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.
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...
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