'the pleasure of / companionship'

A review of 'The Oppens Remembered'

The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship

The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship

Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis

University of New Mexico Press 2015, 296 pages, $59.95, ISBN 978-0826356239

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.”[1]The publication in 1990 of the invaluable Selected Letters, a superb collection of Oppen’s correspondence edited by noted Oppen scholar Rachel Blau DuPlessis, helped illustrate how important such impingements were to Oppen; that, in fact, his oft-stated desire of achieving clarity in poetry was not merely an aesthetic or formal consideration, but indeed a deeply existential desire on his part to make his poetry dialogue with himself and others, of bridging a long-widened gap resulting from his twenty-five years of self-imposed exile from poetry. What these remarkable letters suggest is that for Oppen, poetry was not simply a means of conveying experience, but a means of reaching out to others, of overcoming the unbearable loneliness of existence.

Evidence of this need for community is provided throughout DuPlessis’s new volume, The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship, which includes essays and reminiscences by those who knew the Oppens personally, including, among others, DuPlessis, Heller, Michael Davidson, Diane Wakoski, David Antin, Sharon Olds, and Paul Auster.

As DuPlessis remarks in her contribution, writing was for Oppen an important means of connection with the world, one that became an almost existential means of commitment to both self and world. Oppen argued with himself and with others through his poetry, which was often filled with contradiction. Yet, as DuPlessis notes, he was also “engaging seriously with poetics and politics in his letters … He needed contact … He needed a circle, a coterie, a cenacle, and he sought actively to sustain that intellectual, social, and poetic network” (195–96). Anthony Rudolf, poet and friend of the Oppens during the 1970s and ’80s, concurs, arguing that “the life and work of this existentialist lodestar seem[s] more dialectically integrated than that of any other writer. By this I mean that his ontological integrity was peculiarly transparent and bound up with the purity of his writerly vision, whether in words or in their absence” (172).

The essays in this present volume form a kind of haphazard biography; nevertheless DuPlessis has done a heroic job of organizing the volume so that it follows a certain narrative trajectory. Given DuPlessis’s stated premise “that any biographical relationship is built from the dynamic space of the encounter, the space of the between,” the constraints and demands of biography, which are significant, are here somewhat less imposing. The Oppens Remembered, she explains,“is not so much the ‘life’ of George Oppen and Mary Oppen” as it is “the establishment of a dialogue, a ‘between,’ at the moment when one’s own life and the lives of the Oppens interacted with particular intensity” (x).

Indeed, the Oppens were particularly intense: eloping at a young age, the couple moved to New York City just prior to the Depression; they met poets Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. They then moved to France to publish poetry and prose by Williams and Pound, along with a collection of “Objectivist” poets, a movement designed by Zukofsky for Poetry Magazine, with which Oppen was briefly associated. The Oppens then returned to the United States, and in 1935, spurred by its achievements in organizing the unemployed, George and Mary joined the Communist Party. As members they worked to organize the poor, delivered soapbox speeches, and engaged in rent strikes and milk strikes. This quarter-century political commitment was instigated by a deeply felt obligation to combat the unemployment endemic to the Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe during the Second World War. Because the party demanded that artists use their talents in service of the party’s political agenda, Oppen, who did not believe that poetry could fix what was broken — at least politically — decided to stop writing rather than make his poetry a vehicle for didactic political expression. Following the Second World War, in which he fought and was wounded, Oppen chose to devote himself to his role as husband and father. Exile in Mexico in the 1950s, and concern for the well-being of his daughter, Linda, whom he says he did not want to expose to his innermost fears, further postponed his writing.

Following the war, Oppen returned to the United States in a severe state of mental distress and physical trauma. Perhaps because of fears of anti-Semitism and an overall distrust of human motivations, the Oppens decided not to raise their daughter in the crime-ridden and increasingly dangerous postwar New York City, and in 1946, they moved to California. They were at this time politically active, organizing petitions opposing the Korean War and supporting Henry Wallace in his 1948 bid for the presidency. As anticommunist paranoia began to sweep America, the US government stepped up surveillance programs on known communists, including the Oppens. The FBI paid them several visits, inquiring about past and present political activities. Fearing arrest, the Oppens decided to leave the country until the hysteria receded. Thus began a decade-long exile in Mexico.

