'Surroundings answer questions'

Experimental pastoralisms in O’Brien and Taggart

At the beginning of William Empson’s 1935 landmark study Some Versions of Pastoral, he declares: “It is hard for an Englishman to talk definitely about proletarian art, because in England it has never been a genre with settled principles, and such as there is of it, that I have seen, is bad … my suspicion, as I shall try to make clear, is that it is liable to a false limitation.”[1] Three things are interesting to me in this passage: first, that the pastoral is suggested as an historically unsettled term, a term potential of contingency and resistance; second, that the pastoral is identified as, or can be seen to have evolved into a proletarian literature, or vice versa — “I think good proletarian art is usually Covert Pastoral,” says Empson (6) — and third, that this evolution is prone to a “false limit” that can be used well or poorly. Empson’s provisional formulation attempts the extension of the pastoral mode fully into modernity — to see its commentary on class and as economics, and to see it as a drama of place. In this way the pastoral’s “false limit” — variously, its praise of simplicity, meditation on ease, the ideal state, a rural setting and the catalogue of its particulars, a city dweller’s/shepherd’s point of view, songs of shepherds, travels, etc. — is shown to be unusually flexible, working effectively a two-thousand-year critique of civilization that is also a class allegory strengthened by the bracketing simplicity of its ideal. Empson’s destabilization offers up a surprising range of takes — Celine, Milton, Brecht, Faulkner, Louis Carroll, etc. — generating a profitable lens through which to view the narrative of modernity, but it has to look back to get there. Radical pastoral, then, a translation practice of simultaneities, the complex in the simple, and vice versa, a dialectic that keeps the contradiction sufficiently tensed to arouse strong feelings around race, war, the factory, homeland, revolution.

In a more or less subsequent manner this is more or less the argument Leo Marx offered over fifty years ago in The Machine in the Garden.[2] That volume transplants the pastoral narrative to America, deftly plumbing the contradictions of our rural desires in this “last best place” while managing to largely disable the class critique. More false limit, or the false limit revised for the historical situation of a nineteenth-century new world. Evoking at once nostalgia and futurity, Marx’s formulation of America hangs on the uniquely “open” character of its horizon. A limitless landscape “devoid” of people, how is dominion not inevitable? But then there’s a steamboat bearing down on Huck and Jim, something faustian in our bargain with freedom. Marx’s complex pastorality both admits and critiques technology’s American demos; how, in short, the vastness of the continent magnifies the train. While this paradox is not the ostensible subject of this essay it’s important to note how legibly it is written upon the American landscape; everything from the whiteness of the whale to white flight to the suburbs inscribes the false limit of our abundance. In succession horse, train, car, and plane give projective size to what is manifest in our destiny.[3] But there’s a commensurate shadow. Given America’s still-imagined plenitude, it seems clear that a Keystone pipeline or a new BP Gulf rig will configure an unsettlingly green narrative for the foreseeable future.

For better or worse, this is equally true of our current literatures. Into the Wild was a huge hit; big-ticket westerns are making a movie comeback; Survivor: wherever is a TV staple. Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, etc., these leading authors all make various use of the pastoral’s bracketing “simplicity.” The situation in poetry is not much different. Laureate poetry, or what Charles Altieri described way back in the mid-’80s as “scenic poetry” and “its concern for modest, highly crafted narrative structures producing moments of sudden illumination” in a natural setting,[4] still holds sway in the Academy. We want our garden and we want nostalgia for our lost garden, an epiphany experienced in the garden. Just click on Safari to the latest episode of Revolution. Some versions of the apocalypse. However deadly the paradoxes of our errand, we continue to take them. This is troubling and hopeful both. But what to do? How to manage the excess of our rueful idyll?


Two poets — Geoffrey G. O’Brien, early career, and John Taggart, late — both engage pastoral practices in radically transformative ways that offer fresh and unsettling versions for a new century’s green thirst. Specifically, O’Brien, in his second book, Green and Gray,[5] and Taggart, in his twelfth, Pastorelles,[6] variously interrogate the pastoral tradition as a viable means of not only writing poems, but engaging contemporary reality and its emerging environmental crisis. While admiring of the pastoral tradition’s mode of instruction and lyric agency, both poets question the inherent idealism attendant to it, and attempt, like Virgil, to politicize what is simultaneously a tradition, a genre, and a mode to “make it new,” or, failing that, leave it post. Both O’Brien and Taggart operate in a curiously dialogical manner that moves in space and time, reveals class paradigms, and erodes boundaries of here/now, utopian/arcadian, rural/urban, upper/lower, local/global, nature/culture, apart from/a part of nature, the pastoral, etc. Vibrant in their deterritorializing of the pastoral, their differences are dramatic, and their shared sympathies striking; what makes the comparison interesting is that each might be considered necessary to a sharp accounting of contemporary American avant-garde poetry. As such, O’Brien and Taggart offer an experimental pastoralism that is at once charged with a theoretically sophisticated — and American — language and recognizable as a lyric trace. Their relative disclosures of earth, the local, country, polis, city, literary tradition, etc. emanate from direct sensory experience while employing a larger allegory of pastoralism in ethically constructive ways. Yet they live on opposite sides of America, come from different generations, and have decidedly urban (Bay Area, O’Brien) and rural (Pennsylvania, Taggart) locales. Might the future survival of American poetics lie at its experimentally green edges? How is it that both Geoffrey G. O’Brien and John Taggart pursue the ethical case? And why do they turn to the pastoral tradition to source this sustainable futurity?

