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 1966–67.
March 20, 1966
Dear George and Mary,
Elizabeth Kray tells me you have kindly offered a loan of 500 dollars to facilitate our transatlantic flight. Never was so much good news heard by so few for so much or whatever. Would it be rude to ask for this most useful advance now that the time is here to pay for tickets ?!? Many thanks. If we cross in the mails, just forget this!
We are due to arrive in N. York International Airport, at 2.30 on the afternoon of April 11th, then (oh dear!) off next day to Utica. When I say ‘we’ I mean just Brenda and me. It’s good that we’ve been able to lodge the children chez their grandmother.
We greatly look forward to seeing you both and an air of elation now adds a certain glory to the advancing spring with its primroses and violets.
Forgive brevity — a busy time with term pressing to its end.
Love and anticipation
Elizabeth Kray: Executive director of the Academy of American Poets.
July 28, 1966
Your book, as so frequently happens to us, much delayed in forwarding. Worth waiting for. An increasing consistency - or is it that the growing body of work builds, as you called it once, a landscape? But I see more clearly a deliberate effort to rebuild a demolished land.
The man afoot: the American sketches, it occurs to me now, sharpen the fact. You were so amused by the results of being whirled about in American cars.
I think the sound deepens in the new book. I think more and more of the poem to J T as the enunciation of your themes, of your sense of honor - - . We thank you for the book. There is so little poetry - - if you’ll excuse my loose style once more - - there is so little poetry which actually matters at all.
Our regards and thanks
your book: Seeing Is Believing (McDowell, Obolensky, 1958; Oxford University Press, 1960).
the new book: American Scenes.
August 8, 1966
Dear George and Mary,
It was good to get your note and to know Seeing is Believing had arrived. One does want a few people to see and believe one’s things.
I am working on that anthology — have typed quantities of Oppen, but still have to get done Narrative and 5 Poems on Poetry. Could you let me have a short biographical note — place of birth, place of any bits you think relevant. I hesitate to ask Louis his (year of birth), since I fear he’s going to prove awkward and intend to work through his English publishers on rights. Can you tell me where he was born? Also Reznikoff, please? Many thanks. Was Stevens in An Objectivists Anthology or is my mind misrembering? Was Eliot? I ought to have photostatted the title page but thought my memory wd. carry the load.
I re-read your prose piece, ‘The Mind’s Own Place’ in Kulchur 10. I must say it’s extraordinarily well done with some most memorable formulations. The truth does seem to get told. Eventually.
What a lovely time that was in New York! Thanks for it once more.
All our love,
that anthology: Seven Significant American Poets, with poems by Louis Zukofsky, Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi, and James Laughlin. It was never to be published, because Zukofsky refused to appear in it.
August 16, 1966
Venerable as one sees me now, he would little believe that I began life as a simple infant in New Rochelle, NY, in nineteen-O-eight. The story may well give hope and courage to younger men.
Zuk was born, also in youthful circumstances, in New York City (Manhattan) in 1904 Rezi also NY - - in 1894, I think, but I am not sure of the precise year. Old times, old times, there were men in those days, but we were not. We were infants.
Eliot’s Marina in Objectivist, O my daughter. No Stevens, alas my son.
I am horrified and covered with guilt to think of you typing other men’s poetry.
- - if there remains time, I can write to N D (I have no books here) to ask them to send you two copies of each paperback - - clipped, it would surely make a good enough ms?
Let me know
I’m particularly pleased you like - - ‘accept’ - - the Mind’s Own Place. Many people very huffy at the time. Not, they said, a matter of position - - I believe they thought it ‘crude’
We’ve both written often by implication of courage, and I suspect we both know quite a lot about it. Not, of course, thru being fearless. And therefore, as always, best regards,
October 20, 1966
Dear Charles and Brenda
Your postcard-picture, or your comment about it, threw me into a strange state I’ve encountered often, and been unable to speak of at all clearly. Your remark that people walked is a thing I’d forgotten, or not sufficiently recognized as a factor in the meaning of those places. We encounter these things now as areas where some work is being done, where one goes for a specific purpose. They were once an environment. Maybe nothing’s an environment now.
