The following are the collected letters of poets George Oppen and Charles Tomlinson, as transcribed by Richard Swigg for the feature “Addressing one’s peers: The letters of Charles Tomlinson and George Oppen, 1963–1981.” This section of the correspondence spans the year 1963.
April 15, 1963
Dear Mr Oppen,
I wanted to say how much I have enjoyed reading your volume The Materials which I’ve gone through (several times) recently. The cleanliness, the clarity, the sureness of line and absence of ‘eloquence’ are very moving indeed. It’s good to see such a book in print and a pleasure to return to it and recommend it to one’s friends.
I wonder if your earlier volume of 1934, noted on the jacket of The Materials, is still obtainable? Conceivably I could buy a copy from you? I am most anxious to get hold of it and would greatly appreciate knowing if it still exists.
With thanks once more and every good wish,
Albuquerque: In 1963 Tomlinson was guest professor at the University of New Mexico and poet in residence at the D. H. Lawrence ranch near Taos. He was on a year’s leave from the University of Bristol, where he taught from 1956 to 1992.
364 Henry Street
April 24, 1963
Dear Mr. Tomlinson:
I have three copies of Discrete Series of which I will gladly send you one …
It’s pleasant to know that you like the Materials: it is wonderfully generous of you to take the trouble to say so. I was troubled while working to know that I had no sense of an audience at all. Hardly a new complaint, of course. One imagines himself addressing his peers, I suppose — surely that might be the definition of ‘seriousness’? I would like, as you see, to convince myself that my pleasure in your response is not plain vanity but the pleasure of being heard, the pleasure of companionship, which seems more honorable.
In any case, an entirely honorable pleasure that you take the trouble to write
With best regards
April 28, 1963
Dear George Oppen,
I was delighted and moved to receive so speedily both your letter and the book. What you say about seriousness implying one’s writing for his peers is extraordinarily good. I’m sure there is no better concept of ‘audience.’ I think, despite what you say, Discrete Series was also writing for one’s peers and I thank you heartily for it. One trusts that among the handful of things you’d want to rescue would be ‘The knowledge not of sorrow …’ (the first), ‘The evening, water in a glass …,’ ‘Closed car — closed in glass —,’ ‘Party on Shipboard’ — ‘homogeneously automatic’ is a splendid phrase — ‘She lies, hip high,’ ‘Fragonard,’ ‘No interval of manner,’ ‘On the water, solid,’ ‘Drawing.’ These are merely my favourites, not all that I liked. How admirable your taste is for unforeseen distinctions:
(As soda-jerking from
the private act
I like also the first part of that poem (beginning P.8). What is remarkable is the consistency of vision (‘What I’ve seen / Is all I’ve found: myself’ — you see, I can quote you by heart) and the growth into ever more substantial clarity in The Materials. I was intrigued in reading and re-reading the latter to know over what period these poems had been written. Not idle curiosity, but curiosity about the roots of excellence which cannot, surely, be wholly bad. I wonder also how conscious a group activity objectivism was? — I see such differences between, say, you and Williams and Reznikoff, I cannot help wondering whether Zukofsky’s objectivist programme was not later than objectivist verse which is so disparate.
These half questions move on the surface of a deep enjoyment that your lovely poems have given me over the past weeks and I apologize for allowing them to intrude into what began as an expression of thanks and pure delight.
Perhaps we may chat of these matters in the not too near future? My wife and I pass thro’ New York on our way back to England in mid-August and if the money lasts conceivably we shall stay for a few days.
I bring out a new book of verse of my own this summer & will send it to you — not for comment, just for friendship.
Again, thank you and every good wish for your work.
a new book of verse: Tomlinson refers to his collection A Peopled Landscape (Oxford University Press, 1963).
May 5, 1963
Dear Charles Tomlinson:
‘Happy that company who are intoxicated with each other’s speech; who, through the fermentation of thought, are each other’s wine.’
Sa’ib of Isfahan, the translation by Edward Browne. Or; ‘our language is our country’ I’m not sure of the accuracy of that quotation.
