by Brad Haas

New Collected Poems
Edited by Michael Davidson
New Directions, 2002

George Oppen is one of the great poets of the 20th century, whose influence is far reaching among practicing poets of the avant garde.  He is a model for melding stylistics with a moral imperative, that imperative being the sincere observation of the objects surrounding us.  As his most famous sequence begins:

There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’. (163) 1

If we recognize Oppen's poems as 'things' in their own right, to see them is to know ourselves better.  The appearance of New Collected Poems, then, is an occasion of extreme importance as well as a cause for celebration.2

        New Directions also published the previous edition of Oppen’s Collected Poems, which appeared in 1975.3  That volume had been standard issue for many years, having gone into multiple printings, but it became apparent that it was horribly out of date, and that Oppen’s work deserved better treatment.   CP did not contain Primitive, Oppen’s last collection, which was published by Black Sparrow in 1978.  There was also the problem of the setting of Oppen’s first book, Discrete Series (1934), which was not set one poem to a page as in the original Objectivist Press edition.  Having several poems on one page caused problems for readers, as not all the poems had proper titles; how was one to tell where a poem ended and where another one began?  This was a practical, let alone aesthetic, flaw.

        NCP makes amends.  It returns Discrete Series near to its original glory.  The poems are printed one poem to a page, but the page size is quite large, and the poems are pushed to the left margins, so they are perhaps somewhat dwarfed compared to the treatment they received in the Objectivist Press edition (a smaller book with larger and bolder type).4  Still, this is a vast improvement.  NCP also collects all of Oppen’s books through Primitive, with the exception of the small private press book Alpine, which was not ‘included as a separate book, since most of its poems appear in other forms among Oppen’s later poems.’ (xxxvii)  While this reasoning is understandable, it does not seem to coincide with some of the other editorial decisions Davidson has made.5

        Aside from gathering Oppen’s work, the book feels very different from the old CP in that it has introductory critical apparatus.   I can remember purchasing my copy of the CP in the University district of Seattle.  While waiting for a friend to pick me up, I sat in a café and read about a quarter of the book, with nothing but the short dedication to set me on my way: ‘For Mary / whose words in this book are entangled / inextricably among my own’.  That was a primary, although ignorant, experience with the poetry, but it was enough to make me want to investigate further.  The consequence of NCP will be to rob the reader of that primary (dare we say ‘primitive’?) exposure to Oppen’s unique work.  Michael Davidson has provided an introduction that places Oppen in context, poetically and culturally.  There is an outline of his life and his publishing, as well as an explanation of his writing techniques, and a note on the text.  In addition to this, Davidson has provided end notes which introduce each volume collected in the book, as well as keys to the major references and appearances of the poems.  These accouterments are handy indeed.  While readers might robbed of the feeling of trailblazing into foreign territory, they are possibly won over instead of deterred by dense forests and thickets.  The fact is, a basic poetry class teaches you how to read a sonnet, but if you try to read Oppen with those rules, his work won't make sense.  By including the introductory material and notes, Davidson elevates the entry level; it should allow a much wider audience to appreciate what Oppen accomplished.  He was, after all, not an elitist; he never intended his poems to impede understanding, but to create it.

        Both the preface by Eliot Weinberger and the introduction by Davidson stress how Oppen is different from his predecessors.  The early critics writing of the modernist epoch tended to see the Objectivists as mere late and relatively unimportant followers of Pound.  The subsequent history of poetry has shown otherwise.  Davidson describes how Oppen deviated from what the High Modernists practiced in at least three important ways.  At first the Objectivists were seen as a second generation Imagism, but as Davidson writes:

Oppen was impatient with what he perceived as a gap between Imagist theory and the material world it proposed to present.  “The weakness of Imagism,” Oppen writes in a note, “[is that] a man writes of the moon rising over a pier who knows nothing about piers and is disregarding all that he knows about the moon.”  This was his complaint about Pound in general, a poet Oppen much admired, but whose knowledge of history, he felt, came from books, not from experience. (xxix)

Oppen wanted a more direct poetry that required a contactual relationship with reality rather than the book learning he perceived in Pound, which, to Oppen, separated Pound further from the world he was trying to change:

The experience of the 1930s convinced him that the aesthetic strategies of his modernist predecessors were no longer adequate to deal with the social trauma of increased modernization.  Yes, poems had to strive for a level of clarity and objectivity, but not as a way of escaping history through mythic universals or distancing personae.  Rather, history had to be recreated within the poem, subjected to a language free from instrumental uses - a language “Geared in the loose mechanics of the world...” (xv)