One cannot imagine now except as all parts,
as inventory, case, self-explanation.
It was to be entire days and is
the time of writing, impossible enterprise
whose crimson cloth has been removed. (O’Brien, “Realia,” 26)


I turn to Geoffrey G. O’Brien first because to me he is the most surprising. A young, urban poet, whose first book was called The Guns and Flags Project,[7] you might not expect him to be of a green mind. As I hear it, the work rises out of Stevens, reaches towards Ashbery by way of Zizek; it is meditative, elegiac, imbued with the thrill and hangover of theory. Yet certainly, too, there is the ethical seed of a resistant lyric that works very hard to reclaim the behavior of both our metaphoric and literal fields of being. This, the opening lines of the first poem, “The Premiere of Reappearance”: “It is passionately in our lives, the smell of rain, / radiation of an oil through the middle of the day, / the taste abides, old fruit on a plate / but after so long the rind is clear” (3). In Green and Gray O’Brien makes more explicit the dependencies of nature and culture while maintaining an openness of address that makes this book seem, at first glance, poetry about American belatedness, exhaustion. This crisis rises as the wreck of late-Bush modernity, “Signs of effort on the face of the air / There are those who wait in longing to hear / and those around whom dead waves flow / It’s like twilight to be alive now” (“To Classes,” 90). O’Brien’s twilight accounting marks this effort as a species of Postmodern ennui. Yet it is the insufficiency of that response that marks the real ‘turn’ of Green and Gray. For out of boredom comes invention, and out of invention comes the discovery of a necessary subject.

How long to sit and how long be faithful

to the shapes taken by the future, live

in the renewable source of that certainty —

lemons in water, waiter’s sleeves, slates

the birds rise from to be together

above the square, flights in formation

simple hypnotic returns (“The Bulletin of Lyon,” 16)


That subject — the world and our inevitable sensory engagement with it — is there in the hypnotic return of birds, always already present as a renewable source of certainty. The poet is sitting “in a chair at the table in a corner of the square.” And it is both “the gray of the stone and the green of the trees” that reveals the interdependencies of each. Nature and culture, city and country, poet and the birds, these binaries blend and quiver “in the imperial flower of a partial answer” that is the state of our locus amenis. The answer is not forthcoming, or rather is partial in the refusal of a belatedness that would admit a prior utopia. The imperial flower continues to flower; “the idea, long in coming, is itself / simple as a flower opening, / too simple to be heard but still opening.”

Throughout Green and Gray this temporal suspension is a willful negotiation with the arcadian-utopian fantasy of the pastoral. As a kind of no-place, its simplicity enables an eternal present that alternately ironizes and eulogizes an unfinished and troubling contemporaneity:

it was summer, very strong,

passing organizations,

which never finished anything

and ended in making

all this, cold coals

of wildflowers, wars

at the centers, they go on for years

burning near the front

and from below. (“Three Seasons,” 11)


Nature, the summer, exists as an overwhelming inevitability which is nonetheless ephemeral; nonetheless ephemeral as the “cold coals of wildflowers, wars / at the centers.” Time and space are conflated through a geologic imagining that spatializes vertically as well as horizontally. Things spread out; all deposition is a politically charged activity. What is unfinished still “makes all this” and it burns up “from below” just as equally as across. And if everything is passing — both fleeting and acceptable — then everything is disturbingly new.

Such is the case in the appropriately named “The New,” where “From that time onwards / one day it happened / during that time / for so long/ after the departure” (12). We are marked by local time but unable to refuse its extension. It is Dante’s Vita Nova coming forward, and Benjamin’s endless archive spreading out; it’s an omnidirectional dream syntax and a political imagination recalibrating Virgilian allegory for war-sick late capitalism:

Money is the sun at night, spirit

is a parrot. What is the thing?

A public assembly on a hill,

a hill the color of sage and money.

The assembly sounds like birds

and what it says is that

in another world we will not matter. (“On the Phantom Estate,” 37)


The hill is “the color of sage and money,” a dangerous conflation, a “public assembly” that pervades our dreams and our poetries. We are haunted, therefore, by the dead who have yet to be born, their endless play in the skirmishes of capital: “They are deported into space as spirit / and reassemble under the hills. The sun returns, and the birds.”

Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s insistence is that utopia is the present case, however troubled, such that we must till this field, that poem, for specific instruction on existence. This is a canny way of disabling nostalgia and making the pastoral possibility reify labor — in the city as much as in the country, in war as much as peace, in writing as much as factories. It’s scary, this no escape/no place, a thousand plateaus of becoming bombs. Or, as he says in the ruthlessly anaphoric “Some Versions Of,” “There is no reason a poem would begin / with reference to the territory,” and later: “No reason a poem would start / by censoring my shame or yours / at having a country or of the others,” and later still:

As snow or fire no unreal season

poem would begin by stating

by steadily flashing as utopia


Transmits its coordinates utopiates

headed in all directions no reason

the mean of a life and a moment is (3–5)


Here, Empson’s false limit is temporal; there is no past from which to sing, only the present song “headed in all directions no reason.” That it is headed somewhere, that it is momentous, is undeniable, and the vortexual sweep of this poem (and many of the poems in Green and Gray that employ anaphora, repetend, chiasmus, word sets, and ideolects) sweeps us along in “the remorse of the senses subtracted from experience” (“Logic of Confession”). I take O’Brien’s bewilderment as a genuine cri de coeur, elegiac, lamentative, but for our present utopia which seems so morally lost to us. I take this also as a preservational poetics that would economize its speech acts, the ecology of the poem seeking to preserve our sense record by repetition, insistence. This is important in the proletarian suggestiveness of class struggle, its alignment to environmental ethics, and how this might play as the particular challenge that progress imposes on our senses.

Deterritorializing the ideal as either a past or future conception, the poem “Realia” addresses our sensory survival as the possibility of the real in our simulated reality: “My people, provided I have one, are like women and men,” which is to say human, corporeal, short on cash. “Their dreams are like dreams filled with things: / citizens, coins, their faces, flames and signs, snow, air, earth, sighs, sun” (26). We are contingent upon things. Wheelbarrows, sighs, suns. And the place of our senses discloses the scene. Notice how the impulse to list draws an apposite relationship in the environment, something of scale, but not exactly metaphoric, “All morning each emphasis of field / reveals its portion of the unpredicted”; “one comes before, one after, / passing like expressions on a face”; and “in countless local ways it’s not to be / looked at directly, is sunlight falling up streets, / letters fading for want of explanation.” O’Brien’s similes literalize the comparisons. “[His] people are like men and women.” The pitiless play of the senses equilibrates the field, temporally and spatially. Invoking one of the muses of the book, he declares “This is the prediction of Beatrice:”

                                                        all things:
are simple and subtle, material and unpredicted,

helpless, divided, idyllic, claims and flares,

soldiers, children, anarchy, time unapproachable.

