back toJacket2

This piece is about 12 printed pages long. It is copyright © Joy Katz and Jacket magazine 2008.
See our [»»] Copyright notice. The Internet address of this page is

Joy Katz

Writing, and Something Other Than Writing:

George Oppen’s Silences

1. Problems of Ethics, Aesthetics, Poetics (1935-1946)

Section 1

George Oppen rejected poetry for nearly 25 years. Gave it up. Did not merely cease to write when he became involved in other things, including political activism, but elected to stop. Renounced: rejected one thing for the sake of another.


What if you, reader, were required to serve in the military for two years, during which time you didn’t write? What would happen if we poets stopped writing for two years and worked for Habitat for Humanity? (Besides a lot of houses getting built.) What if poets, at age, say, 27, or after finishing an MFA, pledged to stop writing for five years in service to not only whatever social or political work they took on but also the work of their lives — dating, temp jobs, lawyering, raising a wheaten terrier, raising children, practicing the cello? Would our poems be better, be different? Would our lives be better? Does George Oppen’s life serve as an example?


But even if we changed our lives, why would we stop writing? That’s the question.


In 1935, Oppen, 27, had just published a slim volume of poems, his first. He wondered, amid the spread of fascism, “is it more important to produce art or to take political action?” [1] For Oppen, it had to be one or the other. Poetry, he felt, did not do the urgent work of the world -- a world in which there were things going on that made writing poetry not only irrelevant but also deeply wrong. In a letter to friends, Oppen recalls Bertold Brecht saying


… there are times when it can be almost a crime to write of trees. … There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art. [2]


Oppen echoed Brecht: “Surely there are situations in which it’s absurd to write poetry! One could approach his own death with poetry — I should think one would. But a slaughter for which he bears perhaps some responsibility?” [3] “If I did not resist a force,” Oppen said, “a force such as the force of Hitler — a force that would exterminate almost all those I knew, friends, daughter … radicals, liberals, the poets … ” [4]


Poetry cannot right human wrongs. Worse: “I thought that all a poem could do for a people was to say me too,” [5] Oppen said. His concern was for commune. Community. He wanted to do something “for a people.”


Much has been written about Oppen’s decision to quit writing and work as an agitator for the communists, and later to fight in World War II. But was conscience the biggest reason for his silence?


It’s hard to imagine now, because our politics does not make demands on our poems. Most of us strive mainly to meet aesthetic demands, not that that burden is light. But communism told poets what to write. True, Oppen chose to quit writing. But for him, and for readers of this essay, one assumes, given the same circumstances, there would be no choice. How many of us would stop writing if all the publishers, the prize-givers, the journals, the editors we know, all of our peers, said: Your poetry must not be about your mother’s nipples; your Letters to Wendy’s are an ethical failure; your poems about robots are punishable unless you make clear that the robots represent the plight of the worker. Would we write the poems asked of us, even for a revolution we believed in? (The question of whether to be dubious of a cause that propagates bad art is a topic for another essay.)


Oppen’s silence was therefore aesthetic, not just moral. Writing poems would have meant writing communist poems. Oppen believed in acting “for a people,” but he also believed communism made bad art: “Have to write one’s perceptions, not argue one’s beliefs.” [6] Rather than make bad art, he would make no art. Decades later, in a letter in 1962, he said:


I was right not to write bad poetry — poetry tied to a moral or a political (same thing) judgment. [7]


It’s easy to underestimate how strong the pressure would have been for Oppen to change what he wrote. Artists who did not announce they were communists, and whose work did not evince an obvious revolutionary theme, were attacked as “vacillating intellectuals.” [8] Writers who thought there must be a middle ground between communism and fascism, such as Wallace Stevens, were thought to be in a “condition of creative crisis,” [9] and it was hoped they might win their “struggle for philosophical adjustment.” [10] In the meantime their work was roasted by critics.


The party would have been hard on Oppen’s first book, Discrete Series (had not the volume been obscure and Oppen concealed that he was a poet). Those early poems find their meaning in the perception of material, often household, objects: a refrigerator, a hairbrush, a soda fountain, the way a boat passes over water. The poems are acts of observation. Revolutionaries did not sit around and observe. Carpets? A silk dress, a pleasure boat? Never mind the poems’ manner: their very matter could not have been more petit-bourgeois.


