The following are the collected letters of poets George Oppen and Charles Tomlinson, as transcribed by Richard Swigg for the feature “Addressing one’s peers: The letters of Charles Tomlinson and George Oppen, 1963–1981.” This section of the correspondence spans the years 1968–70.
December 13, 1968
Dear George and Mary,
How are you both, my dears? It is absurdly wrong (I had meant to write LONG) since I wrote, so that I scarcely know where to gather up the threads. But here we are, committed to the bankrupt isle, petrol at #1 per 3 gallons, the pound visibly melting, the first frosts of winter, Justine conducting the school orchestra, a de Kooning show at the Tate, and our he-cat an inveterate pisser banned the house for his misdeeds.
The last I heard of you, you had met our very old friends the Schultzes. The next I heard of them, they were divorced. We were quite boulversés. What happens to people? Is it Governor Reagan poisoning the atmosphere?
Another old friend, Donald Davie (an admirer of yours, George) has given up the island and gone to teach at Stanford for ever … It WOULD be nice to be paid decently for one’s exertions, as one is not here but is there.
I said No to Hamilton because of Brook Cottage and this valley. I can’t see any other reason except it’s darn godawful cold up there.
That anthology still floats between publishers, now reposing with Stuart Montgomery, tho’ I can’t imagine Zuk wd. consent to appearing in it. I saw Basil Bunting recently who confirms that L. Z. is on the point of being just plain crazy and eaten by envy. Envy! At his age.
Do you still have your Brooklyn flat, or have you said farewell to the fourmillante cité for ever?
Let me wish you both a very happy Xmas and all the best for 1969.
Brenda joins me with love, — write soon! —
Charles / B / J2
December 24, 1968
O Tomlinsons Tomlins great son and daughters how wonderful to hear from you. How long IS it since we wrote? Not knowing where you would be, not knowing, or fearing we could not know
I can’t tell you how absurdly (and officiously) happy I am. If you had left that stone house and those meadows they would have ceased to exist for us, and I would have missed them sorely. I think even of those terrible TV towers: it seems to me I love them, tho surely I hate them, as you do. I don’t seem to know how to say it. Just that the place is yours, perhaps. That you can hate them with so much passion and clarity and with so clear a right As if, once, they weren’t there
We little American boys! We never can forget - - I don’t know why - - the Western wind and the small rain that never could, really, fall on us The Tomlinsons in a prospect of American College ‘living rooms’ would have been the death of something, of an island, a rocky island nation, sunk - - with its beautiful language. Lovely enchanting language, Sugar-cane / Honey of roses, whither art thou fled The wrong words: no honey, no sugar-cane surely, but the right cadence
And as for us: What news? When did we last write We who have been driven out of Brooklyn: the house being torn down. But that’s different. When they tear down your block, you’re more a Brooklynite than ever. No loss of identity: with every brick that falls to rubble we become more American When the country crumbles - - and I think it may - - we’ll be autochthonos at last
And S F is lovely A little difficult for us. I’ve thought always of the East as a home-coming. Maybe a delusory home coming wrapped in the myths of childhood, a homecoming to childhood. But S F is a homecoming to my adolescence. And, sure enough, it gets under my skin a little, my thin, unfamiliar, adolescent skin
But its beauty is a pure joy - -
Of the American doings — we quote Brenda to ourselves: ‘The Tories (read ‘conservatives’) are right you know. Of course one can’t vote for them, they’re such pigs, but they’re right’
the others are right too, we’re getting closer to wherever it is we’re going - - - - a wild, a strange, an impossible
voyage. Ora pro nobis
and our love, our very real love to you. You have a home here by this very blue bay whenever you may want it for as long as you want it
- - and I’ll pray, if I can be said ever to pray, for you. Your
island and your Cotswold is maybe the strangest voyage and the farthest
We break up, disperse, dismember - - - - Can a man be said to voyage with his left arm in his right arm, and his head in a pocket?
I don’t know. I’ve mislaid my left hand somewhere, but we’re off!
O we are, we surely are. But who?
Find out when we get there.
Happy Winter Interstices
Lovely enchanting language …: George Herbert, in “The Forerunners”: “Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane, / Honey of roses, whither wilt thou fly?”
as from Brook Cottage
February 8, 1969
Dear George and Mary,
Many thanks for the letters and the lovely gulls — very sprightly looking fellows they are, too, full of the promise of the west coast. I cannot get used to the idea of your Henry St apt being no more — I so loved the view out across the water, seeing the ferry boats go by lit up at night, seeing the sun go down, Liberty a silhouette, the television antennae like masts before the harbour. It was a real place. The red Hopperish façades in Congress Street. The odd way the lights of Manhattan looked green at evening (was it some trick of the water-light in the dusk?). The sound of ships’ sirens. And the water was so beautiful at that time of the evening when one tended to look out, a milky turquoise that gave place to rich black. Place is only place, says T.S.E. What nonsense. Only, indeed.
I was in London a couple of days ago. Wonderful show at the Royal Academy — a centenary exhibition of R.A. paintings. There is a whole room of Constables hung beside Reynolds — a very telling juxtaposition. And the Constables! One became the Complete Patriot confronted by them, thanking God one was of this people and of this climate. What paintings! So sane, so whole. Something to be said for having stayed on — unlike my old friend Donald Davie (we were at Cambridge together) who has gone to Stanford for ever. He is a great admirer of Oppen by the way — prefers him to Williams.
We are going to Hungary in April — a cultural exchange programme, yours truly Exhibit A in the Poetry Section. I was tempted to say no after their complicity in the Czech affair, but then it struck one that in going to meet other poets, one wasn’t going to meet generals. I’m sure these cultural contacts with the west are far more useful than acres of espionage.
I’ve just finished a new book which O.U.P. will be bringing out next autumn. I want it out NEXT WEEK. I can never believe in ‘next autumn.’ However … it’s called The Way of a World.
We have a slight snowfall today and have been watching a fox, very red, on the white field opposite. They seem to venture much nearer habitations in the snowy weather. They have lovely sinuous sloping movements and the young ones, who have seen no humans, seem to have no fear at all.
Let us know how things are going là-bas, and what grrreat things are a-doing in Amurkan literachoor.
All for now.
Love from us all
Ch / Br / J2
the lovely gulls: Photographs of George and Mary with seagulls, Tiburon, California.
February 23, 1969
We keep your lyric of the Brooklyn attic as its memorial
and will think of you in Hungary when April’s here.
We’ll be proud of England, and I will try again to feel AngloSaxon
I can’t, as a matter of fact, NOT. One’s language is one’s country, as you began by saying - - - - which no armor hit lette, ne no high walls - - - - -
My blood thickens again beyond the thickness of water as Fulcrum engages to print a Collected
in England - - HIF no armor lettes that enterprise
We think of you a great deal, we show people The Prospect of Stone (even people who have very little interest in poetry, or almost none at all, and are often overwhelmed by that poem. Perhaps the concept of honorhas been too long absent from these lands) And we tell them about the lovely English children Who don’t know all the angles but are angels, maybe
and our love
which no armor hit lette, ne no high walls: from Piers Plowman.
The Prospect of Stone: “The Picture of J. T. in a Prospect of Stone,” in A Peopled Landscape.
June 6, 1969
Dear George and Mary,
We were delighted this a.m. to receive simultaneously from James Laughlin + my old friend, Donald Davie, news of the Pultizer award. Congratulations and congratulations once more. I do hope now that, moving in the social stratosphere, among them city slickers, you won’t a-be forgettin’ yr old rural friends. Now thar’s temptations to be withstood and what’ll you do if Hollywood asks for the film rights? Beware the sin whirl of Los Angeles and them far beat LSD circles. We were delighted.
I am taking 5 minutes off from exams to scribble this. Just about at the end of my tether. The constant nibbling away of one’s energies, the committees on committees on committees … Heyho.
You’ll like Donald. I’ve known him for over 20 years and only regret he’s left this island with such a distaste for it. God knows here’s enough to rage against, but where ISN’T there?
Justine has won a music scholarship to a posh school.
Gawd knows when we’ll see Americky once more.
Well done, mon vieux; we have been in a fire of excitement all morning over the news — even the exam papers look less leaden than usual.
all our love
Ch J2 Br
the Pulitzer award: for Of Being Numerous.
October 6, 1969
Dear Charles and Brenda
that stone shepherd’s hut is still somewhere in the middle of my mind - -our minds. Strange thing. Us Anglo-Saxons. Or is it an earlier flock of sheep, the Ur-sheep, wandering in my mind?
It is true I can almost feel my beard growing Anyway they wander, and the hut stands still in the elements
To CT in a prospect of stone: let who will trip on melons.
tho, with a touch of the melon, my Collected will be out pretty soon in England, thru Stuart Montgomery
((( the note about the ‘collaboration[’] restored: I don’t know how or in what piece of endless confusion and queries from ND that came to be omitted
This is just to send you regards
the note about the ‘collaboration’: The note that preceded “To C. T.,” when it was originally published in This in Which, acknowledging the poem’s joint authorship.
October 21, 1969
Dear George and Mary,
We were delighted to get your note. I wonder if you ever got my last one — a congratulation on the Pulitzer? for only silence came after it, so I imagine it went astray perhaps.
It has been a long and lovely autumn here, with the frosts keeping off and the great trees retaining their masses of changing foliage. A marvellous season.
Justine has won a music scholarship to a public school, and Juliet has taken up the cello to rival her sister’s violin! So between music lessons and practices and taking the children to different schools, life is pretty busy for Brenda and myself.
I have a new book due this month and I shall be sending you a copy once I have some. O.U.P. have descended to this habit of using the poet’s photograph for a cover and I dislike it. More personality cult.
We were in Hungary last Easter — I was invited by their Institute of Cultural Affairs — one example of Brit, poet. A sad country, stoically going a middle way and heavily conscious of its geographic fate — Ismenes, not Antigones, they feel the Czechs are (were) rocking the leaky boat. Interesting and dispiriting.
All our American friends seem to be dying or divorcing. And no sooner had the Schulzes divorced than their 17 year old son killed himself. It has all been very upsetting.
But it is bright light to know you are both there. You aren’t all those miles and miles a tedious accident. Ach! Ach!
Fulcrum accepted my ‘objectivists’ anthology. Then Louis refused to be included. So, that’s that. I suggested to Montgomery that we drop him and use more Oppen and Bronk (not exactly an objectivist!) but S.M. sez no Louis no objectivism. A pity.
Do keep in touch.
Luv and kisses from all us Anglo-Saxons
Ch. Br J2
[Undated: c. October 1969]
Dear Charles and Brenda:
- - - yes, my letter must have strayed - - -
Perhaps attempting to reach you on your travels?
but indeed I wrote
Juliet and the cello!
she was rather smaller than a viola when last seen - - - - But music! I told you, I told you, all the daughters were beautiful And tomlin’s son is
too bad about the anthology But Montgomery’s right: the word is Louis’
((did you see that set of interviews: Rakosi, Rezi, me[,] Louis in Contemporary Literature (U of Wisconsin?) Hardly could have, I imagine. Will send you a copy By slow mail But it’ll be on its way
I had (most brashly) arranged myself a reading tour here - - - some twelve readings And woke up one night in the absolute certainty that I could not do it Sent wires cancelling Mess, mess, you can imagine the mess But everyone startlingly kind
but cannot, cannot, perhaps particularly with the expansion of voice in Numerous, I cannot make a chautauqua of it, cannot put myself so thoroughly INTO it, so irreversibly into it, like a Ginsberg. Can’t Or it wouldn’t be good for me.
May have sort of wrecked myself, but if Mary doesn’t mind (she most vigorously does not), well
Like washing locomotives. And this is Friday
all regards all regards I await the book with impatience
that set of interviews: with L. S. Dembo, in Contemporary Literature 10, no. 2 (Spring 1969).
washing locomotives: A job Tomlinson once had.
November 3, 1969
Dear George and Mary
THAT, said Brenda, is the thing to do with reading tours — cancel ’em. Good Lord, yes, when one looks at what Ginsberg has done since Kaddish, there’s a cautionary tale. What wet and windy stuff it is. Good going, mon cher frère poétique.
Juliet ain’t so much bigger than a viola now. Extraordinarily lively. Imagination chiefly excremental. She’s managed to deform the witches in Macbeth to:
‘Where do you get your character from?’ Justine exasperatedly asked her only today. ‘God,’ she replied. She wrote an essay the other day called ‘I am a Seagull,’ concluding ‘And so I flew back to my house under the cliff and I am still there if I have not died.’ So much for the omniscient narrator!
I shall greatly look forward to the U of Wis interviews — Many thanks. I am editing a book of essays on W.C.W. for Penguin Books. You haven’t given birth to a magnum opus thereon, George, have you?
We’ve just been letting off our fireworks for Nov. 5th — it’s Nov 3rd, but the kids are on holiday for half-term, and if they let ’em off Nov 5th they won’t be fit for school the day after. With a high wind a-blowing, we didn’t dare light our bonfire, so old Guy Fawkes still sits in a bathtub awaiting his [word erased].
Book out Nov 27. Will send as soon as I get it. Re reading tours, you may be amused by A Dream therein which begins ‘Yevtushenko, Voznezensky and I / were playing to a full house.’
Love from us all
book of essays: William Carlos Williams: A Critical Anthology (Penguin, 1972).
Book out Nov 27: The Way of a World.
2811 Polk Street
10 November 1969
‘- - - where DO you get your character - -’ I feel for Justine: I imagine Juliet as extremely Upper Class in a dreamy sort of way - - - - Who could cope with it? what sister, above all - -
and I had forgotten to write you of the review of Rezi’s Family Chronicle in the TLS, exhibited to me by ND. More CT, I thought, than typical of the TLS The TLS, to the best of my knowledge, not having achieved heretofore a sensitivity which enters the world of the poet - - - - -
O do thank Brenda for her support in Time of the Breaking of Contracts I need support But I was very near the loss of poetry, I think - - - - Lost to one’s personal pride, one’s theatrical system - - - - The world ill lost for love of self.
Saved! I think And I would ask nothing better than to be greeted by the Tomlinsons; as I crawl up on the beach spitting or gurgling salt-water.
and god help us all. My God, what a path we walk!
(it’s been admitted to me maybe grudgingly - - that Joao Cabral cancelled on the same day with a similar letter - - - - The good or even fairly good who don’t die young possess a skill of self-defense It seems
Problems other than these, Charles: I had foreseen the three books, and looked forward to a Collected, which would be, I was sure, a single book - - a coherent book – - I did ’em … Becoming, at the end, impatient? I think you felt so Certainly I loosened or dramatized the verse for Numerous I am not myself dissatisfied with that decision - - it is in the title itself, it cannot be done otherwise without distortion Or so I believe
But the next step! I have to get beyond, and - - - - Perhaps I’ve begun. In a way. Numerous got further than I had known it would: the first step has been to recover from being overwhelmed by my own book to fall out of love with it
and perhaps I’ve managed that in all this affair.