This is the other prediction of Beatrice:

Each night evening emerges.

Exactly this exuberance

brought us together with those we used to know. (“Realia,” 27)


To be so out of touch with those we used to know. To be instructed on the “simple and subtle, material and unpredicted” fate of our senses. The pastoral gesture of the poem to catalogue the real is driven by a contingency — our senses — those people you might belong to, your need to address them. The poem rises in the lyric apostrophizing, creating a utopia of the liberated present. We return, at the end of the poem, to the world where “each night evening emerges.”

What’s astonishing to me about this poem — and many poems in the book — is the way art rises to artifact. The world is contingent upon the poem, too; this one’s called “Realia,” and its textual pleasure, both lyric and semiotic, produces another sensory experience — an apposite poem, even a metaphor, dear god — that could easily appear in one of O’Brien’s lists. I think of this as O’Brien’s lyric joy, his resistant metapoetics (virtually all of the poems are ars poetica), and the working possibility of song in a late-capitalist marketplace. There’s an economics to this writing. A poet makes things; ideas materialize the poem. And one thing resembles another, or is it replaces? “After noticing a change in the meaning of the word / “ironic,” she sat at home making the air / flow around her exactly as before.” The pleasures of this poem, “Ajar” — its use of Stevens and its collapse of the metaphor of art to personhood (O’Brien makes a ‘she’ making “the air flow around her”) — lie in their endless game of replacement. The poem is so extensive as to be an opening (ajar) and something awry (ajar).

Geoffrey G. O’Brien.

A more immediate example might be the poem “Fountain.” Here, the poem is the fountain, a free space where similitude proliferates rhizomatically, line after line, poem after poem: “There is no such thing as the abrupt / Doubleness is the first plural / The abrupt comes in many forms.” An endless stream of replacements, “Again the bottom predicts a top / Fresh sources resemble each other / Goods are exchanged throughout the day” (34). That the poem is exchanged, is the pure product of language and of labor, is confirmatory, patriotic, and echoes — in many of the poems of Green and Gray — a committed (and various) American poetics from Emerson to Frost to Stein to Williams to Stevens to Ashbery. In this regard I like O’Brien for an Americanness that both positively and negatively utilizes American spaces. He is certainly an urban poet, but his sophisticated handling of lyric agency sings the café into the garden. And it is not simply an American impulse, or a postmodern impulse, to destabilize the binary scheme. Humanity’s course has always been green and gray. Utopia is everywhere. O’Brien’s innovation is precisely this erosion of the pastoral.

What is perhaps more surprising — and here we find a principal difference between O’Brien and Taggart — is that the poems in Green and Gray rarely describe external reality. Or rather rarely describe an actual place from which ideas might be locally situated. Or rather rarely describe at all. O’Brien uses a phenomenological engagement with senses real and imagined, present and remembered, to produce a meditative stream of relations that rise to a disturbingly recognizable “supreme fiction.” These are often circulated through an idea (the troubadour, simulacra, psychoanalysis, excursus), a text (The Inferno, the Patriot Act, Gravity’s Rainbow, Aristotle’s Poetics), a person (Stevens, Lacan, Charles Fourier, Nietzsche, Celan, Gertrude Stein), or a procedure (accentual verse, anaphora, replacement, erasure). Always, to my mind, the pastoral ideal hovers behind the work, a ghost form that engages the speakingness of the poems. This echo is particularly striking in O’Brien, and is large part of my sense of its instruction. There is much commentary about weather, and a lot of calendrical notation (“Three Seasons,” “Spring Struggle,” “A Calendar,” “In Re Others”); there is a general querying of the garden (“Deer Isle,” “In Gardens Where Saints Meet,” “Sent Past Exhibits,” “At the Changing Villa”). And O’Brien plays pastoral’s paradoxical complexity as simultaneously a tradition, a subject, and a mode. Indeed, the first poem of the book, “Some Versions Of,” seems to even echo Empson’s famous book, and his sense of the pastoral’s endless proliferation. This sophisticated poetics variously enacts an erasure of the binary codes to which we are so addicted, and to which the pastoral tradition has relied. Not green or gray but green and gray. Yet we would never mistake O’Brien for A. R. Ammons or Pattiann Rogers. It is the surprisingly urbane means by which O’Brien dialogizes the pastoral that makes it so exciting and new.

One of the more effective reconfigurations of the pastoral in Green and Gray involves lyric agency, or more directly, the shepherd’s song. Two poems tackle this rather directly. Here’s the opening quatrain of “Paraphrase of Aragon”: “I hear I hear the world is there / It passes from people on the road / More than my heart I listen to them / The world is badly made my tired heart” (6). Maintaining the quatrain patterning, O’Brien charges his song with a generally four-beat accentual pulse that generates a particularly insistent music. This is partly due to the address — found throughout Green and Gray — to the “men and women” of his time, and to his invocation of song itself as an ethical agent: “If not to sing then to hum with the sun / so that the shade is made more human”; and “I believe in it sometimes I acknowledge it to you / While not believing my ears / I am truly your similar / I am quite similar to you” (8). This strum of the lyre also gathers focus by a kind of aping of troubadour song. There’s something archaic in this accentual verse. And the poem is called, after all, “Paraphrase of Aragon,” such that the conflated echoes of feudal Spain, Catherine of Aragon, the private language of Argonese, the Dadaist play of the poet Louis Aragon, even the character Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, all gather to produce a unique and affecting music.

Another, perhaps more antic example of O’Brien’s singingness is the poem “Man of Joy.” Here the sense of the ars poetica is explicit in its description of the poet at his joyous avocation. The poem arises out of a declamatory first person that is hard to ignore:

Unless I am much mistaken everything

is music, but that’s not really right.

