Michael Heller's
Speaking the Estranged:
Essays on the Work of George Oppen

Review by

Michael Kindellan


Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen consists of ten expository pieces and a short memoir by critic and poet Michael Heller. All of the writing contained therein is subsequent to his seminal 1985 study Conviction's Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry. Heller's focus on Oppen is timely not only because 2008 marks the centenary of Oppen's birth, but also because Heller's book is attended by four other recent or upcoming events in Oppen scholarship: Peter Nicholls's monograph study George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (Oxford University Press 2008); Stephen Cope's long-awaited edition of Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers (University of California Press 2007) containing many of Oppen's previously unpublished statements on poetics, critical commentaries and other miscellaneous writings; a revised paperback edition of Michael Davidson's indispensable New Collected Poems (New Directions 2002, revised edition 2008) which now includes an audio CD of readings from all periods of Oppen's career; and an international conference at the University of Edinburgh (15-16 November 2008) featuring not only the aforementioned critics and editors -- including Heller himself -- but also other important scholars in the field such as Tim Woods, Michael Golston, Bob Perelman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Heller's essays are rich and wide-ranging, and I cannot justly make a précis their impressive scope here. Instead, I want to trace one particular concern that tends to recur with certain regularity, namely, Oppen's revisions of and innovations in a poetic tradition that very strictly takes its cue from the tenets of Imagism. Heller is certainly correct in identifying Imagism as perhaps the vexed poetic antecedent Oppen works exhaustively to critique if not escape, whilst also actively cherishing many of its discoveries. As Nicholls notes, and as Cope's edition proves, it was "his old friend Ezra Pound who, alone among the modernists, was a regular point of reference for Oppen in his private conversations with himself" (Nicholls 38).

In the "Introduction", Heller acknowledges Oppen's position within the modernist avant-garde, most notably the familiar nexus manifest in the arc connecting Pound's "A Retrospect" (1918) to Zukofsky's "Sincerity and Objectification with Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff" (1931), but Heller consistently argues that Oppen's belonging to this lineage is more complicated than it seems. One goal of this book is, while acknowledging certain important affinities, to distinguish Oppen's work not solely from high modernism, but going further, from every mainstream current in 20th century American poetry. So Heller positions Oppen as not only tangential to Pound, Williams and even Oppen's fellow objectivist poets, but also, and perhaps more obviously, to the "tradition-inflected linguistic hallucinations" of Eliot, to Stevens's "playful universe of decreations and polychromatic words" (2)1, to Auden's "conversational sonorities" (3), and to various experiments in non-referentiality habitual to the so-called Language-based practices of the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, Heller also wishes to imagine Oppen's work as resistant to the vocabularies of current "postmodern criticism" and its attempts to read back into Oppen's verse strategies and suggestions that are "either ludicrous or, worse, inimical" to it (3). Heller stipulates the signature gesture of such a tactic is to focus primarily on Open's early sequence, Discrete Series (1934), and then try to identify a coherence of gesture and movement between this text and those that followed the poet's long quarter century hiatus from writing. Heller singles out Michael Davidson's introductory essay in New Collected Poems as a particular example of reading Oppen against the directives of the poet's own poetry and poetics, and of potentially misapplying terms like 'totality' and 'speech act' to Discrete Series. [2] That said, Heller's inclination throughout is to establish Oppen as a poet prone to being misunderstood, which is construed as a mark of Oppen's radically innovative if idiosyncratic singularity. So it is interesting to note that while all of the essays speak about Oppen in relation to other writers -- Anglo-American modernists, fellow Objectivists, Olson, Celan, Kafka, Stevens, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, Derrida -- the purpose is to establish distinctions rather than similarities between Oppen's work and those essaying within the same intellectual and artistic fields.