Merry Christmas to you anyway - - Winter solstice, actually, isn’t it? - - Well, anyway, a merry astronomical Christmas to you.
(Our language is our country. On the whole a great country. Fails to become astronomical, but resists smog)
George + M.
October 22, 1966
Wonderful to have the Necklace, Charles. The early poems by themselves: the clear core, ‘morning / extinguishes everything save light.’ The beginning - - all the more moving now that one knows where it has led, where it has led so far. I had not before seen this poem clearly, and its four stages of man. Tho it is clear; but I hadn’t altogether seen.
The Bead - - the single bead itself? the single bead of the necklace? Taking on here additional clarity, and there emerges more clearly the choice involved: the solitude, candor and self-sufficiency, necessary to find clarity. Surely the force of all words comes from their silence
‘The flute speaks (reason’s song …)’
an ethic, an aesthetic, and without bothering the philosophic systems and the Critique I will say, with the poem, reason itself.
It’s a greater joy than I can say to have this collection among your work.
All our regards to all the Tomlinsons - - we think of you often. Ozleworth; of all unlikely names! to mark an absolute for us, a position at least.
I regret that I’ve stolen only a barometer from you, Charles: there’s a lot worth stealing.
the clear core, ‘morning extinguished …’: “At the clear core, morning / Extinguishes everything save light,” from “The Bead,” in The Necklace (Oxford University Press, 1966).
‘The flute speaks (reason’s song …)’: “Flute Music,” in The Necklace.
stolen only a barometer: see Tomlinson’s poems “The Barometer” and “Wind” (American Scenes) together with section 12 of Oppen’s “Route” (Of Being Numerous): “The weight of air / Measured by the barometer in the parlor / Time remains what it was // Oddly, oddly insistent.”
October 22, 1966
Dear George and Mary,
It was good to get your letter. I am ashamed not to have written before, but the summer has been rather chaotic — I had a kidney operation (minor) in June; a month later Brenda found she was pregnant and had a lousy beginning; a month after that we all caught flu; Brenda went on to a serious haemorrhage and ultimately a miscarriage and was dashed to hospital. She’s recovering but tires easily and the emotional strain was intense and searching. It will be a month or two before she gets properly well.
The problem of our American trip is as follows: we want to park the kids and come together, but the granny isn’t altogether well. If we can’t put them in storage I shall have to scrape around to bring ’em. If we do bring ’em, I imagine Brenda wd. have to stay in N. York while I fared north. We shd. fly in on April 9th; 11th I go upstate, leaving on Sunday evening. Fulfill upstate circuit through April 22, return to New York, leave 29th. I hope we can park the kids here in England if only to give me the protection of B’s presence on the upstate tour. Your sister’s offer is terribly kind and, from the point of view of getting to places sounds very nice, but we don’t want to miss seeing you both all we can and if the kids come along, despite their rigorous 18th century drilling, they might not fit into an 18th c setting, and anyhow there might not be desire for or room for the little beasts. The very real attraction of 79th St is that with only a week to go at things, one is on the very threshold, so to speak.
So where are we now? What do YOU think best in the light of all this and the fact we like a quiet life??
We greatly look forward to the trip. It is a beacon ahead in the sea of another year’s teaching. I must say, after spending the better part of sixteen years in one kind of teaching job or another, I begin to yearn for a year out — no sabbaticals here tho’. I am tired of advising people.
We do hope you are both keeping in the best of health. Give us your advice about N. York, wd. you? The fact is, I can picture us all very cosy là bas chez vous deux.
Ch. & Br.
February 1, 1967
C + B + J2
I don’t know what’s happened to the mathematics of friendship, or the geography: we seem to have become a repeating decimal or a Cordillera -- - We’re leaving (not for Nassau: never again) but for San Francisco on November 1st! Be there till about April.
