George Oppen

No form in mind

Paul Auster in conversation with George and Mary Oppen

Left: Paul Auster at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival. Photo by David Shankbone. Right: George and Mary Oppen in the 1970s, photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Linda Oppen.

When Paul Auster in 1980 asked to interview his friend George Oppen, the poet agreed, but with a warning. “What worries me,” wrote Oppen, “is the question of whether or not I can say anything that I have not already said.” Auster flew to San Francisco in February 1981 and spent several days with the Oppens. “There were times,” writes Auster, “when [George] had to grope for his words, but there were also moments of blazing wit.” These moments have indeed been captured in this memorable last interview with George Oppen.

Note: When Paul Auster in 1980 asked to interview his friend George Oppen, the poet agreed, but with a warning. “What worries me,” wrote Oppen, “is the question of whether or not I can say anything that I have not already said — And my own condition at this moment which is something alas, very like senility — I am not being very brilliant these days, and I have not written anything since Primitive.” Nevertheless, Auster flew to San Francisco in February 1981 and spent several days at the Oppens’ house on Polk Street recording George and Mary around their kitchen table.

'the pleasure of / companionship'

To understand a poet’s work it is necessary to understand a poet’s life; this is particularly the case with poet George Oppen, whose work, in Michael Heller’s estimation, frequently demonstrates “an urge toward psychic depths” and “take[s] account of contingency, of the life that impinges on us, whether it involves meeting other poets, car wrecks” — referring to Oppen’s poem “Route” (1968) — “or the wrecks of the self and world.”

A slowing 1: Intraacting with absence

Some works give more. Often by giving less.  

Telling us what to think is not the same as moving the mind to think differently.  Powerful art can slow and stun us. The sense of a shock is something to shake off, and yet to draw the reader into silent attention – this is the power that moves us. The mind slows.  

I know when art makes me attend better to the world. How might we know the heart breaks – is it metaphor? – if the fissure was not made perceptible? How would we understand the pain of loss if we could not sense absence? There is the hollow, the what-is-not-there. This is the stuff of slowing.

We interact, react.  In this both/and simultaneity of art the experience is “intraactive,” in the words of Karen Barad

Complex orphaning

One could write an essay placing “The Search Party,” the first poem in Jose Perez Beduya’s debut collection, Throng, in the context of other poems of landscape and complex orphaning, from Blake’s “The Little Boy Lost” to Roethke’s “The Lost Son” to the William Matthews’s poem with which Beduya’s shares a title.

'Gradually the World'

I was unfamiliar with the poetry of Burt Kimmelman when Jacket2 asked me to take up the assignment of writing about Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 19822013. Reading, rereading, pondering the volume — which is a life — has been an education for me in poetry’s use as engagement with writing as a means of being in the world. Why, after all, is anyone writing? Of necessity, I suppose, to figure out how to survive in — even appreciate — being alive temporarily in a world. Kimmelman’s poems surely serve that function for him and his readers.

Addressing one's peers

The letters of Charles Tomlinson and George Oppen, 1963–1981

Brook Cottage, the Tomlinson home in Gloucestershire (photograph by Richard Swigg).

George Oppen’s poetry first caught the eye of Charles Tomlinson when he singled out The Materials from a number of books that had been sent to him for review. It was a momentous discovery, leading to a prompt exchange of letters and their first meeting, followed by a steadily deepening friendship that lasted until Oppen’s death in 1984.

Retrospection, 1972–81

The following are the collected letters of poets George Oppen and Charles Tomlinson, as transcribed by Richard Swigg for the feature “Addressing one’s peers: The letters of Charles Tomlinson and George Oppen, 1963–1981.” This section of the correspondence spans the years 1972–81.

Catching up, 1968–70

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

Relocation, 1966–67

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.

Texts and travels, 1964–65

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.


18.

Brook Cottage
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.

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