Clarity and sincerity

Disillusionment in George Oppen’s postwar poetic

We have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood. — William James

When we consider George Oppen’s post-1958, post-silence poetry through the prism of his politics, it is crucial that we consider his continued belief in Marxism as a political solution. Oppen’s interest in and later disavowal of Maoism as an experiment in large-scale Marxism inspired his 1960s poetry to interrogate the needs of the people and the sincerity of leftist political movements in addressing those needs in any significant way. That a poem can interrogate political beliefs in such a way is in concert with Oppen’s then-newfound conviction that it is possible for the poet to reconcile artistic and political concerns, much as he was attempting to accomplish in his own poetry at that time.

This belief in the political efficacy of poetry reverses Oppen’s prewar, presilence view of poetry as entirely separate from politics. In 1935, during the time of the Great Depression, George Oppen, then at the start of an impressive poetic career and in a brief yet frenetic burst of creative energy spurred by the Communist Party’s successes in organizing the unemployed, joined the Workers Alliance, a Communist front organization. Accompanied by his wife, Mary, Oppen quickly moved up the ranks of the party echelons, overseeing a milk strike in upstate New York (gaining the attention of congressman Hamilton Fish III) and later becoming reelections manager in Brooklyn. Due to the intensity of party life, and because the party demanded that artists use their talents in service of the Communist cause, Oppen decided to stop writing poetry rather than have his poetry used as a means of political expression. To do so would be a betrayal of artistic freedom, a compromise the then-twenty-one-year-old refused to make. Because of the magnitude of the economic crisis, Oppen stopped writing to devote himself to political activism, organizing the unemployed and homeless and later fighting in combat during the Second World War. Yet these seismic events ended decades before Oppen started writing again, and though this silence initially suggests a lack of commitment to his art, at the same time it indicates a political commitment significant enough to outweigh all other concerns.

Following the war, Oppen continued to be an active member of the Communist Party, despite disillusionment with the party following the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact and other minor disappointments, most of them having to do with party bureaucracy and the ever-shifting party line. Furthermore, Oppen’s decision to begin writing again in the late 1950s, after nearly a decade of self-imposed exile in Mexico awaiting the end of the McCarthyist persecutions of political leftists, implies a disavowal of the efficacy of political action and a newfound faith in the restorative and regenerative value of art. Oppen links this prolonged silence to his ongoing commitment to the Communist Party, even after the disappointments and defections of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and McCarthyist eras. While a party member, he kept private his artistic background, divulging his literary identity to a select few. Following the war, he chose to devote himself to his role as husband and father. The almost decade-long political exile in Mexico seems to have further stalled his return to writing.

Later, he would claim that he never entirely abandoned poetry, that there were more immediate concerns requiring his attention, and that he simply did not have time to write. Yet these explanations are unsatisfactory. For example, at the time he began writing again, the Cold War was heating up, resulting in numerous proxy confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union and the terrifying prospect of a nuclear exchange between these two political superpowers. Though he could have channeled his energies into political action once again, Oppen, who in the 1930s readily admitted to the limited practical value of poetry, decided in 1958 that he would rather devote his energies to poetry. He did so with such urgency that he would go on to produce three major poetry collections within the next ten years: The Materials (1962), This in Which (1965), and Of Being Numerous (1968). These volumes established him as a significant poet while simultaneously legitimizing his prewar poetic output.

Oppen is correct in claiming in his 1964 poem “Pro Nobis”[1] that his years of silence were in fact an apprenticeship, by definition to “serve another for a prescribed period with a view to learning an art of trade” or simply years of “inexperience” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). He stopped writing poetry, he explains, to continue his search in the concrete, as opposed to political, world, and his writing poetry again became necessary only when he and Mary admitted to themselves their political failure.[2]

As Michael Heller observes: “Political disillusionment, the close-up experience of injury and near-death in World War II, the cultural and political wars of the 1950s and 1960s, all contribute to an aura of isolation and fear permeating the work.”[3] Because of their complexity, these poems, Heller continues, “lead deeper into ambiguity” and intricacy: “Every act of precision and clarification seems to generate uncertainty.” As these poems are concerned foremost with Oppen’s disillusionment with the party, the trauma of war, and the political turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s, Heller is of the opinion that viewing Oppen’s postwar oeuvre as simply a “return” is incorrect. To do so, Heller observes, is to “[fail] to take into account not only the disillusionment with the Communist Party that Oppen finally experienced” but also Oppen’s “reversal of belief in art’s efficacy.” Oppen, Heller observes, “came anew to poetry, and in a greatly changed state of mind. Poetry held other possibilities he had not seen before, those of truth and clarity, possibilities that were in opposition to the political efficacy he had demanded of himself and which would have been demanded of him by the Party.”[4] Unlike poetry, party politics has no use for abstraction; Oppen was left emotionally shattered by the pragmatisms of party life, which values political expediency to truth. Heller’s most crucial observation here is that as a result of his political disillusionment, Oppen came back to poetry a fundamentally changed man. As a result, the poetry he wrote following his period of silence would by necessity be altered considerably.

