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:

The knowledge not of sorrow, you were
saying, but of boredom
Is-aside from reading speaking
Of what, Maude Blessingbourne it was,
wished to know when, having risen,
"approached the window as if to see
what was really going on";
And saw rain falling, in the distance
more slowly,
The road clear from her past the window-glass-
Of the world, weather-swept, with which
one shares the century.

It is not the most resistant poem in the series. There is the missing ‘she’ of line seven (or it might have been line six), which sets a squall through the syntax, and sends the reader back several times over the poem, scouring for primary sense. There is also the extra ‘e’ on Maud, the remarriageable reader of French novels in Henry James’s ‘The Story of It’: a quirk Oppen chose not to change in later editions. Yet the drift is clear and exhilarating, and there is a cold precision, no less exhilarating, in the way the poem gets where it’s going, in a single, almost coherent sentence parodying James, the ‘Of’ at the start of the penultimate line referring back (one assumes) to ‘The knowledge’ in the first. Best of all perhaps is what might be called the taste-free madeleine effect: the weary glance through a window unfolding into a vastness, not of Proustian detail, but of generic space that is a little frightening to acknowledge, even though we know that we must and that, whoever we are, we are of it. The important sense, too, that boredom produces recognition. At 14 lines, this would qualify as a sonnet. Then there’s the adjective count.

Pound thought well of Discrete Series and wrote a noisy preface. Oppen’s, he said, was ‘a sensibility which . . . has not been got out of any other man’s books’. Williams called it a successful bid for the ‘irreducible minimum . . . no loose bolts or beams sticking out unattached at one end or put there to hold up a rococo cupid or a concrete saint’. So it was praised for what it wasn’t, and its not being this or that was one of the striking things about it, although the residue of Imagism was obvious enough:

Closed car-closed in glass-
At the curb,
Unapplied and empty:
A thing among others
Over which clouds pass and the
alteration of lighting.
An overstatement
Hardly an exterior.
Moving in traffic
This thing is less strange-
Tho the face, still within it,
Between glasses-place, over which
time passes-a false light.

In his introduction to the New Collected Works, Michael Davidson calls Discrete Series a ‘rather modest book’, but this is true only of its size. Andrew Crozier is surely right to say, in Modern American Poetry (1984), that it is ‘almost too deliberately calculated, with an unconcealed but obscure polemic intention; it is decidedly self-possessed.’ Something of the poems’ self-possession would have come from the man who wrote them. ‘Polemic intention’, too, perhaps – for Oppen was soon in the thick of Depression politics and the writing had come to a halt. How was it supposed to continue? It was embarrassing, as Rakosi put it in a comic poem, to be discovered playing the lute in a time of injustice. And since nothing would induce either him or Oppen to make martial music for the cause, they gave up altogether, though Rakosi held on longer: his Selected Poems appeared in 1941, but he had already written the last of his early work in 1939, going on to become a full-time social worker, and he wouldn’t return to poetry for 27 years.

The span of Oppen’s silence was about the same. He and Mary had already realised, the day they drove up to New York from Baltimore on their return from Europe, that their affections for poetry would have to be set aside. ‘As we approached the first stoplight,’ Mary Oppen wrote in Meaning a Life, ‘grown men, respectable men – our fathers – stepped forward to ask for a nickel, rag in hand to wipe our windshield. This ritual was repeated every time we paused, until we felt we were in a nightmare, our fathers impoverished.’ In 1935 they joined the Communist Party. They began working with tenants and the families of the unemployed in Brooklyn, opposing evictions directly and chasing up emergency food and rent entitlements. Later they were active in Utica, where Oppen was a local chairman of the party and they became involved in a dispute over milk-pricing that threatened upstate hill farmers. In 1939 they had a daughter. With the war economy pulling America out of depression, Oppen started training as a pattern-maker in the Grumman aircraft factory on Long Island. In 1942 the family moved to Detroit, and in doing so Oppen forfeited his draft exemption, like any worker who changed jobs at the time. As a committed anti-Fascist, he probably wanted to fight. He was sent to France, where he was badly wounded by shellfire not long before VE Day, and sent back to the US in November 1945.