But the rest not clear to me. I have a considerable group of new poems, but they go pretty much over the same ground I would not make a book of them - -
so I am perhaps quite deeply unsuited for fame Obviously, should get a new book out. Whereas on the contrary I mean to take a very long time - - - quite a number of years
showing again that one never decides anything. It is always decided FOR one - - - tho by ‘his’-self Seems to be how it is
I don’t believe it could be said that I have relinquished concern for the thing we are talking about, in favor of the concern for what I say about it I would consider that, too, a loss of poetry. I don’t think it can be charged with such an act. Simply, the thing we talked about in Numerous cannot be reached in quite the same way as one can reach ‘the materials’ alone - - - Or so I think
But I know you had some reservations about the book
not sure we’re not dealing AGAIN with my non-nativeness: I have no authorization for my character - - Can Juliet be right? the demonic, of course, has not occurred to her as a source
- - or she was firmly denying it
More CT, I thought, than typical of the TLS: Oppen had read the anonymous review of Charles Reznikoff’s Family Chronicle in The Times Literary Supplement, July 31, 1969, and correctly surmised that it had been written by Tomlinson.
In a vertical side-note related to the paragraph ending ‘Or so I think’: [[this, in a way, useless discussion for my part. there was, is, no way thru for me but thru Numerous]]]
reservations about the book: Tomlinson’s note: “Only about one phrase in the book!”
[Undated: c. 1969]
finally got the ms of the Collected completed -- proof corrected, some author’s revisions (slight) and new poems … the note on the Letter to CT restored, and another conversation with CT: (in a longish poem)
. . . . .
In the stones
To a poetry of statement
At close quarters
A living mind
‘and that one’s own’
what then what spirit
of the bent seas
of the tide
in the moon streak
. . . .
. . . .
ms of the Collected: Collected Poems (Fulcrum Press, 1972).
Prosody // Sings // In the stones: See section 5, “Some San Francisco Poems,” in Seascape: Needle’s Eye, 1972.
February 20, 1970
the place of Eden and ‘the wind
That rings with meaninglessness where it sang its meaning’
Where! Meaning place!
the cruel mercy of solidities, the poetry of a life for anyone with ears. And a mind
… the untwistable, unravellable Chances of Rhyme - - the dizzying definition of circumstance to complete its orderly, incorrigible paradox, the ends of the enduring rhyme ‘are windows opening above that which lay unperceived until the wall of the house was completed at that point, over that sea.’
In that sea - - tho we are not prisoners of the thing seen - - you and I meet again. Full Circle.
Prisoners only of that sea
I’ve inveterately punned - - if it’s a pun - - on Tomlins’ Sons and the beautiful winds saying all the sons were brave I knew what I was saying The book is noble
(The Fulcrum Collected will have a few of the new poems, a start toward a new book, tho I am not sure of them. - - old age, an age of which I ineluctably see the outcome I seem to have no choice in either case. Prisoner of - - - what is it?
But not so far gone in prisoner-ship that I do not ring with your pride And am safe, like you, from ‘terrible leisure.’ I hope to knock again on the door of that stone cottage so nobly, truly nobly defended
with all regards, with very great respect
I am recovering from — they are calling it Grippe this year. I cannot write an adequate letter But the poems ring
and ring. and sing their meaning.
the wind That rings with meaninglessness: “Eden,” in The Way of a World.
the cruel mercy of solidities: “Prometheus,” in The Way of a World.
Chances of Rhyme: “The Chances of Rhyme,” in The Way of a World.
the ends of the enduring rhyme ‘are windows opening …’: “A Process,” in The Way of a World.
not prisoners of the things seen: “the quality of vision is never a prisoner of the thing seen,” “A Process.”
sing their meaning: “where it sang its meaning,” “Eden.”
February 23, 1970
Dear George & Mary,
Your letter was immensely cheering — it arrived five minutes ago — and one does need the love and approval of ‘one’s peers.’ The reviewers have made little of the book, and yet I did and do think I have made a clear mode of speech there — the speech that permits one to eschew sloganising, ‘howling,’ exaggeration, but is firm, self-responsible and — in the full sense — well-mannered. When I see what THEY have to say of one, I am first of all amazed, at the obtuseness of the critics, just impersonally amazed, then the anger flashes through one — the sense of how many years it will take one’s words to be heard, to count in the general babel. Shall I, say twenty years from now, still be receiving this same measured insolence from (yes) slavish minds? A wearying thought! But why should I grumble when I have friends like you! If you see, BASTA! But I have, I confess it, been depressed by the failure to have the measure, the just measure taken, of what one has done. Damn them all. And thank you from the very bottom of my heart.
I do hope that somewhere we shall meet again. You know that there is always a bed for you here (the house is warmer now — properly roofed and better heated!) and you have only to say the word. We wd. love to see you.
How marvellous to hear of the Fulcrum Collected. That will be a great day for all of us.
Did you ever send me that objectivists interview? I’d greatly like to see it.
I find inoculation a la gripe WORKS!
Hugs and kisses
Ch / Br
Fulcrum Collected: Collected Poems (Fulcrum Press, 1972).
March 4, 1970
England, I gather from your letter, has discovered the Beats (twenty years late) and fears that you have not
‘the’ critics are ALWAYS wrong.
But they’ll come to your book. Late, slowly, reluctantly, but they’ll come
Mailing this day the Obj. interviews Thought I had Sure I had, as a matter of fact: in this collapsing nation the mails are becoming dramatically unreliable
((The MAILMEN have discovered the Beats! I don’t deplore or regret it, but it’s inconvenient))
May 1, 1970
Dear G and M,
Many thanks for Comparative Literature. It is heartening to have ‘a man speaking to men’ — heartening (and I ain’t boasting) to think I heard you clear that very day seven years ago when I picked out The Materials unprompted — it is the very clarity of the voice I am getting at, not my critical whatever. And it is there once more in the interview … When you speak of using ‘the line-ending simply as the ending of a line, a kind of syncopation etc,’ do you feel this is a fault in WCW?
I moaned about those reviews of my book. Then Oxford sent me a whole packet of them: not ONE intelligent voice — not one — the hostile stupidity incredible! Then a week later, I picked up that odd little magazine Adam (published by the U. of Rochester) and it contained one of the most perspicacious notices I’ve ever received. What a relief it is to be heard. But what odd holes and corners one has to blossom in!
Thanks once more. Many thanks indeed.
All our love to you
Charles / Brenda
P.S. How is Linda these days? Think! — I’ve never met her
Comparative Literature: Contemporary Literature 10, no. 2 (Spring 1969).
The following are the collected letters of poets George Oppen and Charles Tomlinson, as transcribed by Richard Swigg for the feature “Addressing one’s peers: The letters of Charles Tomlinson and George Oppen, 1963–1981.” This section of the correspondence spans the years 1966–67.
March 20, 1966
Dear George and Mary,
Elizabeth Kray tells me you have kindly offered a loan of 500 dollars to facilitate our transatlantic flight. Never was so much good news heard by so few for so much or whatever. Would it be rude to ask for this most useful advance now that the time is here to pay for tickets ?!? Many thanks. If we cross in the mails, just forget this!
We are due to arrive in N. York International Airport, at 2.30 on the afternoon of April 11th, then (oh dear!) off next day to Utica. When I say ‘we’ I mean just Brenda and me. It’s good that we’ve been able to lodge the children chez their grandmother.
We greatly look forward to seeing you both and an air of elation now adds a certain glory to the advancing spring with its primroses and violets.
Forgive brevity — a busy time with term pressing to its end.
Love and anticipation
Elizabeth Kray: Executive director of the Academy of American Poets.
July 28, 1966
Your book, as so frequently happens to us, much delayed in forwarding. Worth waiting for. An increasing consistency - or is it that the growing body of work builds, as you called it once, a landscape? But I see more clearly a deliberate effort to rebuild a demolished land.
The man afoot: the American sketches, it occurs to me now, sharpen the fact. You were so amused by the results of being whirled about in American cars.
I think the sound deepens in the new book. I think more and more of the poem to J T as the enunciation of your themes, of your sense of honor - - . We thank you for the book. There is so little poetry - - if you’ll excuse my loose style once more - - there is so little poetry which actually matters at all.
Our regards and thanks
your book: Seeing Is Believing (McDowell, Obolensky, 1958; Oxford University Press, 1960).
the new book: American Scenes.
August 8, 1966
Dear George and Mary,
It was good to get your note and to know Seeing is Believing had arrived. One does want a few people to see and believe one’s things.
I am working on that anthology — have typed quantities of Oppen, but still have to get done Narrative and 5 Poems on Poetry. Could you let me have a short biographical note — place of birth, place of any bits you think relevant. I hesitate to ask Louis his (year of birth), since I fear he’s going to prove awkward and intend to work through his English publishers on rights. Can you tell me where he was born? Also Reznikoff, please? Many thanks. Was Stevens in An Objectivists Anthology or is my mind misrembering? Was Eliot? I ought to have photostatted the title page but thought my memory wd. carry the load.
I re-read your prose piece, ‘The Mind’s Own Place’ in Kulchur 10. I must say it’s extraordinarily well done with some most memorable formulations. The truth does seem to get told. Eventually.
What a lovely time that was in New York! Thanks for it once more.
All our love,
that anthology: Seven Significant American Poets, with poems by Louis Zukofsky, Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi, and James Laughlin. It was never to be published, because Zukofsky refused to appear in it.
August 16, 1966
Venerable as one sees me now, he would little believe that I began life as a simple infant in New Rochelle, NY, in nineteen-O-eight. The story may well give hope and courage to younger men.
Zuk was born, also in youthful circumstances, in New York City (Manhattan) in 1904 Rezi also NY - - in 1894, I think, but I am not sure of the precise year. Old times, old times, there were men in those days, but we were not. We were infants.
Eliot’s Marina in Objectivist, O my daughter. No Stevens, alas my son.
I am horrified and covered with guilt to think of you typing other men’s poetry.
- - if there remains time, I can write to N D (I have no books here) to ask them to send you two copies of each paperback - - clipped, it would surely make a good enough ms?
Let me know
I’m particularly pleased you like - - ‘accept’ - - the Mind’s Own Place. Many people very huffy at the time. Not, they said, a matter of position - - I believe they thought it ‘crude’
We’ve both written often by implication of courage, and I suspect we both know quite a lot about it. Not, of course, thru being fearless. And therefore, as always, best regards,
October 20, 1966
Dear Charles and Brenda
Your postcard-picture, or your comment about it, threw me into a strange state I’ve encountered often, and been unable to speak of at all clearly. Your remark that people walked is a thing I’d forgotten, or not sufficiently recognized as a factor in the meaning of those places. We encounter these things now as areas where some work is being done, where one goes for a specific purpose. They were once an environment. Maybe nothing’s an environment now.
Merry Christmas to you anyway - - Winter solstice, actually, isn’t it? - - Well, anyway, a merry astronomical Christmas to you.
(Our language is our country. On the whole a great country. Fails to become astronomical, but resists smog)
George + M.
October 22, 1966
Wonderful to have the Necklace, Charles. The early poems by themselves: the clear core, ‘morning / extinguishes everything save light.’ The beginning - - all the more moving now that one knows where it has led, where it has led so far. I had not before seen this poem clearly, and its four stages of man. Tho it is clear; but I hadn’t altogether seen.
The Bead - - the single bead itself? the single bead of the necklace? Taking on here additional clarity, and there emerges more clearly the choice involved: the solitude, candor and self-sufficiency, necessary to find clarity. Surely the force of all words comes from their silence
‘The flute speaks (reason’s song …)’
an ethic, an aesthetic, and without bothering the philosophic systems and the Critique I will say, with the poem, reason itself.
It’s a greater joy than I can say to have this collection among your work.
All our regards to all the Tomlinsons - - we think of you often. Ozleworth; of all unlikely names! to mark an absolute for us, a position at least.
I regret that I’ve stolen only a barometer from you, Charles: there’s a lot worth stealing.
the clear core, ‘morning extinguished …’: “At the clear core, morning / Extinguishes everything save light,” from “The Bead,” in The Necklace (Oxford University Press, 1966).
‘The flute speaks (reason’s song …)’: “Flute Music,” in The Necklace.
stolen only a barometer: see Tomlinson’s poems “The Barometer” and “Wind” (American Scenes) together with section 12 of Oppen’s “Route” (Of Being Numerous): “The weight of air / Measured by the barometer in the parlor / Time remains what it was // Oddly, oddly insistent.”
October 22, 1966
Dear George and Mary,
It was good to get your letter. I am ashamed not to have written before, but the summer has been rather chaotic — I had a kidney operation (minor) in June; a month later Brenda found she was pregnant and had a lousy beginning; a month after that we all caught flu; Brenda went on to a serious haemorrhage and ultimately a miscarriage and was dashed to hospital. She’s recovering but tires easily and the emotional strain was intense and searching. It will be a month or two before she gets properly well.
The problem of our American trip is as follows: we want to park the kids and come together, but the granny isn’t altogether well. If we can’t put them in storage I shall have to scrape around to bring ’em. If we do bring ’em, I imagine Brenda wd. have to stay in N. York while I fared north. We shd. fly in on April 9th; 11th I go upstate, leaving on Sunday evening. Fulfill upstate circuit through April 22, return to New York, leave 29th. I hope we can park the kids here in England if only to give me the protection of B’s presence on the upstate tour. Your sister’s offer is terribly kind and, from the point of view of getting to places sounds very nice, but we don’t want to miss seeing you both all we can and if the kids come along, despite their rigorous 18th century drilling, they might not fit into an 18th c setting, and anyhow there might not be desire for or room for the little beasts. The very real attraction of 79th St is that with only a week to go at things, one is on the very threshold, so to speak.
So where are we now? What do YOU think best in the light of all this and the fact we like a quiet life??
We greatly look forward to the trip. It is a beacon ahead in the sea of another year’s teaching. I must say, after spending the better part of sixteen years in one kind of teaching job or another, I begin to yearn for a year out — no sabbaticals here tho’. I am tired of advising people.
We do hope you are both keeping in the best of health. Give us your advice about N. York, wd. you? The fact is, I can picture us all very cosy là bas chez vous deux.
Ch. & Br.
February 1, 1967
C + B + J2
I don’t know what’s happened to the mathematics of friendship, or the geography: we seem to have become a repeating decimal or a Cordillera -- - We’re leaving (not for Nassau: never again) but for San Francisco on November 1st! Be there till about April.