Because Oppen clung so tenaciously to the dictates of Marxism even after the horrifying political realities of the Soviet Union became apparent, the often frustrating and exhausting attempt to reconcile political idealism with reality helped him view poetry as an unrestricted space wherein one is able to confront and test the various crises of the postwar world. Disappointed with Marxist-Leninism and opposed to Stalinism, in the 1960s Oppen, as with numerous other ex-Stalinists and as evidenced in his Selected Letters, became deeply interested in Maoism as a potential replacement for Soviet communism: a fresh, large-scale, real-world opportunity to apply and to test Marxist beliefs.

According to his Letters, Oppen was a dedicated reader of Chinese Literature Today during the 1960s and was familiar with Mao Tse-Tung’s Little Red Book (“I once read thru 10 years worth of … Chinese Lit today”).[5] Prior to the 1969 Playboy publication of an article featuring several Tse-Tung poems translated by Nieh Hua-Ling and Paul Engle, the magazine sent Oppen a proof, inviting him to comment on the article.[6] Congratulating the magazine’s editors and the translators, Oppen writes that the poems and their commentary indicate that the utilization of poetry for political purposes is acceptable only if the political systems are willing to interrogate the needs of its people and its sincerity in addressing those needs in any significant way: “IF the reader is sufficiently patient … the piece as a whole … gives some inkling of the way in which poetry (that is to say, depth of meaning) may be involved in a politics which is radical enough to … raise the questions of our purposes, of our desires.” [7] This statement agrees with his newfound conviction that it is possible for the poet to reconcile artistic and political concerns, much as he was attempting to accomplish in his own poetry at that time.

In his letters, Oppen writes of his respect for Mao[8] and at first Maoism looked like it might fulfill Oppen’s view of Marxism as a tool for interrogating the purposes of society — the reasons for social existence, the role it plays in individuals’ lives, how it should function in service of human needs. Moreover, while Oppen thinks Maoism, like any radical political ideology, derives from a desire to achieve change for the better, he reluctantly concludes that, as Stalinism before it, Maoism has resorted to deception, secrecy, and terror in order to control and maintain power over its people.[9]

Oppen’s view of Maoism changes over the next few years; by 1972, he professes in letters that he no longer thinks it possible for the Chinese Party to be straightforward about its policies.[10] Spurred by the continued failures of Communism in action, he notes in his papers that what he finds most appalling about Communism is not its Platonic outlaw of poetry, or its openly rigid and strict form of governance (Oppen thinks a case could be made for this inflexibility), but rather its dishonest portrayal of itself as exhibiting liberal qualities of tolerance and open-mindedness: “As one might agree to forget for Platonic reasons — that the perfect state does not need poetry, and in fact will not permit it. It is not that which is terrible about the Communists, it is in fact not the open stringencies — which can be defended — but the liberal pretenses.”[11] This, for Oppen, is an indefensible deception. Oppen uses as an example of this duplicity Mao’s saying “let a thousand flowers bloom” (a misquotation of “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend”).[12] The Chinese intelligentsia used this slogan for six weeks in the summer of 1957, when they briefly allowed writers the freedom to criticize Mao’s political system, an invitation interpreted by some as a deliberate attempt to remove dissidents. Whatever Mao’s intent, his words, in Oppen’s view, are despotism disguised as democracy, a situation that, according to Oppen, leads to complete tyranny, as the citizenry cannot participate in a dishonest government. It is deceptiveness, and not oppression, which ruins the potential for democracy, Oppen argues. Had Mao ruthlessly condemned anyone who disagreed with his policies, at least he would do so openly, and this honesty preserves the potential for democracy. And yet, Russia and China, he contends, are societies whose institutions are based on duplicity; they are repressive, autocratic states in which the people are unable to participate in their governance. During the twentieth century, governments managed to surpass in size and scale their original purpose: to serve their people. The citizenry increasingly entered into a servitude to the state. Stalin, for example, considered the Russian people the raw materials of history. This, for Oppen, is the very definition of a crisis.[13]

