Retrospection, 1972–81

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


Brook Cottage
January 4, 1972

Dear George and Mary,

It was a great delight to receive and read Seascape: Needle’s Eye.  I found  something to hold me in every poem  and going back to them is a continual surprise:   the form meets the mind with an answering fluency, but resistant:  one reads  them like seascapes:  They are made, and yet they have the unpredictability of natural forms.    Why is it I keep going back time and again to The Winds of Downhill?  It says (sings) all of Oppen in small compass,  then keeps on expanding in the mind afterwards with the persistence of a song whose tune has caught one’s inner ear.   It is a splendid book.  And  it makes one see the continuity of the whole venture from Discrete Series on. It is insulting to tell a  poet he has improved.  The effect of the book was to make me revalue Discrete Series, to see how Seascape would  have been impossible without it:  I think both early and latest Oppen have a radical unity: I would  want all the phases.  I thank heaven for the chance that brought that review copy of The Materials into my hands a decade ago. 

Under separate cover as they say I am sending my latest, Written on Water — we are rapidly converging.

We lost about the cow parlour.   It’s to be 300 cows.   I would willingly murder the idiot who — moneyed of course — wants even more of his already unfair share of the hogwash — cattle castle  or what.

Love to you both.  Whenever shall we meet?



the cow parlour
: Despite intense opposition in the Ozleworth area, the proposal to build a huge, concrete cow barn, together with a slurry lagoon, had finally been approved by the local council.




January [ ], 1972 

Dear Charles

we seem, by chance, to have exchanged books (if mine has reached you)  Yours having arrived only this morning, I have ‘leafed thru,’ but seeing Juliet in or rather not in her garden, and the bricks of Henry Street long gone before they went       and others - - - not sure my gift is adequate exchange

the color sustained in the woods; mine mostly in the spaces, gaps - - -

                     we tend to have seen the same things     In fact, startlingly!


            to thank you for the book, Charles, and to thank all the Tomlinsons
            And our love   We speak of you often, you are a feature of our reminiscences, our
biographies —


                    (we’ve been talking of a trip to England this summer. I think we could manage it)
                               ((there are reasons       But largely to talk to you  (youse)


Juliet … in her garden
: “Juliet’s Garden,” in Written on Water (Oxford University Press, 1972). 

the bricks of Henry Street: “Elegy for Henry Street,” in Written on Water.




 January 24, 1972

Dear Charles

‘I liked the street for its sordid / fiction of a small town order’
                                                                                                                 has become the picture of Henry Street
for me     ‘The image’:   is not a picture, is it, remains the words - - - - the size of the words, I was going to say    I don’t know if I can say the thing clearly    Obviously I haven’t done so    here       But the words become Henry Street for me

                                         and I  remember you and Brenda silhouetted against the (also grimy) harbor

Odd paradises, we find       But we find ’em.

                                                                                  A sense of proportion?

Odd strengths.  My talent for griminess.  Your aristocracy of working-class roots - - an aristocracy of roots     The contrary of the finagler     From whence the cadences of your poetry. - - - I’ve been wondering, since you write of resistance to your work, whether (as a form of statecraft) you should not undertake a more stately statement, a more full dress statement of your position       Of your state, stance      of your dignity

Yes, I know it’s stated in the poems.  But if ‘the critics’ are implying that it is old stuff ? ? ?  ‘the primary elements can only be named’    It is so damned difficult to make these people, ‘the critics,’ recognize the blatant mysteries

                                                                                            this last is Mary’s phrase, talking to me a few days ago - - that old jade, their appetites, are whetted (or is it supposed to be wetted) by eagles with umbrellas in their beaks and such and such and such 

Clipped the letter         having become a mite too angry thinking of what I’ve been calling ‘the critics’      The thing of course is just to write one’s poetry       I did, tho, have almost an imagination, for a moment,  of the whole statement - - - Probably a memory of what, in fact, you have written — the man climbing the hill — running down the hill in the snow      All of those poems - - - - -      Those fine poems.

