Articles - November 2012

On 'The Poetics of Indeterminacy'

In the early 1980s I was asked to review Marjorie Perloff’s The Poetics of Indeterminacy (Princeton, 1981) for Parnassus: Poetry in Review. I had not yet met Perloff, though I knew her Frank O’Hara book and had seen her in action as the only female panelist at an intensely intimate NEH sponsored conference at the Folger Library in Washington, DC. It was 1979 and my memory of the event, “After the Flood: Directions in Contemporary Poetry,” is one of jousting egos and strategic accord among the other five: Harold Bloom, Donald Davie, John Hollander, Richard Howard, and Stanley Plumly. A contentious affair, it was surprising to later read an account that called it a scene of critical unanimity. Perhaps that would have been more or less true had Marjorie Perloff not been there. She, in fact, took on the old boys — present and spectral — in her insistence that there was more of interest in the varied field of contemporary poetry than they were considering, or that was apparent in “mainstream” poetry venues. She lambasted, with detailed descriptive analysis, the empty predictability of the workshop-honed, weakly Symbolist poem — arguing for the importance of the kind of complexity and indeterminacy she would foreground and defend in her landmark volume two years later. The old boys (impossible to see the smugness, irascibility, and condescension they variously exhibited any other way) were hard on her — at times, scornful. Perloff, who happened to be on the right side of a history she would increasingly help to illuminate, did not back off in the least. Amusingly, she and Bloom did agree on the importance of the fresh, contentious work of John Ashbery, but for quite different reasons.

The Poetics of Indeterminacy
was a clarifying, critically revolutionary, model-changing intervention into tired prejudices and oversimplifications (one being the image of “mainstream” itself) that fueled disputes like the one at the Folger. The assumption of a single set of criteria identifying a single canonical trajectory was and still is, for anyone who reads this book, convincingly dispensed with. In its place is not only a richly complicated genealogy but an argument for still emerging values and principles of composition that would radically transform the sense of what a poem could be over the next four decades. From Perloff’s preface:

What we loosely call “Modernism” in Anglo-American poetry is really made up of two separate though often interwoven strands: the Symbolist mode that Lowell inherited from Eliot and Baudelaire and, beyond them, from the great Romantic poets, and the “anti-Symbolist” mode of indeterminacy or “undecidability,” of literalness and free play, whose first real exemplar was the Rimbaud of the Illuminations. While some of the ideas that went into this study were crystallizing, I accepted an assignment to write a book on the poetry of Frank O’Hara. This particular project, completed in 1977, reenforced my conviction that we cannot really come to terms with the major poetic experiments occurring in our own time without some understanding of what we might call “the French connection” — the line that goes from Rimbaud to Stein, Pound, and Williams by way of Cubist, Dada, and early Surrealist art, a line that also includes the great French/English verbal compositions of Beckett. It is this “other tradition” (I take the phrase from the title of a poem by John Ashbery) in twentieth-century poetry that is the subject of my book.[1]

The book proceeds to give lively accounts of the anti- and non-Symbolist poetics of all of the above as well as, in the final chapter, John Cage and David Antin, even providing a refreshing view of The Waste Land — while contrasting its Symbolist preoccupations with Ashbery’s “Lacustrine” indeterminacy — as too complexly composed to merit reductive one-to-one parsing of references and images. This observation, early in the book, importantly signals the absence of any bid for a new orthodoxy. The rising understanding of indeterminacy (including its everyday significance in our lives: see complexity/chaos theory) could be taken as just replacement for the oppressive Symbolist hegemony that refused to grant its significance, but Perloff — with all her fervor for the new — began as a Yeats scholar. She’s not out to vanquish tradition but to show its multiplicity. In The Poetics of Indeterminacy Perloff'’s animated scholarly erudition and love of the literature she has championed takes her far beyond polemics. Her 1986 The Futurist Moment is another historically brilliant case in point.

Perloff’s many titles subsequent to the still essential Poetics of Indeterminacy represent a widening investigation of its central claims, most recently attending to other emerging poetics. What I’ve found in my decades of teaching since first reading this book is that the conviction that there is an entity called “poem” with a discrete essence one should be able to discern and evaluate according to universal aesthetic principles continues to be widespread. Most students enter college with it. What’s needed is thoughtfully inventive pedagogy. With that, The Poetics of Indeterminacy remains the best introduction I know to the roots of Euro-Anglo (and vice versa) Modernism, Postmodernism, and the yet unclassified happening before our eyes in only partial visibility. 


[1] Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), vii.

Sound bytes and computer blips

Marjorie Perloff's electronic world

Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media pivots on a seven-word manifesto: “The poet’s arena,” Perloff declares, “is the electronic world.”[1] A key move in a long career, what backs this claim? What leads forward from it? How does it fare in the thoroughly mediated, digitized, networked, and programmable world we currently inhabit?

