From the beginning of my writing, I have been concerned with (floored by) the fact of a word, or a letter, as a thing, a physical, elemental, thing — and the act of contemplating such a thing. In the late ’60s, I noticed the poems of Aram Saroyan — one word, say, “crickets” — printed repeatedly in a single column, in Courier type, down the page. My first works were less poems or writing per se about something than memorials to the fact of words, that they appear and seem to signify. Three poets who have been over many decades important to me have developed this material aspect of writing considerably: Philip Whalen in his doodle poems, Robert Grenier in his poem scrawls, and Hank Lazer with his shape poems.
Whalen studied traditional calligraphy with Lloyd Reynolds at Reed College. Accomplished with specially nibbed fountain pens, and written in traditional alphabet styles, such calligraphy is an art form itself, originating in the Middle Ages, for hand-copying sacred texts. Whalen used the pens and the alphabet styles, but was never serious about fully developing his hand — though he did spend many hours, over years, in repetitive practice. An inveterate doodler, he couldn’t help himself from fooling around with pen and ink and paper. Many of his printed poems are doodles of the sort someone might make when talking on the phone or waiting in a doctor’s office, full of curlicues, little drawings, various sizes and styles of lettering. Most of this is lost in the printing, although almost all his books make an attempt to indicate the feeling of the actual notebook page with use of capitals, various sizes and styles of type, etc. Several of his books reproduce pages in facsimile, and there are many such pages in his Collected Poems. Whalen’s original notebooks are available for viewing at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and Brain Unger is doing a scholarly edition of some of the notebooks.
From 'The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen,' edited by Michael Rothenberg, 2007.
Robert Grenier has long been exploring the minimalist poem. Since the 1970s, he’s been straying, wandering, or maybe zig-zagging away from the notion of a poem printed on a page secured in a book. He’s made giant poetry posters with clusters of tiny poems printed here and there on them (one I have is tiny white typed words on black paper), and his famous “Sentences” is an elegant box of cards with little poems of a few words, or even one word, or part of a word on each card (“Sentences” is now also available online). In the late 1980s, he began to make what look like poem scrawls. Consisting generally of actual words (though they are often hard to make out), the works — which are shown in galleries — are quite beautiful. They are made with various colored fine-point pens (green, blue, red, black), not, as with Whalen, with calligraphy equipment in decorative alphabets. Precise thin lines bend, spread, and crisscross on large-format paper, building up a dense forest of lines in pleasing, if seemingly casual, though gorgeous, array, that only eventually resolves into words when you look at them for a while. Sample texts:
I saw it
where is it
(or it might read I saw/ where/it/ is it)
Deliberate, lovely, if simple or even simple-minded phrases, unlike Whalen’s offhand unintentional words (“B, a beard. … B. is just because … Don’t mention the Arizona Biltmore …”)
Image courtesy of Bob Grenier.
Hank Lazer’s shape poems are, again, something completely different. The words are handwritten in notebooks, one poem to a page, in series. The notebook is the aesthetic unit here, as, perhaps, with Whalen, though Whalen’s notebooks are what he referred to as “goofing,” while Lazer’s are quite deliberately in series. (Grenier’s scrawls are complete standalone poems). The handwriting of Lazer’s shape poems is not particularly elegant, as in Whalen, nor does it emphasize, as in Grenier, the emotional and visual primacy of letter and word. Using ordinary ballpoint pen (note that in later notebooks Lazer too uses a fine point instrument), Lazer’s hand isn’t particularly distinguished one way or the other. Just words written in an ordinary way, the writing somewhat chunky, not flowing. Their distinction comes in the shapes they trace on the page — spirals, squares, circles, various complex irregular forms. The twenty or so notebooks I am aware of begin with fairly ordinary stanzaic shapes on the page and evolve as they go into these more elaborate shapes, each page unique. Whereas Whalen’s word-content is rather haphazard and free-associational, and Grenier’s is precise, imagistic, or emphasizing grammar and syntax, Lazer’s words are discursive and poetic. In the course of the twenty notebooks he is reading through Heidegger’s Being and Time, and, later, several works by Emmanuel Levinas, and the words in the poems play off and dart in and out of citations from these works. The tone is philosophical and ruminative, a record, from inside language, of a person’s thinking, about words, in words, in and about time, space, life, death — not thinking’s products but thinking itself as process. The poems are improvisational and immediate — the form allows for no revision. In fact improvisation — its delightful freedom, playfulness, even joy — is characteristic of all three of these poets’ visual work.
Image courtesy of Hank Lazer.
What is interesting and sustaining for me about the possibility of writing is that one could live in the intimate midst of words as such — as thinking in a shape, feeling, and form — as being in the world that’s illuminated through human mind and language, simply dwelling there with all the wonder and serenity that that dwelling brings. This seems to me to be the case with any writing that I find truly worthwhile, and the more you appreciate this the clearer it is that its pleasures come fullest at the level of the word in hand and eye and mind — as you find in these works.
William Carlos Williams's 1942 reading for the NCTE
The earliest known recording of William Carlos Williams reading his work was created on January 9, 1942, as part of a collaboration with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and Columbia University Press. The recording is currently available at PennSound, the largest collection of poetry recordings on the web, which is based at the University of Pennsylvania and directed by Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein. Beyond a limited amount of metadata, not much is known about the context of this recording. What was the NCTE’s intent for making the recording — preservation, access, or something else? Who was its intended audience? What kind of recording device was used to make it? Where, exactly, did the recording take place? Who recorded Williams reading?
With the guidance of Al Filreis, I recently learned more about the recording’s provenance by obtaining some of Williams’s correspondence with Columbia and the NCTE from Yale’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library. We learned that the NCTE recording of Williams is part of its Contemporary Poetry Series collection of recordings and was intended for pedagogical use. These recordings were meant to be distributed to “students, and other lovers of literature,” so that listeners would have the opportunity to glean additional meaning by hearing the authors of the poems perform them. The pedagogical significance of the Contemporary Poetry Series is that it marks one of the earliest cases of the use of technology and poetics pedagogy: the concept that a phonotext provides unique insight into a poem. The Contemporary Poetry Series anticipates the pedagogical project of PennSound.
On April 19, 1940, William Cabell Greet, a lexicologist and professor of English at Columbia’s Barnard College, wrote to Williams to invite the poet to lunch with him and two of his colleagues, Dr. George Hibbitt and Dr. Henry Wells. The letter suggests that they have lunch at the Columbia Faculty Club and, at some point that day, record Williams reading his poetry.We don’t have further correspondence on the topic, but we do know that the recording actually took place about a year and nine months later, on January 9, 1942.
Ten months after the recording was made, on November 14, 1942, Williams was sent a letter by W. Wilbur Hatfield, the then-secretary-treasurer of the National Council of Teachers of English. Hatfield thanks Williams for taking the time to make the recording and reveals some of the intent when he declares, “We are glad to have been instrumental in the preservation of the reading, and we think schools will be glad to have them now.” It seems that the NCTE’s intention for the recording was twofold: preservation and access. The NCTE wanted the recordings preserved for posterity — but a primary intent was also to distribute them for pedagogical purposes and to allow access to the recordings, the same ethos the PennSound project is built upon.