What can one say of a desire

for new connections other than that it swells

up out of feeling happy, wanting

to play, not knowing how to (30)


I take “the companion in the dark” to be the poem, or the poem’s addressee, or the poem addressing the world. The poem swells on its pronouncements of necessity, and on the speech act that crank its joy. Say, “To be happy I think of as / new editions of the same world / swelling or rising from a fur-lined machine”; and “I hear the nothing / I have to say until I begin … I am not / at a loss for examples”; and “it’s a parable of isolation to remember / the name of a painting while traveling /and a parable of sound to say it” (32).

Ultimately, in this assured and startling second book, Geoffrey G. O’Brien evokes the possibility of an experimental poetics to unsettle our current thinking. Whether it be utopia, or a dream of a distant arcadia; whether it be a neopastoralism, or a post-pastoral urban mash-up of the wreckage of modernity, we are struck by the lyric urgency of these poems; they are parables of sound that reawaken our actual senses. These are crucially the source of any ethical application to the world, for they substantiate the body subject and activate its means of knowledge. As Raymond Williams sorted out, our country needs our city, and the city knows itself by the echoes of our country inheritance.[8] O’Brien is urban, but he goes to the beach; he’s the city limit by which we remember our country song. As such, the urban present is the  false limit from which to intuit the history of the pastoral. Green and Gray uses the absorptive capacities of capitalism and English to recalibrate our senses, and expose the ethical conundrums of the present tense. It is an exuberant speaker in these poems; it is speech acts and shimmering metaphors of a supreme unsettlement. O’Brien’s meditative present gives me an odd sense of hope.

This seems equally true in his next book, Metropole,[9] which I will mention simply for the quality of its extension. Much of the same poetics are at work in this book — the urban setting, (faux) sylvan groves, mortality, an emphasis on saying and singing, the passing of seasons, catalogues of plants and flowers — though formally the book operates quite differently. The most notable emblem of this can be found in the long title poem, which manages through a more or less iambic cantillation of sentences to augur material recognitions of cosmic facts: “The beaches overturn without a proper break” how “The sun revolves around the earth revolves around the sun.” Commuting, noting the passage of time, the faces of strangers, a public concern for the fragility of existence emerges from a collective sense of collapse. It may be the city, but it reveals our relationship to nature: “Funding now requires private lives embrace catastrophe … And yet the edge possessions cut in air provokes a thought of more can be relied upon. 8th Ave is blocked but yes, whole neighborhoods can be revisited” (97). O’Brien himself has noted the book as kind of fall into prose, with the title poem operating as a kind of ars poetica of how detached and belated the garden feels. Is this the fate of arcadia/utopia? Ghostly iambs haunting the train station of sentences? Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s radical taxonomy of American values is a trenchant perch from which to question our edenic inheritances.

For dizzily above the world the blinking lights, collective life in flight, abstractedly survive commemoration. Then the season turns and current flows into the picture. A muddy coat of brown gives way, revealing brilliant greens and blues about the earth there’s little more to say unless you stop and listen to its roaring unawares (95)


A very different but no less experimental attempt at a new American pastoralism can be found in John Taggart’s Pastorelles. Published in 2004, this book, Taggart’s twelfth, finds him plumbing his local scene for the material real. If O’Brien is the City Dweller singing to the shepherd, Taggart is the Wandering Alto riffing country (or more likely jazz) at the cafe. A longtime rural Pennsylvania dweller, Taggart taught for many years at Shippensburg State. Yet he’s a seminal figure in postwar American avant-garde poetry — its generally urban ethos — and an inheritor and articulator of Objectivist poetics, particularly Zukofsky and George Oppen. So too, his work is deeply informed by music — his interest in post-bop jazz, Gregorian chant and Minimalism — and how these iterate as a serial poetics. Filled with these dichotomous rhythms, Taggart in Pastorelles destabilizes the sonic architecture of the poem while variously interrogating the pastoral tradition. He, too, makes a cultural artifact (art for art for Art Tatum). But it’s in the rural-actual moment more than any recollected tranquility. In this regard his work is decidedly nonmetaphoric, and might be characterized as post-pastoral for its a priori rejection of the ideal. Rather, Taggart seeks to resist, on the one hand, the mainstream imagistic tradition of American poetry (Altieri’s “scenic poetry”), and on the other, the text-privileged, highly theorized poetry of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing. Neither apotheosis seems acceptable to Taggart, and indeed apotheosis is the problem. The poem should disclose its subject in the manner of its material without any prior claims upon it. And it should do so from an explicit or implicit place. Indeed, it is the density with which it authentically thinks through place that allows it vision, but it is a vision of this moment, that object, without teleological claim. As he says of his beloved Oppen, “[he] does not propose to entertain or to amaze by playing upon ideas already at hand, but to think, ‘naked’ in the poem to some purpose.”[10]

That purpose, both in Pastorelles and throughout Taggart’s oeuvre, is to ground the poem’s thinking, its language, in the material world and as a material fact. He suggests this early on in the poem “Thales the Milesian/In a Time of Drought.” By invoking Thales of Milesia, the “first philosopher of the first philosophers,” Taggart makes clear his impulses are to demythologize poetry. He reaches back to the origins of pre-Socratic philosophy and focuses the poem’s attention on matter:

first of the first philosophers of material substance

the source of all existing things

that from which a thing first comes into being

and into which it is finally destroyed

the substance persisting (10)


“The substance persisting” — the physical world — is given solidity by its animating principle, water. Our blue planet breathes, however threatened, with this material fact. But we know water not by its global character but by its local manifestation. The poem evolves across its slash (across time?) to this “time of drought.” Juxtaposed to that ancient master, drought dramatizes the tenuous endurance of “the substance persisting.” Taken at this far end of the telescope, we are left presently with a feeling that the “element and first principle” of our survival is fleeting. Without much reaching, I feel some address towards that condition we call global warming. But this is not an idea presented so much as an experience had:

In a time of drought

the time in the morning in a time


already too dry and too warm

and without rain

all day the time remaining too dry and too warm

all day

day after day

in a time remaining too dry and too warm

too dry and too warm

and without rain (11)


The repetition of too (seven times), time (five), dry (five), warm (four) and day (three) produce an insistent turning of the experience of drought; we sense it as duration, “a time of drought,” and acceleration “already too dry and too warm.” Yet we experience it ultimately as a poem, the lines spilling and repeating, phrase by phrase, a voice turning the concern. The irregular lengths offer counterpoint, an over/under cadence that pulses with alarm. Met with this interior meditation, we might expect the poem to move up and out into a global alert. Yet it resolves itself by a move back into the particular: “copper beeches / young leaves of the young copper beeches / shriveled up shapes.” It is not the general condition but the material case that’s visible. These are the trees of Taggart’s south-central Pennsylvania hit hard by drought in the 1990s. Place and time in the poem are occasioned by Taggart’s literal experience, and they manifest the compositional process in the repetitions of the poem. Whatever symbolic import we attach to the juxtapositional strategy of “Thales the Milesian/In a Time of Drought” it registers first as a local ambience. Taggart is no Eliot; a physical ruminant, turning the ground of the poem, he chants “these shriveled up shapes in the shapes of corpses.” In this way the “shapes in the shapes of clutching” that end the poem are as much the feeling of the trees as the feeling of the poem. Exchange, inhabitation, a readerly horizon opened by recurring sounds and motifs. Again and again in Pastorelles Taggart moves us back and forth between the density of the physical landscape and the associational field it generates.

Ideas come from places, and places disclose their real subjects as layers of inhabitation, weather. More likely than not, Taggart’s speaker is poised in situ, thinking on a scene, into a scene. The meditative tone of Pastorelles emerges from observation; context suggests the relationship of locally organized spaces and times. Take the first poem in the book, the haunting “Carlisle Indian Industrial School,”

Now a college of the military

war college


what was once the Carlisle Indian Industrial School


photography on a wall of the college

young Indian couple

almost prim almost properly “Victorian” (1)


The poem describes a site, an exterior, a building, until we are suddenly inside the college looking at a “photograph on a wall of the college.” Taggart cleverly enjambs the title into the poem to juxtapose a then to a now. But the time slips again — backward — with the third line of the poem; we oscillate between these competing times such that we are present in both. And it is inside a building and outside a building; inside the photograph and outside the photograph. Taggart’s thinking-through-the-object creates a visionary space where “their eyes flashing / black / unforgettable their flashing black eyes.” I get a jolt from this act of witness, the poem as much as the photograph; the poem sees the photograph, and suddenly the chilling history of our genocidal ‘settlement’ of America comes alive. This site itself — a late-nineteenth-century boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, that tried to assimilate Native American children — suggests the relationships of the poem. College to war, conquered to conqueror, “flashing black eyes” to a “brooch coat and tie.” The poem ends with an ethical reverberation that comes from the place: “lesson / for those who would be generals.”

As a kind of pastoral anthropology, Taggart’s Pastorelles is always digging around, plunging into the farmscape. The serial poem “Not Egypt” accomplishes this adroitly, starting from inside Taggart’s home: “Turned sideways / window turns into pillars / shadow pillars and shadow porches / deep red valley in a valley way down in Egypt land” (13). Our eye moves sideways, out the window, onto the porch and down into a valley. The archaic syntax of “way down in Egypt land” suggests some mythic subject, or perhaps a Christian spiritual, especially as the subsequent lines are “shadows and habitation / of the dead.” Yet Taggart is simply observing the history of his place. Egypt turns out to be an unincorporated town in Pennsylvania, one of the oldest settlements in the state, and a crucial cement-producing area (Egypt cement built the New York City subway). Our readerly associations enter the poem as an extension of that anthropological instinct, neither right nor wrong, just activated. As the poem moves on through its five sections, Taggart uses specific features of the landscape — a stone wall, a shortcut road in the woods, redbud bushes, a steel plow — to trace the history of its uses. He discovers “dusk and dark along the road past Ramp’s stone house”; “tool and tools / to move through depths of a valley”; “wind / exhilaration of the fragrance of the flowers / by starlight”; and “the sweet cherry orchard / no longer there / not one tree of the orchard left to shake.” Signs of human inhabitation blend with natural processes, become natural processes, all “testaments of the dead / testaments of the unwrapped dead” (13).

One of the considerable pleasures of all this plumbing of the scene is the music by which it sings. Taggart ends this lovely poem with “a labor of ecstasy / considerable labor of ecstasy” (17). Much like Geoffrey G. O’Brien, John Taggart is interested in identifying writing as a crucial labor. A rural subject, the tracery of people at work, this pastoral digging adduces to a version of proletarian literature William Empson might recognize, however much admire. The rural limit produces a particular kind of beauty closely observed. For the sincere man is one with nature. Taggart’s locus amenis is his own backyard, which also happens to be an American wilderness successively settled for its garden potential:

from the creek through another woods under another road

through another woods to the creek again


made by a number of men with their tools

by their labor

which is my labor also (“Not Egypt,” 17)


Poems like “Work,” “In the Kitchen,” “Rhythm and Blues Singer,” or “Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rollins” explore the poetic labor as it analogously inhabits various portraits of people “woodshedding.” That each might be seen to have made a “sincere account” of their work seems to be Taggart’s ethical and economic concern, not to mention his American literary claim. Here is Zukofsky’s “objective”: “In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking of things as they exist.”[11] Taggart’s ledger exhumes cultural figures, lost voices, private collections; we are instructed in the histories of our gardens. Good thermodynamics, labor is preserved in a vivid range of site maps. Correspondence is a question of local character, places to be sure, but also people and the objects that they make. Indeed, one of the pleasing discoveries of Pastorelles is the correspondence between the photographs on the cover — taken by his wife, Jennifer — and the poems in the book. Beautifully and spaciously produced by Flood Editions, there is a winking aboutness to this text that extends materially across sympathetic objects and landscapes. Yet we should not be surprised by this, as one of Taggart’s early projects, editing the seminal ’60s journal Maps, projected this materialist poetics from the outset.[12]

