Introduction to the Selected Poems
One finds so many insistences upon the presumption that, as Auden said, "Poetry makes nothing happen." Somehow poems therefore are supposed to be without value, just an indulgent pastime, an avoidance of the workaday world in which we otherwise have to live. Yet, on the other hand, one knows that poetry has often been felt to be tacitly subversive—an arousal of feelings contrary to the status quo, a calling together of mutual sympathies and recognitions altogether against the grain. It's no surprise that Federico Garcia Lorca's poems, for example, were crucial to Spain's Republican soldiers in that country's Civil War (1936–39), or that Plato, centuries earlier, hoping to secure an inclusive if dogmatic system of government, wanted all poets removed from the body politic at the outset. Then their curious ability to stir things up could be comfortably avoided.
Still, no one finally knows what a poet is supposed either to be or to do. Especially in this country, one takes on the job—because all that one does in America is considered a "job"—with no clear sense as to what is required or where one will ultimately be led. In that respect, it is as particular an instance of a "calling" as one might point to. For years I've kept in mind, "Many are called but few are chosen." Even so "called," there were no assurances that one would be answered.
Most intriguing to me is that George Oppen became the primary poet he turns out to be truly against the odds. There are no signs or facts of circumstance arguing his possible transformation from the securely provided child of a well-to-do family into the spare, self-determined, isolate and unremitting person he turns into. No doubt his seemingly never-ending travels argue his ability to move as feelings and need proposed, but always he managed to find commonplace means wherewith to support himself and his wife, Mary. It is Mary who best makes clear the motive, which prompts them:
We were constantly
searching—searching in our travels, in our pursuit of friends and in our
(Mary Oppen, Meaning a Life: an Autobiography)
Much of Oppen's own life did not fit a simple pattern and this was not at all a fact of his own choosing. The early loss of his mother by suicide, the step-mother with whom he finds little rapport or sympathy, his teenage accident while still in military academy, involving the death of a passenger and his own expulsion for drinking, the earlier shift of the family from New Rochelle, New York (where he was born in 1908) to the other end of the country, San Francisco, even the probably therapeutic trip with his father to Europe in the year he is forced to leave school (1925) must be signs or markers for a childhood and adolescence scarred by tragedy and familial displacement. The travels, then, that he and Mary undertake are like those of the fairy-tale, wherein the two children, holding hands tightly, set off through the woods to discover the bluebird of happiness and the home they know themselves to have been driven from and to which they must at last return. So it is, as Mary writes, "the people we met, as various and as accidentally met as thumbing a ride could make them, became the clue to our finding roots; we gained confidence that this country was ours in a sense which we hadn't known under our parents' roofs. The sense was not only patriotic but a personal one, for as people generally accepted us, we felt as comfortable and at home in our country. I have never felt so at home in any other land."
William Carlos Williams, a poet whom George Oppen much respected, makes the point that "the poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity." It was the Oppen's Objectivist Press, which published Williams' Collected Poems, 1921-1931 in 1934. The name of the press is also significant in that the Objectivists, consisting of the poets George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, Louis Zukofsky and Williams himself, were the decisive conjunction, which gave Oppen his company and ground. However different they were later to find their lives—particularly so in the instance of Oppen and Zukofsky—all worked from the premise that poetry is a function of perception, "of the act of perception," as Oppen emphasizes in his one defining essay, "The Mind's Own Place." Oppen's complex 'thinking with his poems' is a consistent and major factor in all his surviving work. I think much becomes clear, in fact, if one recognizes that George Oppen is trying all his life to think the worId, not only to find or to enter it, or to gain a place in it—but to realize it, to figure it, to have it literally in mind. Poetics itself is the art of figuration, of configuring, so to speak, of making a picture, an imago mundi, which can serve as the (or a) whole world. Just so, Zukofsky said one might spend a lifetime considering the difference between "the" and "a," the particular and the general.
In hindsight it may seem odd that such a brilliant and also privileged person as Oppen should have given his political commitment to the Communism of that period. But one forgets how preoccupied with viable political systems the whole time was—and necessarily so. The Depression, as well as the incessant wars of the 20th century, both civil and international, increased dramatically the implacable distance between the haves and the have-nots. The grinding and heartbreaking poverty of a great number of the world's people made an insistent impression upon those given the chance—really, the leisure—to think of it at all. Of course, all yearned for "one's place in the sun" but very few indeed were ever permitted to secure it. So, given their own provision, those as Oppen were particularly aware of their privilege, if they had not simply accepted the fact of their good fortune and taken their lives as thus granted.
In other words, one begins to recognize this active, restless intelligence, often brooding in its preoccupation, endlessly returning to its determined premises, tracking and retracking an implacable ground of apparent consequences. Why is this so? What so defines it? Is it the case in all instances? What are the givens? What inheres in the fact "of being numerous"? What is the "this" "in which" what is? If I tease these terms here, my wish is to make clear that we are reading not only a unique collection of poems—and what are poems?—but also a rhetoric of thinking, a "grammar [in Kenneth Burke's phrase] of motives," an immensely human attempt to have the world in mind and, in that heroic act, to insure that all is included, all provided and thought of—not at all as details, a kind of Noah's Ark of particulars, but rather as the imagination of a total "place," which provides for all that can be put there, each particular and local 'thing.’