Hatfield then moves on to the main purpose of this letter, which is to inform Williams that distribution of the record, and thus his royalty payments, will be delayed due to a change in distributor. Here we learn that the NCTE will distribute the record through Walter C. (Cleveland) Garwick of Rye, New York. This turns out to be a highly significant fact, as it links the Williams recording to a series of poetry recordings edited by Greet and Hibbitt and produced by Garwick, the Contemporary Poets Series.
W. Cabell Greet and the Contemporary Poets Series
Eleven years before Greet would record Williams, an event occurred that would serve as the inspiration to create the Contemporary Poets Series. In January 1931, Vachel Lindsay approached Greet and asked him to record his work. Lindsay believed that poetry exists as a sounded entity before it is later written down, a belief that seems to be shared by Greet. In fact, one report claims that the earliest addition of a record Lindsay and Greet would make together contained the text, “During his life-time Vachel Lindsay was properly disdainful of printed poetry except as a libretto to be followed while hearing sounded poetry.” Given his views on the precedence of poetry’s sonic properties over its textual manifestation, Lindsay felt a sense of urgency to use the technology of the time to capture and preserve the sound of his poetry in records. Lindsay approached several commercial record labels before coming to Greet and was rebuffed by each. Greet had in his possession an Amplion disc (record) maker, which he used to make recordings of American speech and dialects of the time. The device could cut records from aluminum platters and was not the highest quality, even by standards of the time. Nonetheless, Greet and Lindsay worked together, sponsored by the Columbia University Library and Columbia University Council for Research in the Humanities, to record thirty-eight records, three hours in total, comprising nearly all of Lindsay’s poetry. Lindsay would die less than one year later. These recordings would later be released as part of the Contemporary Poets Series, but the interaction between Greet and Lindsay is the most critical aspect to note. Lindsay’s views on poems as sounded entities influenced the entire ethos of the Contemporary Poets Series: the series came to be characterized by a phonotextual emphasis — that poems are best studied with recordings alongside their respective texts. As such, the series lays the groundwork for the field that would become phonotextuality by considering the interplay between the sonic and textual properties of a poem.
Around 1934, Greet and Hibbitt partnered with the National Council of Teachers of English, an organization devoted to “improving the teaching and learning of English and the language arts at all levels of education,” to establish the Contemporary Poets Series. Greet’s founding of the Contemporary Poets Series made the NCTE a logical partner. Greet framed his announcement of the creation of the series with this sentiment: “The lack of phonograph records of men of letters has been a source of regret to many teachers, students, and other lovers of literature.” The group had national reach and the resources to help Greet distribute the records. Indeed, Greet’s stated intention, paired with Hatfield’s later letter to Williams in which Hatfield looks forward to the distribution of the Williams recordings to schools, demonstrate that the series was founded for pedagogical purposes. It would continue to function as such for at least a decade.
The Contemporary Poets Series was housed at Greet and Hibbitt’s Columbia lab into the 1940s, the first release in the series being a subset of the Vachel Lindsay recordings. Greet published calls for suggestions of poets to include in the series in scholarly journals of the time, including American Speech (a cosponsor of the series), The Quarterly Journal of Speech,and The Elementary English Review, published by NCTE. The series would come to include a wide range of poets, specifically Lindsay, Williams, Gertude Stein, W. H. Auden, Archibald MacLeish, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Robert P. Tristram Coffin, E. E. Cummings, Mark Van Doren, John Peale Bishop, Leonie Adams, Marianne Moore, Stephen Vincent Benet, William Rose Benet, Conrad Aiken, Aldous Huxley, John Gould Fletcher, Alfred Kreymborg, Carl Sandburg, and Allen Tate.
Addressing teachers in his solicitations, Greet asks questions like: “What [do] poems lose most by being printed?” and “What poems would be most useful in emphasizing for students that all poetry, not only the so-called lyric, exists first as song, in aural terms, before it is reduced to print?” The assumption Greet makes here is that the transference of a poem from a kinetic, sounded entity to a textual manifestation is a reductive, privative process. In this he echoes Pound and foreshadows Olson in thinking of poetry written in vers libre as being as musical or more so than lyric.
Walter C. Garwick
The Walter C. Garwick mentioned in Hatfield’s note to Williams is a significant figure of the time: he worked as a producer and audio consultant for many of Greet’s recordings, and also manufactured and sold one of the first portable recording devices, a machine he sold to John A. Lomax for use in creating field recordings. While Greet had originally secured Erpi Picture Consultants Inc., a producer of educational films, to handle the production of the series, he eventually came to work with Garwick as his engineer and, later, his producer/distributor. In the November 1941 agenda of the NCTE Board of Directors meeting, Greet refers to Garwick as the NCTE’s “technical expert” vis-à-vis recording poets. The title here is likely intended to cover the wide range of Garwick’s work on the project, from operating the recording equipment through handling distribution of the records. During the time of the early recordings, Garwick worked for Fairchild, a company that built audio-recording equipment and sold a competitor to the Amplion record maker used by Greet and Hibbitt. He also seems to have served as a recording engineer at Columbia, where he worked with Greet making recordings. This is perhaps where they initially met.
In 1933, in correspondence with the famous American folklorist and ethnographer John A. Lomax, Garwick writes that he is leaving Fairchild and starting a company that would manufacture a record maker that would be the lightest/most portable of its time at under a hundred pounds (the Fairchild model weighed about 300 pounds). The device could cut aluminum and celluloid records and would be battery powered, marking it a significant technological innovation. Some of the other field recording devices of the time required being hitched to a truck to be moved and were powered by removing the wheel of the truck and running a drive belt from the axle to the recorder. In correspondence with Lomax, Garwick works to sell him the device, which the Library of Congress would eventually purchase for Lomax, for about $500, or around $8,500 in today’s dollars, and Garwick notes his affiliation with Greet. Garwick’s mention of his relationship with Greet likely refers to their working together to record Lindsay two years earlier, along with their pursuit of recording American dialects and speech. In fact, Hatfield suggests in his letter to Williams that Garwick was the engineer who recorded Williams. It is unclear what device Greet was using in 1942 when Williams came in to be recorded, but it seems likely that it was the same Amplion used to record Lindsay.
In researching Garwick, I had the pleasure of interviewing his great-granddaughter Christine Whittaker, who helped develop a fuller picture of Garwick than I was able to find anywhere else, both through her familial knowledge of her great-grandfather and from research she conducted on him in the Lomax archive at the Library of Congress. She spoke with pride of Garwick’s breadth of accomplishments, especially given his modest background and eighth-grade education. He went on to work as an audio engineer for Fairchild and as a recording engineer for Columbia, where he created the lightest field-recording device of his day and sold it as part of his own company. He traveled the country (over 30,000 miles, he notes to Lomax in a letter) recording samples of Americana in the field — a pursuit that William Carlos Williams would have lauded, given his interest in the American idiom. While there appears to be no extant model of Garwick’s field-recording device, his family is proud that his legacy lives on through his recordings and preserved correspondence with Lomax at the Library of Congress. Christine was kind enough to provide me with this picture of Walter C. Garwick playing his father’s violin, taken in 1905 (see above; image used courtesy of Christine Whittaker and family).