Hardly a letter.    Just typing       ‘Offhand?’         off two fingers.  But regards, all our regards 


((still, it sticks in my mind: the idea of a full-dress statement     of the position, your position - - - A rather complex position         I remember Brenda’s:   ‘The Tories are right, you know   Of course one can’t vote for them, they’re such pigs ’

(( I remain temperamentally of the Left           yes, ‘temperamentally,’ I suppose, since I recognize dangers, very great dangers       But hunger does seem to me a compelling issue        And since  I take it as clearly true that the consumption of power is reaching or has gone beyond its limit - - since it is clear that the production must be controlled, surely a high degree of egalitarianism is absolutely necessary, humanly necessary - -       I respect, as you know, the validity of your emotions and of your life  - -  the validity of the poetry         perhaps I am arguing a review, a deeper (not meaning in the scholarly sense) of the position ‘Conservatism’ if that’s what it must be for you     But to explore further the contradictions, the difficulties, the ambiguities, the           what?  the vision of the future - - the - - - - -

                         I am writing far too hurriedly             Don’t misunderstand this letter

                         Written in admiration        It would be clear in a conversation        I’m a poor typist



the picture of Henry Street
: “Elegy for Henry Street,” in Written on Water.

primary elements: “those primary elements which can only be named,” section 6 of “Route” in Of Being Numerous.




Brook Cottage
July 17, 1972 

Dear George and Mary,

A neighbour of ours, Bruce Chatwin, says he will be in S. Fr in September.  I introduced him to your heroic couplets, George, some time back and he wd. like to meet the master, should be chez vous.  Actually he may never  arrive.  He is writing a book on nomads and, a nomad himself, is just as likely to go to Tierra del Fuego.  But he asked wd I write to you, and as I have long had a desire to do so,  I willingly take up the pen.

From time to time and from scene to scene,  I am often smitten by the thought of how good it would be if George and Mary were here now and in front of  this sunset, oaktree, Bath crescent, Bristol backstreet, London fountain plus pigeons etc. Should you (for example) find yourselves in London in September, O.U.P. are showing four years of my graphics (drawings and collages) at their London premises.  I have done a lot of this work in recent years and I have solved problems I cd. not master 15 or so ago when (partly because I had to earn my living otherwise), I ground to a halt.  The show coincides with a new book, Written on Water (cd. well be an Oppenesque title) — we have discovered the Scottish isles — in fact, shd you write between now and Aug 15th,  our address will be:  c/o  Bowlby /Ullinish / by Fortree /Isle of Skye / Scotland.  I think that is a place you would like and also the people there, with their remarkably good talk and  their difficult but meaningful lives.  Donovan wanted a Pop Festival there, but that idea didn’t weather long.  The place scarcely suggests druggy togetherness.

And how are you both?  And when shall we six meet again? 


                                       Charles   Brenda    J2




30 September 1972

Dear Chas and all:

the ancient (in US perspectives) name of that part of SF in which we live was Cow Hollow.  Our histories seem to be moving in contrary directions - -

But five hundred cows, I’ll say, is a lot of cows     I’ll write ’em to say this — a visiting American who had so fine a time under edge.


Yes              had received your letter — were prepared for Bruce, and enjoyed the visit

 sorry if I neglected to answer your letter    I’ve fallen, recently fell, behind on mail and no longer know what I’ve answered and what I haven’t answered - - have messed up my ‘affairs’ quite disastrously as well as falling a bit out of touch with friends

                                                                                                                - - difficulty in writing, and the feeling of being close to what        I want to do, to say       And extreme weariness with literary doings, gossip, absurdities       etc.      And a great many letters, mags, books - -      a deluge of mags, books, schemes, arguments - - -     have to refind myself, I’ve done too much talking, maybe, tho less than most.  Much less than most

sorry when I inadvertently fail to answer a letter from friends         such as the Tomlin’s sons. 

                                                with our love

(( The Prospect of Stone, our language is our country - - that’s all part of myself,  all of that, tho of course it’s yours 





Brook Cottage
February 1, 1973

Dear George and  Mary,

It was good to have your kind words on the book.  I have not succeeded in getting across to the English reviewers.  Well, they will have to fuck off.  C’est ça.  I’ve tried for the better part of twenty years.  Basta.

We were delighted to hear of your plan to come this way.  You are always welcome.  My term goes on till June 22.  So let us know your dates.

The over-laconicness of all this alone does little to express our real joy at the prospect of seeing you once more — it has been far too long — one really does need immortality to enjoy one’s friendships, to see one’s real friends.

Shall we not rob a bank while you’re over?  I feel a lust for freedom.  I have laboured  long enough for these endlessly devaluating bits of metal, scraps of paper.

Let us hear your cheery words

                                           Vinceremos perhaps 

                                                Ch and  Br


your plan to come this way
: Oppen took part in the Modern American Poets Conference at the Polytechnic of Central London, May 25–27, 1973.