As I’ve said, much of the labor of Taggart’s poetry, in Pastorelles and throughout his work, can be found in his music: signature word and phrase repetitions, clausal fusions that mutate syntax, running infinitive verb structures, all in shades of seriality that variously stretch repetition over time. Energetically speaking, there’s something preserved in the circular music of his poems; phrases, lines of thought, turn and return, working out the logos by the melos:

Full/open red daylily


reminder that the object is a song

for which the troubadours commended themselves to a life between

risk of holding back

risk of not holding back and the death of desire

 which is the death of song


 which is the death of the troubadour (“Pastorelle 2,” 3)


One hears the lines in one’s head, anticipates them, discovers them, amplifies them through the nuance of repetition. The readerly horizon is intensely recursive, a lyric work that incrementally awakens our senses “concerning the lily its full/open throat open for a day” (“Pastorelle 2”). Yet it is also a self-interrogation, or the interrogation of the song. The poem interrogates the lyric function of the troubadour by singing. Taggart’s Objectivist attention seeks to accurately notate the body proper, but the body moves day to day:



 the problem is not turning

 into a rock


 the problem is a problem of how

 far how far can I throw myself and how far can I

 throw myself again (“Pastorelle 7,” 43)


Restlessly recasting the object of attention, the poem, the rock, Taggart’s line keeps freezing or spilling “the problem” of attention: “the problem is a problem of how” “far how far can I throw.” The poem turns back on itself, just as the question of the next poem turns back on the author. It is the problem of a lifetime, and the project of books. Listen, for instance, to its endurance in yet another project, another poem, six years prior: “the subject was roses the problem is memory … the problem is memory the problem a problema / the problem a problema a problem to find / a problem to find the unknown.”[13] When the Saints is an elegy for his friend, the artist Bradford Graves, but it is also the question of poesis itself experienced as a daily phenomenon: “how far can I throw myself and how far can I / throw myself again.” In a 2001 interview with Brad Hass, Taggart notes this as a kind of improvisational making/unmaking: “I see it [the poem] as addressing form and working with form as a grid. The task is to get it set up; then, once you’re in it to not so much get out of it but as you’re going along to go beyond it, to go off the grid.”[14]

Beyond any gestural pipings, Taggart’s looping repetitions are a very real working out of musicological properties, in particular the cantus firmus tradition that spans from Gregorian chant to contemporary Minimalism. Employing a fixed melody or theme over which variations turn and return, Taggart has been exploring this mode since at least Dodeka[15] in 1979. In this, and the subsequent period, cantus firmus manifested in a variety of extended forms, more or less uniform in line and syllable count. Poems such as “Peace on Earth” and “The Rothko Chapel Poem” had a sustained architecture that induced a powerful choral effect.[16] In Pastorelles, Taggart’s activity is different. Often varying short and long lines, lines which isolate the repeated word or phrase, or doubling words line to line or within lines, Taggart enacts a curious echo that is more intimate and condensed:

Gradually how gradually

 one comes to understand the poets

 as gradually as

 the compulsion of one’s own compulsion the compulsion to repeat

(“The Compulsion to Repeat,” 62)


Yet the sound is more contrapuntal swing than Gertrude Stein insistence. Here it is the compulsion to repeat that discovers something. Music, as such, is a generator of the intertextual field. Taggart’s got a brilliant ear which increasingly syncopates the line and opens the page toward sources as various as African American spirituals, Sonny Rollins sax solos, country music, Sainte Colombe viola, the minimalist lyrics of William Bronk, or Lorine Niedecker, Charles Wesley’s Methodist hymns, Steve Reich’s polyrhythms, Robert Quine’s guitar leads, and the visual music of the painter R. B. Kitaj. Taggart chooses his subjects carefully; or rather the musical properties they explore are particular cadences, rhythms of thought, as much as sources of inspiration. And they continue to move.

In the poem “5/On the Line” we see Taggart explicitly metapoetical. It’s a deft and witty literalizing of the poem’s activity, as it is five separate poems on the subject of the line, often with five-line stanzas, or patterns of five words. Here we find Taggart doing what seems signal of this later period: the accretive serial poem. By using the lyric to interrogate the history of the lyric we get a repeating lyric that metonymically extends the sonic architecture of the lyric, but in an irregular manner. Extension is the key, how far can the line “throw?” As the poet Rochelle Ratner observed long ago, “The deeper I get into reading Taggart, the more I come to understand that it’s not so much music his work is involved with but variations.”[17] One only has to reread a poem like the thirty-five page “The Rothko Chapel Poem” to see how long the line can blow. Yet here the densified figuration from “5/On the Line” offers:

Said to have begun in the middle


 middle of the line mulberries with mulberries and their weight

 white and black and red

 weighing down the branch not a word in the line (70)


Tracing the line in medias res, Taggart sources through ancient Greece, but immediately shifts the context to mulberries, the Pennsylvania local, a color and a weight that “writes” the page by season, “… not a word in the line.” This natural language makes sense, “because the line = The branch / mulberries / their weight what holds the line in place as a branch extending in space.” Taggart’s tracing of the poetic line to visible nature, the literal bow of the tree, provides the instruction, and suggests the present material is always the source of our intelligence. Good Objectivism, we may trace the line forward historically, but it is always written on the present case, informs it as a material density of thing seen by attention. Yet the poem offers a bridge as well. Pastorelles refracts pastourelles, Old French lyric forms of the twelfth century expressive of rural character. Time crosses the limb in an act of lyric attention. An ongoingness, the next poem in the series offers a more mythic necessity to the scene: “The best one of the best lines / “Pan Sleeps” // which explains everything which explains why the drought” (71). We return to the drought in the poem “Thales the Melisian,” and to the arcadian source of the pastoral imagination. We also reloop to the beginning of the book. Are we to believe our environmental crises are due to a lack of song? Should we try the “problema” again? Repetition compels us to think on it. Reading Taggart’s variable line affords an opportunity. And something happens, the music is both an invitation and a discovery. Nature is imperiled in this query of the line, and it produces a line of poetry; it is a line of descent and a line of witness, something divined and something literally seen:

which explains everything which explains why the drought

 goes on

 year after year the ground in the woods

 cracked gravel and powder

 where the grasses ferns and grasses where the trout lilies used to be

 roots of the trees

 great length of the roots of the trees exposed

 across the path stepped on run over by the tractor (“5/On the Line,” 71)