I hadn’t thought the Discrete Series ‘bad,’ but I do think the poems require the help, the very great good will of the reader. Which you generously supply. I had meant to carry the thinking and the form of these poems as far as I could without abandoning the figures of perception for the figures of elocution, or even of mere assertion, which I profoundly distrusted. There seemed at the time a tremendous difficulty of honesty: the whole weight of sincerity seemed to rest on one’s own shoulders. As how should it not? But there was perhaps not a body of honest contemporary work, a sincere and public conversation in which to join. Not, perhaps I should add, that I take truthfulness to be a social virtue. I think very probably it is not. But I think it is poetic: I think really that nothing else is. The sentimentality of an old codger? - - but I was a mere fine broth of a codger at the time.
It’s been pleasant to be invited to talk about oneself - - and to speak with such affection! I see I have rather sneakily accepted praise. But I am reminded, quite against my will, that the poems are, after all, fragmentary and sometimes strained.
As to the ‘Objectivists’ - - the word properly in quotes because the word has caused some confusion: it derived from an insistence on ‘objectification,’ on form, a matter worth mentioning in the wake of the Amy Lowells. Tho’ Zukofsky wrote also of ‘sincerity’ as the ‘epic quality.’
As you suggest, no one’s work altered, so far as I know, after the word was coined. It appeared in - - I think three - - essays that Zukofsky wrote. And of course those are simply Zukofsky’s essays. I must have owed more to Zuk. than either Williams or Rezi could have: both Rezi and Wms being older than Zuk and I younger. I had seen Zuk’s work in Exiles in, I think, 1928 - - being nineteen or twenty at the time - - and had set out to meet him. His conversation and criticism was important to me, was of great importance to me at the time. I don’t remember therefore that the essays themselves came as anything new to me.
I noticed that Williams, in the autobiography, speaks of the first meeting of the Objectivists in an apartment on Columbia Heights. That would have been our apartment, my wife’s and mine. But what we discussed then was the undertaking to print books. The work of course already existed in ms. and the dust jackets of the books carried the explanation, written at that meeting by Reznikoff, that the ‘objectivist press was an organization of writers who had joined together in order to print their own work and that of others which they thought ought to be read.’ It was about as much as could be said. We were of different backgrounds; led and have led different lives. As you say, we don’t much sound alike. But the common factor is well defined in Zuk’s essay. And surely I envy still Williams’ language, Williams’ radiance; Rezi’s lucidness; and frequently Zukofsky’s line-sense.
Those essays, by the way, are reprinted in Kulchur No 7. I had not seen them for some twenty years. I can’t judge their current interest, having known them so long. And the style is crabbed. But they seem to me sound statements.
An essay of mine, slightly referring to these things, will appear in Kulchur 10, incidently.
Not sure if you wanted all this, but I’ll complete the history. The Objectivist Press derived from To Publishers; paper-bound books printed by my wife and me in Toulon. Printed the Objectivist Anthology - - edited by Zukofsky - - and Williams’ Novelette and Other Prose.
Commercially disastrous. Paper-backs were new to the U S, and encountered trouble with the U S customs and the U S customs - - the men on the pier, and the men in the book stores. Both of whom said they are not books. The book stores simply would not stock them, or most would not. Thereafter that meeting on Columbia Heights, etc.
The poems of The Materials were written between 1958 and 1962. As I believe you surmised. Too long, too personal a story to undertake here: I kept nothing of the little I wrote for some twenty five years. That matter of one’s peers - - I have come to believe again, perhaps in more rather than less despair, that the only possible hope is in the conversation with one’s peers. Or in thinking as if one were in contact with one’s peers.
In England, a couple of years ago, I visited Tim Pember, a writer whose work I had seen - - stories - - and he showed me your work among others. I was struck and delighted. Reason for my promptness in reply to your first letter. I have lost Pember’s address, and I don’t know whether he indicated that you knew each other.
I’m sorry, since you will be in New York, that we will be in Maine in August. Unless toward the end of August - - ? You are welcome in Little Deer Island, in our rented cabin, if you could possibly make it.
