Shirley Kaufman


Preface to some letters from George Oppen to Shirley Kaufman


The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University was a lively and exciting place in the sixties, when I enrolled in the graduate writing program. The finest poets from all over the country came to read and meet with students. I have never forgotten the reading of Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen together. Charles read from By the Waters of Manhattan and George from his just published Of Being Numerous. The clarity, the quiet authority of these two men, the sense of occasion – made that reading more moving than any other I had experienced in San Francisco. I read all their books, and later gave George my first collection when it was published in 1970. It was then that I began my visits to George and Mary on Polk Street

There are not many letters, because mostly we talked over tea – not so much about poets and poetry as about the Oppen's lives, their interests and concerns. I told them about the Israeli poets I had discovered and had begun to translate with the help of native Hebrew speakers – Yehuda Amichai and Abba Kovner, and I showed their work to George. We also spoke about Jewish identity, a troubling subject for both of us, and our feelings about the Holocaust. Of course, I had no idea that I'd be moving to Israel in 1973, and that George and Mary would come to visit Jerusalem two years later! (I wrote about that visit in "Ironwood" #26.)

George had and still has a profound influence on my poetry. I had never met a poet whom I admired so much, not only for his poetry, but also for his moral courage, his understanding about fear and hope, and the depth of his questioning. It was his way of being, his way of testing every word and its placement that shaped my own sense of what poetry might be. I met him at a crucial time in my life.



February 1970

May 1970

July 1970

1971? 1972?