Thirty-seven of fifty-three poems in Pastorelles are serial. Their “limitless set of relations,” to quote theorist Joseph Conte, “take shape from the diverse ways in which items come together undetermined by external necessity.”[18] It is perhaps true that the whole book is a series, or a continuation of the serial project initiated by Loop. The non-“Pastorelle” poems in the volume develop cases, sites, and correspondences, with “Pastorelles 1–15” operating as a kind of interstitial riff or refrain. Essentially open, improvisational, and aleatory in their placement in the larger structure of the book, they gain momentum from their sonically accretive manner. Yet an examination of the overarching forms reveals an intense sense of stanzaic correspondence, and a preponderance of subtle number games played into a kind of physical texture. Taggart’s repetitions are intensive — acting within poems — and extensive — acting across poems, and even books. In Pastorelles, recurring forms of the series (three to seven poems each) stretch our sense of increment; one hears oneself hearing this poem, the last poem. Themes and images as well as phrases leap across the book, and the book as a sustained activity is both radically destabilized and enlarged. Repeating gestures of sound and ideolect thus conserve their energies like living systems, books. Indeed, the organic metaphor is apt despite Taggart’s resistance to metaphor. For indeed, it is not a metaphor at all but a felt property of the poem. There is something so deeply musical about his poetry that he reverses mimetic sensibilities; we see, we have insight by the drone of the poem. It’s very literally a spiritual hymn and a devotional activity, a faith in the lyric tradition that is not sentimental but performed. As he says in “Rhythm and Blues Singer,” “words entangle us / words in letters of the alphabet the letters in written words” and “rhythm = the backbeat of all biological pleasures / blues = bad luck and trouble / to sing is to be untied” (48).

Importantly, this singing is also an attention to natural processes, sites of disclosure. I see the echo of images on the cover of Pastorelles and the physical field of the poems to which they correspond. It is tempting to locate these locations to a more theoretical “opening of the field” via Duncan’s famous formulation.[19] And we wouldn’t be wrong for there is a dual permission in Taggart’s book: to return to and dwell within specific meaningful places in the natural world, and to thematically rewire the coordinates of western environmental history. This is the good instruction of Taggart’s pastoralism. And if his music allows this physical experience so too do his built up subjects disclose a particular evolution of poetry. Pastorelles is rife with premonitions of mortality, both in a poet’s life and in the turning of the seasons. This quality imbues the book with a sustained elegiac tonality, and situates, at first glance, its pastoral gestures in an arcadian past. Yet the knowledge we might yield from such a backward glance comes up against the more immediate permission of the present:

In such an evening such as this evening

 this May evening the lengthening light of this May evening

 let us walk in the woodland garden

 a grove or green place

 and in this place let us take up your question

 (“A Grove or Green Place,” 44)


In successively numbered sections of “such evenings” it is the flowers, trees, and shrubs of the poet’s immediate garden that offer “the still bright clarity of the cardinals” (45). Nature has a course for us if we should care to study it; and “in such an evening we are taking up your questions /question of what we are.” Poetry-as-thinking resides in the materially utopic present of “green and not-green parts of this green place.”

Yet those images, those bridges and daylilies imply a journey of the garden, and to this we owe some debt to Leo Marx’s machine. Shot through with technology, we manage our being by being on a journey. In this regard that time-worn aspect of the pastoral — excursus — fuses the city and the country. Throughout Pastorelles John Taggart seems to be on a ramble, driving, walking, taking in the scene. Modernity’s recasting of the tradition provides a convenient open road through an informational field: “I’m in the dark on a long long long lonesome road / a roadless road and not a preference” (“Aluminum Road” 7). Something of an initial outing, we start Pastorelles at the “Carlisle Indian Industrial School.” On and through the book we walk through various glades and seasons, we drive the “Aluminum Road” and visit a “Car Museum” only to end up, in the last poem, “Plinth,”


 cannot be glued cannot be pinned

 what can be done = the parts abutted

 bolting them

 to the rough foundation stones from the old schoolhouse (104)


Taggart reconstructs the local scene by minute attention; a new, presumably more compassionate and ecologically nuanced history might emerge from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It will be rebolted, “the plinth resting on / bolted to those stones.” There is something urgent in the lament; it calls for a new foundation. How shall we build it, “what can be done?”… “that music may enter as through a welcoming portal may enter this // air / among these pines.” It turns out all that lyric acuity might have an ethical application. In the carefully organized structure of the book we have an apt demonstration of an in situ thinking song. It is suggestively symbolic of where we might be headed.

I want to end my discussion of Taggart’s Pastorelles by noting a distinct formal feature that offers some last evidence to the utility of the pastoral tradition. Some of the titles of the poems in the volume — and in the subsequent volume, There Are Birds (from which I take the title of this essay, “Surroundings answer questions”), most significantly the sixty-two-page “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” — employ a backslash to curious effect.[20] Poems such as “Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rollins” seem to juxtapose characters, effect a study in character. Other poems, such as “Thales the Milesian/In a Time of Drought” and “Parmenides/Fragments 3 and 15A,” evoke a simultaneity of subject across time and space. Or its a subject as idea or person, and a process operating on that subject across time and space. At other moments it is contrast, or a kind of severing or caesura, or even a line break, “because the line = the branch / mulberries” (“5/On the Line”). Dialogically suspended, Taggart manages, by way of the backslash, to triangulate things, people, and ideas into the third term of the poem; yet it is not a synthesis, not a condensation or summary connection. He lets the juxtaposition speak as the materials would present themselves, a kind of parataxical voice. This omnidirectional quality of dialogue — of the poet in dialogue with avatars and the disparate materials of his culture — prefigures that particular dialogic tension between the city dweller and the shepherd, or rather the contradictions between them. Caught singing between the future and the past, between an exhausted tradition and the world it would still attempt sincerely to embody, we would do well to include all the terms in our present investigation. John Taggart’s Pastorelles eloquently gives us the trace to find our way:

Cut of the slash

 which cuts

 which cuts and which connects



 of the cut of

 time itself


 which leaves a blue mark

 black and blue mark

 which can be read as a kind of bridge


 connecting black and blue and

 the abstract truth of

 time itself. (“Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rollins,” 23)




1. William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935), 3.

2. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (London, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964). Class idyll, or Manifest Destiny, we seek a magnification in the pastoral. Marx’s genius is in showing that, despite this commonplace, the train, or technology largely figured, is exceptional in America. 

3. This is Charles Olson’s argument as well in Call Me Ishmael (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997): “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America man, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy” (3).

4. Charles Altieri, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 5.

5. Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Green and Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

6. John Taggart, Pastorelles (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2004).

7. O’Brien, The Guns and Flag Project (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

8. Raymond Williams, The Country and The City (London, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

9. O’Brien, Metropole (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

10. Taggart, Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1994), 5.

11. Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 13.

12. Taggart’s papers are housed at the University of California, San Diego. See the Online Archive of California; also of note is the Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU. The John Taggart Archive is a collection of correspondence Taggart received as editor of Maps from 1970 to 1974. Collection highlights include correspondence from Carol Bergé, Paul Blackburn, Hayden Carruth, Robert Creeley, Guy Davenport, Gary Snyder, and Louis Zukofsky.

13. Taggart, When the Saints (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 1999), 2.

14. Taggart, interview with Brad N. Hass, Flashpoint, 2002.

15. Taggart, Dodeka (New York: Membrane Press, 1979).

16. Taggart, Peace on Earth (Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981); Loop (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1987).

17. Rochelle Ratner, “The Poet as Composer,” Paper Air, 1979. See also Karl Young’s essay at

18. Joseph Conte, Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 15.

19. Robert Duncan, The Opening of the Field (New York: New Directions, 1973). See in particular “Often I Am Permitted to Return.”

A note on the visual poetry of Whalen, Grenier, and Lazer

Left to right: image courtesy of Wesleyan University Press, from 'The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen,' edited by Michael Rothenberg, 2007; image courtesy of Bob Grenier; image courtesy of Hank Lazer.

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.

1. Philip Whalen, The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, ed. Michael Rothenberg(Lebanon, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2007).

2. The most accessible example of Lazer’s shape poems is found in his N18 (Complete), Singing Horse, 2012. They can be found online in Talisman Issue #42 and Plume Issue #34

Provenance report

William Carlos Williams's 1942 reading for the NCTE

The NCTE's Contemporary Poets Series edition of William Carlos Williams reading his poetry (left), and the record's producer, Walter C. Garwick, as a young man, in 1905 (right).

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,”[1] 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.[2]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.[3] 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.”[4] 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[5] 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,[6] 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),[7] The Quarterly Journal of Speech,[8]and The Elementary English Review,[9] 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.[10]

Addressing teachers in his solicitations, Greet asks questions like: “What [do] poems lose most by being printed?”[11] 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?”[12] 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”[13] 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.”[14] (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



1. Cabell Greet, “Records of Poets,” American Speech 9, no. 4 (December 1934): 312–13. Hereafter cited as RoP.

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.

4. Ibid.

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.

7. RoP.

8. Cabell Greet, “The Lindsay Records,” The Elementary English Review 9.5 (May 1932): 122, 128. Hereafter cited as LR.

9. Cabell Greet, “Records of Poets,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 21.2 (1935): 296–96. Hereafter cited as QJS-RoP.

10. A partial listing of records is listed in WorldCat. Others are noted in The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten, ed. Edward Burns(New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 422n2.

11. QJS-RoP, 295.

12. RoP, 312.

13. NCTE Board of Directors meeting agenda, 20 November 1941, record series 15/70/2, box 1, University of Illinois Archives.

14. RoP, 312.

Retrospection, 1972–81

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.


Brook Cottage
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 

Dear Charles

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
biographies —


                    (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

Dear Charles

‘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.




Brook Cottage
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 





Brook Cottage
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

                                           Vinceremos perhaps 

                                                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.




Brook Cottage
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).




Brook Cottage
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.


                                                      Ch.   Br


editing of a Williams Selected
: William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems (Penguin, 1976).




Brook Cottage
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.




Brook Cottage
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]

Dear Charles: 

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 

            — Mary


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

Dear Charles,

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

Dear Charles,

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).




Brook Cottage
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.

                                                   As ever



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]

Dear Charles,

I am delighted to hear from you and delighted to remember still ‘We should vote for the Tories except they are surely pigs.’


                                                                  (by M)

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 —


Catching up, 1968–70

The following are the collected letters of poets George Oppen and Charles Tomlinson, as transcribed by Richard Swigg for the feature “Addressing one’s peers: The letters of Charles Tomlinson and George Oppen, 1963–1981.” This section of the correspondence spans the years 1968–70. 


Brook Cottage
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  




San Francisco. 
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’

               they are
                                                                                                                                             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 

Dear Charles:

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.




Brook Cottage
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.

                                                     En hâte,

                                                  all our love

                                                    Ch  J2 Br



the Pulitzer award: for Of Being Numerous.




 October 6, 1969

Dear Charles and Brenda

You there?

                       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.




Brook Cottage.
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
brave indeed 

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.




Brook Cottage         
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: 

                            ‘Bubble, bubble,
                            Toilet trouble!’

‘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

                                     Ch/ Br


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

Dear Charles:

 ‘- - - 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] 

Dear Charles:

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 entrust
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

Dear Charles

            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.”




Brook Cottage
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

Dear Charles

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))





Brook Cottage
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).