Garwick’s involvement with the Contemporary Poets Series is significant because he serves to create a relation between early sound recordings as ethnographic research, specifically Lomax’s field recordings and Greet’s recordings of American dialects, and as a lens to better elucidate poetry. By juxtaposing ethnography with poetry, Garwick’s involvement demonstrates poetry as a living, social, corporeal entity, as perpetually representative of the American zeitgeist. Just as Lomax pursued the recording of cowboy songs and African American spirituals because they would be reduced by representation on the printed page alone, so too did Greet apply this ethos to poetry, where he served as a pioneer of phonotextual studies.
Significance of The Contemporary Poets Series
The NCTE’s Contemporary Poets Series marks the first known attempt to create a collection of recorded poetry for pedagogical purposes. In doing so, it represents a kind of proto-PennSound. The underlying belief that teachers and students would change their understanding of poems by hearing them as sounded structures foreshadows a key impetus for Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein’s founding PennSound about seventy years later. In a PennSound podcast about the project’s founding, Al Filreis asserts that pedagogical interests were central to his and Bernstein’s decision to create PennSound. We hear in Filreis’s remarks echoes of W. Cabell Greet, in the early 1930s, explaining the intentions of the Contemporary Poets Series. For example, when Greet solicits recommendations for poets to record as part of the series, he frames the call for ideas with this question: “What poems would be most useful in emphasizing for students that all poetry, not only the so-called lyric, exists first as song, in aural terms, before it is reduced to print?” While the premise that all poetry exists first as song can be debated, the underlying sentiment that sound can help to establish a connection between student and poem is at the heart of the series’ pedagogical ethos. In addition, Greet’s statement sets forth the idea that a poem exists in multiplicity: as a sounded structure in addition to a textual construct. Leaving aside whether the textual representation of a poem is reductive, the intent of illustrating for students that poetry does indeed also exist off the printed page, as an aural, performative entity, is a principle shared between the Contemporary Poets Series and PennSound.
Another similarity between the projects is the creation of two different subseries of poetry: contemporary and historical. Just as PennSound contains a ‘classics’ section, featuring readings of classic poetry (Swift, Pope, Dryden, etc.) by scholars of the works, Greet created a Historical Poets Series alongside the Contemporary Poets Series. At the same time that he issues a call for recommendations for contemporary poets to record, Greet also asks: “What works of and other past poets writers would it be well to have recorded by present-day scholars as a help in studying and teaching literature? Such as, for example, poems of Burns, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.” (The PennSound Classics archive in fact contains readings of both Chaucer and Shakespeare.)
In addition to its pedagogical resonance with PennSound, the Contemporary Poets Series stands as an important moment in the development of ethnographic approaches to the American poetry archive: the series was recorded by an ethnographer whose primary scholarship centered on the American dialect. The twofold use of the machine for recording samples of the American dialect and for recording poets should not be viewed as happenstance. The two projects complement each other and demonstrate that poetry is a living entity, woven into the cultural fabric of a society. Just as language and its changes reflect social relations and temporal shifts, so too does the poetry of the time. Greet’s inclusion of poetry in his recording agenda affirms this fact and reframes how we approach these recordings. Understanding the historical context of their creation and situating their intent between pedagogy and ethnography, both presentational and representational, allows for new close listenings of the Williams recording and others in the series. For example, the Williams recordings framed as ethnography, specifically lexicology, foreground Williams’s belief that the American idiom is the foundation upon which American poetry, and indeed American life, is built. When we hear Williams read “To Elsie” in this context, the poem becomes a negotiation of a new America based on who gets to contribute toward the evolution of the American idiom.
Through its pedagogical intent and phonotextual emphasis, the Contemporary Poets Series prefigures PennSound. But the projects share a greater relation: several of the recordings made by Greet have found their way into PennSound. In addition to the Williams recording, PennSound offers some of the recordings of Vachel Lindsay that inspired the creation of The Contemporary Poets Series; we are also researching whether the Gertrude Stein recordings in PennSound were those of Stein made by Greet, and we are searching for other recordings from the series. Our intent is to create a PennSound page dedicated to the Contemporary Poets Series, which we hope will further contextualize recordings as we bring them together in digital form for the first time.
The correspondence between Williams and the NCTE reveals a hope the series founders had that recordings of Williams and others would lead to preservation and access. The fact that these recordings are making their way to PennSound, which has the technological advantage of being able to accomplish both of these goals on a much larger scale, affirms and extends Greet’s vision. “Teachers and students and lovers of literature” anywhere in the world can now hear Williams and Lindsay reading their work from Greet and Hibbit’s Columbia recording studio and consider the poems as sounded structures, and as a technological bridge between kindred projects.
The author would like to thank everyone who provided insight, counsel, and assistance with this essay, especially Steve Green, Christine Whittaker, Todd Harvey, Mary Ellen Budney, Julia Bloch, and Al Filreis
2. Columbia University to Williams, 19 April 1940, box 4, container 132, William Carlos Williams General Correspondence, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
3. National Council of Teachers of English to Williams, 14 November 1942, box 16, container 495, William Carlos Williams General Correspondence, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
5. This sense of urgency is suggested by Greet’s claims that Lindsay points out a “need for action” (RoP) vis-à-vis beginning to record poets reading their work, and also that Lindsay “insisting upon the importance of his own reading of his poetry, searched in vain for a commercial company to make the records.”
6. John A. Lomax, in a letter to the chief of music for the Library of Congress, notes that Greet uses the Amplion recorder. Lomax is, at the time, getting price quotes for a field recorder of his own. The possible options are the Amplion model and the Fairchild Co. model. Lomax to C. Engel, May 2, 1933, Lomax Correspondence, Library of Congress.
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 1972–81.
January 4, 1972
Dear George and Mary,
It was a great delight to receive and read Seascape: Needle’s Eye. I found something to hold me in every poem and going back to them is a continual surprise: the form meets the mind with an answering fluency, but resistant: one reads them like seascapes: They are made, and yet they have the unpredictability of natural forms. Why is it I keep going back time and again to The Winds of Downhill? It says (sings) all of Oppen in small compass, then keeps on expanding in the mind afterwards with the persistence of a song whose tune has caught one’s inner ear. It is a splendid book. And it makes one see the continuity of the whole venture from Discrete Series on. It is insulting to tell a poet he has improved. The effect of the book was to make me revalue Discrete Series, to see how Seascape would have been impossible without it: I think both early and latest Oppen have a radical unity: I would want all the phases. I thank heaven for the chance that brought that review copy of The Materials into my hands a decade ago.
Under separate cover as they say I am sending my latest, Written on Water — we are rapidly converging.
We lost about the cow parlour. It’s to be 300 cows. I would willingly murder the idiot who — moneyed of course — wants even more of his already unfair share of the hogwash — cattle castle or what.
Love to you both. Whenever shall we meet?
the cow parlour: Despite intense opposition in the Ozleworth area, the proposal to build a huge, concrete cow barn, together with a slurry lagoon, had finally been approved by the local council.
January [ ], 1972
we seem, by chance, to have exchanged books (if mine has reached you) Yours having arrived only this morning, I have ‘leafed thru,’ but seeing Juliet in or rather not in her garden, and the bricks of Henry Street long gone before they went and others - - - not sure my gift is adequate exchange
the color sustained in the woods; mine mostly in the spaces, gaps - - -
we tend to have seen the same things In fact, startlingly!
to thank you for the book, Charles, and to thank all the Tomlinsons
And our love We speak of you often, you are a feature of our reminiscences, our
(we’ve been talking of a trip to England this summer. I think we could manage it)
((there are reasons But largely to talk to you (youse)
Juliet … in her garden: “Juliet’s Garden,” in Written on Water (Oxford University Press, 1972).
the bricks of Henry Street: “Elegy for Henry Street,” in Written on Water.