“our language is our country”: Oppen is partly remembering the line from Tomlinson’s “Return to Hinton,” which he would have seen in Poetry, June 1961 (later collected in A Peopled Landscape, 1963).
Zuk’s essay: “Sincerity and Objectification,” in Poetry, February 1931.
Kulchur 7 (Autumn 1962): Louis Zukofsky’s “Five Statements for Poetry.”
Tim Pember: Timothy Pember, author of the novels The Needle’s Eye (Jonathan Cape, 1948) and Swanson (Cape, 1951).
May 31, 1963
Dear Charles Tomlinson:
I find myself entranced by the poem with which you have presented me. I see myself - - slightly the elder of the two - - talking to myself - - and smoking my pipe, which is a shock. I congratulate the three of us on the whole thing. Perhaps I would want to use it as the epigraph of a book. Just as you have written it; that is, with your uncapitalized lines in contrast to my habit of capitalizing initial letters to emphasize the different ear at work and the effect - - I don’t know if I am expressing this accurately, but I wanted to say, as if it were heard, rather than written - -
We will enquire about an apartment for you. I believe something will turn up. We could offer you the use of our place, but it is impossibly small for a family of four; it would be impossible to put two children in it, unless they should happen to be v-shaped, like corner shelves. I’m afraid you may not have gone to those extremes of planned parenthood. Of course, because you did not plan to stay in New York.
Your response to my ‘Persian quotation’ is a very nice event. It was not Persian. I had meant to quote you, but couldn’t remember where I had seen the poem. It seems I mis-quoted. Of course it was ‘… our language is our land.’ But I am glad your statement - - even mis-quoted - - seemed good to you, as - - even mis-remembered - - it did to me.
the poem with which you have presented me: Tomlinson had sent Oppen a short-line poem composed from two sentences in Oppen’s letter of April 24 (“I would like, as you see, to convince myself … which seems more honorable”). It was published in Oppen’s next book, This in Which (New Directions, 1965), as a collaboration under the title “To C. T.”
[Undated: c. June 1963]
Dear Charles Tomlinson:
Sorry to say we did not find a sub-let for you. Young artist by the name of Peter Young thought he might find something, and will write you if he does. There seems to be a summer rush to New York. Lord knows why. Seemed no more attractive than usual when we left.
c/o Lawrence Ranch
July 9, 1963
Just a line to say thanks for your efforts in seeking us an apartment. Suddenly, out of the blue, a friend in Brooklyn wrote to say he’d be away for summer, wd. we like his …? So we leave for there about the 29th, staying till we sail on Aug 17th. It’s splendid up here — mountains, streams, Spanish graveyards, bears, coyotes. Pity to leave, really, but I wd. like to see a little art in the urbs.
Just reviewing yr book, so I’ve re-read the WORKS and very enjoyable it has been — review the New Mexico Quarterly to appear the Lord Knows when. Will send you my own new book, due Aug 29th, as soon as I get back to England.
What a shame we shall not be able to meet. If you get over là bas, our address is:
Wotton-U-Edge [U for Under]
Are you writing? You owe us (the universal we speaking) more pomes for own good.
All the very best
reviewing yr. book: Tomlinson’s review of Charles Reznikoff’s By the Waters of Manhattan, Selected Verse (Charles Boni, 1930) and Oppen’s The Materials (New Directions, 1962), in New Mexico Quarterly 34, no. 1 (1964).
[Undated: c. July 1963]
We’ll be in New York August 1st to the 15th - - a change of plans - -. Let us know how to reach you.
Yes, I’m writing quite a bit. A fair sampling will appear in July Poetry. And elsewhere, but as you say of the Quarterlies, the Lord knows when.
