Section 6 - George and Mary Oppen
George August Oppen was born in New Rochelle, New York, on 24 April 1908. When he was four, his mother died, and when he was nine or ten his father (also named George) married Seville. The next year the family, with George, an older sister, Libby, and a younger sister, June, moved to San Francisco. Their father owned theaters, belonged to the Bohemian Club, and moved in the best society. The Oppens were accustomed to fine clothes, expensive restaurants, many servants (including, as cook, the young Josephine Araldo), frequent and formal dinner parties, bridge, talk of the stock market, and business. Oppen’s first break from home was entering the Agricultural College at Corvallis, Oregon, in the fall of 1926.
Mary Colby was born on 28 November 1908 in Kalispell, Montana, where her father was the postmaster. She had three older brothers, Wendell, Paul, and Noel. Kalispell was at the time in the remote country. In 1918, the Colbys moved to Seattle, where her father invested in an import firm. When Mary was twelve, they moved to Grants Pass, Oregon, a town of miners, lumberjacks, and farmers, where the Colbys ran a general store. When Mary was fifteen, her father died of cancer; she wanted to escape Grants Pass but was held back by her age and the family’s dwindling finances. After a brief time at the University of Oregon at Eugene, she went, in the fall of 1926, to the Agricultural College at Corvallis.
Mary’s childhood background, different from George’s in class, locale, and familial and financial security, gave her a perspective on possibilities for finding their American roots that proved vital to George’s sense of poetry. George and Mary met in Jack Lyon’s poetry class during their first quarter. They were introduced to the work of Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, E. E. Cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Vachel Lindsay, Ezra Pound, and to Conrad Aiken’s Modern American Poetry, which included Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, H. D., and T. S. Eliot. Two months later, Mary was evicted and George Suspended for an overnight rendezvous, and neither returned.
For a time, Mary returned to Grants Pass to work in her family’s store, and George to San Francisco to work in one of his father’s theaters; but in July Mary joined George in San Francisco. George attended a prep school in Oakland, and Mary Heald’s business school. In the fall of 1927, to escape George’s parents, they hitchhiked to Dallas, where they were married. Mary wrote in her autobiography:
We were in search of an esthetic within which to live, and we were looking for it in our own American roots, in our own country. We had learned at college that poetry was being written in our own times, and that in order for us to write it was not necessary for us to ground ourselves in the academic; the ground we needed was the roads we were travelling. As we were new, so we had new roots, and we knew little of our own country. Hitchhiking became more than a flight from a powerful family—our discoveries themselves became an esthetic and a disclosure. The people we met, as various and as accidentally met as thumbing a ride could make them, became the clue to our finding roots; we gained confidence that this country was ours in a sense which we hadn’t known under our parents’ roofs. The sense was not only a patriotic but also a personal one, for as people generally accepted us, we felt comfortable and at home in our country. I have never felt so at home in any other 1and.1
When the Oppen family met Mary, they decided against forcing an annulment and instead schemed to woo Mary with luxury and wealth to trap George into his father’s business and their way of life, which neither George nor Mary were willing to accept.
In 1928, therefore, they hitchhiked across the country to Detroit, bought a small boat, and sailed on the Erie Canal to New York City. Mary wrote:
We had not felt in San Francisco that we knew the people who were writing and thinking and searching for what was new, and we went to New York searching for those people, for a circle of peers. We had the conviction that the works of artists and writers had to be new, or there was no point to the effort. We were undoubtedly lucky, for we found almost at once, and seemingly without impediment, friends who had these concerns too, and who understood us and accepted us as friends.2
One day, on their way to a party, they discovered the Gotham Book Mart, where they saw more books of poetry than they had ever found in one place before. George stood there and read through the Exile 3. The first poem in the magazine was Lous Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ’The.’” At the party they met friends of Zukofsky, Mary and Russel Wright, through whom they met Zukofsky himself. Soon they met other young people interested in the arts, including Zukofsky’s friend Tibor Serly. Zukofsky also introduced them to Charles Reznikoff’s work, and then to Reznikoff himself, whom they visited frequently.
With the discovery of George Oppen, Zukofsky had found a group of literary friends who would work with him to satisfy Pound’s invectives for literary activism and achievement.
