Catching up, 1968–70
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 years 1968–70.
December 13, 1968
Dear George and Mary,
How are you both, my dears? It is absurdly wrong (I had meant to write LONG) since I wrote, so that I scarcely know where to gather up the threads. But here we are, committed to the bankrupt isle, petrol at #1 per 3 gallons, the pound visibly melting, the first frosts of winter, Justine conducting the school orchestra, a de Kooning show at the Tate, and our he-cat an inveterate pisser banned the house for his misdeeds.
The last I heard of you, you had met our very old friends the Schultzes. The next I heard of them, they were divorced. We were quite boulversés. What happens to people? Is it Governor Reagan poisoning the atmosphere?
Another old friend, Donald Davie (an admirer of yours, George) has given up the island and gone to teach at Stanford for ever … It WOULD be nice to be paid decently for one’s exertions, as one is not here but is there.
I said No to Hamilton because of Brook Cottage and this valley. I can’t see any other reason except it’s darn godawful cold up there.
That anthology still floats between publishers, now reposing with Stuart Montgomery, tho’ I can’t imagine Zuk wd. consent to appearing in it. I saw Basil Bunting recently who confirms that L. Z. is on the point of being just plain crazy and eaten by envy. Envy! At his age.
Do you still have your Brooklyn flat, or have you said farewell to the fourmillante cité for ever?
Let me wish you both a very happy Xmas and all the best for 1969.
Brenda joins me with love, — write soon! —
Charles / B / J2
December 24, 1968
O Tomlinsons Tomlins great son and daughters how wonderful to hear from you. How long IS it since we wrote? Not knowing where you would be, not knowing, or fearing we could not know
I can’t tell you how absurdly (and officiously) happy I am. If you had left that stone house and those meadows they would have ceased to exist for us, and I would have missed them sorely. I think even of those terrible TV towers: it seems to me I love them, tho surely I hate them, as you do. I don’t seem to know how to say it. Just that the place is yours, perhaps. That you can hate them with so much passion and clarity and with so clear a right As if, once, they weren’t there
We little American boys! We never can forget - - I don’t know why - - the Western wind and the small rain that never could, really, fall on us The Tomlinsons in a prospect of American College ‘living rooms’ would have been the death of something, of an island, a rocky island nation, sunk - - with its beautiful language. Lovely enchanting language, Sugar-cane / Honey of roses, whither art thou fled The wrong words: no honey, no sugar-cane surely, but the right cadence
And as for us: What news? When did we last write We who have been driven out of Brooklyn: the house being torn down. But that’s different. When they tear down your block, you’re more a Brooklynite than ever. No loss of identity: with every brick that falls to rubble we become more American When the country crumbles - - and I think it may - - we’ll be autochthonos at last
And S F is lovely A little difficult for us. I’ve thought always of the East as a home-coming. Maybe a delusory home coming wrapped in the myths of childhood, a homecoming to childhood. But S F is a homecoming to my adolescence. And, sure enough, it gets under my skin a little, my thin, unfamiliar, adolescent skin
But its beauty is a pure joy - -
Of the American doings — we quote Brenda to ourselves: ‘The Tories (read ‘conservatives’) are right you know. Of course one can’t vote for them, they’re such pigs, but they’re right’
the others are right too, we’re getting closer to wherever it is we’re going - - - - a wild, a strange, an impossible
voyage. Ora pro nobis
and our love, our very real love to you. You have a home here by this very blue bay whenever you may want it for as long as you want it
- - and I’ll pray, if I can be said ever to pray, for you. Your
island and your Cotswold is maybe the strangest voyage and the farthest
We break up, disperse, dismember - - - - Can a man be said to voyage with his left arm in his right arm, and his head in a pocket?
I don’t know. I’ve mislaid my left hand somewhere, but we’re off!
O we are, we surely are. But who?
Find out when we get there.
Happy Winter Interstices
Lovely enchanting language …: George Herbert, in “The Forerunners”: “Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane, / Honey of roses, whither wilt thou fly?”
as from Brook Cottage
February 8, 1969
Dear George and Mary,
Many thanks for the letters and the lovely gulls — very sprightly looking fellows they are, too, full of the promise of the west coast. I cannot get used to the idea of your Henry St apt being no more — I so loved the view out across the water, seeing the ferry boats go by lit up at night, seeing the sun go down, Liberty a silhouette, the television antennae like masts before the harbour. It was a real place. The red Hopperish façades in Congress Street. The odd way the lights of Manhattan looked green at evening (was it some trick of the water-light in the dusk?). The sound of ships’ sirens. And the water was so beautiful at that time of the evening when one tended to look out, a milky turquoise that gave place to rich black. Place is only place, says T.S.E. What nonsense. Only, indeed.