July 27, 1963
I enjoyed very much reading your review. Thanks for sending the copy. I will have a copy made for New Directions-SF Review for the mention of Zuk. They have three or four volumes of prose in the works of which I have just no opinion at all - - in fact my report on the first two mss shown me was that nothing in the world would induce me to read them through. But the first years’ poetry schedule consists of Oppen, Reznikoff and William Bronk, in which my advice is obvious enough. My recommendation of course included Zuk, but the suggestion - - as you see - - has not been acted on. It is by now too awkward for me to discuss the matter with Zuk at all, but it is my impression that they would be more likely to do a Selected than a Collected poems, if only for budgetary reasons. I can’t really urge Louis to submit a ms. since I have no assurance at all that they would accept it. But you might urge him to try it if you think it worth the risk - - to him - - of a rejection. If they had a ms. under consideration I could re-open the discussion.
Look forward to seeing you.
[Undated: c. September 1963]
I want to thank you for a people[d] landscape - - I read the quote from Millet as a statement of realism, of imagism, for a moment, and then its sense began to dawn on - - the meaning of factualness, which I think is the deepest meaning of the poems. I had seen it first in the soldi, soldi, against the sea - -.
We did very much enjoy seeing you (the American plural: youse). It would be well worth the voyage to walk and talk with you (youse) in England. We will try to do it.
With all best wishes, all regards,
your quote from John Cage in Poetry is a considerable contribution to the discussion. I thought rather less of it as a poem than you, but it is the statement of an attitude - - Mary and I have been referring to it incoherently as a ‘fun’ attitude - - which we have been unable to grasp. And which is very much the attitude of most of the young people, the young people around the galleries - -
Can’t live on that, tho. No one can. I don’t mean to deplore or to attack: can’t live on the convictions of the past either. But they cannot live on that. Something will happen. Something. Not impossible that what will happen is that they will cease to live, of course - -. I am not suggesting that we should lie to each other, this is simply where we are. I agree we must say so, I made my own defense in the last poem of my book - - ‘We must talk now’ or we abandon one another. Still, as fun, as hilarity - - There is something I know, in my bones, about that.
the quote from Millet: the epigraph to A Peopled Landscape: “I want the cries of my geese to echo in space. Jean-François Millet.”
soldi, soldi: In “Up at La Serra,” in A Peopled Landscape.
your quote from John Cage in Poetry: In his review, among others, of Harold Rosenberg’s Tradition of the New (Poetry, August 1963) Tomlinson quoted and praised Cage’s poem “On Nothing.”
September [ ], 1963
Dear George and Mary,
What a pleasure it was to get your note — I had imagined you would still be basking at Nassau and here you are, back already beating with the great pulse. Did we really only meet twice? — it seemed qualitatively so much more than that and what was so good about our meetings was the possibility of conversation — dialogue. I began to think that almost nobody in the U.S. ‘went in for’ dialogue: so many literate males — oh, the women are much nicer — simply talk at one: men of my own generation, men younger than me, older men — one becomes their audience and little more. I’d become quite anxious about this self-absorption: one grew to expect it. Ultimately, exasperated, I penned my reply — with as little punctuation as possible, in order that I might get
A WORD IN EDGEWAYS
Tell me about yourself they
say and you begin to
tell them about yourself and
that is just the way I
am is their reply: they play
it all back to you in another
key, their key, and then in mid-
narrative they pay you a
compliment as if to say what a good
listener you are I am
a good listener my stay
here has developed my faculty I will
say that for me I will not
say that every literate male in
America is a soliloquist, a
ventriloquist, a strategic
egotist, an inveterate
campaigner-explainer over and
back again on the terrain of him-
self — what I will
say is they are not un-
interesting: they are simply
unreciprocal and yes it was a
pleasure if not an unmitigated
pleasure and yes I did enjoy our
This is by way of saying YOU weren’t like that. The above is not the sole impression we took home. It was a great year. Perhaps the best we have ever had … Back here, rain has been virtually incessant. Our pipes had burst last winter ruining dining room, ceilings and books. So wetly in wet we wait, mould on every hand, feeling our premature aches and pains. Why, it almost drives one to monologue.
I wonder if you have the address of the San Francisco Review, George? I have an article on a Berkeley painter and I thought I might try them.
