back toJacket2

This piece is about 18 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Richard Swigg and Jacket magazine 2009. See our [»»] Copyright notice.
The Internet address of this page is

Richard Swigg

Parts, Pairs, Positions:

A Reading of George Oppen’s «Discrete Series»

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

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


How should we regard the thirty-one poems that George Oppen published in his first book, Discrete Series (1934)? As broken-off bits, like the “atomized, Image-based nodules” seen by Michael Heller, or the fragments of “calculated discontinuity” that Alan Golding describes? [1] Certainly Oppen began with a verse of small, bright instants, as opposed to an overarching frame. For him discovery through pieces, and the singling-out of humble key words, mattered more than any broader narrative or facile fluency. But if we note his suggestive image in the 1960s poem ‘Route’ — “Tell the beads of the chromosomes like a rosary” — the poems of Discrete Series can be spelt out both as set-apart entities and as pairs in a chain of perception. A substantial body, indeed, only make fuller sense when, in the light of Oppen’s own ordering, page against page, one sees how they connect together in mutual revelation.

Paragraph 2

Continuities in theme and words have been remarked across the book as a whole, but so far Harold Schimmel in 1981 has been alone in giving serious consideration to the way that individual pairs of poems might illuminate each other, side by side. [2] Back then, however, he had to revert to the original 1934 edition because the space-saving layout of Oppen’s Collected Poems in 1975 obscured the effect by cramming separate items on the same page. But mirrored face to face, on opposing pages in Oppen’s New Collected Poems (2002, 2008), two poems near the start of the book offer a revised view of “series” in the title (the mathematical, mainly non-consecutive order by which the contents are arranged) by appearing under the numbers 1 and 2. They share a theme but, even more crucially, their meanings are inextricable from their visuality and acoustics — in the look of the minimalistic lines sparsely dropped across large white page-spaces, and the short-breathed delivery demanded by such lineal curtness. Here voice comes together with eye in giving exceptional emphasis to certain words made prominent by capital letter line-starts, indents, dashes and periods:



White. From the
Under arm of T

The red globe.

Down.    Round
Shiny fixed

From the quiet

Stone floor…


Hides the

Parts — the prudery
Of Frigidaire, of
Soda-jerking —


Above the

Plane of lunch, of wives
Removes itself
(As soda-jerking from
the private act

Cracking eggs);



Abruptly stopped, “White.” stands out with single word stress when Oppen reads Poem 1 at the Guggenheim in 1964. [3] But the fixed word is also looked at by the mind’s eye as an indicator seemingly on the move: the white lights, together with red, which, under a cross bar, signal the up-down progress of a 1920s-1930s elevator. That being so, however, the indicators, as Oppen tacitly suggests, operate as a cultural slight of hand. For the emphasis on “White” is like a conjurer’s diverting of attention so that, “From the / Under arm of T” (and underhandedly), there can be produced, in a verbless guise of movement, and with the emphasis of the apparently varied, “The red globe.” The lights seem also to be going in different directions (“Úp / Dówn. Róund”: each word stressed in its separateness) until the eye suddenly realizes after the line-break that “Round” is no adverb of movement in ever-changing variety but a static adjective in one hard, gleaming sameness which Oppen reads as “Róund — Shíny — Fíxed,” climaxed by the unvarying fixity and polysyllabic thud of “Alternatives.” In the city’s bright lights, these are the commercial pseudo-choices which, by their constrictive circuit (“From the / Under arm of T”), are finally differentiated from (the preposition redeemed) a wider, real alternative: “From the quiet” — with a space of delicate hesitation, not grandiose pause — “Stone floor… .”: a solidity stepped down upon; a “floor” of the genuine stretching away in those last, silent dots…


It is a criticism of the lit-up urban show (no actual elevator seen; merely a diagram’s glitter) which can only be found inside, not overtly extruded from, the poem’s visual-acoustic texture. But if Poem 2, with its references to other examples of shining, mechanistic contemporaneity (a brand-name refrigerator symbolic of post-1920 affluence; a soda fountain, its levers “jerked” to mix soda and ice cream) more explicitly brings out the sceptical view of “big-Business” that stays tacit in its predecessor, Poem 1 makes one realize that its successor has turned its method inside out. For whereas the “White” and “red” lights purport to reveal a world of alternative possibilities they actually conceal, “Thus” — as emphatically said by Oppen in the same reading, when he mimics the sound of incontrovertible absolutism — brings to prominence what it supposedly puts out of sight:


Hides the

Parts —


Now the advantage of keeping to capital letters at the start of lines, and not using modernism’s lower case, becomes especially obvious. With “Thus” indented, and a small space created below it on the next line, the capitalized “Hides” peeps out more conspicuously, just as the unhidden “Parts” is left glaringly exposed to the eye by the space preceding and the dash of the aside which follows. Yet if the aside opens up the idea that those “Parts,” like sexuality’s naked kind, are the unshameful facts of food and ordinary experience which streamlined exteriors would gloss out of view — “the prudery / Of Frigidaire, of / Soda-jerking” — it is the assonantal ease of the comment which downplays its authorial intrusion. As if uninterrupted, therefore, a further emphatic “Thus” vaunts its power:



Above the



If “The line sense, the line breaks, and the syntax are intended to control the order of disclosure upon which the poem depends” — as Oppen remarks of his poetry in general [4] — his 1964 reading is regulated by those spaces on the page. [5] With the voice halting at “Thus” and “the” (the latter, cut off from its noun, having to be said as “thee” not “thuh”) both words hover on an upstress — the transcendent process which “Thus // Above the // Plane of lunch, of wives” (food and private relations humbled to lower case under the “Plane” of capitalized abstraction) “Removes itself” with the extra insistence of a postponed verb. Here, though, by typography and acoustics, Oppen shrinks such loftiness and the once-capitalized height of “Soda-jerking” inside a bracketed comparison — (“As soda-jerking from / the private act… ”) — where public showiness is set at a clear remove “from” (that key preposition once more redeemed) an unfanciful, homely reality. Against the slight click of soda-jerking come, in new importance, the hard-edged sounds —


the private act

Cracking eggs);


— where food and the sexually “private” link together again in unashamed forthrightness. With typographic role-reversal, “Of cracking” takes on the line-start prominence previously occupied by “Of Frigidaire,” while, after a final space, the force of “Thus” is brought down to the hyphenated squeeze of the last line — upper-case jostled by lower in the undignifying (and tight-lipped plosive mutter) of “big-Business”.


Even there a more overt critique stays incisive by working from within the acoustics of words and their juxtapositions. For Oppen it is the holding close to the tactility of language by mouth and tongue which is the direct result of his equally close adherence to object, image or particularity. Constantly seeking the unfalsified follow-through in a poem, and keeping out the insistences of the ego, political mind-sets, or pre-formulated language — what he calls a “test of one’s own sincerity,” like a a moral version of Pound’s remark that “technique is a test of a man’s sincerity” [6] — he values in his work the “quality of simply pointing at the thing.” [7] But, as already seen, the pointings also include the deceptive signallings of elevator lights and shiny refrigerator as the way towards the unfraudently real. So, nine pages later in Discrete Series, the brightness of the genuine in one poem stands out more clearly if the reader arrives there through the pointers and eerie light of a very different poem facing it on the righthand page:


Semaphoring chorus,
The width of the stage.    The usher from it:
Seats’ curving rows two sides by distant
          phosphor.     And those ‘filled’;
Man and wife, removing gloves
Or overcoat.     Still faces already lunar.


Now show business succeeds “big-Business” as a spurious exterior. “Semaphoring chorus,” synchronized along dance- and verse-line, has only the static guise of unfolding action in a poem where participles, prepositions and adverbs have replaced a direct verb. Just as the chorus of the polysyllabic, undeciphered “Semaphoring” is verblessly stuck fast along “The width of the stage” and the widened second line, so “The usher from it:” (with forward-pointing colon, and the solely notional movement of “from”) directs newcomers across the auditorium, and readers across verse-line, but only along a further extended immobility: “Seats curving rows two sides by…” For though “curving” suggests an animated sweep, and “by” seems the prepositional means by which “distant / phosphor” illuminates the seats in the line’s over-run, it is the sense of “by” as an adverb of fixed adjacency which dominates: shutting the seats in on “two sides” beneath an unbrilliant glow where “phosphor” — indentedly aligned with “Semaphoring,” and releasing as little light as the stage signals their message — makes supposed solidity part of a distant ghostliness. The sceptical inverted commas — “And those ‘filled’ ” — point to the strange, emptied fullness of the seats and the congealed moment (with a participle purporting movement while simultaneously re-moved from it) that shows “Man and wife, removing gloves / Or” — under spectral phosphor — “overcoat.” The unrolling sense of time has been ousted by the already-done and predetermined — the verbless fixity, in the blank, unearthly light beyond the “phosphor,” of “Still faces already lunar.”


After the “lunar” scene and the line-long emptying of fullness, the eye is struck all the more by the compact, meaningful brevities of the facing poem, as it points to terrestrial ground:


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

With rigid trees

And flaunts
A family laundry,
And the glass of windows


Here separate parts, visually singled out by extra space, hold together across the gaps not by syntactic impulsion but by the halts of vocal stress which link them. It is “This land” which gets the emphasis if one stops at the noun like Oppen in his Guggenheim reading, and similarly picks out, after the lesser accent on “hills” in the next line, the important stress on “round under straw.” For this is no spread-around diffuseness, but land shaped as fields and roundly encompassable under its harvested crop. Tersely stated, it belongs to the unflamboyant way of life that “A house” signifies: its stand-alone uprightness stressed in isolation on the page space by a single line: “With rigid trees.” But whereas the emphatic halts imply the held-in strength that has shaped this land, the poem now unbends into a less stoic sense of human habitation by a syntactic sequence (“And… And”) that is all the more remarkable because of the astonishing verb “flaunts” which drives it. No word of brazen exhibitionism, “flaunts,” with those italicized letters, contains inside itself yet unabashedly displays what is strung out to view on the washing line: “A family laundry / And” –in the outgoing light reflected from the house — “the glass of windows”.