The "Introduction" addresses another preponderate concern for Heller already intimated, namely, the difference between Discrete Series and the subsequently-published books -- The Materials (1962), This In Which (1965), Of Being Numerous (1968), Seascape: Needle's Eye (1972), Myth of the Blaze (in Collected Poems 1975) and Primitive (1978). This is, in many ways, an energising opposition for most of the essays: Discrete Series versus what came after is a reliable paradigm. What Heller identifies as a decisive change lies not so much in the foundations that undergird Oppen's poetry, but rather in a new conception of what poems can do; whereas in Discrete Series, Oppen's hopes still lie in political action, the poems of The Materials onward realize a deeper sense of the world, though one that quite unabashedly announces its intentions towards a poetry of truth (6). This is of course a large claim, but Heller's illustration of the shift is telling. He argues that despite seeming resemblance between early and late poems -- short lines, isolated phrases, et cetera -- you will not find surreal and even superior-sounding lines like

Hides the

Parts—the prudery
Of Frigidaire, or


Above the

Plane of lunch, of wives
Removes itself
(As soda-jerking from
the private act

Cracking eggs);


          (New Collected Poems 7)

in the later work. After his resumption of writing, Oppen deploys poetry less as an instrument of social commentary and more a means to revere language for its referential and denotative qualities in a search for truth and clarity (7). Of course Oppen remains throughout his career a poet intensely committed to sociality. But the later poems do seemed to have a new carefulness:

Truth is also the pursuit of it:
Like happiness, and it will not stand.

Even the verse begins to eat away
In the acid. Pursuit, pursuit;

A wind moves a little,
Moving in a circle, very cold.

How shall we say?
In ordinary discourse—

We must talk now. I am no longer sure of the words,
The clockwork of the world. What is inexplicable

Is the 'preponderance of objects'. The sky lights
Daily with that predominance

As we have become the present.

We must talk now. Fear
Is fear. But we abandon one another.

          (New Collected Poems 89)

Heller is alert to the uncertainties Oppen's supposed attempts at clarity and precise articulation generate, and senses these are "intensely lived out in the very moment of composition" (7). Fearful of utopian visions, something like a radical doubt motivates Oppen's later poetry, and the distinction that Heller makes, I think, particularly explains his sense of a clear break between 'early Oppen' and the rest of his oeuvre. Beginning with The Materials, Heller contends, Oppen "investigates the limits of knowing, of humanity", and in doing so tests "our abstract value-laden language" (8). As Oppen says in "A Statement on Poetics", "prosody is a language that tests itself" (Selected Prose 49)-- the unique ability of prosody to test language with language becomes for Heller, as for Oppen, the basic function and primary virtue of poetry. The obvious antecedent here being Pound, particularly his statement that technique "is the test of a man's sincerity" ("A Retrospect" Literary Essays 9).

In the essay "Utopocalyptic Moments: Objectivists in the Thirties", Heller argues that Discrete Series "is a work haunted by the idea of the ineffectuality of poetry" (4) as an agent for social change, which was precisely what the Oppens were trying to bring about in the 1930s. Heller posits that Discrete Series is Oppen's early attempt to jettison the dreariness of ideologically-motivated thought and writing, and to manage this through acts of perception -- what Oppen described to Dembo as an attempt to construct a method of thought from Imagist principles of technique, from Imagist "intensity of vision" (Oppen Contemporary Literature 161). Heller clearly wants to read Discrete Series, complete with its "troubled vocabulary and structure of absences" (19), as a dramatic questioning of the possibilities of writing without political or even poetic allegiances: Discrete Series, at the verge of abandoning language altogether seems also to necessarily interrogate the limits of Imagist reticence. Oppen, according to Heller, had taken up Williams's critique of Imagism who said it failed because it lacked structural necessity, and though it could present the data of experience, it was unable to articulate discursive orders necessary for restoring social relations. Furthermore, Heller suggests Discrete Series also seems anxious about Imagist assumptions regarding the undeniable veracity of one's own perceptions. Syntactic gaps, question marks, conditional clauses and "over a dozen questions or implications of questions by way of negative troping" all point to a fundamental scepticism. As Oppen says in a 1959 letter to his sister June, he wanted to avoid "writing communist verse" or "any statement already determined before the verse. Poetry has to be protean. The meaning must begin there" (Selected Letters 22, qtd. in Heller 23).

