The letters of Charles Tomlinson and George Oppen, 1963–1981
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. Over time and space — the physical distance separating Tomlinson’s Brook Cottage in Gloucestershire from Oppen’s Brooklyn, and later San Francisco — the sense of what united them as poets grew ever stronger. For Tomlinson, escaping British insularity, it had been American poetry exemplified by Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, then above all by William Carlos Williams, which had brought a liberating force of clean-cut exactness to his own work. Therefore the impact of a writer in the same invigorating tradition, though this time an Objectivist of the 1930s publishing again after a silence of twenty-eight years, was the basis for an increasing admiration that continued with the appearance of Oppen’s subsequent collections, This in Which (1965), Of Being Numerous (1968), and Seascape: Needle’s Eye (1972). As we see in the letters, it was an admiration returned by Oppen for Tomlinson’s own books — The Necklace (1955, 1966), Seeing Is Believing (1958, 1960), A Peopled Landscape (1963), American Scenes (1966), The Way of a World (1969), Written on Water (1972), and The Way In (1974). But, as the letters also show, Oppen was struck in turn, and from his American standpoint, by the native rootedness which he saw being defended in Tomlinson’s distinctly English verse. Just as Charles Reznikoff’s lines about “a girder / still itself among the rubbish,” would remain for Oppen a talisman of special constancy, so words from A Peopled Landscape, “Our language is our land,” resonate throughout his letters as a mark of all that came to be shared by two remarkable poets in a conversation across the years.
Henry Street, Brooklyn. The entrance to 364 is at the extreme left, by the steps with railings (photo courtesy of Brooklyn Historical Society).
Note on the text: Addresses, names, and dates have been regularized, but Oppen’s irregular style of paragraphing at certain points has been retained, as well as his spacing and split dashes (- -). All Tomlinson’s letters were handwritten, and all by Oppen were typed, except for letters 73 and 77. Explanatory footnotes, when given, immediately follow individual letters. Letters 4, 12, 23, 35, 65 and 75 previously appeared in The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), though letter 75 is dated here January 24, 1972, not 1971, as in The Selected Letters. © 2014 Charles Tomlinson and Linda Oppen.
Five Chilean visual poets
Visual poetry is an odd egg: it never seems to extinguish. It continues at the periphery, way back in the corner of our literary eye. Possibly surprising is that many poets around the world have a thriving fascination with text as visual material. Perhaps vispoets stare at words longer than most, but their work is enmeshed in the design elements found in the alphabet and in symbols generally. What vispoets alter is the very conveyance of communication. Words are exchanged for letters, for markings endowed with different hierarchies of meaning.
During a recent visit to Chile, which included a launch of The Last Vispo Anthology in Santiago, I met several robust visual poets eager for community and conversation. There’s quite an excitement in meeting people doing similar work - the camaraderie was excellent.
As part of these meetings, we determined a need to create a venue by which others can follow some work coming out of Chile. Of course, what is gathered here is a very small sampling that we hope can be expanded on at a later date.
The poets collected here wield a mastery over visual poetry. The work is both exacting and loose. It roams freely and explores a variety of potentials. From Anamaría Briede’s drafting forays into word geometry to Gregorio Fontén’s visual scores and sounded mappings. From Kurt Folch’s collaged hallucinations of text to Martín Bakero’s chaotic maelstroms of excess. And finally, to Martín Gubbins’s committed precision to logic and playfulness.
So what makes this visual poetry specifically Chilean, you might ask? The answer to that lies in the question: what is visual poetry? Fidgeting with visual language is a human's propensity to merge erudition and play. As it’s a global predilection, this creating visual poetry, the answer to that question is: nothing. By nothing, I mean to say that our approaches to manipulating alphabet may be culturally different, but the impetus to create is a communal experience.
An overview of the past hundred years of Chilean visual poetry is filled with gaps. Chilean poetry, mostly lyrical, has been resistant and distrustful of visual and sound experiments. The timeline begins with Vicente Huidobro, who claims to have published his calligrammes before Apollinaire’s. Then, between the 1920s and the 1950s, a small group of surrealist poets explored the page visually. The second half of the century started with the work of Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn, and Alejandro Jodorowski, among others, who collaborated in the seminal publication ‘quebrantahuesos’ in the late ’50s. The ’60s saw the appearance of Guillermo Deisler and Dámaso Ogaz, followed by the poets Raúl Zurita, Juan Luis Martínez, and Gonzalo Millán in the ’80s, whose visual work most stood out. The 2000s and onward are represented here by poets following a tradition informed by both such Chilean roots and the Brazilian, English, Canadian, and Latin American concrete movements of the twentieth century.
Visual poetry, in the last few years, has enjoyed a dynamic surge. The ability to share work electronically has dealt a mighty blow to previous pockets of isolation. Our Chilean friends offer you their salutations and a glimpse into their world, as it is much like ours.
Trevor Joyce is an Irish poet whose innovation and creativity constitutes a sustained challenge to the conventions of poetry and reading in Ireland and abroad. Writing and publishing in Ireland since 1967, Joyce has seventeen collections of poetry and is cofounder and coeditor of New Writers’ Press. He is director of the SoundEye poetry festival in Cork, now in its eighteenth year, and is a member of Aosdána, a nationalaffiliation of creative artists in Ireland. The materials gathered here include a bibliography of Joyce’s poetry and criticism, an interview with the poet, a critical essay, and a gallery of book covers and photographs. The bibliography itemizes Joyce’s poetry, critical writing, editorial work, and recorded readings, along with an extensive list of reviews, secondary criticism, and biographical references. My thanks to the readers and scholars of Joyce’s work who helped in the collation of the bibliography. The interview dates from November 2010 and addresses Joyce’s poetic approach to and use of language, the formal and stylistic innovations of his oeuvre, and the importance of nationality to his thinking and writing.