Critics have written about George Oppen's "return" to poetry (I have done so myself), but in light of new material about the Oppens' involvement in the Communist Party, and also their time in Mexico, the works Oppen read then and was influenced by, "return" no longer seems an adequate word. For one thing, it fails to take into account not only the disillusionment with the Communist Party that Oppen finally experienced as he describes it in his letters, nor with the semi-silence he maintained for years on the details of his involvements during his Party days. But most significantly, the word "return" inhibits a wide-ranging discussion on Oppen's reversal of belief in art's efficacy, in poetry. Did he drop his early writing of "poetry" in the early 1930s, his writing of "poetry," because it had no capacity to reduce suffering in the world? What then happened in the 1950s to offer him some sort of prospect on the issue or relief of human suffering? These questions and their assumptions pose difficulties.
I want here to look into the difficulty that lies between two statements Oppen made about this subject. The first concerns his break with poetry: "I broke off that book [Discrete Series]" and the writing of poetry, " he tells us, "for that search once more on the actual ground, and returned to poetry only when we knew that we had failed." "Actual ground" is a complicated phrase, but I take it to mean—as I will elaborate below—a place of direct contact with the experience of people who may be suffering. There is something here, reminiscent of the old adage of 'bottoming out' before one can start again, and indeed, it seems to have taken Khrushchev's 1950s speech about Stalin's show trials and the gulags and the horror under his dictatorship to give the Oppens that sense that "we [him and Mary, the Party] had failed."
Oppen's second statement concerns a judgment on that failure and his turn away from his political involvements: "the Communist proposition — all Marxist propositions . . ." required of "the poet, the writer, the artist, philosopher, scientist [the] surrender of self-determination . . . " producing "a fatal society" that "has nowhere good to go" and "nothing to see" (Hoffman, 22, 2007).
A positive way of framing these statements by Oppen might be to say that the poet, once freed from fealty to the dogmatic Marxism he had placed himself under, would find his self-determination restored, would have a "good place to go" and, indeed, something "to see," and to say via poetry. But first, we need to speculate on the contours and dimensions of Oppen's inability to write poetry during his period of Communist activity. Then we can explore Oppen's later poetry as a function of that restored "self-determination" he spoke of, one in which he completely re-thought the value and possibility of poetry. This later Oppen sees poetry as a very different kind of political "instrument," one involving a search for truth and clarity, a complex but essentially prophetic activity.
One of the markers of Oppen's "non-return" is that his farewell to poetry in the nineteen-thirties was also a farewell to literature as he perceived it. For Oppen in the thirties, the "actual ground" he mentions above is essentially a non-literary ground, an arena where non-literary issues are contested: people's pain, economic hardship, political oppression and impotence before overwhelming forces. Michael Davidson writes that the thirties "placed demands on his [Oppen's] aesthetics that could not be resolved through aesthetics" (NCP xxxi). This statement, however, raises some serious questions, namely, what kind of 'aesthetics' was Oppen thinking about? An aesthetics of literature or of human conduct? To put this question more bluntly, did Oppen stop writing poetry because he could not find a technique or mode of poetry to convey what he wanted to say, or did he feel that it was wrong or even obscene to spend time writing poetry when the world was rushing to disaster? As he expressed it
in a note reflecting back on this period: "Surely verse can be an insolence" (UCSD 16, 20, 46). Was there some conjunction of these two possibilities?
My sense is that with regard to poetics, Oppen had arrived at a dead end. It was not only the proscriptions the Party placed on literature that inhibited him, but also the near-impossibility of going forward with the kind of poetics he had invested himself with. It was not only that he wasn't allowed to write what he wanted but that he seems to have prohibited himself from writing at all. Discrete Series with its troubled vocabulary and structure of absences, qualities that clearly show the poem as a product of the forces at work in the thirties, strikes now as a kind of legible signature of Oppen's state of mind. As I have written elsewhere, the poem, written on the tail-end of the Imagist movement and yet pushing against the boundary of language as it interacts with sensory and visual information, suggests an interrogation of Imagism's limits. But this interrogation seems only part of a yet deeper undercurrent running through Discrete Series.