Brook Cottage
December 16,  1973

Dear  George and Mary, 

The BBC have sent me this contract for you — if you sign it and return to the address  in Section B, you’ll get your pay.  I note they imagine you travel to London from Bristol — hence the # 4.70 return fare!

The country seems in an odd state just now — industry closed down to 3 days a week, the miners’ dispute, the electricity dispute, cuts in light, petrol atrociously dear and hard to come by, the pound wobbling into worthlessness.  The trains are also on the go-slow. As the miners, the electrical workers and the railmen strangle the economy together — it’s  become a habit during the winter season — we all freeze and fumble in the dark. 

Term is over, however, and I can paint once more, and have spent a couple of days in pure pleasure.  Brenda is sewing a dress.

A student of mine asked me the other week if he could bring his girl friend (not a member of the university) to one of my tutorial groups. ‘Her favourite poet,’ he hastened to add,  ‘is George Oppen.’  I could scarcely say no, could I!

       Have a nice Xmas and 74

                                               Love from us all

                                                   Ch.   Br.  J2


your pay:
The feefor Oppen’s interview with Tomlinson on BBC Radio 3, May 22, 1973 (broadcast on August 28).




Brook Cottage
January 19, 1974

Dear George and Mary,

George, I hope you will accept the enclosed.  You have been chosen Poet of the Year by the Ozleworth cum Wotton-Under-Edge Poetry Lovers’ Circle. As this honour has never previously been conferred on an American citizen, you will also be the first American to be nominated a member of said circle (all writers are automatically nominated). 

The fine girls of whom you speak are now quarrelling with each other.  Little bastards.

I am reading Hemingway.  I wish his protagonists were less boring.  They are just lay figures.  In both senses. 

They tell me there are fine exhibitions in London, but the trains are in such chaos with the go-slow I don’t s’pose we’ll get down there.

Forgive the used other side of this page — a remnant from my recent editing of a Williams Selected for Penguin.  I suggested Oppen to them some time back for their modern poets  series,  but they are slow to bite and slow to surface having bitten.

Have yourselves a nice ’74!  We love those  Jap prints you brought us!  Very many thanks.


                                                      Ch.   Br


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




Brook Cottage
August 15, 1976 

Dear George and Mary,

Just a line to let you know that we shall be in the San Francisco area in October.  As a group of visiting poets, coming to celebrate our defeat at your hands.  I read at Carleton College, Minnesota, on Thursday 21st Oct; the next reading is Stanford Oct 25th, then Pittsburgh Wednesday 27th.  So sometime between the 22nd  and the 26th  I  hope — we hope, that is, as Brenda will be with me — to  knock on your door. 

It’s a bit foolhardy to splurge our pennies by coming both together, but, what the hell … If we don’t spend ’em, the government will.

I am editing The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation.  Quite some undertaking — Chaucer till now, but I have a year off to do it.  If you have any favourite translations,  note them down for me, would you?  They must be significant poems, or significantly interesting, as one Horace I have done by The Young Gentleman of Mr Rule’s Academy, Islington.  It’s rather a fine poem, too, come to think of it and quite scuppers the Robt. Fitzgerald version of the same poem.

See yiz soon,

This is going to be the greatest landing since Entebbe.

                                                Love from us both 

                                                Charles and Brenda


The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation
: published in 1980 by Oxford University Press.




Brook Cottage
July 19, 1978

Dear George and Mary,

We have been a shamefully long time in writing and thanking you for those lovely photographs of us all, not to mention our stay with you — the best part of those three weeks of wandering.  The fact is, ever since we returned, one thing has followed another.  First Brenda’s brother fell from a sort of loading platform into machinery at the factory where he works, fractured skull and backbone — then her father died and we have done much to-ing and fro-ing northwards where her mother has started to go blind.  In the other direction, Londonwards, Justine is at the Royal Academy and there’s also a great deal of fetching and camping.  So finally term has ended and we are beginning to breathe — I fetched her home last week, plus cat, plus belongings. Juliet, next week begins lessons in London, prior to entering the Academy.  And so it goes.

Hugh Kenner wrote to me recently to ask if I’d do something for his magazine Paideuma about Zuk.  What I’ve done finally, since I find myself getting further away from his poetry, is a sort of memoir of coming to N. York in ’63.  There’s as much Oppen as Zuk.  So I finally called it ‘Objectivists, a Memoir.’  Will you permit me to quote one or two passages of your memoirs to me, George, beginning with the passage that became To C.T.? I shall use nothing coyly personal — not that you are ever coyly personal!  Mostly an attempt to fix a phase and tell the story our way.  Perhaps you’d let me know, so you don’t have to sue me.