As a result, Oppen in the late 1950s is no longer certain political parties are interested in addressing core social concerns of improving equality and fundamental human rights, even posing the question what exactly social organizations can do for people beyond providing them with food or shelter.[14] Despite this, he continues to base his ideas on political and social reform on Marxism. Marxism was, as Oppen explains, a foundation for the formulation of his and Mary’s political beliefs.[15] Unlike other economic and historical theories, it explained history to their satisfaction.[16]

From the evidence, his post-1958 Marxism is broadly socialistic. To Oppen, capitalism’s involvement in the government is decorous and based on speculation, while effective Socialist governments to some extent rely on the active participation of their citizenry.[17] Socialism, then, is for Oppen a more direct (and, by extrapolation, more honest) form of political interaction, and one that better addresses the needs of society. He observes in a 1958 letter to his daughter Linda that it is arguable that most of the population’s basic beliefs are socialist in nature. Liberals, he argues, even when they are unsuccessful, are acutely concerned with humanity’s intentions.[18] The very real advantage of socialism, as opposed to Marxism, he explains, is that while Marxism may be a more accurate description of economic reality, socialists do not censor their artists, execute their enemies, or develop needlessly complex teleologies in order to justify or explain their actions.[19]

Oppen may have at one time believed in Marx’s vision of a socialist utopia, a utopia that, ostensibly, had as little need for poetry as it did for Communism. Yet this vision foundered. Admonished by this failure, Oppen again concluded that whatever its philosophical or political validity, Marxism as a closed system is without vision and therefore without a future.[20] Without a vision to guide it, Marxism remains an ineffective method from which to proceed poetically toward the clarity of truth. The lamentable reality of Communist proposals, indeed of all Marxist proposals, Oppen concludes, is that it requires the capitulation of autonomy, be it political or artistic. This is especially problematic for the more creative members of a Marxist society: the writers, artists, scientists, and philosophers.

In the late 1960s, the need for vision was increasingly apparent. This was an era of massive political upheaval, including increasing hostility between whites and African Americans in the American South culminating in the Civil Rights movement. It was a time of violence and instability: political assassinations, social unrest, and the developing crisis in Vietnam, a crisis so monumental that Oppen would argue in a 1965 letter to Stephen Schneider that what was required was nothing less than revolution, namely a march on the Capitol in Washington, DC, and the president’s arrest. Until then, any talk of ethics or morality, Oppen declares, would be meaningless. Because he could not condone revolution (quite different from the rallying cry of the proletariat), he refuses to discuss ethics, deciding that there must be some other basis upon which humanity might reestablish its core values.[21] For Oppen, if the revolutionary’s proposal is to “sacrifice … at least a generation” in order to establish a government founded on socialist principals (a proposal he finds astonishing but imaginable), then at the very least the revolutionary should be honest about his or her objective. So far, he cautions, all leftist governments have been dishonest.[22] As a result, political claims to morality are suspect. The only hope for progress is an honest appraisal of where humanity is heading.

A passage from his personal papers best summarizes his disillusionment with leftist politics in general and Marxism in particular. There, Oppen laments that, though most industrialized societies have managed to provide the majority of its populace with the necessities of life, they have not attempted to unite all of humanity, knowing that this unification will result in the betterment of humanity. Our only hope, writes Oppen, is companionship, and such companionship is not possible among those who have not admitted anything.[23]

To Oppen, the political idealism of the far left gradually suffocated under the weight of its own dishonesties, rationalizations, and absurdities. Communism would never unify humanity because of its dependence on deception, on manufactured truth. Even democratic politics often lacks a clear vision for the future beyond platitudes and rhetoric designed to win votes. With this political reality in mind, Oppen’s decision to turn his attention to the poetry — imaginative, receptive, and emotional — is certainly understandable. By the late 1950s politics, which had driven him into self-imposed exile in Mexico, exhausted him. Poetry energized. Politics was in many ways a prison from which poetry could free him.

