In this month’s installment, reviews editor Adam Tavel examines an essay collection celebrating poets George and Mary Oppen.
When Of Being Numerous won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1969, George Oppen seemed like an emblematic poet for the zeitgeist: he wrote associative verses that were taut and mysterious, he championed syntactic innovation over sophisticated diction, and he embodied an urban political awareness that spoke to the decade’s social upheavals. “In fact,” Ted Pearson writes in his essay “Successive/Happenings,” “George felt co-opted by the prize, which, in the name of Pulitzer, represented not only the literary establishment, but also a class and ideology that he long since rejected, vigorously opposed, and whose recent ‘approval’ of his work he could only find disturbing.” An activist during the Great Depression, a member of the Old Left, and a World War II veteran, Oppen was in his sixties when he won the most prestigious literary award in the United States, an occurrence which, remarkably, did little to change his daily circumstances, his sense of self, or his painstaking, recursive craft. This incorruptible humility is one of many virtues on display in The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship, deftly edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, which contains twenty essays and remembrances of George and Mary Oppen. Commendable for its balance of critical insight and personal anecdote, The Oppens Remembered chronicles a truly noble literary couple that deserves wider recognition for their grace, talent, and inspirational example during the most volatile decades of the 20th century.
The Oppens Remembered, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed.
University of New Mexico Press
$59.95, 296 pages
published December 2015
These essays illustrate George Oppen’s remarkable life in and out of poetry, fraught with adversity, change, and hope. Born into an affluent Jewish family, he balked at wealth and religion during his formative years, and his radical convictions put a life-long strain on his bonds with relatives. He married young, moved to France, and became a founding member of the Objectivist school. His first book, Discrete Series, published in 1934—with a now-infamous introduction by Ezra Pound—appeared when he was still in his mid-twenties. During the Great Depression, Oppen turned to progressive activism and later almost died in World War II, earning the Purple Heart. Still recovering from the physical and emotional trauma of battle, the Oppens fled to Mexico in 1949 to avoid McCarthyism’s paranoiac wrath, where they lived in exile for nearly a decade. Oppen’s self-imposed exile from poetry lasted a quarter-century, and during these years he dedicated himself to raising a family, working as a carpenter, and avoiding the omnipresent threat of political persecution. When the Oppens finally returned to the United States in 1958, he made up for lost time, becoming one of the most fiercely original and prolific American poets of his generation, publishing three books between the years 1962-1968. Though he remained engaged and vibrant, maintaining an eclectic circle of friends and fellow artists, Oppen never taught or courted literary fame, even after he won the Pulitzer in 1969. He kept his warmth and wit even when the first signs of Alzheimer’s manifested in the late 1970s, which led to his eventual passing in 1984.
Mary Oppen looms large in The Oppens Remembered, as her marriage to George was one marked by trust and mutual respect. Reflecting on their energy and open-mindedness, Sharon Olds asks in one of the collection’s more tender contributions, “for how many people of my generation did the Oppens serve as radiant new parents?,” with the obvious answer being too many to count. Charles Amirkhanian and Carol Law go so far as to say that the Oppens seemed “age-ambiguous” to younger artists. Similarly, in his essay “Mary Oppen, George Oppen, Friendships,” Samuel Klonimos asserts “that George’s writings were enabled in great part by Mary’s relation to George, a context too far-reaching to ken or even to approximately flourish with epithets—like a childhood, like a nationality.” The composite image of their marriage is one in which love, duty, creativity, and morality reigned supreme. Indeed, some of the book’s most compelling moments are about their young, unwavering commitment to each other: they both suffered harsh familial and academic admonishment for a fateful all-night tryst when they were still undergraduates in 1926. Later, when they were newlyweds, John Crawford records that they often helped neighbors protest Depression-era evictions by moving furniture back into vacant homes. Throughout, Mary’s robust gifts as a graphic artist and poet garner admiration, and though she only published one book in her lifetime—1978’s memoir Meaning a Life—no one doubts that she was George’s soulmate and intellectual equal.
Of course, these conversations never stray far from Oppen’s poems, which are quoted frequently and ground the anthology in his singular vision. In “This in Which I Remember George Oppen,” Kathleen Fraser crystalizes Oppen’s appeal: “He wrote and spoke with a shy eloquence that turned us away from posturing, giving us back the un-negotiable beat of the human claim we’d lost touch with, competing as it did with the unremitting dailiness of living in American cities, away from our clearest instincts.” Fraser goes on to offer a pithy litany detailing Oppen’s style, noting as its strengths “how the essential ground of silence frames each phrase; in what sense the space of the page may illuminate a finite shifting of syntax or measure; and how many ways the line speaks to us, wakes us up, and teaches us how to read the exactness of difficulty.” Additionally, Michael Davidson suggests that Oppen’s turn from Pound’s learnedness to practical knowledge, informed by exile and a subsistence lifestyle, became the central tenet in his poetics, where political realities and prophetic insights fused, rather than competed, on the page. David McAleavey weighs that Oppen, like Zukofsky, “had to sort through competing values and styles to determine their own preferred modes,” but after the initial excitement and buoyancy of the Objectivist movement faded, Oppen’s chief conviction was “that paying attention to particulars in the world was a supreme and sufficient mode of consciousness.”
Rachel Blau DuPlessis deserves praise for stewarding this readable, enriching collection, as well as for her own essay that meditates on considerations of gender and power. The Oppens Remembered isn’t without flaw, however. While it is unfortunate that Frances Jaffer died before she was able to contribute substantively to this project, it would have been wise to omit her casual, two-page email from 1996, as it simply pales in comparison to the thorough essays that surround it. Additionally, one questions why poems by Harvey Shapiro and David Antin, coupled with a brief assessment of Oppen’s acquaintance with screenwriter Julian Zimet, open the anthology. Pleasant enough, these selections make a weak beginning, as none of them strike the proper tone or mood that later make the book such a delight. For readers who are new to Oppen’s life and work, this could be a liability, as it does a poor job establishing the book’s various contexts, let alone George and Mary Oppen’s legacy. Fifty-two pages in, Michael Heller finally articulates, with eloquence and verve, what is at stake:
“What was ‘urban’ about the poetry was that it registered every nuance and shock of the sociocultural, political, and artistic milieu in which we live. Its gods or demons thronged the space of composition as though the poet’s desk were being carried through a city mob that jostled and cajoled, threatened or seduced him on all sides. Oppen not only lived through the Depression, World War II, knowledge of the Shoah, Vietnam, Altamont and Woodstock, and the actualities of political assassination, he had also been a worker, a Party member, a soldier, a writer.”
These concerns aside, The Oppens Remembered cherishes two valiant artists who forged a moral, loving life together, and in doing so, made a vast contribution to American literature that has yet to be fully appreciated. These essays by friends and fellow poets pay proper tribute to George Oppen’s poems, but ultimately reveal Mary Oppen’s vital role in their inspiration, composition, and success, in addition to her own creative pursuits. Though we occasionally see his melancholy or temper rise, page after page testifies to Oppen’s sincerity, integrity, and courage, which heighten the merits of his impressive but oft-neglected oeuvre. The Oppens Remembered will help a new generation of aspiring poets and scholars to see “the bright light of shipwreck.”