Thus are revealed the parts, with a gleam exceeding any theatrical phosphor. It is a real externality because of a human depth behind it, unlike the “Closed car — closed in glass — ” which a previous poem in the book describes as “Hardly an exterior”: an inauthentic object, even when moving in traffic, and, like “Still faces already lunar,” statically occupied by “the face still within it.” By contrast, an active human presence gives interior meaning to an outside scene in the book’s two other numbered poems facing each other on opposite pages:



The three wide
Funnels raked aft, and the mast slanted

Deck-hand slung in a bosun’s chair
Works on this 20th century chic and
Not evident at “The Sailor’s Rest.”


The lights, paving —
This important device
Of a race

Remains till morning

Against the wall.
He has chosen a place
With the usual considerations,
Without stating them.


Both poems start with exteriors seemingly built for speed: the swept-back contours of an ocean-going boat and a fast, urban road (so it might appear) along which “The lights, paving —” send the eye onwards from that em dash: a route seemingly devised for a race, not just “of” it. But Poem 1, in its opening, more conspicuously presents the look of a three-funnelled outline (“The three wide”) that sits atop in words the long body of the ship: that is, the sleek extent of the longer second line, made sleeker by vowel-flattening acoustics. As streamlined as a Frigidaire, “Funnels” have been “raked aft, and the mast slanted.” Countering the long raked-back effect, however, is the small upright article, “the” — lineally hung at an angle from the docked ship’s side and an instance of the stuck-out factuality which may have been pared down in “Funnels” but here still protrudes with “the / Deck-hand slung in a bosun’s chair.” It is a satiric incongruity, whereby the “Deck-hand… Works” (in the prominence of line-start capitals and dental hard edges) on the modish form and consonantal smoothing of “this 20th century chic and / efficiency.” Typographically one is reminded of the way that the name of the New York-Chicago luxurious train was always written, as in Hart Crane’s The Bridge: “… So that the 20th Century — so / whizzed the Limited — roared by” (a stylization of the the train’s title seemingly followed also by the film company in 1932 which at that time called itself “20th Century Pictures”). But just as the deck-hand’s old-fashioned harnessed “chair” is out of synchrony with such “chic” — t∫ēәr refusing to slide with ∫ik — so modernity’s stylish format is, in Oppen’s wry humour (as the solitary word “efficiency” leaves extra lineal room for the unfashionableness below it) “Not evident at ‘The Sailor’s Rest’”: that hostelry name from a previous century, written out in homely, unabbreviated capitals and signifying, even more than the bosun’s chair, the human virtue of not rushing anywhere.


After that, the first lines of Poem 2 are now less suggestive of a speedy road than they originally might have seemed. Though the tongue slips easily across the sibilants in “This important device / Of a race”, the sense of an inner human meaning brakes the onflow. If , according to Oppen’s later comment, the man in the poem is “camping in the city, using it as if it was simply a camping place,” [8] he belongs to a “race” of Depression vagrants for whom the roadside, as a night-time dwelling, is a necessary expedient, an understated “important device” which, by the delayed verb’s emphasis (and a z-firm hold on this ground after “device-race” ease) “Remains” theirs “till morning.” With another z’s frictional grip and equal emphasis, “Burns” is seen indentedly pressing right up to the line’s end in subjectless fervour — the self without ego but instinctive want huddled up to, and indistinguishable from camp fire and shelter: “Burns / Against the wall.” More humanly intense than the street lamps, this is the light of feeling that Oppen keeps unexaggerated. In not talking about a man, but making elliptic language and an acoustic do the work, he preserves the discretion which then allows him to say, in a less tautened manner, but not too revealingly, “He has chosen a place / With the usual considerations… ” For “Without stating them” — in that elegant demurral from “With” — the street-dweller’s way of choosing his night-time patch has its human dignity preserved by verbal tact. It is the non-stating of a need which keeps its compressive demeanour until the last. So, in precise accord with




(that single emphatic verb crowded up to the line-end by the extensive space preceding it) comes the single emphatic noun




crammed against the line-start, as if visually eschewing the superfluous line-space which follows. Here too, one can infer, are the bleak, walled exteriors against which the shelterer must equally wedge himself for warmth.


It is poetic economy of a kind that forbids, and leaves no room for, emotional overflow. Instead, Oppen’s feeling for human endurance stays inside the words and understatement — so terse as to seem almost offhand in two other poems of the Depression years, paired on opposite pages:


Bad times:
The cars pass
By the elevated posts
And the movie sign.
A man sells post-cards.

It brightens up into the branches
And against the same buildings

A morning:
His job is as regular.


Whether it is “Bád tímes” — a tight-lipped nonchalance (“Too bad”) which also governs the two-stress segments of “cárs páss,” “élevated pósts,” and “móvie sígns” — or whether it is nature’s time, brightening up into branches, the human presence in the last lines can seem a mere afterthought. But though the cars are transcendent in “Bad times” as they “pass / By the elevated posts” and the poster glamour of “the movie sign,” their high, fleeting passage, and the “movie” signalling of more exalted motion, become suddenly transient and small. Against it all stands the roadside man, undiminished by his trade, who, in stalwart dignity on a larger three-stress line, compresses “cars” and “elevated posts” down to their proper miniature level:


A mán sélls póst-cards.