We’ve told Linda and Alex (daughter, you’ll remember, and son-in-law) to use the apartment whenever they wish - - they being in Princeton, and having occasional use for an overnight room in N Y. At least presumably. Have to check with them to make sure they haven’t planned to use the place over Christmas vacation. If they haven’t - - and it’s unlikely that they have - - we’ll mail you the keys
in which case you could leave the books in the apartment. Otherwise mail to S F (careful careful, the Rezi is not replacable) ((I know, you know that - - just me nerves))
We’re more sorry than I can say to miss seeing you, including the J2 - - - - Maybe sometime soon.
((( Jonathan Cape says it is about to print me - - - but haven’t yet sent a contract. We’ll see)))
February 18, 1967
Dear George and Mary,
We were delighted to receive the copy of the new volume. It is surprising that so ascetic a beginning as Discrete Series could lead to so public and four-square a statement as these poems, arising from their strong private centres, tentative where they must be (as in the Whitman quote) but standing there so, so stripped and solid in the light of public day. A most moving and heartening document. A measure of what integrity can achieve. I was very struck by the way, in the Alsace piece, that the prose, George, recalled the prose of Rezi’s early Testimony, so terrifyingly and accurately on the mark without false pathos — no ‘dreams on the structure’ there . Last week I did a lecture on the Oppen opera, with no dreams on the structure as leit motiv. And no falsely prophetic gestures. I have been reading Duncan’s Of the War — there are impressive bits, but when he becomes conscious of making a public statement he gets slack and Ginsbergy (I mean Ginsberg of the simpler repetitive structures), then turns on a Blakeian howl (as in B’s France and America) about Johnson being like Hitler and Stalin, and Goldwater (Goldwater!) Satanic. These strike me as being factually and emotionally inaccurate. One doesn’t improve matters by exaggeration. Goldwater belongs in The Dunciad not Paradise Lost. I do dislike this emotional slackness of people anarchistically inclined like Duncan. End of sermon … Or not quite. You do the thing properly with ‘An event as ordinary /As a President.’ The word ‘ordinary’ gets precisely what apocalyptic yowling misses. Hurrah. Oppen for King!
When the MS arrived I’d sent off the anthol, so whether at this point I can work any more into it remains to be seen. I’m fairly pleased with it, tho’ it is difficult, indeed impossible to specify what goes wrong with Zuk in such a book. If I can get Horses section from ‘A’ into general circulation — that’ll be something anyhow.
You know, we do regret that you don’t live just round the corner so that we could walk over of an evening …
May I hang on to this MS? Let me know if you want it back. You have done, George, what we all WANT to do. You have kept it up.
Ch, Br, etc.
copy of the new volume: the manuscript of Of Being Numerous (New Directions, 1968).
the Alsace piece: in “Route,” in Of Being Numerous.
‘dreams on the structure’: quotation from “Chartres,” in The Materials: “the lesser // Are dreams on the structure.”
Goldwater: Barry Goldwater, 1964 presidential candidate.
574 Chestnut St
(till Sunday June 1st or thereabouts)
[undated but probably February 28, 1967]
on the despairs and fulminations of the anti-war poems, your ‘belong in the Dunciad not Paradise Lost’ is wonderful. Indeed I wish you (youse: plural) ‘lived just round the corner so we could walk over of an evening.’
I realized the ms of the new book would hardly arrive in time to influence your editing - - It was intended largely as an epistle. I’d very much like you to keep it. I think my primary connection and the address of the poem is to those who know something of how to weather; in your phrase, ‘to keep it up.’ And I would like to know that you have the ms.
regards to all of you
April 14, 1967
Dear George and Mary,
It looks as if we are going to be just around the corner after all — or almost!
I have been offered the O’ Connor Chair in Eng Lit at Colgate Uni., Hamilton, N.Y. — September to December. So we shall all be coming over. Thus we undo our profits!
Hamilton’s very nice — elegant and white in a Fenimore Cooper setting (about 20 miles from Cooperstown in fact). I guess we shall move over about September 1st.
Haven’t landed a publisher for that anthol yet. Curiously enough it’s Laughlin, Niedecker and Bronk they don’t seem to get. What fools these mortals be. Ah well, one of these days.
See yiz soon, my dears.
Ch. and Br.