As recounted in several memoirs included here (most notably, Julian Zimet’s, Stephen Schneider’s, and Linda Oppen’s contributions), the years in Mexico were deeply unhappy. A major reason for this discontent is that the Oppens were unable to enjoy the freedom of movement they had at all times in their lives experienced. They had not gone to Mexico out of choice, and once there, they had their passports seized and were unable to leave. “They felt so out of place because it wasn’t their chosen way of life,” Linda observes; “it took a toll” (237).

In 1958, Oppen suddenly and mysteriously began writing poetry again. He often relied on a reductive explanation for this, referring to an anecdotal dream in which he imagined going through his deceased father’s files and discovering a document detailing the prevention of rust in copper. Oppen related this dream to Mary’s therapist, who provided the interpretation that — put simply — Oppen did not want to corrode. This revelation, which poses a contradiction of sorts, as Oppen was outspokenly distrustful of psychological explanations or motivations for art, apparently prompted Oppen’s decision to write again. Yet what actually fueled most this creative resurgence was his need to reintegrate into a community receptive to what it was that he had to say. Indeed, it might be said that his psychic survival depended on saying certain things and, most especially, on being heard. And what it was he had to say could be said only in the form of poetry. The time for soapbox speeches was over.

By 1960, the Red Scare had lost its momentum. Once in possession of their passports, the Oppens again became permanent, full-time US residents. The exigencies of reintegration into a thriving poetic community and the need for validation for his new body of work encouraged Oppen, during the first few months back in the States, to reach out to literary associates, some of whom he had not spoken to in years, including Zukofsky (to whom he first wrote in August 1958), Reznikoff, Williams, and New Directions publisher James Laughlin.

In discussing this return to writing, Oppen, perhaps tongue in cheek, stated in an unpublished letter from the late 1950s his intent on becoming a “Whitman of the factories,”and several recent essays examine Oppen’s cagey reaction to the immense impact of Whitman’s work on modern poetry. However broadly similar their philosophic and political concerns, Whitman’s poetics, in contrast to Oppen’s, possessed both a naïve idealism and energy far different in both form and subject matter. And while Oppen, in struggling to achieve a new form, could not return to the densely modernist poetry of his youth, neither could he compose derivative urban Whitman poems as did Allen Ginsberg. Stephen Schneider recalls Oppen’s personal discussion of Whitman in the early 1960s, in particular his singling out Whitman’s “On the Terrible Doubt of Appearances,” a poem that addresses the inadequacy of human perception. Whitman’s poem argues that because we cannot trust our perceptions, we are alone in them. Moreover, we cannot communicate our experience to one another because of the limitations of words; yet in our interactions with others we somehow overcome this solitude. Oppen’s interest in this poem, Schneider argues, is indicative of his fear of being alone. “Oppen’s particular dread of unreality, or nothingness, and his conviction that real solitude would be ‘lethal,’ owe something to the harms he had suffered” (30). Oppen’s loneliness, Schneider contends, compelled him to form deep, lasting bonds with many younger poets and writers — including Harvey Shapiro, Robert Duncan, Armand Schwerner, and Denise Levertov — relationships that helped to rekindle Oppen’s newfound creativity.

John Crawford, one the earliest of these younger poets to meet the Oppens (61), does not recall seeing any poets the same age as the Oppens, noting how their relationship with Zukofsky was “strained” by that point. It was clear to Crawford that Mary acted as a “buffer between George and the rest of the world” (62), perhaps another indication of his ongoing trauma. Mary, he observes, was a “strong woman who had thrown her life wholeheartedly into her partnership with a brooding, sensitive, intellectually dominating man” (77–78), and so had a right — indeed an obligation — to be protective of him. Where George could lapse into an often lengthy, at times impenetrable silence, Mary was more straightforward and outspoken than her husband.

From the portrait provided by this volume, Oppen could be an imposing presence. He often attended readings attired in a three-piece suit and tie, giving him the appearance — particularly among the more colorful attire of the 1960s — of being a relic from another era. His wry wit provided a certain levity that contrasted with his war-torn visage and his deep-set, penetrative eyes. “George was wiry and wily,” explains DuPlessis, and “did not suffer fools gladly” (195). To John Crawford, Oppen’s humor was “self-effacing,” though discussions of politics, “if allowed into the conversation at all” — given their years of political persecution the Oppens were perhaps understandably paranoid and reticent to bring up politics in polite conversation, lest discussion turn toward their years as communists — were “always a serious business” (59). He notes Oppen’s “quiet magnetism, his buried passion, his very real silences” (60), qualities that were perhaps outward signs of his ongoing, unspoken trauma.

