The Textual Dilemma
of Oppen’s Alpine
Brad N. Haas
The publication of New Collected Poems by George
Oppen seems an appropriate time to discuss Alpine (1969) the slightest
collection of his career, as well as the collection with the smallest print
run, a mere 250 copies. When considering his Collected Poems
(1975), Oppen decided against including Alpine as a stand-alone
section. This was most likely since three of the four poems were
included in other collections already slated for the Collected Poems.
But Collected Poems was Oppen’s book to shape how he wanted; New
Collected Poems is, in a sense, Michael Davidson’s book.
* * *
According to the evidence in the letters Oppen sent to Walter Hamady of the Perishable Press, 2 Alpine was conceived and published between the time when Of Being Numerous was released and Oppen’s reception of the Pulitzer Prize, in other words the latter part of 1968 and early 1969. 3 Hamady evidently wrote Oppen and proposed printing a book of his work. Oppen had an interesting reply:
I do think there is a problem connected with your program: it is simply that poets will be reluctant to give important new work for an edition of 250 copies --- I wonder if it would not be possible to offer to print a poet’s own (rigorous) selection of his ‘best’ work...
Oppen’s was a commonsense reaction. Why would a poet want to put new, important work into such a limited arena? Oppen’s career to date had not involved fine press editions of his poetry; rather his books were made from necessity and a desire to disseminate the work among the populous. For whatever reason, whether prompted by Hamady or his own impetus, Oppen suggests something very different from a ‘selection’ of ‘best work’ in the next letter:
I’ve been looking over my new work, and thinking about a coherent little book
I’m planning to send you a single poem; this one the last poem of a Series which I’ve called The San Francisco Sequence. I’ve included it in a ms of Collected Poems which is to be published in England, but I believe that will be quite a long time from now before the book actually appears, and the first appearance of this poem may be in your edition, which would please me very much[...]
I’m delighted that we will be able to make this work together 4
Oppen planned to give Hamady a poem (‘But So As By Fire’)
that was at once destined to be part of another sequence in another book
(the Fulcrum Press edition of Collected Poems, which did not appear
until 1972), yet the first appearance would be in Hamady’s book, which
Oppen felt satisfied the validity of ‘new work’ Hamady was looking for.
the printing and design an astonishingly beautiful piece of work
Beautiful and firm [...] I like very much the comma following the
title As to the printing of the title, I think firmness,
again, a necessity: that would mean ‘firmly’ visible ink
Delighted by your project to ‘illustrate’ by ‘simple linear rendering of folds and faults’ of Alpine structure
In these comments Oppen ascribed an importance to the
typography as a complementary - if not an integral - aspect of the meaning
of Alpine; there can be little doubt of this: ‘I think firmness, again,
I have, since sending the ms, made some revisions. A trifle conscience-stricken: I could have sent the revision before you had set the first version in type, but I wanted to take some time to consider ---- a matter of a few lines: I will hope that you will not mind
Enclosed was a further revised version of the poem ‘Alpine,’
the version ultimately printed in the book. It is unclear whether
Oppen sent ‘The Song’ to replace ‘The Stony Brook’ at this same juncture.
The printer’s copy of the book has the first revised text of ‘Alpine’ set
in type, but ‘The Song’ typed on regular typing paper pasted over ‘The
Stony Brook.’ Whatever the case, both poems were changed.
I feel the illustration should be omitted from the title page
Interferes, I feel with the very nice relation between
the two lines (title and Author) given by the comma.
Again we see Oppen was very much involved with the physical aspect of the book, as tied to its meaning. The next letter settled all the important issues regarding final text and format. From this letter, it can be assumed that Hamady, perhaps on aesthetic or more practical type setting grounds, had wondered whether it were possible to switch two of the poems around. Oppen replied:
I’ve tried re-hearing the sequence, but cannot convince myself that the two poems on the second page can be reversed without damage
In addition to this, Oppen gave his final statement on the placement of the illustration:
and the matter of the illustration: I would want to ask you (experimentally)
to look again at the title page of the first proof, which is without illustration.
In the space between the title and the author’s name, there
this is in part a positive opinion as to design (‘in part’ inasmuch as the first proof was not my design but yours), and therefore impinges on an area which I had firmly - and I think wisely - decided to leave to your judgment. For that reason I would not insist on it But insofar as it is a part of the contents of the book, it would be within my province. And the sequence, written to some balance of transparencies in my mind, conflicts, I feel, with the design sense of the illustration -- my feeling comparable to that of a painter for an unframed canvas
The white space of the title page is very much a part of my sense of the word which I used as a title
(no objection to your diagrammatic cut on the interior page)) ((it has a reference -- even an addition to the poem [...]