Proportion is regained, and one has a pointer to the companion poem. In luminous outstretch across longer verse-lines, “It” (unnamed, yet also lifted above the human sphere) “brightens up into the branches / And” — the chime become an urban routine — “against the same buildings.” But casually abbreviated and named (“A morning”) nature’s broad resurgence and sameness are scaled down to their exact fit with human time where everyday predictability has its distinct, lit-up satisfaction: “A morning: / His job is as regular.” Emphatically held on to, “His job” marks the tenacity of one working man in a workless age, and thereby more than usually inside his time. One thinks of the woman in an earlier poem in the book who “Declares this morning a woman’s,” just as another poem shows a man seen from a train identical with his day: “in the morning, his morning; / Him in the afternoon, straightening… ” Oppen takes the idea even further with special intensity when his post-war poem “Blood from the Stone” speaks of people in the Thirties, decisively inhabiting their moment: “So we lived / And chose to live // These were our times.”


Emphatically our times; but, as with the painting of “spiral women” by Fragonard (birth date “1732”) whose “picture lasts thru us” in another Discrete Series poem, it is another’s shaping of a former time which also protrudes its distinctness upon us — even to the point of visual foreshortening:


Civil war photo:
Grass near the lens;
Man in the field
In silk hat.     Daylight.
The cannon of that day
In our parks.


Authentic idiosyncrasy prevails over assumptions about history. In the first four lines’ curt abbreviations — where line-start words, shorn of articles, loom upon the eye in capitalized form, yet where “War” has been cut down conversely to lower case — the “photo” (equally rendered down from “photograph”) does not open out upon a battlefield scene. Instead, in this re-proportioning of significance, there is close at hand, “near the lens,” the heightened shape of “Grass.” “Man” equally is another small word made big, when the omission of articles — “Man in the field / In silk hat” — supposedly curbs him inside the frame yet at the same moment extends him across the grassy scene (and into the next line) with the “Civil” elegance of his non-military headgear. So, though confined inside the photo and verbless words, his odd human moment from the past opens out (“In… ” after “in… ”) and continues to resonate ironically as “Daylight” connects history to the present. For despite “Man… In silk hat” seeming to be outlasted, in acoustics and verbal stretch, by “The cannon of that day” (the definite article and demonstrative adjective uncramping the view and bringing Civil War weaponry fully in sight) the expansiveness is limitation. History’s “Man in the field,” extemporally alive in the photo and uncut grass, brings “that day” closer to us, in the flash of “Daylight” than the present’s static, faraway monuments in our well-tended parks.


Now one sees why “Civil war photo” is placed where it is in the book. In its regard for the close-up moment, as opposed to the distancing of time in long shot, it reveals the similar contrast at work in the preceding poem across the page. But there Oppen only reaches the near at hand by beginning from afar:


She lies, hip high,
On a flat bed
While the after-
Sun passes.


In visual terms, the sexually conspicuous figure raised up in “hip high” contour on the flat bed, has the remoteness of a still picture. Rhyme and aspirates (“She lies, hip-high”) equally ensure that the heavy plod of stresses in “híp hígh / On a flát béd” hinder time’s movement with the flat, deliberate tread of short a’s, “While the after-/ Sun passes.” Halted briefly at the line-break, the after-glow of a light no longer at its brightest, dies away with extra, stopping slowness as “the after — Sun — passes.” All is passive, until the poem switches from the pictorial externals of the first stanza to the sensually felt inwardness of the second:


Plant, I breathe —
                                O Clearly,
Eyes legs arms hands fingers,
Simple legs in silk.


“Plant” against “passes”: in that new definiteness of sound, the ego-less “I” breathes out — the expiration (and exfoliation) by which typography’s dash, clearing the air, opens a spacious lineal way to the wide-mouthed “O” that extends “breathe” in “O Clearly.” Made more immediately reachable than was allowed in Oppen’s earlier draft (when “breathe — ” was followed by the lines, “As in a closed dark room a plant / In darkness growing. Nightcloud”) [9] “Clearly” (with a keener light than the sun’s and rising up from lower case in the draft) breathes with the instinctiveness that illuminates physicality in all its differentiations. Where time no longer passively passes but is eagerly measured out moment by moment, we have gone from a scene viewed as one whole to the close-up of the body in that scene, now only realizable through its parts — each one, as the adverb suggests in the draft (“Evenly eyes legs arms…”) to be given its separate, spoken due, with a final emphatic arrest on “Simple legs.” Not “hip high” in distant uniformity, they are clothed in their nearness and severalness as “Simple legs in silk.”


