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

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

Bob Perelman

Oppen’s Poetics and Politics Today

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I’ll begin with two items that will be most familiar to readers of George Oppen: the twenty-five-year gap in his career and his after-the-fact explanation for that hiatus: ““we wanted to know // if we were any good // out there.” With Oppen, simple will eventually mean complicated, but let’s start with the simple reading: “we wanted to know // if we were any good // out there” is a rebuke: poetry is being dismissed as a valid activity. Even though the dismissal occurs in a poem, it’s hard to avoid the implication that what “out there” refers to is of more consequence than poetry: what is good has to be sought outside of poetry.


Oppen tells L.S. Dembo, “That was the dilemma of the ‘thirties. In a way I gave up poetry because of the pressures of what for the moment I’ll call conscience. But there were some things I had to live through, some things I had to think my way through, some things I had to try out–and it was more than politics, really; it was the whole experience of working in factories, of having a child, and so on” [Dembo 174].


There are complex–opposed, really–currents here. One could emphasize conscience (poetry is dishonorable is some circumstances); or one could read this as Oppen insisting that poets should know things (marriage, family, factories, class) before they presume to write. Elsewhere, however–in a number of places–Oppen makes his contempt for poetry unambiguous. “Five Poems About Poetry” begins, “The question is: how does one hold an apple / Who likes apples // And how does one handle / Filth?” [Poems 101]. Or, in a slightly less harsh register, “There are situations which cannot be honorably met by art, and surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning” [SP 36]. Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” uses similar vocabulary–”I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle”–but hers is a startlingly elegant poetic paradox (although it is true that successive instances of her poem increasingly manifest her actual dislike. But still the contrast is plain: Oppen’s dismissal of poetry was one of the central actions of his life.


However, it’s not Oppen’s going out into the real world to work and to organize workers that makes his break from poetry compelling. After all, the majority of young people who start out to write find the vacuums, compromises, and contradictions involved in attempting a career as a poet to be too much. Whittaker Chambers had the same publication pattern as Oppen from the 1930’s through the 1950s: a brief moment as an “Objectivist” and then nothing. We don’t find his poetic silence noteworthy. It’s Oppen’s return to poetry that gives meaning (a powerfully negative one) to the defection.


Hugh Kenner tries to avoid that negativity by re-coding Oppen’s silence as that most genteel costiveness, writer’s block. The complex interplay of poet and critic remains fairly visible in Oppen’s account, with Oppen earnestly conflicted and Kenner glibly defensive: “Absurd to ask myself whether what I undertook was right or wrong or right for the artist and the rest of that. Hugh Kenner interrupted my explanation to him of these years by saying, ‘In brief, it took twenty-five years to write the next poem.’ Which is the way to say it” [CL 174]. One can see Oppen going on and on self-critically (“Absurd to ask myself . . .”); getting tangled up (“right or wrong or right for the artist and the rest of that”); and then Kenner brusquely cutting him off (“interrupting”) and compacting Oppen’s years of unresolvable internal debate and, let’s not forget, external McCarthyism, into two words: “In brief.”


It’s a bit deflating to see Oppen agreeing so docilely to Kenner’s spin: “Which is the way to say it”; but a few sentences later Oppen brings us back to the experiential length of those twenty-five years. He does agree with Kenner that his silence was always a poetic silence: “During those years I was perfectly aware of a lot of time before me and I at no time thought I wasn’t a poet” [CL 175]. But it was not a nugatory span (“In brief”); Oppen’s language is saturated with temporality: “During those years,” “a lot of time,” “at no time.”


But an opposition between a hothouse of poetry and a realler world “out there” is too simple. “we wanted to know // if we were any good // out there” may well be a challenge to Oppen’s literariness, but the phrase itself is a literary borrowing. It’s a rendering of a passage from Sherwood Anderson, one of the first poets who awakened the notion of poetry in Oppen. Reading the passage from Anderson’s 1918 “Song of the Soul of Chicago” adds quite a different overtone to what Oppen might be saying. Anderson’s lines are: “We want to give this democracy thing / they talk so big about a whirl. We want to see if we / are any good out here, we Americans from all over hell” [Anderson 63]. Anderson’s lines exude a brash confidence in their demotic language and in their affirmation of a coalescing American identity. Logically, there’s an implied question in “if we / are any good out here” but the tone of passage implies that, yes, we Americans damn well are pretty good. I’m not saying that Oppen is borrowing Anderson’s meaning.


