Showing posts with label George Oppen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label George Oppen. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

George Oppen


@ the Poetry Center

San Francisco State University


Sunday, December 01, 2013

Monday, January 30, 2012

Sailor, soldier, father, friend,
obsessive reader of Pogo:

Perspectives on George Oppen
with Linda Oppen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis,
Patrick Pritchett, Bob & Helene Quinn

Friday, October 01, 2010

Monday, April 07, 2008

I was somewhere in the vicinity of 20 to 22-years-old when, during an intermission at a marathon antiwar reading at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco where I was hovering, as was my wont, at the periphery of a crowd that surrounded Robert Duncan, who had just read, when Mark Linenthal, whom I knew from his role as the director of the San Francisco Poetry Center, approached with a granite-faced man and said to Duncan, “Robert, I want you to meet George Oppen.” I can recall also Oppen’s first words to Duncan, “I want to speak to you about your open vowels.” It was an event that seared itself into my memory because it violated one of the tenets of my imagination, that all famous writers already knew one another, must secretly hang out together, having fabulous gabfests, the “deep gossip” we associate with poetry. What I don’t recall – and this is the first of several regrets I have here – perhaps because I was so overwhelmed at the idea that I watching the meeting of Duncan & Oppen, was what Robert replied.

My second regret, unfortunately not an uncommon one for anyone who was a renter for decades, especially in an area like San Francisco or the East Bay, where one is forever having to balance space & the needs of one’s book collection, is that I no longer appear to possess one of my favorite volumes of that period, four decades ago, a copy of Oppen’s first book, Discrete Series, published not by Oppen himself, but a chapbook reprint done by Ron Caplan out of Cleveland. At a time when everyone I knew seemed to own copies of The Materials, This in Which, and Of Being Numerous, I was just about the only person I knew who owned a copy of that.

I’d acquired my copy of The Materials early on, I don’t know where, almost certainly at Cody’s or Moe’s in Berkeley or (far less likely) City Lights across the Bay. This in Which I’d appropriated, the old five-finger-discount, the first time I’d ever seen a copy, from the university bookstore at UWM, the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, in the summer of 1967. Rochelle Nameroff, my wife at the time, and I couldn’t believe our good fortune. Here was this old Objectivist, actually alive & writing again, producing great work. There are poems there, such as “Street,” as fine as anyone has written:

Ah these are the poor,
These are the poor –

Bergen Street.

Hardship . . .

Nor are they very good to each other;
It is not that. I want

An end of poverty
As much as anyone

For the sake of intelligence,
‘The conquest of existence’ –

It has been said, and is true –

And this is the real pain,
Moreover. It is terrible to see the children,

The righteous little girls;
So good, they expect to be so good . . .

Ellipses, as they say, in the original. There are small moments here that I don’t think I fully understood or appreciated as a young man, the doubleness created by “An end of poverty,” rather than the more standard preposition to. Or the reiteration in that last line, which at the time I might have read as sentiment rather than the certainty of horror. Or that most curious of words, Moreover, concluding the longest of this poem’s disjointed, half-broken sentences. This is a poem that works precisely in all the ways its syntax appears not to.

But the poems of Discrete Series, composed between 1929 & 1934, spoke to me then, as they do to me now, with a directness I find nowhere else in Oppen’s work. It’s not simply that they were the poems of someone in his early twenties, the same age I was when I came upon that volume at Serendipity Books in Berkeley.(It’s hard for me to imagine that when Oppen met Duncan back there at Glide Church, he was not yet 60, younger than I am today, or that Duncan, who was older than my parents, was not yet 50.) Rather, Discrete Series offers the poems of a modernist, an aesthetic in which action (including even political action) is possible. Consider, for example, how the gaps & omissions of the following untitled piece operate in contrast with “Street”:

Hides the

Parts – the prudery
Of Frigidaire, of
Soda-jerking –


Above the

Plane of lunch, of wives
Removes itself
(As soda-jerking from
the private act

Cracking eggs);


This poem operates like a tiny Moebius strip in that the dangling final noun-phrase big-Business is precisely that which “Hides the // Parts – the prudery / Of Frigidaire.” There is, in any consumer business, including one as simple as a lunch counter, a radical gap between that which is customer-facing & that which is not. This dissociation between public & private is paralleled by that alienation that transforms any “private act” into labor for pay. Thus if the gaps of “Street” stand for just how good those righteous little girls won’t be soon enough, and how and why, the vertigo of sheer terror, the unmarked ellipses of this earlier poem stand for processes no less brutal, but hardly inevitable. Only one of these exists in a world in which political action is even conceivable.

I will always be an advocate for the earliest Oppen. Far from the unrealized works of a beginning writer, they show us the poems of an optimist, someone who has not yet adjusted to the permanent defeat that was Stalinism. The later work, at least through Of Being Numerous, is no less luminous, but its relationship to the world is chastened, perhaps even depressed. This of course leads to my last regret – those twenty-five years between poems.