January 24, 1972
‘I liked the street for its sordid / fiction of a small town order’
has become the picture of Henry Street
for me ‘The image’: is not a picture, is it, remains the words - - - - the size of the words, I was going to say I don’t know if I can say the thing clearly Obviously I haven’t done so here But the words become Henry Street for me
and I remember you and Brenda silhouetted against the (also grimy) harbor
Odd paradises, we find But we find ’em.
A sense of proportion?
Odd strengths. My talent for griminess. Your aristocracy of working-class roots - - an aristocracy of roots The contrary of the finagler From whence the cadences of your poetry. - - - I’ve been wondering, since you write of resistance to your work, whether (as a form of statecraft) you should not undertake a more stately statement, a more full dress statement of your position Of your state, stance of your dignity
Yes, I know it’s stated in the poems. But if ‘the critics’ are implying that it is old stuff ? ? ? ‘the primary elements can only be named’ It is so damned difficult to make these people, ‘the critics,’ recognize the blatant mysteries
this last is Mary’s phrase, talking to me a few days ago - - that old jade, their appetites, are whetted (or is it supposed to be wetted) by eagles with umbrellas in their beaks and such and such and such
Clipped the letter having become a mite too angry thinking of what I’ve been calling ‘the critics’ The thing of course is just to write one’s poetry I did, tho, have almost an imagination, for a moment, of the whole statement - - - Probably a memory of what, in fact, you have written — the man climbing the hill — running down the hill in the snow All of those poems - - - - - Those fine poems.
Hardly a letter. Just typing ‘Offhand?’ off two fingers. But regards, all our regards
((still, it sticks in my mind: the idea of a full-dress statement of the position, your position - - - A rather complex position I remember Brenda’s: ‘The Tories are right, you know Of course one can’t vote for them, they’re such pigs ’
(( I remain temperamentally of the Left yes, ‘temperamentally,’ I suppose, since I recognize dangers, very great dangers But hunger does seem to me a compelling issue And since I take it as clearly true that the consumption of power is reaching or has gone beyond its limit - - since it is clear that the production must be controlled, surely a high degree of egalitarianism is absolutely necessary, humanly necessary - - I respect, as you know, the validity of your emotions and of your life - - the validity of the poetry perhaps I am arguing a review, a deeper (not meaning in the scholarly sense) of the position ‘Conservatism’ if that’s what it must be for you But to explore further the contradictions, the difficulties, the ambiguities, the what? the vision of the future - - the - - - - -
I am writing far too hurriedly Don’t misunderstand this letter
Written in admiration It would be clear in a conversation I’m a poor typist
the picture of Henry Street: “Elegy for Henry Street,” in Written on Water.
primary elements: “those primary elements which can only be named,” section 6 of “Route” in Of Being Numerous.
July 17, 1972
Dear George and Mary,
A neighbour of ours, Bruce Chatwin, says he will be in S. Fr in September. I introduced him to your heroic couplets, George, some time back and he wd. like to meet the master, should be chez vous. Actually he may never arrive. He is writing a book on nomads and, a nomad himself, is just as likely to go to Tierra del Fuego. But he asked wd I write to you, and as I have long had a desire to do so, I willingly take up the pen.
From time to time and from scene to scene, I am often smitten by the thought of how good it would be if George and Mary were here now and in front of this sunset, oaktree, Bath crescent, Bristol backstreet, London fountain plus pigeons etc. Should you (for example) find yourselves in London in September, O.U.P. are showing four years of my graphics (drawings and collages) at their London premises. I have done a lot of this work in recent years and I have solved problems I cd. not master 15 or so ago when (partly because I had to earn my living otherwise), I ground to a halt. The show coincides with a new book, Written on Water (cd. well be an Oppenesque title) — we have discovered the Scottish isles — in fact, shd you write between now and Aug 15th, our address will be: c/o Bowlby /Ullinish / by Fortree /Isle of Skye / Scotland. I think that is a place you would like and also the people there, with their remarkably good talk and their difficult but meaningful lives. Donovan wanted a Pop Festival there, but that idea didn’t weather long. The place scarcely suggests druggy togetherness.
And how are you both? And when shall we six meet again?
Charles Brenda J2
30 September 1972
Dear Chas and all:
the ancient (in US perspectives) name of that part of SF in which we live was Cow Hollow. Our histories seem to be moving in contrary directions - -
But five hundred cows, I’ll say, is a lot of cows I’ll write ’em to say this — a visiting American who had so fine a time under edge.
Yes had received your letter — were prepared for Bruce, and enjoyed the visit
sorry if I neglected to answer your letter I’ve fallen, recently fell, behind on mail and no longer know what I’ve answered and what I haven’t answered - - have messed up my ‘affairs’ quite disastrously as well as falling a bit out of touch with friends
- - difficulty in writing, and the feeling of being close to what I want to do, to say And extreme weariness with literary doings, gossip, absurdities etc. And a great many letters, mags, books - - a deluge of mags, books, schemes, arguments - - - have to refind myself, I’ve done too much talking, maybe, tho less than most. Much less than most
sorry when I inadvertently fail to answer a letter from friends such as the Tomlin’s sons.
with our love
(( The Prospect of Stone, our language is our country - - that’s all part of myself, all of that, tho of course it’s yours
February 1, 1973
Dear George and Mary,
It was good to have your kind words on the book. I have not succeeded in getting across to the English reviewers. Well, they will have to fuck off. C’est ça. I’ve tried for the better part of twenty years. Basta.
We were delighted to hear of your plan to come this way. You are always welcome. My term goes on till June 22. So let us know your dates.
The over-laconicness of all this alone does little to express our real joy at the prospect of seeing you once more — it has been far too long — one really does need immortality to enjoy one’s friendships, to see one’s real friends.
Shall we not rob a bank while you’re over? I feel a lust for freedom. I have laboured long enough for these endlessly devaluating bits of metal, scraps of paper.
Let us hear your cheery words
Ch and Br
your plan to come this way: Oppen took part in the Modern American Poets Conference at the Polytechnic of Central London, May 25–27, 1973.
December 16, 1973
Dear George and Mary,
The BBC have sent me this contract for you — if you sign it and return to the address in Section B, you’ll get your pay. I note they imagine you travel to London from Bristol — hence the # 4.70 return fare!
The country seems in an odd state just now — industry closed down to 3 days a week, the miners’ dispute, the electricity dispute, cuts in light, petrol atrociously dear and hard to come by, the pound wobbling into worthlessness. The trains are also on the go-slow. As the miners, the electrical workers and the railmen strangle the economy together — it’s become a habit during the winter season — we all freeze and fumble in the dark.
Term is over, however, and I can paint once more, and have spent a couple of days in pure pleasure. Brenda is sewing a dress.
A student of mine asked me the other week if he could bring his girl friend (not a member of the university) to one of my tutorial groups. ‘Her favourite poet,’ he hastened to add, ‘is George Oppen.’ I could scarcely say no, could I!
Have a nice Xmas and 74
Love from us all
Ch. Br. J2
your pay: The feefor Oppen’s interview with Tomlinson on BBC Radio 3, May 22, 1973 (broadcast on August 28).
