Notes on Fragmentation
and the Incomplete Futurity
of George Oppen's Modernism

by Stephen Cope


"In wrath we await," George Oppen writes in "West,"

The rare poetic
Of veracity that huge art whose geometric
Light seems not its own in that most dense world West
    and East
Have denied have hated have wandered in        precariousness

The italicized passage is an inaccurate quotation (as are so many of Oppen's quotations) of an etymological gloss from an early edition of Webster's that traces the origins of the word "precarious" to prayer. It continues: "Like a new fire// Will burn out the roots." [1] Prayer, that is, burns out the roots? In looking up the root of a word, Oppen finds a means by which to set the root aflame. To discover is to destroy; to reveal is to wipe the slate clean. Thus, the waiting: a cautious, precarious approach to (and simultaneous withdrawal from) the poetics of veracity.

Veracity: not truth, but honest witness, testimony, sincerity. The poem is concerned, to be sure, with truth and knowledge, those two "most dense" terms with which, along with "politics," Oppen's thinking was relentlessly pre-occupied, and by which it was incessantly perplexed. ("This is true," he asks in lines 3-4, "So one knows?") Yet, indeed, it is a pre-occupation, for truth never arrives except in that problematic, unsettling question. As so many of the poems in "Seascape: Needle's Eye," "West" oscillates between the terms of Zukofsky's anti-epistemology ("the elephant says yes"), Pound's hatred and "unteachability,"[2] Oppen's itinerant Semitism, the "geometric light" of Blake's Tyger — but the "poetic of veracity" is nothing more nor less than the world itself, the "ferns unfurling    leaves // In the wind," whereby language (metaphorically) is itself renewed as object. As Oppen later (and again) looks West, he sees not the "obstinate isles" of Pound's disavowed youthful persona but "the seaboard

New skilled fisherman / In the great bays and the narrow bights," not Blake's Tyger but (again) the remnants of shipwreck.[3] His back turned to Maximus, who looks eastward over the Gloucester shore, Oppen offers unshored fragments. Poetry as précis, prayer, precarious approach…

So the poem lays waste to excess baggage by means of non-theological prayer. Etymology, certainty, mythology, truth: all become facile in the face of the actual, the face with which we pray (and to whom, for whom, we write). It's the only one we have. The man on the pier in "Night Scene" cries out, as do Oppen's "small nouns" in "Psalm," for an origin that never returns. The sea, of course, is regular (a powerful metaphor in Oppen's writing, from Discrete Series on), but the horizon is absolute, irregardless of one's perspective. And from the outset it is artifice, as well as craft, in every sense of the term (stagecraft, shipwreck, the building of poems, houses, woodcuts…). "In the play, the actors cry out / But in the poem the words / themselves cry out:"[4]

The drunken man
On an old pier
In the Hudson River

Tightening his throat, thrust his chin
Forward and the light
Caught his face
His eyes still blind with drink

Said, to my wife
And to me —
He must have been saying

Again —

Good bye Momma
Good bye Poppa

On an old pier [5]

As in Hopper, whom Oppen greatly admired, everything is there but the narrative to frame it (a narrative, in fact, that always exceeds the frame itself). For Oppen, the snapshot is almost enough, but history's proscenium is such that the private stage of lyrical witness becomes the public theater of an incomplete politics. The history of subjugated, deracinated immigrants — that "bright (geometric?) light of shipwreck" — is the abstraction by which the poem justifies Oppen's position precariously. "To my wife / And to me / He must have been saying — not he said, but he "must have said:" I can't imagine a more lyrical disavowal, nor can I remember a poem, outside of Rilke, that speaks to what I myself have felt looking out from the end of a pier, having simply seen a wounded seagull, a synecdochic ship's sail, a pelican with fishing line hanging from its beak, the sea as "a constant weight" [wait /] / In its bed [ . . . ] / Freely tumultuous."[6]

Unlike the earliest American Modernists — Whitman, Dickinson, Emerson, Melville, Poe — in whom F. O. Matthieson famously detected an "optative mood,"[7] Oppen's mood is largely hesitant, subjunctive. In his prose and Daybooks, this becomes a formal concern. The fragmentation and incompleteness that characterize these documents is not the result of a critical shorthand or a scattershot practice of note-taking; it is the result of a refusal to set in the stone of prose — to "shut up in prose," as Dickinson had it — the poetic desire to rest in the middle-voice of patience and prayer. It is a negative capability (a negative culpability) that will not and cannot foreclose upon the unknown and uncertain future. Yet, on the subject of incompleteness, Horkheimer put it well in a 1937 letter to Benjamin:

The determination of incompleteness is idealistic if completeness is not comprised within it. Past injustice has occurred and is completed. The slain are really slain [ ... ] Perhaps, with regard to incompleteness, there is a difference between the positive and the negative, so that only the injustice, the horror, the sufferings of the past are irreparable. The justice practiced, the joys, the works, have a different relation to time, for their positive character is largely negated by the transience of things.[8]

Oppen wrote, he somewhere said, to remember his life. He offers little of this life, however, in the poems or the prose or the Daybooks. His testimony is rather to the "injustice, the horror, the sufferings of the past," even as small justices (often ambiguously, if not ambivalently) grace his poems from time to time. The beauty, on the other hand, remains postponed. His writing is a project, not a product, a process not a production. Its open-endedness approaches futurity by unsettling the present. Almost everything, for Oppen, is "as if it was" or "might have been" or "must have been." Unlike the Modernisms of Pound, Joyce, Eliot — who sought a crease in history that would fold time back into space (mythology, the archetype, the permanent, the ideal) — Oppen's modernity is decisively incomplete. He inhabits uncertainty with a negative culpability that is as post-Romantic as it is pre-post-Modernist. And he does so by writing with the faith (and the prayer) that there is something not so much to write for or of but to write towards.

All This Strangeness: A Garland for George Oppen


1. Unless otherwise noted, this and all subsequent citations are from "West" (Oppen, George. New Collected Poems. Ed. Michael Davidson. New York: New Directions (2002), 215-216). See also: Nicholls, Peter. George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism. London: Oxford UP (2008), 84 n.9: writing to Andy Meyer, Oppen: "Precariousness// prex précis/ Webster says: — "prayer// like a new fire will burn out the roots."
2. NCP 219.
3. NCP 216. See also Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Part One)," section I, stanza 4: "His true Penelope was Flaubert/He fished by obstinate isles;/ Observed the elegance of Circe's hair/Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials."
4. Oppen, George. Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. Ed. Stephen Cope. Berkeley: U. of California P. (2007), 132.
5. NCP 137.
6. NCP 15.
7. See Matthieson, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London: Oxford UP (1968).
8. Reprinted in Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Ed. Roy Tiedeman. Tr. Howard Eiland and Kevin McGlaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard UP (1999.), 471.