In New York Oppen improvised a camping trailer, and the family moved West, where they purchased the real thing and lived in trailer parks. Postwar housing demand drew Oppen into building work and before long the couple bought a plot in Los Angeles, at Redondo Beach. Once their house was habitable, Oppen switched from building to cabinet-making. His quiet life and his Purple Heart did not alter the fact that he had been a Communist; or that before the war he and Mary had been charged with ‘felonious assault’ when police broke up a sit-in at a Brooklyn relief bureau; or that after the war Mary Oppen had been involved in the movement to get GIs back from overseas, where they were kept for months while the Allies jockeyed for strategic position: the same movement made itself, and the Oppens, conspicuous by opposing military intervention in East Asia. The FBI began visiting at Redondo Beach in 1949. Taking their cue from a couple of friends, the Oppens headed south in 1950, a fortnight before Truman committed troops to Korea. In Mexico City, Oppen earned a living in the furniture trade. He also learned to carve in wood. The couple were not big fish by any means but, according to Davidson’s notes, the FBI had opened a file on Oppen in 1941, ten years after his poems appeared in Zukofsky’s guest issue of Poetry (along with a contribution from Zukofsky’s earnest left-wing pal Whittaker Chambers); the file remained active until 1966. That’s about as many years as Oppen’s silence – or nearly half his adult lifetime.

In 1958, with McCarthyism on the wane, the Oppens sent their daughter to college ” in the US, and paid her a visit that winter, though they themselves would not move back for another year or so. By then, Oppen had begun writing again. He had dreamed he was going through his father’s papers and found a file about preventing ‘rust in copper’. Copper does not rust, and the dream made Oppen laugh. The pressures of the previous few years had led Mary Oppen to a Mexican psychiatrist, whom Oppen now visited. The psychiatrist made the unremarkable suggestion that the dream was about his own not wanting ‘to rust’ (and maybe the name ‘Oppen’ is somewhere there in the father’s file-header). Driving back from this meeting, the 49-year-old expatriate furniture supplier, sometime worker for General Electric in Mexico and treasurer of a local real estate company, stopped off to buy some pencils and a pad of paper.

The Materials was published by James Laughlin in association with the San Francisco Review in 1962. Davidson quotes two lines from ‘Blood from the Stone’, the first poem Oppen wrote after the dream, and the tenth of some forty in the new book, most of them bigger, all of them less cagey, than anything in Discrete Series:

Everything I am is
Us. Come home.

In Davidson’s gloss, ‘the early 1960s in Brooklyn brought the Oppens fully back into the literary and cultural life of New York.’ The foretaste of return, and the return itself, make an enormous impression on the verse. They seem to authorise the presence of an ‘I’, a ‘we’ and an ‘us’ – important words for Oppen, as ‘Semantic’, a small unpublished poem printed here and said by Davidson to date from the late 1960s, attests:

There is that one word
Which one must
Define for oneself, the word

In Discrete Series, it was the other way about: a puppeteer ‘we’ somewhere offstage was busily defining the word ‘one’. The first-person pronouns, singular and plural, plus their possessives (I, me, my, we, us, our), occurred only 11 times in some 280 lines of verse, and though ‘one’ cropped up less often – three times in all – it was the master pronoun of the early book, a way of insisting on shared assumptions and shared space (such as ‘the century’); also, in effect, a way of licensing the poems to mind their own business and obey their own rules – the very opposite of the argument for Socialist Realism, to which Oppen and Rakosi, who would meet for the first time in the 1960s, had preferred silence.

The Materials is more domiciled, and so are the pronouns. Some of the poems are retrospective, speaking directly about the militant 1930s and Brooklyn, about the war (Oppen’s dreadful experience under fire), about moments in his life as part of a young couple, then of a young family. Yet there is always a need to open up areas of doubt: small syntactic fault-lines and ellipses which, in the scale of the poems, can seem vast. So it is with ‘The Hills’, which puts the reader in mind of a father and daughter:

That this is I,
Not mine, which wakes
To where the present
Sun pours in the present, to the air perhaps
Of love and of

As to know
Who we shall be. I knew it then.
You getting in
The old car sat down close
So close I turned and saw your eyes a woman’s
Eyes. The patent
Latches on the windows
And the long hills whoever else’s

Also ours.