We’ve told Linda and Alex (daughter, you’ll remember, and son-in-law) to use the apartment whenever they wish - - they being in Princeton, and having occasional use for an overnight room in N Y. At least presumably. Have to check with them to make sure they haven’t planned to use the place over Christmas vacation. If they haven’t - - and it’s unlikely that they have - - we’ll mail you the keys
in which case you could leave the books in the apartment. Otherwise mail to S F (careful careful, the Rezi is not replacable) ((I know, you know that - - just me nerves))
We’re more sorry than I can say to miss seeing you, including the J2 - - - - Maybe sometime soon.
((( Jonathan Cape says it is about to print me - - - but haven’t yet sent a contract. We’ll see)))
February 18, 1967
Dear George and Mary,
We were delighted to receive the copy of the new volume. It is surprising that so ascetic a beginning as Discrete Series could lead to so public and four-square a statement as these poems, arising from their strong private centres, tentative where they must be (as in the Whitman quote) but standing there so, so stripped and solid in the light of public day. A most moving and heartening document. A measure of what integrity can achieve. I was very struck by the way, in the Alsace piece, that the prose, George, recalled the prose of Rezi’s early Testimony, so terrifyingly and accurately on the mark without false pathos — no ‘dreams on the structure’ there . Last week I did a lecture on the Oppen opera, with no dreams on the structure as leit motiv. And no falsely prophetic gestures. I have been reading Duncan’s Of the War — there are impressive bits, but when he becomes conscious of making a public statement he gets slack and Ginsbergy (I mean Ginsberg of the simpler repetitive structures), then turns on a Blakeian howl (as in B’s France and America) about Johnson being like Hitler and Stalin, and Goldwater (Goldwater!) Satanic. These strike me as being factually and emotionally inaccurate. One doesn’t improve matters by exaggeration. Goldwater belongs in The Dunciad not Paradise Lost. I do dislike this emotional slackness of people anarchistically inclined like Duncan. End of sermon … Or not quite. You do the thing properly with ‘An event as ordinary /As a President.’ The word ‘ordinary’ gets precisely what apocalyptic yowling misses. Hurrah. Oppen for King!
When the MS arrived I’d sent off the anthol, so whether at this point I can work any more into it remains to be seen. I’m fairly pleased with it, tho’ it is difficult, indeed impossible to specify what goes wrong with Zuk in such a book. If I can get Horses section from ‘A’ into general circulation — that’ll be something anyhow.
You know, we do regret that you don’t live just round the corner so that we could walk over of an evening …
May I hang on to this MS? Let me know if you want it back. You have done, George, what we all WANT to do. You have kept it up.
Ch, Br, etc.
copy of the new volume: the manuscript of Of Being Numerous (New Directions, 1968).
the Alsace piece: in “Route,” in Of Being Numerous.
‘dreams on the structure’: quotation from “Chartres,” in The Materials: “the lesser // Are dreams on the structure.”
Goldwater: Barry Goldwater, 1964 presidential candidate.
574 Chestnut St
(till Sunday June 1st or thereabouts)
[undated but probably February 28, 1967]
on the despairs and fulminations of the anti-war poems, your ‘belong in the Dunciad not Paradise Lost’ is wonderful. Indeed I wish you (youse: plural) ‘lived just round the corner so we could walk over of an evening.’
I realized the ms of the new book would hardly arrive in time to influence your editing - - It was intended largely as an epistle. I’d very much like you to keep it. I think my primary connection and the address of the poem is to those who know something of how to weather; in your phrase, ‘to keep it up.’ And I would like to know that you have the ms.
regards to all of you
April 14, 1967
Dear George and Mary,
It looks as if we are going to be just around the corner after all — or almost!
I have been offered the O’ Connor Chair in Eng Lit at Colgate Uni., Hamilton, N.Y. — September to December. So we shall all be coming over. Thus we undo our profits!
Hamilton’s very nice — elegant and white in a Fenimore Cooper setting (about 20 miles from Cooperstown in fact). I guess we shall move over about September 1st.
Haven’t landed a publisher for that anthol yet. Curiously enough it’s Laughlin, Niedecker and Bronk they don’t seem to get. What fools these mortals be. Ah well, one of these days.
See yiz soon, my dears.
Ch. and Br.
April 28, 1967
Dear C, B, J and J Tomlinson (in their prospect of stone, facing now the prospect of snow) But yes, we know Hamilton, it is indeed very lovely, very beautiful, once you become accustomed to wearing enough clothes, which means mittens, boots, the works -- - Truly, it is beautiful. I had heard that Colgate was doing something about literature, tho I forget who spoke to us about it - - - and there’ll be a very fine Oppen-Tomlinson reunion in N Y. It’ll improve N Y and be the making of Hamilton
ask for anything we can do to assist the cavalcade
(Hope Juliet hasn’t quite up and gone crackers. But our love in any case
change of address: 2154 Mason, San Francisco. N Y, of course, long before September.
August 2, 1967
Dear George and Mary,
Time goes so swiftly — I suddenly realised that in a month we shall be in New York! Would it be possible or convenient to pass a few nights with you — that is, all four of us!?
We arrive September 1st and should probably be in Hamilton by September 5th. Perhaps air would be the best way there? Could I trouble you to find out for me whether there would be a family plan N. York to Syracus (or Utica) and what the price of air fare wd. be on Tuesday September 5th? Many thanks.
It is very exciting to think we shall be seeing you so soon. Did I tell you we got to Spoleto this year? Fare paid! All very pleasant — Spoleto a lovely little town.
All our love,
Charles, Brenda, J2
[Undated: c. August 1967]
Dear Tomlin and Tomlinswife and Tomlinsdaughters
(you have by now my wire: I have your letter. They crossed. I was distrustful of the mails)
-- - torn indeed between Colgate and the under-edge. I can see that. To J T in a prospect of - - - what? The cottage in Glos is very beautiful And the US might absorb 18 thousand a year - - - - tho not really. It would be a very satisfactory income. Well: you’ll decide.
it would be very pleasant to have you here --
Wotton on edge or the coal gate?
but I don’t know what you felt about Colgate. I do wish we’d been in N Y. We could have talked and felt again, I think, at home together
Little Deer Isle
[Undated: c. late August 1967]
Dear Charles - - - Brenda and the J’s of Sade - -
Diane Wakoski was - - briefly - - about to use our apartment when we left. We had told her you should be arriving about the 1st of Sept, and no doubt she’s out by now. We’ll write her to make sure,
Diane was in considerable distress. By no means in condition for thoughtful domesticity. And broke. She may never have moved in - - she hasn’t written - - In which case the place will be covered with dust and the windows grimy, etc. If she did move in - - - - anything may be the case.
we have only four sheets: they may all be unwashed. Or the dishes. or You decide if you want to risk it: you are, as you know, more than welcome. Keys enclosed.
Mary writing to our travel-agent lady who will send you the information and the tickets. She’ll charge them (an americanism: I mean to say, she’ll give credit)
And again welcome.
((Mail the keys back if you decide against))
the J’s of Sade: Justine and Juliette are two novels by the Marquis de Sade.
2811 Polk St
(You Ninety States)
[Undated: c. Fall 1967]
Dear Charles +
Herewith the keys Sorry for the delay. Been moving in. I do wish you + could visit here - - San Francisco surely is the most beautiful city Which is not to say we don’t feel strange - - we feel pretty odd ducks. So, I think, does everyone here, and no doubt all of us are right. That is to say, we are. But the city is beautiful. Clear, clean, sharp, and the bay below the city - - Strange, jagged San Francisco in clear air And us in a 1910 house; back porch, front living room - - - - what we wanted. I figure: it’ll be me, and the house should be a house.
Nice to dream of you-all visiting. I suppose it’s impossible - - - Well, nice to think of you packing in to the Brooklyn nest
(Haight-ashbury - - the Hippie area - - looks like Dunkirk, the beach at Dunkirk - - shreds and tatters of uniforms, begging from the civilians, a defeated army. We outlast them, you an me. These kids deceived themselves: it’s easy to
‘love’ everyone if you don’t love anyone)
Welcome to Brooklyn
[Speak to the neighbors downstairs Walter and Rita Southworth. Nice people. They worry about robbers when they hear strangers upstairs. And
they’d like to talk to a Hinglish family - - I promised them. Use a little strong language, maybe.
all our love
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 1964–65.
February 3, 1964
Dear George and Mary,
It was good to know you are having an interesting time là on tout n’est qu’ ordre et beauté, luxe, calme et volupté or whatever.
Sorry you didn’t get my note to Brooklyn. Silly of me, all the same, to write to B’lyn. April 10th will be fine. Will you be flying to Bristol direct or will you be entraining from London? Let me know your plans and we’ll meet you whatever alternative you follow.
In my letter to B’lyn, I wrote, in part, to say that there’s an excellent — i.e. intelligent as to content and laudatory as to manner — account of The Materials in current number of The Review (England’s just-about leading poetry mag.) Very enspiriting. I’ll show you when you come rather than commit it to slow mail. The bloke (one Tom Clark) sees how the poems work and has useful things to say on the score of their syntax. There, George, did you REALISE you have SYNTAX?
I trust the muse is kind in your mild winter there.
We look forward immensely to your visit — more than once Brenda has chirped out of the evening silence: ‘I am pleased the Oppens are coming, aren’t you?’ I am indeed.
All the best
là on tout n'est qu' ordre et beauté: Charles Baudelaire, “L’invitation au voyage.”
May 17, 1964
Dear George and Mary,
It was good to know that you have arrived home safe after your travels, but sad to realise how far you are from ‘just around the corner.’
The vicar returned today — Sunday — the first call since you were here! We were paganly luxuriating in sun on the lawn. He brought a gift of cream. The church owns glebe land, but the farmer who rents it is often behind with his payments and buys the Rev. Clegg’s good nature with far more cream than four Cleggs combined can stomach.
We attended a performance of Britten’s setting of Noyes Fludde in Cirencester Abbey the other day and joined in the hymns right lustily — the local kids played hand-bells and blew bugles and (as cats, mice, camels etc.) sang Kyrie eleison as they filed aboard and a canonical Alleluia as they disembarked.
… Will the London book trade undertake an Oppen? …
Since you were here we have explored the Roman villa at Chedworth and seen other things that you must NEXT year — another family church, more beautifully kept and decorated, Mary, than Boxwell where we walked. And we (i.e., we and you) MUST see the abbeys.
I took our Amer. friend over to look at the great tile barn at Bradford-on-Avon (5–6 miles from Bath -- another place for NEXT year) and we found the local grammar school performing As You Like It inside, the whole arranged as at the first performance with a local belle enthroned centrally and dressed as Elizabeth I. I think you wd. have loved this — fanfares and all from the boy trumpeters.
I took just a peek at Louis’ Bottom this p.m. but it’s been a very rear-guard action so far. Ars gratia artis.
I asked J. about those French translations of his verse and he replied by sending them + all his other books: the poems are as gracious as the gift. Why is it the anthologists so consistently ignore him? He has a lovely ear, an immensely clear diction and — yes — the authority of wisdom urged without any of the trappings: family life, the war, the uncertain peace. If this were not a miserable age, J.L. wd. be a popular poet in the best sense.
A very old friend of ours, Justine Schulz, will be in N. York this summer and wd. very much like to meet you. We shared a house with her and Juergen S. in London ten years ago and they now live in Berkeley and I think you would like them.
What a lovely stay that was, your being here!
Love. Ch. B. J2
The vicar returned: Tomlinson described the earlier occasion in Some Americans: A Personal Record (University of California Press, 1981): “In England, nine months after our meeting, the Oppens were at Ozleworth on an afternoon when the vicar called. Conversation turned on the New English Bible, and I expended a good deal of wasted wrath on our pastor’s admiration for this moribund document. He explained that in order to make sure that its idiom was truly current the committee had consulted a bishop’s secretary. George was far more of a marksman than I with my incoherent rage. As the vicar was about to leave, George said with a sort of courteous finality, ‘The next time you translate the Bible, call in a carpenter — and make sure he’s a Jewish carpenter.’”
Louis’ Bottom: Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare (1963).
I asked J. about those French translations of his verse: James Laughlin, Certaines Choses Naturelles (Seghers, 1963), later reviewed by Tomlinson (see letter 27).
J2: The Tomlinsons’ young daughters, Justine and Juliet.
July 3, 1964
My (our) dear Mary and George,
It’s shameful of us not to have written long before this, to thank you for (a) Heidegger’s Introd. to Metaphysics which I hope to get down to now term is (just) over (b) the photographs taken at Bath (how silly of us not to have taken you both there) and (c) the lovely pressed flowers, head-bands etcera which the children have rec’d with delight. How lovely the little view from B’lyn Heights! Thank you so much.
We do wish you cd. see our lane now the trees are full out — next year you must come a little later — late May or early June — it’s all so much richer, luxurianter, bigger than when it was leafless in April–May. Yesterday we discovered a charming, mostly Regency-Victorian seaside resort on the other side of Bristol —: Clevedon — quite a little gem, obviously unpopular bec’ mostly shingle and mud (no sand) but a beautiful iron-work pier, handsome grey-stone streets, esplanade, cliff-walk, church (where Arthur Hallam is buried — he of In Memoriam), a real cimitière marin, the marble crosses very white in the sea light, the town shapely and curtailed by a sudden upsurge of cliff which leads one into sudden open country articulated by a far-winding sea-wall. We came back painfully bronzed but pleased with ourselves at our discovery (Needless to say Justine prefers BIG vulgar Weston-Super-Mare where there is sand — and donkeys!)
Did the London publisher bite, George ?
Once more, many thanks & lots of love
Ch. and Br, J2
P.S. If our friend Justine Schultz looks you up I think you’ll like her.
P.P.S. That Replansky book very original. I do hope she’ll go ahead. Some absolutely 1st-rate things. Justine spotted the Ratless Cat for herself! Wrote it out too! I told N.R.
That Replansky book: Ring Song by Naomi Replansky (Scribner, 1952).
the Ratless Cat: one of the poems in Ring Song.
[Undated: c. July 1964]
Dear Charles, Brenda
and their descendants forever:
Yes, I sent the Heidegger. Also sent a collection of Diane Wakoski and Armand Schwerner printed by Hawk’s Well Press. Feared that Hawk’s Well may send out almost no review copies at all, and thought the two books of some interest. As I type this I find myself wondering whether I so value good poetry for itself, as a shield and antidote against the bad. I thought for a moment of settling for none at all - - - - what with one thing and another - -?