To be sure, the trauma inflicted by the immensity of the Depression and war is a major theme of Oppen’s post-silence work, which provides an ongoing critique of the isolation of modernity, anxieties arguably intensified by the social and political turmoil of the Cold War, Vietnam, and Civil Rights eras. In his discussions with other poets — some tantalizingly recounted in this present volume — and in his private papers, Oppen repeatedly addressed the metaphysical implications of these crises. The tensions between the singular and the numerous, the human as individual and as part of a collective, are subjects he obsessed over during the 1960s. Oppen’s new work — which on the surface recalls the same modernist aesthetic that informed the poetry of Pound, Williams, and Zukofsky — consists of a metaphysical and political consciousness shaped by his experiences from the 1930s to the 1950s, one that speaks directly to the increasingly radical political beliefs of this subsequent generation of poets. Observes Henry Weinfeld, “even though [Oppen] wrote nothing while he was in the Party, it was this experience, positive and negative, that gave him what he needed to begin afresh as a poet” (156), as it helped him to define the narrow efficacy of art, while simultaneously providing him with the undergirdings of political action.

Oppen hoped that his poetry, in grappling with these and other moral concerns, could restore certain core values to this idea of “humanity,” namely compassion for one another and the condemnation of violence and ruination. To do so effectively requires clarity, a criterion present throughout Oppen’s body of work, from the early, Objectivist-influenced poems of Discrete Series (1934), to the spare, enigmatic poems of Primitive (1978), his final book of poems.Ted Pearson perceptively observes in his contribution to The Oppens Remembered that “[i]mplicit in Oppen’s stated desire for poetry ‘to achieve clarity’ is his commitment to the process of clarification, the constant testing of one’s materials that makes such clarity possible — and perceptible to one’s readers” (138). Pearson points to the lines “the pleasure of being heard / the pleasure of / companionship” from Oppen’s poem “To C. T.” (1965),[2] noting that their success above all requires that a reader is able to “recognize those moments when a work actually achieves clarity” (138). At the same time, Pearson continues, as Oppen noted in “Route” (1968), a poem that largely concerns Oppen’s wartime experience, the “heartlessness of words” is that they “cannot be wholly transparent.”[3] In other words, one must wrestle between the achievement of “linguistic transparency” and the ability to effectively convey meaning. Instead of becoming discouraged by this seeming irreconcilability, Oppen took it as a challenge. Argues Pearson, his “distrust of words … his sense of them as ‘enemies’ to be persuaded from unethical misuse … and his no less intransigent ‘faith’ in the referential probity of the ‘little words’ he favored and trusted to bear the weight of his thought” resulted in an “apparently productive tension” (138).

With the poem “Of Being Numerous” (1968), Oppen intentionally set out to write — and arguably achieved — the defining poem of the 1960s. DuPlessis remarks that the poem “belong[s] to the thought of a generation ripped apart by the Vietnam War” and that it represents Oppen “giving his thinking back to some of that generation … the unfinished business of radical hopes brought forward and yet infinitely compromised and compressed” (196). In interviews, letters, and personal papers, Oppen ruminated on the poem’s source and meaning, explaining that “Numerous” represents the culmination of his thinking during his twenty-five-year silence, that he wrote the poem — indeed much of his post-silence work — to answer once and for all the question of whether or not there is an objective humanity apart from its concept.[4]

To DuPlessis, however, the content of the poem is rather less abstract. In her view, “Numerous” is a “ferocious meditation” on such things as “government malfeasance and lies; realpolitik calculation; aggression that, as always, rebounds; the literal horrors of war, with the backdrop being a historically rupturing assassination of a popular president and other significant, change-oriented political figures as well: Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr” (196–97). While crowded, DuPlessis’s argument does speak to the decidedly political undertones of the poem, and, certainly, “Numerous” addresses the sociological and cultural crises of its era. Yet the sublimity of “Numerous” is its metaphysical incisiveness, its ability to address history without becoming mired in specifics. Oppen’s larger concern is to question the cause and meaning of, for example, violence, war, assassination, political misconduct, and what they reveal about humanity. In fact, what “Numerous” is above all concerned with are the implications and effects of urbanism (it initially began as an earlier poem, 1965’s “Another Language of New York”), and of the relationship between the one and the many (here epitomized by the solitary lyric poet and society). This concern is due in part to Oppen’s representation of the modern, postindustrial city — specifically New York — as representing vast networks of practical, financial, and sociocultural exchanges. These networks present the poet with a useful convergence of energies that illustrate human relationships, both personal and impersonal. As Kathleen Fraser neatly summarizes, “Oppen turned our minds with the force of a magnet toward the difficult, unavoidable evidence of the human condition — in particular, the terrible uses of America’s wealth and power enacted during our own overlapping lifetimes of war” (87).