But such clothing is not the chic garb concealing the female body in another poem. There the hauteur of the wearers requires a specially appropriate kind of address:


‘O city ladies’
Your coats wrapped,
Your hips a possession


The quotation comes from Ben Jonson’s 1602 play, The Poetaster, where Crispinus, the fatuous, professional word-spinner in ancient Rome’s Via Sacra (“I composed even now of a dressing I saw a jeweller’s wife wear”) boasts of his powers to adorn the prostitutes with eloquence: “O, your city ladies, you shall have them sit in every shop like the Muses — offering you the Castalian dews, and the Thespian liquors.” [10] But addressing “ladies,” rather than harlotry, in his apostrophizing mock-exaltation from the past, Oppen maintains the terse bindings-in of a “Your… Your” format that matches, in implicit satire, the “wrapped” strictures that keep hips a total self-possession. In two-line symmetry,


Your shoes arched
Your walk is sharp


as the high-heeled aloofness of “arched” makes the walk “sharp” : the body having no reality except by what it wears. So, in a less symmetrical stanza,


Your breasts
           Pertain to lingerie


as mere adjuncts of attire, in the cold formalization of “Pertain to,” indentedly conspicuous like a calculated fashion choice. Under such constraint, it is substance overall, not just body, which suffers alienation. Hence it is said in the compressions of the last two lines,


The fields are road-sides,
Rooms outlast you.


With curbed suddenness, those “fields” are no more open ground than when Oppen says in his 1960s poem ‘Route,’ “this pavement leads to roadsides — the finite // Losing its purpose / Is estranged.” So, just as suddenly, “road-sides” urges forward “Rooms”: not the meaningful solidity persisting down the ages in the Fragonard poem (“Your picture lasts thru us // its air / Thick with succession of civilizations”) but the empty finiteness, as “Rooms outlast you,” setting a dated limit on the stylish modernity of “you” (“ ‘O city ladies’ ”) who have become singularly antique.


All this highlights the bodily here-and-now of the woman addressed in the poem on the opposite, lefthand page. Just as no decorousness obstructs immediate revelation — “No interval of manner / Your body in the sun” — so, as with “Eyes legs arms hands fingers” in a previous poem, the woman is illuminated, and is most fully herself, in the shape of vigorous, separate particulars:


You ? A solid, this that the dress
Your face unaccented, your mouth a mouth?
                                 Practical knees:
It is you who truly
Excel the vegetable,
The fitting of grasses — more bare than
Pointedly bent, your elbow on a car-edge
Incognito as summer
Among mechanics.


What sticks out, as pointedly as that elbow, is the querulousness of “You?” Asking a question — “A solid… ?” — protrudes the individual fact more definitely, in the tension of the raised tone, while at the same moment pulling it back from excessive assertion. Yet that “solid” is most emphatically not to be hidden — “this that the dress / insisted” — just as the question firmly accents, without exaggeration,“Your face unaccented… ?”, and makes “your mouth” (in extra widening and repetitive insistence) “a mouth?”: ordinarily so, yet very definitely thus. With equal singling-out on the indented line, those notably “Practical knees” have their humble distinctness: “It is you who truly / Excel” — brought to the sunlit foreground by the verb’s stressed upleap — what immediately becomes a background: a vegetable world where “The fitting of grasses,” like the gradual, formal fitting of apparel, makes the practical knees especially stand out, with breakaway directness yet modest plainness, “ — more bare than / that.” Bared into view even more — as the overhang of “that” leaves extra space above the following line — is a sharper angularity: “Pointedly bent, your elbow on a car-edge.” It is the looming-out of the flexible human body as defined by the mechanics of “car-edge” exactitude; but such incongruous prominence is again not to be over-obtruded when acoustic levelling finally ensures that the elbow is “Incognito as summer / Among mechanics.”


For Oppen, however, “mechanics” matter as an unsentimental way of stating a precision. To one who knows how machine tools and carpentry work, this is not brutalism but a way of expressing the interconnections of jointed parts. They should be revealed in their plurality, not covered over by a façade of oneness. But while he rejects pseudo-wholes, the poetry also suggests that he cannot be so certain about the making of a new, genuine entirety out of individualized pieces. While there is no absolute way of doing this, he can attempt the alternative approaches which the pairing of poems especially allows. On the one hand, therefore, he is able to imagine the condensed drawing-together of parts in the poem ‘Drawing’ which, under a different title, originally concluded the book in his earlier manuscript. On the other hand and on the page preceding it, there is the poem whose opened-out sense of process and unfinished continuity indicate why the final version of Discrete Series now ends differently:


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


Not by growth
        But the
Paper, turned, contains
This entire volume


“Drawing / Coiling”: there is no overall way of trying to pull the parts into unity. The righthand poem, once known by the comprehensive title of ‘Folio’ (a single sheet but also a volume of sheets) offers the near-instantaneous method of folding into itself all the poems that precede it in the book. Just as Oppen makes “Plant, I breathe” more immediate than “a plant / In darkness growing,” so it is more sudden to say, “Not by growth / But the / Paper”: the latter word made prominent on the paper page by the extra line space above it and heard in its taut encompassment as “Paper, turned” (the vowel shifting on its axis in minimal movement) which “contains,” by the verb’s containment of “turned,” “This entire volume.” (One remembers the economy with which “flaunts” and “post-cards” hold other words inside themselves.)