II. Discrete Series
On 6 March 1930, Louis Zukofsky wrote to Ezra Pound, announcing that he might have for Pound thirty-two pages of poems by George Oppen, whose occasional imprecisions and stylistic peculiarities were excused by his unique purpose and ability.3 These pages were a manuscript of Oppen’s first book, Discrete Series, which was published by the Objectivist Press in 1934, with a preface which had been volunteered by Pound.
The last poem in Oppen’s most recent book, Primitive, describes writing Discrete Series:
- . . . and writing
- thru the night (a young man,
- Brooklyn, 1929) I named the book
- series empirical
- series all force
- in events the myriad
- lights have entered
- us it is a music more powerful
- than music4
As Oppen here describes the process, the poems of Discrete Series were the results of the myriad lights in events entering his consciousness. The effect is musical because the process recognizes and taps the music inherent in the heart of things and of language itself.
Pound, describing his poem “In a Station of the Metro,” wrote: “In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”5 A poem of this sort is an act of what I will here call “inspiration,” an inward movement of an objective thing such as myriad lights or faces in a crowd. “Objectivist” and Imagiste poems both rely on inspiration. In contrast, Symboliste poems are acts of what I call “projection,” the outward movement of a subjective thing. Symbolism remakes the world in the image of the poet’s prior psychic state, but Imagisme and “Objectivism” are based upon the recognition that our psychic states are remade by the world with each fresh perception.
Pound’s Imagisme and Oppen’s “Objectivism” differ regarding the usual nature of the “thing,” the Image. Pound allowed the Image to be either “subjective or objective.”6 In “Affirmations . . . IV. As for Imagisme” in 1915, Pound wrote that a “subjective” Image emerges from the mind unlike its possible original “external causes, but that an “objective” Image emerges from the mind “like the external original,” purged of only its inessential qualities.7 In the composition of Discrete Series, Oppen believed exclusively in the virtues of original external causes; that is, his Image was usually objective, and his world, full of form.
A further distinction between Imagisme and Symbolisme also tells something about “Objectivism.” Even the Imagiste’s subjective Image is not an act of projection. It is not misrepresented as the world. Subjective experience is not justified by claiming priority over objective things. Instead, the Imagistes emphasized the dynamic and emotive properties of the poem’s structure.
The first principle behind the composition of a poem such as “In a Station of the Metro” is the belief that each element of one’s art can have a precise intellectual and emotional effect on the reader. The complex of such effects, as Pound defined the term, is the Image.8 An Image in this technical sense is not, as many poets and readers, beginning with Amy Lowell, have mistakenly thought, a visual impression of something objective. It exists in the poem as the poet’s representation of an ur-Image: his impression of the object if the Image is objective, or his impression itself if the Image is subjective.
The second principle of the composition of such a poem is that, to have the effect of the thing the poet wishes to express, the elements used in the poem must be derived from or exactly correspond to the ur-Image of that thing. Pound’s concept of an “absolute” (discussed in Section 8.IV) embodies both these principles.
These principles survived the twenties in the work and mentorship of Pound and Williams, descending directly, and also indirectly through Zukofsky, to Oppen. In his interview with L. S. Dembo, when asked about the attitude which he claimed characterized the writers in An “Objectivists” Anthology, Oppen stressed the debt the “Objectivists” owed to the imagists:
Let me see what we thought and whether I can generalize about it. I’ll just put it in personal terms. What I felt I was doing was beginning from imagism as a position of honesty. The first question at that time in poetry was simply the question of honesty, of sincerity. . . . The . . . point for me, and I think for Louis, too, was the attempt to construct a meaning, to construct a method of thought from the imagist technique of poetry—from the imagist intensity of vision. If no one were going to challenge me, I would say, “a test of truth.” If I had to back it up I’d say anyway, “a test of sincerity”—that there is a moment, an actual time, when you believe something to be true, and you construct a meaning from these moments of conviction.9
Oppen’s point was based on the “Doctrine of the Image”10 as a serious epistemological discipline, avoiding the Amygist idea of the image as the passively transmitted visual impression. One can see the germ of Oppen’s “moments of conviction” in P0und’s original definition of the “Image”:
An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. I use the term “complex” rather in the technical sense employed by the newer psychologists, such as Hart, though we might not agree absolutely in our application.