In many ways, the poem seems an ex post facto meditation and act of contrition for Oppen’s decades-long poetic silence, while simultaneously providing a measure of the efficacy of art in a time of crisis. For John Crawford, Oppen’s poem “melds together the sense of several disasters,” among them the need “to find a new acceptance of life, however perilous” in the aftermath of the Second World War and in the face of nuclear annihilation, an acceptance that involves “a commitment to the creation of art and beauty in the midst of estrangement and catastrophe, [and] a recognition that life ends in a kind of failure that only commitment can justify.” For Crawford, Oppen’s citation in the poem of Nietzsche’s concept of amor fati,the idea of eternal recurrence, or, as Oppen describes it, the “love of fate”[5] underlines Oppen’s “embrace of existence despite the ultimate cost.” Oppen’s use of the phrase “the bright light of shipwreck,” Crawford maintains, suggests that “the destruction of the isolated individual is transfigured into the existence of one among many in the city, the commonality of creation and re-creation despite the failure of each in time … The individual is doomed to failure, the collective bodies shorn of their freedom. Art is the basis of a kind of survival narrative, a series of steps that together create ‘the isolation of the actual’” (77).

In the years following the war, George Oppen was living his own survival narrative. Suffering from guilt induced by his failure to act as he had anticipated — which is to say, heroically — Oppen wrote very little about his experiences in war, only a handful of poems and letters. Crawford suspects that Oppen, “through images [in his poetry] of natural affinity, simplicity, and trust … was seeking a recovery of equilibrium” (68); that in a sense — though he would adamantly oppose a simplistic psychological interpretation of art — his later writing involved a working through various traumas, most profoundly his experiences of war and the decade of exile in Mexico. As Oppen developed the war poems in The Materials (1962), This in Which (1965), and Of Being Numerous (1968), Crawford writes, “he found a great deal of personal integration. It appeared in the form it did as a kind of rebirth through suffering and horror. It spoke to ethical questions and the shock of existence” (76; italics mine).

As a number of the contributors here note, “Of Being Numerous” is arguably the central work in Oppen’s oeuvre, a culmination of his new poetic form and an eloquent summary of his lifelong struggle with certain metaphysical and political concerns. The poem also signaled a stylistic turning point. In the late 1960s, the Oppens moved to San Francisco, the site of Oppen’s adolescence. Poems written following this move and published in a second trio of collections — Seascape: Needle’s Eye (1972), Myth of the Blaze (1975), and Primitive (1979) — are increasingly fragmented and elliptical; often beginning in media res, sometimes midsentence, lines are comprised almost entirely of sentence fragments, their syntax structurally eccentric and oblique. There are gaps and fissures, white areas on the page meant to indicate silence, most often the inexpressible. According to Ted Pearson,  

George struggled — and said he felt obliged — to change his approach to the poetic line. He wanted distance from what had come to be seen by many readers as his signature style, an outcome he had never intended. He said he did not want the form of work to be “predictable,” that is, to allow the reader to make a priori assumptions about its content. He was looking, he said, for “a different key,” one better suited to his present circumstances, including his and Mary’s life in San Francisco, for which “a language of New York” was impossible. (145)

Once in San Francisco, the Oppens immersed themselves in the city’s dynamic literary scene. His relationship with West Coast poets encouraged him to resume his literary activities, such as taking part in interviews and readings. Despite his ambivalence concerning self-promotion (and a stated dislike of attending poetry readings, according to Sharon Olds [165]), these readings and radio interviews had the effect of introducing Oppen’s work to an ever-larger and more admiring audience.