So there was a conflict. Oppen was in thrall to the everyday stuff of this world. To cars, and the cracking of eggs. “I speak of the things I see, and that I see every day,” he said, “because my life is led among them, because I have no life free from them, and must obviously find meaning in them if I am to find meaning. At all.” [11] But leftist politics of the ’30s deemphasized the things of the world and put all the emphasis on action. When the masses are hungry, it is treasonable to be concerned with a refrigerator.


Perhaps the only way for Oppen to resolve this conflict of perception was to forsake poetry for as long as he was active politically.


Still, it’s remarkable that not one line of poetry exists from his period of silence. Not a note, not a single fragment scribbled in a letter. It could not have been easy for Oppen to renounce poetry. He had not been drawn to art casually. He had pledged his life to it.


We’re committed, Mary and I, as artists, and therefore very seriously, to the common, the un-doped, the un-staged, the plain and ordinary daylight. Whatever we see now, we’ll see that way — or fight to do so. [12]


Heidegger, a philosopher important to Oppen who also wrote about the material stuff of the world, said (quoting Hölderlin): “To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods.” [13] If he had no life free from objects — boat masts, deer, overcoats — then the objects Oppen wrote about would have become his fugitive gods. He still lived among them, but he could not attend to them by making poems. Neither could he satisfy his imagination by embedding revolution somehow in the poems, making the idea, or at least the feeling — for he believed in it — work among the nouns.


That would have been more than an aesthetic conflict, though; it would have been a technical problem. Oppen’s poetry then was not a poetry of ideas. It was a poetry of things only.


The work in the first book, Discrete Series, comprises hard, carefully honed images, like pieces of glass that catch the light. The poems are quick and esoteric acts of regarding. There are barely any sentences in them, and few verbs. It’s as if Oppen’s eye spoke what it saw, beaming images directly onto the page with as little interference, commentary, or imprint from the imagination as possible. This untitled poem is an example:


On the water, solid —
The singleness of a toy —

A tug with two barges.

O what O what will
Bring us back to
the shore

Coiling a rope on the steel deck [14]


There is longing in “O what O what will / Bring us back to / Shore” as the poem’s point of view becomes that of the sailors. Oppen himself, and his wife, Mary, were expert sailors. The poem offers the barest hint of life on a boat, away from home, but its energy, its meaning-making, is visual. This poem, also untitled, is all images but for the verb “flaunts”:


This land:
The hills, round under straw;
A house

With rigid trees

And flaunts
A family laundry,
And the glass of windows [15]


A student might make what she wants of the contrast between the round earth and the hard, linear dwelling. Oppen would not have been interested in that discussion. Like the poets Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff, with whom (along with William Carlos Williams) he founded Objectivism, Oppen’s concern at the time was limited to seeing, to pure existence, and to the melody of the language used to create images. He wanted to record exactly what he saw, to get the world as right as possible. The example he turned to again and again of an image he hoped to emulate, an image that “hits… clear and sudden,” [16] is from a poem by Reznikoff:


Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.” [17]


“How other than with this image,” Oppen said, “could [Reznikoff] put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence — the existence of things?” [18] Still, this poetry, whose engine is apprehension, suffers the limits of Imagism. In fact, it was Ezra Pound who wrote the introduction to Discrete Series[19] The poems are highly compressed acts of apprehension. They are glimpses of glimpses. They might capture an animal vulnerability, for example, in the phrase “my scalp.” But there isn’t room in the poems for a poet to draw directly on life experience or to use philosophical language or prose stanzas, as Oppen did later, when he began writing again. Objectivist poems aren’t designed to hold thought. They aren’t vessels; they are more like binoculars, with a pinpoint view.


It’s possible, then, that Oppen’s silence was expedient given the arc of his writing. He stopped making poems for ethical, perceptual, and aesthetic reasons. But he also might have reached the limits of pure Objectivism.


The poems of The Materials (1962), the first book Oppen published after he started writing again, have much different poetic strategies. They muse, they wonder; they do not merely observe. The poems are more capacious, too, with the longest ones sustained over a couple of pages. They take in Oppen’s family life, his fighting in the war, and the events of the world, including in the 1960s, the new threat of nuclear war.