To be sure, this position becomes central to Oppen's poetic, political and ethical life. And it is here that we can begin to distinguish Oppen's practice from Pound's in a most original way. Oppen writes in the daybooks [3], UCSD 16.24.14:

Pound's copiousness, for he knew what he thought           The
fact ruined much         (but when the wasp takes him by surprise
- - ) !
            whereas for me the writing of the poem is the process of
finding out what I mean, discovering what I mean - - THIS IS
the labor of revision))
                                                 [Note: Thanks to Linda Oppen
                                                 for permission to reprint this passage]

Eschewing inherited symbols and images that short-circuit, in Oppen's outlook, the experience of reality are to be avoided at all costs. Such a weariness, Heller claims, Oppen shared if not learned from Williams, whose innovation was to construe poetry not as somehow distinct from political persuasions or immune to its seductions, but rather make poetic thinking a category itself larger than socio-political systems (24). This idea is borne out in William's Embodiment of Knowledge, which Heller summarizes as establishing the opinion that poetic language was a mode of realisation which had priority over systematized belief so as to "nudge aside the ideological atmosphere" any compositional act invariably finds itself subject to (24). And in what is identified as an 'utopocalyptic' moment, Heller says Stevens's poem "The Poems of Our Climate" dramatizes the problematic of the Objectivists who were "torn between the heaven or utopia of the beautiful image and the restlessness of the mind faced with every earthly apocalyptic chaos. For Stevens, the poetry of the contemplative moment is insufficient" (25). Yet despite these competing alternatives, Heller still considers Pound's Imagism a concatenation of aesthetic principles most fundamentally under reconsideration. Heller suggests that Pound's early innovations of technique are a conflation of the personal and the 'objective', which is itself a worrying reformulation of the basic terms for social reality and interactions. These claims put pressure on the shared terms especially important to the poets of the 'moment', like 'humanity' and the 'people', which are most at risk of meaningless for Oppen -- the very quality of their abstraction is a liability and risks dysfunction.

In "Oppen, Stevens, Wittgenstein: Reflections on the Lyrical and Philosophical" -- easily one the strongest essays in the collection, by the way -- Heller contends that Oppen's poetic beginnings occur under the duress of Poundian Imagist principles. The consequences of lyricism are quite obviously enormous. Heller makes the boundaries of that capacious term 'lyric' a little clearer:

The lyric I am speaking of here occurs not as some effusion of the soul or private song of interiority but rather an as attempt to go public with an utterance when the environing philosophy hardens and becomes its overbearing attendants: discourse, authority, objectivity […] I would call lyric's domain one which is created not by the will alone but by an act of receptivity or recognition (66).

This idea cuts to the core of what Heller thinks is Oppen's best countermove to Imagism. Pound's imagism projects outward, frames a momentary relatedness using the powers of authorial intention and represents the world as a set of 'natural' symbols using what Heller calls "the will alone". So for Heller, Oppen is seen to invert the paradigm of Imagist direct presentation, the presentation of a subjective "emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time" (Pound Literary Essays 4). Instead, Oppen eschews the Poundian 'will' which imposes the self on the world of things—and here we may recall Pound's ideas in 'Cavalcanti' and elsewhere that intention is a mode of perception; rather, Oppen desires to remain passively attentive, accepting and observant, and to compose his poems in a condition of "receptivity". In doing so, Heller asserts, Oppen sidesteps the problematic entanglements and negative repressions of ideology. In "'Writing Occurs': Reflections on Oppen, Zukofsky and Objectivist poetics", Heller suggests

Zukofsky's receptivity, as well as Oppen's, is quite different from that suggested by Pound. Pound's vigilance, as Kenner and Sieburth have called it, tends to incorporate in the poem only those events—historical, literary, physical—that reinforce his socio-political, cultural and aesthetic ideas. Neither Zukofsky nor Oppen predetermine their poems in this way, but instead let the materials dictate the poem's emergence, they let the writing occur (37).

