” and does not attempt to record absolutes but to test the veracity of its images through their articulation, determining the poet’s willingness to see. Oppen’s ambiguity of meaning, his openness to multiple readings and his rigorous testing of his own vision, evidences a multivalent approach unlike Pound who, in his drive toward the establishment of an authoritative and didactic voice, depended on a lineation and syntax where meaning, while at times obscure, is very rarely ambiguous. Oppen felt that one could not arrive at truth “[i]n ordinary discourse,” a discourse consisting of a “ferocious mumbling… Of rootless speech” (NCP, 173). [36] His aim was to restore to words the “transparence” of images and to achieve clarity as “in the sense of silence” (NCP, 175).


This is not an easy task, Oppen argues; he is “no longer sure of the words, / The clockwork of the world” (NCP, 89), suggesting that one must “parse the word: carve the word into its elements.” Truth cannot be revealed in language, he declares, until “we somehow manage to restore a meaning to the word,” otherwise we are “insisting merely that he discuss only those things the poet is accustomed to talk about,” by “describ[ing] everything that we already know, and declar[ing] every belief that we already hold” (SP, 174). The poem’s objective, he observes, is to “test and discover word by word as you go WORD BY WORD. We must force the words to mean something. Because we know there is something to mean.” [37] “If one captures them,” he writes in “A Narrative,” “One by one proceeding / / Carefully they will restore / I hope to meaning / And to sense” (NCP, 116).


Pound’s Cantos neither test nor discover, rather in order for it to preserve the integrity of its arguments and opinions it must remain closed to any deviation. Therefore, as Oppen observes, “Pound, the encyclopedic, didn’t speak of the gas chambers,” Oppen observes.


Why not? Possible to imagine that he approved them. But why did he not speak of them??… Suppose he HAD put them in the poems — described them, imagined them — here would be the uses of poetry as a means of thought — He would have learned again to think, that is, to permit the brain, the psyche, the soul to function… TEST it by poetry, Ezra, write about the gas chambers, write of the children in the gas chambers [38]


Like Milton, the blind poet of Oppen’s poem “A Narrative,” Pound chose not to see and by preferring to articulate a vision compromised by ideological restraints, failed to meet Oppen’s criteria of sincerity, his voice twisted by dishonesty. “If you did not look,” Oppen writes in “Of Hours,” “What is you ‘loved’ / Twisting your voice” (NCP, 219). [39] Not only is Pound blind but he is deaf too, unable to hear the “Music / Of the tenement” or, for that matter, the cries from the concentration camp, all the more insulting to Oppen who, while fighting in a war to stop fascism, found himself “Burying my dog tag with H / For Hebrew in the rubble of Alsace” (NCP, 218), another place the “old poet” did not look. Refusing to see, Pound remains “Unteachable” (NCP, 219). “I know of no hope but companionship,” Oppen states, “and there cannot be companionship with people who have admitted nothing.” [40]  One confronts, he concludes, “simply whether or not one is willing to know what he has said — or whether or not he is willing to say anything.” [41]  


Pound’s failure is indicative of what Oppen calls a “morality of crisis,”(SP, 180) where a society’s conventions allow, or even require, death on such a massive scale, a crisis requiring a rigorous re-investigation of existing power claims, in which their culpability in such atrocities and their lack of self-criticism and claims toward infallibility, ultimately resist. As a result of nuclear warfare, where the stakes have been raised to the point where one encountered what Oppen called “the newly discovered perishibility of the planet” (SL, 17), these conventions, or “fictions” as he refers to them, must be resisted if humanity is to survive. ““Release us from the fictions,” Oppen writes, “let us save ourselves… escape… at any cost for we can no longer bear them.” [42] The insanity of any victory in nuclear war has removed from these fictions their necessary outcome, thus Oppen speaks of “the increasingly obvious impossibility of war” as a method of survival. “We must wean ourselves from narrative, which is everyone’s art form,” he argues, “because everyone really knows — it is the most obvious of facts — that every life ends badly… Not only death, but loneliness, desertion, irreparable physical injury. Every ship sinks. All the calamities the hero escapes he does not escape.” [43] Politics and war, Oppen argues, pretending otherwise, have become a rather “dreary avoidance of the point. That people die, that some die horrible, that even children can suddenly be killed in a school,” he explains, “those are the facts that remain facts whatever politics, whatever wars or absence of wars, and the talk of politics or war is not really the point — is almost an avoidance of the point.” [44]   


Oppen’s decision to begin writing poetry again resulted from a desire to create an “open statement,” for “even an open statement of the greatest harshness… does not destroy the possibility of democracy and the peoples’ rule: it is deception which does so” (SPDP, 171). Following the failure of communism, Oppen came to question the efficacy of political action and, he writes, was “not sure that society has any role to play in the problems we are or seem to be unable to avoid.” Besides “all the little niggling practicalities which are the argument of mild conservatism,” (SL, 79) such as food and shelter, he wondered what it was for a social organizations to “Do For people.” [45] “This is the meaning of ‘crisis,’” Oppen declares (SL, 119). While “the perfect state,” he argues, “does not need poetry, and in fact will not permit it,” the perfect state was not achieved and what instead resulted, he explains, was a society based on “dishonesties, which create the situation of total repression, for the people cannot share in a government which does not declare itself honestly, a government which deceives them, and so makes their participation impossible” (SPDP, 171).


Because Oppen was no longer “in favor of” such deceptions as proletariat “revolution,” [46] he would “try not to talk of ethics” because “the senses must be appealed to somewhere in every test of truth” (SL, 387), [47]  declaring that “we cannot construct an ethic unless we know what we want and how much we want it” (SL, 193). One simply cannot “[invent] an ethic,” Oppen argues; “you can only talk about what you feel.”  [48] As Camus observes, “we live for something that transcends ethics” [49] and like Camus’ Mersault, who in his rigorous honesty and sincerity refuses to make any claims beyond his experience, Oppen argued that he was “just reporting my experiences in life,”


including the one that when they drop enough jellied gasoline on children, you can’t stand it anymore. I’m just stating a fact about what you can and cannot stand. If it didn’t bother one to burn children, why say it? I don’t understand inventing an ethic; I’m just trying to understand what the ethic is, how long it can last. An ethic is a funny thing: when it’s gone, it’s gone and you can’t mourn it. You can only talk about what you actually feel. [50]


In his interview with L.S. Dembo, Oppen, discussing his poem “Route,” remarks that there was no time in his life when he “suddenly decided that now I’d write some philosophy. I’m just telling about what I encountered, what life was to me… I’ve written about what happened and the place it happened in, and that, I suppose, is the only philosophy I could possibly understand anyway.” [51]  Oppen’s position, then, is similar to that of Camus, who once proclaimed “I know how to speak only of what I have experienced.” Camus’ writings did not have as their objective a systematic philosophy, as did Sartre’s or Heidegger’s. Nothing, Camus argued, is explainable “by way of principles and ideologies.” [52]  It is better to concern oneself with the “stones, stars, and flesh, and those truths the hands can touch.” [53]


Camus, a palpable moral force from the 1940s to the 1960s, must have been attractive to Oppen because he provided him with the much-needed example of the artist in possession of a social conscience, yet an artist not beholden to a specific political platform. Ex-communist, member of the French resistance during the Nazi occupation of Paris, the writer of numerous articles in the underground resistance newspaper Combat (which Oppen may or may not have read while on furlough in Paris during the Second World War), outspoken critic of French policies in Algeria, Camus seemed the ideal marriage between artist and activist, roles that Oppen, who stopped writing poetry in order that he might commit himself to political action, was finally unable to reconcile.