Although by no means an obvious pair even now, two decades ago poetry and the electronic world were as odd a combination as Lautréamont’s sewing machine and umbrella. In 1991, poetry retained an aura of sanctity sufficient to prompt US poet laureate Joseph Brodsky to propose that a poetry anthology be placed beside the Bible and phonebook in every hotel room in the country.[2] In the same year, in what seems a far-off galaxy of greenscreen prompt lines, the University of Minnesota introduced the Gopher browser plugin that allowed users to send, search, and retrieve documents over a pre-World-Wide-Web Internet. Scholars — even new media scholars like Friedrich Kittler, whose Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (Stanford University Press) appeared in English in 1991 — had barely begun to link the worlds of poetry and electronics. No one had yet declared that one was the arena of the other.

Although the components and circuits that populate Radical Artifice — among them, dial-up modems, CompuServe information services, the control-G button, and a newly-identified disorder called “computer anxiety” — now seem as retro as big yellow phonebooks, Perloff’s point has not only held but grown increasingly pressing as its emphasis has turned from mediated “sound bytes” (xiii) to the digital logics of writing in an age of information.[3]

Most manifestoes start with a slap and end with an endorsement. In 1991, Perloff’s slap was for the speech-based, image-driven, late-Romantic lyric that maintains an “authentic self” for postindustrial consumer culture. The poetized “sound bytes” of this expressivist enterprise hawk, Perloff continues, are the very same TV talk show, electronic billboard, “real life,” “natural language” confessions and pontifications it pretends to scorn.

This boisterous polemic is not, for Perloff, a skirmish but a protracted battle in which she has consistently backed, with exegetical brilliance, the complex and varied forces of “radical artifice.” Poetry as making, as praxis — the work of urban, technological, multilinguistic Futurists, Concretists, Oulipeans, and Language writers — contests the slackness of mediated enterprises. Its arena is a site of combat; its tenor, resistance; its lineage, a century of artificers at work both on and off the page.

Blinking steadily in the background of Radical Artifice, however, was a second, more productive sector of the electronic world: the “computer blips” that signal the digital substructure of contemporary global culture, economics, and politics, and, as Perloff argues in Unoriginal Genius (University of Chicago, 2010), instigate its most compelling poetics. Although computers are central to both books, Radical Artifice focuses on the graphic interface of the screen while Unoriginal Genius descends toward the operating system’s algorithmic imagination and database logic.[4] “The revolution that … occurred [soon after 1990],” Unoriginal Genius begins, “was not in writing for the computer screen but in [learning to navigate] an environment of hyperinformation” (xi).

Midway between Radical Artifice and Unoriginal Genius, Perloff’s brief but astute review of Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2002) emphasizes his principles of digital cognition: numerical coding, modularity, automation, variability, and cultural transcoding.[5] These ideas propel Perloff not, as one might expect, toward contemporary new media poetics or even media theory but rather toward the buoyantly differential poetics of the post-desktop, information-rich, networked, multimedial, and polylinguistic world of ubiquitous computing.[6] Cutting and pasting, appropriating, sampling, framing, and recycling, this poetics of procedure and citation drives the work of such writers as Christian Bök, Craig Dworkin, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Vanessa Place. Linear thinking dies hard, but the strength of Perloff’s engagement with the meaning-making procedures of these successors to Cage, Duchamp, and Warhol is its turn toward the arts and techniques of non-linear thinking in an age of information.



[1]Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), xiii.

[2] Joseph Brodsky, “An Immodest Proposal,” The New Republic, November 11, 1991, 31–36.

[3] To determine your score on 1989’s Computer Anxiety Scale, click here.

[4] “Perhaps,” Perloff speculates in Radical Artifice, “it would be more useful to work the other way around and to consider, more closely than we usually do, what really happens … at the computer terminal” (15).

[5] Originally published in Common Knowledge 9, no. 1 (2003): 157–58. Perloff’s review is available here.

[6] For an example of Perloff’s attention to new media poems such as Brian Kim Stefans’s Dreamlife of Letters, see Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss, “Screening the Page/Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text,” in New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, ed. Morris and Swiss (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2006), 143–64.

On the unoriginal genius of Marjorie Perloff

Marjorie Perloff in the Lotus Garden at Huanghzhou University, Wuhan, September 2011.

Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest […] I […] design to render [“The Raven”] manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition — that it proceeded step by step to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem. — E. A. Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”

As the University of Chicago Press approached its publication date for Unoriginal Genius, it asked me to write a promotional comment for the book’s back cover. Thrilling prospect! To write in the same spirit that the author had writ about the unoriginal spirits and writs she had written about. 

And I would have to write under the constraint of that most tedious and inconsequent of textual forms: the book blurb. I burned with the hard gemlike flame of the moth for that star of unoriginal genius. Mixed allusions, like mixed metaphors and unoriginal ideas, are often what one wants: what oft was thought but not exactly so expressed.