It is the presentation of such a “complex” instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.11
A moment of conviction is the experience of the objective Image, an experience strictly faithful to empirical fact. The presentation of the Image, its realization in form, gives a sense of revelation—“thereby,” wrote Williams, “causing a direct liberation of the intelligence.” This formal realization is the discipline of Discrete Series. In his interview, Oppen continued:
My book, of course, was called Discrete Series. That’s a phrase in mathematics. A pure mathematical series would be one in which each term is derived from the preceding term by a rule. A discrete series is a series of terms each of which is empirically derived, each of which is empirically true. And this is the reason for the fragmentary character of those poems. I was attempting to construct a meaning by empirical statements, by imagist statements.12
“Imagist,” for Oppen, meant “empirical.” An “imagist statement” is absolute, a statement which precisely corresponds with the empirical observation. This discipline avoids through its reliance on the substantive the falseness to which abstract levels of language becomes subject. Oppen said that “if we are talking about the nature of reality, then we are not really talking about our comment about it; we are talking about the apprehension of some thing, whether it is or not, whether one can make a thing of it or not.”13 Oppen’s test of reality is whether he can make of it a “thing,” whether he can make of it a poem which achieves form.
The objects for Oppen’s empirical series derived from his experience of New York City in 1929. Mary Oppen, in her autobiograhy, wrote:
We didn’t yet know the subway system, and we got off at stations at random just to see what was above ground. Once we stuck our heads out into a cemetery, another time we were on clay fields with standing pools of water, and once we were among gigantic identical apartment buildings in the Bronx, block after block.14
When I suggested to the Oppens that this was a prototype for Discrete Series, George said, “That’s Rezzy,” and Mary added, “That’s Charles Reznikoff. He comes up and he sees the streetlight or he comes up and sees the moon.”15 Oppen learned the value of empirical observation partly from Reznikoff. The work of both realizes moments of revelation of (in Oppen’s words) “the things which one cannot not see.”16
In his interview with L. S. Dembo, however, Oppen also stressed a point with the Amygists had never understood:
But I learned from Louis, as against the romanticism or even the quaintness of the imagist position, the necessity for forming the poem properly, for achieving form. That’s what “objectivist” really means. There’s been a tremendous misunderstanding about that. People assume it means the psychologically objective in attitude. It actually means the objectification of the poem, the making an object of the poem.17
Although Oppen might not have realized it, this point is also based on Pound’s Imagisme—on the three Imagiste propositions, which proscribe “direct treatment,” concise presentation, and composition by cadence.18 Pound wrote, “By ‘direct treatment,’ one simply means that having got the Image one refrains from hanging it with festoons.”19 Only by an idea of the formally objective does one know what to avoid. The Imagiste manifesto required that all the elements of poetry, not only diction and rhythm, correspond absolutely to the thing the author wishes to express, which was for Oppen an objective thing. If these correspondences are established, one has, in Zukofsky’s term, “sincerity.” Moreover, if correspondences are established to all essential qualities of the object, one achieves “objectification” to create the “poem as object.”
Williams spoke of the poem as object in his autobiography. There “Objectivism” was “an antidote, in a sense, to the bare image haphazardly presented in loose verse.”20 He also spoke of the poem in terms of a machine. His best-known application of this metaphor is to his own work, in the introduction to The Wedge in 1944,21 but he had previously applied it to the work of George Oppen, in his review of Discrete Series in 1934.22 Here Williams suggested that Oppen’s book is “of importance to the highest degree” because “necessary corrections of or emendations to human conduct” orginate “in the poems, causing thereby a direct liberation of the intelligence.” He continued:
But this importance cannot be in what the poem says, since in that case the fact that it is a poem would be a redundancy. The importance lies in what the poem is. Its existence as a poem is of first importance, a technical matter, as with all facts, compelling the recognition of a mechanical structure. A poem which does not arouse respect for the technical requirements of its own mechanics may have anything you please painted all over it or on it in the way of meaning but it will for all that be as empty as a man made of wax or straw.