I was in London a couple of days ago. Wonderful show at the Royal Academy — a centenary exhibition of R.A. paintings. There is a whole room of Constables hung beside Reynolds — a very telling juxtaposition. And the Constables! One became the Complete Patriot confronted by them, thanking God one was of this people and of this climate. What paintings! So sane, so whole. Something to be said for having stayed on — unlike my old friend Donald Davie (we were at Cambridge together) who has gone to Stanford for ever. He is a great admirer of Oppen by the way — prefers him to Williams.
We are going to Hungary in April — a cultural exchange programme, yours truly Exhibit A in the Poetry Section. I was tempted to say no after their complicity in the Czech affair, but then it struck one that in going to meet other poets, one wasn’t going to meet generals. I’m sure these cultural contacts with the west are far more useful than acres of espionage.
I’ve just finished a new book which O.U.P. will be bringing out next autumn. I want it out NEXT WEEK. I can never believe in ‘next autumn.’ However … it’s called The Way of a World.
We have a slight snowfall today and have been watching a fox, very red, on the white field opposite. They seem to venture much nearer habitations in the snowy weather. They have lovely sinuous sloping movements and the young ones, who have seen no humans, seem to have no fear at all.
Let us know how things are going là-bas, and what grrreat things are a-doing in Amurkan literachoor.
All for now.
Love from us all
Ch / Br / J2
the lovely gulls: Photographs of George and Mary with seagulls, Tiburon, California.
February 23, 1969
We keep your lyric of the Brooklyn attic as its memorial
and will think of you in Hungary when April’s here.
We’ll be proud of England, and I will try again to feel AngloSaxon
I can’t, as a matter of fact, NOT. One’s language is one’s country, as you began by saying - - - - which no armor hit lette, ne no high walls - - - - -
My blood thickens again beyond the thickness of water as Fulcrum engages to print a Collected
in England - - HIF no armor lettes that enterprise
We think of you a great deal, we show people The Prospect of Stone (even people who have very little interest in poetry, or almost none at all, and are often overwhelmed by that poem. Perhaps the concept of honor has been too long absent from these lands) And we tell them about the lovely English children Who don’t know all the angles but are angels, maybe
and our love
which no armor hit lette, ne no high walls: from Piers Plowman.
The Prospect of Stone: “The Picture of J. T. in a Prospect of Stone,” in A Peopled Landscape.
June 6, 1969
Dear George and Mary,
We were delighted this a.m. to receive simultaneously from James Laughlin + my old friend, Donald Davie, news of the Pultizer award. Congratulations and congratulations once more. I do hope now that, moving in the social stratosphere, among them city slickers, you won’t a-be forgettin’ yr old rural friends. Now thar’s temptations to be withstood and what’ll you do if Hollywood asks for the film rights? Beware the sin whirl of Los Angeles and them far beat LSD circles. We were delighted.
I am taking 5 minutes off from exams to scribble this. Just about at the end of my tether. The constant nibbling away of one’s energies, the committees on committees on committees … Heyho.
You’ll like Donald. I’ve known him for over 20 years and only regret he’s left this island with such a distaste for it. God knows here’s enough to rage against, but where ISN’T there?
Justine has won a music scholarship to a posh school.
Gawd knows when we’ll see Americky once more.
Well done, mon vieux; we have been in a fire of excitement all morning over the news — even the exam papers look less leaden than usual.
all our love
Ch J2 Br
the Pulitzer award: for Of Being Numerous.
October 6, 1969
Dear Charles and Brenda
that stone shepherd’s hut is still somewhere in the middle of my mind - -our minds. Strange thing. Us Anglo-Saxons. Or is it an earlier flock of sheep, the Ur-sheep, wandering in my mind?