As I go up the field for mushrooms I think of your promise to come one day and walk on English ground with an Angle. You will need rubber boots. Come to think of it — there are spares.
Do let us know how things are with you both.
Love from Brenda and myself,
A Word in Edgeways: written June–July 1963, and collected in The Way of a World (Oxford University Press, 1969).
September [ ], 1963
Dear Charles and Brenda:
Words well wielded edgewise.
In fact I got to laughing too much to be able to read it aloud, and Mary had to read it. So it had a salutary effect: I mean, Mary got a word in edgewise. Not only improved, but comforted me; I was glad to be assured there are many worse than I. Which really I had suspected. Why O why do they do it? Partly the presence of the man from Outside, an opportunity to write their names in the sky, or anyway on something at a considerable distance. Possibly England.
We do think and talk very seriously of a visit to the Underedge of Wotton. Or Wotton-Underedge. Doesn’t mean we’ll manage to do it. We become very conscious of age, of the limitation of time, of what we want to work out still. But if we should find ourselves feeling or being rich, we might invest in plane tickets for the spectacular extravagance of a one week visit in Spring. What would you think? What would be a good time? Would flying Americans be too much for your nerves? This only asked as wild speculation — I don’t know that we could do it. But we would like to. The Severn adds its lure.
On the S F Review — now an annual. They have had a rule against critical articles of all kinds, but an essay on a Frisco painter - - Berkeley painter - - really should constitute reason for an exception. I’ll talk to June Degnan about it - - I think the policy excluding discussion of art has always been a mistake in any case - -. And I think you should write her offering to send the article if they are interested. Address
June O. Degnan
150 Central Park South
New York City
I should not have bothered you about that poem. I regretted it at the time. But this was the contrivance:
[Oppen inserts a sketch of an elevator door with two globes above it, one crayoned red, one green, with the words “Meaning UP and DOWN,” in a reference to the Discrete Series poem “White. From the.”]
So familiar at the time that I don’t think anyone was puzzled at the time. Printed c 1930 in Poetry. The office building evoked by its lighting effects in those dim days. And its limited alternatives, the limited alternatives of a culture. And its quiet / stone floor. From there to ‘thus’ - - big business - - ‘hides the parts.’
Don’t for the love of Pete let this worry you further. Your version of the child and the ball - - - up, down, up down - - - is a gift, and a good one. I accept. And the other is lost - - it so happens - - in the mists of architectural history. And cannot be restored to the consciousness of any reader without a red crayon. And a two-color print job, which is prohibitively expensive.
- - Similar thing, Louis’ saw horses. Which I think was entirely clear at the time. The A’s, the M’s, the horses, the words, do dance and only thru the verse - - all of which he meant as a programmatic statement for his verse. The primacy of music.
I had heard of Louis delivering half hour diatribes about That Oppen to innocent visitors, one of whom, at least, made a silent and edgewise exit. Not, I hope, to you? But perhaps I had better say that Louis really has no grievance against me, nor has the world, or no greater grievance than it has against anyone in these times of the population explosion. And Louis no greater grievance against me than against anyone who ‘gets printed.’ Awkward for me, tho. And overwhelmingly ironic to discuss my position as ‘a success.’ I hesitated to go into it, fearing I might become an inveterate explainer on the terrain of myself, but hearing that I am less inveterate than some - - - Perhaps the effect of your poem has been more comforting than salutary after all. (and I’ll doubt that I’ll produce another book within quite a few years. Maybe that’ll heal things)
‘This earth, this throne of Kings, this England - -’ You mean the man was looking down at his rubber boots when he said that?
But Mary’s from Oregon, a good deal wetter than anything you can show, and New York is the worst climate in the world. AND has no mushrooms.
with regards to you both
June O. Degnan: Oppen’s sister.
Your version of the child and the ball: In his review of The Materials (New Mexico Quarterly), Tomlinson had mistaken the elevator signs in “White. From the” as the up-down motion of a child bouncing a ball.
Louis’ saw horses: Police saw-horses in Zukofsky’s ‘A’-7.