But once Oppen has dislodged ‘Folio’ from its all-inclusive, final position in the book, he gives it a new, more ambivalent title. ‘Drawing’ is a participle on the move yet a fixed noun; a static drawing yet a drawing-together of pieces: the poem more obviously a partner now, as it hovers between suggestions, to “On the water, solid,” with its fluid-yet-hard, flimsy-yet-firm disconcertings.  The “solid” thing, so concrete in water, is also merely a “toy” but “a toy” that acoustically grips tighter as “A tug.”  But the change only occurs after a page-space has created the divide between “The singleness of toy” (a small, seamless whole contained within an aside) and the severalness of fact, heard so definitely, and strung out so visually on verse-line and water, as a “A tug with two barges.” Translated into longing, that is the pluralistic spread, the “O… O” cry, which hopes for a greater clenching-together of the parts in terms of a voyage that might be ended. “O what O what” — in the open-vowelled tugging of the word by repetition and plosive insistence — “will / Bring us back to / Shore”: the landfall beyond reach in that capitalized, article-less brevity, and no nearer, in lower case distance, when yearning adds an emphatic article, “the shore.” But the gap before the last line allows a complete change of tone. Loose yearning for coherence is suddenly replaced by a tightening grip. It is no longer the image of voyagers who never find their port but that of feelings, in harder, shipboard fact, which are being drawn, moment by moment, into a closer and closer circle: “Coiling a rope on the steel deck.”


The process is continuous, and it is appropriate that the actual last poem of the book, ‘Written structure,’ should offer, as ‘Drawing’ could not, “Successive / Happenings.” However, it is more profitable to consider the end poem not on its own, nor even coupled with the poem which directly precedes it, but as the long-range partner of the poem which begins the book, ‘The knowledge not of sorrow.’ For there at the start an extended, unfolding sequence occurs within the syntactic strictures of the poem itself which are completely unlike any of the verse which follows, and which are as closely adhered to as the formal-looking symmetrical indents which Oppen imposes on his typographically revised version. [11] In his manuscript he was also formal when he numbered the first three poems: ‘The knowledge not of sorrow’ as 1, ‘White’ as 2 and ‘Thus / Hides the’ as 3.  All came under the heading of “1930’s.” But while the date was apt for a poetry of elevator lights, Frigidaire and soda-jerking, it stands out as deliberately anomalous for the first poem of the group, and therefore all the more having to be worked towards with an effort out of a Victorian-Edwardian leisured interior, where a quotation from Henry James is as seemly as a Jamesian style of tête-à-tête discrimination in the speaker’s opening remarks:


The knowledge not of sorrow, you were
         saying, but of boredom
Is — aside from reading speaking
         smoking —
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.


That century, it would appear, is no longer the nineteenth in feeling, but the twentieth. However, if Oppen were to keep the 1, 2, 3 sequence, the reader would be turning the page with a sense of ironic contrast in the next two poems. Deceiving exteriors of the Thirties would be the outcome, as distinct from the opened-out reality — the sense of a woman entering her time and being at last in it — which the opening poem strives towards, rather than a distant “1930s” date. Therefore, when that heading is lifted from all three poems, the first one can exist in its own integral right, as it gradually moves from the past to a widening sense of the immediate moment. It is the shift heard when the vocal emphasis on what was not — “The knowledge not of sorrow, you were saying” — leads to the vitally stressed distinction, “but of boredom,” which


Is —


Isolated there for a visual instant, the spoken verb of the present pushes on with the decisiveness that sets aside moneyed ennui — the parenthetic languor of “reading speaking / smoking” — as distinct from the increasingly purposeful “knowledge… of boredom.” Though Oppen would retrospectively make the connection with Heidegger’s idea of boredom as a higher, philosophical indifference, the unstopped syntax here, traversing all barriers, demands that it be seen, in his own special way, as an evermore vigorous consciousness. For that knowledge “Is” — in the emphasis stored up by the delaying parenthesis — “Of what,” with extra definiteness (and with more delay, as the sentence includes further interruption) “Maude Blessingbourne it was, / wished to know,” as the latter verb presses more eagerly beyond the was of the past. Now, in the speaker’s transition, what “you were saying” is overtaken by what a particular woman is doing at the start of James’s 1903 tale, ‘The Story in It.’  There Maud (without Oppen’s extra e) is reading a French novel while rain and wind beat against the windows. Breaking the “tension” of the room with its “consistent air of suppression and selection,” she not only gets up to see outside, but, during the course of the story, proposes an ethic of honesty and decency in the writing of such novels. It is an outgoing ingenuousness very much argued against by Colonel Voyt, the unconfessed lover of her hostess, Mrs. Dyott, with an implicit suggestion of sexual secrecy that has to be preserved. Thus hide the parts.