A ghost of some Frankish monster - - maybe Baudelaire - - stalks Schwerner, but I think you’ll find the verse interesting at least.
No - - no bites from English publishers. Except the Resuscitator wrote to ask for contributions. By which I am feeling very slightly resuscitated - - a mirror held before my lips in the fogs of London might show fog. I sent them, in order to be as un-foggy as possible, the collaboration To C.T. Hands across the sea. Hanover Hand across the sea.
We think of England! Indeed England was so pleasant. Is it good for Poetry? Whereas here we are killing considerable numbers of people in the streets, and god know[s] we aren’t good enough for that. Stay me with Cummings? Succor me with Oppen?
I don’t suppose I really think of the ‘state of poetry’ in terms approaching the statistical. It’s a matter of one or two poets in any country, and England has CT and the peopled landscape. A difficult thing for an American poet to feel that of his own country. I think of the people - - I think there is such a thing as humanity, and moreover that no one could exist without it. And I think also of the land. Of the people and the land. And they seem to be standing on a pane of glass. And I would so very much rather say otherwise. I keep dreaming of a poem of final affirmation. Can’t, probably, be done. The ear itself knows better, and rebels. We can say something of - - well, what I think I’ve got hold of a little at the end of the Narrative, and we can speak of a peopled landscape - - even the Americans in their own way - - and I think that’s all we will have. We will live by that if by anything.
Not particularly smug, but I guess we can do it.
Regards - - and many memories of Wotton under edge - -
I just tell everyone of the baby saying ‘Charming’ And of Justine’s, ‘I have a little honey when I’m poorly.’ No one believes it, but I tell them and I TELL them - -
As you said, one must retain the hierarchies, I tell em and I tell em - - But they don't believe us.
It is to be considered, tho, that American parents, I think, do not have and can’t have as much confidence - - even as much confidence - - in the schools as the English can have. And so they want the children to ‘participate,[’] they want the children to see them, the parents. The trouble there is, as Mary explained at great length to a very nice young couple we know, that the children do not see the parents living as they, the parents, want to live. They see them embattled and harassed by children - - - arguing over candy. What do they learn, I wonder? O, we tell em - -
collection of Diane Wakoski and Armand Schwerner: Wakoski’s Coins and Coffins (Hawk’s Well Press, 1962) and Schwerner’s The Lightfall (Hawk’s Well Press, 1963).
the Resuscitator: a Bristol University poetry magazine.
as from Ozleworth
August 24, 1964
Dear George and Mary
I write this from Cambridge where we are holidaying and whither the two booklets (for which many thanks) have been forwarded. Schwerner is a complete discovery and I find him most individual. I had read some Wakoski before and was particularly interested to see a whole collection of the things. They intrigue me and yet … and yet … Is it enough to write lucid evocations of one’s psychological state? Dead in the head, a sketchy background of incest, a divorce (?), a Mother, a schizophrenic’s feeling that other-people-are-talking-about-me. Yes, it is well done and tautly written but unless it stands in some more general relation to human fate (i.e., like Baudelaire’s Le Vampire, say) what is to be done with it all? I find this kind of subjectivity, offering itself at its own evaluation, with no conception of some more-than-personal standard, difficult to evaluate. The same thing happens in Trakl -- again, against a background of incest and tingling nerve-ends. It fascinates me, but I want something else in the poetry to ‘place’ its situations or its hints of situations. She reminds me of Anne Hébert, the Fr. Canadian, who wrote an extremely post-mortem sort of book called (I think) Le Tombeau des Rois (something like that). I was very impressed by it and so I am by Wakoski for all my but, but, buts … I shd. have said more of Schwerner but I always spend myself on my doubts. Thanks again.
Have you read The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty? The most striking book I’ve opened since yr. kind gift of the vol. by Heidegger. It’s damned expensive — almost 3 pounds — otherwise I’d buy you a copy. I’m sure this is the central work of modern French philosophy-- it builds on the Husserlian basis of Heidegger and, to my thinking, is richer because more specific about the human situation — touch, sight, space, sex, it’s all done with rigour and insight.
Brenda says, thank you, Mary, for yours. Juliet is mending, but she had a wretched attack of tonsillitis 2 weeks after the operation. She was very run down, but seems to be improving. Both kids were delighted with the poodles and Justine has written a little letter (more excitement than got transmitted on to the paper!)
I thought Bronk’s book splendid. I forgot if I mentioned it. It’s absolutely substantial and original, an extraordinary chastity in the performance and I have read it over several times, again and again. It stays hard and sound and austere. He is a very strong writer indeed. If you see him, do give him my greetings.
Louis writes to say that Norton are to do his shorter poems in 2 vols, the 2nd conditional on whether the first leaves ’em bust. Also Cape want to do him in England. Why don’t you try Cape or Calder, George? Calder are doing Creeley and seem to ‘get’ the American accent. Better there than Cape.
Love from us all — do you have a copy of that poem where the mist comes up in the fields? —
love once more
Charles, Brenda, J2
Trakl: Georg Trakl.
Bronk’s book: William Bronk’s The World, the Worldless (New Directions, 1964), the publication of which had been encouraged and instigated by Oppen.
that poem where the mist comes up in the fields: “The Forms of Love,” in The Materials.
August 31, 1964
Your analysis of Wakoski is very cogent, surely correct. But I was interested in a sort of authenticity, the very hand of that girl. Of Zeno: ‘I know only / that arrows do not always reach their mark’
Schwerner has sent me a long poem [“Prologue in Six Parts”] - - which quotes me at length, and is in fact a meditation around my Narrative and other work I read. Impatient with me sometimes, but he thinks that I, like Akiba of the Haggadah came out a sane man. Most flattering, surely. And it is a very beautiful poem, very far beyond the work in his book - -. I can hardly go around forcing it on peoples’ attention. For a sane man, it’s a bit awkward. But he seems to be a poet generating more than enough force and originality to arrive on his own feet. I’m pleased about the Zuk - -. I feel quite a lot of anger about the Zuk, as you must have noticed, but I continue to owe him a good deal - - - Pleased that he’ll be printed. And still and again angry that he wishes to be printed so portentously.
Enclosed the poem.
Regards to all - - - and thanks to Justine for the very nice ‘Old Fashioned girl Holding a Lap Dog’
‘I know only / that arrows do not always reach their mark’: See the lines from “Elizabeth and the Golden Oranges,” Coins and Coffins (Hawk’s Well Press, 1962): “[Zeno] could not believe but wanted to know; arrows do not always reach / their target.”
Enclosed poem: “The Forms of Love.”
c. September 1964
I was delighted to get the Schwerner and hope I haven’t kept it too long. It is an admirable piece, done with astonishing energy and a remarkable hold on line and rhythm. It is so good that when it gets patchy one wonders that he could have slipped so far and so tactlessly. I find three instances of this and, in pointing them out, hope I don’t sound ungrateful for the magnificent remainder. The dance of the Kapper meson strikes me as inadequate, even sentimental. The dance of the negative K m seems trite to the point of silliness — I don’t think it comes off at all, nor perhaps does the humour (my third instance) in Section VI — the whole stretch at the opening, irresponsibly Millerish & immature, when he talks about knocking down nuns, sprawling with willing nurses, and so on — a tactless passage, not bawdily gay but almost adolescent. I’m not certain that ‘in the sweet fucking of an afternoon together’ isn’t intellectual — pop-singerish. Also, shouldn’t he work a bit harder for his quotes? — foolish fond old man; the still bough at the center (not a quote but a disturbing echo of 4 Quartets); lineaments of gratified desire (Blake). One other and I’ve finished: the proton, photon, graniton passage in V isn’t musically inventive enough to carry the weight he needs right there. Doubtless I object strongly to those passages simply because (for me, at any rate) they miss the key and compass of the rest. Schwerner is a genuine discovery and a real poet and this piece has a most remarkable range.
Robt. Creeley reads in London next week & the American embassy here have asked me to introduce him. I go down Tuesday and hope to see the big Miró exhibition at the Tate — a little cloying, I imagine, but one ought to see it.
Not much news really. Term begins next week, alas. Juliet now speaks sentences — rose the other morning from the toilet and announced: ‘I jus’ done a charmin’ enormin’ turdy.’
Sic transit gloria Monday
October 9, 1964
I am far from disagreeing - - I had written to Schwerner objecting to the photon-meson sections. Tho I had failed to reach the heart - - or at least the key to the matter; that they are not ‘sufficiently inventive musically.’ And I had felt, tho I did not write of it, your objection to the ‘unearned’ quotes, as if other people’s lines were counters we could use whenever confronted - - for example - - by an elderly and unwise man.
But - - - Some wonderfully sustained construction, as you agree. And beyond all, the ‘A sort of outside.’ I have very great faith in a man who could write that phrase, whether or not it ever quite got into the poem.
And there aren’t many Schwerner’s - - you won’t feel he’s very young, but Americans need a lot of time. Even Williams’ example is easily read as cavalier attitude and contemptuousness. Detains our people these days
What impresses me about Schwerner is that it’s not ALL cavalier.
I begin to look to Juliet for the great moments. A charmin’ turdie is a sort of British or Cotswold beatnickism? A pleasure to know the child, anyway, without regard to race, creed or diminuitives.
I completed the Ms of This in Which - - and delivered to ND. Should be out next year. Removed some of the poems you saw, did some revisions - - - and quite a number of new poems. I send you the first two pages from the book:
(The title of the Second poem: Armies of the Plain - - To make a clean breast of the matter, one means to refer to Arnold - - - ‘Where ignorant armies clash by night.’)
(I have wished often, while working, that you and Brenda were here to discuss them, and to be read at - -)
And, the Four Poems about Poetry having become Five Poems, you might like to see this.
the photon-meson sections: Schwerner, “prologue in six parts.”
the first two pages from the book: TS of “Technologies” and “Armies of the Plain,” in This in Which. The latter poem is a shorter version of the one eventually published.
you might like to see this: TS of number 3, “That Land,” in “Five Poems about Poetry” (This in Which).
November 12, 1964
My dear George,
I have left unacknowledged too long the three very fine poems. They arrived when we were undergoing a second round of family flu’s, then what with the exigencies of a teacher’s life + a week’s readings in the S.W. I seem to have got all in arrears. I thought them splendid (pomes, not arrears or readings), hard but flexible, not a word wasted and not a cadence misjudged. The next promises to be a splendid book altogether and I dissolve in impotent furies having written nothing for ages on ages. I wish there were some way of taking one’s silences on trust instead of getting depressed about them — I practically wasted a whole summer this year and have worn myself low gnawing my nails at so little achieved. I feel somehow I’ve lost my way among possibilities and have become quite blind as to which way I ought to take. What does one say next? Ach, I should take heart before your own enriching silence.
Justine’s latest is, after a stream of babble, ‘Mummy, what I talking ’bout?’ Reply: ‘I don’t know. What are you?’ ‘I don't know — I must be going bonkers.’
[Undated: c. November/December 1964]
Poetry, with your review of Jay, arrives not long after your letter. The review very very fine, and sensitive - - as well as an act of justice. I find it difficult to put my finger on the places which so perfectly define the values not only of these poems, but of all such ‘modest,’ as you use the word, poetry. ‘ … though lightly, not irresponsible’ perhaps, and ‘ … the humiliations of relationship and the need for it’ which is a poem - - machinery aside - - in itself. I praise you thus overtly and in detail in order to chastise my envy: I am a very clumsy man in prose, and perhaps clumsy in speaking of anyone but myself, which is no small sin. And now I have the guilt of having used you for my little New Years-like celebration on completing a ms. at a time of South West readings and flu in England. Which was, the Mexicans would say, muy Gringo. Or, I’m going bonkers.
It may be hard to believe, after that celebratory tootling I did by air mail, but I do rather believe in silences, or at least don’t worry about them. I think it’s quite possible to deafen oneself with one’s own work, to blind oneself: a life’s longer than we pretend, there’s a lot of time. I say this not to instruct you but in the knowledge that essentially we agree. Men who instinctively shave in the kitchen have an area of agreement, as Juliet recognized.
with all regards
(I should have cited ‘the humiliations of relationship and the need for it’ as against ‘academic baroque.’ That does indeed say it!
Poetry, with your review of Jay: Tomlinson’s review of James Laughlin’s Certaines Choses Naturelles, translated by Alain Bosquet, in Poetry, November 1964.
‘modest,’ as you use the word … ‘lightly, not irresponsible’: Tomlinson in the review: “James Laughlin, one of those very few poets you can describe as modest and not mean that they are pleasantly neglible …”
the humiliations of relationship: Tomlinson in the review: “his general concern — the humiliations of relationship and the need for it, whether it be domestic or social.”
academic baroque: Tomlinson in the review: “twenty years ago when academic-baroque was in …”
June 18, 1965
Dear Oppen und Muse,
That book is absolutely dazzlingly splendid, the measure of a life-time’s devotion, with never a word misplaced & never a cadence smudged. I have read it all four or five times and it has the feel of a voyage on that sea of discovery so marvellously photographed on the cover. I have seldom enjoyed a book of verse so much — how haunting that patience and honesty can discover so spare and piercing a music. That guy Shapiro on the back cover is absolutely right: ‘the history of our poetry has yet to be written.’ Certainly This in Which puts the last twenty years into a wholly fresh perspective: if I may (for a moment) congratulate myself (vanity!) I am cheered to know I had the sense to see it a-coming when I first picked up a copy of The Materials. George, you are gorgeous!
Pause for verse. A piece in the manner of Tomlinson and one in the manner of Oppen. Which is which? The prize is a Bahama banana or a bananed Bahama (as you choose):
In the soft
Of the water
And the hard
On the ‘naked
I could not tell whether, in the swaying light,
There were two or three feet there
Poised together at the trembling verge
Of a saffron tide on that morning
Of late October that could well have been
Early November ….
Well, who won the banana? Actually the first piece is Oppen trying to imitate Tomlinson and the second Tomlinson trying to imitate Oppen.
Greatly looking forward to meeting next April (ach! so far away, too!)
Again, many many thanks & congratulations.
June 25, 1965
It is an old man’s poetry, isn’t it? It is moving that you are so moved by it. As your own words seem always to stand on the edge of that, the edge of age, drawing upon the wealth of first maturity to confront the future. To a child, and that my own, in a prospect of stone. For example.
And thank you for your generosity.
I could not have written the line about the naked shingles, I have such trouble remembering what it means when it doesn’t mean roofing or a disease. It means the same as dingle, doesn’t it? only it doesn’t dangle, it slopes gently.