The first section of Discrete Series, unlike the remaining ones, is composed in a straightforward, even classical syntax, in a language about to be abandoned, a language dying — dying, not because it has been de-authenticated but because the mechanical, scientistic and machine-like world emerging in both the economic and artistic spheres will no longer speak in or listen to such a language. It is, in fact, a language on the verge of abandonment because there is no longer any community to hear it except as museum piece or anodyne (such as in the popular fiction of the period). Still, Oppen's intention everywhere in Discrete Series despite its linguistic fracturing, is to see "what [is] really going on." Only now, whatever language is to be used must be the language of "perception," i.e., "what is" can only be registered by a perceptual act become language. If the poetic language of the nineteenth century was rhetorical, made rhetorical by circumstance, and is now un-hearable, that of
the twentieth must be sensible and tangible, i.e., the strictest sort of imagism. But pure imagism, a poetry of the strictly visible, cannot establish a set of relations between its parts. It can render a datum, indeed, that is its forte. But it cannot articulate the discursive (communal, social, philosophical) order in which data are held (realism) or in which they ought to be held (prophecy).
Discrete Series is a poem written, as I have mentioned elsewhere, "under duress" of Poundian Imagist principles and yet, at the same time, it is written when Oppen felt most strongly, as he wrote in retrospect, "a tremendous difficulty of honesty, the whole weight of sincerity [seeming] to rest on one's shoulders" (SL, 82). Its 'cry' voices its own inability to conform to the hegemonies of the Marxist thinking of the nineteen-thirties. As well, the poem seems to signal the failure, for Oppen, of a purely descriptive/referential poetics. Imagist techniques alone had become insufficient to articulate the poet's personal internal struggle or torment between poetry and politics. A reading of his later poetry, and his letters after his return to poetry in the late fifties, would in my judgment confirm this inference. Thinking back over his experience of the thirties in his letters, Oppen returned again to his abandonment of poetry in this way: "Maybe I admire myself more however, for knowing what is one thing and what is the other and what are the levels of truth — that is to say, for simply not attempting to write communist verse. That is, to any statement already determined before the verse. Poetry has to be protean; the meaning must begin there. With the perception" (SL, 22). When the means at hand failed him, when he could no longer reach to the level of truth he required of the poem, he dropped poetry altogether to search for "truth" by other means — a search which ultimately failed.
My own reading of Discrete Series is that "perception" was already failing Oppen, that there are also other, discordant elements in the poem. One is an occasional air of self-satisfaction, expressed primarily in the definitive language of closure or summation of some of the sections, something of a young man's boredom and impatience, and occasionally, a kind of jaded quality to the language that, all by itself could turn its author away from poetry. Perception occasionally breaks down into social commentary, as in No 1 (NCP 10):
Deck-hand slung in boson's chair
Works on this 20th century chic and
Not evident at "The Sailor's Rest"
Or in the "O city ladies" section (NCP 29) with its over-assured observations: "your hips a possession/Your breasts pertain to lingerie," we get a feeling of perception almost at the expense of vision. Lines appear in Discrete Series that simply will not fit in with the later work, wordings that would seem to jar against the sensibility of the later author. For example, from one section: "Her ankles are watches" or "(Her arm-pits are causeways for water)." Or "(Your eyes like snail-tracks)" or a term like "Practical knees."
So much in Oppen's later letters and statements on poetry and on poets explicitly refuses "artifice" or the "trick of gracefulness" and shows a dislike of literariness, a refusal that seems to signify a desire to escape some of the impulses evident in Discrete Series. Oppen embodies something of the spirit of Celan, who, meditating on the poetic act, writes of his own poetry that it is "not literature, which is only for those at home in the world." Discrete Series seems much more the end-phase for Oppen of a certain kind of modernist poetry, begun in Pound and expressed in Eliot's notion of the "objective correlative." It is as if the method of the poetry in Discrete Series had nowhere to go for him — no way of developing, as though its procedures could only lead to a kind of repetition. The method is that of the camera: it keeps taking snapshots, and some of its pictures are tinged with both sepia and purple. That is, despite the injunction for "direct perception," too much
literary-ness pervades the work.
Let us look, then, at these later words of Oppen:
'out of poverty
of tone of pose that common
These words — a manifesto, almost — are, in the deepest sense, autobiographical. Oppen says in the same poem that he is going to "dig in his heels" and not be pulled back into "tones" and "poses," that "common wealth of parlance," into those earlier artifices of poetry and literature.
So his work of the nineteen fifties begins with those poetic traditions set aside or at least suppressed. No one can "impoverish" himself all at once, although impoverishment — the stripping down to essentials — is the continual direction his work takes. He declares his position in Of Being Numerous
Yet I am one of those who from nothing but man's way of
thought and one of his dialects and what has happened
Have made poetry (NCP, 167)
But what does this "way of thought" really consist in? There is a clue in the Daybooks: "No artist thinks directly of beauty or seeks directly for the beautiful . . . . but thinks of illumination, of disclosure" (SPDP 78). And on the same page: "what concerns the artist is that the thing exists — and he starts with a ruined language day by day and then by man, destroyed achieves language."