It is true I can almost feel my beard growing Anyway they wander, and the hut stands still in the elements
To CT in a prospect of stone: let who will trip on melons.
tho, with a touch of the melon, my Collected will be out pretty soon in England, thru Stuart Montgomery
((( the note about the ‘collaboration[’] restored: I don’t know how or in what piece of endless confusion and queries from ND that came to be omitted
This is just to send you regards
the note about the ‘collaboration’: The note that preceded “To C. T.,” when it was originally published in This in Which, acknowledging the poem’s joint authorship.
October 21, 1969
Dear George and Mary,
We were delighted to get your note. I wonder if you ever got my last one — a congratulation on the Pulitzer? for only silence came after it, so I imagine it went astray perhaps.
It has been a long and lovely autumn here, with the frosts keeping off and the great trees retaining their masses of changing foliage. A marvellous season.
Justine has won a music scholarship to a public school, and Juliet has taken up the cello to rival her sister’s violin! So between music lessons and practices and taking the children to different schools, life is pretty busy for Brenda and myself.
I have a new book due this month and I shall be sending you a copy once I have some. O.U.P. have descended to this habit of using the poet’s photograph for a cover and I dislike it. More personality cult.
We were in Hungary last Easter — I was invited by their Institute of Cultural Affairs — one example of Brit, poet. A sad country, stoically going a middle way and heavily conscious of its geographic fate — Ismenes, not Antigones, they feel the Czechs are (were) rocking the leaky boat. Interesting and dispiriting.
All our American friends seem to be dying or divorcing. And no sooner had the Schulzes divorced than their 17 year old son killed himself. It has all been very upsetting.
But it is bright light to know you are both there. You aren’t all those miles and miles a tedious accident. Ach! Ach!
Fulcrum accepted my ‘objectivists’ anthology. Then Louis refused to be included. So, that’s that. I suggested to Montgomery that we drop him and use more Oppen and Bronk (not exactly an objectivist!) but S.M. sez no Louis no objectivism. A pity.
Do keep in touch.
Luv and kisses from all us Anglo-Saxons
Ch. Br J2
[Undated: c. October 1969]
Dear Charles and Brenda:
- - - yes, my letter must have strayed - - -
Perhaps attempting to reach you on your travels?
but indeed I wrote
Juliet and the cello!
she was rather smaller than a viola when last seen - - - - But music! I told you, I told you, all the daughters were beautiful And tomlin’s son is
too bad about the anthology But Montgomery’s right: the word is Louis’
((did you see that set of interviews: Rakosi, Rezi, me[,] Louis in Contemporary Literature (U of Wisconsin?) Hardly could have, I imagine. Will send you a copy By slow mail But it’ll be on its way
I had (most brashly) arranged myself a reading tour here - - - some twelve readings And woke up one night in the absolute certainty that I could not do it Sent wires cancelling Mess, mess, you can imagine the mess But everyone startlingly kind
but cannot, cannot, perhaps particularly with the expansion of voice in Numerous, I cannot make a chautauqua of it, cannot put myself so thoroughly INTO it, so irreversibly into it, like a Ginsberg. Can’t Or it wouldn’t be good for me.
May have sort of wrecked myself, but if Mary doesn’t mind (she most vigorously does not), well
Like washing locomotives. And this is Friday
all regards all regards I await the book with impatience
that set of interviews: with L. S. Dembo, in Contemporary Literature 10, no. 2 (Spring 1969).
washing locomotives: A job Tomlinson once had.
November 3, 1969
Dear George and Mary
THAT, said Brenda, is the thing to do with reading tours — cancel ’em. Good Lord, yes, when one looks at what Ginsberg has done since Kaddish, there’s a cautionary tale. What wet and windy stuff it is. Good going, mon cher frère poétique.
Juliet ain’t so much bigger than a viola now. Extraordinarily lively. Imagination chiefly excremental. She’s managed to deform the witches in Macbeth to:
‘Where do you get your character from?’ Justine exasperatedly asked her only today. ‘God,’ she replied. She wrote an essay the other day called ‘I am a Seagull,’ concluding ‘And so I flew back to my house under the cliff and I am still there if I have not died.’ So much for the omniscient narrator!
I shall greatly look forward to the U of Wis interviews — Many thanks. I am editing a book of essays on W.C.W. for Penguin Books. You haven’t given birth to a magnum opus thereon, George, have you?
We’ve just been letting off our fireworks for Nov. 5th — it’s Nov 3rd, but the kids are on holiday for half-term, and if they let ’em off Nov 5th they won’t be fit for school the day after. With a high wind a-blowing, we didn’t dare light our bonfire, so old Guy Fawkes still sits in a bathtub awaiting his [word erased].