Little Deer Isle
Till September 1st
[Undated: c. August 1965]
Received an Agenda, with a note saying letter following; so far no letter, but it will probably be along. Unless I am having forwarding trouble once more. The Brooklyn postmaster, gent by the name of Quigley, did promise he would try -- But who knows? I’ve only glanced at the Agenda - - maybe wasn’t very fortunate in the pages I happened to turn to. Believe there was something there about My mouth is the despair of God / formed only for man. I really must have seen that; I hold that I am incapable of imagining it. And turned thereafter to an interview which discussed the matter of whether or not a poet should make a New English Version of himself - -. I turned for refreshment to your Mexican poems (which I’d read before, of course) and there under those poor damned nose-gays which a great many people had carried too far sure enough was Charles
Squat, smiling Aztec.
gave me quite a turn. A turn most needed.
I noted again: it’s a very fine poem/
This about the missing letter got me worrying about the mails. I sent you a copy of This in Which - - was going to be the point of the letter - - and will send another if it’s gone astray. I really do have an odd time with the mails.
Meanwhile we speak of you often. And tell about the black horses and the shaving mirror, and the round churchyard at Ozleworth, which for some reason has stuck with me most clearly
And I would like to be able to say something about all those staggering ancient stones, and Brenda driving the VW competently into Bristol every day to sit with Juliet. Of course you have something of all that in your poem of Justine ‘in a prospect of stone.’ I suppose I was wishing to be able to say it from outside only because that was of course the way I saw it. - - as I say: we speak of you.
Agenda: the poetry magazine.
Squat, smiling Aztec: “In Michoacán,” Agenda 4, no.1 (April–May 1965); later collected in American Scenes.
October 17, 1965
Dear Charles and Brenda:
I see your name safely on the Gugg program. Tomlinson, Bronk and Wakoski, variously introduced and housed by GO which will leave a prominent copper family considerably in my debt. The three constituting the salvation of the year’s program. And Mary and I congratulate ourselves.
We can, in fact, do slightly better for you than our attic, slightly better than our salty attic which - - - I was going to say might be hard to take, but that’s only me being rudimentarily literary; actually we would all enjoy ourselves very much. But we can, it happens, do still better thru my sister June’s mid-town apartment, very commodious and elegant, and June would very much like to have you and has begged me to invite you there - - - You will find it rather an 18th century footing for a poet, and elegance aside you will find 79th st just off fifth a very handy spot. June being June Oppen Degnan, 50 East 79th St, N Y city.
- - this invitation being extended as promised to June a couple of months ago
we promise you a good time: museums, zoos, ferries to Staten Island - - we await impatiently.
Let us know the dates and your preference: … always available
the Gugg program: Introduced by Mae Swenson, Tomlinson read at the Guggenheim Museum on April 28, 1966, together with Josephine Miles, in a program sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Under the same auspices, Oppen introduced poetry readings by William Bronk and Diane Wakoski at the Guggenheim on April 14, 1966.
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 year 1963.
April 15, 1963
Dear Mr Oppen,
I wanted to say how much I have enjoyed reading your volume The Materials which I’ve gone through (several times) recently. The cleanliness, the clarity, the sureness of line and absence of ‘eloquence’ are very moving indeed. It’s good to see such a book in print and a pleasure to return to it and recommend it to one’s friends.
I wonder if your earlier volume of 1934, noted on the jacket of The Materials, is still obtainable? Conceivably I could buy a copy from you? I am most anxious to get hold of it and would greatly appreciate knowing if it still exists.
With thanks once more and every good wish,
Albuquerque: In 1963 Tomlinson was guest professor at the University of New Mexico and poet in residence at the D. H. Lawrence ranch near Taos. He was on a year’s leave from the University of Bristol, where he taught from 1956 to 1992.
364 Henry Street
April 24, 1963
Dear Mr. Tomlinson:
I have three copies of Discrete Series of which I will gladly send you one …
It’s pleasant to know that you like the Materials: it is wonderfully generous of you to take the trouble to say so. I was troubled while working to know that I had no sense of an audience at all. Hardly a new complaint, of course. One imagines himself addressing his peers, I suppose — surely that might be the definition of ‘seriousness’? I would like, as you see, to convince myself that my pleasure in your response is not plain vanity but the pleasure of being heard, the pleasure of companionship, which seems more honorable.
In any case, an entirely honorable pleasure that you take the trouble to write
With best regards
April 28, 1963
Dear George Oppen,
I was delighted and moved to receive so speedily both your letter and the book. What you say about seriousness implying one’s writing for his peers is extraordinarily good. I’m sure there is no better concept of ‘audience.’ I think, despite what you say, Discrete Series was also writing for one’s peers and I thank you heartily for it. One trusts that among the handful of things you’d want to rescue would be ‘The knowledge not of sorrow …’ (the first), ‘The evening, water in a glass …,’ ‘Closed car — closed in glass —,’ ‘Party on Shipboard’ — ‘homogeneously automatic’ is a splendid phrase — ‘She lies, hip high,’ ‘Fragonard,’ ‘No interval of manner,’ ‘On the water, solid,’ ‘Drawing.’ These are merely my favourites, not all that I liked. How admirable your taste is for unforeseen distinctions:
(As soda-jerking from
the private act
I like also the first part of that poem (beginning P.8). What is remarkable is the consistency of vision (‘What I’ve seen / Is all I’ve found: myself’ — you see, I can quote you by heart) and the growth into ever more substantial clarity in The Materials. I was intrigued in reading and re-reading the latter to know over what period these poems had been written. Not idle curiosity, but curiosity about the roots of excellence which cannot, surely, be wholly bad. I wonder also how conscious a group activity objectivism was? — I see such differences between, say, you and Williams and Reznikoff, I cannot help wondering whether Zukofsky’s objectivist programme was not later than objectivist verse which is so disparate.
These half questions move on the surface of a deep enjoyment that your lovely poems have given me over the past weeks and I apologize for allowing them to intrude into what began as an expression of thanks and pure delight.
Perhaps we may chat of these matters in the not too near future? My wife and I pass thro’ New York on our way back to England in mid-August and if the money lasts conceivably we shall stay for a few days.
I bring out a new book of verse of my own this summer & will send it to you — not for comment, just for friendship.
Again, thank you and every good wish for your work.
a new book of verse: Tomlinson refers to his collection A Peopled Landscape (Oxford University Press, 1963).
May 5, 1963
Dear Charles Tomlinson:
‘Happy that company who are intoxicated with each other’s speech; who, through the fermentation of thought, are each other’s wine.’
Sa’ib of Isfahan, the translation by Edward Browne. Or; ‘our language is our country’ I’m not sure of the accuracy of that quotation.
I hadn’t thought the Discrete Series ‘bad,’ but I do think the poems require the help, the very great good will of the reader. Which you generously supply. I had meant to carry the thinking and the form of these poems as far as I could without abandoning the figures of perception for the figures of elocution, or even of mere assertion, which I profoundly distrusted. There seemed at the time a tremendous difficulty of honesty: the whole weight of sincerity seemed to rest on one’s own shoulders. As how should it not? But there was perhaps not a body of honest contemporary work, a sincere and public conversation in which to join. Not, perhaps I should add, that I take truthfulness to be a social virtue. I think very probably it is not. But I think it is poetic: I think really that nothing else is. The sentimentality of an old codger? - - but I was a mere fine broth of a codger at the time.
It’s been pleasant to be invited to talk about oneself - - and to speak with such affection! I see I have rather sneakily accepted praise. But I am reminded, quite against my will, that the poems are, after all, fragmentary and sometimes strained.
As to the ‘Objectivists’ - - the word properly in quotes because the word has caused some confusion: it derived from an insistence on ‘objectification,’ on form, a matter worth mentioning in the wake of the Amy Lowells. Tho’ Zukofsky wrote also of ‘sincerity’ as the ‘epic quality.’
As you suggest, no one’s work altered, so far as I know, after the word was coined. It appeared in - - I think three - - essays that Zukofsky wrote. And of course those are simply Zukofsky’s essays. I must have owed more to Zuk. than either Williams or Rezi could have: both Rezi and Wms being older than Zuk and I younger. I had seen Zuk’s work in Exiles in, I think, 1928 - - being nineteen or twenty at the time - - and had set out to meet him. His conversation and criticism was important to me, was of great importance to me at the time. I don’t remember therefore that the essays themselves came as anything new to me.
I noticed that Williams, in the autobiography, speaks of the first meeting of the Objectivists in an apartment on Columbia Heights. That would have been our apartment, my wife’s and mine. But what we discussed then was the undertaking to print books. The work of course already existed in ms. and the dust jackets of the books carried the explanation, written at that meeting by Reznikoff, that the ‘objectivist press was an organization of writers who had joined together in order to print their own work and that of others which they thought ought to be read.’ It was about as much as could be said. We were of different backgrounds; led and have led different lives. As you say, we don’t much sound alike. But the common factor is well defined in Zuk’s essay. And surely I envy still Williams’ language, Williams’ radiance; Rezi’s lucidness; and frequently Zukofsky’s line-sense.
Those essays, by the way, are reprinted in Kulchur No 7. I had not seen them for some twenty years. I can’t judge their current interest, having known them so long. And the style is crabbed. But they seem to me sound statements.
An essay of mine, slightly referring to these things, will appear in Kulchur 10, incidently.
Not sure if you wanted all this, but I’ll complete the history. The Objectivist Press derived from To Publishers; paper-bound books printed by my wife and me in Toulon. Printed the Objectivist Anthology - - edited by Zukofsky - - and Williams’ Novelette and Other Prose.
Commercially disastrous. Paper-backs were new to the U S, and encountered trouble with the U S customs and the U S customs - - the men on the pier, and the men in the book stores. Both of whom said they are not books. The book stores simply would not stock them, or most would not. Thereafter that meeting on Columbia Heights, etc.
The poems of The Materials were written between 1958 and 1962. As I believe you surmised. Too long, too personal a story to undertake here: I kept nothing of the little I wrote for some twenty five years. That matter of one’s peers - - I have come to believe again, perhaps in more rather than less despair, that the only possible hope is in the conversation with one’s peers. Or in thinking as if one were in contact with one’s peers.
In England, a couple of years ago, I visited Tim Pember, a writer whose work I had seen - - stories - - and he showed me your work among others. I was struck and delighted. Reason for my promptness in reply to your first letter. I have lost Pember’s address, and I don’t know whether he indicated that you knew each other.
I’m sorry, since you will be in New York, that we will be in Maine in August. Unless toward the end of August - - ? You are welcome in Little Deer Island, in our rented cabin, if you could possibly make it.
“our language is our country”: Oppen is partly remembering the line from Tomlinson’s “Return to Hinton,” which he would have seen in Poetry, June 1961 (later collected in A Peopled Landscape, 1963).
Zuk’s essay: “Sincerity and Objectification,” in Poetry, February 1931.
Kulchur 7 (Autumn 1962): Louis Zukofsky’s “Five Statements for Poetry.”
Tim Pember: Timothy Pember, author of the novels The Needle’s Eye (Jonathan Cape, 1948) and Swanson (Cape, 1951).
May 31, 1963
Dear Charles Tomlinson:
I find myself entranced by the poem with which you have presented me. I see myself - - slightly the elder of the two - - talking to myself - - and smoking my pipe, which is a shock. I congratulate the three of us on the whole thing. Perhaps I would want to use it as the epigraph of a book. Just as you have written it; that is, with your uncapitalized lines in contrast to my habit of capitalizing initial letters to emphasize the different ear at work and the effect - - I don’t know if I am expressing this accurately, but I wanted to say, as if it were heard, rather than written - -
We will enquire about an apartment for you. I believe something will turn up. We could offer you the use of our place, but it is impossibly small for a family of four; it would be impossible to put two children in it, unless they should happen to be v-shaped, like corner shelves. I’m afraid you may not have gone to those extremes of planned parenthood. Of course, because you did not plan to stay in New York.
Your response to my ‘Persian quotation’ is a very nice event. It was not Persian. I had meant to quote you, but couldn’t remember where I had seen the poem. It seems I mis-quoted. Of course it was ‘… our language is our land.’ But I am glad your statement - - even mis-quoted - - seemed good to you, as - - even mis-remembered - - it did to me.
the poem with which you have presented me: Tomlinson had sent Oppen a short-line poem composed from two sentences in Oppen’s letter of April 24 (“I would like, as you see, to convince myself … which seems more honorable”). It was published in Oppen’s next book, This in Which (New Directions, 1965), as a collaboration under the title “To C. T.”
[Undated: c. June 1963]
Dear Charles Tomlinson:
Sorry to say we did not find a sub-let for you. Young artist by the name of Peter Young thought he might find something, and will write you if he does. There seems to be a summer rush to New York. Lord knows why. Seemed no more attractive than usual when we left.
c/o Lawrence Ranch
July 9, 1963
Just a line to say thanks for your efforts in seeking us an apartment. Suddenly, out of the blue, a friend in Brooklyn wrote to say he’d be away for summer, wd. we like his …? So we leave for there about the 29th, staying till we sail on Aug 17th. It’s splendid up here — mountains, streams, Spanish graveyards, bears, coyotes. Pity to leave, really, but I wd. like to see a little art in the urbs.
Just reviewing yr book, so I’ve re-read the WORKS and very enjoyable it has been — review the New Mexico Quarterly to appear the Lord Knows when. Will send you my own new book, due Aug 29th, as soon as I get back to England.
What a shame we shall not be able to meet. If you get over là bas, our address is:
Wotton-U-Edge [U for Under]
Are you writing? You owe us (the universal we speaking) more pomes for own good.
All the very best
reviewing yr. book: Tomlinson’s review of Charles Reznikoff’s By the Waters of Manhattan, Selected Verse (Charles Boni, 1930) and Oppen’s The Materials (New Directions, 1962), in New Mexico Quarterly 34, no. 1 (1964).
[Undated: c. July 1963]
We’ll be in New York August 1st to the 15th - - a change of plans - -. Let us know how to reach you.
Yes, I’m writing quite a bit. A fair sampling will appear in July Poetry. And elsewhere, but as you say of the Quarterlies, the Lord knows when.
July 27, 1963
I enjoyed very much reading your review. Thanks for sending the copy. I will have a copy made for New Directions-SF Review for the mention of Zuk. They have three or four volumes of prose in the works of which I have just no opinion at all - - in fact my report on the first two mss shown me was that nothing in the world would induce me to read them through. But the first years’ poetry schedule consists of Oppen, Reznikoff and William Bronk, in which my advice is obvious enough. My recommendation of course included Zuk, but the suggestion - - as you see - - has not been acted on. It is by now too awkward for me to discuss the matter with Zuk at all, but it is my impression that they would be more likely to do a Selected than a Collected poems, if only for budgetary reasons. I can’t really urge Louis to submit a ms. since I have no assurance at all that they would accept it. But you might urge him to try it if you think it worth the risk - - to him - - of a rejection. If they had a ms. under consideration I could re-open the discussion.