Oppen, as well as his fellow Objectivists, needed to develop new aesthetic strategies that would allow them to ‘deal with the social trauma of increased modernization,’ yet in a way that did not stray into ‘mythic universals or distancing personae’ utilized by Pound, Eliot, Yeats and Joyce.  Even tho the era of meta-systems had not been played out, and would not for some time, Oppen took as his lesson from the High Modernists what not to do:

For Pound and Eliot, the problem of value in a world of fact was solved by containing quotidian reality in repetition, amassing cultural fragments toward an eternal dynastic edifice.  Oppen chose to solve the problem not by adding more fragments to an already debased architecture but by refusing to build altogether - or at least by paying more attention to its building materials.  We may see his gesture both as a refusal to speak in the face of political pressure, whether from the Stalinist censors or McCarthy’s investigative committee, and as a refusal of the metaphysical lure of totality. (xxx)

The introductory material laudably shows that Oppen was able to springboard from the innovations of Pound and Eliot, but also was able to use their innovations to avoid what he perceived to be their pitfalls.  In doing so, Oppen is regarded as an innovator in his own right.  It should be cautioned, however, that exposing this fact is not license to eradicate the importance and influence of the High Modernists on 20th century avant garde poetry as a whole.

        Criticism has moved far along in its appraisal of Oppen.  Much time has passed since 1934, when Stephen Rose Benét wrote that reading Oppen’s ‘writing is like listening to a man with a speech impediment.’6  We don’t perceive Oppen and the other Objectivists as lesser versions of Pound any longer.  In some cases it seems to the contrary, as if Pound and Eliot never existed, and that American avant garde poetry started with the Objectivists... it is good to see that Davidson makes it clear several times, while pointing to Oppen’s objections to aspects of Pound’s project, that Oppen also had a great respect for the elder poet.  But it does surprise me that Weinberger, someone who provided Basil Bunting - one of Pound’s most faithful proponents - a large amount of space in his wonderful little magazine Montemora, would write that Oppen’s was ‘a poetry that might not be for the masses, but one that did not loathe them.’ (vii)  This, at a point where Weinberger is pointing out the rejection of the previous generation's politics, seems, perhaps unintentionally, a back-handed way of saying that the poetry of the High Modernists ‘loathed’ the masses...  It would be a shame if this rehashed the cliché descrying the High Modernists as ‘elitists.’  Astute poets of the 1920s and 30s could not possibly be apolitical.  While they took decidedly different sides, the fact is that both extremist positions, the right-wing and the left, had one common goal in mind: to make the modern condition better.  They disagreed, however, on how to achieve those better conditions.  The High Modernists (exclusive of the Bloomsbury group) did not loathe the masses, but they did become very frustrated with a populous that seemed intent on staying ignorant.  Pound’s program was ultimately romantic; it strove for change, tried to share a vision of a better world, of a paradiso terrestre...  If Pound truly ‘loathed the masses,’ then he would not have spent the time trying to give them his vision.  The plain fact is: the sincere reader of Oppen (or Zukofsky, Olson, Bunting, etc.) cannot circumvent Pound (let alone the other modernist giants) no matter what bias the reader brings to bear on the work.  Basil Bunting, in his poem 'On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos,' calls them 'the Alps':

There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them. 6

It is not my assertion Davidson and Weinberger try to efface the memory of High Modernism from the annals of literary history.  On the contrary, they for the most part project a fair picture of the influence of the older generation on Oppen.  It seems, however, a propitious juncture for such a divagation, an opportunity to stem an apparent anti-Modernist trend in the current poetic climate.

        But back to Oppen: while Pound's project proved a cautionary tale, it provided a model of sincere energy and the tools to move forward into the unknown.  As Davidson points out, Oppen decided against writing a program akin to Pound’s.  Instead, he began - intentionally or not - an antithetical and equally massive project: silence for twenty-five years.  When finally he began to write again, he developed a powerful and personal idiom, yet one that does not strike the reader as overly sentimental.  Instead we perceive a sincere and intense attention to what is known.

Light grows, place becomes larger or deepens, the familiar
Becomes extreme (331)

And it is through the intense and scrupulous attention to the known that the unknown begins to become fathomable.  This is where the introduction is pushed to the rear, and necessarily becomes the backdrop against which the poems can be seen.  For at its base, this is not a book of criticism, but a collection of poems.