Book out Nov 27. Will send as soon as I get it. Re reading tours, you may be amused by A Dream therein which begins ‘Yevtushenko, Voznezensky and I / were playing to a full house.’
Love from us all
book of essays: William Carlos Williams: A Critical Anthology (Penguin, 1972).
Book out Nov 27: The Way of a World.
2811 Polk Street
10 November 1969
‘- - - where DO you get your character - -’ I feel for Justine: I imagine Juliet as extremely Upper Class in a dreamy sort of way - - - - Who could cope with it? what sister, above all - -
and I had forgotten to write you of the review of Rezi’s Family Chronicle in the TLS, exhibited to me by ND. More CT, I thought, than typical of the TLS The TLS, to the best of my knowledge, not having achieved heretofore a sensitivity which enters the world of the poet - - - - -
O do thank Brenda for her support in Time of the Breaking of Contracts I need support But I was very near the loss of poetry, I think - - - - Lost to one’s personal pride, one’s theatrical system - - - - The world ill lost for love of self.
Saved! I think And I would ask nothing better than to be greeted by the Tomlinsons; as I crawl up on the beach spitting or gurgling salt-water.
and god help us all. My God, what a path we walk!
(it’s been admitted to me maybe grudgingly - - that Joao Cabral cancelled on the same day with a similar letter - - - - The good or even fairly good who don’t die young possess a skill of self-defense It seems
Problems other than these, Charles: I had foreseen the three books, and looked forward to a Collected, which would be, I was sure, a single book - - a coherent book – - I did ’em … Becoming, at the end, impatient? I think you felt so Certainly I loosened or dramatized the verse for Numerous I am not myself dissatisfied with that decision - - it is in the title itself, it cannot be done otherwise without distortion Or so I believe
But the next step! I have to get beyond, and - - - - Perhaps I’ve begun. In a way. Numerous got further than I had known it would: the first step has been to recover from being overwhelmed by my own book to fall out of love with it
and perhaps I’ve managed that in all this affair.
But the rest not clear to me. I have a considerable group of new poems, but they go pretty much over the same ground I would not make a book of them - -
so I am perhaps quite deeply unsuited for fame Obviously, should get a new book out. Whereas on the contrary I mean to take a very long time - - - quite a number of years
showing again that one never decides anything. It is always decided FOR one - - - tho by ‘his’-self Seems to be how it is
I don’t believe it could be said that I have relinquished concern for the thing we are talking about, in favor of the concern for what I say about it I would consider that, too, a loss of poetry. I don’t think it can be charged with such an act. Simply, the thing we talked about in Numerous cannot be reached in quite the same way as one can reach ‘the materials’ alone - - - Or so I think
But I know you had some reservations about the book
not sure we’re not dealing AGAIN with my non-nativeness: I have no authorization for my character - - Can Juliet be right? the demonic, of course, has not occurred to her as a source
- - or she was firmly denying it
More CT, I thought, than typical of the TLS: Oppen had read the anonymous review of Charles Reznikoff’s Family Chronicle in The Times Literary Supplement, July 31, 1969, and correctly surmised that it had been written by Tomlinson.
In a vertical side-note related to the paragraph ending ‘Or so I think’: [[this, in a way, useless discussion for my part. there was, is, no way thru for me but thru Numerous]]]
reservations about the book: Tomlinson’s note: “Only about one phrase in the book!”
[Undated: c. 1969]
finally got the ms of the Collected completed -- proof corrected, some author’s revisions (slight) and new poems … the note on the Letter to CT restored, and another conversation with CT: (in a longish poem)
. . . . .
In the stones
To a poetry of statement
At close quarters
A living mind
‘and that one’s own’
what then what spirit
of the bent seas
of the tide
in the moon streak
. . . .
. . . .
ms of the Collected: Collected Poems (Fulcrum Press, 1972).
Prosody // Sings // In the stones: See section 5, “Some San Francisco Poems,” in Seascape: Needle’s Eye, 1972.
February 20, 1970
the place of Eden and ‘the wind
That rings with meaninglessness where it sang its meaning’
Where! Meaning place!
the cruel mercy of solidities, the poetry of a life for anyone with ears. And a mind
… the untwistable, unravellable Chances of Rhyme - - the dizzying definition of circumstance to complete its orderly, incorrigible paradox, the ends of the enduring rhyme ‘are windows opening above that which lay unperceived until the wall of the house was completed at that point, over that sea.’
