The Selected Letters of George Oppen

by George Oppen
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The Selected Letters of George Oppen

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2056

During the decades 1960-1990, the great modernist poets William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore, Who had been shunted into temporary obscurity by the ascendancy of the academic NeW Critics, were gradually restored to a position of prominence. Yet another group, small but quite important, remained in obscurity. A generation younger than Williams and Pound, the Objectivists Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, and George Oppen—joined in a loose association by Basil Bunting, Carl Rakosi, and Lorine Niedecker—were never able to command an audience even as limited as the one Pound and Williams found. While other such temporarily neglected writers as Robinson Jeffers and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) were “rediscovered,” they continued to exist beyond the reach of anthologies and even most small journals.

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Part of the problem, at least in Zukofsky’s case, Was the challenging and unconventional nature of the work. For Oppen, however, a twenty-five-year hiatus in mid-career and a paucity of essays in which the poet discussed his ideas and theories about literature were also significant factors. Now, with the culmination of a twenty-five-year project begun by Rachel Blau DuPlessis in 1965 when she sent Oppen a graduate school essay on Williams’ Paterson (1946-1958), a lost chapter of American literary experience has been rescued from oblivion. DuPlessis’ selection of Oppen’s letters, accompanied by interpretive notes and other relevant material, provides an excellent introduction to the singular thinking of a fascinating man and important figure in American literature.

The brief but vivid biography in the introductory chapter establishes the general outlines of Oppen’s life, framing the letters within the larger concerns that dominated Oppen’s thinking. Born in 1908 into a prosperous, thoroughly assimilated German-Jewish family, Oppen was confronted with an amalgam of the opportunities available to the privileged. His life was continually compounded by wrenching emotional occasions, including an automobile accident in which a friend was killed, his mother’s suicide, his expulsion from college, his decision to join the Communist Party to fight for social justice, his immediate disappointment with Party politics, his decision to stop writing to avoid compromising either art or politics, his severe wound in action in World War II, his postwar exile in Mexico to avoid persecution by McCarthyist Red-baiters, and his continued harassment by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Yet these trials were balanced by his lifelong love for Mary Colby, whom he married at eighteen; the pleasures of a semibohemian existence as a traveler; amateur sailor, and nascent artist; the excitement of founding his own press, To Publishers, which briefly published Zukofsky, Pound, and Williams in the early 1930’s; his own first work, Discrete Series, in 1934; the satisfaction of sticking to his political beliefs through the Depression, the war years, and the Cold War years; and then, astonishingly, the rebirth of his writing life in 1958 and the three decades of productivity that are the subject of the letters in the book.

While DuPlessis recognizes that the relatively few readers familiar with Oppen’s poetry will welcome her work, she correctly construes her basic audience as those literate people interested in modern American poetry who are generally unaware of what Oppen has done. Speaking of necessity as an advocate for an essentially invisible group, she describes the “Objectivist” cohort as “under-read and shockingly under-anthologized” and argues for the importance of Oppen’s letters as the only extant record of his critical thinking. The letters, she says, reveal Oppen as he formed and developed ideas and concepts in the process of conversations with friends and with himself. Like Robert Creeley, who spoke of “a leaderless Robin Hood band” of supportive peers, Oppen relished “the pleasure of companionship” after his separation of a quarter-century from the world of literature and affirmed that for a writer, “the only possible hope is in the conversation with one’s peers.”

In selecting and presenting the letters, DuPlessis faced a series of intriguing challenges. Her basic plan is to establish a dialogic engagement between the letters and her astute, informative commentary, with Oppen’s poems forming the third leg of a triangle of interchange. Thus, while it is possible to read the letters without consulting the notes, the almost constant references to various people and works make this a frustrating and unrewarding approach. Duplessis might have considered placing the letters and the notes on facing pages, but this would have diminished the emphasis on the primary material, and since Oppen, like Charles Olson, was very inventive in his use of typography and shape, depending “on space and organization on the page” for effect, she has chosen to avoid interfering within the text of the letters, preserving their integrity as complete entities. Her “compromised editorial humility” with respect to the reproduction of Oppen’s idiosyncratic use of hyphens and dashes (“There is also a long dash—anywhere from three to eight or nine hyphens joined—these make an interior code of extension and connection throughout letters”) is an indication of her command of and care for the material. Her explanations and interpretations, combining intelligence, insight, and respect for the people and issues of Oppen’s life, are an assurance that Oppen has been rewarded for his confidence in DuPlessis as, effectively, the curator of his literary legacy.