“While “the writer who allows himself to be fascinated by the political Gorgon, is doubtless making a mistake,” Camus declares that


it is also a mistake to pass over the social problems of our time in silence… And besides, it would be quite useless to run away from them: turn your back on the Gorgon, and it starts to move… What, in fact, is the aim of every creative artist? To depict the passions of his day. In the seventeenth century, the passions of love were at the forefront of people’s minds. But today, the passions of our century are collective passions, because society is in disorder. [54]


As Camus observed in an 1958 interview, “writing while others are gagged or imprisoned is a delicate undertaking. So as not to fall short, either in one direction or in the other, we have to remember that the writer lives for his work and fights for his liberties.” [55] That Camus was able to marry his art and politics so successfully and, indeed, also manage to write quite eloquently on both the importance of art and the need for the artist to be aware of the political realities of his or her times and to address social injustices, may have contributed to Oppen’s decision to begin writing poetry again, though perhaps in a less direct fashion than those committed entirely to political action.


Oppen, who was seduced by the political Gorgon of communism, would tastefully separate his art from his political beliefs, later explaining that while it “is possible to say anything in abstract prose, but a great many things one believes or would like to believe or thinks he believes will not substantiate themselves in the concrete materials of the poem” (SP, 180). Yet by 1958 various personal tensions hindering his desire to write poetry again had been resolved: Oppen’s overbearing and judgmental father had to die, a young daughter, whom he wanted to protect from his fears, had reached a mature age and left for college, and the Oppens were able to return to the United States and to a sense of a greater intellectual and artistic milieu after eight years in political exile in Mexico. Once these various tensions were resolved, Oppen was able to return to writing again. He would later explain that in fact the transitions from poetry to politics and from politics back to poetry were not that distinct; with the benefit of hindsight, he was now able to interpret his political commitment as in fact a “poetic” rather than a purely political “exploration” (GMP, 25). The “basic question” of Marxism, he later argued, “is the question of ‘socialist man’. . . what we mean by humanity.” [56]


Two stories  from Camus’ Exile in the Kingdom address the complexities of the individual and society and the role of the art in society and may have contributed to Oppen’s significant thinking on this problem; his major work would hinge on a rigorous investigation of what he calls the “meaning / Of being numerous” (NCP, 166). In “The Silent Men,” a group of coopers strike unsuccessfully against their employer. Having returned to work, the laborers refuse to speak with their employer. When the employer’s daughter suddenly collapses and is taken to the hospital, the story’s narrator maintains his silence rather than offering him comfort. This small gesture represents a more profound silence, the silence of humanity in the face of an even greater loss of human life. Camus’ concern for our need to recognize each other’s common fate is quite similar to Oppen’s in “Leviathan”: “We must talk now. Fear / Is fear. But we abandon one another.” (NCP, 89). It “is necessary to talk,” Oppen observes in a letter from the same period, “to begin to talk” (SL, 55—56).  [57]


Camus’ “The Artist at Work,” relates the story of Jonas, an artist who, while initially unsuccessful, later finds a sympathetic patron whose support allows Jonas the freedom to devote his attention to his art. With a devoted wife to attend to his every need, Jonas is able to entertain a variety of fans, hangers-on, critics, lovers and friends, all of whom begin to sap his creative energy and to obstruct his creation of new work. Over time, he finds himself unable to complete a painting, and eventually stops entirely. Haunted by this apparent failure, Jonas constructs a loft where he sits in darkness, contemplating his next painting. Overhearing his children and his wife’s laughter, Jonas realizes that the “world was still there, young and lovable,” and, listening to “the welcome murmur rising from mankind,” he realizes that “it did not run counter to that joyful strength within him, his art, these forever silent thoughts he could not express but which sets him above all things, in a free and crisp air.” After weeks of solitude and failing health, Jonas listens to the pleading of his family and comes down from the loft. His patron enters the loft and is surprised to find a single blank canvas on which is written a single word which he cannot entirely make out, but which appears to be either “solitary or solidary”[sic]. [58]  


What is the better position of the artist, solitude or solidarity? How is one to remain objective about this situation in which one is inseparably connected? How can art express that for which there is no expression? For Camus, one feels the “need” of an island, though there are “no more” in which to escape, as Crusoe did not. “To understand this world,” Camus wrote, “one must sometimes turn away from it; to serve men better, one must briefly hold them at a distance.” [59] Or, in Oppen’s somewhat more torturous phrasing, “Whether, as the intensity of seeing increases, one’s distance / from Them, the people, does not also increase’” (NCP, 167). In a letter, Oppen observes that while the “viewpoint from ‘the islands’ is simpler, it is at the same time ‘most difficult’” as it presents a dead end, the shipwreck of the singular. In the face of which we seem to have chosen from the beginning the ‘meaning of being numerous’. And is not the ‘nation of idiots’ too much imagination, in this case bravura-theatrical? Or even a sort of permission to go ahead with the wars and the War for the sake of the affluent society of scholarships and little magazines? (SL, 116)


We are, Oppen argues, “marooned, shipwrecked” without the “concepts” that “evolved from the fact of being numerous” (SL, 121), particularly the concept of humanity. It is no longer sufficient to declare simply, as did John Donne, “no man is an island.” The singular is a shipwreck because it “presents a dead end.” Despite the repeated failures of society, Oppen insists that human happiness still requires some form of social interaction and participation, that there should still be “love in the genes” (NCP, 192). The concept of what he calls the “numerous,” Oppen argues, has been reduced to a rhetorical statement by “a nation of idiots,” cynically manipulated by “affluent society” for the promotion of wars for such  dubious reasons as the “parasitic and lymphatic matter” of “scholarships and little magazines.” It is necessary for this distance, to see this island, necessary for the insincerity of the “bravura theatrical” culture to collapse, just as it is equally necessary to engage the other, with the “many / That we are.” Because it is we that must look, however, and because we are one of “Them, the people,” it is difficult to see accurately or objectively.