Small wonder that George Oppen was not engaged with the usual poetry of his time. We too have forgotten how many of the writers of the nineteen thirties and forties shared his political thinking. Who now remembers the poems of Norman Macleod, for example, who was in 1930 the most published poet in America, invited to Moscow by the Russian government in respect of his accomplishments and convictions? In 1935, coincident with joining the Communist Party, Oppen stopped writing, noting later in a daybook, "Surely there are situations in which it's absurd to write poetry! One could approach his own death with poetry—I should think one would. But a slaughter, a slaughter for which he bears perhaps some responsibility? Or, he does what he does. I don't know what one "should" do . . . " So he as well was to find himself in Mexico some twenty years later with the Hollywood Ten script writers, whose "leftist" commitment had forced them to seek political asylum in order to escape Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities' attacks and accusations.
Certainly poets before Oppen have given up writing for such a length of time. There was Paul Valéry who stopped writing poetry for a like twenty years and then picked up again with his masterpiece, "Le Cimetière Marin." Many speak of writer's block, of finding themselves with nothing to say and no means to say it. Or others, as Oppen, feel that writing itself is impossible in a world so committed to selfdestruction and despair. Yet poetry would seem to be an art like swimming or riding a bicycle. Once learned, one does not forget even if one wants to.
Still the confounding ethical question of how one can speak as one in a time when all are so threatened hardly disappears because one is a poet. For Oppen the singular act of poetry could not outweigh the need to work in concert with those he felt oppressed—in a common employment, in a clearly committed political determination. His being wounded in the Second World War, serving as a common soldier, is a unique validation for him and one he much values thereafter. It was not until 1958 that Oppen began to write again and to undertake the work of finding publication.
If I think now of Oppen's incessantly restless travels, his shifting sense of company, I must realize I finally know him only in his poems despite he left both journals and letters, which are a very useful information in themselves of both the time and the person. But in the end the poems are the significant record, even when unwritten, thinking now of the more than twenty years of their hiatus. They say what he felt could be said, which, for him then, was a necessary and painful silence.
Perhaps this is what poetry can "make happen," an inscription of the apparent world which registers its relation to our transient human lives—something that will matter, something that can count. One reads in Oppen's poems a record of thought compacted with feeling, a register of what might be finally that "this in which" our lives might have their determining value. He recognizes and insists that we are "numerous," a complex "many"—yet, as Robinson Crusoe's presence would emphasize, he knows himself finally as one:
'Whether, as the intensity of
seeing increases, one's distance
Yet I am one of those who from
nothing but man's way of
To dream of that beach
The absolute singular
The unearthly bonds
Which is the bright light of shipwreck
No selection as this can be managed simply as one person's decision, however much I stand responsible for the poems here included. When I read them now, I hear George Oppen's voice underlying—quite deep, poised, reflective in its movement, without aggressive emphasis. It is as if one listens to his thinking, the slowly secured phrases, the syntax taking each step.
Then my fellow poet Robert Duncan's love for him and his work persuades me—as George Oppen would make his own love for Duncan clear in his letters. The one poet complemented the other—the unembarrassed fullness of Duncan's rhetoric fits unexpectedly the modes of Oppen's spare thought. Both wanted the whole world as their ground and each worked always to enter it. I learned from them a measure for "democracy" in all its many, shifting guises.
Most particularly here my resource has been the defining editor of George Oppen's poetry, Michael Davidson, whose crucial New Collected Poems (2002) gave me the text from which I made my selections. I also felt that a brief, compacted, chronology for Oppen's life would serve a real purpose and asked another old friend and fellow poet's help with providing it. Thanks to Rachel Blau DuPlessis, the reader can review for him or herself the "incessantly restless travels [and] shifting sense of company" I refer to. She has also given us an exceptionally useful edition of Oppen's correspondence, The Selected Letters of George Oppen (1990), which, together with Mary Oppen's Meaning a Life (1978), makes an active context for the poems and the world in which they were written. Stephen Cope (University of California, San Diego) has kindly provided the two texts, which follow the poems themselves. His edition of Oppen's various prose forthcoming from the University of California Press will be a welcome addition to the canon.
Then the river necessarily widens for me, from friends of years, such as Burt Hatlen, Peter Quartermain and Ted Enslin, to those younger as Charles Bernstein, Stephen Fredman and John Taggart. All have had much to do with Oppen and they were much in my own mind as I attempted to resolve this book. My work was always fact of any day's instance—conversation with a friend such as Ben Friedlander, or Carla Billitteri's prompt help with getting the Selected Letters from the University of Maine at Orono's library. I talked to each a good deal about Oppen, about my own questions and confusions, all of which is composted here in one way or another. Finally I thank my editor in this undertaking, Jeffrey Yang of New Directions, whose useful enthusiasm and clarity made for me all the difference. Thus being instance "of being numerous" has its enduring pleasure.