It is the acceptable fact of a poem as a mechanism that is the proof of its meaning and this is as technical a matter as in the case of any other machine. Without the poem being a workable mechanism in its own right, a mechanism which arises from, while at the same time it constitutes the meaning of, the poem as a whole, it will remain ineffective. And what it says regarding the use or worth of that particular piece of “propaganda” which it is detailing will never be convincing.23
In his interview with Dembo, Oppen expressed, less metaphorically, his own sense of the meaning of form:
Yes. Well, I do believe in a form in which there is a sense of the whole line, not just its ending. Then there’s the sense of the relation between lines, the relation in their length; there is a sense of the relation of the speed, of the alterations and momentum of the poem, the feeling when it’s done that this has been rounded. I think that probably a lot of the worst of modern poetry, and it would be true of some quite good poetry, such as Creeley’s, uses the line-ending simply as the ending of the line, a kind of syncopation or punctuation. It’s a kind of formlessness that lacks any sense of line measure.
The meaning of a poem is in the cadences and the shape of the lines and the pulse of the thought which is given by those lines. The meaning of many lines will be changed—one’s understanding of the lines will be altered—if one changes the line-ending. It’s not just the line-ending as punctuation but as separating the connections of the progression of thought in such a way that understanding of the line would be changed if one altered the line division.24
According to metrical prosody, one simply looks at the poem to see if it has form: one counts syllables and charts accents and rhymes. But one cannot simply look at an “Objectivist” poem to see if it has form. “Objectivist” form is the realization of a gestalt; the “thing” by which all the elements of the poem—semantic, syntactic, phonemic, and phonetic—cohere.
Each poem of Discrete Series makes an objective Image of a direct observation by the young George Oppen of New York—except for the first poem, which, instead, prepares us for these observations by addressing the problems of seeing what is really in the world:
- The knowledge, not of sorrow, you were
- saying, but of boredom
- Is—aside from reading speaking
- Of what, Maude Blessingbourne it was,
- wished to know when, having risen,
- “approached the window as if to see
- what was really going on”;
- And saw rain falling, in the distance
- more slowly,
- The road clear from her past the window-
- Of the world, weather-swept, with which
- one shares the century.25
Maude Blessingbourne is a character in Henry James’s “The Story In It.”26 She is a sweet young widow who is staying at Mrs. Dyott’s country home. After a visit by Mrs. Dyott’s secret lover, Colonel Voyt, during which Maude and the Colonel argue about whether women in the French romances in which Maude vicariously lives need be immoral, Mrs. Dyott learns that although Maude is passionately in love, she prefers that the man not know it. Maude’s indulgent withdrawal into the pleasures of her subjective romance protects her from the danger which her pessimistic fears would involve her in, if she were to “live.” She fears a real relationship would be a threat to her “honesty,” that is, her virtue; however, her “honesty” is less at stake than her fantasy. By not honestly admitting it, she protects it from the rest of reality. At any rate, her pleasure in being the mistress of her own passion compensates for her unhappiness and boredom. Her withdrawal, her abstinence from expressing her passion, is symbolized by her gesture of approaching the window to look at the storm, knowing beforehand what she would see. The weather, if not a projection of her psychic state, is at least consonant with her inner, though not her outer, nature. It is not something that has entered her and changed her in the way the impressions of New York City changed the young George Oppen in 1929.
This poem serves as Oppen’s preface to Discrete Series. As such, it is different, in several ways, from the thirty poems which follow it. To begin with, we are given, in addition to the speaker and his listener, addressed as “you,” a persona, Maude Blessingbourne, with whom the mood of boredom is identified. Moreover, she is mentioned by the author to illustrate a philosophical concept previously expressed by his listener: “you were / saying,” he says. This distances that mood and that concept from the speaker. Secondly, the poem directly states this concept—that is, that the knowledge of the mood of boredom is the knowledge of the world. To state the concept is to break the discipline which is maintained in the thirty subsequent poems, which present, without comment, the Image encountered in concrete experience. Each of the other poems in the series is precisely not the objective correlative of a subjective thought or state of feeling, but the objective itself, presented to show its significance. Thirdly, and as a consequence, in this poem, which quotes and even parodies the prose of Henry James, the rhythms are more extended and less broken, the syntax more convoluted and less elliptical, than in the poems which follow.