January 19, 1974
Dear George and Mary,
George, I hope you will accept the enclosed. You have been chosen Poet of the Year by the Ozleworth cum Wotton-Under-Edge Poetry Lovers’ Circle. As this honour has never previously been conferred on an American citizen, you will also be the first American to be nominated a member of said circle (all writers are automatically nominated).
The fine girls of whom you speak are now quarrelling with each other. Little bastards.
I am reading Hemingway. I wish his protagonists were less boring. They are just lay figures. In both senses.
They tell me there are fine exhibitions in London, but the trains are in such chaos with the go-slow I don’t s’pose we’ll get down there.
Forgive the used other side of this page — a remnant from my recent editing of a Williams Selected for Penguin. I suggested Oppen to them some time back for their modern poets series, but they are slow to bite and slow to surface having bitten.
Have yourselves a nice ’74! We love those Jap prints you brought us! Very many thanks.
editing of a Williams Selected: William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems (Penguin, 1976).
August 15, 1976
Dear George and Mary,
Just a line to let you know that we shall be in the San Francisco area in October. As a group of visiting poets, coming to celebrate our defeat at your hands. I read at Carleton College, Minnesota, on Thursday 21st Oct; the next reading is Stanford Oct 25th, then Pittsburgh Wednesday 27th. So sometime between the 22nd and the 26th I hope — we hope, that is, as Brenda will be with me — to knock on your door.
It’s a bit foolhardy to splurge our pennies by coming both together, but, what the hell … If we don’t spend ’em, the government will.
I am editing The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation. Quite some undertaking — Chaucer till now, but I have a year off to do it. If you have any favourite translations, note them down for me, would you? They must be significant poems, or significantly interesting, as one Horace I have done by The Young Gentleman of Mr Rule’s Academy, Islington. It’s rather a fine poem, too, come to think of it and quite scuppers the Robt. Fitzgerald version of the same poem.
See yiz soon,
This is going to be the greatest landing since Entebbe.
Love from us both
Charles and Brenda
The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation: published in 1980 by Oxford University Press.
July 19, 1978
Dear George and Mary,
We have been a shamefully long time in writing and thanking you for those lovely photographs of us all, not to mention our stay with you — the best part of those three weeks of wandering. The fact is, ever since we returned, one thing has followed another. First Brenda’s brother fell from a sort of loading platform into machinery at the factory where he works, fractured skull and backbone — then her father died and we have done much to-ing and fro-ing northwards where her mother has started to go blind. In the other direction, Londonwards, Justine is at the Royal Academy and there’s also a great deal of fetching and camping. So finally term has ended and we are beginning to breathe — I fetched her home last week, plus cat, plus belongings. Juliet, next week begins lessons in London, prior to entering the Academy. And so it goes.
Hugh Kenner wrote to me recently to ask if I’d do something for his magazine Paideuma about Zuk. What I’ve done finally, since I find myself getting further away from his poetry, is a sort of memoir of coming to N. York in ’63. There’s as much Oppen as Zuk. So I finally called it ‘Objectivists, a Memoir.’ Will you permit me to quote one or two passages of your memoirs to me, George, beginning with the passage that became To C.T.? I shall use nothing coyly personal — not that you are ever coyly personal! Mostly an attempt to fix a phase and tell the story our way. Perhaps you’d let me know, so you don’t have to sue me.
We often have cause to repent that the Atlantic is so wide and that continent likewise. The photographs of us in the pumpkin fields and under Maybeck’s arches certainly helped shrink the vast extent, as does the memory of those sea-board streets and cinemas with crotch-shots and restaurants with Vietnamese cooking. And you? What likelihood of your travelling this way to view the ramparts of antique Europe?
Last week Justine played in the Academy’s final concert, then some premières of Penderecki works, then we drove home for her to be in the school orchestra with which Juliet was performing a Tartin concerto. Justine is leading a quartet at the academy and has received a small scholarship to take it to a summer school next week. She finds her fellow players lazy and undependable tho’ good players and spends much time bossing them into shape. She aims to form a dependable quartet before she leaves, but 4 egos are difficult to combine, so what price Utopia?!
In the autumn the Arts Council are putting on an exhibition in London, ‘The Graphics and Poetry of C.T’ — due to someone there seeing that PN Review to which you were so kind as to contribute, George. Running out of space.
All our love
Ch. Br. J2
‘Objectivists: A Memoir’: “Objectivists: Zukofsky and Oppen, A Memoir,” Paideuma 7, no. 3 (Winter 1978).
that PN Review: “Charles Tomlinson at 50: A Celebration,” Poetry Nation Review 5, no. 1 (October 1977): 33–50. Oppen’s contribution was: “Our language is our country Charles Tomlinson has said well, for it is he and Basil Bunting who have spoken most vividly to American poets.”
[Undated: probably January 1979]
You, Mary and I all in The New York Times together, as is fitting (and unknown to the Times)
Mary’s Montana and your Cotswolds, lending strength to each other, our various strengths. Of which a great part is friendship ‘(which seems … honorable’)
Our love to all
And I am honored to be in your company
in the New York Times together: A review by Michael Heller of Mary Oppen’s Meaning a Life (Black Sparrow Press, 1978)and Oppen’s Primitive (Black Sparrow Press, 1978)appeared in the same issue of The New York Times Book Review, December 31, 1978, as R. W. Flint’s review of Tomlinson’s Selected Poems 1951–1974 (Oxford University Press, 1978) and The Shaft (Oxford University Press, 1978).
January 17, 1980
Thank you for your poems that tell us gloriously that there is no light but the world --- the light and the lights of the world
January 25, 1981
Reading your Some Americans with great pleasure and a little guilt: we were young, and perhaps did not fully recognize Louis’ brilliance. But need I thank you for the essay: I dream of walking with you over the ground and hills of Gloucester?
any chance of your coming here? We could bed you down.
Love to Brenda and a loving hug for Justine and Juliet. Send them for a visit? We’d show them the town.
With all best wishes, and friendship
Some Americans: Some Americans: A Personal Record (University of California Press, 1981), with chapter 2, “Objectivists: Zukofsky and Oppen,” the same as the 1978 Paideuma essay (letter 72).
February 3, 1981
Dear George and Mary,
It was good to get yours. Doesn’t the photo of George look good on the cover of that book! I had to say no to a previous drawn cover — insipid portraits of the poets chatting in the Elysian fields, as it were. It seemed neither artistic nor tactful!
We shall be in the States for the autumn term when I have been invited over as visiting senior fellow at Princeton. So if we can get west … We’ll be in NY briefly in May. I’m to give the Katherine Garrison Chapin Biddell (is that right?) Memorial Lecture for the Academy of American Poets, then up to Colgate (I am getting old and respectable) they are going to — I was about to say doctor me. I hope it doesn’t come to that.
There’s a big Edward Hopper show in London which I hope to see in a week or two.
The girls thrive, but look as if they’re bound for unemployability.
Love from us both and let us hope we’ll soon meet.
the cover of that book: The photographs on the cover of Some Americans were those of Ezra Pound, Oppen, Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky, Georgia O’Keeffe, and William Carlos Williams.
June 25, 1981
[Written in Mary Oppen’s hand]
I am delighted to hear from you and delighted to remember still ‘We should vote for the Tories except they are surely pigs.’