But Oppen’s Maude, like other people in the poems who make the exterior world authentic by their active presence, has a different, if parallel sense of outward possibility. She, who in James’s story, “got up and stood by the fire, into which she looked a minute; then came round and approached the window as if to see what was really going on,” [12] becomes — in the further insistence of “wished to know” and the shift of James’s adverb to an investigatively keener position — the woman who


                                              having risen,
“approached the window as if to see
        what really was going on”;
And saw rain falling…


Out through the glass goes her sharpened vision: beyond the comparative smudging of the view by quotation marks and lower case, to the distinct, capitalized “And” in its extending perspective. For while rain is falling close by and “in the distance more slowly,” the road — in new clarity beyond the past of the enclosing room, and “clear from her past the window-glass,” with a textual dash of extension — sends the spoken trajectory even further out. This ultimately is the road “Of the world”: the mouth having to work its way past the last surmountable obstacle of w-packed word-clusterings (“weather swept, with which”) in order to reach the greater, clean-swept mutuality (no longer the conversational intimacy between speaker and “you”) by which “one” emphatically “shares the century.”


Freed from its local link with the two poems immediately following it, ‘The knowledge not of sorrow’ also looks out upon the larger terrain of all the subsequent poems in Discrete Series. But its tight, sequential character and its highly formalized shape equally determine, it would seem, Oppen’s choice of the poem that matches it at the end of the book:


Written structure,
Shape of art,
More formal
Than a field would be
(existing in it) —
Her pleasure’s
‘O — ’

           ‘Tomorrow ?’ —

(the telephone)


Syntactically abrupt, lineally brief, the poem nevertheless reveals another opening-out from stylistic cramping. The decorous, semi-Jamesian contortions at the beginning of the book have their partner here not only in the comma-halted stiffness of “Written structure, / Shape of art,” and the visual obtrusion of fixity by the article-less “Shape,” but in the vocal flouting of such confinement. Unshaped spoken reality cannot be hemmed in by a written ordering that is “More formal / Than a field would be” as the line-sense runs over and the broader “field” of possibility (syllabically squashed by formality’s bracket, and “existing in it”) is released by an onward pointing dash and an elongated acoustic. To Maude Blessingbourne’s counterpart in the Thirties “Her pleasure’s / Looser,” while from the loosening comes her exclamatory “ ‘O — ’ “ with its dash of open-mouthed incompleteness. It is the broken-off response hanging in the air, followed by another voice which (after the extended pause of the page space and not necessarily in answer to the previous speaker) asks without certainty of a future reply, “ ‘Tomorrow ?’ — ”: a further wide-open o leading to the dash which again points forward in time’s unfinished continuity. So what were static lines, partitioned by commas — “Written structure, / Shape of art,” — gives way to “Successive / Happenings”: not a simple run-over but, in the splitting of adjective from noun, an insistence on giving each word equal weight in an unhurried succession of human speech. Such “Happenings,” as they hit the eye with capitalized stature, are the gradual unfoldings which loom larger in the end than the speed (crushed into lower case brevity within a bracket) of the modern medium which instantly conveys them: “(the telephone).”


So ends the book. But it does so only because Oppen does not wish to push his art further than he can manage without emotionally falsifying. The separate voices of ‘Written structure’ that reach out across space without necessarily meeting, suggest the gap that still exists when parts cannot be completely drawn together. But there is also a desire for the larger, non-generalized inclusiveness which might be built out of such particularities. Neither inclination can win, and therefore it is only through lines that dramatize the unreconcilable that Oppen presents what is, in effect, the real, conceptual ending to the collection, as distinct from its actual end-poem. When he told his first interviewer, L.S. Dembo, that what “leads directly to what I’ve told you about my giving up poetry… was the last poem I wrote in [Discrete Series]”, [13] he was significantly not saying, as elsewhere, that he abandoned his art for twenty-five years because he first had to meet the larger social needs of others during the Depression. Rather, it was the difficulties in this particular poem — now the eleventh in the book — which made it a sticking point he could not get beyond at that time:



Wave in the round of the port-hole
Springs, passing, — arm waved,
Shrieks, unbalanced by the motion —
Like the sea incapable of contact
Save in incidents (the sea is not
Homogeneously automatic — a green capped
         white is momentarily a half mile
         out —
The shallow surface of the sea, this,
Numerously — the first drinks —
The sea is a constant weight
In its bed.    They pass, however, the sea
Freely tumultuous.


For Oppen, the poem recorded “the failure of that perception of the sea” — not the failure of the poem itself — which is also his inability to speak with conviction of a greater human whole beyond a series of split, separate moments or “Successive / Happenings.” “The waves,” he told Dembo, “are the individual person. Humanity” — the abstract generality — “can’t be encountered [save] as an incident or something that has just happened… all one has is ‘this happened,’ ‘that happened’; and out of this we try to make a picture of what a man is, who these other people are… and, even, what humanity is.” [14] Whether the many pieces are gatherable and knowable in the larger sense of “humanity” is the question that Oppen continues to ask in the 1960s with ‘Of Being Numerous.’