ж ж ж

A Celebration of
George Oppen’s 100th Birthday
100 minutes of talk & poetry

Hosted by Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Thomas Devaney
& featuring
Stephen Cope
, George Economou, Al Filreis,
Michael Heller, Ann Lauterbach, Tom Mandel,
Bob Perelman, & Ron Silliman

Today, April 7

6:00 PM, Arts Café, Kelly Writers House
Locust Walk
of Pennsylvania

Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Celebration of
George Oppen’s 100th Birthday
100 minutes of talk & poetry

Hosted by Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Thomas Devaney
& featuring
Stephen Cope
, George Economou, Al Filreis,
Michael Heller, Ann Lauterbach, Tom Mandel,
Bob Perelman, & Ron Silliman

Monday, April 7

6:00 PM, Arts Café, Kelly Writers House
Locust Walk
of Pennsylvania

George Oppen and his wife, Mary, sailed and hitchhiked from the West Coast to New York City in the 1920s. There, Oppen became a central member of the Objectivist Group of poets that flourished in the 1930s. George and Mary Oppen moved increasingly to the left during the Depression, becoming social activists and joining the Communist party in 1935. During this period Oppen's poems appeared in small journals such as Active Anthology, Poetry, and Hound and Horn, but he soon gave up writing for more than two decades. Oppen revived his poetic career when he returned to the United States in 1958. In 1962, New Directions published Oppen's second book of poetry, The Materials, which was followed by This in Which (1965). In 1969, Of Being Numerous (1968) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Oppen's Collected Poems (1975) includes all of his poetry from Discrete Series (1934) through his last work, Myth of the Blaze (1975). In the late 1960s, Oppen moved to San Francisco, where he lived until his death in 1984.

Poet and critic Stephen Cope is editor of George Oppen: Selected Prose Daybooks, and Papers (U. of California Press, 2008), and a founding editor of Essay Press. He has taught at universities in California, Iowa, and Ohio, and is on the faculty of Bard College's Language and Thinking program.

Thomas Devaney is the author A Series of Small Boxes (Fish Drum, 2007). He teaches in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania, and is editing a feature section "Oppen at 100" for Jacket 38 (October 2008).

Rachel Blau DuPlessis has both written on George Oppen's work and edited his Selected Letters (Duke U.P., 1990). DuPlessis has published numerous books of poetry and literary criticism; her most recent critical book is Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work. She teaches in the English Department of Temple University.

George Economou's latest book is Acts of Love, Ancient Greek Poetry from Aphrodite's Garden (Modern Library/Random House). Books of Cavafy translations and the poems & fragments of Ananios Kleitor are forthcoming.

Al Filreis is Kelly Professor, Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House and author of four books, most recently Counter-revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-60.

Michael Heller is a poet, essayist and critic. Forthcoming in 2008 are Eschaton, a new book of poems, Speaking the Estranged, a collection of his essays on George Oppen, and Marble Snows: Two Novellas.

Ann Lauterbach's most recent books are Hum and The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. She is Schwab Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College, where she also co-directs Writing in the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts.

Tom Mandel grew up in Chicago and was educated in its jazz and blues clubs and at the University of Chicago. He is the author of more than a dozen books including To the Cognoscenti (2007) and is one of the authors of The Grand Piano, an ongoing experiment in collective autobiography.

Bob Perelman has published numerous books of poetry, most recently Iflife. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ron Silliman's most recent book is The Age of Huts (compleat) and several volumes of the collectively written Grand Piano project. In 2008, the University of Alabama Press will publish The Alphabet.

Friday, September 20, 2002

Having praised Joseph Massey’s Minima St., one aspect of the book continues to haunt. If its truest predecessor might be George Oppen’s Discrete Series, what does that mean? Discrete Series was published 68 years ago; Oppen himself has been gone for nearly 20. Do my sardonic comments comparing “mainstream” poets with Bing Crosby* not apply if, in fact, the writing from the 1930s happens to be work within my own literary tradition?

I was mulling this over when I came across the first sonnet in Anselm Hollo’s most recent collection, So the Ants Made it to the Catfood (Samizdat, 2001), which begins:

now that some of the young ones
have taken to writing
like Eugene Jolas and Elsa von Freytag again
(if not quite as vigorously)
(pass the thesaurus, said the dinosaurus)
we may once again enjoy the “oh I see
(s)he just found out about that” experience

My own first book, Crow (Ithaca House, 1971), was composed largely under the spell of William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All, which Harvey Brown’s Frontier Press had re-released in 1970. Williams’ book, which had first appeared in 1923, was more radical than almost anything appearing in print in the 1960s. But it was radical not in the Jolas/von Freytag sense of a circus of typographies – Williams’ essay in action was revolutionary in its common sense about the nature of writing & its relation to the world. Forty-seven years after its first publication, Spring & All was still revolutionary.**

If the history of poetry is ultimately a history of change, any model of such a history would account not only for the movement of poetry, the elaboration of new devices and forms, the perpetual redefinition of literature itself, but also for the capacity of all forms to carry onward from whatever point they become socially established as viable. For forms linger indefinitely.