The point is therefore than this condition of receptivity is essential to Objectivist notions of sincerity. In this way, sincerity may be an ethical imperative as well as whatever else -- a rhetorical movement, a philosophical ideal, a social etiquette -- but it is the essential action in the shaping of the poem. And this form of sincerity is deeply social; it recalls their -- Zukofsky's and Oppen's -- attempts to articulate the Maritainian moment, the instant where the 'I' and phenomena are "indeed co-dependent" (38). This model of sincerity is inherently dynamic.

Of course we can retrospectively identify certain tendencies in Pound's thinking that later ended up wrecking his idiom, but Heller makes a convincing case that Oppen was prescient in deciding to blaze another trail. He suggests, via W. R. Johnson's The Idea of the Lyric, that the Objectivists, and Oppen in particular, "sensed the bad faith in Imagism's idea of uncritical, non-reflective, impersonal art" (67). Though injudicious in its brevity, I would concede that if this was how Objectivists conceived of Imagism, as Heller contends, their criticism was valid. At stake here are competing understandings and deployments of 'sincerity'. Pound, according to Oppen as discussed above, usually knew what he thought (and presumably his sincerity lies somewhere in that certainty expression); Oppen, conversely, registered the limits of his knowledge, of his own knowing, of his uncertainty (and presumably his sincerity lies somewhere in the very expression of uncertainty). The implication here is that one thing Oppen rejects in Pound's Imagism is the perceived pretension to 'natural' disclosure managed by 'unmediated' juxtapositions. In the essay "A Mimetics of Humanity: Reading Oppen's 'Of Being Numerous"', Heller sees Oppen's restoration of rhetorical influence upon the image as a central if almost totally unnoticed innovation (46). This distinction resonates with Wittgenstein's assertion that "there is a tone of doubt, but no tone of knowledge" (qtd. in Heller 68).

At this point Heller posits Oppen's aim was to develop a phenomenological poetics, and turns from Wittgenstein to Ricoeur, positing with the latter that a poem cannot, as Imagism seems to claim, be reduced to mere scientific data. Instead the poem is imagined as an inter-subjective realm, not a structure but a place of structuring where "the poetic image can be likened to a phenomenological field" (72). In such a condition, referentiality and mimesis play second fiddle the gestural powers of language (72). In Heller's estimation of Oppen's revised image (this revision comes after Oppen begins writing again in the late 1950s), the image is nothing like Pound's phanopoeia but rather becomes a place of tensions and resistance. This is the world Oppen's image proposes: a lyric language equal to the real itself, to that which is indestructible, irreducible, elemental. The suggestion here is that Oppen has moved beyond the Imagist mandates of specifically scientific truth claims independent of a condition he often refers to as 'conviction'. The point Heller wishes to establish is a connection between Wittgenstein's notion of philosophical failure and the discontinuous lyric moment of a present thought trying to complete itself. Heller acknowledges a similar line of argument occurs Perloff's article "Toward the avant-garde Tractatus"; but he continues, connecting Oppen's phenomenological reductiveness to Derrida's idea of 'inauguration'.

In "The Voice of the Impersonal: Oppen and Celan", Heller turns to Frank Kermode's well-known argument in Romantic Image as a means of setting up what is eventually described as a 20th century wish for a 'phenomenology of the poem'. Heller cites Kermode in saying

What it comes to in the end is that Pound, like Hulme, like Mallarmé and many others, wanted a theory of poetry based on the non-discursive concetto. In varying degrees they obscurely wish that poetry could be written with something other than words, but since it can't, that words may be made to have some sort of physical presence 'as a piece of string' (qtd. in Heller 107).