A recurring feature of Oppen’s poetry is the way he makes radical changes in the most familiar phrases (for instance, at the end of Primitive he turns Eliot’s “Till human voices wake and we drown” inside out: “till other voices wake us / or we drown” [Poems 286]). In this case, Anderson’s affirmation of present time and present place–”if we are any good out here” is inverted to the distancing “if we were any good // out there” (with the stanza break between “any good” and “out there” adding to the separation).


Nevertheless, when Oppen’s phrase is put back into its own context, it’s not hard to hear some slight resonance of Anderson’s poetic optimism. To be sure, it would just be one bit of nostalgia for a bygone youthful hopefulness set against a radical landscape of more recent doubt. But an Anderson-inflected reading would associate “we wanted to know // if we were any good // out there” with George and Mary’s enthusiastic escape from the confines of their family contexts out into the burgeoning life of American in the 20s. Rather than a stark world of class conflict set in opposition to poetry, “out there” can gesture toward the excitement of discovering, among other things, a live poetic world.


Oppen’s poem begins (reading its title into the syntax):



of wars o western
wind and storm

of politics I am sick with a poet’s
vanity     legislators

of the unacknowledged

world it is        dreary
to descend

and be a stranger how
shall we descend

who have become strangers in this wind that

rises like a gift
in the disorder    the gales
of a poet’s vanity if our story shall end
untold to whom and

to what are we ancestral we wanted to know

if we were any good

out there      the song
changes the wind has blown the sand about
and we are alone . . .   [Poems 267]


This is not the poem of a poet who dismisses poetry; nor does it read as an oblique account of a person who once dismissed poetry. To be sure, there are glints of poetic self-hatred in the repetition of “a poet’s vanity.” But the lines are studded with literary allusions and the wind that blows throughout the lines is primarily a literary one: “o western / wind.” The reversal of Shelley’s claim that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world does nothing, really, to deflect that claim: if anything, Oppen’s sense of poetic authority is the stronger one (his poets are “legislators” vs. Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators”). Michael Davidson’s notes to the Collected pass along John Taggart’s identification of Hawthorne as the source of the italicized quote in the middle of the passage: “at his highest elevation, the poet needs no human intercourse, but he finds it dreary to descend, and be a stranger” [quoted in Poems 408]. I detect an additional echo, possibly, of Dante’s lament about the exile’s condition, bitterly ascending and descending another’s steps.


I’m not aiming for any simple paradox here by claiming that Oppen’s turning away from poetry was really just a roundabout approach to poetry. Oppen has always been a touchstone for me because of the depth of his attention to the extra-literary world. In other words, in his work there is an “out there” there. But it is difficult to specify any positive entity in the poetry that would correspond to “Oppen’s politics.” Borrowing a formulation from Peter Nicholls will be useful: “Like any negative theology, [Oppen’s] poetics seeks to protect the absolute otherness of what it venerates” [Nicholls 188]. The same could be said of Oppen’s ‘negative politics’:



I believe my apprenticeship
In that it was long was honorable
Tho I had hoped to arrive
At an actuality
In the mere number of us
And record now
That I did not.

Therefor pray for us
In the hour of our death indeed.   [Poems 157]


Despite the title, despite the fact that the poem proper begins with “I believe,” and despite the concluding couplet, I submit that this is not a religious poem, but is, as is the case so often with Oppen’s work, a poem about poetry–or more precisely, about the situation of Oppen writing the particular poem he’s writing. In terms of its content, the poem is a record of political failure. If we go back to my initial, commonsense reading that took “we wanted to know // if we were any good // out there” as confronting the poet with a political, social, historical demand, then the answer “Pro Nobis” gives to Were you any good out there? is No.


But up close, the poem presents a complex mix of disillusion and affirmation. At first, the opening lines seem to affirm to vocation of poetry: “I believe [present tense, at the moment of writing] my apprenticeship / In that it was long was honorable.” “Honorable” is one of the least ambiguous words in Oppen’s lexicon: it is always completely positive. But what does “apprenticeship” mean? On the surface, a long apprenticeship seems like something that a believer in labor such as Oppen would of course praise.


On a somewhat parallel though less physical track, think of Pound’s continual exhortations to poetic apprenticeship–Let the student learn a, b, c . . . But Oppen’s sense of apprenticeship is absolutely different. In my reading, these lines are saying something like: My not-writing was my apprenticeship as a writer; because I didn’t write for twenty-five years I now can write with the ethical clarity that gives these two lines their calm power. But more happened during those twenty-five than the honorable apprenticeship of not-writing. The next three lines spell out the political hopes, “Tho I had hoped to arrive / At an actuality / In the mere number of us,” (with “mere” seeming to give the game away beforehand). This is followed by the plainest lines giving the catastrophic denouement: “And record now / That I did not.”