The irony of the quotation adds to the distance created by James’s language, by Maude’s mood, and by the ascription of the philosophical concept in the poem—i.e., “the knowledge of boredom” —to an unidentified interlocuter, the “you” of line one. The poem’s total emotional effect is one of curiosity, an effect appropriate to the manner in which the “you” to whom the poem is addressed makes distinctions: “Not of sorrow, you were / saying, but of boredom.” The alliteration and the repetition of the musical phrase: / x / x, reinforces a deliberateness not associated with Maude’s fond vagueness.
Oppen spoke of this poem in his interview with Dembo. He said that “The word ’boredom’ is a little surprising there”; also that it is “rather strange.”27 I suggest that it seemed strange to Oppen because it represented the fulfillment of Maude’s not Oppen’s desire to know. The degree to which her social class removes her from the rabble is also the degree to which she is removed from her own basic needs. It can be assumed safely that Oppen understood this problem, for it is the reason he left his financially successful and socially prominent family in San Francisco to hitchhike with Mary across the country and to find in New York poets who insisted on “contact.” Mary Oppen wrote in her autobiography:
We were searching for a way to avoid the trap that our class background held for us if we relented in our attempts to escape from them. We understood from our experiences while hitchhiking that in the United States we were not required to remain in the class into which we were born. We wanted to see a great deal of the world, and the education of which we talked for ourselves was to leave our class and learn our life by throwing ourselves into it.
And speaking of George’s father’s reaction to their commitment, she wrote:
I know now that we must have seemed to him vulnerable and too young to be out in a world of which he knew nothing. I think now that he was afraid for us. But we had found people out in the larger world to be open and friendly to us wherever we had been; his life did not hold for us this wealth of people of all classes that we wanted to know. I think we felt the world was ours, and that it was not his to give to us.28
Maude Blessingbourne had been contented to love from a distance, but Oppen felt more a part of “the world, weather-swept, with which / one shares the century,” the world he threw himself into.
Speaking of the spirit which he feels offsets “a kind of pessimism” in his later poems, Oppen has said that he enjoyed life “very, very much,” and he has defined his feeling about life
by the word “curious” or, as at the end of “A Narrative,” “joy,” joy in the fact that one confronts a thing so large, that one is part of it. The sense of awe, I suppose, is all I manage to talk about. I had written that “virtue of the mind is that emotion which causes to see,” and I think that perhaps that is the best statement of it.
. . .
Yes, it is an emotion. The mind is capable not only of thinking but has an emotional root that forces it to look, to think, to see.29
Maude’s gesture, made “as if to see / what really was going on,” is ironic and pathetic. Oppen’s presentation of her boredom is proof of the ability for which Zukofsky praised Oppen. The poem, though expressing knowledge of the world, is not boring. The poet has chosen not withdrawal but involvement, not subjectivity but objectivity, not pessimism but curiosity; and the consequence of this is not boredom but joy.
In his brief preface to Discrete Series, Pound complained:
. . . the cry for originality is often set up by men who have never stopped to consider how much. I mean how great a variant from a known modality is needed by the new writer if his expression is to be coterminous with his content.
Oppen succeeded in that reformation in 1929 by providing an “adequate variation from a known mode of writing”—from, that is, the mode of Dr. Williams.30
The similarity between the work of Oppen and Williams is clear. In his Novelette, Williams wrote that his poems are neither symbolic nor evocative of images; they are “pure design” having “only the effect of themselves.”31 The second poem in Discrete Series is such a pure design:
- White. From the
- Under arm of T.
- The red globe.
- Down. Round
- Shiny fixed
- From the quiet
- Stone floor . . .32
Even though, for the present-day reader, this poem has an appreciable purity as design, it can remain obscure because it neither names nor creates a visual image of its object. This obscurity has increased with time, because the object from which the poem arose, once common, is now esoteric. On the newer elevator portals in Manhattan in the late twenties was a decorative device shaped like a “T” and under its “arms” were two shiny round globes, one white and one red, which lit to signal the direction of the passage of the elevator, up or down. The poem gains for the present reader with this knowledge total clarity.