We understand the decision not to change countries — even though you would have enriched our lives.
Love & xxx to Brenda
Justine and Charles
for now —
The following are the collected letters of poets George Oppen and Charles Tomlinson, as transcribed by Richard Swigg for the feature “Addressing one’s peers: The letters of Charles Tomlinson and George Oppen, 1963–1981.” This section of the correspondence spans the years 1968–70.
December 13, 1968
Dear George and Mary,
How are you both, my dears? It is absurdly wrong (I had meant to write LONG) since I wrote, so that I scarcely know where to gather up the threads. But here we are, committed to the bankrupt isle, petrol at #1 per 3 gallons, the pound visibly melting, the first frosts of winter, Justine conducting the school orchestra, a de Kooning show at the Tate, and our he-cat an inveterate pisser banned the house for his misdeeds.
The last I heard of you, you had met our very old friends the Schultzes. The next I heard of them, they were divorced. We were quite boulversés. What happens to people? Is it Governor Reagan poisoning the atmosphere?
Another old friend, Donald Davie (an admirer of yours, George) has given up the island and gone to teach at Stanford for ever … It WOULD be nice to be paid decently for one’s exertions, as one is not here but is there.
I said No to Hamilton because of Brook Cottage and this valley. I can’t see any other reason except it’s darn godawful cold up there.
That anthology still floats between publishers, now reposing with Stuart Montgomery, tho’ I can’t imagine Zuk wd. consent to appearing in it. I saw Basil Bunting recently who confirms that L. Z. is on the point of being just plain crazy and eaten by envy. Envy! At his age.
Do you still have your Brooklyn flat, or have you said farewell to the fourmillante cité for ever?
Let me wish you both a very happy Xmas and all the best for 1969.
Brenda joins me with love, — write soon! —
Charles / B / J2
December 24, 1968
O Tomlinsons Tomlins great son and daughters how wonderful to hear from you. How long IS it since we wrote? Not knowing where you would be, not knowing, or fearing we could not know
I can’t tell you how absurdly (and officiously) happy I am. If you had left that stone house and those meadows they would have ceased to exist for us, and I would have missed them sorely. I think even of those terrible TV towers: it seems to me I love them, tho surely I hate them, as you do. I don’t seem to know how to say it. Just that the place is yours, perhaps. That you can hate them with so much passion and clarity and with so clear a right As if, once, they weren’t there
We little American boys! We never can forget - - I don’t know why - - the Western wind and the small rain that never could, really, fall on us The Tomlinsons in a prospect of American College ‘living rooms’ would have been the death of something, of an island, a rocky island nation, sunk - - with its beautiful language. Lovely enchanting language, Sugar-cane / Honey of roses, whither art thou fled The wrong words: no honey, no sugar-cane surely, but the right cadence
And as for us: What news? When did we last write We who have been driven out of Brooklyn: the house being torn down. But that’s different. When they tear down your block, you’re more a Brooklynite than ever. No loss of identity: with every brick that falls to rubble we become more American When the country crumbles - - and I think it may - - we’ll be autochthonos at last
And S F is lovely A little difficult for us. I’ve thought always of the East as a home-coming. Maybe a delusory home coming wrapped in the myths of childhood, a homecoming to childhood. But S F is a homecoming to my adolescence. And, sure enough, it gets under my skin a little, my thin, unfamiliar, adolescent skin
But its beauty is a pure joy - -
Of the American doings — we quote Brenda to ourselves: ‘The Tories (read ‘conservatives’) are right you know. Of course one can’t vote for them, they’re such pigs, but they’re right’
the others are right too, we’re getting closer to wherever it is we’re going - - - - a wild, a strange, an impossible
voyage. Ora pro nobis
and our love, our very real love to you. You have a home here by this very blue bay whenever you may want it for as long as you want it
- - and I’ll pray, if I can be said ever to pray, for you. Your
island and your Cotswold is maybe the strangest voyage and the farthest
We break up, disperse, dismember - - - - Can a man be said to voyage with his left arm in his right arm, and his head in a pocket?
I don’t know. I’ve mislaid my left hand somewhere, but we’re off!
O we are, we surely are. But who?
Find out when we get there.
Happy Winter Interstices
Lovely enchanting language …: George Herbert, in “The Forerunners”: “Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane, / Honey of roses, whither wilt thou fly?”
as from Brook Cottage
February 8, 1969
Dear George and Mary,
Many thanks for the letters and the lovely gulls — very sprightly looking fellows they are, too, full of the promise of the west coast. I cannot get used to the idea of your Henry St apt being no more — I so loved the view out across the water, seeing the ferry boats go by lit up at night, seeing the sun go down, Liberty a silhouette, the television antennae like masts before the harbour. It was a real place. The red Hopperish façades in Congress Street. The odd way the lights of Manhattan looked green at evening (was it some trick of the water-light in the dusk?). The sound of ships’ sirens. And the water was so beautiful at that time of the evening when one tended to look out, a milky turquoise that gave place to rich black. Place is only place, says T.S.E. What nonsense. Only, indeed.
I was in London a couple of days ago. Wonderful show at the Royal Academy — a centenary exhibition of R.A. paintings. There is a whole room of Constables hung beside Reynolds — a very telling juxtaposition. And the Constables! One became the Complete Patriot confronted by them, thanking God one was of this people and of this climate. What paintings! So sane, so whole. Something to be said for having stayed on — unlike my old friend Donald Davie (we were at Cambridge together) who has gone to Stanford for ever. He is a great admirer of Oppen by the way — prefers him to Williams.
We are going to Hungary in April — a cultural exchange programme, yours truly Exhibit A in the Poetry Section. I was tempted to say no after their complicity in the Czech affair, but then it struck one that in going to meet other poets, one wasn’t going to meet generals. I’m sure these cultural contacts with the west are far more useful than acres of espionage.
I’ve just finished a new book which O.U.P. will be bringing out next autumn. I want it out NEXT WEEK. I can never believe in ‘next autumn.’ However … it’s called The Way of a World.
We have a slight snowfall today and have been watching a fox, very red, on the white field opposite. They seem to venture much nearer habitations in the snowy weather. They have lovely sinuous sloping movements and the young ones, who have seen no humans, seem to have no fear at all.
Let us know how things are going là-bas, and what grrreat things are a-doing in Amurkan literachoor.
All for now.
Love from us all
Ch / Br / J2
the lovely gulls: Photographs of George and Mary with seagulls, Tiburon, California.
February 23, 1969
We keep your lyric of the Brooklyn attic as its memorial
and will think of you in Hungary when April’s here.
We’ll be proud of England, and I will try again to feel AngloSaxon
I can’t, as a matter of fact, NOT. One’s language is one’s country, as you began by saying - - - - which no armor hit lette, ne no high walls - - - - -
My blood thickens again beyond the thickness of water as Fulcrum engages to print a Collected
in England - - HIF no armor lettes that enterprise
We think of you a great deal, we show people The Prospect of Stone (even people who have very little interest in poetry, or almost none at all, and are often overwhelmed by that poem. Perhaps the concept of honorhas been too long absent from these lands) And we tell them about the lovely English children Who don’t know all the angles but are angels, maybe
and our love
which no armor hit lette, ne no high walls: from Piers Plowman.