These letters illuminate several important facts.
Oppen, over a period of time, conceived Alpine as ‘a coherent little
book,’ and felt that it could be ‘damaged’ by either the rearrangement
of the poems, or by the presence of an illustration on the title page that
seemed (to him) counter to what he meant by the concept of ‘Alpine.’
It was equally important that the space left by the absence of the picture
was maintained - that it was not merely a void, but an integral physical
space that one must cross between the comma at the end of the title
to the author’s name. These issues were important enough that
he risked insulting Hamady and his efforts to illustrate the book, while
still attempting to accommodate the illustration in a different place,
suggesting it was ‘a reference -- even an addition to the poem.’
* * *
While all this is interesting in its own right, there
are a number of ramifications for Davidson’s edition of New Collected Poems,
which show very well the sort of dilemmas an editor of such a collection
is faced with.
Included in this section are all the poems published by George Oppen that do not appear in [Collected Poems (1975)] or [Primitive]. Because [Oppen] often used lines or stanzas in several poems or else published poems with variant titles, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between collected and uncollected poems. Lines from “A Barbarity,” for example, appear in “The Book of Job,” yet by printing it separately in [Alpine], [Oppen] appears to have thought of it as a discrete poem. “Monument” is the title of a poem that also appeared in [Collected Poems (1975)] but, with the exception of a few words, it differs entirely from that printed in this section. In such cases, I have attempted to note where other variant versions appear [...]6
Yet as conscientious and honest as this statement appears,
it does show some inconsistencies in policy and execution. Davidson
uses the example of ‘A Barbarity’ to show how a poem can be assimilated
into another, and still maintain an importance as a self-supporting unit,
a ‘discrete poem’ as Davidson puts it. So, in this case, the text
of ‘A Barbarity’ is printed twice, once as part of ‘The Book of Job,’ and
again by itself. Yet couldn’t this reasoning, in light of the facts
of conception concerning Alpine, be used as a justification to print
the sequence as it was in the Perishable Press edition? Is it not
simply a matter of a ‘discrete series’ that Oppen had decided, for one
reason or other, not to collect?
2. The information and quotations from letters are from the Perishable
Press working folder for Alpine. The folder includes:
3. Oppen’s letters in the folder are undated. Since he is talking of his ‘new work’ and he supplies ‘But So As By Fire’ (a poem dating after Of Being Numerous) it seems appropriate to think the correspondence is after Of Being Numerous. In a later letter, Oppen adds in holograph, ‘Yes! Date it the first day of Spring. Magnificent!’ Apparently this applies to the book itself, which would help demarcate the approximate time it was finished. In the same letter that thanks Hamady for the finished copies of the books, Oppen responds to Hamady’s query whether the Oppen’s would be home during August, which would put the book prior to then. Also, Oppen had received his complementary copies before winning the Pulitzer. In a note coming late in the correspondence, well after the book had been finished, Oppen writes. ‘The Pulitzer, that doubtful compliment, arrives unasked but, on the whole, welcomed and possibly alters the Alpine prospect Probably guarantees sale of the whole edition.’ Oppen won the Pulitzer for 1969, so we can safely assume the correspondence dates from later in 1968 to mid 1969.
4. The odd spacing in the quotations from the letters approximates how they appear in the originals. Oppen often uses the tab key instead of full stops, which makes for large gaps.
5. This text of ‘The Stony Brook’ is interesting to compare to ‘The Song’ in New Collected Poems.
THE STONY BROOK
The hand holds, the foot holds
When the words would with not among
Which may be sung
What has been
6. New Collected Poems, p. 410.
7. For comparison, here are two variants of ‘Alpine’ not in New Collected Poems:
(a) published in This in Which (1965):
We were hiding
Which must be an old dream
Dispersing into adulthood
In the given.
Eros - the will -
That no thing
(b) first typescript version sent to Hamady, signed by Oppen (proofs of this were set and printed by Hamady):
We were hiding
Which must be an old dream of families
And the will cowers
The outlaw winds
Seeps thru the legendary walls
The distinctions of what one does
Bodies dream selves
From the substance
Yet we move
Are we not
Do we hear the heaving moving