While Oppen was reticent to “fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning,” believing that there “are situations that cannot honorably be met by art,” (SP, 174), artists, he feels, are “honest” people “who want humanity to get wherever it is that it is going.” [60]  Oppen later observed in his personal papers that while “it can always be quite easily shown that political action is going to be valuable, it is difficult if ever to prove that political action has been valuable. Whereas art is precisely the opposite case: it seems always impossible to prove that it is going to be valuable, and yet it is always quite clear that the art of the past has been of value to humanity” (SPDP, 89).


Given the apocalyptic state of world politics during the late fifties and early sixties, Oppen found himself writing with considerable urgency. He felt his obligation as writer was to take part in a dialogue, to make himself part of a “conversation among honest people” (SL, 131). Oppen argued that if our civilization is to survive than it necessarily must reject and would reject annihilation. Despite nihilism, Oppen believed that people “do want ‘the world’ — the human world — to continue… Which provides the possibility of rational argument” (SL, 131).


To re-state, rational argument does not ensure survival, but survival ensures rational argument. In this statement, Oppen exposes and rejects Camus’ Cartesian rationalism. Political action, as an extension of rational argumentation, had failed. Only by accepting this was Oppen able to begin writing again. Only by admitting to himself that whatever the benefit of his quarter-century political activism, however good their intentions were when they began, the noble political ideals to which he and Mary adhered degraded into barbarism and mass murder and became a mockery of the very principles that first convinced them to become members.


While “the Old Left was at no time totally without a point,” Oppen writes in a latter, “it deservedly or even fortunately collapsed” (SL, 164). Yet what has replaced it? While communism may have been terribly flawed and its political realities resulted in the death of millions, Oppen seems to be arguing it was at the very least a coherent system of thinking; the “left is at all times,” he writes, “even when it is ineffective — an attempt to take seriously the declared purposes of a society. It is always a matter of radical methods, radical means, rather than radical thinking, radical philosophy… its collapse is therefore no joke for anyone.” Its absence invariably posed the question as to whether or not any philosophy that might possibly replace the Old Left would inevitably result in similar atrocities. The New Left, Oppen felt, while “not paradoxically inhuman like the Old Left,” is nevertheless incoherent: an “ineffective, absolutely useless, therefore cynical, a game, a fashion, a form of self-display or keeping oneself occupied or of asserting everyone else’s failure and one’s own innocence” (SL, 164).


If it is “difficult if ever to prove that political action has been valuable” then poetry was perhaps Oppen’s last, best method to address some fundamental questions he had concerning the failure of this ideological enterprise of revolutionary Marxism with which he was so passionately involved. Oppen may have admitted that there are limits to political action just as there are limits to the effectiveness of art but he had reconciled himself to knowing that the political language he might use to address his concerns about the future was corrupt and based on a humanism that required serious rehabilitation. If a poet is going to write, then he or she should write something defensible; the poem is the test of the poet’s perception, a test, Oppen writes, “of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness” (SP, 175).


Like Camus’ Mersault, “the poet,” Oppen observes, must possess “the emotional power to think beyond platitude and to feel beyond sentimentality… to make poetry out of the need to know, which is the most powerful of human emotions.” [61]   “This is not to say,” he explains, “that the poet is immune to the real world or to claim that he is not likely to find the moment, the image, in which a political generalization or any other generalization will prove its truth” (SP, 180—81). However, he notes, “[e]verything can be explained except truth”; the poet’s images can show but cannot explain truth, nor can “any other generalization” (SPDP, 137). To do so, Oppen argues, would require “millions of words [to] be swallowed whole,” [62]  whereas the “type of mind necessary to the artist, or simply the mind of interest — is touched always by experience, by particulars; [the artistic mind] cannot remain within dogma [. . .] no dogma but this    [. . .] which is not dogma but another and overwhelming force of which we speak of or speak of nothing” (SL, 231).


“I am the father of no country / And can lie,” Oppen writes in “A Narrative,” echoing Plato’s condemnation of the poets in The Republic. “But whether mendacity / Is really the best policy,” Oppen continues, “And whether / One is not afraid / To lie.” The poet, according to Plato, inspires unethical, undesirable passions in place of true knowledge; however, Oppen argues, when a society’s ethics become so debased as to allow “children” to “burn,” [63] then it is the obligation of the poet to test the desirability of such acts through the images of the poem.


Poetry, exempt from Plato’s perfect state, free from the confinement of political “truths” that have degraded into violence and oppression and the insane self-destructiveness of nuclear war, became for Oppen the location for the renewal of moral will, a will, Oppen observes, that “come[s] into conflict everywhere with an established morality,” for a “morality must be based on the will, on what we WANT… Even a revealed morality must speak [of a] redemption of the will… [b]ut a morality cannot be based on an end which we do not want.” [64] His poems, he explains, “contribute… to the process which is stripping people of their defenses” and “pressuring them to return to these basic questions” (SL, 379, n.1).


Like Camus, Oppen accepted an inevitable end to the world; therefore, he observes, “the meaning of ‘forever’ is an impossibility,” at least for humanity (SPDP, 174). We have so far survived yet to survive only, Oppen argues, cannot be “the highest good”; [65]  an “ethos of survival,” he insists, is not capable of “establishing values” (SP, 180). Hitler, for instance, believed in a Final Solution that would ensure the survival of a pure Aryan race, and the survival of competing ideologies resulted in the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War. “Now we do most of the killing / Having found a logic // Which is control / Of the world, ‘we’ / And Russia,” he writes in his poem “Power, the Enchanted World.” “What does it mean to object / Since it will happen?” he asks. Having found a way of talking, of what use is it to talk? Perhaps referring to his years as a communist, Oppen speaks of power as


a force we disregarded and which disregarded us
I’d wanted friends
Who talked of a public justice

Very simple people
I forget what we said.


Truth may be disregarded by power, but it cannot entirely be silenced: “Power, which hides what it can,” Oppen notes, cannot hide the graffiti he sees “scrawled in chalk” on the wall of a bank: “Put your hand on your heart,” words which led him to conclude that “it is those who find themselves in love with the world / Who suffer an anguish of mortality.” Power “ruptures” the present moment, he continues, “Leaking the ancient air in,” reminding us of its devastation “At the extremes of reality / Which is not what we wanted. / The heart uselessly opens / To 3 words, which is too little” (NCP, 204—06). Only by abandoning the egoism of power, he suggests, will we be able to assure a renewed humanism based not on corrupted rhetoric, but rather on a non-egoistic love that overcomes the fear of abandonment through the acceptance of our common mortality. Thus we are able to restore meaning to words, to use words to speak truth, and like Orpheus “rescue love,” as Oppen observes in “A Narrative,” “to the ice-lit upper world / A language of clarity and of respect” (NCP, 156).