The historical failure here is as bleak as can be: no common bonds, communism, community ended up as an “actuality.” Was this history’s fault? Oppen’s fault? Was the goal itself chimerical? The two lines do not offer any hint. But I can’t help reading the bleakest kind of triumph in them, perceptible from another angle. The stark simplicity of the writing reveals an absolute confidence that what is being written is true. What Oppen “record[s] now” is “an actuality.” This tiniest of poetic triumphs, however, does not undo the failed history that the poet has lived through, and there are, in my reading at least, some devilishly deep ironic declivities in the concluding couplet, especially at the moments when the collective words “us” and “our” reappear. The couplet can of course be taken at face value; but it can also be read as an ironic citation: Therefor “pray for us / In the hour of our death” indeed.


Oppen’s ability write without obscuring the failures and equivocations of the history he lived through makes him, to my mind, one of the few deeply sane great modernist poets. I realize my use of “sane” is impressionistic–especially since I’m applying it to the writing not the person–and that formally Oppen’s practice as a writer is not unique. It’s close to Pound’s and Williams’s insistence on poetry finding its materials in the contemporary world; Stein’s continuous present; Zukofsky’s thinking with things as they exist. But Oppen lived these demands along an increasingly demanding via negativa. It feels as if he insisted on each word he wrote immediately finding its place in the widest political social circumstances, while disdaining any competitive pleasure in creating new form.


This seems to have always made writing demandingly difficult if not impossible for him. The silence I’ve been discussing needn’t be confined to the twenty-five years in question; it can be perceived throughout his career. It was there in Discrete Series (especially if we emphasize the gaps indicated by “Discrete”), it became dramatically foregrounded in the 25-year hiatus, but then kept going right through his last 5 books, with various intermittencies during which some words got written down and shaped into poems. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis puts it, “beyond that almost twenty-five years of not talking to the page [1934–58], Oppen’s later poetry seems continuously to be stopping at virtually every line, at every porous white-space caesura, and then picking up the commitment again to go on” [DuPlessis 188].


This precariousness sharpens his ethics so that they are utterly incisive. As a poet, Oppen was not at home in either time or space. But his work insists that the here and now is the only arena a poet can honorably enter. An impossible demand, and, at Oppen’s insistence, one has to add, an inescapable one. His prime literary progenitor, Pound, while he did provide a generous introduction to Discrete Series: “I salute a serious craftsman, a sensibility which is not every man’s sensibility and which has not been got out of any other man’s books,” also gave to George and Mary visiting him at Rapallo a perfect emblem of own narcissistic bookish blindness, gesturing with cape and cane in the wrong direction as he intoned, “From there came the Greek ships.” (This episode should come early in any introduction to Pound.)


Peter Nicholls begins his invaluable book, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism, with these two moments, stating that they “powerfully [associate] two extremes of modernism which Oppen would consistently contest in his own work: on the one hand, traditionalism, on the other, avant-gardism” [2]. In his most complete public statement of poetics, “The Mind’s Own Place,” Oppen paints a grim scene of his avoidances: “it is the nightmare of the poet or artist to find himself wandering between the grim gray lines of the Philistines and the ramshackle emplacements of Bohemia. If he ceases to believe in the validity of his insights — the truth of what he is saying — he becomes the casualty, the only possible casualty, of that engagement” [Prose 30].


But if the unfolding of poetic history was not a series that beckoned Oppen, place was no refuge. Neither the local landscape nor local speech offered any poetic resources. As for language, he wrote, “I am forced to express myself in the simplest language I can find precisely because I do not use a colloquial language: there is no social tone which I am able to accept” [Nicholls 139]. Another dimension of Oppen’s isolation would be class. His intimate, rather unheimlich familiarity with wealth surfaces in spots throughout his poems, but it is hard for me to find any sense of sympathetic belonging with the poor in the poems themselves. They are an extrinsic category, “the poor”–as they also are in Zukofsky’s “Mantis,” by the way, even though the class backgrounds of the two poets differed widely.