Oppen's own peculiar brand of scepticism, and his fears and uncertainties about language, are in some ways opposed to and bound up with a rather long and complex problem for 20th century poetry and poetics. Behind jargon terms like 'physicality' and 'materiality' of language, Heller says, stands something like Objectivist notions of 'objectification', Fenollosa's conception of Chinese poetry, Black Mountain's composition by field, and aspect of Language poetry that experiment with forms of linguistic non-referentiality. In this essay, Heller's aim is to use the historical and literary developments of phenomenology's interface with 20th century poetry -- most conspicuously in Olson, as it turns out -- to frame a longer discussion on Oppen's mode of 'impersonality'. What distinguishes Oppen from Olson, Heller says, is that while the latter explores the condition of the phenomenal world's impingement on the poem, Oppen explores "the more complicated phenomena of words and language themselves" (109). The essay may best be described as a speculation on the linguistic dimensions of Oppen's inability to write poetry during the period of his commitment to political activity (6).

If Oppen's later verse makes dramatic sense it is because of its refusal to carry larger forms or contents. Heller refers to this wholesale refusal of Oppen's as his via negativa (84). What Heller ends up describing as the "poetics of the word" (85) in the essay "Speaking the Estranged: Word and Poetics in Oppen's Poetry", in some ways is posited as a result of Oppen's work over and against the Imagist paradigms of Pound. Indeed, for Oppen it seems that Imagism showed admirable commitment to investigating the objective relations of the outside world, but used enormous powers of will to bring articulated moments of perception into some sort of lyric order, thus restoring mannerism to what merely seemed like a natural demonstration of things. At the root of Oppen's reinvention is a deeper focus on the individual word as the bearer of poetic truth and value (88). One thing Heller is sure to make plain is that part of Oppen's technical strategy for a counterproposal to the logic of Imagism is "use of radical syntax" (88)—here we presume that Heller means a more radical syntax than the stark, and perhaps still startling, juxtapositions of Pound's early Imagist successes. A particular tactic Heller finds ubiquitous -- which any reader looking through the later verse will also find -- is the "emplacement" of words so that they are isolated both grammatically from adjacent words, as well as physically through spacing on the page. Heller contends this strategic isolation is designed to point out what he calls Oppen's idea about "the dual life of words" (88)-- here revised not as sign and signified but as pointer and mystery. In fact, this newly reformed relationship leads Oppen continually into a state of astonishment. 'Psalm', from This In Which, begins:

In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down—
That they are there!
          (New Collected Poems 99)

The revision is integral to Oppen's achievement of what he and Heller call 'actualness', or, conviction. One outcome of all this is that syntax so deployed "prevents any easy resolution of a passage into an Imagist 'picture' or uncomplicated statement from which perhaps -- as in early Imagistic practices -- a moral might be drawn" (89). And here we arrive at what is probably another fundamental point of contention between Oppen's poetics and Pound's: the latter seems never to have really questioned 'that they are there'. For Pound, language is problematic because it risks misrepresenting the natural world through the inattention of its speakers to precise meanings and careful discriminations between similar but not identical things. That nature itself-- something Pound always trusted -- could redress the inaccuracies of the lexicon was never in doubt, and we can discern this in Pound's deployment of Chinese as a writing system designed to militate against sloppy abstractions: for Pound, pictographics -- nay, images! -- come with a sort of manufacturer's guarantee. Oppen on the other hand seems to have lacked any secure sense of what let alone that we know. Oppen's revision of the old sign-signified paradigm into what he described as 'pointer-mystery' should indicate just how deep Oppen's scepticism goes.