The Prospect of Stone: “The Picture of J. T. in a Prospect of Stone,” in A Peopled Landscape.
June 6, 1969
Dear George and Mary,
We were delighted this a.m. to receive simultaneously from James Laughlin + my old friend, Donald Davie, news of the Pultizer award. Congratulations and congratulations once more. I do hope now that, moving in the social stratosphere, among them city slickers, you won’t a-be forgettin’ yr old rural friends. Now thar’s temptations to be withstood and what’ll you do if Hollywood asks for the film rights? Beware the sin whirl of Los Angeles and them far beat LSD circles. We were delighted.
I am taking 5 minutes off from exams to scribble this. Just about at the end of my tether. The constant nibbling away of one’s energies, the committees on committees on committees … Heyho.
You’ll like Donald. I’ve known him for over 20 years and only regret he’s left this island with such a distaste for it. God knows here’s enough to rage against, but where ISN’T there?
Justine has won a music scholarship to a posh school.
Gawd knows when we’ll see Americky once more.
Well done, mon vieux; we have been in a fire of excitement all morning over the news — even the exam papers look less leaden than usual.
all our love
Ch J2 Br
the Pulitzer award: for Of Being Numerous.
October 6, 1969
Dear Charles and Brenda
that stone shepherd’s hut is still somewhere in the middle of my mind - -our minds. Strange thing. Us Anglo-Saxons. Or is it an earlier flock of sheep, the Ur-sheep, wandering in my mind?
It is true I can almost feel my beard growing Anyway they wander, and the hut stands still in the elements
To CT in a prospect of stone: let who will trip on melons.
tho, with a touch of the melon, my Collected will be out pretty soon in England, thru Stuart Montgomery
((( the note about the ‘collaboration[’] restored: I don’t know how or in what piece of endless confusion and queries from ND that came to be omitted
This is just to send you regards
the note about the ‘collaboration’: The note that preceded “To C. T.,” when it was originally published in This in Which, acknowledging the poem’s joint authorship.
October 21, 1969
Dear George and Mary,
We were delighted to get your note. I wonder if you ever got my last one — a congratulation on the Pulitzer? for only silence came after it, so I imagine it went astray perhaps.
It has been a long and lovely autumn here, with the frosts keeping off and the great trees retaining their masses of changing foliage. A marvellous season.
Justine has won a music scholarship to a public school, and Juliet has taken up the cello to rival her sister’s violin! So between music lessons and practices and taking the children to different schools, life is pretty busy for Brenda and myself.
I have a new book due this month and I shall be sending you a copy once I have some. O.U.P. have descended to this habit of using the poet’s photograph for a cover and I dislike it. More personality cult.
We were in Hungary last Easter — I was invited by their Institute of Cultural Affairs — one example of Brit, poet. A sad country, stoically going a middle way and heavily conscious of its geographic fate — Ismenes, not Antigones, they feel the Czechs are (were) rocking the leaky boat. Interesting and dispiriting.
All our American friends seem to be dying or divorcing. And no sooner had the Schulzes divorced than their 17 year old son killed himself. It has all been very upsetting.
But it is bright light to know you are both there. You aren’t all those miles and miles a tedious accident. Ach! Ach!
Fulcrum accepted my ‘objectivists’ anthology. Then Louis refused to be included. So, that’s that. I suggested to Montgomery that we drop him and use more Oppen and Bronk (not exactly an objectivist!) but S.M. sez no Louis no objectivism. A pity.
Do keep in touch.
Luv and kisses from all us Anglo-Saxons
Ch. Br J2
[Undated: c. October 1969]
Dear Charles and Brenda:
- - - yes, my letter must have strayed - - -
Perhaps attempting to reach you on your travels?
but indeed I wrote
Juliet and the cello!
she was rather smaller than a viola when last seen - - - - But music! I told you, I told you, all the daughters were beautiful And tomlin’s son is
too bad about the anthology But Montgomery’s right: the word is Louis’
((did you see that set of interviews: Rakosi, Rezi, me[,] Louis in Contemporary Literature (U of Wisconsin?) Hardly could have, I imagine. Will send you a copy By slow mail But it’ll be on its way
I had (most brashly) arranged myself a reading tour here - - - some twelve readings And woke up one night in the absolute certainty that I could not do it Sent wires cancelling Mess, mess, you can imagine the mess But everyone startlingly kind
but cannot, cannot, perhaps particularly with the expansion of voice in Numerous, I cannot make a chautauqua of it, cannot put myself so thoroughly INTO it, so irreversibly into it, like a Ginsberg. Can’t Or it wouldn’t be good for me.
May have sort of wrecked myself, but if Mary doesn’t mind (she most vigorously does not), well
Like washing locomotives. And this is Friday
all regards all regards I await the book with impatience
that set of interviews: with L. S. Dembo, in Contemporary Literature 10, no. 2 (Spring 1969).
washing locomotives: A job Tomlinson once had.
November 3, 1969
Dear George and Mary
THAT, said Brenda, is the thing to do with reading tours — cancel ’em. Good Lord, yes, when one looks at what Ginsberg has done since Kaddish, there’s a cautionary tale. What wet and windy stuff it is. Good going, mon cher frère poétique.
Juliet ain’t so much bigger than a viola now. Extraordinarily lively. Imagination chiefly excremental. She’s managed to deform the witches in Macbeth to:
‘Where do you get your character from?’ Justine exasperatedly asked her only today. ‘God,’ she replied. She wrote an essay the other day called ‘I am a Seagull,’ concluding ‘And so I flew back to my house under the cliff and I am still there if I have not died.’ So much for the omniscient narrator!
I shall greatly look forward to the U of Wis interviews — Many thanks. I am editing a book of essays on W.C.W. for Penguin Books. You haven’t given birth to a magnum opus thereon, George, have you?
We’ve just been letting off our fireworks for Nov. 5th — it’s Nov 3rd, but the kids are on holiday for half-term, and if they let ’em off Nov 5th they won’t be fit for school the day after. With a high wind a-blowing, we didn’t dare light our bonfire, so old Guy Fawkes still sits in a bathtub awaiting his [word erased].
Book out Nov 27. Will send as soon as I get it. Re reading tours, you may be amused by A Dream therein which begins ‘Yevtushenko, Voznezensky and I / were playing to a full house.’
Love from us all
book of essays: William Carlos Williams: A Critical Anthology (Penguin, 1972).
Book out Nov 27: The Way of a World.
2811 Polk Street
10 November 1969
‘- - - where DO you get your character - -’ I feel for Justine: I imagine Juliet as extremely Upper Class in a dreamy sort of way - - - - Who could cope with it? what sister, above all - -
and I had forgotten to write you of the review of Rezi’s Family Chronicle in the TLS, exhibited to me by ND. More CT, I thought, than typical of the TLS The TLS, to the best of my knowledge, not having achieved heretofore a sensitivity which enters the world of the poet - - - - -
O do thank Brenda for her support in Time of the Breaking of Contracts I need support But I was very near the loss of poetry, I think - - - - Lost to one’s personal pride, one’s theatrical system - - - - The world ill lost for love of self.
Saved! I think And I would ask nothing better than to be greeted by the Tomlinsons; as I crawl up on the beach spitting or gurgling salt-water.
and god help us all. My God, what a path we walk!