But for all the difficulty Oppen found in addressing the world from any position of solidarity, his presentation of the unsolved problematic is one of the most authoritative I know. I quote him a number of times in Iflife, always without irony. He’s invaluable for approaching the impossible questions: “I think we would all like Sandburg to be a better poet than that crew [Pound, Eliot, Yeats, seen as reactionaries]. He just so obviously is not.–add Joyce, Proust, Lawrence for that matter. Leaves Rezi and Williams. Both of them basically democratic, in spite of Rezi’s nationalism, and Williams’ sense of aristocracy–his simple, asinine H. L. Menckenism once in a while. But when it’s good it’s really almost classically American-democratic. — AND being democratic has got to be absolutely non-dogmatic, a-political, unsystematic whereas system, dogmatism and all the rest is found tolerable in Yeats Pound Eliot” [Perelman 40].


As to the question that originally motivated this essay: what is the use, the value of Oppen’s poetry today? The via negativa may not be the aptest direction to take. Oppen’s ‘purity’ may in fact date. His ‘little words’ for instance. Maybe it’s my own over-stocked brain, but his “deer” and “sun” begin to strike me as, I have to say, ‘poetic’. For Oppen, they were a refuge of truth. As he says to Dembo when discussing “Psalm”: “I do believe that consciousness exists and that it is consciousness of something, and that is a fairly complete but not very detailed theology . . . . these little nouns are crying out a faith in ‘this in which’ the wild deer does stare out” [Dembo 163]. But for me they are part of the same (literary) herd that Williams caught a desperate flash of at the end of “To Elsie”: “while the imagination strains / after deer / going by fields of goldenrod in // the stifling heat of September.” If one gets a choice in these matters, Williams clear-sightedness vis a vis these deer seems preferable: “Somehow / it seems to destroy us.”


“Sun” is another “little word.” Oppen says,  “All the little nouns are the ones that I like the most: the deer, the sun, and so on. You say these perfectly little words and you’re asserting that the sun is ninety-three million miles away . . . “ [Dembo 162] But, again, I can’t help feeling the weight of poetic borrowing in the word. Cf. the end of Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The’”: “321    We shall open our arms wide, / 322    Call out of pure might — / 323    Sun, you great Sun, our Comrade, / 324    From eternity to eternity we remain true to you.” It’s there (at least for me) in the elegy to Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, “The Book of Job and a Draft of a Poem to Praise the Paths of the Living”:


     . . . and the windy pines unleash
the morning’s force what is the form
to say it there is something
to name Goodman     Schwerner     Chaney
who were beaten not we
who were beaten          children
not our
children      ancestral
children rose in the dark
to their work there grows
there builds there is written
a vividness     there is    rawness
like a new sun the flames
tremendous the sun
itself ourselves ourselves . . . [241]


But I’m making an impossible demand on Oppen (echoing his own attitude, most probably). No poet can completely escape the ‘poetic’, that often sneaking assertion of poetic prerogative. Oppen’s poetry today is receding from us, at something like the rate of one year each year. As we who are now writing are receding, slowly and instantaneously from our own acts of writing. Oppen’s unflinching honesty in this regard is exemplary. He ends a late poem, “Memory at ‘The Modern, ‘“ with the remarkable lines, “I am a man of the Thirties // ‘No other taste shall change this’” [295].


What remarkable alchemy Oppen’s straightforwardness achieves here. He accepts his biography, biology, and history, which includes the fact that his poetic sensibility was molded by Pound, who was certainly no hero in his eyes. But where Pound gives us dialogue seemingly from second-rate Edwardian drama: “It is Cabestan’s heart in the dish.” / “It is Cabestan’s heart in the dish?” / “No other taste shall change this”; Oppen salvages the good last line.


Oppen was “of the Thirties,” even as his later writing approached the sterile, open present of Alzheimer’s. Nevertheless, his work remains, not timeless but “good out here”–especially now that the Thirties are in the process of being revived.

Works Cited

Sherwood Anderson, Mid-American Chants. New York: John Lane Company, 1918. [Available on]

L. S. Dembo and George Oppen. Interview. Contemporary Literature Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring, 1969), pp. 159–177. Abbreviated: Dembo

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

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

George Oppen. New Collected Poems, edited with an introduction and notes by Michael Davidson ; preface by Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 2002. Abbreviated: Poems.

———   Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, edited by Stephen Cope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). Abbreviated: Prose

Bob Perelman. Iflife. New York: Roof Books, 2006.

Bob Perelman

Bob Perelman

Bob Perelman has written 16 books of poetry, including Ten to One: Selected Poems (Wesleyan UP), The Future of Memory (Roof Books), Playing Bodies, a painting/poem collaboration with Francie Shaw (Granary Books) and, most recently, Iflife (Roof Books). His critical books are The Trouble With Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein and Zukofsky (California UP) and The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (Princeton UP). He has edited two collections of poets’ talks: Hills Talks and Writing/Talks (Southern Illinois UP). He is a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

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