Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers
George Oppen;

intro and ed., Stephen Cope
University of California Press

  Review by Thom Donovan


Our true faith is said in the simple words, for we cannot escape them — for meaning is the instant of meaning   and this means that we write to find what we believe and what we do not believe: there are things we believe or want to believe or think we believe that will not substantiate themselves in the concrete materials of the poem [ . . . ] Prosody is a language, but it is a language that tests itself. Or it tests itself in music — I think one may say that. It tests the relations of things: it carries the sequence of disclosure. I am not speaking of a philosophical naiveté, I am not speaking of kicking the rock and saying by God, sir, that's here, and certainly I'm not speaking of any remarkable philosophical sophistication. I am thinking of actualness, not some toughness of "realism," some manly toughness. I am talking of consciousness—which is to say, I am talking of emotion. Impossible to doubt the actualness of one's own consciousness: but therefore consciousness in itself, of itself, by itself carries the principle of ACTUALNESS for it, is actual beyond doubt.(49)
~ George Oppen, from "Statement on Poetics"

Since I moved to New York City two and a half years ago, I have wanted to write publicly about George Oppen, his person and life's work. I have wanted to do so believing that to live in the city tests one's poetics in entirely singular ways. Such a test is born in the face of power and money, art and fashion, and the need, principally, to survive economically while continuing to write "the poem," support one's community, and act responsibility in a complex cultural context. The extreme materialism of New York as it pressures and challenges a poet's effort to attain "truths" given in words is encountered in Oppen's serial poems "A Language of New York" and "Of Being Numerous". Likewise, in Oppen's recently published Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, edited and introduced by Stephen Cope, one feels New York to be a vital testing ground, as well as an "arduous path" for Oppen's work.

I think always about the thing in which we are. Among the things in it is force, power. It is not enough to say that we like it or that we do not like it. It is here, we must first talk about it. We are not shoppers — or we are not first of all shoppers; it is not enough to say that we like or we do not like —

E's piece in Harper's:

Galleons, not boats; Sultans not men with a lot of stuff — an inability to begin at the beginning, a lack of substance. The New Yorker, who knows nothing and never can know anything. The shopper, the chooser, the talker. (Selected Prose, 137)

. . .They are ghosts that endanger

One's soul. There is change
In the air
That smells stale, they will come to the end
Of an era
First of all peoples
And one may honorably keep
His distance
If he can.
— George Oppen, from "Of Being Numerous," part 13

While New York is for Oppen a kind of faithless place, a place of decadent revelry, garrulousness and despair, it is also obviously a place of radical ethical encounter. This ethic is the ethic of "being numerous" — shipwrecked, as such, among the nameless multitude — and stems from the fact that there are few places in the world where one must confront so many strangers and non-strangers (community, neighbors, acquaintances, friends, even family) with such insistent, if not irksome, propinquity (nearness, intimacy, surprise). While this propinquity might belie the fact that New Yorkers don't, as Oppen reiterates throughout the Daybooks, "begin at the beginning" (do not put "first things first"? are not "a priori"?) it also opens the New Yorker to a supremely ethical situation: that to deal with others on a momentary basis, as the majority of New Yorkers do, opens one to encounter, if not to what Emmanuel Levinas recognized as "hostage" before "the face of the Other". Faces abound in New York, and they are not just Pound's "faces in the crowd" or the faces of Baudelaire's fleeting romantic interests—in other words, faces of modernist alienation. Rather, they are faces that attest to the fact that we (human beings, citizens, coevals, incommensurable intersubjectivities) are drowned if not for those voices of others who might wake us.