In The Materials — as opposed to Discrete Series, where there is little trace of the life or concerns of the poet — phrases such as “I remember” and “I knew them,” and the names of friends and family, enter the poems. The poet, still a skilled maker of images, has acquired a past. He has a comfort with himself and a fluency with his own thoughts that he lacked in his twenties. “The Men of Sheepshead” (a part of Brooklyn close to where the Oppens lived) is an example:


Eric — we used to call him Eric --
And Charlie Weber: I knew them well,
Men of another century. And still at Sheepshead
If a man carries pliers
Or maul down those rambling piers he is a man who fetches
Power into the afternoon
Speaking of things

End-for-end, butted to each other,
Dove-tailed, tenoned, doweled — Who is not at home
Among these men? who make a home
Of half truth, rules of thumb
Of cam and lever and whose docks and piers
Extend into the sea so self-contained. [20]


Beyond the poem’s easy, conversational tone and the compelling idea of a person being able to “fetch power” (and fetch it into a time of day, no less), it’s interesting to note that this poem praises work and workers -- men who labor at carpentry, construction, wiring, the docking of boats. Perhaps the communists would have allowed it.


The poems of The Materials are better. Yet we can’t know if Oppen’s renunciation of poetry made them better.


His long silence acted as a compressor, forcing the writing he would do into a short period later in his life. But there is no way to tell whether it was this compression, or a middle-aged awareness of his own mortality, or some other thing, that allowed him to move beyond the seemingly hermetic world of Objectivism.


If there is no benefit to one’s poetics in keeping silent for so many years, perhaps there are other benefits. Might living a life with such clear intent — giving up poetry, not merely letting it linger at the edges of our lives — say something about balance? Whether or not we choose to stop writing, how much meaning should come from our writing, and how much from acting, as Oppen said, “for a people?” Does George Oppen’s silence say something about an ideal relationship between living life and the life of the imagination?


In our lives as poets, writing and political action can overlap because our writing need not be tromped upon by our causes. Our party invited poetry to Barack Obama’s inaugural. Our party likes poetry. It doesn’t tell us what to write. We can be bourgeois or as stirring as we like. Therefore we can be activists and keep writing. Or have a social conscience and keep writing. The question, as the poet Nick Flynn, who is writing about Abu Ghraib, says, is how good the poems are, and will they last.


In his novel Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee describes hearing a performance of the Sibelius fifth symphony and imagining “what it would have been like … to be a Finn in the audience at the first performance of the symphony … a century ago [1919], and feel that swell [of emotion] overtake one.” He says: “One would have felt … proud that one of us could put together such sounds … . Contrast with that one’s feelings of shame that we, our people, have made Guantanamo. Musical creation on the one hand, a machine for inflicting pain and humiliation on the other: the best and the worst that human beings are capable of.” [italics his]  [21]


In our time, destitute with regard to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Sudan, and countless other examples of willful pain and humiliation, how much meaning can come from making poems? And if it is personal meaning, not necessarily “for a people,” what of that? If the best that a poet is capable of is to say “me too,” as Oppen thought, is there a connection between “me” and the “one of us” Coetzee praises, a man who, during the Great War, wrote a piece of music?


Robert Hass wrote a poem about the war in Vietnam, “Paschal Lamb.” In it someone in a university English department figures out how to end that war:


Everyone in the country — in the world … who was opposed to the war would simply cut off the little finger on the left hand and send it to the president. Imagine! They would arrive slowly at first, the act of one or two maniacs, but the news would hit the newspapers and the next day there would be a few more. And the day after that more. And on the fourth day there would be thousands. And on the fifth day, clinics would be set up — organized by medical students in Madison, San Francisco, Stockholm, Paris — to deal with the surgical procedure safely and on a massive scale. And on the sixth day, the war would stop. It would stop. The helicopters at Bienhoa would sit on the airfields in silence…  [22]


It is a poem, in part, about exactly what Oppen felt: that poetry can’t right human wrongs. Did the poets put their fingers in the mail? No. Oppen made a sacrifice of his poetry for decades, and the socialist ideal never came to pass. In “Of Being Numerous,” Oppen writes:


… 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 [23]


Hass’s poem says that poetry failed America. Oppen might have said he failed America.