Ruined language: the statement itself is nearly ungrammatical, as though dragging the truth of the observation into a practice. As far as we know, Oppen did not write poetry through the two major historical disasters of his time, the Great Depression concurrent with the rise of Fascism and the Second World War. These events, with their official lying, deceit, abuse of media and propaganda, have destroyed language, have ruined it. Unprecedented in their terrible effects, they corrupted both the forms and the goals of poetry, more so than in previous disasters and wars. Oppen understood this ruin fully only after living through the consequences of the distorted writing and speaking put forth by the Party and through the wholesale onslaught and despoilment brought on by the Holocaust and the war.
For Oppen, perception, rendered as accurately as possible into speech, gives way to the understanding that words must be "treated like enemies" or "ghosts." A ruined language can no longer render the "thing-ness" or materiality or even any gisty pith-ness of the Poundian language Oppen had taken up in Discrete Series.
The transformations in the work which follows, from The Materials and This In Which into the late work, have less to do with poetry and its traditions than with Oppen's need to deal with the uncertainties of articulation. It is true that he measures himself against his peers, Zukofsky especially, and against Eliot, in the latter case because Oppen also felt the challenge of articulating something that would have an impact and value to his era.
But the "rules" he sets for himself require a language that is not encumbered, not hardened by tradition or artifice, even as some artifice is unavoidable. "No dogma," he repeats. "What concerns the artist is that the thing exists" (SPDB, 78). This remark reminds us of Oppen's claim to be a "realist" poet, which in turn suggests that what comes before a poem can be written is incident, event, and not the world of literary tradition. In fact, Oppen is constantly trying to "unprepare" his responses, trying to be open to astonishment and curiosity.
When Oppen claims that what he prefers is "the philosophy of the astonished," he reminds us how applicable the word "astonished" is to all of his activities, to all of his career. Astonishment is also a useful word because it suggests shock, a disconnect in circumstance, not the least in the idea of lineage, in the idea of tradition. Everything he has sought, a workers' place on earth, the end of suffering for others or the cessation of wars — these have all just not happened. "And he fails! He fails, that meditative man. And indeed they cannot 'bear' it," he concludes, paraphrasing Eliot.
"Something about failure—," he writes in the Daybooks (134) , "the idea of being hovers over the face of failure hovers more clearly over the face of failure than over the brilliance of success. The successful: a parade of scarecrows." On the other hand, astonishment and curiosity are coupled. Indeed, if there is any hope for Oppen in the future, it must be in these two words, for it is only via these words that one's experience can be re-thought, that one can "begin again," like one of those "small ones" waiting to be born." And that seems to have been the case.
We know Oppen re-read Discrete Series as he resumed writing. And I don't mean to suggest that by the term "non-return," I'm suggesting a case of amnesia. Oppen went on with the idea of "being" which now had a vastly enlarged meaning for him. His hovering over the early poem's failure was part of his investigation of "being." It was derived from his reading of Heidegger and Maritain, but it was no mere intellectual idea. Heidegger wrote that "the beginning must begin again." It must first of all be a clearing away so that what can be disclosed is disclosed. Oppen's re-reading of the early poem is in this sense, tutelary.
Blake talks about Regeneration rather than Generation as the source of poetic power, and clearly we can see a parallel worked out in Oppen. Possibly Discrete Series is a poem governed by "generation," and Oppen's re-reading is one of the key steps in his regeneration. Oppen, like Blake, was schooled by errancy — in Blake, error is the root of Regeneration. Oppen joined the Party and had to leave it when it failed, not him, but itself. He enlisted in the army, to help his country, to prove his patriotism, to save the Jews from the Nazis. He knew war meant killing others, something he seems to have been unable to do. His experiences left him feeling guilty, stranded, momentarily confused and bereft. After turning again to poetry he remembered Williams's words: "a poem is a machine made of words," to which he added "to rescue the poet — who else in prison lies" (POA, 210).
From uncertainty to openness to "being," this path is the one that took Oppen out of his "prison." He wondered whether what he was doing was aiding others, whether, as he put it, he was "any good out there," showing his readers the paths he had taken. In itself, this wondering and questioning constitutes the efficacy of Oppen's art, a powerful human and extra-literary act.