April 28, 1967
Dear C, B, J and J Tomlinson (in their prospect of stone, facing now the prospect of snow) But yes, we know Hamilton, it is indeed very lovely, very beautiful, once you become accustomed to wearing enough clothes, which means mittens, boots, the works -- - Truly, it is beautiful. I had heard that Colgate was doing something about literature, tho I forget who spoke to us about it - - - and there’ll be a very fine Oppen-Tomlinson reunion in N Y. It’ll improve N Y and be the making of Hamilton
ask for anything we can do to assist the cavalcade
(Hope Juliet hasn’t quite up and gone crackers. But our love in any case
change of address: 2154 Mason, San Francisco. N Y, of course, long before September.
August 2, 1967
Dear George and Mary,
Time goes so swiftly — I suddenly realised that in a month we shall be in New York! Would it be possible or convenient to pass a few nights with you — that is, all four of us!?
We arrive September 1st and should probably be in Hamilton by September 5th. Perhaps air would be the best way there? Could I trouble you to find out for me whether there would be a family plan N. York to Syracus (or Utica) and what the price of air fare wd. be on Tuesday September 5th? Many thanks.
It is very exciting to think we shall be seeing you so soon. Did I tell you we got to Spoleto this year? Fare paid! All very pleasant — Spoleto a lovely little town.
All our love,
Charles, Brenda, J2
[Undated: c. August 1967]
Dear Tomlin and Tomlinswife and Tomlinsdaughters
(you have by now my wire: I have your letter. They crossed. I was distrustful of the mails)
-- - torn indeed between Colgate and the under-edge. I can see that. To J T in a prospect of - - - what? The cottage in Glos is very beautiful And the US might absorb 18 thousand a year - - - - tho not really. It would be a very satisfactory income. Well: you’ll decide.
it would be very pleasant to have you here --
Wotton on edge or the coal gate?
but I don’t know what you felt about Colgate. I do wish we’d been in N Y. We could have talked and felt again, I think, at home together
Little Deer Isle
[Undated: c. late August 1967]
Dear Charles - - - Brenda and the J’s of Sade - -
Diane Wakoski was - - briefly - - about to use our apartment when we left. We had told her you should be arriving about the 1st of Sept, and no doubt she’s out by now. We’ll write her to make sure,
Diane was in considerable distress. By no means in condition for thoughtful domesticity. And broke. She may never have moved in - - she hasn’t written - - In which case the place will be covered with dust and the windows grimy, etc. If she did move in - - - - anything may be the case.
we have only four sheets: they may all be unwashed. Or the dishes. or You decide if you want to risk it: you are, as you know, more than welcome. Keys enclosed.
Mary writing to our travel-agent lady who will send you the information and the tickets. She’ll charge them (an americanism: I mean to say, she’ll give credit)
And again welcome.
((Mail the keys back if you decide against))
the J’s of Sade: Justine and Juliette are two novels by the Marquis de Sade.
2811 Polk St
(You Ninety States)
[Undated: c. Fall 1967]
Dear Charles +
Herewith the keys Sorry for the delay. Been moving in. I do wish you + could visit here - - San Francisco surely is the most beautiful city Which is not to say we don’t feel strange - - we feel pretty odd ducks. So, I think, does everyone here, and no doubt all of us are right. That is to say, we are. But the city is beautiful. Clear, clean, sharp, and the bay below the city - - Strange, jagged San Francisco in clear air And us in a 1910 house; back porch, front living room - - - - what we wanted. I figure: it’ll be me, and the house should be a house.
Nice to dream of you-all visiting. I suppose it’s impossible - - - Well, nice to think of you packing in to the Brooklyn nest
(Haight-ashbury - - the Hippie area - - looks like Dunkirk, the beach at Dunkirk - - shreds and tatters of uniforms, begging from the civilians, a defeated army. We outlast them, you an me. These kids deceived themselves: it’s easy to
‘love’ everyone if you don’t love anyone)
Welcome to Brooklyn
[Speak to the neighbors downstairs Walter and Rita Southworth. Nice people. They worry about robbers when they hear strangers upstairs. And
they’d like to talk to a Hinglish family - - I promised them. Use a little strong language, maybe.
all our love