It is a banner moment for Oppen scholarship. On the heels of Michael Davidson's beautifully edited and revelatory edition of Oppen's New Collected Poems (New Directions, 2002), the past two years have seen the publication of Lyn Graham Barzilai's George Oppen: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2006), Michael Heller's Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen (Salt, 2008), and Stephen Cope's edition of Oppen's Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers (University of California Press, 2007). Peter Nicholls's George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism is perhaps the most significant of these publications, at least in terms of Oppen's standing within the American and British academies: it is the first full-length, single-author study devoted entirely to Oppen to be published by a major academic press, and in this it is comparable to such landmark works as Stephen Fredman's Reznikoff study, A Menorah for Athena, Peter Makin's Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse, or even Hugh Kenner's The Poetry of Ezra Pound. Oppen's standing within the community of poets and of poetry readers, one hastens to add, has never been in doubt: among his Objectivist contemporaries, Oppen seems to have been the most successful in attracting devoted readers from all quarters of the severely balkanized poetic community.
I had heard rumors for a couple of years that Nicholls — whose Ezra Pound: Economics and Writing (1984) and Modernisms: A Literary Guide (1995) are eminently useful, sometimes ground-breaking works — was writing a biography of Oppen, and I was enthusiastically awaiting the book for reasons both personal and professional. It turns out that George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism, though it includes much newly revealed biographical information and is organized along chronological lines, is not a biography, but a career-wide study of Oppen's poetry and poetics. It is also a thesis-driven work: Nicholls's thesis is that Oppen's own brand of Objectivist poetics, while it may early on bear some superficial resemblance to Pound's modernism, reveals itself as a highly personal poethics (I borrow Joan Retallack's term) that rejects both the traditionalism of a Poundian/Eliotian "high" modernism and the ultimately apolitical avant-gardism of such groups as the Language Poets: "Somewhere between these" alternatives, Nicholls writes, Oppen believed that "the poet might discover something truly original — a poetics of being, I have called it — that was not reducible to either a myth of the past or to stylistic experimentation masquerading as politics."
As Eliot Weinberger remarks in the Preface to the New Collected Poems, Oppen "may never be the subject of a biography, for his life beyond its outline remains a mystery, and for decades left no paper trail." This may turn out true (though writers with lives far more scantily documented than Oppen's have proved the subject of triumphant biographies), but Nicholls, as he traces Oppen's poetic career, goes some way towards dispelling the notion that Oppen is a man without a record. His pages on the Oppens' years of exile in Mexico cast new light on the stretch of Oppen's adulthood between his active years of Leftist organizing and his return to poetry; the community of American political exiles in Mexico City, it turns out, was substantial and rather illustrious, including Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., the composer Conlon Nancarrow, and even a cousin of Louis Zukofsky's.
Though he provides a thumbnail running commentary on Oppen's life and career, the years in Mexico and the Oppens' 1975 trip to Israel are the only biographical moments upon which Nicholls lingers. Significantly, these are the moments in Oppen's life that have perhaps attracted the most speculation, and Nicholls sheds grateful light upon them. But the biography Nicholls is most interested in is not the record of the external events of Oppen's life, but the narrative of his intellectual and poetic development, and it's here that George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism proves itself most valuable. Simply put, as an account of the development of Oppen's poetics and of the influences on his thought, and as a series of illustrative readings of some of his most important poems, Nicholls's book is an exemplary piece of scholarship.
One always has cavils. I can't help feeling that Nicholls tends to oversimplify the difficulties of Oppen's poetry, to minimize the ambiguities of syntax and reference that puzzle the ordinary reader. He's liable to haul in extratextual evidence — the Daybooks, letters, interviews – to gloss knotty passages in the poetry, without reflecting on how the verse might be construed without such aids. He pays rather too little attention to the formal aspects of the poetry: the lineation and spacing, the attenuated syntax, the expressive line-breaks. At the one point where Nicholls engages in a full-dress formal argument regarding the function of caesurae in Oppen's late poetry, I find myself quite unconvinced: scansion is no doubt an art rather than a science, but I can't find the systematic use of caesura that Nicholls brings Maurice Blanchot in to illuminate.
And while he makes deft use of Oppen's correspondence, both published and unpublished, Nicholls perhaps pays too little attention to Oppen's interactions with his correspondents and his contemporaries, instead tracing his poetic and intellectual development largely through his reading. It gives us — perhaps inadvertently — an image of Oppen as an overwhelmingly bookish poet, more immersed in Hegel and Heidegger than in his conversations with Robert Duncan and the young Rachel Blau.
But it's Nicholls's scrupulous tracing of Oppen's reading that really makes George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism a scholarly triumph (and, one might add, a rather obsessively readable book, at least for a library-cormorant like myself). Nicholls it seems has read every book that Oppen ever mentioned; he's been through Oppen's own library, searching for markings and annotations; and — perhaps most importantly — he's examined Oppen's reading on the basis of the volumes and editions Oppen himself used, which tend to be a scrappy and unscholarly lot. Nicholls is able to show, for instance, that Oppen's mature fascination with Hegel can be narrowed down to a single sentence from the Preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit, found not in the "standard" Baillie translation but in Walter Kaufmann's Hegel: Reinterpretation, Texts, and Commentary (1965), which includes a translation of the Preface: Oppen probably never read any further into the Phenomenology. For his purposes as poet, that single sentence was enough.
Nor, for all of Oppen's investment in Heidegger, does Nicholls find any evidence that Oppen read Being and Time with any sustained attention. But the poet did read many of Heidegger's essays and shorter works, and Nicholls provides a dazzlingly specific account of precisely which Heidegger books Oppen owned, read, and referred to, and they made their way into his poems. Indeed, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism is sprinkled with sharp aperçus regarding the relationship of Oppen's reading to his writings, the sorts of illuminations that bespeak long, shortcut-free hours in the archives.
Poets have taken Oppen's work very seriously indeed for some four decades now. In its combination of verbal precision, moral rigor, social commitment, and philosophical density, it has few rivals in twentieth-century American poetry. Peter Nicholls's George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism, one hopes, is a sign that the American and British academies have begun to take Oppen seriously as well.