Look forward to seeing you.
[Undated: c. September 1963]
I want to thank you for a people[d] landscape - - I read the quote from Millet as a statement of realism, of imagism, for a moment, and then its sense began to dawn on - - the meaning of factualness, which I think is the deepest meaning of the poems. I had seen it first in the soldi, soldi, against the sea - -.
We did very much enjoy seeing you (the American plural: youse). It would be well worth the voyage to walk and talk with you (youse) in England. We will try to do it.
With all best wishes, all regards,
your quote from John Cage in Poetry is a considerable contribution to the discussion. I thought rather less of it as a poem than you, but it is the statement of an attitude - - Mary and I have been referring to it incoherently as a ‘fun’ attitude - - which we have been unable to grasp. And which is very much the attitude of most of the young people, the young people around the galleries - -
Can’t live on that, tho. No one can. I don’t mean to deplore or to attack: can’t live on the convictions of the past either. But they cannot live on that. Something will happen. Something. Not impossible that what will happen is that they will cease to live, of course - -. I am not suggesting that we should lie to each other, this is simply where we are. I agree we must say so, I made my own defense in the last poem of my book - - ‘We must talk now’ or we abandon one another. Still, as fun, as hilarity - - There is something I know, in my bones, about that.
the quote from Millet: the epigraph to A Peopled Landscape: “I want the cries of my geese to echo in space. Jean-François Millet.”
soldi, soldi: In “Up at La Serra,” in A Peopled Landscape.
your quote from John Cage in Poetry: In his review, among others, of Harold Rosenberg’s Tradition of the New (Poetry, August 1963) Tomlinson quoted and praised Cage’s poem “On Nothing.”
September [ ], 1963
Dear George and Mary,
What a pleasure it was to get your note — I had imagined you would still be basking at Nassau and here you are, back already beating with the great pulse. Did we really only meet twice? — it seemed qualitatively so much more than that and what was so good about our meetings was the possibility of conversation — dialogue. I began to think that almost nobody in the U.S. ‘went in for’ dialogue: so many literate males — oh, the women are much nicer — simply talk at one: men of my own generation, men younger than me, older men — one becomes their audience and little more. I’d become quite anxious about this self-absorption: one grew to expect it. Ultimately, exasperated, I penned my reply — with as little punctuation as possible, in order that I might get
A WORD IN EDGEWAYS
Tell me about yourself they
say and you begin to
tell them about yourself and
that is just the way I
am is their reply: they play
it all back to you in another
key, their key, and then in mid-
narrative they pay you a
compliment as if to say what a good
listener you are I am
a good listener my stay
here has developed my faculty I will
say that for me I will not
say that every literate male in
America is a soliloquist, a
ventriloquist, a strategic
egotist, an inveterate
campaigner-explainer over and
back again on the terrain of him-
self — what I will
say is they are not un-
interesting: they are simply
unreciprocal and yes it was a
pleasure if not an unmitigated
pleasure and yes I did enjoy our
This is by way of saying YOU weren’t like that. The above is not the sole impression we took home. It was a great year. Perhaps the best we have ever had … Back here, rain has been virtually incessant. Our pipes had burst last winter ruining dining room, ceilings and books. So wetly in wet we wait, mould on every hand, feeling our premature aches and pains. Why, it almost drives one to monologue.
I wonder if you have the address of the San Francisco Review, George? I have an article on a Berkeley painter and I thought I might try them.
As I go up the field for mushrooms I think of your promise to come one day and walk on English ground with an Angle. You will need rubber boots. Come to think of it — there are spares.
Do let us know how things are with you both.
Love from Brenda and myself,
A Word in Edgeways: written June–July 1963, and collected in The Way of a World (Oxford University Press, 1969).
September [ ], 1963
Dear Charles and Brenda:
Words well wielded edgewise.
In fact I got to laughing too much to be able to read it aloud, and Mary had to read it. So it had a salutary effect: I mean, Mary got a word in edgewise. Not only improved, but comforted me; I was glad to be assured there are many worse than I. Which really I had suspected. Why O why do they do it? Partly the presence of the man from Outside, an opportunity to write their names in the sky, or anyway on something at a considerable distance. Possibly England.
We do think and talk very seriously of a visit to the Underedge of Wotton. Or Wotton-Underedge. Doesn’t mean we’ll manage to do it. We become very conscious of age, of the limitation of time, of what we want to work out still. But if we should find ourselves feeling or being rich, we might invest in plane tickets for the spectacular extravagance of a one week visit in Spring. What would you think? What would be a good time? Would flying Americans be too much for your nerves? This only asked as wild speculation — I don’t know that we could do it. But we would like to. The Severn adds its lure.
On the S F Review — now an annual. They have had a rule against critical articles of all kinds, but an essay on a Frisco painter - - Berkeley painter - - really should constitute reason for an exception. I’ll talk to June Degnan about it - - I think the policy excluding discussion of art has always been a mistake in any case - -. And I think you should write her offering to send the article if they are interested. Address
June O. Degnan
150 Central Park South
New York City
I should not have bothered you about that poem. I regretted it at the time. But this was the contrivance:
[Oppen inserts a sketch of an elevator door with two globes above it, one crayoned red, one green, with the words “Meaning UP and DOWN,” in a reference to the Discrete Series poem “White. From the.”]
So familiar at the time that I don’t think anyone was puzzled at the time. Printed c 1930 in Poetry. The office building evoked by its lighting effects in those dim days. And its limited alternatives, the limited alternatives of a culture. And its quiet / stone floor. From there to ‘thus’ - - big business - - ‘hides the parts.’
Don’t for the love of Pete let this worry you further. Your version of the child and the ball - - - up, down, up down - - - is a gift, and a good one. I accept. And the other is lost - - it so happens - - in the mists of architectural history. And cannot be restored to the consciousness of any reader without a red crayon. And a two-color print job, which is prohibitively expensive.
- - Similar thing, Louis’ saw horses. Which I think was entirely clear at the time. The A’s, the M’s, the horses, the words, do dance and only thru the verse - - all of which he meant as a programmatic statement for his verse. The primacy of music.
I had heard of Louis delivering half hour diatribes about That Oppen to innocent visitors, one of whom, at least, made a silent and edgewise exit. Not, I hope, to you? But perhaps I had better say that Louis really has no grievance against me, nor has the world, or no greater grievance than it has against anyone in these times of the population explosion. And Louis no greater grievance against me than against anyone who ‘gets printed.’ Awkward for me, tho. And overwhelmingly ironic to discuss my position as ‘a success.’ I hesitated to go into it, fearing I might become an inveterate explainer on the terrain of myself, but hearing that I am less inveterate than some - - - Perhaps the effect of your poem has been more comforting than salutary after all. (and I’ll doubt that I’ll produce another book within quite a few years. Maybe that’ll heal things)
‘This earth, this throne of Kings, this England - -’ You mean the man was looking down at his rubber boots when he said that?
But Mary’s from Oregon, a good deal wetter than anything you can show, and New York is the worst climate in the world. AND has no mushrooms.
with regards to you both
June O. Degnan: Oppen’s sister.
Your version of the child and the ball: In his review of The Materials (New Mexico Quarterly), Tomlinson had mistaken the elevator signs in “White. From the” as the up-down motion of a child bouncing a ball.
Louis’ saw horses: Police saw-horses in Zukofsky’s ‘A’-7.
September 21, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
Thanks for yours. I am now dully (how does one spell due-ly?) elevated by your two colour design. Lucidity itself.
Why don’t you come and stay during next Easter vacation? It’d be lovely to have you both. Not Easter week, when the rest of the world is abroad, but one of the other four of our recess. The weather should be springy then and the summer rains will not have begun in full fury. I must check when Easter is next year. DO come. We are painting the guests’ bedroom and will do it with added zest at the prospect of your advent. You wd, I think, love the parish churches round here and the general intimacy of the green landscape with its walls of grey stone.
Thank you so much for Mrs Degnan’s address. I’ll send off the MS. with this.
Tante belle cose,
P.S. How about this?
In Longfellow’s Library
and the Venus de Milo
gaze out past
the scintillations from
the central candelabrum
(on an upper shelf)
in a laurel
from a group
dancing a tarantella, by
the turquoise butterfly
these, the busts of
and Sophocles still
they ambushed Hiawatha.
In Longfellow’s Library: written July 1963 and published in American Scenes (Oxford University Press, 1966).
October 1, 1963
Dear Charles and Brenda:
You better mean it: we accept.
A few details to clear up, but almost anyone - - even a vicar - - can can tell us when Easter is, surely. The guest room painted with Zest takes care of it from A to Z
when love has commen with lent to town, we will be in Gaynest under Gore. And walk in those green fields.
With all our affection,
(Yes: our cultural resources. Longfellow and all. I imagine the butterfly on a pin? but a flimsy affair compared to the word that pins the poem:
October 18, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
Of course we didn’t mean it — Easter don’t exist: it’s just one of those Xtian myths disproved by the 19th Century. April fool!
But, serieusement: my vacation is March 10th to April 20th, Justine will be out of school March 25th – April 13th. Why not come in April, as late as possible if only to make sure of good weather and also to MISS the mass holiday, i.e., Good Friday to Easter Monday, that is March 27th–30th.
I write more briefly than I would like, since term is upon us … We’ve just finished painting ‘the Oppens’ room’ as we call it. Can you stand a babbling brook outside in the garden or shall I have the authorities switch it off?
Love and great anticipation. If Winter comes can George and Mary be far behind.
November 19, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
I’d meant to write long before this to say, yes, April 6–13 wd. be fine for the visit — the visit.
At the moment rain and floods everywhere. I trust they will have dried out by April. Not usually the cruellest month here.
In haste and the desperation of dozens of essays to grade (‘mark’ we say — I spikka da Amurricana fur clarity’s sake).
December 29, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
How very kind of you to send us the Mailer and the very fine poem. We had always intended reading Barbary Shore and now we own a copy we shall do so. We enjoyed Naked and the Dead immensely but found, despite the good bits, The Deer Park was a sad, tired falling off. He’s an interesting chap, hipsterism apart, or maybe hipsterism is a necessary part of getting off the ground these days?
We seem to have had a dreary phase of ‘sore trials’ since our return — first Justine was hospitalised, then detonsilled, then a dock strike immobilised our imported car on a London wharf for three months; then my father fell ill, was operated on, recovered, relapsed with congestion of the lungs and is now slowly coming forward again. Workmen came in to dig us a septic tank, struck three springs, got flooded out. Tedious additions like that. In the middle of the digging + removal of inner wall of the house, frost struck unexpectedly and froze the water supply for three days. Oh, but this is pure grumbling. Really, I begin to ache with self pity: ‘Tell me about yourself they / say …’ Basta.
We do hope you had a nice Christmas. Ours, sandwiched between chaoses, was pleasantly intime and cloistral. Our one visitor, the vicar, brought a bottle of home-made wine; we walked in the afternoon of Xmas day with the children — a lovely, suddenly mild, sunlit time with Ozleworth valley swelling and green despite the recent pressure of frosts, the stone walls very solid yet visionary in the lowering light and the trees looking their brushy, knuckled winter selves.
We look forward to Aprille with hir shoures swote. All the best for 64.
Charles and Brenda
Rukeyser's innovations in docupoetics
In 1936, just a year after winning the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize, the twenty-two-year-old Muriel Rukeyser arrived in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in United States history, to work on her next poetry project. That same year The Plow that Broke the Plains was introducing American moviegoers to the documentary film; actors and writers working for the federal Living Newspaper Project were performing documentary theater in the streets; John Steinbeck was finishing The Grapes of Wrath, inspired by a newspaper story he had written a few years before; and another winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, James Agee, was traveling through rural Alabama on assignment from Fortune magazine to begin a book on tenant farmers that would change the shape of documentary forever. Rukeyser, too, would leave her mark on documentary with her groundbreaking series of poems inspired by the events in Gauley Bridge, “The Book of the Dead.” Published in her 1938 collection US 1, the work was wrought from congressional testimony, interviews with survivors, quotations from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Paradise Lost, and chronicles of West Virginia history
The term “documentary poetry” has come into fashion in recent years to describe work that “(1) contains quotations from or reproductions of documents or statements not produced by the poet and (2) relates historical narratives, whether macro or micro, human or natural,” according to poet/critic Joseph Harrington. While documentary poetry has precursors dating back to the ancients, many of its most famous examples were written in the twentieth century, such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems. Recent interest in such precursors may be in part why there has been a renewed interest in “The Book of the Dead.” The most frequently cited line of the text comes from an early footnote in which Rukeyser declared: “Poetry can extend the document.” Yet this focus on the footnote overlooks other groundbreaking elements of the poems.
“The Book of the Dead” both predates many contemporary characteristics of documentary poetry as well as anticipates continued innovation in the field. In this series of poems, Rukeyser not only shows us how to “extend the document”; she lays bare the documentary act itself, reminding her readers of the limits of representation and calling attention to the historical archive she creates. She offers models for how to investigate place through relational histories and national mythologies, establishing a methodology that predates both Paterson and The Maximus Poems. Finally, she establishes a connection between documentary investigation and activism, anticipating the work of poets such as Mark Nowak, Kaia Sand, and Brenda Hillman.
In addition to highlighting Rukeyser’s contributions to documentary poetry, I am also interested in concretizing her legacy by considering Brenda Coultas’s poem series “The Abolition Journal (or, Tracing the Earthworks of My County),” which sketches a complicated history of race in Coultas’s native southern Indiana and neighboring Kentucky. I make no claim that Coultas considers Rukeyser a direct influence. Yet, in what has become a frequently cited example of contemporary documentary poetics published in 2007, Coultas carries out much of the work Rukeyser directly calls for or suggests by example in “The Book of the Dead.” Ultimately, Coultas demonstrates the ways in which Rukeyser provides a model for what is current in documentary poetics.
Rukeyser’s series of poems was a product of heightened interest in documentary forms prevalent during the 1930s. As critic William Stott notes, “a documentary motive was at work throughout the culture of the time: in the rhetoric of the New Deal and the WPA arts projects; in painting, dance, fiction, and theater; in the new media of radio and picture magazines; in popular thought, education, and advertising.” Rukeyser believed that the poem had a particular power to represent current events, as well as to offer a specific view to them. As critic Shoshana Weschler explains, “For Rukeyser, poetry shares in common with science a heightened quality of vision: the imaginative capacity to recognize knowledge as process, and reciprocity and relationship as fundamental principles of being.”