Right now, the group idea of “Party” — in the joint assembly of revellers and sea; in the pitch of waves and the toss of greeting — only exists in severely circumscribed parts: the round, port-hole glimpse of “Wave… Springs, passing” (the article-free nouns sprung upon the eye in a capitalized leap, then just as suddenly gone); the bits of human action, “arm waved, / Shrieks” (a line-start upsurge like “Springs,” and subsiding with similar speed in what is merely a partygoer’s mock-terror at being unbalanced by the sea roll). Only thus, in vivid, incidental moments, is the concept of humanity, “Like the sea,” specifically realizable. With general assumptions rebuffed in an aside (“the sea is not / water”) a lone wave is split off (by the stroke of a dash and a large, lineal over-run) from the automatic concept, in opaque polysyllables, of sea and humanity (homo) as one uniform mass, “Homogeneously automatic.” Rearing its “capped” individuality above the surface, and sped away as fast as the upspringing other “Wave”,


                                            a green capped
white is momentarily a half mile
out —


Creating space on the page, it not only sticks out in the mind from the flat, uniform view (“The shallow surface of the sea this,”) but is the force behind the particular tug of “this” that makes “Numerously” insist itself on the ear. Noticeable also to the eye (as a line-start adverb which cuts against “Homogeneously”) the word pluralizes the separate parts and makes the multitudinous seem vigorously rooted at a depth below shallow surfaces (the party’s “first drinks”) where sea/humanity might be imagined as an enduring whole rather than brief, fleeting instances: “The sea is a constant weight / In its bed.”


But the statement is a test of sincerity for Oppen. While writing “Of Being Numerous,” he said, “I try to get again to humanity as a single thing, as something like a sea which is a constant weight in its bed”: [15] an image that also suggests at that later date a weight still hanging heavy on the mind as an unresolved problem. Hence there is to be no false declaration of arrival at the constant, “single thing” in ‘Party on Shipboard.’ On the other hand, he can indeed speak, with conviction, and eruptive exactitude, from beneath transient incidentals — “They pass, however” — as the “sea” bursts forth “Freely tumultuous.” For that is the upsurge of sea and humanity out of deeper sources than partying riot: a deep-seated faith in possibilities which accompanies his fervent trust in the value of the little words he has brought into conspicuous sight and sound not just in this poem, with “Numerously,” “Shrieks” and “Springs” but throughout Discrete Series. From these conspicuous bricks — not to be hidden or ignored, anymore than pairings and layouts are to be overlooked — he has built new, un-prefabricated sequences. There ultimately lies the book’s achievement: not in disparate pieces but in the juttings-forth that create fresh continuities: the visual and auditory saliences of precise, hard-won meanings.


[1]  Michael Heller, Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2008), 35. Alan Golding, “George Oppen’s Serial Poems,” The Objectivist Nexus, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1999), 96.

[2]  Harold Schimmel, “(On) Discrete Series,” George Oppen: Man and Poet, ed. Burton Hatlen (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1981), 293‒321.

[3]  Readings at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, April 9, 1964: on the CD accompanying the 2008 edition of New Collected Poems (New York: New Directions).

[4]   Letter to Serge Fauchereau, July 25, 1966, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990) 141.

[5]  Oppen has spaciously departed from the more huddled, less typographically discriminating version that appears in Poetry (February,1931), 256.

Hides the
Parts — the prudery
Of Frigidaire, of
Soda-jerking —

Above the
Plane of lunch, of wives,
Removes itself
(As soda-jerking from
The private act
Cracking eggs);

[6]  “We had a good deal of confidence in the instant as a test of one’s own sincerity, as a test of whether one ever really did feel this or believe this”: Oppen speaking as an Objectivist during the discussion, Objectivists and After, recorded at the National Poetry Festival, Thomas Jefferson College, Michigan, June 16, 1973. “I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity”: Pound, “A Retrospect,” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T.S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), 9.

[7]  Interview with Kevin Power, May 25, 1975, Montemora 4, 1978, 187.

[8]  Interview with Reinhold Schiffer, May 1, 1975, Sagetrieb 3, Winter 1984, 15.

[9]  In the manuscript given to Charles Reznikoff: Charles Reznikoff Papers (Box 22, Folder 4), Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego.

[10] Jonson, The Poetaster, Act III.

[11]  In Poetry (February 1931), 256–7, the poem appears as printed below, where it would seem, as John Tranter points out, that “boredom,” “when having risen,” etc. are merely the original typesetter’s continuation of turned-over lines. But by the time of the manuscript version given to Reznikoff and the final 1934 book version, Oppen has so rearranged the over-runs so that they no longer appear fragmentary but now have the look of alternate lines in their own right, completing the effect of a formalized symmetry on the page:

The knowledge, not of sorrow, you were saying, but of
Is of — aside from reading speaking smoking —
Of what, Maude Blessingbourne it was, wished to know
                                 when, having risen,
“Approached the window as if to see what really was going
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

[12] James, “The Story In It,” The Complete Tales of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel (London: Rupert Hart Davis, 1964), 308.

[13]  “Oppen on His Poems: A Discussion”: Interview with L.S. Dembo, George Oppen: Man and Poet, 202.

[14]  14. Ibid, 201.

[15] Letter to Diane Meyer, Spring 1965, Selected Letters, 111.

All quotations from George Oppen are by permission of Linda Oppen © Linda Oppen.

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.