The task: to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Marjorie Perloff. And “in 150 words.” (And with yet another rule, as it seemed to me — the understanding that her case in this case would be what Swinburne said was his case: “knowing as you do the date and sequence of my published books you know every event of my life” that matters).

Here is what I sent to the press: 

When The Poetics of Indeterminacy(1981) appeared, our view of twentieth-century poetry was reconceived and reborn. Since then Perloff established herself as the pre-eminent scholar and critic of the Modern/Postmodern epoch, whose continuities she was the first to grasp. Of her work one wants to say, recalling Marianne Moore, it is a privilege to see so much profusion. Another wonderment, Unoriginal Genius circumnavigates the poetic world of the past 75 years, touching at strategic ports of call and eager to mix with many languages, cultures, and aesthetic media. The book starts in the theatre of Benjamin’s Second Empire and finishes with a study of the Edgar Poe des nos jours, Kenny Goldsmith — aptly finishes, since Perloff’s underlying story, though she never says this and though nearly everyone has forgotten it, began — as Baudelaire knew — with Poe, the first of our great poetic theatricians. — Jerome McGann, University of Virginia

That would be 150 words to the letter (check it out in your laptop editor). I think the press never noticed.

As strictly obedient and truthful as I had been, however — after all, I was raised Roman Catholic — my blurb was rejected. Perhaps even despised and rejected. 

But perhaps too, as Christina Rossetti once wrote, there is “A Better Resurrection.” My blurb of brackish truth is back from the dead, like Poe’s Ligeia — “gia la sera sorella” of Augusto de Campos’s Lygia, the dressed-down Beatrician type that is one of the subjects of Perloff’s loving attentions. The organizing center of interest is imaginative writing’s most pervasive discourse form of the past one hundred years — the Array, which Perloff tracks in its many transformations from Benjamin’s Arcades through various types of Concretism, Conceptual, and Procedural Writing, including the translational poetries of Caroline Bergvall and Yoko Tawada.[1] The book pivots on extended readings of two fundamental works of two great American masters of the past forty years: Charles Bernstein’s Shadowtime and Susan Howe’s Midnight.

Unoriginal Genius works itself up, with a mischievous calculation equal to all Perloff’s loved unoriginals, to a tour do force reading of Kenny Goldsmith’s notoriously tour de force and “unreadable” works — in particular to an extended and (for this native New Yorker) knowing reading of Traffic. One hundred fifty pages (is that a magic number?) underpin her final dazzling display of aesthetic wit and critical taste. Nobody does it better, this sort of thing, and few have ever done it so well.

Arrived finally at her consummate conceptualist, Perloff asks (as impishly as Poe or Goldsmith — she knows the answer already): “We are given the ostensible rules of the game, but what is the game?” (151) How do you read the unreadable Traffic, how do you play its game? From that point it is show and tell for fifteen (!) pages. The game, we learn to see, is a game of “surprises” and “provocations”: “messy, unbearable, infuriating, debilitating, but also challenging, invigorating, unpredictable” (156). Johanna Drucker has called it the game of delightenment, “This new poetry,” Goldsmith remarks (channeling Poe):

… no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry. (162)

Clearly this is a game anybody can play. As Frank O’Hara, one of Perloff’s early angels, thought: you have to go on your nerve. Or write deliberately. 

“Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!” Let’s follow a Shelley Rule.

Peace, peace! They are not dead, they do not sleep,
    They have awaken'd from a dream of verse;
’Tis we, who lost in modern visions, keep
    With phantoms an unprofitably perverse
    Poetics that’s just making matters worse.
Invulnerable nothings, they decay
    Like figures in a carpet. If old beliefs
Consume and eat out our prosodic clay, 
cool hopes swarm like worms around us day by day.

That would be — I think of Stevens — the worms at our poetical heaven’s gates; the “wormy circumstance” of Keats’s Isabella; Poe’s “Conqueror Worm” (the signifier, of course, not the signified).

So there’s the game, played according to rule, and even — if you think about it — with what Poe called an “under-current, however indefinite, of meaning” for Perloff’s unoriginal geniuses. But in this game there must be nothing “ideal,” since “it is the rendering […] the upper instead of the under current of the theme which turns into prose […] the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists” (“The Philosophy of Composition”).

But then we are left with an important — an ethical and a political — question: Why play such games? Why write them, why rewrite them? (Emerson, we want to remember — eminent Transcendentalist — called Poe “the jingle man”). The great (original?) unoriginals — Poe, Carroll, Lautréamont, Swinburne — might usefully be consulted.


[1] See my “Some Forms of Critical Discourse,” Critical Inquiry 2 (March 1985): 399–417.

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’shaving 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.