To rescue love from its incarceration in a netherworld of platitude and sentimentality to an illuminated world of perception and language is to look without fear at the world by possessing a Sisyphean resolve by accepting the world as it is, not as one wishes it to be, and to be happy. It is to love action rather than intention, reality as opposed to lofty ideals, life consummated not in utopia, but in life. As our survival as well as our search for truth and meaning depends on our commitment to an idea of an abstract humanity and a concrete other, than to “abandon” or be abandoned is finally to lose this commitment both to each other and to truth and, consequently, the hope that either can be achieved. “If we do not admit these things,” Oppen argues, “if we deny” or like Orpheus in his ascent, “look away” from the path by which we lead our companions out from the land of the dead, then “we abandon one another, we abandon all those in extremity, which is to abandon everyone finally” (SPDP, 132).


To some degree, Oppen’s vision came to rest on an almost existential acceptance of solitude, and this solitude is not without despair: “there is no longer shelter in the earth” (NCP, 201) Oppen declares in “Route.” Though we are “lone in a lone universe” (“Birthplace: New Rochelle,” NCP, 55), and “locked out,” we still find ourselves “seeking love / At last among each other” (“Image of the Engine,” NCP, 42).


“I’m thinking with some courage, and writing with some courage” Oppen explains in a letter to his sister, shortly after his return to poetry, “about a life which has had some courage and which will end at least with the courage to acknowledge that I have had ancestors and will have descendents” (SL, 26). While Mary agrees (“I think that we were courageous”) she tempers her husband’s explanation with a degree of humility by insisting that though her acts may have been courageous she “was not being courageous, I was being. I was, for almost any moment I could conjure, being myself, living my life as fully as I could.” Only “sometimes” when they “faltered” did it require “courage to go on, to find the way through the confidence in being, to live fully.” [66]  Like Sisyphus’ stone, Oppen’s communism faltered after significant effort. And like Camus’ hero, Oppen, undiminished, would start again, though he would begin pushing something altogether different.


“Is there another love than that of darkness,” Camus’ adulterous woman asks, “a love that would cry aloud in daylight? She didn’t know,” [67] Camus writes, but elsewhere he offers an answer, using his own version of the Orpheus myth. His Eurydice, brought back from the land of the dead, represents the “rescuing [of] love” from the notion of eternity “or at least those who dress it up in the image of eternity.” Our love does not last, Camus explains, and because it is finite it is “the most human of feelings, with all the limitation and exaltation that the world involves.” If love were eternal, like Plato’s utopia or Marx’s perfect state, it would no longer be “there in dazzling form” [68] reminding us of our common mortality and thus our common humanity.


[1] The Selected Letters of George Oppen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1990) 131. Hereafter abbreviated in text as SL.

[2] Peter Nicholls, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (London: Oxford University Press, 2007), 194 and Dennis Young, “Conversation with Mary Oppen,” Iowa Review 18, 3 (fall 1988) 23. For more on Maritain's considerable influence on Oppen see Nicholls, “George Oppen in Exile: Mexico and Maritain (for Linda Oppen),” in Journal of American Studies 39.1 (April 2005).

[3] Michael Heller, “Oppen and Stevens: Reflections on the Lyrical and the Philosophical,” Sagetrieb 12.3 (winter 1993) 15.

[4] See L.S. Dembo, The Monological Jew: A Literary Study (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988) 137: “When Oppen put pen to paper again, it was… as an existentialist, not as a socialist.”

[5] From the evidence, Oppen was familiar with the writing of Heidegger and Maritain and owned copies of books by the so-called “precursors” of existentialism, including Plotinus, Eckhardt, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. He also owned a copy of Walter Kaufman's seminal 1958 collection, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, a volume that included Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, but also Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers, Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Jose Ortega Y Gasset, and, notably, Albert Camus.

[6] Heller, “‘Knowledge is Loneliness Turning’: Oppen’s Going Down Middle-Voice,” Ironwood 26 (fall 1985) 53.

[7] Oppen concludes this observation by stating “Simply that you are yourself. The stranger [meaning the person that one finds one has become] was himself.” The “stranger” of course alludes to Camus' 1946 novel The Stranger. When Power refers to two lines from Oppen's poem “Product,” “What I've seen / Is all I've found: myself,” he asks Oppen “Is that a kind of uncertainty before the limits of what we can know of ourselves?” Oppen replies, “Uncertainty as to the act of choosing ourselves.” Power then goes on to refer to some lines from “Myself I Sing,” which appears to contradict the lines from “Product”: And all I've been / Is not myself? I think myself / Is what I've seen and not myself / A man marooned… He finds himself by two.” Oppen explains that these lines imply that “man needs a measure. He defines himself by two. But there's still that ambivalence. Myself a man marooned, it's who you are at that moment.” Kevin Power, “An Interview with George and Mary Oppen, May 25, 1975” Texas Quarterly 21.1 (spring 1978) 45—46. For the passage from “Route,” see Michael Davidson, ed., New Collected Poems (New York: New Directions Press, 2002) 195—96. Hereafter cited in text as NCP by page number in parentheses.

[8] Power, “An Interview with George and Mary Oppen,” 45.

[9]According to Peter Nicholls, “For Oppen, as for Sartre, the insights of Marxism and existentialism came to be regarded not as incompatible, but as complementary, not least because… each called in question the priority of thought over being.” Nicholls, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism, 52.

[10] Power, “An Interview with George and Mary Oppen,” 45.

[11] Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, Lloyd Alexander, tr. (New York: New Directions, 1964) 175.

[12] Power, “An Interview with George and Mary Oppen,” 44—45. Contrary to his statement here, Mary told Dennis Young in a later interview that “George never did like [Camus] very much” though she “was very interested.” Dennis Young, “Conversation with Mary Oppen,” 42.

[13]See Mary's comment in Power, “Interview with George and Mary Oppen,” 45.

[14]Philip Thody ed., Lyrical and Critical Essays, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, tr. (New York: Vintage Books, 1968) 360.

[15]The poem's title references Virgil's 4th Eclogue, which deals primarily with the renewal of a golden age inaugurated by the birth of a child; as Heller notes, Oppen's poem appropriately and perhaps quite intentionally opens 1962’s The Materials, his first post-Communist collection of poetry. See Heller, Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen (Cambridge: Salt, 2008) 7—8.

