Fast Water off the Bow-Wave
- 21 Poems by George Oppen, edited by David B. Hobbs
New Directions, 48 pp, £7.99, September 2017, ISBN 978 0 8112 2691 2
‘We had seen bare land/And the people bare on it’: two lines from a retrospective poem by George Oppen that appeared in 1963 in a small magazine published out of New Rochelle, the poet’s birthplace. Oppen (b. 1908) had recently broken a long silence and become a poet of his time – the 1960s and 1970s – however much he may have insisted, as he did in the same poem, that he was ‘of the Thirties’. He had come home to the US, after a decade in flight from McCarthyism, and settled in Brooklyn. His days as an active member of the Communist Party had long since passed. He was still mulling over his relationship with Ezra Pound, whom he had admired and published many years earlier, before their political differences set in. The poem ends with a quotation from Canto IV.
The Materials, only Oppen’s second book, after a gap of nearly thirty years, was published in 1962. Five more followed: This in Which, at roughly seventy pages; Of Being Numerous, which won a Pulitzer in 1968; the slender Seascape, Needle’s Eye in 1972; a Collected Poems in 1975, which included a new 13-poem sequence called ‘Myth of the Blaze’; and finally Primitive, 22 pages in all. By then Oppen had become a mentor, occasionally a model, for younger American poets, but he was winding down: as he worked on Primitive in the late 1970s, he began to display symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. He died in a care home in California in 1984 at the age of 76.
It was, however, his book of the 1930s, Discrete Series, that laid the foundations of his later reputation as a radical elder who had done his best to ‘make it new’. It included a short, boisterous preface by Pound. Reviewing it for Poetry in 1934, William Carlos Williams called it a blueprint for ‘a new construction’, undertaken with an ‘irreducible minimum’ of means. The icy charm of those poems, 31 in all, one per page, along with their brevity and occasionally their flat refusal to make sense, asked much of readers at the time, and there can’t have been many. The premise of Discrete Series that a poem is an object fashioned in language is easier to assent to now than it was when the book appeared. It was an approach shared more or less by Oppen’s fellow Objectivists, Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff.
The Oppen of Discrete Series – truly a poet ‘of the Thirties’ – preferred reconfiguration to figuration, sampling elements from the world and arranging them in ways that were proper to the poem, even if the result was hard to read in the ordinary way:
Who comes is occupied
Toward the chest (in the crowd moving
Grasp of me)
In firm overalls
The middle-aged man sliding
Levers in the steam-shovel cab …
Oppen’s verse was resistant to a simple reading, but because he loved boats and knew about them, Discrete Series drew on a marine inventory – harbour walls, rope, sails, decks, ‘limp water’ and ‘the fast water off the bow-wave’ – which leavens the obstinacy of the urban poems, assembled with New York towering over them. Like Walker Evans’s early experimental photos taken in 1929 and 1930 in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Oppen’s poems weighed their curiosity about the modern American city against a sense of perplexity. From time to time they framed a direct question – ‘Over what has the air frozen?’ – in ways that photography couldn’t. (Oppen later cited Edward Hopper as an influence.) Humans were glimpsed in the city’s interstices, briefly individuated before being folded back into a makeshift sociology:
Houses built –. From a train one sees
him in the morning, his morning;
Him in the afternoon, straightening –
People everywhere, time and the work
One moves between reading and re-reading,
The shape is a moment.
Roughly half a dozen little books in a lifetime isn’t a lot, but it always seemed sufficient. Oppen’s work was glossed and enlarged after his death with a superb Selected Letters (1990) and a collection of prose, daybooks and papers (2007). In the interim Michael Davidson’s New Collected Poems (2002) had brought together about thirty published poems that were never collected, and a selection of about sixty unpublished poems, four of which date from the 1930s. Everything useful, it seemed, had been found and ordered. Only not quite: a new, disconcerting group of poems, buried for the better part of a century in the drifts of Pound’s correspondence, has come to light. They were discovered in 2015 by David Hobbs, a scholar at NYU, while he was researching in the Beinecke Library at Yale, and have now been published as 21 Poems, with an introduction by Hobbs and several reproductions: pages from the typescript, a letter to Pound and another to Williams, and a list of small magazines that Oppen rated at the time.
The poems were probably composed in 1929 and sent to Louis Zukofsky at the end of that year or early in 1930: the date inevitably, and the manner occasionally, force us to approach them as siblings of Discrete Series, even though the resemblance – things unsaid, spaces left empty – is slight. Zukofsky looked them over and alerted Pound: ‘I may have 32 pp of poems by George Oppen for you – He seems to me to handle a kind of void in a way all his own.’ A few weeks later he sent them to Rapallo, but Pound was in Paris; they were forwarded and Pound sat on them. In 1990, they came to the Beinecke when it acquired Olga Rudge’s papers. Someone besides Pound had copies of a few, or all, of these poems. Oppen wrote to Williams in1931 asking if he could return a batch (‘I think I’ve lost my copies of most of them’). Four were published in magazines while he was still alive; one is more or less as we find it in Discrete Series. The others are new to the world.