Other poems glimmer with foreboding about nuclear war. Others still are tremendous set-pieces: among them, ‘Image of the Engine’, a five-part meditation on dying (‘The image of the engine//That stops’), and an exquisite poem, ‘Workman’, which shows an ease with convention – including simple antithesis – and a fluency of line absent from the earlier poems:

Leaving the house each dawn I see the hawk
Flagrant over the driveway. In his claws
That dot, that comma
Is the broken animal: the dangling small beast knows
The burden that he is: he has touched
The hawk’s drab feathers. But the carpenter’s is a culture
Of fitting, of firm dimensions,
Of post and lintel. Quietly the roof lies
That the carpenter has finished. The sea birds circle
The beaches and cry in their own way,
The innumerable sea birds, their beaks and their wings
Over the beaches and the sea’s glitter.

The poems speak to the pleasurable obviousness of machinery, buildings, work and the natural order, all this glorious, difficult not-us that can be named and interrogated and which, despite its obviousness, becomes the ground of a renewed inquiry. Oppen is by now cautiously at ease. The subjectivity in these poems, the ‘myself’, is calmly available, and, in the next book, This in Which (1965), his scepticism is brought to bear on versions of the self and why we had better not be the object of our own ‘soul-searchings’. In ‘World, World-’:

The self is no mystery, the mystery is
That there is something for us to stand on.

We want to be here.

The act of being, the act of being
More than oneself.

Such a blunt mixture of sententiousness and incantation is not to everyone’s taste, but there is no single poem that commits itself fully to either, even if ‘Psalm’, from which the title This in Which is taken, has the quality of prayer:

In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down-
That they are there!

Their eyes
Effortless, the soft lips
Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
Tear at the grass

The roots of it
Dangle from their mouths
Scattering earth in the strange woods.
They who are there.

Their paths
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade
Hang in the distances
Of sun

The small nouns
Crying faith
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.

It’s as though the question, for Oppen, was not whether it made sense for a materialist to pray, so much as what he should pray to, and how. Here he seems to defer to the parts of speech for an answer, so that the ‘small nouns’ become the psalmists, ‘crying faith’ in the world they name and in themselves – the deer, grass, roots and paths. As it turned out later, in an interview with L.S. Dembo published in Contemporary Literature in 1969, Oppen was fully implicated in this ‘faith’, which he could only describe as the belief ‘that consciousness exists and that it is consciousness of something’. Not prayer then, but a wish to speak of the world’s being there and his being able to know it.

This declaring and acknowledging happens again and again in the poems. ‘It is still a principle with me, of more than poetry,’ Oppen said in the same interview, ‘to notice, to state, to lay down the substantive for its own sake.’ He was much taken to discover that in 1929, as he was writing, à propos Maud Blessingbourne, of boredom disclosing the world, Heidegger had said something along the same lines (‘boredom reveals being as a whole’) in his inaugural address at Freiburg. (He also complained in a letter, in the 1960s, of the problems he’d had with a Heidegger essay and ‘the extreme Idealist assumption on which it was based’.) Whatever Oppen’s reading habits, and his liking for phenomenology, they scarcely encumber his poems. Getting a poem, he said, had to do with ‘a moment . . . when you believe something to be true, and you construct a meaning from these moments of conviction’. The process involved dozens, sometimes hundreds of drafts, pastings, over-layerings and reconsiderations. ‘One can work and work and work,’ he told Dembo in a discussion published in George Oppen: Man and Poet (1981), ‘and if one can’t make the line decent, one knows there was something wrong with what he was trying to say.’