[16] Power, “An Interview with George and Mary Oppen,” 44. There were personal reasons for this preference as well, having to do with Oppen's complex emotions concerning the role of the parent in protecting his or her child and preserving their happiness and innocence in such a violent and suffering world. “I stopped writing,” Oppen later explained in a 1969 letter to June, “To begin with, the catastrophe of human lives in the 'thirties… But later we had a daughter.” He still found himself “hesitat[ing] over a line, thinking of my daughter reading it… tho she is twenty-seven and in no way weak” (SL, 186). Elsewhere in his letters he explains that “there were only some fifteen years that political loyalties prevented me from writing poetry. After that I had to wait for [my daughter] to grow up” (SL, 30). Speaking with L.S. Dembo, Oppen elaborates:

there was the fact of the child too. But this is a little difficult for me to say. There is a difference in one's attitude, in what one wants to say and doesn't want to say, doesn't want to put down on paper, when one is speaking to a child  — well, I can't say I was speaking to our baby daughter. I'll simply say I was being a father, and fathers don't confess to fears even to themselves. This is in its way political, too. It's part of the whole pragmatism of social and political attitudes, the test of goodness, which extends awhile when one is thinking of a child. But it's much more complex. It was actually sort of a different time of life that I sat down again and set myself, for the first time really, to complete a poem, to really finish a poem and to be sure I felt I had completed it. It was as a matter of fact in 1958.

 — L. S. Dembo, "Interview with George Oppen," in L. S. Dembo and Cynthia Pondrom, eds., The Contemporary Writer (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972) 189. Emphasis mine.

This desire to protect his daughter from the world's horrors, and not to deprive her of happiness, appears to have been part of the reason he delayed writing again, besides a lingering fear that he may no longer have the ability to write (“Also (1958)… that I confessed to myself that I possessed a marked ability” (SL, 315)). Yet Oppen came to question their decision to protect their daughter from certain things, wondering if in fact this protection amounted to deception. In a 1969 letter to his niece Diane Meyer, Oppen states that if “all of us  — people  — have come about as far as humans were ever fitted to go, had or have the any possibility of going” and if that is the case, “I cannot bring myself to say that we must live in order to deceive each other, even to deceive the children. And [our daughter] grew up to discover that the world was not as snug as we pretended.” Despite the possibility of hopelessness for the future, that we “get born into the thing, we just find ourselves here and we are as we are,” he felt it was his duty as a poet to “promise happiness sometimes in the poems, I suppose, merely by describing happiness,” and wonders if it is sufficient “comfort if I say Me too… Us Too… We know… Here we all are… This is what we are talking about always, and the children will not always be children, and will talk of this” (SL, 184—85). Writing in “Of Being Numerous,” Oppen wonders if this amounts to a deception and if it is not, whether or not it is enough: “My daughter, my daughter, what can I say / Of living? // I cannot judge it… And it was not precisely / Happiness we promised / Ourselves; // We say happiness, happiness, and are not / Satisfied.” Rather “I can tell myself, and I tell myself / Only what we all believe / True” (NCP, 181), even if this truth amounts to despair. As he remarks in a letter to his sister from 1962, he remarks that, while “it is necessary to talk, to begin to talk… we are afraid the children will overhear us. But someday someone will overhear the children and face absolute despair” (SL, 55). Quoting Irving Younger in The Nation in a later work, “Some San Francisco Poems,” Oppen writes:

So with artists.How pleasurable
to imagine that, if only they gave
up their art, their children would be
healed, would live       (NCP, 223)

Oppen came to accept that the artist must confront the world with honesty and that whether or not one writes, the world remains violent, that children would continue to die as a result of this violence. It is, in some ways, an acquiescence, an admittance of failure that he as a communist, having given up his art, could achieve a socialist ideal where such violence was eradicated. The removal from political activism, inasmuch as the Oppens took part in rioting and protests, acts that would result in imprisonment or worse, to dedicate one's self to the raising of a child, required a degree of remoteness from the political stage. Yet, his daughter's maturity and the increasingly desperate political situation again required his attention, albeit as poet instead of political activist. The return to art came about as a result of this emergency; as he wrote in an entry in his personal papers “we devoted ourselves to creating happiness for the three of us [himself, his wife and daughter], and for a few friends and their children so far as possible… But now what will happen to us in twenty years is  — We must discuss it again, We must try to understand it” Stephen Cope, ed., Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) 109. Hereafter cited in text as SPDP by page number in parentheses.

[17] Albert Camus, The Rebel, Anthony Bower, tr. (New York: Vintage, 1956) 6.

[18] DuPlessis, ed., “The Anthropologist of Myself: A Selection from Working Papers,” Sulfur 26 (spring 1990) 156.

[19] Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Justin O’Brien, tr. (New York: Random House, 1955) 45.

[20] DuPlessis, ed., “The Philosophy of the Astonished,” Sulfur 27 (fall 1990) 212.

[21] Camus, Exile and the Kingdom, tr. Justin O’ Brien (New York: Vintage) 1958, 22, 24—25, 32. Janine, the woman in Camus’ story, shares some similarity with Maude Blessingbourne, the heroine of Henry James’ story “The Story In It,” which inspired Oppen’s poem in his 1934 volume Discrete Series:

      Of what, Maude Blessingbourne it was,
                Wished to know when, having risen,
      "approached the window as if to see
                what really was going on;"
      And saw rain falling, in the distance
                More slowly,
      The road clear from her past the window —
                glass  —
      Of the world, weather-swept, with which
                one shares the century       (NCP, 1).

Oppen later re-interpreted his poem in light of his reading Heidegger’s 1929 acceptance speech for the Chair of Philosophy at Freiberg, “What Is Metaphysics?,” seeing Maude’s “boredom” as representing “what is really going on,” just as Janine’s represents “plain existence.” David McAleavey, “Oppen on Literature and Literary Figures and Issues,” Sagetrieb 6, 1 (fall 1987) 116. Maude’s boredom, according to Oppen, “disclosed / Everything” (NCP, 186). Maude, like Camus’ Justine, is an upper class woman, representative of a life Oppen rejected in favor of life as artist and political activist. On a material level, her boredom is just that, boredom. Having no requirement of labor, the wealthy attend to the satisfaction of desire. This leads only to an emotional vacuum, a lack of intellectual curiosity and therefore a terrible boredom with life, with anything that does not serve to satiate an ever-increasing appetite for gratification. Yet on a metaphysical level, Oppen saw Maude’s boredom as representative of the Heideggerean boredom of human existence within time, of the perspective of human consciousness represented by her seeing the world through “windows,” artificial representations of what is “actually going on.” Boredom is the experience of pure time, when all one notices is its passing, unadulterated by meaningful experience. It is in boredom that the world and the individual experience collide. Like Janine, who encounters the “void” while looking out at the empty desert that does not depend on her existence, that transcends her so completely, Maude finds this world that exists completely without her and is faced with the horror of the abyss of nothingness. However, this abyss leads one back to the question of why there is something and not nothing. When the abyss of nothingness is experienced, individuals typically seek to interrupt the experience with diversion. Heidegger suggests the suspension of this interruption is necessary in our return to our philosophical origins. Boredom, Heidegger proposes, is that emotion in which philosophy was first born. When we are bored, he argues, we are bored of something, a something that is not nothing, yet because of our constant interruption, we have no clear comprehension of the world in which things appear.

