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.
         In his note to the text, Davidson explains that all Oppen’s books have been collected except Alpine, since ‘most of its poems appear in other forms among Oppen’s later poems,’1 and with this statement Davidson seems to accept Oppen’s implied stance on Alpine, and follows the practice of not including it as its own section.  On the surface this makes sense.  If, however, one looks at the inception of the book, it might cause an editor to take pause in deciding whether or not to reprint Alpine as the sequence appeared in the 1969 Perishable Press edition.

*    *    *

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.
         Oppen sent Hamady a fair typed manuscript of four poems under the title Alpine.  The title poem was borrowed from the 1965 collection This in Which, but Oppen, having reconsidered the poem and its importance for himself, rewrote the poem extensively for the Perishable Press edition.  The other poems were ‘A Barbarity,’ ‘The Stony Brook’ 5 (an early version of ‘The Song’), and ‘But So As By Fire,’ which was later returned to its original context as the last poem in ‘Some San Francisco Poems,’ appearing in this capacity in both Seascape: Needle’s Eye (1972) and Collected Poems (1975).
         Hamady printed a proof and sent it to Oppen, who then became very interested in the physical make-up of the book:

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
                      do you agree?  I thought about the cover of Denise’[s] book, and liked its feminine quality -- but to say or try to say Alpine from close-up -- is something else again

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, a necessity...’
         In this same letter Oppen informed Hamady of some changes to the manuscript:

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.
         The proposed illustration was the next issue.  Oppen at first was excited at the prospect, but upon seeing the result had reservations as to it’s effectiveness:

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.
                  and this is weak, I think, as against the meaning of ‘Alpine’ within the poem

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
seems to me a white light             The comma I think an inspiration.
the impact of the word                  precisely perfect

                                                  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.’
         To justify his meddling in the production of the book, something, he says, ‘I had firmly - and I think wisely - decided to leave to your judgment,’ Oppen retreats to the high ground of the artist, ‘my feeling comparable to that of a painter for an unframed canvas.’  This metaphor is apt, as a painting is not usually made up of several independent elements, but a synthesis of elements into an autonomous whole, which is how Oppen viewed Alpine.  It is also of note that Oppen arrived at the ultimate meaning of the sequence in response to Hamady’s proof, something Oppen readily admitted.  In this sense it was a collaboration, tho one in which Oppen asserted the last say.  To his credit, Hamady was astute enough to make suggestions, but also to produce a book in line with what the artist wanted.

*    *    *

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.
         Davidson, starting with the Collected Poems (1975) as the basic text, being Oppen’s own selection of what should be saved up to that date, has the poem ‘Alpine’ in its original place, as a poem in This in Which.  He also has ‘So As But By Fire’ included in Seascape: Needle’s Eye (1972) as the last poem of ‘Some San Francisco Poems.’  ‘A Barbarity,’ as already noted, was assimilated into the poem ‘The Book of Job and a Draft of a Poem to Praise the Paths of the Living,’ collected in the section Myth of the Blaze (1975).  Reprinting Alpine as a separate section would then be duplicating poems that are already in the Collected Poems, thus making for unneeded repetition.  This would bring us to where we started, with Davidson saying that Alpine was not included since  ‘most of its poems appear in other forms among Oppen’s later poems.’  But the discussion doesn’t end here.
         Davidson’s edition veers more towards completeness than its predecessor.  One of the great draws to the New Collected Poems is the selection of uncollected and unpublished poems, many purposefully left out of Collected Poems (1975) by Oppen.  Davidson is very good to outline his considerations in the editing and selection of these poems.  Take, for example, the beginning of the notes to the ‘Uncollected Published Poems’:

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?
         Maybe it isn’t practical to include Alpine as a separate unit, as the other consideration, of course, is the physical make-up - Hamady’s paper, the typography, the illustration -  which could not be reproduced in a new book.  Full reproduction aside, Davidson proclaims he has ‘attempted to note where other variant versions appear,’  but nowhere in his notes does he mention the order of the poems as printed in Alpine.  This is a simple matter of correction, but one of some importance, as Oppen stated in the correspondence with Hamady that the order of the sequence could not be changed without some ‘damage.’  While not as ideal as a full reproduction of the sequence as it appears in Alpine, a note on the order of the poems would allow for a reading of the poems as a sequence, even if the reader had to flip through the book to find the individual pieces.
         There is one final issue concerning the actual poem ‘Alpine.’  There are at least three versions of this poem: version (a), which appeared in This in Which;  Version (b), a heavily revised version of (a) sent as a typed and signed manuscript to Hamady as the title poem of Alpine; Version (c), the revised typescript sent to Hamady that became the final version of the poem.  Here’s the problem: when Oppen made the decisions concerning Collected Poems (1975), he replaced version (a) in This in Which with version (c), which had been specifically re-written for Alpine.7   Thus, if Davidson was working from the text in Collected Poems, ‘Alpine’ would be version (c), not version (a) as originally appeared in This in Which.  Despite the fact that Davidson tries to note variants, there are no variants mentioned in the note on ‘Alpine.’  This is mystifying, as versions (a) and (c) were both published in book form, not in obscure journals or working papers.  It is equally mystifying, as Davidson has otherwise done a marvelous job providing quotations from variants in other cases.  There might be a claim that ‘Alpine’(a) deserves a place in the ‘uncollected poems.’  At the very least, there should be some note of its existence, and of the conscious change Oppen made.
         This is not the first time such dilemmas have surfaced.  The case of Lorine Niedecker comes infamously to mind - she, much worse than Oppen, was constantly re-inventing and re-assimilating her poems in new sequential contexts.  How is one to edit her work?  If one collects the volumes as they appeared, there will be numerous duplications.  If, however, one orders the poems by order of composition (if this could be determined) then one would miss out on her working procedures, and resonances she sought to create by organizing the poems into books.  A somewhat less complicated case is Mina Loy’s ‘Love Songs to Joannes.’  There are two distinctly different versions of this, labeled as ‘Songs to Joannes’ (1917) and a heavily revised version as ‘Love Songs’(1923), both of which are printed in The Lost Lunar Baedecker.  Oppen’s poetry also presents editing predicaments, as has been shown with Alpine, a work that was intended as a single unit, made up of pieces taken from elsewhere, but molded into a self-contained work whose structural integrity must be considered, or at least noticed, when looking at Oppen’s corpus as a whole.

1.  Oppen, George.  New Collected Poems.  Edited by Michael Davidson.  New Directions, 2002. p. xxxvii.

2.  The information and quotations from letters are from the Perishable Press working folder for Alpine.  The folder includes:
 - 11 letters and notes from Oppen to Hamady, concerning artistic and     financial matters;
 - a five page typescript of the four poems (two in variant form) contained in Alpine (‘Alpine,’ ‘A Barbarity,’ ‘The Stony Brook,’ and ‘But So As By Fire’), each signed by   Oppen;
 - a revised typescript of the poem ‘Alpine,’ also signed by Oppen;
 - 3 letters from New Directions concerning copyright matters;
 - a working copy of Alpine marked ‘Printer’s Proof’ in pencil on front cover with several   editorial corrections and paste-ons.
        For some reason this folder is in a private collection, and not included in the Perishable Press special collection at SUNY, Stony Brook.  Hamady apparently kept carbon copies of some of his letters, so it is possible some of these are collected at Stony Brook.  It may also be possible that the originals of Hamady’s letters are in the collection of Oppen’s papers at the University of California, San Diego Library.  Tho the correspondence here is one-sided, it is clear enough to assume the gist of Hamady’s letters.

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.

Click here to view original typescript version


The hand holds,  the foot holds
To dig in one’s heels

Nothing else
In the line sense

When the words would  with  not  among
Take substantial meaning
One has a poem

Which may be sung

To celebrate

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
Somewhere in the Alps
In a barn among animals.  We knew
Our daughter should not know
We were there.  It was cold
Was the point of the dream
And the snow was falling

Which must be an old dream
Of families

Dispersing into adulthood
And the will cowers

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):

Click here to view original typescript version


We were hiding
Somewhere in the Alps
In a barn among animals.  We knew
Our daughter should not know
We were there.  It was cold
Was the point of the dream
And the snow was falling

Which must be an old dream of families
Dispersing into adulthood

And the will cowers
In the given

The outlaw winds
That move within barns

Intolerable breeze
A public music

Seeps thru the legendary walls
The cracked inner sides

The distinctions of what one does
And what is done to him blurrs [sic]

Bodies dream selves
For themselves

From the substance
Of the cold

Yet we move
Are moving

Are we not

Do we hear the heaving moving
Of the past in barns