Oppen’s thoughts had turned to writing in the 1920s. In New Rochelle he had grown up in luxury: his father, George August Oppenheimer, was a diamond dealer who later invested in movie theatres. After his mother, Elsie, committed suicide in 1912, when he was four, his father remarried and the family moved out west in 1917. Oppen was thrown out of the military academy in which he was enrolled. A few years later, at Oregon State University, he encountered Conrad Aitken’s Modern Anthology of Poetry, and took up with Mary Colby, the pair henceforth inseparable. He was suspended and she was expelled by the university after they spent the night out together, so they married and hitchhiked around America, with Oppen drafting poems on the road. In New York in 1928 they met Louis Zukofsky and via Zukofsky, Reznikoff. Tight-knit yet loosely defined, this group had enthusiastic supporters in Pound and Williams, but as yet no name.
Oppen turned 21 in the year of the Wall Street crash and came into a legacy from his mother’s side. Ironically, a moment that presaged mass unemployment in the US coincided with George and Mary Oppen’s release from a life of odd jobs and itinerant work. At the end of 1929 they left for France and the following year set up a small press, To Publishers, with Zukofsky as editor. In 1931, at Pound’s instigation, Zukofsky guest edited an issue of Harriet Monroe’s Poetry. With it came the term ‘Objectivist’: Monroe had wanted a peg. There were quite a few poets who didn’t seem to fit, but Williams was there, while the key figures – Oppen, Reznikoff, Zukofsky – were in, along with Basil Bunting and Carl Rakosi. Both Bunting, who was about to move to Rapallo, and Rakosi – hovering in the Midwest between a career in social work and postgraduate studies in psychology – were now provisional Objectivists. (The missing figure here is Lorine Niedecker, who remained in comparative obscurity until the 1940s, disappeared again and re-emerged in the 1960s, along with Bunting, Oppen and Rakosi, who had also gone quiet.)
In 1932 To Publishers brought out A Novelette and Other Prose by Williams, an expanded edition of Pound’s How to Read and An ‘Objectivists’ Anthology, edited by Zukofsky: once again Bunting and Rakosi were included. In came Pound alongside Williams. But so did disparate work by Eliot, Kenneth Rexroth, Mary Butts and others. Once again the team colours that Monroe had asked Zukofsky to supply had run in the wash. Still, the core Objectivists knew what they didn’t like. For instance, the ‘semi-allegorical gleam’ of Symbolism – Zukofsky’s phrase in an essay about Reznikoff in Poetry – and Surrealism (‘not worth doing’). What did they favour? Zukofsky liked ‘the detail, not [the] mirage, of seeing, of thinking with … things as they exist’. He approved of the poem you could apprehend as ‘an object’ in its own right. He also argued that poems are made from ‘minor units of sincerity’. ‘Sincerity’ was a word brandished unreliably by Pound, but there’s no doubt that Oppen’s poems, early and late, work with ‘minor units’ of careful consideration, weighed alone and then in combination. There are poems in Discrete Series that still look like exploded diagrams for verse, rather than entire objects. The book was published by the Objectivist Press, which had superseded To Publishers. By then the Oppens had left France and were back in New York; in 1935 they joined the Communist Party USA and Oppen set poetry aside for the foreseeable future.
In her introduction to Oppen’s Selected Letters, Rachel Blau du Plessis wrote that the Objectivists may not always have seen eye to eye, but they all took their cue from ‘the vanguard modernist pioneers in American poetry (William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound)’. As they later tried to work out what Objectivism amounted to, the term began to suggest more than an approach to the object on the page: it signalled a way of looking at the world and allowing real stuff – anything from a red wheelbarrow to an elevated railway – into the poem without any ‘poetic’ authorisation or a special pass in the form of metaphor. It also announced the wish to inhabit the world fully and record what it felt like. The result, in Oppen’s case, is a paradoxical mix of frankness and idiosyncrasy, and his later work serves both definitions of Objectivism well. Take the opening lines from Of Being Numerous (the quotation that starts halfway through line two is probably from an academic study of Plato):
There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.