Oppen’s Maude longs to confront in some authentic fashion that “weather-swept” world with which she “shares the century.” Oppen equates Heidegger’s concept of boredom with the primitive response that initially led to the development of consciousness. If the mood of boredom is, as Heidegger argues, not simply a psychological state but is a moment when the world is perceived as it is, without the interference of emotion, wherein one is remote from the world enough to begin apprehending Being, than boredom “can be a sense of the world,” Oppen argues. “The sense of the expanse. Which is penetration; the first penetration probably.” Heidegger’s boredom, Mary told interviewers Michael Englebert and Michael West, is “allie[d] closely with that moment of awe in which one’s mind begins to reach beyond.” Michael Englebert and Michael West, “Interview with George and Mary Oppen,” American Poetry Review 14.4 (July-August 1985) 13. Oppen describes this experience of “awe” as the “boredom of being aware … of what is.” McAleavey, “Oppen on Literature and Literary Figures and Issues,” 124—25.

[22] Power, “Interview with George and Mary Oppen,” 45—46.

[23] Norman Finkelstein, “Unteachable: Ideology and Identity in Oppen's Late Poems,” unpublished ms.

[24] Young, “Selections from George Oppen's Daybooks,” 7.

[25] Ruth Gruber, “An Interview with Ted Berrigan, George Oppen and Marvin Cohen, June 11th, 1973,” Poetry International 21/22 (winter 1979/1980) 121.

[26] Young, ed. “Selections from George Oppen’s Daybook,” 7.

[27] Robert Creeley, ed. Selected Poems (New York: New Directions Press, 2003) 174. Hereafter cited in text as SP by page number in parentheses.

[28] DuPlessis, ed. “The Circumstances,” Sulfur 25 (fall 1989) 22. Note the similarity between the words “canto” and “cannot,” a similarity probably not lost on Oppen. “Of Hours,” it should be noted, takes issue with not just Pound, but also Zukofsky, according to statements made to interviewer Kevin Power. See Power, “Interview with George and Mary Oppen,” 44. The poem also attacks the insufficient response to war by cubist Fernand Leger; Oppen recalls seeing cubist Fernand “Leger's art poster / In war time Paris” (NCP, 218), a poster that, as Mary observes in her autobiography, made Oppen go “berserk; there was no way to express my anger at these Parisians who could care about such mediocrity at the time” (MAL, 177). Ironically enough, Léger's name is French for “frivolous,” a translation that undoubtedly did not escape the French-speaking Oppen's attention.

[29] Young, ed. “Selections from George Oppen’s Daybooks,” 3. See also “Blood From the Stone,” the first poem Oppen composed following his return to writing, which explicitly sets out his program: “What do we believe / To live with? / Answer. / Not invent  — just answer  — all / That verse attempts.” NCP, 52.

[30] See David R. MacMillan, ed., “Letters to June Oppen Degnan,” Ironwood 26 (fall 1985) 222—23. Discussing his use of the symbol Ouroboros, the self-consuming serpent in his poem “A Narrative,” Oppen explains that the serpent, a “Fool object” and “is the root / Of evil.” Oppen's Ouroboros symbolizes a privileged consciousness, a consciousness unlike human consciousness in that it is exists in a vantage point outside of the limits of space and time, representing a principle that, in its ignorance and desire for closure gives rise to scientific, rationalized, self-referential systems like that of Marxism, and a concomitant struggle to maintain its illusory and self-destructive beliefs, to rationalize or justify thoughts or behaviors that might otherwise be questioned.. Oppen wonders if the tendency of human beings to impose rational order on the universe is, like Ouroboros, an empiricism that casts light on the world yet affirms nothing more than itself and is finally an inadequate and inaccurate method of explanation, which remains stubbornly “dark” in a figurative, if not literal, sense, referring most specifically to the epistemological tendency to become seduced by systems and categories that, while they provide comfort and reassurance, can lead to philosophical and political beliefs that willfully reject any deviance from their authority. This “Fool object,” represents the Jungian mandala, wherein “man's consciousness” becomes the receptacle of “the knowledge of everything in the universe… under the aspect of eternity,” a presumption that Oppen simply “cannot believe… “Ouroboros is of course the mystic symbol of the serpent with his tail in his mouth, the symbol of eternity or of endlessness, the endless wheel. His also the mandala, a magic circle the closed universe, the closed self.” The poem, he notes, “makes a half-pun on mandala, medallion, 'dingy medallion.'” The mystery, he continues, rather “begins where it begins for Aquinas: The individual encounters the world, and by that encounter with something which he recognizes as being outside himself, he becomes aware of himself as an individual, a part of reality.” Reality cannot be located in the mind, Oppen argues, rather “in our encounter with the universe, in history, in the future of man, in the dialogue of art and the dialogue of philosophy.” Science, therefore, has its limits: as Oppen concludes, in science “all things explain each other, but they do not explain themselves,” particularly the science of mathematics, the system favored by the mathematician Descartes, whose rationality replaced faith in God with faith in the certainty of the human mind. Mathematics is an a priori system that designates beforehand the limits of what can be known, just as Plato's idea or the Cartesian cogito.