Meanwhile the engine of scepticism is turning: doubts proliferate, about the world, and the poem, and the poet’s capacity to speak. So, in Seascape: Needle’s Eye, published four years after Of Being Numerous, a poem begins by filching a line from Charles Simic, to sketch out the difficulty:

‘out of poverty
to begin

again’ impoverished

of tone of pose that common

of parlance

‘Song, the Winds of Downhill’ works with a strange, disjointed syntax which, as Norman Finkelstein rightly observed in an essay on Primitive (1978), Oppen’s last book, ‘reflects the exact conditions of consciousness at the moment of composition’. This is not quite how it was with Discrete Series. Oppen had come far since the 1930s, though he never lost sight of the era that shaped him. He says as much in the last two lines of ‘Memory at "The Modern"’, an uncollected poem published in 1963 which Davidson reprints here:

I am a man of the Thirties

‘No other taste shall change this’

The quotation is from Pound’s ‘Canto IV’, the words are spoken by Sermonde, the wife of Raymond of Avignon, on learning she has just eaten the heart of her lover Guillaume de Cabestan in a dish prepared by her husband. A suicide vow, in other words. For Oppen, the sense is less drastic: matters did not end for him with the 1930s, and by the time his first Collected Poems appeared in England in 1972, his work already entailed a retrospective look at what he’d done in Discrete Series. A few years before his death, and perhaps around the onset of his Alzheimer’s, he said of that first book: ‘What I couldn’t write I scratched out. I wrote what I could be sure of . . . I’m not speaking of just what they call now language skills, but what I could think, could say, could do.’

The process of elimination is still there in the later work, but it coexists with an equally strong impulse not to exclude: to keep hold of more than what he had thought possible, or indeed permissible. Whence ‘The Poem’, nine lines of verse written in the early 1970s, which Oppen chose not to publish, despite the marvellous closing couplet. It’s here at the back of Davidson’s edition:

the chess game

the checker game
in which the pieces

have already been named

rather inward
and outward
under the sky.
This is the sky.

How far Oppen’s politics remained loyal to Popular Front ideals is difficult to judge. Cultural Stalinism had driven him and Rakosi into the silent orders of poetry. Anti-Fascism had drawn him out of a factory job to an abominable foxhole in Alsace, where he’d lain wounded beside two dead comrades until it was safe to crawl out (‘ten hours’, he recalled in a letter 32 years later). He had finished with the Communist Party by the time the FBI was on to him, and though he didn’t leave the party after the war, his better judgment forced him to leave the country. ‘Pro Nobis’, one of the last poems from This in Which, says something about the long disappointment that spiralled out of the 1930s; the word ‘apprenticeship’ is as much to do with politics, and maybe too with silence, as it is with poetry:

I believe my apprenticeship
In that it was long was honorable
Tho I had hoped to arrive
At an actuality
In the mere number of us
And record now
That I did not.

Therefore pray for us
In the hour of our death indeed.

The tone is heroic – heroic in defeat – and one imagines Oppen behaving as heroes are meant to behave. But the heroism of the deed is mostly a matter of chance; it’s truer to say that his was a heroic disposition, somewhat reserved and careful, somewhat old-fashioned besides. Once he had started to write again, he never ceased to admire or cultivate the young, and he fell in with a new generation of poets in the 1960s, including Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley, but he was not entirely at home with the spirit of the decade, or the radicalism of the New Left.

His wonderful letters, in which he thinks on his fingers, clattering away with a freedom that poetry rarely gave him, spell out his misgivings. In a note to his half-sister, June, in 1967, he weighed the ‘inhuman’ character of the Old Left against the vices he saw in the New Left, ‘ineffective, absolutely useless, therefore cynical, a game, a fashion, a form of self-display or of keeping oneself occupied or of asserting everyone else’s failure and one’s own innocence’. He was not happy about a revolutionary project without working people – about revolution at all. In a letter to Harvey Shapiro in 1969: ‘I think we have come to where we would have to say fairly clearly why we do not want the debacle-if we do not.’ Yet he could inflect his views out of courtesy to his correspond-ents, and take himself to task, as he did in another letter to Shapiro a few days later: ‘A young man in imminent danger of being sent to Vietnam . . . does not, I suppose, consider it absolutely necessary that universities should function, or that industries should function . . . Shamefully easy of me to forget this.’