But he did come to believe that, looking back, “it is difficult to ever prove that political action has been valuable. Yet is always quite clear that … art” has been valuable. “If a writer manages to write,” Oppen wrote, “he does have some belief, some hope, in a way of life which he is creating or helping to create.” [24] What both of these poems do is say me too. It seems, by Oppen’s lights, an honorable thing for a poem to do.

2. Fatherhood (1946-1959)


The period of George Oppen’s activist work and his time in the army — he eventually grew frustrated with communism, enlisted, and fought on the front lines in World War II — spanned about 11 years. Yet he didn’t write his next poem for 13 more years. What happened during that time? In an interview in 1968, Oppen says:


“In a way I gave up poetry because of the pressures of … conscience. But there were some things I had to live through, some things I had to think my way through … to try out -- and it was more than politics, really; it was … having a child. … ” [25]


In a letter the next year, Oppen says: “I stopped writing … to begin with [because of] the catastrophe of human lives in the ’thirties. … But, later, [because] we had a daughter. [26]


So Oppen kept on with his silence for the sake of raising a child. But what was it about fatherhood that precluded his poetry writing, exactly?


As a new mother, the writer of this essay worried, especially during my child’s early months, whether poetry had disappeared, since I wasn’t writing or reading it. In my most cogent moments I doubted that I would ever again perceive the world the way a poet perceives it. My mind was suffused with a new, creaturely attention. But was this attention useful to poetry? I had trouble forming even simple sentences, and I was exhausted all the time. How would I find the strength, let alone the time, to write? As such, I would like to bookmark Oppen’s idea of choosing to not write, of marking out a time where one is responsible to something other than writing, rather than simply not writing.


For Oppen, beyond the usual heavy demands of time and energy in new parenthood (for the poet was ahead of his time, sharing the responsibilities of child-rearing with Mary), there were other problems. He had been abroad for three years, soldiering. He was left for dead in a foxhole at the end of the war and remained in France for many months even after V-day, recovering from critical wounds. Oppen had returned to his family in the noisy and stressful confines of Brooklyn. His three-year-old daughter, Linda, didn’t know him.


“We needed to get out of New York City, where tension and too much argument had to be faced; we needed to get away from the scene of wartime living and be a family again,” Mary Oppen writes in her autobiography. [27] In 1946 the Oppens bought a modest house trailer and headed west, traveling up and down the coast, stopping to make breakfast, gather shells, or spend the day among wild horses. They settled for a little while near Los Angeles, and then in Oregon, before spending eight years in Mexico, refugees from the House Un-American Activities Committee. During all this time, George writes, he and Mary


“… devoted ourselves to creating happiness for the three of us and for a few friends and their children so far as possible.”  [28]


And he did not return to poetry. “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,” Oppen says. “Fathers don’t confess to fears even to themselves.” [29] In a letter from the same time (1969), Oppen recalls finding himself “hesitat[ing] over a line, thinking of my daughter reading it.” [30]


The burden of expressing a politics was gone, but it had been replaced by new anxiety. “What one owes to one’s wife and child and friends even is to keep oneself as safe as possible,” [31] he wrote. Oppen felt himself bound to “promise happiness sometimes in the poems, I suppose, merely by describing happiness.” [32] But Oppen is not a poet who describes happiness very often. “It is the business of the poet / ‘To suffer the things of the world / And to speak them and himself out.’ ” [33] As long as he wasn’t writing poems, he could “promise / “Everything that matters, shelter / From the winds // The winds that lie / In the mind, / The ruinous winds … ” [34]


Rather than writing poems that spoke of suffering, he would write no poems.


The desire to shield Linda from such ideas may have served as much to distance his own mind from them. When he went back to poetry, he would write, among other things, of the war, and murder. “Of This All Things… ” begins as a love poem to Mary: “What distinction / I have is that I have lived / My adult life / With a beautiful woman, I have turned on the light / Sometimes to see her.” [35] The poem quickly turns dark, though, as Oppen goes on to describe how living with Mary


Has changed the aspect
Of things, everything is pierced
By her presence tho we have wanted
Not comforts

But vision
Whatever terrors
May have made us
To the earth, whatever terrors —


In the poems of This in Which (1965) and Of Being Numerous (1968), Oppen faces terror with a level gaze. Here is an excerpt from the poem “Route:”


Wars that are just? A simpler question: In the event,
will you or will you not want to kill a German. Because,
in the event, if you do not want to, you won’t. …

A man will give his life for his friend provided he wants to.