In that sea - - tho we are not prisoners of the thing seen - - you and I meet again. Full Circle.
Prisoners only of that sea
I’ve inveterately punned - - if it’s a pun - - on Tomlins’ Sons and the beautiful winds saying all the sons were brave I knew what I was saying The book is noble
(The Fulcrum Collected will have a few of the new poems, a start toward a new book, tho I am not sure of them. - - old age, an age of which I ineluctably see the outcome I seem to have no choice in either case. Prisoner of - - - what is it?
But not so far gone in prisoner-ship that I do not ring with your pride And am safe, like you, from ‘terrible leisure.’ I hope to knock again on the door of that stone cottage so nobly, truly nobly defended
with all regards, with very great respect
I am recovering from — they are calling it Grippe this year. I cannot write an adequate letter But the poems ring
and ring. and sing their meaning.
the wind That rings with meaninglessness: “Eden,” in The Way of a World.
the cruel mercy of solidities: “Prometheus,” in The Way of a World.
Chances of Rhyme: “The Chances of Rhyme,” in The Way of a World.
the ends of the enduring rhyme ‘are windows opening …’: “A Process,” in The Way of a World.
not prisoners of the things seen: “the quality of vision is never a prisoner of the thing seen,” “A Process.”
sing their meaning: “where it sang its meaning,” “Eden.”
February 23, 1970
Dear George & Mary,
Your letter was immensely cheering — it arrived five minutes ago — and one does need the love and approval of ‘one’s peers.’ The reviewers have made little of the book, and yet I did and do think I have made a clear mode of speech there — the speech that permits one to eschew sloganising, ‘howling,’ exaggeration, but is firm, self-responsible and — in the full sense — well-mannered. When I see what THEY have to say of one, I am first of all amazed, at the obtuseness of the critics, just impersonally amazed, then the anger flashes through one — the sense of how many years it will take one’s words to be heard, to count in the general babel. Shall I, say twenty years from now, still be receiving this same measured insolence from (yes) slavish minds? A wearying thought! But why should I grumble when I have friends like you! If you see, BASTA! But I have, I confess it, been depressed by the failure to have the measure, the just measure taken, of what one has done. Damn them all. And thank you from the very bottom of my heart.
I do hope that somewhere we shall meet again. You know that there is always a bed for you here (the house is warmer now — properly roofed and better heated!) and you have only to say the word. We wd. love to see you.
How marvellous to hear of the Fulcrum Collected. That will be a great day for all of us.
Did you ever send me that objectivists interview? I’d greatly like to see it.
I find inoculation a la gripe WORKS!
Hugs and kisses
Ch / Br
Fulcrum Collected: Collected Poems (Fulcrum Press, 1972).
March 4, 1970
England, I gather from your letter, has discovered the Beats (twenty years late) and fears that you have not
‘the’ critics are ALWAYS wrong.
But they’ll come to your book. Late, slowly, reluctantly, but they’ll come
Mailing this day the Obj. interviews Thought I had Sure I had, as a matter of fact: in this collapsing nation the mails are becoming dramatically unreliable
((The MAILMEN have discovered the Beats! I don’t deplore or regret it, but it’s inconvenient))
May 1, 1970
Dear G and M,
Many thanks for Comparative Literature. It is heartening to have ‘a man speaking to men’ — heartening (and I ain’t boasting) to think I heard you clear that very day seven years ago when I picked out The Materials unprompted — it is the very clarity of the voice I am getting at, not my critical whatever. And it is there once more in the interview … When you speak of using ‘the line-ending simply as the ending of a line, a kind of syncopation etc,’ do you feel this is a fault in WCW?
I moaned about those reviews of my book. Then Oxford sent me a whole packet of them: not ONE intelligent voice — not one — the hostile stupidity incredible! Then a week later, I picked up that odd little magazine Adam (published by the U. of Rochester) and it contained one of the most perspicacious notices I’ve ever received. What a relief it is to be heard. But what odd holes and corners one has to blossom in!
Thanks once more. Many thanks indeed.
All our love to you
Charles / Brenda
P.S. How is Linda these days? Think! — I’ve never met her
Comparative Literature: Contemporary Literature 10, no. 2 (Spring 1969).