During the Depression, he explains, he confronted homelessness and unemployment. At the time, he was mostly ignorant of the larger political and economic forces that led to this financial disaster. This new reality made it necessary for him to explore these forces, because, for Oppen, the poet’s task is to perceive the world as accurately as possible and to transform this perception into poetic expression. Discussing the aesthetic implications of his prolonged creative silence, he describes his party experience as an investigation in poetry undertaken simultaneously with an act of principle. Because this exploration also led him to political activism it was, he insists, a moral choice.[24] His description of his poetic silence as an investigation is exact in the sense that during this silence he accumulated material for later work — a life lived from which to write — but only in hindsight. The political commitments became an almost seamless extension of their poetic life.[25]

The postsilence Oppen would always maintain that, despite this silence, he always remained a poet.[26] The 1965 poem “Eros,” which recounts a 1963 visit the Oppens made to Père Lachaise Cemetery, is a good example of the seamlessness between his life and art. While visiting the cemetery, the Oppens saw graves of French communards. In the poem, he writes of the communards’ almost religious devotion toward future generations, a devotion captured in the Paris streets, a city that provided Oppen’s generation of artists with their artistic education, suggesting that one’s political and artistic convictions both derive from the same concern for the future:

In the cemetery of Père Lachaise, and the grave
Of Largo Caballero and the monuments to the Resistance

A devoutness

Toward the future
Recorded in this city
Which taught my generation

Art [27]

Gradually, hindsight might have led Oppen to reinterpret his silence,[28] helping him come to terms with its length and, at times, its seeming finality. In describing his silence as an ongoing exploration, he may be interpreting his work from the vantage point of his postwar period of creativity, no longer perceiving his silence within actual, lived experience, where he most definitely was not a poet (except perhaps in the most general sense of the word). By then, there were other, more immediate concerns, like raising a family. Oppen’s political commitments removed him from a larger intellectual and artistic milieu in which he may have written new poetry had he not allowed his political commitments, in Heller’s words, to “impose itself as a totality” and “make him mute.”[29] Heller’s reference to muteness implies that art in some ways transcends politics or, at least, specific political affiliations or arguments. Poetry, regardless of the poet’s romanticism or imagination, is the product of the poet’s life, and not her or his politics (though the politics may be a part of that life). For Oppen, the poem’s aesthetic autonomy should be absolute; he simply could not fathom utilizing poetry for political ends while managing to retain a poem’s autonomy. This does not mean, however, that his poetry is without political substance, only that in his poetry he successfully resists the urge to resort to a naïve political morality. He understood that politics, like poetry or parenthood, is simply one facet of a range of human experience and that while a political interpretation of aesthetics is unavoidable, the artist should not accept limitations, political or otherwise.

In effect, Oppen’s turn to poetry during the late 1950s is itself a kind of apostasy. If in 1935 poetry was an ineffective method to address the larger political emergencies of his generation, of fascism and economic depression, then in 1958 poetry, not politics, became the appropriate medium with which to address the metaphysical crisis now facing not just the present but every generation, past and future. It is the poet’s task, Oppen said, to address those things in which future generations would be interested.[30] As a result, a poem must be, like the communard’s actions, concerned with future generations.[31] It was time to put aside ideological restrictions in favor of a plain, unmediated confrontation with the actual, clarified and tested through the medium of poetry.

According to Richard Pells, midcentury artists like Oppen could no longer accept the possibility of rationally structuring society through revolution and instead began concentrating on the difficulties inherent in “artistic expression and personal morality,” which they believed to be the foremost concerns of the “radical intellectual in a totalitarian age.”[32] After the Second World War ended, Pells observes, questions about the preservation of individual freedoms in a modern, technological society largely went unanswered. Pells insists that the failures of Oppen’s generation resulted from “political and psychic wounds of the decade’s final years” when the ideals of the radicalized 1930s were dashed against the realities of world war, totalitarianism and the “menace” of an increasingly bureaucratic and centralized government and military, which rendered citizens powerless. These wounds, asserts Pells, “paralyzed an entire generation of intellectuals.” [33]

This same dilemma troubled Oppen. Could he write poetry that addresses these realities without succumbing to a politically motivated (and perhaps internalized) rigidity? What was of greater value? Practical political action as he pursued in the 1930s, or poetry that could possibly help clarify the crisis in which they found themselves, or perhaps point a way out?

Responding to a letter from Carl Rakosi asking Oppen whether or not he could or would give up art in order to save a human life, Oppen writes that he cannot even begin to consider such a choice, as he never thinks about things in that way.[34] Yet in an earlier draft reply letter to Rakosi, he includes a lengthier response to Rakosi’s question. In it, he attempts to explain his decision to begin writing again even in the face of imminent disaster, telling Rakosi that in moments of great turmoil, everything one knows or has experienced of art returns to them and transforms them.[35]During the Second World War, Oppen, a thirty-four-year-old volunteer soldier, came under attack by German tanks. With shells falling all around him, Oppen, taking cover in a crater left by an exploded shell, thought of poems by Charles Reznikoff and Thomas Wyatt, and not of the political speeches of Earl Browder. Poetry is something more, and it means something more than the mundane and the commonplace. A poem is a kind of confrontation on an intimate level. It refuses to turn away. Therefore, a poem is not only evidence of a poet’s desire for survival (and, by extension, the desire for survival of all humanity, of which the poet is representative); it is also an artifact of courage. The poet’s debt is to those who come after him, the audience whom his words address. This burden is also a poet’s greatest asset, as the overwhelming responsibility of clarity and sincerity in both image and expression rest squarely on his shoulders. Poetry requires penetrative truth, artfully rendered, and the revelation of some crucial emotion that would otherwise remain hidden or unexpressed.



