In May 1981, I asked my friends Carl Rakosi and George Oppen to compose messages for a symposium which I had proposed to the founder and organiser of the Cambridge Poetry Festival, my old friend and comrade Richard Burns. The symposium, clumsily entitled after Hölderlin 'While Rome Burns: What Use is Poetry in a Time of Jeopardy?', was on the venerable theme of poetry and politics, but in the immediate context of nuclear weapons, a huge issue in Europe at the time, and centering on the controversial deployment of American cruise missiles. My quondam position could, with a little exaggeration, have been summed up as follows: "poetry is what matters most in the world but there has to be a world which poetry matters most in".
Carl's message, as I recall, denounced the concept and was too long to read out; I later arranged for it to appear in Stand magazine. To my dismay, a message from George had not arrived by the time I left London for Cambridge on Monday morning June 3. I asked my next door neighbour to check my mail every day until Saturday June 8, the last postal delivery before the conference on Sunday. On Friday my daily phone call was at last rewarded with the arrival of the message. Bless Oppen. Four speakers were on the panel: Adrian Mitchell, George Steiner, the astronomer poet Michael Rowan Robinson and myself, and the meeting was chaired by the philosopher Bernard Williams. I was told later that there were 500 people in the Corn Exchange, a venue more accustomed to folk concerts, real ale fests and election rallies.
I asked Jonathan Griffin, senior poet and mutual friend of Oppen and myself, to read out the message, slowly, and twice. The message — three prose sentences — is reprinted in Rachel Blau DuPlessis' book of Oppen letters — the last letter but two that he wrote. Interestingly, and typically, George had recycled the first two of these three prose sentences from a poem he sent another mutual friend of ours, the French poet Claude Royet-Journoud, his first French translator. This poem, which was published in Paideuma in 1981, is also printed in Rachel's note to the letter to Claude, which is the very last letter included in that book. There, the words are set out as three verse lines. The last sentence of Oppen's Cambridge conference festival message was entirely new. The message lends itself to many interpretations, especially if you think about the state of the world and the state of George at that time, in the early stages of the Alzheimer's which would lead to his death three years later.
Tonight, before I read out the message, I shall recite 'Time of the Missile', an extraordinary political poem George wrote in the wake of or during the Cuban Missile crisis of 1961 and which Peter Nicholls explores at length in his fine new book, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism. Once again, I was in Cambridge: that major crisis, when the world could have ended, hit me during my very first weeks as a student, twenty years almost to the month before the conference in the Corn Exchange. The Corn Exchange is only a quarter of a mile from the Cavendish laboratory, home to Rutherford and many other pioneers of atomic physics, including, for a short time, the young J. Robert Oppenheimer.
I have always wanted George Oppen(heimer) and Robert Oppenheimer to be related.
The two men were both great humanists, both had profound and troubled minds, and much else in common too. Although the documentation is not entirely clear, Eric Hoffman's meticulous research suggests that they were second cousins, via Oppen's mother — not, as one would have expected, via the paternal side. In a letter to Philip Levine of 1969 or 1970 (i.e. after Robert's death), George writes that he is the "only surviving male . . . 'fully surviving', right thru second cousins and such remotenesses", which suggests that, if related, he must have known they were related. But I have not yet come across any reference to Robert Oppenheimer in George's writings.
Now I shall read 'Time of the Missile'
TIME OF THE MISSILE
I remember a square of New York's Hudson River glinting
Difficult to approach the water below the pier
Swirling, covered with oil the ship at the pier
A steel wall: tons in the water,
The hand for holding,
Legs for walking,
The eye sees! It floods in on us from here to Jersey tangled
in the grey bright air!
Become the realm of nations.
My love, my love,
We are endangered
Totally at last. Look
Anywhere to the sight's limit: space
Which is viviparous:
Place of the mind
And eye. Which can destroy us,
Re-arrange itself, assert
Its own stone chain reaction.
And finally, the message from 1981, which I shall read twice:
I think there is no light in the world but the world. And I think there is light. My happiness is the knowledge of all we do not know.