Consider this. Poetry Daily’s directory of current articles and reviews in web-accessible media ( lists the following, as the sum of what was being discussed this week:

<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Seven pieces on British poets, including two each on Auden and Motion and one review of a Wilfred Owens biography – the bulk of these come from The Guardian, perhaps the only English-language publication in the world that would consider running more than two pieces on poetry in one week
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Two pieces on Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? including one by Adam Kirsch in the militantly conservative New York Sun that characterizes the book as “"one of the most important American books of poetry criticism of the last 50 years."
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Two pieces on poet laureate Billy Collins from the Indianapolis Star and Seattle Weekly
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>An obituary of William Phillips, founder of the Partisan Review, the journal that proved central to the career of Robert Lowell and his group of Brahmans
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>A review of Mona Van Duyn’s Selected Poems from the New York Times
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Seven items on poetry in relation to the commemoration to the September 11th attacks
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>One seasonal item – Edward Hirsch’s column from the Washington Post – on Yom Kippur
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>An article on the nominations process for the poet laureate position in Louisiana from the New Orleans Times-Picayune
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>A piece on the poet Susan Firer from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that actually mentions Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch and Alice Notley, “whose thorny work is a strong influences [sic] on her right now.”

Is it any wonder that a general reader might come away with the impression that American writing is, at best, a tributary of the most reactionary British literary tendencies? In this context, a work that demonstrates an affiliation with George Oppen’s early writing most definitely gets a pass – Discrete Series is in many ways more current and relevant than at least 14 of the 15 “non-911” items that appeared in the past week. Spring & All is beyond imagining.

But I worry that I/we fail to do ourselves justice if we merely settle for the perpetuation of our own favorite genres of the past. In my own case, it is true that I needed to go through the writing of Williams in order to begin my own work. It is also true that today there are at least a half dozen different versions of post-Objectivism about. Those that merely replicate the surface features of the poems seem to me radically at odds with what Oppen, Zukofsky, Rakosi, Reznikoff, Niedecker and Bunting were up to some 70 years ago.

*See my note for September 2 in the archive. What this question regarding Minima St. highlights, however indirectly, is that normative mainstream poetry really is the literary equivalent of something that comes before Bing Crosby! Thus Robert Pinsky might be thought of as the contemporary of, say, Scott Joplin, rather than of Anthony Braxton or John Zorn.

** & 32 years after the Frontier Press edition, it still is.

Sunday, September 08, 2002

One of the most interesting inclusions in the ridiculously named The Best American Poetry 2002 (Scribner), guest edited by Robert Creeley, is a series of twenty-six fragments written by the late George Oppen, “scrawled on envelopes and other small pieces of paper – posted to the walls of George Oppen’s study and gathered after his death.” One in fact was written in pencil directly on the wall itself.

One that I find most haunting is the second:

I find I am forgetting
all the spoken     of
and the numbers          (i.e.
how to form them


also the numbers

George Oppen died of Alzheimer’s disease, the debilitating degenerative condition against which he struggled for many years. This fragment appears to directly address that condition and, in doing so, recalls the furor that met the exhibition of Willem de Kooning’s last paintings, also created by an artist well into the irreversible dementia of the disease. Were the sweeping and majestic spaces of his last canvases – more akin to a Diebenkorn (albeit one with no straight lines) than to the intense and misogynistic paintings of de Kooning’s signature work – the sign of an artist who had arrive at a new (and theoretically more peaceful) stage in his evolution or an index of the degeneration of one of the great minds in painting? Because poetry depends precisely on language and is so intimately entangled with consciousness itself, Oppen’s last fragments inevitably raise the same issues. I’ve heard at least one person wonder aloud as to the wisdom of printing these last unfinished pieces.

I’m persuaded by the text themselves. Although not all are anywhere near Oppen’s best poetry, some – like the above – are quite fine. While George Oppen is rightly included among the Objectivists in literary history, the bulk of his writing occurred after 1960, a point beyond which it was impossible not to be aware of the New Americans.* The projectivists in particular were clear about using poetry to represent the movement of thought, although others as diverse as Phil Whalen, Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara could be said to have also written what Whalen once characterized as a “continuous nerve movie.”

Oppen seems quite clear, if not about words & numbers as such, about the importance of tracking his own consciousness against this greatest of challenges, its own ineluctable decomposition. These fragments, many of which repeat themselves, stalking the same terrain over & over, articulate a mind working through some of the most elemental facts of poetry and life with an absolute sense of just how little time remains.

* Oppen was an attentive reader. I had the fortune of being present when Mark Linenthal first introduced Oppen to Robert Duncan. Oppen’s first words were, “I want to talk with you about your use of open vowels.”