Likewise, New York, in its monstrous scale and overwhelming artifactuality, is a place of profound immanence and history — actuality at its most intense. Like Henry James before him (cf. The American Scene, "The Jolly Corner"), Oppen sites New York in its abjection — "The advantage of NY — one is perfectly sure it exists, because it is brutally ugly"(59)—yet New York is also the brick in the wall of "Of Being Numerous" suddenly selected by the eyes, revealed in its objecthood, and therefore aglow (I have always loved the resonance of "numinous" and "numerous," a resonance I can't imagine the Oppen of Plotinus' Neo-Platonist influence was not conscious of). Anywhere one turns in New York one encounters the past, and the pervasiveness of this historicity haunts the mood of Oppen's work — much of which was written in San Francisco. Repeated like a refrain, or, better yet, a prayer, there is Charles Reznikoff's "girder still itself among the rubble". Actuality shored from ruin by language as words embody experiences felt, sensed, perceived and thought-thru (i.e. Objectivism). Historical being "in process," becoming, inasmuch as that girder will inevitably be torn down (demolition), or support a new building (construction).

The Daybooks remind me of the fact that New York City is a test of what John Taggart recognizes, very much after Oppen, as "remaining in light". To maintain the effort of poesis in the face of so much that is distasteful, abject, cynical (i.e., faithless), reprehensible and "demonic" (Oppen's "arduous path" may after all be read as a form of bardo); to affirm one's singularity ("the will") among coevals; to survive, "soul" intact, the social, economic, and technological excesses which have produced post-war New York. The pressure of these excesses are immense, and not merely a "hang-up" of Oppen's work (though Oppen's many quips about The New Yorker magazine in the Daybooks, which can seem silly, might show Oppen to be just a bit "hung-up": "They used to advise young men to avoid gambling, drink and women. And they were probably right in their time. But the single most important thing in the world today is not to read the New Yorker."[115]).

The effort to resist "materialism" as cynical and demonic can be felt throughout Oppen's work. As Mark Linenthal remarked to me in conversation this past summer, critical of this effort, at best it proves Oppen sober-minded and "abstemious," at worst a "Puritanical snob". In his rails against the Ash Can School, Pop Art, Confessionalism, French Symbolism and Genet, the Beats, Abstract Expressionism, Creeley's "mannerism," the Zukofksys' playful homophonic translation of Catullus, the New Yorker magazine (and Esquire!), luxury, non compulsory-heterosexual (i.e., Queer) sexual identities, and (however "complexly") Feminism/women, I am repelled by Oppen. Though Oppen's criticisms no doubt come from places of "sincerity" and "conviction" (that is, they find expression through the poet's experience as it is given form through language experiment — testing, essaying, tweaking) they unsettle me as a poet very much indebted to Oppen's practice. What's more, they make me question a beatification of Oppen that has taken place over the past twenty years across a diverse field of poetry, which only recently seems to getting being addressed (see Kevin Killian's Oppen Memorial Lecture, for one brilliant instance of such addresses).

When I read Oppen's Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers for the first time, it immediately struck me that the value of the volume lay in the way that it filled-out what we already know about Oppen's practice, as each page displays the poet at work, drafting and redrafting what will later become poems and letters, overturning aphorisms and ideas about a wide range of topics, meditating on people, places and friends he has known in his life, accessing the poetry of his peers and contemporaries insightfully, if not often ruthlessly. While Rachel Blau DuPlessis' selection of Oppen's letters are ample evidence of the poet working in decisively critical and aphoristic modes through specific situations of address, the Daybooks and papers are yet another stage of a total and necessary process resolved by the works, published criticism, Daybooks, papers, and poems when read in concert. In fact, the Daybooks are the most intense evidence of Oppen's compositional process. Though much more of the Daybooks and papers remain at the collections at UC San Diego, and I don't doubt the value of visiting the Oppen archive, Cope's edition will be what the majority of people see until the full Daybooks become available in a printed facsimile or digital format (a resource that I suspect will be a long time coming, if it ever comes). Which is to say, Oppen's Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers are "for the record," and so we are now at the crossroads of a discourse.