In a letter from 1967, Oppen observes that the “numbers act of themselves… Attach them to the ends of threads or the tail of a cat, and they take off again in the same gambol.” This image of the cat chasing its own tail echoes that of the serpent Ouroboros eating its tail. Both destruction and creation: “mathematics creating itself,” he writes, “Is the serpent coming out of his own mouth?” If the “serpent doesn't disappear,” Oppen argues, “he grows and displaces the empirical: “I don't know that I can live with him.” Oppen is conscious of seeking, not a Cartesian “consciousness of the world,” rather “the world's consciousness.” Mathematics seems to prove the doctrine of John Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost, quoted in “A Narrative,” that the “mind is its own place.” It can “formulate the number series… a man made universe. A universe of numbers: like other universes, infinite.” Oppen writes that he has struggled against this concept from “Discrete Series on.” He wishes to return us to that originary encounter with the world, not dependent on a priori, conceptual systems: “we began with substance, with things,” he observes. While there is the “danger of terror in poetry,” in mathematics there is the considerably more terrifying possibility of “nothing at all” (SL, 158). “A Narrative” continues its mediation on blindness-sight/ignorance-knowledge through its use of Milton. Describing Ouroboros' “tail is in his mouth,” Oppen regards it as the “ring worm,” self-contained and therefore self-digesting, the “devil's / Doctrine the blind man / Knew.” Satan (himself identified with the Biblical serpent of Genesis) observes that: “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” (It is appropriate for Oppen's purposes that the poet who wrote these words, was himself both figuratively, by Church doctrine, and literally, by lack of sight, blind.) However, the mind, Oppen reminds us, contrary to Satan's declaration, is not its “own place”; it is not separate from the world, but rather in it, and this culminates in a passage that appears to be a critique of dual purposes, critiquing generally both the metaphysical tradition from Plato to Descartes. Consciousness, Oppen insists, extends outward into the world and is acted upon by this world at the same time the world is acted upon by consciousness. Thus, the serpent Satan and Ouroboros represent nothing more than an foolish “object,” an enclosed system developed from and dependent on the fear of the world's darkness: “Perhaps the world / Is horror,” Oppen writes. Closed systems, by their very definition, can never be transcended. They are best discarded, much as Oppen himself discarded what remained of his Marxism and, through his reading and thinking with and through existentialism, was either made aware or reminded of the artificiality of ideological conformity. Such systematic thinking is “deadly” and must be left “alone” (NCP, 153—154). Note also his use of the circle in “Leviathan,” concerning the need of breaking free from the limits of ideology: a “wind… Moving in a circle, very cold” (NCP, 89).

[31]DuPlessis ed., “The Philosophy of the Astonished,” 208.

[32]Oppen, “Statement on Poetics,” Sagetrieb 3, 3 (winter 1984) 26.

[33]Robert Creeley, “Introduction,” Creeley, ed. Charles Olson: Selected Writings (NY: New Directions, 1966) 5.

[34]Heller, Speaking the Estranged, 1.

[35]Heller, Speaking the Estranged, 92—93.

[36] What occurred in Stalinist Russia and in Nazi Germany is only the most recent example of the corruption of language. The difficulty of achieving truth through language arises when one considers how extensively corrupted language is by not only politics, but also commerce and by every day (idle) use. The control of language is an effective way of controlling thought; the development of a new vocabularies and rhetoric is a powerful method of indoctrination, manipulation and rationalization. Oppen addresses this most explicitly in sections 12 and 13 of “Of Being Numerous.” The primitive men and women who “gathered in council / And spoke” were able to do so as their words had not yet suffered centuries of distortion through political, philosophical, and commercial use, and had not yet accumulated their many different “meanings.” For their modern counterparts, everything, including language, is found there before them, readymade, all dialogue is fodder for their “argument and difference of opinion.” Subsequently, their lives become “unreal” and without “solidity” or “extent.” They “develop / Argument in order to speak,” when the point is not simply to speak but to make oneself open to the world and to engage in order to be heard (NCP, 170). Oppen does not believe that one could return to the clarity that he assumes primitive man must have felt when language was in its infancy: “This will never return, never” he writes, “Unless” modern people, “having reached their limits” will “begin over, that is / Over and over.” In this marvelously compact couplet, he articulates his ars poetica, for his is a poetics of continual renewal and openness, insisting on experiencing the world through language as encounter, rather than conformances and confinement of a wrecked discourse, tarnished by the moribund vocabularies of consumerism and bureaucracy, where public discourse overwhelms private. What was once sincere, now finds itself weighted by pretense. This constantly repeated beginning illustrates both the contingency of Oppen’s method as well as its futility. No statement is closed, either metaphysically or subjectively, although his poetry contains the rhetorical force of finality in its impersonality as an art object (a holdover from his “Objectivist” apprenticeship). The futility is in the impossibility of Oppen’s endeavor, of rescuing “a substantial language / Of clarity, and of respect,” yet he refuses to surrender, despite the impossibility of his task (NCP, 156). “ I will listen to a man,” Oppen writes in section 10 of “Of Being Numerous,” “and when I speak, I will speak, tho / he will fail and I will fail. But I will listen to him speak. / There is only hope // Speak // if you can // Speak” (NCP, 168).Oppen’s project is to find in words their luminous, pristine meaning and to achieve meaning through this use of words: “If one captures them / One by one proceeding / / Carefully they will restore / I hope to meaning / And to sense” (NCP, 116).

[37] Young, ed. “Selections from George Oppen’s Daybook,” 7.

[38] DuPlessis, ed. “The Circumstances,” 22.

[39] This line refers to Pound's Canto 81, “What Thou Lovest Well Remains” and to a comment, made by Louis Zukofsky, who, when hearing of Pound's predilection for the fascist radio host Father Coughlin, remarked “Whatever you don't know, Ezra, you ought to know voices.” Humphrey Carpenter, Serious Character: A Life of Ezra Pound (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988) 116. Broadcasting pro-fascist radio broadcasts in Italy at the same time Oppen was in the US Army, fighting the German forces in the Ardennes forest, Pound's voice did a lot of “twisting.” Oppen may have also been thinking of these lines from William Carlos Williams' poem “A Unison,” published in his 1948 collection The Clouds: “Listen! Do you not hear / them? the singing? There it is and / we'd better acknowledge it and / write it down that way, not otherwise. / Not twist the words to mean / what we should have said but to mean / - what cannot be escaped” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams Volume II: 1939 — 1962, Christopher MacGowan, ed. (New York: New Direction, 1988) 157.

[40] Cope, ed., “A Selection from ‘Daybook One’, ‘Daybook Two’, and ‘Daybook Three’ from The Working Papers of George Oppen,” Germ 3 (spring 1999) 219.

[41] Cope, ed., “from Pipe-Stem Daybook Two,” Jubilat 4 (2002) 51. An earlier poem of Oppen's, “World, World -,” from 1965's This In Which, also addresses this intentional decision not to see:

Failure, worse failure, nothing seen
From prominence.
Too much seen in the ditch.