In all probability a man will give his life for his child
Provided his child is an infant. [36]


The utopia, communist or otherwise, had not materialized. Oppen had gone to fight fascism and come home to discover anti-Semitism. Now there was a chance the world was approaching nuclear destruction. No wonder Oppen asked again, four years later, whether it was enough “comfort if I say Me too … Us Too … We know … Here we all are … ”  [37]


In his poem “Some San Francisco Poems,” Oppen writes (quoting Irving Younger in The Nation):


So with artists. How pleasurable

to imagine that, if only they gave

up their art, the children would be

healed, would live …  [38]


As if poetry has so much power that to not write such truths — about the ways we destroy, not heal, each other — could forestall suffering.


It is an astonishing amount of faith to have in poetry, to believe, or want to believe, it rescues our children from harm and death, as if that could ever happen. Of course Linda was bound to discover the world. She would learn that it was not, as Oppen said, as “snug” as he and Mary “pretended it was” [39] when they could let down the trailer steps by the sea and be at home, all together.


“How pleasurable” — how pleasurable to imagine poets saving their children by not writing about the things human beings do to each other. Pleasurable, as if the idea were a cocktail that tingled around the edges of the mind. It’s an uncharacteristically light moment in an Oppen poem. But how light is it?


Oppen was committed to the facts of the world; he was not an inventor of charms and spells. He was, as Robert Creeley said, a “spare, self-determined, isolate and unremitting person.” [40] Yet he went as far as to draw a charmed circle around artists. As poets, he says, we alone have the power to renounce poetry, and by doing so to save our children. Even if we save our children only, and the others perish.

Works Cited

James Longenbach. Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 135-147.

L.S. Dembo and George Oppen. Interview. Contemporary Literature Vol. 10, No. 2 (spring 1969), pp. 159-177.

George Oppen. Selected Letters. Edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Duke University Press: 1990.

———. Selected Poems. Edited and with an introduction by Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 2003.

———. New Collected Poems. Edited by Michael Davdson; preface by Eliot Weinberger; with a CD of the poet reading. New York: New Directions, 2008.

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

Mary Oppen. Meaning: A Life: An Autobiography. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.


 [1] Daybooks 89

 [2] Letters 65

 [3] Selected xiii

 [4] Daybooks 44

 [5] Daybooks 97

 [6] Letters 22

 [7] Letters 66

 [8] Longenbach 139

 [9] Longenbach 142

 [10] Longenbach 142

 [11] Daybooks 158

 [12] Letters 105

 [13] Martin Heidegger. Poetry, Language, Thought. Wildside Press, 1994, p. 94

 [14] Collected 32

 [15] Collected 16

 [16] Letters 24

 [17] C. Reznikoff, “By the Waters of Manhattan,” Jerusalem the Golden(1934)

 [18] Letters 24

 [19] Imagism’s preoccupation with seeing also forms the basis of Objectivism.

 [20] Collected 71

 [21] J.M. Coetzee. Diary of a Bad Year. New York: Viking, 2008, p. 45.

 [22] Robert Hass. Human Wishes. New York: Ecco, 1989, pp. 28-29

 [23] Collected 167

 [24] Letters 99

 [25] Dembo 174

 [26] Letters 186

 [27] Mary Oppen 180

 [28] Daybooks 109

 [29] Dembo TK

 [30] Letters 186

 [31] Letters 132

 [32] Letters 184

 [33] Collected 149

 [34] Collected 112

 [35] Collected 129

 [36] Collected 196

 [37] Letters 185

 [38] Collected 223

 [39] Letters 184

 [40] Selected x

Joy Katz

Joy Katz

Joy Katz is editor-at-large for Pleiades. Her poetry collections are The Garden Room and Fabulae, and she co-edited the recent anthology Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. She has taught poetry workshops at The New School and NYU, among other places, and recently moved from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh with her husband and young son.

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in Jacket magazine is copyright © Jacket magazine and the individual authors and copyright owners 1997–2010; it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.