"belief" actually means in revelation. Otherwise a word that means "that which we can know nothing about" is a word without meaning. "That of which we cannot speak, that of which we must remain silent."(84)

The failure to believe
In science or mathematics
And failure of emotion&mdash

"Rezi and I: the similarity of words. We have a degree of faith in the sub- stantives which seem to have a one to one relationship to things out there" (175)

What is striking upon additional readings of the Daybooks and papers, is the extent to which they are evidence of a process of belief — the working through of belief against types of cynicism, nihilism, pessimism, despair and skepticism. The Daybooks, in Gilles Deleuze's terminology, are a "reason to believe" in the world; in William James' words they represent a pragmatic "will to believe" where action, and the effects and consequences of action, extend from belief — its working through and provisional establishment. In quasi-religious terms, the Daybooks present a long, discontinuous serialist-collagist prayer; a prayer said to one's self over time within one's utmost solitude (the solitude of one's office, studio, laptop or wherever one writes). As critic Quinn Latimer quipped recently in Modern Painters, she was off-put by the "didactic" tone of the Daybooks. Yet if Oppen is being didactic in the Daybooks, it is only to teach himself (who else was he writing to if not to himself?). More likely, what is mistaken as didacticism indicates instead an ongoing trial—a test of what one believes and how to proceed in the world beyond "the hollow ego," the twin solipsisms of Ouroboros and "the mind's own place" of Milton's hell.

After my second reading, I asked myself: Of what value to us (scholars, poets, acolytes) are the Daybooks? What do they reveal about the poet and his practice? What does one know after reading them in their edited form? I fear that one doesn't know much that might also be gleaned from reading Oppen's poems and selected letters. One knows, for instance, that Oppen prefers "liberalism" with all of its obvious problems to fascism and authoritarianism. One witnesses the poet grappling with some of the most consequential events of his age—the Holocaust, Civil Rights movement, Militant Islam, the conspiracy surrounding JFK's assassination. One registers that Oppen is not as invested in Heidegger as some critics have made-out (in the Daybooks and papers there are far more evocations of Maritain, Plotinus, Leibniz and Aquinas than there are of Heidegger). One may be taken aback by Oppen's unsentimental (i.e. ruthless) criticism of his most formidable and valued contemporaries: Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Ginsberg, McClure, Creeley, Olson, Moore, Levertov, Schwerner, Antin, Eshleman . . . One faces the poet's strained relationship to Feminism — Oppen tends to relegate women to traditionalist positions of interiority, caring, dwelling, domesticity, gentility, etc. The strains of this relationship are complicated by Oppen's concomitant praise of the women closest to him in his life: Diane Meyers ("Andy"), Mary Oppen, and June Oppen Degnan.

These are some of the few things I know more about Oppen after reading the Daybooks, yet knowing them does not seem nearly as important as the experience of reading the Daybooks and papers, and witnessing one of the most important poets of the past century in process, testing and trembling.

The poem: One feels fear
and must react in fear,

[     ]. That is the poem (156)

Trembling after and before what words can do, what they can reveal, and what they can know beyond what can be "done in the head" as a mathematician can do a formula, or a poet enact sentiments, clichés, and moral descriptions of a world otherwise experienced and thus true.

the lines are an instrument
of thought, powerful
^powerful^ as the tools
of the mathematician mathematics
or they are a distraction

the lines being an instrument of thought, one cannot always foresee conclusions, as the mathematician cannot foresee the result of his work (118)

There is a drama in the Daybooks little recorded in the history of American letters (only Dickinson comes closest in the history of American letters I am aware of). And this is the dramaturgy of discovery   of one person, a singularity, locating themselves among a continuum of other people, historical facts, and objects and finding meaning; what has existence but can only find form and thus be witnessed, reported, in language (what, consequentially, I take to be the very meaning of Objectivism after Oppen). It is, in other words, a drama of thinking as thought can only be embodied through writing, can only find form in the written fact (if there is a refrain of the Daybooks, this is the work's refrain).

Language is poetry in that it creates reality, or ^that it^ makes it visible. We say we hear, tho we hear confusedly, but we do not say that we see if we are dazzled, dazed, confused 
              At a certain point we step into water.
With the word, we know it is the sea, we see the sea. From outside it.

Without the word, we can feel it from the inside, The taste of an
apple, the sensation of sunlight — With the word, we see, we see from

This review was originally commissioned for The Chicago Review (and rejected), and presented at the SUNY-Buffalo George Oppen Centennial celebration as an introduction to Stephen Cope's keynote address.

All This Strangeness: A Garland for George Oppen