Take out all the adjectives

Jeremy Harding

In ‘The Building of the Skyscraper’, a short poem which appeared in the Nation in 1964, George Oppen wrote:

The steel worker on the girder
Learned not to look down, and does his work
And there are words we have learned
Not to look at,
Not to look for substance
Below them. But we are on the verge
Of vertigo.

It’s hard to tell from this poem, published when Oppen was in his mid-fifties, or from any of his poems, what words he was thinking of. He never fought shy of the grand ones: love, war, vanity, world, truth, loss, death, pity, horror, humanity. And while his work can have the blanched aspect of seawrack, it is charged with feeling, and the history of feeling, as it decays or evolves into thought. Yet Oppen was cautious with adjectives (check those seven lines above) and professed a passion for ‘small nouns’, rather than anything too towering or monumental. As a Communist who had lived through the Depression, he disliked extravagance, and perhaps he felt, too, that the seductive, clotted usages of power could pitch us off balance if we looked at them too hard.

Were that the end of the story, it would make George Oppen a minor left-wing relic, which is far from the case. Quite a while before his death in 1984, he won a keen following in the United States. It remains as attentive now as it was then. Of Being Numerous, published in 1968, is his most famous book, a meditation on the individual consciousness and the collectivity, containing his most often quoted lines, the seventh section of the 40-part title-poem:

Obsessed, bewildered

By the shipwreck
Of the singular

We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.

A year after publication, Oppen received a Pulitzer. And before long his work became fashionable, in part because the idea that writing might be gloriously freed from the search for any ‘substance below’ words made headway in his own lifetime. Well after ‘The Building of the Skyscraper’, the ‘meaning’ of his poems remained elusive. They took shape slowly, element by element, event by linguistic event. The movements were discontinuous, often on a small scale, producing an effect of opacity, even though ‘clarity’ was one of his watchwords. Yet what seemed clear – the result of his tremendous paring down and building up, his careful attention to people, poverty and struggle, his wish to name, and at the same time to abstract – endeared him to readers in search of a tough-minded Modernist path through the Cold War years.

Oppen was never a doubter of meaning as such, and not ‘subversive’ or ‘destabilising’ in the innocuous literary-studies sense. ‘The Building of the Skyscraper’ goes on:

There are words that mean nothing
But there is something to mean.
Not a declaration which is truth
But a thing
Which is.

It was this ‘thing’ that his poems intended to disclose, and indeed to become part of; for if a person’s words, or the words in a poem, can be made to ‘mean’ the ‘thing which is’, they are to that extent out there, in the world, as palpable as a capstone, a girder, or a section of overhead power-line. Some thirty years after the term ‘Objectivist’ was first used as a convenience tag, these lines make some kind of sense of it; and they square with the reduced, almost axiomatic definition of the Objectivists’ project which had gained ground in the interval: that the poem should be a thing in the world, autonomous by virtue of its form – an object in its own right, with certain loyalties to the real that Surrealism, for instance, felt no need of.

By the time he came to publish ‘The Building of the Skyscraper’, Oppen had worked as an industrial pattern-maker and a carpenter. He believed there was ‘something to mean’ when you pressed a machine part from a template or made the joints for a cabinet, and that the object you were working on would take the place for which it was intended. It was fair for a poet to have a similar end in view for the poem – call it an ambition – even if the purpose it would serve was less obvious. The New Collected Poems confirms the place in the world that Oppen’s writing found in the 1970s, when a Collected was published in Britain by Fulcrum and then in the US by New Directions. From six small books, an immense achievement.

George Oppen was born into a prosperous New Rochelle family in 1908. After his mother’s suicide, his father remarried and in 1918 the Oppenheimers moved to San Francisco (the family name was changed about ten years later). As a young adult, Oppen came under pressure from his father to succeed in business and reacted by taking his distance. In 1928, while hitch-hiking around the country with Mary Colby, whom he married in Dallas, he bought a little sailing boat; they took it from Detroit through the Great Lakes, into the Erie Canal and down towards the mouth of the Hudson. In New York, Oppen met Louis Zukofsky, who had already been published by Pound, and Charles Reznikoff, an attorney at work on a law encyclopedia. The three poets, grown uneasy with Imagism and keen to distinguish themselves, conceived a publishing venture which was very much in the Oppens’ mind when they took off for Europe in 1929.

They settled for a time in Le Beausset, in the Var. By now, Oppen had come into a legacy, and To Publishers, as the venture was called, began its short life with Zukofsky editing from New York and the Oppens, in Le Beausset, in charge of production. The press folded a few years later, having published An ‘Objectivists’ Anthology in 1932, A Novelette and Other Prose by William Carlos Williams, and two books by Pound: How to Read and The Spirit of Romance.

It was while the Oppens were in Europe that the word ‘Objectivist’ came into existence. Pound had foisted Zukofsky on Harriet Monroe as a guest editor of Poetry for an issue which appeared in February 1931. Carl Rakosi, another first-phase Objectivist and a good raconteur, reran the story for August Kleinzahler and George Evans half a century later:

Once the poems were assembled for Poetry, Harriet Monroe sprung a surprise on Zukofsky: she told him the newcomers would have to have a name . . . Zukofsky was caught. He hated classifying people . . . But he was in no position to hold out . . . He came up with Objectivist, a name that described, he thought, Reznikoff’s way of working and would not be offensive to the others in the issue.

Given the impromptu origin of the word, it might just as easily be defined by what the main protagonists of its first phase had in common: they were Jewish, and engaged to a greater or lesser degree with that fact; they came of age in the 1930s, and inevitably they took a keen interest in politics.

In the same interview, Rakosi named the three qualities that Poetry was in need of, ‘after years of slop’, and that it got from Zukofsky’s choice of poets: ‘sincerity, above all, and clarity and precision’. All three terms could apply to Oppen’s work, both then and subsequently. ‘Sincerity’ was, from the outset, an important idea for these poets. It meant attention to form, a reduction of ambient sound, a poetry whose skirts could not be heard to rustle. It had some of the weight of Pound’s remark in his ‘Credo’, in Pavannes and Divisions (1918): ‘I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity.’ And it had some of the complexity that Zukofsky gave it in his editorial essay for the Objectivists issue, where the elements of a successful poem are described as ‘minor units of sincerity’, the whole being judged sincere inasmuch as it strikes a tone of due consideration, and uses ‘only necessary words’. Zukofsky was indeed thinking of Reznikoff’s work, but it could have been Oppen’s, which he also published in the issue. As for clarity in Oppen, it is often the handmaiden of that other virtue, difficulty, while precision rides hard up against imprecision, even a certain vagueness. His poetry would not be interesting otherwise.

Pound had already seen some of Oppen’s work – Zukofsky sent it from New York – by the time he received George and Mary in Rapallo. In Meaning a Life (1978), Mary Oppen remembers that as they walked together on the promenade, Pound ‘pointed with a grand gesture of his cape and cane in the wrong direction and said: "From there came the Greek ships.”’ The Oppens "were people who had their bearings. They didn’t think much of the great man’s politics either. But they were young, and reluctant to challenge him. Besides, as Mary Oppen remarks, he was scrupulously generous: ‘There was nothing he could do for us that he did not do.’

In 1933, they were in New York again; with Reznikoff and Zukofsky, they now began the Objectivist Press (all this meant, Oppen said years later, ‘was that people paid for their own books’). A Collected Poems 1921-31 by Williams and some small works by Reznikoff were among the press’s titles, and in 1934 Oppen put out his own book, Discrete Series. From the first of the 31 poems, a ground-clearer for the rest, we can get a sense of how sincere, or clear, or precise Oppen’s early work was:

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