Sixteen syllables across three lines; four words that tend to operate loosely (‘things’, ‘live’, ‘see’, ‘know’) but couldn’t be clearer here; no figures of speech and no creative writing skills: this stanza is an entirely reliable object, set down with confidence on a page remarkable, like many in Oppen, for its paucity of print and the roomy expanse of white unclaimed by the poet. Nowadays it might be a screensaver platitude or a counterintuitive post on Facebook: we know who we are by attending to what we’re not. But this rhetoric of plain speaking, which Oppen discovered in his fifties, was hard won. He had been away from poetry for a long time, having spent years working for the CPUSA, sticking his neck out on behalf of other people for better wages and conditions. He had worked as a pattern-maker in an aircraft factory. An impatient anti-Nazi, he had actively sought recruitment – the intelligence agencies remembered this – and fought in the Ardennes, where he was decorated after a shell blast left him badly wounded. Back in the US with Mary, he had been hounded by the FBI and they had relocated to Mexico. Crucially, though, the unadorned statement in later Oppen serves as a counterweight to difficulty, offering points of stability in a poem as the going gets harder (which it does in the one I’ve quoted from). This mode was not available to the younger poet of Discrete Series, paring away and (we imagine) revising down, which is the reason the book still feels ‘enigmatic’ (Eliot Weinberger in his preface to Davidson’s edition), or even ‘gnomic’ (Hobbs).
Most of the poems unearthed in the Beinecke are more approachable and self-consciously ‘poetic’ than anything in Discrete Series. Most hold their perspective from start to finish: in front of a fish tank for instance, in which ‘eel-like fish turn upward showing clowns/soft white faces’ (Poem XI). This could have been called ‘Poem about a Fish Tank’ or ‘Exercise in the Manner of Marianne Moore’. Several carry traces of Williams: ‘Three//Clear/Packages of//CAMELS//In a Gladstone// Bag’ (from IV). Or: ‘One remembers the smell of warm paint’ (from XV). Poem VIII has a touch of affectation, in the manner of Eliot: ‘She shall go down, she shall go down –/A small handful, pitifully,/Of somewhat rose-tinged dust.’ (Oppen wouldn’t try this kind of thing again.) Others, like XIX (three lines in all), seem to be following Pound’s recommendations for Imagism:
The pigeons fly from the dark bough
unleaved to the
window ledge. There is no face
Aside from the appearance of a street-car (IX), one looks in vain for the machinery, the metal, the cables, girders and automobiles that make their way into the later poems and persist almost to the end of Oppen’s career. This, I suppose, is what he meant by calling himself ‘of the Thirties’ as he resumed his work in the 1960s: his was a sensibility forged in a Fordist frenzy of capital accumulation, mass production, shiny new technology, depression, hunger and class struggle. By the 1960s, though, a new politics had coalesced around the Vietnam War. The Oppens invested their hopes in a younger generation: radical activists, poets, musicians, hippies, anarchists and students who came together as an improbable coalition to protest the war – and the American way of life.
21 Poems aren’t really of the 1930s or the 1960s. Hobbs is right that some are ‘rhetorically theatrical’ in ways that Oppen would abjure a few years later; right too that others are ‘precursors to Discrete Series in theme and approach’. But most are poems you would never imagine to be his. A few lines, it’s true, might have gone straight into Discrete Series, including a tercet from III – ‘This a vacant lot;/Impenetrable ground/Of embedded stones’ – or XVII in its entirety:
Short, but wide night).
But XXI is the only poem that was actually carried over into Discrete Series, though in a slightly changed form. In the version here, a soaring mast and a sail are simply given:
Inaudibly soars; bole-like, tapering:
Sail flattens beneath the wind.
In Discrete Series, the third line associates them explicitly: ‘Sail flattens from it beneath the wind.’ The next lines – ‘The limp water holds the boat’s round sides. Sun/Slants dry light on the deck’ – are in the later version broken after ‘round’, and a new ‘minor unit’ comes into existence as a line consisting simply of ‘sides. Sun’. Revision and rearrangement were the way Oppen built poems. ‘What I do,’ he explained in 1975, ‘is paste in the correction or change until the sheet becomes so thick it is no longer malleable. Then I copy it out straight. So that it may be two hundred versions, three hundred versions. I precisely lack Williams’s sense of his own personal grace and the sureness of his own mannerisms. Nor do I want them.’
He might not have wanted these poems published either, though they are rare evidence of an avant-garde poet’s struggle to clear a space for himself, written while the performative thunder of The Waste Land still lingered in the air (‘DA’) and Moore’s poetry was bringing a welcome change in the weather. Oppen’s mentors, Pound and Williams, were hovering low over his juvenilia, each seeming to propose a different direction; Zukofsky was his noisy, charismatic peer. 21 Poems is to that extent an anthology of influences, but it’s also an authentic record of how daunting it would have been to sort through the options. ‘One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads/in his hands,’ Oppen wrote much later in Of Being Numerous. ‘He must somehow see the one thing.’