The forces that drew Rukeyser to “extend the document” did not exert the same pull on other poets. In the years following World War II, both the New York School and Confessional poets turned inward instead of toward outward “processes.” Rukeyser and her work lost footing. Writing in 2003, poet and critic Kristin Prevallet notes Rukeyser’s work “is contemporaneous with the work of the Objectivist/Projectivists, and yet it is often omitted from discussions of the period.” Writers who continued in a documentary mode did not see Rukeyser as a forerunner. She corresponded with Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, and yet — as Eileen Myles observes — “she wasn’t passed down.” Myles, writing in The Nation in 1997, explained that Rukeyser was “barely represented in either the academic or the experimental poetic canon.”
For example, in the 1970s — during a time when “photographs, dispatches and television reports” exposed “America’s racism and called into doubt our war in Southeast Asia” — poet Edward Sanders coined the term “investigative poetics” and created a methodology for poetic inquiry that included instructions for conducting interviews and creating subject files, as well as for developing “high energy verse grids” and “data clusters.” He finds an ancestor in Pound, “thus Olson, thus Ginsberg, thus Investigative Poetry,” establishing a lineage often repeated.
Considering Rukeyser alongside the work of Coultas may help contemporary documentary poets access their full inheritance as they utilize documentary sources to create something at once speculative and responsive, social as well as personal.
The camera and the archive
By the time Rukeyser set out to write her long sequence of poems about the Gauley Bridge mining disaster in West Virginia, she had already earned a place as a poet and an activist. At the age of nineteen, she was arrested while protesting the racially charged Scottsboro Boys trial in Alabama. She would witness the start of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona the same year she traveled to West Virginia to document the mining disaster. In Gauley Bridge, exploitative practices in the excavating and mining of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel from 1930 to 1931 resulted in the silicosis poisoning and deaths of anywhere from 764 to 2,000 miners, the majority of whom were African American migrant workers. Although a congressional hearing ended in a favorable judgment for the workers, few victims ever received compensation. As a response to the disaster, Rukeyser wrote a series of poems constructed out of testimony from doctors, employees, and victims’ relatives gathered in a congressional investigation, as well as from interviews with survivors and their families. She included descriptions of the town with its “street of wooden walls and empty windows,” as well as excerpts from regional histories, dizzying equations for falling water (the project included the construction of a dam), and a stock market ticker for the project’s parent company Union Carbide. In a note accompanying the series, Rukeyser explains her desire to demonstrate how “theories, systems and workmen … factors, which are in the end not regional or national” created this community and how, in the end, they lead to its devastation (604).
In this sense, Rukeyser’s work represents more than “extending the document”; it is an attempt to correct the official record (represented by congressional hearings and coverage in the popular media) and provide the reader with a sense of the connections and complicities omitted from official histories. Critic Tim Dayton explains that poetry offers Rukeyser the advantage of “a richness and density of texture enabling a more challenging or searching treatment of the subject,” as well as allowing for “a fragmented subjective response,” or, more specifically, a polyvocal response to the event. The lyric also offers opportunities for Rukeyser to subtly lay bare the process of documentation itself.
For example, in the first poem of the sequence “The Road,” she creates a purely cinematographic opening, taking the reader “past your tall central city’s influence” down the roads of West Virginia to Hawk’s Nest, where the photographer “unpacks camera and case” (74). Rukeyser may have been referring to photographer Nancy Naumburg, who traveled with her to West Virginia. In the 1930s, photographs were one of the premiere modes of social documentary. In fact, photographs were so important to the 1930s documentary book that literary critic Malcolm Cowley believed they became more vital than the text. Cowley explained: “The pictures state the theme of the book, whereas the prose serves as illustrative matter.”
But photographs were never published with Rukeyser’s work. Instead, Rukeyser uses the camera to suggest that despite its importance as a tool for documentation, the reality represented in a photograph is subjective in as much as it is mediated through the choices of the photographer. In other words, in Rukeyser’s poem the camera functions as a symbol through which she lays bare the documentary process. Rukeyser draws our attention to the camera as an instrument of documentation and to the photographer who selects a subject, considers composition, focuses a lens, and decides what to include or crop from the frame. As Stott reminds us, “all documentary photographs, like all propaganda and indeed all exposition, are to some extent biased communication.” In this, the photographer shares with the documentary poet an opportunity to shape the reality that is presented.
For the documentary poet, Harrington suggests, “bias” presents itself in the selection of documents themselves:
Which documents? And why not include them at all? Why include these … and exclude others? By what authority does the documentary poet (howsoever poetical s/he might be) decide why the front and back covers delimit the book? It seems to me that poetry, precisely because of the generic conventions historically associated with it, forces the docupoet to confront these questions. Otherwise, one produces the very kind of poetry … that unconsciously represses part of the record without altering our experience of either the record or of repression.
By including the image of the camera, Rukeyser reminds her readers that they are being presented with a selected representation of a reality instead of the reality itself. Rukeyser makes her selection of sources (or “archive,” as Harrington calls it) — and the creation of the poem — manifest.
Elsewhere, Rukeyser makes clear the record of her selection and repression, even suggesting how her decisions might confound readers’ expectations. The poem “Gauley Bridge,” a description of a working-class town with its “beerplace” and filling station, ends with the lines:
What do you want — a cliff over a city?
A foreland, slope to sea and overgrown with roses?
These people live here (78)
Rukeyser addresses her audience: the reader who lives in a “central city” and comes to poetry desirous of the picturesque. By confronting the reader’s expectations, Rukeyser anticipates the work’s tepid reception. For example, reviewer Willard Maas, writing in Poetry in 1938, admired Rukeyser’s “inventiveness” and “intentions, which are ambitious to the point of audacity,” but felt that “the signs of the road lead her into fields that have been more adequately explored and tersely recorded by journalists.” These debates largely continue, a point I will return to later. It is important here to note that Rukeyser was aware of conventional expectations. And by pointing them out, Rukeyser takes responsibility for her archive.
“Gauley Bridge” begins with another reminder of Rukeyser’s documentary choices and offers insight into her particular focus:
Camera at the crossing sees the city
a street of wooden walls and empty windows
the doors shut handles in the empty street
and the deserted Negro standing on the corner (77)
Again, what the camera “sees” is not a matter of chance; even to notice the African American man suggests an awareness of those often marginalized. This point of view was not exclusive to “The Book of the Dead.” In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser affirms her affinity for culture that arises from the margins: “On work gangs, prison gangs, in the nightclubs, on the ships and docks, our songs arise.” In Rukeyser’s viewfinder/poem, the African American man is not “alone” but “deserted” on a street where the doors have closed to him. The image of closed doors suggests a larger condition of negligence born of legalized discrimination and capitalist exploitation, an issue explored throughout the poem series. And yet the man appears square in the center of town. The camera (like Rukeyser herself), placed at crossroads, sees the man. And the poet observes that, like the camera, the man watches, “looking down the track” to see what comes or goes. Thus the African American man and the camera/Rukeyser are featured as observant outsiders, although the African American man is also an economic participant in the society that marginalizes him. The man’s own status as “outsider” is confirmed later in the poem “George Robinson: Blues” that begins, “Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes they let us stand / around on the sidewalks if we are black or brown” (87). (This is the Jim Crow South, and there are laws against loitering.) The act of sympathy is important and suggestive as well of the fact that the condition of the African American might act as a viewfinder through which to judge the American character. As the poem develops, the African American man will not only be seen in the viewfinder but be given voice through those sections culled from congressional testimony.
This is not without complication. The documentarian speaking for her subjects has a strong precedence in the 1930s. One of the most problematic examples comes from the classic social documentary book You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, a founding example of the documentary book genre common in the 1930s which used text and image to describe a social condition and invoke sympathy if not political action in middle-class readers.
Stott, a fierce critic of the book, notes that that Caldwell “diminished — brutalized — the sharecropper because his audience expected such a picture.” In a particularly egregious example of such practices, Caldwell and Bourke-White often gave the photographs captions that according to an introductory note “expressed the author’s own conceptions of the sentiments the individuals portrayed.” As Stott observes, “The words Caldwell and Bourke-White put in the tenants’ mouths made them as abject as possible.”
But the difference between the work of Caldwell and Bourke-White and Rukeyser comes primarily from the fact that Caldwell and Bourke-White perform a kind of unannounced ventriloquism. Instead, Rukeyser uses documentary sources for the poem in an attempt to maintain verisimilitude rather than out of a desire to control the reactions of her readers. When Rukeyser utilizes documentary sources, she reminds us of the archive that produced them. For example, the third poem in the series, “Statement: Philippa Allen,” announces its source as congressional testimony. Rukeyser structures the poem as a series of questions and answers from Allen, one of the main researchers/writers to bring the event to national notice:
— You like the State of West Virginia very much, do you?
— I do very much, in the summer time.
— How much time have you spent in West Virginia?
— During the summer of 1934, when I was doing social work down there, I first heard of what we were pleased to call the Gauley tunnel tragedy, which involved about 2,000 men. (75)
When juxtaposed with poems written in more traditional forms (for example, the three-line stanzas of the opening poem), the Q&A form reminds readers of the source text as well as draws attention to the constructed nature of the poem, thus also reminding readers of the poet who shapes the work instead of employing the ventriloquism of other documentary books.
Elsewhere, Rukeyser quotes from explorers’ journals, settlement checks, and correspondence surrounding the settlement, as well as from the congressional bill itself again, drawing attention to the materiality of the archive. One of the most stunning examples of this comes halfway through the poem “The Dam,” where Rukeyser reproduces the stock ticker for Union Carbide. The ticker appears in a different typeface, creating a typographic break or dam (a “blockage,” as critic Michael Thurston has pointed out), in the middle of the poem’s flow. It also provides a visual pun on the idea of the quote. The line that precedes the ticker reads: “This is the valley’s work, the white, the shining” (101). The numbers force readers to confront the stark economics that drive everything else recorded in the poem; the difference in typography recalls the source for this information.
In this sense, Rukeyser is transparent in her attempt to explain what happened at Gauley Bridge — but also gives readers a sense of the “theories, systems” behind the events. Rukeyser not only lays bare her process through the archival gestures of the poem, but she makes evident her potential biases and intent, “owning and reveling in the imaginative desire that drives it,” as Harrington puts it. Ultimately, she creates a more complete picture of what happened at Gauley Bridge and what might be learned from it by situating events against a backdrop of history and activism as well as revealing the process by through which she acquires knowledge of the event.
Opening up the field of history
The second poem of the sequence, “West Virginia,” traces the state’s history. Here, we begin to understand the philosophy behind the poet’s use of historical documents. Rukeyser believed it was important to set events in their historical contexts and claimed it was vital to understand the present through a clear revaluation of a past. In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser writes, “It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories.” (61). As Jane Cooper explains, Rukeyser thought it vital to “acknowledge our own violence” and the divisions upon which this country was founded in order to become nonviolent. So Rukeyser contextualizes the industrial disaster at Gauley Bridge against a history of racial violence, including the Native American genocide and Civil War. It is the kind of historical contextualization that will anticipate both Patterson and The Maximus Poems, with important distinctions. Kristin Prevallet finds Rukeyser’s use of history in her poems an alternative to the totalizing visions of writers such as Olson, who utilize historical fact to serve the poem’s argument. As Prevallet explains:
Looking back at Rukeyser reminds us of how important it is to remember that the inclusion of “history” in the poem was (and is still) practiced by many other works unrelated to Olson’s Black Mountain School trajectory. … Reading the work of these poets opens up the field “history,” demanding an awareness of facts as always linked to specific human experience, and an understanding that appropriating these facts for the sake of a poem does not always tell the whole story.
Nowhere is Rukeyser more adept at linking history to specific human experience than in “The Book of the Dead.” Throughout the sequence Rukeyser not only invokes history but challenges it, offering a model for how the poet/reader/citizen can actively respond to historical narratives.
Take for example her transcription of a marker at the site of John Brown’s execution in the poem “West Virginia.” The mention of the abolitionist becomes an opportunity to modify or penetrate the historical record. Here Rukeyser literally writes in between the language of the marker:
the granite SITE OF THE precursor EXECUTION
sabers, apostles, OF JOHN BROWN LEADER OF THE
War’s brilliant cloudy RAID AT HARPER’S FERRY (75)
The actual monument provides a fairly bland description of the place, “Site of the Execution of John Brown Leader of the Raid at Harper’s Ferry,” which would seemingly not infuriate those who still feel sympathies with either side of the Civil War. Rukeyser offers a more opinionated view of the site. Dayton notes that, by “interpolating her words” with that of the marker, as an official historical record, Rukeyser presents both “an official skeletal version of the story of John Brown, and her own more nuanced version.” In that “more nuanced version,” as Dayton suggests, Brown is both activist and martyr. In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser describes Brown as “that meteor.” She calls the raid itself “that precipitating stroke” that “like the archaic bloody violence of the Greek plays spoke to many lives” (36). In “West Virginia,” Rukeyser’s choice to describe the Harper’s Ferry Raid as “brilliant cloudy” highlights both its success (as a rallying point for the abolitionist cause) and its obvious failure as a raid. (Brown had hoped to use the captured weapons to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. Instead, Brown and his men were captured. Brown was hanged) But Rukeyser’s “brilliant cloudy” description also references the dualities that will remain throughout the poem between the brilliant power of the dam and the clouds of silica mined in relation to its construction, which killed hundreds if not thousands of miners. In any case, the transcription of the monument illustrates Rukeyser’s ability to do more than cite the official record: it illustrates her ability to respond to it. (Another example of how Rukeyser makes clear her interventions in the archive.) Contesting official histories and rewriting the documentary source is an important tool when confronting source material that is itself part of discourses that legitimated and normalized racial discrimination.
Throughout the series, Rukeyser evidences her sensitivity to a history of racial inequity. Whiteness itself has a presence in the poems as material evidence of the dangerous mining practices. While a legacy of discrimination and racism leads to the conditions that produce the mining disaster, ironically, the toxic silica dust does not discriminate. As one survivor explains: “As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night / with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white” (88).
Gauley Bridge historical marker (photo by Ken Thomas).