Although unfamiliarity with essential factual details increases with time, there is another kind of seeming obscurity more daunting to readers in the thirties, who were not as accustomed as are present-day readers to poetry which enacts the process of perception. Pound tried to counter this obscurity in his preface:
Bad criticism emerges chiefly from reviewers so busy telling what they haven’t found in a poem (or whatever) that they have omitted to notice what is.
The charge of obscurity has been raised at regular or irregular intervals since the stone age, though there is no living man who is not surprised in first learning that KEATS was considered “obscure.” It takes a very elaborate reconstruction of England in Keats’ time to erect even a shaky hypothesis regarding the probable fixations and ossifications of the then hired bureaucracy of Albermarle St., London West.33
This obscurity arises from the reader’s “fixations and ossifications,” his outdated, inappropriate expectations about the poem. Few readers in the thirties, even though they would have recognized the device on the elevator, were prepared to appreciate a poem without “poetic” ornaments or rhetorical devices, without symbol, metaphor, or simile, without impressions of simple emotional suggestiveness, without traditional themes or subject-matter, and without abstract fundamentals like Truth or Beauty. They did not know how to “read” a poem which strives to be a verbal equivalent of a perception brought into being by the changing lights of elevator signals in a skyscraper.
In An “Objectivists” Anthology, Zukofsky put this poem in the section devoted to the “epic,”34 which was his term for poetry which recognizes the poetic value of the facts around us, contemporary or historical particulars, be they things or events. Zukofsky wrote to Carl Rakosi that Oppen would be represented in the anthology by a short poem presenting the modern skyscraper—the sense of being inside it.35 For Zukofsky, the poem does not simply record the elevator portal. The poem is synecdochic; the part represents the whole. If concrete experience is a test of more conceptual observations, then we are justified in seeing the poem as a part of more inclusive wholes. Indeed, the poem’s title in the anthology is “l93Os,”36 and it states a frame of mind which during the years of the Great Depression was fascinated with devices by which one could swiftly rise—or just as swiftly fall.
The third poem is an observation about how “big-Business,” with a capital “B,” removes itself from public view:
- Hides the
- Parts—the prudery
- Of Frigidaire, of
- Above the
- Plane of lunch, of wives
- Removes itself
- (As soda-jerking from
- the private act
- Cracking eggs);
The objects of this poem are more recognizable than the object of the previous poem. The previous poem seemed mildly ironic because it used Pound’s “direct treatment” (avoiding ornament, stripping the verse to its functionally essential parts) to present a device which was to a large degree ornamental. Here Oppen presents an observation of the same kind with, however, a more critical intent. He reflects on the location of a public soda-fountain on the first floor of a large office building. The businessmen above are removed from the “Plane of lunch, of wives,” just as the working parts of Frigidaire’s refrigerators are hidden within aerodynamically designed curves of white enamel, and as a common act like cracking eggs is made by the soda-jerk to appear to be an act of magic. Big-Business in its tower is removed from the plane of private experience just as the products of big-Business induce a withdrawal which protects us from that kind of experience. What is “really going on” is that we are removed from the actual by the mystiques of architecture, design, and showmanship whose intent is to hypnotize us into paying for what we could either do without or, like cracking eggs, do for ourselves. This poem, as others in the series, directly presents an aspect of reality antithetical to the honesty and sincerity of direct and objective experience. The “Objectivist” presentation contributes critically to the continuing investigation of the book into the question of what is real.