September 21, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
Thanks for yours. I am now dully (how does one spell due-ly?) elevated by your two colour design. Lucidity itself.
Why don’t you come and stay during next Easter vacation? It’d be lovely to have you both. Not Easter week, when the rest of the world is abroad, but one of the other four of our recess. The weather should be springy then and the summer rains will not have begun in full fury. I must check when Easter is next year. DO come. We are painting the guests’ bedroom and will do it with added zest at the prospect of your advent. You wd, I think, love the parish churches round here and the general intimacy of the green landscape with its walls of grey stone.
Thank you so much for Mrs Degnan’s address. I’ll send off the MS. with this.
Tante belle cose,
P.S. How about this?
In Longfellow’s Library
and the Venus de Milo
gaze out past
the scintillations from
the central candelabrum
(on an upper shelf)
in a laurel
from a group
dancing a tarantella, by
the turquoise butterfly
these, the busts of
and Sophocles still
they ambushed Hiawatha.
In Longfellow’s Library: written July 1963 and published in American Scenes (Oxford University Press, 1966).
October 1, 1963
Dear Charles and Brenda:
You better mean it: we accept.
A few details to clear up, but almost anyone - - even a vicar - - can can tell us when Easter is, surely. The guest room painted with Zest takes care of it from A to Z
when love has commen with lent to town, we will be in Gaynest under Gore. And walk in those green fields.
With all our affection,
(Yes: our cultural resources. Longfellow and all. I imagine the butterfly on a pin? but a flimsy affair compared to the word that pins the poem:
October 18, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
Of course we didn’t mean it — Easter don’t exist: it’s just one of those Xtian myths disproved by the 19th Century. April fool!
But, serieusement: my vacation is March 10th to April 20th, Justine will be out of school March 25th – April 13th. Why not come in April, as late as possible if only to make sure of good weather and also to MISS the mass holiday, i.e., Good Friday to Easter Monday, that is March 27th–30th.
I write more briefly than I would like, since term is upon us … We’ve just finished painting ‘the Oppens’ room’ as we call it. Can you stand a babbling brook outside in the garden or shall I have the authorities switch it off?
Love and great anticipation. If Winter comes can George and Mary be far behind.
November 19, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
I’d meant to write long before this to say, yes, April 6–13 wd. be fine for the visit — the visit.
At the moment rain and floods everywhere. I trust they will have dried out by April. Not usually the cruellest month here.
In haste and the desperation of dozens of essays to grade (‘mark’ we say — I spikka da Amurricana fur clarity’s sake).
December 29, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
How very kind of you to send us the Mailer and the very fine poem. We had always intended reading Barbary Shore and now we own a copy we shall do so. We enjoyed Naked and the Dead immensely but found, despite the good bits, The Deer Park was a sad, tired falling off. He’s an interesting chap, hipsterism apart, or maybe hipsterism is a necessary part of getting off the ground these days?
We seem to have had a dreary phase of ‘sore trials’ since our return — first Justine was hospitalised, then detonsilled, then a dock strike immobilised our imported car on a London wharf for three months; then my father fell ill, was operated on, recovered, relapsed with congestion of the lungs and is now slowly coming forward again. Workmen came in to dig us a septic tank, struck three springs, got flooded out. Tedious additions like that. In the middle of the digging + removal of inner wall of the house, frost struck unexpectedly and froze the water supply for three days. Oh, but this is pure grumbling. Really, I begin to ache with self pity: ‘Tell me about yourself they / say …’ Basta.
We do hope you had a nice Christmas. Ours, sandwiched between chaoses, was pleasantly intime and cloistral. Our one visitor, the vicar, brought a bottle of home-made wine; we walked in the afternoon of Xmas day with the children — a lovely, suddenly mild, sunlit time with Ozleworth valley swelling and green despite the recent pressure of frosts, the stone walls very solid yet visionary in the lowering light and the trees looking their brushy, knuckled winter selves.
We look forward to Aprille with hir shoures swote. All the best for 64.
Charles and Brenda