[1] George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), 157. “Pro Nobis” translates to “For Us.” The phrase “Ora Pro Nobis” is the response to invocations of the saints during the Litany of the Saints. Oppen secularizes the statement by removing “Ora.” The number he refers to might mean the number of people the Oppens helped organize during the 1930s, the actuality being the realization of a Marxist-Leninist utopia of workers. This secularization, then, can be interpreted as his insistence that these actions were done “for us” to achieve an earthly utopia rather than a request to “pray for us” seeking salvation in the afterlife.

[2] For more on this point, see Peter Nicholls, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (London: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[3] Michael Heller, Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen (Cambridge: Salt, 2008), 5.

[4] Ibid, 5–6.

[5] Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 303.

[6] DuPlessis does not describe the circumstances surrounding Playboy’s having solicited reviews from Oppen — not once, but twice (see Oppen, Selected Letters, 238–39 and 408).

[7] Ibid., 239.

[8] Ibid., 192.

[9] Michael Cuddihy discussed Maoism with the Oppens during a 1973 visit. According to Cuddihy, the Oppens were “intrigued by the Chinese experiment of housing and feeding a billion people, but [made] it clear that they wouldn’t want to live there” (Michael Cuddihy, Try Ironwood: An Editor Remembers [Boston, MA: Rowan Tree Press, 1990], 47). Oppen “expressed admiration for Mao and the leaders of Communist China and their willingness to discourage, even destroy for a time, much of what we know as the fine arts and other components of a high culture in order to concentrate single-mindedly on this overriding task. But, they would always add, I wouldn’t want to live there” (69–70).

[10] Oppen, Selected Letters, 246.

[11] Oppen, Selected Papers, Daybooks, and Prose, ed. Stephen Cope (San Diego, CA: University of California Press, 2008), 171.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Oppen, Selected Letters, 119.

[14] George Oppen, “The Philosophy of the Astonished: Selections from the Working Papers,” ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Sulfur 27 (Fall 1990): 206.

[15] Burton Hatlen and Tom Mandel, “Poetry and Politics: A Conversation with George and Mary Oppen,” in George Oppen: Man and Poet, ed. Hatlen (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1981), 28.

[16] Nicholls, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism, 18.

[17] Oppen, Selected Letters, 16.

[18] Ibid., 164.

[19] Oppen, Selected Papers, 64. To Michael Cuddihy, the publisher of Ironwood, with whom Oppen established an acquaintance a decade later, Oppen only begrudgingly came to admit that capitalism, despite its many flaws, “did a better job of creating and distributing wealth than anything else yet devised.” Yet, Cuddihy adds, “I had the distinct sense that this conclusion brought him no pleasure.” During a 1973 visit, Cuddihy brought with him a copy of The Weekly People, “the organ of the Socialist Labor Party … Mary … gently chided me and on their next visit, she brought along a copy of The Economist and … Business Week” (Cuddihy, Try Ironwood: An Editor Remembers, 69).

[20] George Oppen, “Meaning Is to Be Here: A Selection from the Daybooks of George Oppen,” ed. Cynthia Anderson, Conjunctions 10 (1988): 192.

[21] Oppen, Selected Letters, 387.

[22] Ibid., 304.

[23] Oppen, Selected Papers, 61.

[24] Hatlen and Mandel, “Poetry and Politics,” 24–25.

[25] Oppen, “Meaning Is to Be Here,” 189.

[26] Oppen, Selected Letters, 25.

[27] Oppen, New Collected Poems, 120–21.

[28] It is doubtful that he willfully misled others as to the nature of this silence.

[29] Michael Heller, “Oppen and Stevens: Reflections on the Lyrical and the Philosophical,” Sagetrieb 12, no. 3 (Winter 1993): 15.

[30] Oppen, Selected Letters, 84.

[31] Ibid., 22.

[32] Richard Pells, Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years (New York: Harper Collins, 1973), 335.

[33] Ibid., 368.

[34] Oppen, Selected Letters, 246.

[35] Ibid., 409.