We often have cause to repent that the Atlantic is so wide and that continent likewise.  The photographs of us in the pumpkin fields and under Maybeck’s arches certainly helped shrink the vast extent, as does the memory of those sea-board streets and cinemas with crotch-shots and restaurants with Vietnamese cooking.  And you?  What likelihood of your travelling this way to view the ramparts of antique Europe?

Last week Justine played in the Academy’s final concert, then some premières of Penderecki works, then we drove home for her to be in the school orchestra with which Juliet was performing a Tartin concerto.  Justine is leading a quartet at the academy and has received a small scholarship to take it to a summer school next week.  She finds her fellow players lazy and undependable tho’ good players and spends much time bossing them into shape.  She aims to form a dependable quartet before she leaves, but 4 egos are difficult to combine, so what price Utopia?!

In the autumn the Arts Council are putting on an exhibition in London, ‘The Graphics and Poetry of C.T’ — due to someone there seeing that PN Review to which you were so kind as to contribute, George.  Running out of space.  

                                                  All our love

                                                    Ch.  Br.  J2


‘Objectivists: A Memoir’
: “Objectivists: Zukofsky and Oppen, A Memoir,” Paideuma 7, no. 3 (Winter 1978).

that PN Review: “Charles Tomlinson at 50: A Celebration,” Poetry Nation Review 5, no. 1 (October 1977): 33–50. Oppen’s contribution was: “Our language is our country Charles Tomlinson has said well, for it is he and Basil Bunting who have spoken most vividly to American poets.”




[Undated:  probably January 1979]

Dear Charles: 

You, Mary and I all in The New York Times together, as is fitting (and unknown to the Times)

Mary’s Montana and your Cotswolds, lending strength to each other, our various strengths.  Of which a great part is friendship ‘(which seems … honorable’)

                                                    Our love to all


And I am honored to be in your company 

            — Mary


in the New York Times together
: A review by Michael Heller of Mary Oppen’s Meaning a Life (Black Sparrow Press, 1978)and Oppen’s Primitive (Black Sparrow Press, 1978)appeared in the same issue of The New York Times Book Review, December 31, 1978, as R. W. Flint’s review of Tomlinson’s Selected Poems 1951–1974 (Oxford University Press, 1978) and The Shaft (Oxford University Press, 1978).




January 17, 1980

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your poems that tell us gloriously that there is no light but the world --- the light and the lights of the world 





January 25, 1981

Dear Charles,

Reading your Some Americans with great pleasure and a little guilt: we were young, and perhaps did not fully recognize Louis’ brilliance.  But need I thank you for the essay: I dream of walking with you over the ground and hills of Gloucester? 

any chance of your coming here?  We could bed you down. 

Love to Brenda and a loving hug for Justine and Juliet.  Send them for a visit?  We’d show them the town.

                                           With all best wishes, and friendship



Some Americans
: Some Americans: A Personal Record (University of California Press, 1981), with chapter 2, “Objectivists: Zukofsky and Oppen,” the same as the 1978 Paideuma essay (letter 72).




Brook Cottage
February 3,   1981 

Dear  George and Mary, 

It was good to get yours.  Doesn’t the photo of George look good  on the cover of that book!   I had to say no to a previous drawn cover — insipid portraits of  the poets chatting in the Elysian fields, as it were.  It seemed neither artistic nor tactful!

We shall be in the States for the autumn term when I have been invited over as visiting senior fellow at Princeton.  So if we can get west … We’ll be in NY briefly in May.   I’m to give the Katherine Garrison Chapin Biddell (is that right?) Memorial Lecture for the Academy of American Poets, then up to Colgate (I am getting old and respectable) they are going to — I was about to say doctor me.  I hope it doesn’t come to that.

There’s a big Edward Hopper show in London which I hope to see in a week or two.

The girls thrive,  but look as if they’re bound for unemployability.

                              Love from us both and let us hope we’ll soon meet.

                                                   As ever



the cover of that book
: The photographs on the cover of Some Americans were those of Ezra Pound, Oppen, Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky, Georgia O’Keeffe, and William Carlos Williams.




June 25, 1981

[Written in Mary Oppen’s hand]

Dear Charles,

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


                                                                  (by M)

We understand the decision not to change countries — even though you would have enriched our lives.



                                        Love & xxx to Brenda
                                                Justine and Charles
                                                for now —