Vietnam laid him lower, surely, than he knew, and at least once became the occasion of a demoralising argument about military methods and ‘atrocity’, though it’s barely ever treated head on in the poetry (the obvious exception is ‘Of Being Numerous’: ‘Now in the helicopters the casual will/Is atrocious’). The use of napalm, he thought, was part of a ‘fait accompli’, to which any simple objection would be naive: ‘It is indeed – and horrifyingly – impossible to attempt a stand of moral indignation, or to talk of atrocity. I am not actually able to say that I am opposed to dropping burning gasoline on people from helicopters. It is by now a method of war, and will be used until something more terrifying is developed.’ Duncan, whose work he respected, could on occasion force the war more directly onto his poetry, in ways that ‘a man of the 1930s’ would have found extravagant. For instance in ‘Up Rising: Passages 25’ from Bending the Bow:

Now Johnson would go up to join the great
simulacra of men,
Hitler and Stalin, to work his fame
With planes roaring out from Guam
over Asia . . .
Until his name stinks with burning
meat and heapt honours

And men wake to see that they are used like things
Spent in a great potlatch, this Texas barbecue
Of Asia, Africa, and all the Americas . . .

In the drifts of papers Oppen kept, mostly undated, there is a note about Duncan – who could write in a more lyrical mode: ‘he can put the honey in the poem. I can’t do that. I cannot come near it.’ And a bit further on: ‘My "little” words rattle sometimes/his syllables are whole, are deeper, are whole.’ Duncan was a marvellous imitator and absorber, and ‘Up Rising’ is squarely in the mode of the Prophetic Books: typically, it all but announces itself as such. Though he loved Blake for what he called ‘the shining out of things’, Oppen was never a master of modes, and the image of the tiger – Blake’s tiger – which recurs in his poems is indissociable from his own manner of stating, inquiring and enjoining. The tiger is, as he said in a letter, an aspect of the ‘Blaze’ in the title ‘Myth of the Blaze’, of the night sky and ‘all the galaxies’. In ‘Myth of the Blaze’ itself, it takes the form of a question – also a wish (‘what are the names/of the Tyger to speak/to the eyes//of the Tiger’) that seems to emerge from a gyre-like ‘funnel’ framing the glow on a reach of water.

One of Oppen’s last great poems, from Primitive, is called, again, ‘The Poem’. Here the tiger asserts the light of the inside, as well as the outside: the light that intelligence may cast on its own four walls, in addition to the wonderful and frightening foment of things in the world (their ‘wars’). And in this retrospective by an elderly man inclined to doubt his own gifts as well as what he knew, who leans breathlessly on enjambment to avoid toppling through the poem, the tiger seems to light a path. It is, at the same time, the emblem of an old Promethean gift: a democratic heat of hearth and forge, the ‘commonplace’, opposed to the solitude of the sea, which Oppen knew and loved as an amateur sailor (‘the open/Miracle//Of place’, he wrote in This in Which), but which often suggested shipwreck – the foundering of the individual far from any public instance. ‘The Poem’:

how shall I light
this room that measures years

and years not miracles nor were we
judged but a direction

of things in us burning burning for we are not
still nor is this place a wind
utterly outside ourselves and yet it is
unknown and all the sails full to the last

rag of the topgallant, royal
tops’l, the least rags
at the mast-heads

to save the commonplace save myself Tyger
Tyger still burning in me burning
in the night sky burning
in us the light

in the room it was all
part of the wars
of things brilliance
of things

in the appalling
seas language

lives and wakes us together
out of sleep the poem
opens its dazzling whispering hands