(it’s been admitted to me maybe grudgingly - - that Joao Cabral cancelled on the same day with a similar letter - - - - The good or even fairly good who don’t die young possess a skill of self-defense It seems
Problems other than these, Charles: I had foreseen the three books, and looked forward to a Collected, which would be, I was sure, a single book - - a coherent book – - I did ’em … Becoming, at the end, impatient? I think you felt so Certainly I loosened or dramatized the verse for Numerous I am not myself dissatisfied with that decision - - it is in the title itself, it cannot be done otherwise without distortion Or so I believe
But the next step! I have to get beyond, and - - - - Perhaps I’ve begun. In a way. Numerous got further than I had known it would: the first step has been to recover from being overwhelmed by my own book to fall out of love with it
and perhaps I’ve managed that in all this affair.
But the rest not clear to me. I have a considerable group of new poems, but they go pretty much over the same ground I would not make a book of them - -
so I am perhaps quite deeply unsuited for fame Obviously, should get a new book out. Whereas on the contrary I mean to take a very long time - - - quite a number of years
showing again that one never decides anything. It is always decided FOR one - - - tho by ‘his’-self Seems to be how it is
I don’t believe it could be said that I have relinquished concern for the thing we are talking about, in favor of the concern for what I say about it I would consider that, too, a loss of poetry. I don’t think it can be charged with such an act. Simply, the thing we talked about in Numerous cannot be reached in quite the same way as one can reach ‘the materials’ alone - - - Or so I think
But I know you had some reservations about the book
not sure we’re not dealing AGAIN with my non-nativeness: I have no authorization for my character - - Can Juliet be right? the demonic, of course, has not occurred to her as a source
- - or she was firmly denying it
More CT, I thought, than typical of the TLS: Oppen had read the anonymous review of Charles Reznikoff’s Family Chronicle in The Times Literary Supplement, July 31, 1969, and correctly surmised that it had been written by Tomlinson.
In a vertical side-note related to the paragraph ending ‘Or so I think’: [[this, in a way, useless discussion for my part. there was, is, no way thru for me but thru Numerous]]]
reservations about the book: Tomlinson’s note: “Only about one phrase in the book!”
[Undated: c. 1969]
finally got the ms of the Collected completed -- proof corrected, some author’s revisions (slight) and new poems … the note on the Letter to CT restored, and another conversation with CT: (in a longish poem)
. . . . .
In the stones
To a poetry of statement
At close quarters
A living mind
‘and that one’s own’
what then what spirit
of the bent seas
of the tide
in the moon streak
. . . .
. . . .
ms of the Collected: Collected Poems (Fulcrum Press, 1972).
Prosody // Sings // In the stones: See section 5, “Some San Francisco Poems,” in Seascape: Needle’s Eye, 1972.
February 20, 1970
the place of Eden and ‘the wind
That rings with meaninglessness where it sang its meaning’
Where! Meaning place!
the cruel mercy of solidities, the poetry of a life for anyone with ears. And a mind
… the untwistable, unravellable Chances of Rhyme - - the dizzying definition of circumstance to complete its orderly, incorrigible paradox, the ends of the enduring rhyme ‘are windows opening above that which lay unperceived until the wall of the house was completed at that point, over that sea.’
In that sea - - tho we are not prisoners of the thing seen - - you and I meet again. Full Circle.
Prisoners only of that sea
I’ve inveterately punned - - if it’s a pun - - on Tomlins’ Sons and the beautiful winds saying all the sons were brave I knew what I was saying The book is noble
(The Fulcrum Collected will have a few of the new poems, a start toward a new book, tho I am not sure of them. - - old age, an age of which I ineluctably see the outcome I seem to have no choice in either case. Prisoner of - - - what is it?
But not so far gone in prisoner-ship that I do not ring with your pride And am safe, like you, from ‘terrible leisure.’ I hope to knock again on the door of that stone cottage so nobly, truly nobly defended
with all regards, with very great respect
I am recovering from — they are calling it Grippe this year. I cannot write an adequate letter But the poems ring
and ring. and sing their meaning.
the wind That rings with meaninglessness: “Eden,” in The Way of a World.
the cruel mercy of solidities: “Prometheus,” in The Way of a World.
Chances of Rhyme: “The Chances of Rhyme,” in The Way of a World.
the ends of the enduring rhyme ‘are windows opening …’: “A Process,” in The Way of a World.
not prisoners of the things seen: “the quality of vision is never a prisoner of the thing seen,” “A Process.”
sing their meaning: “where it sang its meaning,” “Eden.”
February 23, 1970
Dear George & Mary,
Your letter was immensely cheering — it arrived five minutes ago — and one does need the love and approval of ‘one’s peers.’ The reviewers have made little of the book, and yet I did and do think I have made a clear mode of speech there — the speech that permits one to eschew sloganising, ‘howling,’ exaggeration, but is firm, self-responsible and — in the full sense — well-mannered. When I see what THEY have to say of one, I am first of all amazed, at the obtuseness of the critics, just impersonally amazed, then the anger flashes through one — the sense of how many years it will take one’s words to be heard, to count in the general babel. Shall I, say twenty years from now, still be receiving this same measured insolence from (yes) slavish minds? A wearying thought! But why should I grumble when I have friends like you! If you see, BASTA! But I have, I confess it, been depressed by the failure to have the measure, the just measure taken, of what one has done. Damn them all. And thank you from the very bottom of my heart.
I do hope that somewhere we shall meet again. You know that there is always a bed for you here (the house is warmer now — properly roofed and better heated!) and you have only to say the word. We wd. love to see you.
How marvellous to hear of the Fulcrum Collected. That will be a great day for all of us.
Did you ever send me that objectivists interview? I’d greatly like to see it.
I find inoculation a la gripe WORKS!
Hugs and kisses
Ch / Br
Fulcrum Collected: Collected Poems (Fulcrum Press, 1972).
March 4, 1970
England, I gather from your letter, has discovered the Beats (twenty years late) and fears that you have not
‘the’ critics are ALWAYS wrong.
But they’ll come to your book. Late, slowly, reluctantly, but they’ll come
Mailing this day the Obj. interviews Thought I had Sure I had, as a matter of fact: in this collapsing nation the mails are becoming dramatically unreliable
((The MAILMEN have discovered the Beats! I don’t deplore or regret it, but it’s inconvenient))
May 1, 1970
Dear G and M,
Many thanks for Comparative Literature. It is heartening to have ‘a man speaking to men’ — heartening (and I ain’t boasting) to think I heard you clear that very day seven years ago when I picked out The Materials unprompted — it is the very clarity of the voice I am getting at, not my critical whatever. And it is there once more in the interview … When you speak of using ‘the line-ending simply as the ending of a line, a kind of syncopation etc,’ do you feel this is a fault in WCW?
I moaned about those reviews of my book. Then Oxford sent me a whole packet of them: not ONE intelligent voice — not one — the hostile stupidity incredible! Then a week later, I picked up that odd little magazine Adam (published by the U. of Rochester) and it contained one of the most perspicacious notices I’ve ever received. What a relief it is to be heard. But what odd holes and corners one has to blossom in!
Thanks once more. Many thanks indeed.
All our love to you
Charles / Brenda
P.S. How is Linda these days? Think! — I’ve never met her
Comparative Literature: Contemporary Literature 10, no. 2 (Spring 1969).
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