Those who will not look
Tho they feel on their skins
Are not pierced;

One cannot count them
Tho they are present (NCP, 159),

Again, in this poem as in “Of Hours,” the “failure” of one who has seen nothing from “prominence,” from a perspective that has managed to avoid the difficult realities: “Too much seen in the ditch,” from below. This failure of “Those who will not look,” who choose to remain willfully ignorant of a reality which refuses to conform to their programmatic or ideological ways of thinking, cannot be counted “Tho they are present.” They “feel” but they are not “pierced.” One must be emotionally penetrated, Oppen argues, and those of “prominence” can afford to avoid this penetration. One thinks of Pound as one of those “prominent” individuals; while not wealthy, he placed himself on a pedestal from which he acted as educator and explicator, president of the “Ezuversity,” as James Laughlin called it, a school which the Oppens briefly attended in the early thirties, before quickly becoming tired of Pound's intellectual bravado and misogyny; he ignored Mary, which troubled both the Oppens. Planning to publish the complete prose works of Pound, the Prolegomena, they managed to publish only one volume, consisting of the short essay “How to Read” and four chapters of The Spirit of Romance. Pound next sent them the manuscript for ABC of Economics, which they refused because of their disagreement with Pound's economic arguments. Another Oppen poem that deals with Pound's failure, “The Speech at Soli,” derives its title from the etymological source of the word solipsism and would insist, contrary to Pound's stated objective of the Cantos to “make it cohere,” that “it will not // cohere it will N O T that / other // desertion / of the total / we discover”. Pound is portrayed as a “mad [king] / / gone raving / war in incoherent sunlight.” The poem asks Pound “what do you want / to tell while the world // speaks,” for the world tells only the “public time” of “faces of the highways.” Oppen is “fearful” of trying to engage with those people about the horrors of war, and the overall mood of the poem is one of “anger,” anger of the war's events and the difficulty in translating this “unconscionable” horror to the “towns of the coast” seeing “threats in stones / enemies in sidewalks,” (NCP, 238—39) the “theatre” of war “greets itself and reverberates the spirit / goes down goes under” into the firmament. This violence in the firmament, much like the “violent, diligent seed” (NCP, 51) of a friend's baby in “Sara In Her Father's Arms,” is a metaphysical violence, and, by quoting a passage from an earlier poem, “A Narrative,” which recounts the “Indian songs” that lamented the destruction of their civilization, finds a corollary in the “young men” of his generation who have “become aware of the Indian” and so, like the Indian, facing the end of their civilization, find themselves signing, after their own fashion “Return, the return of the sun” (NCP, 155), Oppen implicates that the Final Solution that intended the destruction of the Jewish race, where “adolescent young girls fall into wells / says a letter” (a line referring to Anne Frank), also leads him to return to this song, “return / the return of the sun” (NCP, 238).

[42] Young, ed., “Selections from George Oppen’s Daybooks,” 4.

[43] Anderson, ed., “Meaning Is to Be Here,” 185.

[44] Letter dated April 28, 1965, George Oppen Papers, Mandeville Library, University of California San Diego 16, 1, 3.

[45]DuPlessis, ed., “The Philosophy of the Astonished,” 206.

[46] Having admitted this failure in his poem “Pro Nobis”: Tho' I had hoped to arrive / At any actuality / In the mere number of us / And record now / That I did not” (NCP, 157).

[47] DuPlessis, ed., “Philosophy of the Astonished,” 203.

[48] Dembo, “Interview with George Oppen,” 166.

[49] Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 170.

[50] Dembo, “Interview with George Oppen,” 178—79.

[51] Dembo, “Interview with George Oppen,” 185.

[52] Herbert Lottman, Albert Camus: A Biography (NY: Doubleday, 1979) 391—93.

[53] Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 151.

[54] Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 353.

[55] Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 358.

[56] Young, ed., "Selections from George Oppen's Daybook," Iowa Review 18, 3 (fall 1988) 8—9. When composing the poems of 1934's Discrete Series, completed prior to his political commitment, Oppen was predictably critical of capitalism, yet these primarily ambiguous renderings of city life pale in comparison to the metaphysical implications of the disasters of the following decades, in particular that of communism.

[57] Political and artistic silence are a major theme in Camus' work. Camus’ play The Misunderstanding, written in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of France, studies the ways such tyranny infects every day life with paranoia and how it turns people against one another. Given the acceptance of a metaphysic of violence “adjusting itself to the natural pressures of history,” and the inevitability of violence, how then are individuals to limit this violence? Camus, for his part, advocated dialogue. “I believe in dialogue, sincerity,” Camus writes. Camus, Notebooks 1942 — 1951, tr. Justin O’Brien (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965) 124. Yet a decade later, Camus bleakly argued that “no one speaks anymore (except those who repeat themselves) because history seems to be in the grip of blind and deaf forces which will heed neither cries of warning, nor advice, nor entreaties.” Quoted in Maurice Friedman, The Worlds of Existentialism, 215—16. According to Camus, “all flee real responsibility, the effort of being consistent or of having an opinion of one’s own, in order to take refuge in the parties or groups that will think for them, express their anger for them, and make their plans for them.” Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, Death, Justin O’Brien, tr. (New York: Vintage, 1974) 100—101. In the place of dialogue it seems that a “vast conspiracy of silence has spread all about us, a conspiracy accepted by those who are frightened and who rationalize their fears in order to hide them from themselves, a conspiracy fostered by those whose interest is to do so.” For Camus, “dialogue and the universal intercommunication of men must be defended” in the face of this vast silence. He proposed, most specifically in his essay The Rebel, the value of revolt: revolt against the evils of tyranny, oppression, terror and slavery, against the “prioritization of politics and morality.” Individuals must seek out what he calls “universalism” where individuals are able to “find themselves in touch with one another” and therefore transcend through social participation the “despair” of individualism, discovering together those shared values which one might base their revolt. Quoted in Friedman, The Worlds of Existentialism, 215—16. Camus argued in favor of an ethic of revolt, a fight against slavery and terror, injustices that impose silence on man, separate them from one another. Such a revolt, however, requires the establishment and adherence to core values. What is needed, Camus explains, is to “not to give in when… told that intelligence is always unwelcome or that it is permissible to lie in order to succeed… not to give in to guile, violence or inertia… Friendship will [then] be possible that will be more than idle talk… men will begin again to have that feeling for man, without which the world can never be but a vast solitude.” Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, Death, 64—65.

[58] Camus, Exile and the Kingdom, 157—58.

[59] Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 109.

[60] Young, ed., “Selections from George Oppen’s Daybook,” 5, 8.

[61] Cynthia Anderson, ed. “Meaning Is To Be Here,” Conjunctions 10 (1987) 206.

[62] DuPlessis, ed. “The Anthropologist of Myself: A Selection from the Working Papers,” 148.

[63] Dembo, “Interview with George Oppen,” 179.

[64] Young, ed., “Selections from George Oppen’s Daybook,” 8.

[65] DuPlessis, ed., “An Anthropologist of Myself,” 156.

[66] Mary Oppen, video of reading at the San Francisco State University Poetry Center, Nov. 29, 1978.

[67] Camus, Exile and the Kingdom, 28.

[68] Camus, Notebooks 1942 — 1951, 56.

Eric Hoffman is the author of three books of poetry (Things Like This Happen All the Time, Threnody, and Of Love and Water) and one previous essay on Oppen, “A Poetry of Action: George Oppen and Communism”, published in American Communist History in 2007. Currently, he is editing a feature on George Oppen for the internet journal big bridge ( His work has appeared on-line most recently in The Argotist Online and Cultural Society.

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