The startling juxtapositions of Primitive, and the line-breaks, have been taken as signs of Alzheimer’s: Davidson raises this point in his notes and refers to a letter from Oppen to his half-sister, the year before publication, in which he wrote of losing his way ‘on a little path fifty yards long . . . (and which I’ve been over a hundred times)’. The difficulty lies in proposing a core of major poetry – This in Which, Of Being Numerous, Seascape: Needle’s Eye, plus the poems grouped together for the Collected as ‘Myth of the Blaze’ – to which Discrete Series is a preface and Primitive a postscript. Discrete Series, it is true, stands away from Oppen’s other books, but Primitive – which is drawn up beside them for the first time in this edition – cannot be separated from the rest on the grounds of a change in the author’s consciousness; it is full of reiterations and recastings from the earlier books. What is new is a more startling invocation of language, as in ‘The Poem’, and a sense that the dialectic of outer and inner, the seen and the unseen, has become blurred by the wind – one of ‘the five bright elements’ in ‘Disasters’ – that blows through the poems. And so, again in ‘Disasters’ (which glances at some of Duncan’s techniques),

the marvel

of the obvious and the marvel
of the hidden is there

in fact a distinction dance

of the wasp wings dance as
of the mother-tongues can they

with all their meanings

dance? . . .

As for Oppen’s illness, and its relation to his poetry, a painful account of his last months by Rakosi, which was published in Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet (1993), includes perhaps the only thing we need to know. ‘There was never any mystery about Oppen’s character or his working principles,’ Rakosi wrote. ‘Already far into Alzheimer’s he said to his sister, June: "I don’t know if you have anything to say but let’s take out all the adjectives and we’ll find out."’

Whether or not Oppen’s work ‘coheres’ (whatever that means or if it matters), there is something odd about these poems – a life’s work – being gathered under one roof. The New Collected is a fine, capacious dwelling, tended by two of Oppen’s most devoted caretakers, Davidson and Eliot Weinberger, who supplies a short preface ahead of the main editorial introduction. The notes are copious and extremely helpful. Altogether a marvellous piece of work. Yet it’s a relief to return to the first US Collected, or some of the smaller books, once available at decent prices – This in Which, Of Being Numerous – because the poems seem so fresh and well defined in those slim editions: richer this time around, thanks to Davidson’s efforts, and in any case more accessible. It was an unsettling fact about Oppen, not entirely to his credit as a poet, that he could take possession of the reader without the reader being sure how to get a hold of him.

Whatever the distinctiveness of Oppen’s voice, he was no good at distinction itself; still less at outsiderhood. His Communism, after the pretentiousness of his upbringing, was much more about knowing where he wanted to belong than where he didn’t. His Jewishness, on which he meditated a good deal (especially around the time of a brief residency at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in 1975), was more of an interesting fact than anything that set him apart from other people. In the papers, not long after his remarks about Duncan, he writes: ‘“we jews,” I say, and said in this way I see dry sticks rattling together.’ And in ‘Of Hours’ he remembers how in 1945 he took the precaution of burying his dogtag with its ‘H for Hebrew’ in ‘the rubble of Alsace’. This contingency measure was never symbolically restaged, or countermanded, in the course of the ordinary life, in exile and at home, that he went on to lead. Jewishness was just there, and it ran deep, as his devotion to Reznikoff’s work attests. He tried to tackle these questions in a long letter to Donald Davie in 1972: ‘Several million Zionists wish to tell me that, being Jewish, I am not quite American and that being not quite Jewish – with two passionately assimilationist generations behind me – I am not quite either/ about which I sometimes think that being not quite American since I’m a Jew, I am the MOST American . . .’

‘Most’ would be going too far. The work itself is not ‘so conscientiously American’, as Oppen said of Olson’s, but it has the grandeur of the best American Modernist projects, and lacks the showiness of Modernisms everywhere. It is quite unlike the wonderful, ostentatious, baggy-pants school typified by Auden, though in no sense its enemy (‘me the unaudenised and diselioted’, Oppen wrote in a letter in the late 1950s). It is mature, it is to the point, it is exemplary; when it fails, it fails well; when it succeeds there is nothing quite like it. There is nothing quite like it in any case. It has the old American strain of patience and attentiveness, and a proper American deportment. Not good old – just old in the sense of what’s been seen off. It’s depressing to recall Mary Oppen’s remark, in Meaning a Life, about why she and her young husband had not been tempted by the expatriate life on their first visit to Europe, roughly twenty years before the FBI bore down on them and they left the country together for the second time: ‘We were thoroughly children of America,’ she wrote, ‘and we intended no other allegiance.’