Later in the series, white becomes a metaphor for the force of water as well as economic and social control. In the poem “Power” Rukeyser notes: “The power-house stands skin-white at the transmitter’s side / over the rapids the brilliance, the blind foam” (97). The “skin-white” power-house serves as a gateway holding back the “blind” white foam of water fueling this hydroelectric plant. The “blind” white foam of the water represents those “theories” and “systems,” the free-market economy and Jim Crow South that allow a tragedy such as Gauley Bridge to occur. It is not insignificant that the “power-house,” a source of control and regulation as well as a symbol for Union Carbide (the company that owns the dam and uses the silica in their industrial processes), is not just white but white-skinned. It is not coincidence that those who benefited from this work were a corporation run by white men, while those that suffered most were African American. The Fourteenth Amendment, originally written to protect the rights of African Americans, was used to give individual rights to corporations disproportionally owned by white men. The prioritizing of white-owned corporations over the rights of non-white citizens (in the case of Gauley Bridge) is an example of the kind of racial prejudice that became foundational to the local project of building a dam. “This is the valley’s work,” Rukeyser writes later in the poem, “the white, the shining” (101). What force might counteract the raw power of corporate racist America? In Rukeyser’s poem, the answer comes in the form of the activist documentary poet.
“Lightning strikes” of activism
Rukeyser ends “The Book of the Dead” by returning to the figure of Brown. In the series’ penultimate poem, “The Bill,” she reveals that justice was not served to the miners or their survivors. Despite rulings favoring the plaintiffs in suits brought against the operators, the majority of the victims and their families never received a significant settlement. Limits were placed on the claims awarded. The poet quotes from a congressional hearing: “I want to point out that under the statute $500 or / $1000, but no more, may be recovered” (106). Most claimants received much less. The poem “Arthur Peyton” includes these lines from correspondence surrounding the settlement: “Dear Sir, … pleasure … enclosing herewith our check … / payable to you, for $21.59” (94). Rukeyser calls the congressional efforts mere “[w]ords on a monument,” reminding readers of the earlier quotation from the Brown monument — and her need to rewrite its language. Rukeyser declares: “It cannot be enough” (106). The subcommittee’s request for funding and power of subpoena to conduct investigations was denied. Rukeyser ends “The Bill” with a call for activism and a return to the memory of Brown:
The origin of storms is not in clouds
our lightning strikes when the earth rises
spillways free authentic power
dead John Brown’s body walking from a tunnel
to break the armored and concluded mind (106)
Like the storms that originate “not in clouds” justice will not be brought from above — from corrupt institutions — but will rise from the ground, from the grassroots. There is a metaphoric and homophonic level to the stanza with its image of electricity in the form of a lightning bolt liberating the power of water, an act simultaneous with the old abolitionist walking from the tunnel to free consciousness and change opinion. The word “strikes” alludes to organization of workers, John Brown’s organizing against oppressive institutions of slavery and power, as well as to a lightning strike of energy. But the poem does not only aim to stir workers to unionize. Instead, its most excited plea asks readers to become aware of both current examples of injustice as well as the historical contexts that surround them. Rukeyser takes up Brown’s role as instigator when she asks her readers to do what she has done. She explains: “Defense is sight; widen lens and see / standing over the lands of myth and identity / new signals, processes.” Rukeyser calls her readers to action by asking them to look beyond national mythologies and record both injustice and the mechanizations that fuel it.
Here she elevates the documentary to activism, to the notion that seeing will make a difference. She focuses on those often overlooked (miners, workers, and minorities), and she calls upon her readers to do the same. In the final poem she asks: “What three things can never be done? / Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone” (107). Her wide-angle lens encompasses a web of connections and complicities in the disaster, something a mere photograph cannot do. Framing her poem with references to John Brown, she works to extend those connections and complicities beyond corporate misconduct to a national legacy, a failure of “myth and identity.” She asks readers to identify with the legacy of Brown’s activism and to never forget the legacy of oppression.
In addition, Rukeyser’s work establishes the systemic results of this oppression. She shows the connection between the numbers of the ticker tape and the cornfield turned to a burial ground, she links the death of these African American migrant workers to corporate profit margins. She places the camera between herself and her subjects to remind us to see. But she goes beyond the act of recording to suggest that one must interrogate, even rewrite, that which is literally carved in stone, be it law or history. She asks her readers/poets to question their histories and mythologies, offering a more active way of interacting with documentary materials both through the connections she creates between local events and national economies as well as by responding to biases inherent in conventional historical narratives.
Some seventy years later, many poets have taken up Rukeyser’s activist charge in a variety of innovative ways often with a global reach. Mark Nowak, Rukeyser’s closest descendent thematically, writes about a contemporary mining disaster that claimed the lives of twelve men (most through a brutal asphyxiation) in Sago, West Virginia. In Coal Mountain Elementary, Nowak interweaves state testimony from the surviving miners and rescue teams with the American Coal Foundation’s curriculum for schoolchildren, newspaper accounts of mining disasters in China, and photographs (Nowak calls it “sampling”). The result is a chilling portrait of a global system of danger and exploitation that in the words of the widow of one Chinese miner is “a job for living people working in hell.” Nowak extends that activism off the page in his work organizing and leading creative writing workshops for laborers.
In Remember to Wave, Kaia Sand turns historical investigation into collective exploration by undertaking walks and leading groups on tours through the site of the current Portland Metropolitan Exposition Center, as a way to reflect on its history as a Japanese American internment camp. Sand’s book includes both maps of the area along the Columbia River as well as collages of poetry, photographs, and images of objects found on the site. Sand literally stitched material together in collages, often typing directly onto found materials from a portable typewriter she carried with her on these walks. These collages, faithfully reprinted, give the book the feel of a scrapbook, a work of individual labor, in opposition to the regular typography and design of traditional history books, suggesting another way to challenge the manner in which conventional histories have been written.
For her part, Brenda Hillman turns documentary poetics into “Reportorial Poetry, Trance and Activism” in a section from her collection Practical Water. “Reportorial poetics,” Hillman explains, “can be used to record detail with immediacy while one is doing an action and thinking about something else.” Hillman creates poems out of her experience protesting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the antiwar group Code Pink. For example, in the poem “In a Senate Armed Services Hearing,” she records: “the prickly intimate hairs … behind (the General’s) ears”, a fly circling the room, and a vision of the goddess Ishtar from Babylon. Hillman provides a view to the bureaucratic machinations that perpetuate war and offers an example of how we might refuse the narratives that are created about these conflicts.
While the work of these poets offers many similarities to Rukeyser’s project and her call to “widen the gaze,” I want to look at one recent collection of documentary poetry by Brenda Coultas that exemplifies Rukeyser’s legacy in its reflections on the documentary process, its treatment of the legacy of national conflict, and its activism.
Contemporary excavations and commemorations
Brenda Coultas takes up Rukeyser’s project of interrogating “myth and identity” in the “The Abolitionist Journal (or, Tracing the Earthworks of My County),” a series of interrelated poems from her collection The Marvelous Bones of Time. In addition to “widening the lens,” she narrows her focus. Coultas was born in the slave-holding state of Kentucky but raised across the border in the “free” state of Indiana. An epigraph from Abraham Lincoln makes clear her intent to understand the legacy of “the very state where grew the bread / that formed my bones.” She embarks on her investigation with the question: “Are there any abolitionists hanging from my family tree?” (17). While she wants to identify with abolitionists from Indiana’s past, with the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln, she does not shy away from the racism of her local history. “I thought of Klansman when I thought of Indiana,” Coultas writes (24).
Identification can be complicated in a nation that scours much of its past from the landscape. Like Rukeyser, Coultas draws attention to the commemorative process itself as well as to its omissions. Like Rukeyser, she excavates while illuminating the process of excavation: “A hundred years hence, will there be markers commemorating where we had borrowed a book?” (23). She references the Underground Railroad, noting what exists now on sites that used to be stops on the journey to freedom, in effect noting what has not been memorialized.
Like Rukeyser with her camera, Coultas documents the documentary act and makes clear the difficulties of trying to comprehend a past that has not been made part of larger local or national history. Coultas reminds us that it is “hard to find a path through the fields 100 years later” (17). So Coultas makes copious lists of what remains in municipal archives, on plaques, in histories of the Underground Railroad, slave narratives, and genealogies, as well as from her own archive and memory. One poem, titled “The Executives of the Anti-Slavery League in Neighboring Counties,” lists the names of local abolitionists; another details a list of items Coultas bought at a market in 1976. The juxtaposition between the information found in a historical document and what one can imagine may have been a scrap of paper found in Coultas’s childhood home is provocative. It mimics Coultas’s overall strategy to insert herself into her investigation/documentation of local and national history. By allowing us to peer into her personal archive, Coultas gives her readers the opportunity to draw our own conclusions about the class, the ethnicity, the ideological positions she inhabits, and how that might influence her selection of documents. If nothing else, the inclusion of the shopping list acts as a stark reminder — a monument — to subjectivity.
If Coultas reveals the difficulties of trying to identify with her local history, the process becomes even more complicated as she tries to identify with figures from national myths:
Lincoln looked out over the river and saw a slave state and he was born in one (Kentucky), like me, but was raised in a free state (Indiana), like me. We were white and so could cross the river (17)
Here Coultas takes up Rukeyser’s claim to interrogate “myth and identity” as well as seek out “new signals, processes” (110). Coultas cannot speak of a “shared” history with Lincoln without invoking the history of those who could not cross that river, understanding larger issues of race. When she notes that she and Lincoln were “white” she recalls privilege and its limits; she excavates a past, constructs a net of relationship and responsibility:
I (am a color that is an uneven beige; have a face with reddish tones) read about a man who is described as colored and free (19).
Elsewhere, Coultas writes: “If in the document, she is described as an old darky, then I might be described as an old whitey” (19). Unlike Rukeyser, who takes up a post behind the camera’s viewfinder, Coultas sets herself in the center of her poems. And out of her desire to learn about her state’s and her family’s relationships to slavery, Coultas begins to unmask a set of assumptions about herself, the place she came from, as well as the relationships that can be gained from such an understanding. Here she moves away from taking up the voice of the oppressed to take a look at her own relationship to oppression. In fact, one of the few African American voices in the poem actually contradicts Coultas’s initial impulse to disparage Kentucky, a former slave state. An African American man whom Coultas encounters on a flight explains that he had moved his family from Los Angeles to Kentucky because it was “heaven” (53).
But while Coultas is careful not to speak for the oppressed, she finds it difficult to identify with the abolitionists and other Civil War heroes. When Coultas writes, “I did not marry Mary Todd, although I have always admired her” (16), it reads as a joke and a reminder. Identification goes only so far.
The series ends with “In a Gaze,” a listing of what Coultas learned from her excavation. Here she writes: “What did I learn about my kinfolk? / Petroglyphs mostly / divided as the bluegrass” (56). Coultas learns that there is both a “slaveholder” and a Union soldier hanging from her family tree. The poem concludes with an image of her native land as it looks from an airplane. From her window view the land appears like “a rough crazy quilt” with “elaborate chicken scratchings,” images that suggest the randomness of an item created out of necessity: a patchwork quilt sewn from scraps, a note scrawled hastily. But the poem’s final gesture moves to an image of the land as she has seen it “inscribed in the plat book of 1815 / a European geography imposed on native curves” (56). A plat book representing the legal ownership of lands in a given area represents the archive or a traditional history; it offers a brusque contrast to the “rough crazy quilt” or “chicken scratchings” of Coultas’s investigation. But the contrast highlights Coultas’s own desire to resist the notion of imposing an “order” upon the data she’s found. In the end, the reader is encouraged to appreciate the work not for its conclusions, but for the process of investigation, the willingness to witness that which could be admired and could be admonished in her local racial history.
As Patrick James Dunagan writes in a review, “By sorting out her own understanding of the historical record via her experience with it, as both text and lived fact, she opens the larger opportunity for a cultural sorting.” The most important map in Coultas’s project is the one she leaves behind for those who might follow her in their own investigations.
In addition to those mentioned, there is noshortage of contemporary documentary poets and no limit to documentary innovations, some of which Rukeyser pioneers. Perhaps like Rukeyser’s generation, caught between two wars and economic upheaval, many poets today turn toward documentary forms as a mode of resistance and activism. As Prevallet suggests, “Instead of buying gas masks and digging underground shelters (or moving to Canada), I turn my rage and confusion towards poetry” Rukeyser shows us that poetry can do much more than document. The activist documentary can contextualize events nationally and globally as well as explore and challenge national, local, and personal histories.
Despite the boom in documentary interest, the old debates remain.
Echoing the criticism of The Book of the Dead, George Szirtes declares in the October 2007 issue of Poetry magazine that the “real life in poems” resists “the world of cause and effect.” The world of the poem should be clearly cordoned off from the “real world.”
Szirtes claims “history is secondary to those brilliant moments of perception that mere existence makes possible.” Elsewhere the poet/critic Nada Gordon recently complains that docupoetry is “grasping for mimesis and reportage at the expense of verbal imagination.”
Much written these days about documentary poetics boils down to a defense. And in trying to defend those who would “extend the document,” many critics do not account for the various ways the document might be stretched, pulled, cut, sampled, marshaled, and limited. Beyond defending the documentary impulse, we might consider the ethics behind the works: are the voices of others used in an act of ventriloquism to serve an argument or to give voice to suppressed perspectives? Does history provide context or become utilized to prove a point? What kind of activism does the work provoke or incite off the page?
Maybe one way to begin to see these nuances is to take a fresh look at our ancestors. In a section of The Life of Poetry entitled “Backgrounds and Sources,” Rukeyser explains that she sees the “truths of conflicts and power over the land, and the truths of possibilities” (64). She goes on to list a variety of locations from those historically remembered as sites of commemoration as well as sites of tragedy. She includes both public memorials and those unremarked locales that serve as reminders of personal experiences. She concludes the passage by declaring: “Many of our poems are such monuments. They offer the truths of outrage and the truths of possibility” (66).
If the poem is a monument, it cannot simply reproduce the words of a historical marker such as the one Rukeyser found at Harper’s Ferry. Following Rukeyser’s example, the poem is made when the monument is defaced, when we have written into it, breaking syntax to allow space for more nuanced meanings.
The best homage to Rukeyser is not only to keep her legacy alive, but to ensure our criticism of her work continues to tell the whole story of her innovations, to formulate a web of connections between the issues and events that inspire our documentary poems and their literary antecedents.
1. Joseph Harrington, “Docupoetry and Archive Desire,” Jacket2.
5. Kristen Prevallet, “Writing Is Never by Itself Alone: Six Mini-Essays on Relational Investigative Poetics,” Fence 6, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2003).
6. Eileen Myles, “Fear of Poetry,” The Nation, April 14, 1997.
17. Michael Thurston, “All Systems Go: Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Book of the Dead’ and the Reinvention of Modernist Poetics,” in “How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?”: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).
28. Patrick James Dunagan, “Books by Jennifer Bartlett, Brenda Coultas, Jennifer Scappettone, and Heidi Lynn Staples,” Galatea Resurrects 10.
30. Nada Gordon, “On Docu-poetry: A Febrile Meditation,” Ululations 20 (February 2009).