The object of the enterprise, finally, is to re-create the conditions of the mind and heart that produced the poetry and to permit the reader to understand the sensibility and character of the man. The self-drawn portrait of Oppen that emerges through his letters is of a man whose personal warmth, keen intelligence, and obsession with language and form coalesced to generate what Duplessis describes as a “sustained, elegant, perceptive body of critical and aesthetic thinking.” What is also evident is his passionate conviction that political action is at least as important as artistic endeavor. Aside from the costs of his quarter-century of poetic silence, one can understand why Oppen dismissed Wallace Stevens’ “little elegances” or labeled the political positions of Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats as “reactionary to the point of insanity or freakishness” in the light of his belief that the “directly political” is crucial because it is “something one wants to do and without which he will not possess his own life.” Oppen calls “the failure to act” a “retreat from decency.” In typically arch commentary, he described Richard M. Nixon after Watergate as a “mangled rat,” referred to the moon shot as a “display of para-military apoplexy,” saw student activists of the late 1960’s as “zealots of catastrophe” (who in this resembled poets), and, in a wonderfully bizarre analysis, compared the Warren Commission Report to Ulysses (1922), with Jack Ruby as a parallel to James Joyce’s Bloom.

Yet his political convictions never dulled his poetic perceptions: He lamented ruefully that Carl Sandburg, politically admirable, ought to be a better poet than the crew of reactionaries but “just so obviously is not” because of his “destructive sentimentality.” During his twenty-five-year silence, he notes proudly, he was “not Yeatsing on the green, nor Pounding, nor Eliotizing in the middle thirties.” Still, if Pound was symptomatic of an infection in the body politic and Oppen indicative of the antidote, Oppen was able to move beyond the narrow strictures of dogma to write to Pound in 1962:

I suppose if we should take to talking politics to each other I would disagree even more actively than all those others who have disagreed, but there has been no one living during my life time who has been as generous or as pure as you toward literature and toward writers. Nor anyone less generously thanked.

I know of no one who does not owe you a debt.

Beyond this, describing a meeting with Pound in 1969, Oppen wrote:

I began to weep Pound began to weep we cried all over each other - - by that time neither of us could speak, so I took the book, and left. I don’t know, perhaps neither of us knew what we were crying about - - - - or, of course, I do know. Every sincere or serious poet who ever met Pound has reason to have loved him.

In one of his most successful homages to Pound’s spirit, Oppen responded with encouragement to everyone who sent his or her work for his comments. Writing to contemporaries who had achieved some stature as well as to embryonic would-be poets, Oppen managed to combine the kind of praise that is necessary for the exposure any poet risks with the sharpest of critical suggestions. Acting on the conviction that for a poet “to have spoken and not been heard” was a kind of death by neglect, and justifying his strong opinions by asserting that poetry was “the only field in which I might be imagined to possess competence,” he could support an accomplished poet such as Williams with pure praise (“I have thought the Asphodel one of the beautiful poems of the language since I first saw it”) while complimenting Dan Gerber on many details before concluding in a postscript, “((good poems even very good Not good enough)).”

Oppen did not have to struggle to see his work in print, and he was fortunate enough to share the great visionary publisher of New Directions, James Laughlin, with Pound, Williams, and others, but he did experience the frustration of having the British press Fulcrum sit on an edition of his collected poems for some time in the early 1970’s. He knew enough of the disappointments an artist faces to warn John Crawford about a friend, “I hope to god she does not sit at a desk and mail innumerable envelopes to innumerable little magazines.” In a moment of typically rueful modesty he also called himself “the oldest promising young poet in America,” but generally he was more acerbic, as in his comment that it would be nice if most publishers thought of literature as a “process of thought” instead of “part of the entertainment industry.”

Oppen’s claims to competence in the area of poetic excellence are supported by his responses to inquiries about the early ventures of the Objectivists. His insights into the themes, subjects, and styles of Zukovsky, Reznikoft, and Rakosi, in particular, pull separate particles of information through his plane of vision into literary history. As DuPlessis puts it, Oppen’s explanations (“the word ’Objectivist’ indicated the contributors’ objective attitude to reality. It meant, of course, the poets recognition of the necessity of form, the objectification of the poem”) lead to “an enriched sense of the poetics of modernism.” Oppen’s “objectivist meditations,” including his basic personal credo that “a poem has got to be written into the future” and “a poem is a part of the process of thought, the means of thought,” anticipate some of the theoretical and practical work of Robert Creeley and draw the poetry of people such as Robert Duncan and Cid Corman into an evolving tradition that is more continuous than had been previously thought. Even Oppen’s frequent references to the linguistic philosophy of Martin Heidegger, which seemed somewhat arcane in his lifetime, have become further evidence of his ability to anticipate the concerns of the latter part of the century.

As rich and vital as the book is, it is more an invitation to look deeper into Oppen’s life and work than a concluding or summary statement. As astute as Du-Plessis has been in selecting letters for inclusion, others that were not included contain additional information about some of the intriguing questions of Oppen’s life that have been raised. His relationship with his half-sister June Oppen Degnan, the recipient of many of these letters, a political activist (involved in the presidental campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern) and publisher, has not been fully explored; nor has his relationship with his wife, who is mentioned glowingly but not directly addressed, or his daughter. His feelings about his father, mother, and stepmother are cryptically hinted at. The book is an “opening of the field” (to use Robert Duncan’s phrase).

Oppen said to Michael Cuddihy in 1975, “The meaning of the book, the value of the book, is your own love of poetry.” His words apply to DuPlessis’ efforts in preparing this exemplary volume. She has made possible the launching of the critical scrutiny Oppen’s poetry requires.

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