During this time Oppen also spent time in the Big Sur area with his half-sister June Oppen Degnan, who was instrumental in promoting her brother’s new work; her San Francisco Review in 1960 and 1961 would publish much of her brother’s earliest post-silence work, including copublishing, with New Directions, Oppen’s The Materials and This in Which. Degnan, writes DuPlessis, was “deeply, deeply invested” (194) in her brother’s literary career. “She had her own version of what that would be: that George would be like Norman Mailer [or James Jones, whom she knew] with his big novel about the war was a central figuration of that fantasy” (211, n. 3). Degnan brought Oppen’s work to the attention of the New York literati; moreover, she lobbied on her brother’s behalf in his nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, an award, it appears, Oppen neither sought, nor was entirely pleased to receive. Ted Pearson here observes that Oppen, while honored by the award, in a way “felt co-opted” by it, as it was founded and financed by an “establishment” publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whose papers often resorted to yellow journalism, and who for Oppen represented a “class and ideology that he had long since rejected, vigorously opposed, and whose recent ‘approval’ of his work he could only find disturbing” (136). Oppen’s lack of enthusiasm concerning the award — and subsequent cancellations of a series of readings meant to capitalize on the attention it had given him — was apparently taken by Degnan as a slight. Yet Oppen did not write for awards, for “desire of approval,” nor “plain vanity,” argues Pearson. Rather, what he sought through his writing was “the possibility of ‘addressing [one’s] peers’ and ‘the pleasure of being heard.’”[6]

Whatever his feelings about the Pulitzer, it did help to legitimize Oppen’s new work, gaining him a wider audience among readers and critics. In April 1968, Oppen would make important inroads into the Midwest, attending the aforementioned conference on the “Objectivists” in Wisconsin in 1968, and in the summer of 1973 he attended a National Poetry Festival in Michigan. By 1969, Oppen’s work began to accumulate interest outside the US. His first Collected Poems was published by UK-based publisher Fulcrum in 1972, and in May 1973, the Oppens visited England to take part in readings and the Modern American Poetry Conference.

By the mid- to late 1970s, Oppen enjoyed considerable acclaim. He published in celebrated journals, and he took part in several major interviews, often accompanied by Mary. In May 1980, Oppen was recognized by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for “creative work in literature” and in July received, along with eight others, an award acknowledging his “extraordinary contribution” to American letters. Oppen would also receive the PEN/West Rediscovery Award in 1982.[7]

Despite the awards, the respect of his peers, and a modicum of commercial success, a lingering sense of failure continued to haunt Oppen, a failure that was personal and political, internal and external. This same complex of emotions also contributed to his lengthy creative silence, and nowhere were they felt more intensely than his fear of failing at poetry. While his body of work, six collections over a sixteen-year period, remained small in number, its content is immeasurable. Oppen wrote slowly, Mary told Olds, “over and over and over,” trying to get the poems right. “What I have,” Olds quotes George as saying, “is a tireless ear” (167). This practice points to a sense of engagement and conversation in the poems, of working through various ideas, in various stages of completion.

Yet just as Oppen began to receive wider attention for his work, his mental state began to decline. By the time the Oppens sat down for an interview with Paul Auster for the Paris Review in 1980, his condition had deteriorated to the extent that Auster reconsidered publishing the interview (xx), which remains unreleased.[8] Oppen, diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, was eventually hospitalized. He would die in a convalescent home on July 7, 1984.

The Oppens Remembered is a moving and insightful consideration of George and Mary’s life and work, and a reminder that good biography is its own art: what we choose to select, and to omit, possibly says more about the biographer than the subject on whom he or she is writing. Beginning with the bare facts of a life, and by means of this primary data, the biographer must interpret — and intuit — the origin and development of the poet’s thoughts. There are considerable drawbacks: the legitimacy of any biography depends greatly on the cogency and veracity of the biographer’s explanations. In each of the essays in The Oppens Remembered, however, the contributors, given the range of perspectives, and of course the intricacies of their subjects, provide an intriguing, multifaceted portrait of George and Mary Oppen, conveying their humanity, those little details which, even if they cannot adequately summarize their lives, help to at least enrich one’s sense of them, and to suggest further interpretations of Oppen’s unparalleled art. 

1. Michael Heller, in The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015), 45. 

2. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), 158.  

3. Ibid., 194.

4. George Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 111, 263, 386.  

5. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 166–67.

6. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 194, 158, qtd. in DuPlessis, The Oppens Remembered,137.

7. Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 346.

8. Richard Swigg, editor of the Oppen audio library at PennSound, informs me that this interview will be published at Jacket2 at some future date.