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.
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.