The attention Heller gives to a consideration of Oppen's verse in its connections -- and disconnections -- to Imagism demonstrates the continuing possibilities for criticism to explore some of the most basic assumptions of modernist poetics operative in critical discourse, both theirs and ours. It seems to me that a history of the relation between Imagism and Objectivism to phenomenology, for example, remains to be written. Heller has here made a start. So too is it quite obvious that Oppen's peculiar position within this tradition makes his work a useful testing ground for poetic techniques and endeavors that seem now to us natural, or at least historically-determined and complete. As it turns out, what is almost a mandatory critical credo when it comes to Oppen, namely, that his practice is a radical one, to borrow the phrase from Susan Thackrey, may in some sense be an understatement inasmuch as Oppen seems to have found the potential risks involved in writing poetry that he's almost alarming defensive. In both acknowledging Pound's aesthetic principles and attempting to exceed them, Oppen writes:

Poetry must be at least as well written as prose, etc. It must also be at least as good as silence (qtd. in DuPlessis 123).

If Oppen's poetry is difficult, as most readers think it is, I think one might locate a symptom of this difficulty in the tendency of even the best critical discussions to end up representing many of the poetic theories and ideals as expressed in the poems themselves (a conspicuous lack of detailed, theoretical prose from Oppen seems only a part of the problem). I do not want necessarily to suggest that Oppen's poems are coercive, because in many ways they are paragons of openness and suspended judgement. But they are radical in a very literal sense, so that critical discourse attempting to speak about them must also speak like them, often with a similar wonderment and confusion. Who knows, this might be the starting point of a poetry distinctly able to investigate the social and linguistic ideologies underwriting both our common experiences—compare this to Pound's fascistic hysteria of the later Cantos, I mean, no one is going to speak like that. Still, for Oppen, ambiguity is very much the name of the game (it seems not so much antithetical to his desired clarity but actually a condition of it). A case in point: not many of Oppen's critical terms are well defined, even now, even after this valuable book by Michael Heller. Clarity, transparency, sincerity, honesty, a test: each exists as an integral point in a constellation of terms we all will recognize as 'Oppen'. But I wonder if somehow our being drawn to Oppen's vocabulary is a function of his potentially overwhelming receptivity.


DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. "Objectivist Poetics and Political Vision: A Study of Oppen and Pound". Ed. Burton Hatlen. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1981. 123-48.
Heller, Michael. Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen. Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2008.
___. Conviction's Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.
Nicholls, Peter. George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Oppen, George. New Collected Poems. Ed. Michael Davidson. New York: New Directions, 2002. Rev. Ed. 2008.
___. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990.
___. Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers. Ed. Stephen Cope. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
___. The George Oppen Papers. San Diego: University of California, Geisel Library, Mandeville Special Collections. UCSD 16.24.14. MSS 0016.
Oppen, George and L. S. Dembo. "Interview". Contemporary Literature Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring 1969): 159-77.
Pound, Ezra. "A Retrospect". Literary Essays. Ed. T. S. Eliot. London: Faber and Faber, 1954. 3-14.
Thackrey, Susan. George Oppen: A Radical Practice. Oakland, CA: O Books, 2001.

1 Unless otherwise indicated, all parenthetical page references refer to Michael Heller's Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Word of George Oppen. Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2008.
2 It seems to me that Heller's passing critique of Davidson is more a dispute with the latter's emphasis on Oppen's first published book than on his critical methods per se, which is somewhat unfair, since Discrete Series gets at least as much attention from Heller as any other single volume of Oppen's poetry. Overall, Heller recognizes Davidson's essential role in Oppen studies and is in general immensely appreciative of his contributions. It must also be said that the trajectory of Oppen's career is so bizarre that most readings of his work are naturally compelled to continually look back at Oppen's first book; Heller's reading of "Of Being Numerous" for example, in an essay called "The Mimetics of Humanity", offers a detailed and fascinating discussion of the operations of image therein, but uses as a starting point for that argument a description of the image Oppen gives in relation to his technical and aesthetic aims as pronounced in Discrete Series. See Contemporary Literature Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring 1969): 161.
3 Here I approximate the original spacing.


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