        In addition to all the poems from CP and Primitive, NCP also provides a number of uncollected and unpublished poems, ninety-one poems that will excite anyone who has read all of Oppen’s poems and wished there were more.  There are.  Oppen’s corpus was never large, and much like Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems, it was a matter of quality rather than quantity.   Some of the poems in these sections are excellent, standing up with the best work Oppen chose to include in the CP in 1975.  Others are not so good, and these show that Oppen was able to discriminate, and chose only work he knew to be good, and which adhered and complimented his corpus as a whole.    Still, there are many poets who wish they could write poems as good as Oppen’s ‘seconds.’

        As a teaser, I have chosen two uncollected poems in their entirety that I feel show distinct modes in Oppen’s work.  The first, a profound little nugget at once introspective and depersonalized, is worthy of Borges:


The old man
In the mirror
But the young man
In the photograph
Is stranger
Still. (329)

Oppen felt that he had always been old, never young spirited.  This is borne out by his first book of poems, Discrete Series, which emerged from the poetic womb fully realized.  At the start of 'The Old Man,' he seems surprised that old age has caught up with him, but by the end, the ‘young man / In the photograph / Is stranger / Still.’  It seems that he could never, either when he was younger, or now that he is older, understand the idea of ‘youngness,’ so that the ‘young man’ in the photograph is still a mystery, still elusive, still a stranger to him.  And thus, seeing that photograph of himself, and seeing his youthful self as an unknown, is, of course, strange to him.  It is understandable that Oppen did not collect this poem, for it is difficult to suggest a place for it among his books; yet as a stand-alone poem, and one that gives insight to Oppen himself, it is very good.  It is an example of a poem that is both personal, verging on the solipsistic, yet remaining an effective piece of verse.

        The second poem is equally personal, but has a much wider application.  ‘Any Way But Back,’ was written between 1972 and 1975.  In his note on the poem, Davidson writes: ‘A shorter version, included in a letter to an unknown recipient, includes the comment: “I wrote this poem (tentatively) as poem to close the new book..”’  The book, as Davidson points out, was apparently Myth of the Blaze, the section of new poems included in the CP, and in that case, this would have been the poem to close both the section and his CP as a whole.  The poem shows Oppen working with his own history, noticing what he has in his ‘back yard.’  It tells of a journey the Oppen family made from the east to live in California, when George was very young.  That journey, it seems to me, is made in several ways: it is the journey to California, to a new life.  In looking on this from the present, it is also a recognition of the journey Oppen has made in his life and writings: the journey from the affluence of his youth, to the the modest lifestyle he chose instead out of conscience; the journey from old ways of making poetry to a new sensibility - and in this sense it is also the journey of his work, this reminiscence showing a young Oppen with a desire to write, but not knowing ‘whom to write to.’  These things, in retrospect, have worked out.  Much of what was unknown at the beginning - including ‘whom to write to’ - is now known.  Even this poem, left aside when Oppen collected his work in 1975, now seems an appropriate accounting of his linear journey, from beginning to end, East to West as the track of the sun, always forward:


I have a superstition of destiny.  Those poets who have
lacked that superstition have died young

A superstition concerning families

Which is to say the future
Issuing from a dining room

And the old fashioned bulk
Of a family home.

Well, a madman.

Still lucid

A child carried by the trains of nineteen-eighteen
From New York to California

Three thousand miles
Of rails

A journey, day’s act
Redeemed ‘outside all systems

Of redemption’
Its meaning formed in the veins

Of sympathy across the fields
To the gullies and the fences in the fields

And along the public aisles
In the train to the hushed doors

Of the diner
And the waiters

The men in the club car

Wild noise and grit
On the observation porch

And I did not know, when I was a child, whom to write to -
Handymen, servants, the primitive dead -

The book is my own.  And, in a way, a deliberate surrender -
Those poems, the superstitious poems

To write the words down (342)


1.  All page numbers cited in text refer to pages in New Collected Poems by George Oppen.  New Directions, 2002.
2.  From here on abbreviated as NCP.
3.  From here on abbreviated as CP.
4.  The rare Objectivist Press edition of Discrete Series is virtually unobtainable for the general reader.  There was a new edition in 1966, however, produced by Mother /Asphodel in a very interesting format.  It is in black printed mustard colored wrappers with nice quality laid vellum paper, printed in dark blue/violet ink.  The type is bold and the poems sit very well on the page.  This is the best setting of the poems outside of the first edition - a very attractive little book.  While copies can be found occasionally on the secondhand market at reasonable prices, it does omit the Preface by Ezra Pound which is included in NCP.
5.  For a fuller discussion of this issue, see my article ‘The Textual Dilemma of Oppen’s Alpine,’ also in this issue of FlashPoint.
6.  Review cited in George Oppen: Man and Poet.  National Poetry Foundation, 1981, p. 464.
7.  Basil Bunting.  Complete Poems.  Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 114.