For Oppen, the real exists on three interdependent levels: the formal, the epistemological, and the social. Accordingly, the poem must rest on three interdependent disciplines: meaning must be resolved into matters of form; thought must be expressed in terms of lower levels of abstraction; and the object must be in accord with a kind of populism which Oppen feels he shares with the poets in his tradition. Oppen summarized his populist principles as follows:
The early moderns among painters of the United States found themselves promptly identified as the Ash Can school, and it happens that Lindsay, Sandburg, Kreymborg, Williams—the poets of the little magazine Others which came off a hand press in a garage somewhere in New Jersey about l9l8—were almost a populist movement. Though it is hard to register now, the subjects of Sandburg’s poems, the stock-yards and the railroad sidings, gave them their impact. Of the major poets it is only William Carlos Williams, with his insistence on “the American idiom,” on the image derived from day to day experience, on form as “nothing more than an extension of content,” who shows a derivation from populism. But it is the fidelity, the clarity, including the visual clarity and their freedom from the art subject which is the distinction also of Pound and Eliot and the force behind their creation of a new form and a new prosody; the “speech rhythms” of Pound, the “prose quality” of Eliot.38
Populism is a belief in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people. For Oppen, this belief connects his own work with the work of Pound and Eliot, of the Others group, of the Chicago literary renaissance, and, later, of “the San Francisco School, the poets called Beat.”39 The term “populism” labels Williams’ social, epistemological, and formal virtues: “his insistence on ‘the American idiom,’ on the image derived from day to day experience, on form as ‘nothing more than an extension of content.’” Similarly, he approves Pound’s and Eliot’s “fidelity” and “clarity,” “their freedom from the art subject,” and “their creation of a new form and a new prosody,” again, reflecting the same three mutually dependent aspects of poetic meaning: the social, the epistemological, and the formal.
This is not to say that Oppen’s poetic is identical to that of any other poet in his tradition. For one thing, Oppen did not share Williams’ self-conscious need, as a first-generation American, to embrace and reflect the American character. Williams’ belief that the language of the poem should be the language of speech is a restriction by which Oppen does not abide. Oppen believes that the language of the poem should be the language of thought, that is, of experience. Although the sounds and rhythms of the poem are part of the structure that gives the meaning, Oppen’s test is never whether one would actually say the poem. When asked whether he agreed with Williams about the great importance of overthrowing the iambic pentameter, he replied,
I don’t subscribe to any of the theories that poetry should simply reproduce common speech, and so on. My reason for using a colloquial vocabulary is really a different one. It may be touched by populism as Williams’ is, but in general I don’t agree with his ideas on the subject.40
In short, Oppen’s poetic is, just as Pound wrote in the preface to Discrete Series, “the adequate variation from a known mode of writing,” and is certainly not identical to Williams’ or any other writer’s. Pound wrote: “I salute a serious craftsman, a sensibility which is not every man’s sensibility and which has not been got out of any other man’s books.”41
Oppen’s sensibility, the root of his own “Objectivism,” was established prior to contact with Zukofsky, and before he had extensive contact with the work of Pound and Williams. In an interview with Charles Amirkhanian and David Gitin, Oppen recalled:
We had come to New York from San Francisco with the sense of the necessity of what one encountered, what one saw, the reality of the world. I was supposing then it was a Western confrontation. One imagines New York City dwellers involved most of the time with artificial concepts, the game, the definitions. So did I remember the root of my own Objectivism.42
Oppen brought this populist root, “the sense of the necessity of what one encountered,” to his observation of New York City dwellers. He presents, in Discrete Series, the reality of their involvement with abstraction, their detachment from direct experience.
Asked by Dembo what he meant by “populism,” Oppen discussed the epistemological virtue of populism as embodied in Discrete Series:
Williams likes to name those objects: wheelbarrow, white chickens, etc. I, too, have a sense—I hesitate to say it because I have no way of defending it—of the greater reality of certain kinds of objects than others. It’s a sentiment. I have a very early poem about a car closed in glass. I felt that somehow it was unreal and I said so—the light inside the car.
. . .
In fact a lot of the poems talk about that sort of thing.
- Closed car—closed in glass——
- At the curb,
- Unapplied and empty:
- A thing among others
- Over which clouds pass and the
- alteration of lighting,
- An overstatement
- Hardly an exterior.
- Moving in traffic
- This thing is less strange——
- Tho the face, still within it,
- Between glasses—place, over which
- time passes—a false light.
There is a feeling of something false in overprotection and over-1uxury-my idea of categories of realness.43
As do the first three poems, this poem (the ninth)44 is an ironic presentation of the unreal. It presents a direct experience of an aspect of reality which removes one from direct experience. Like Maude behind her window-glass, the occupant of the car is protected from the true light, the light of “immediate emotional response,” “the meaning in the thing itself.”45 Oppen elaborated:
The car in the poem I just quoted is detached from emotion, from use, from necessity—from everything except the most unconscionable of the emotions.46
Oppen does not dwell exclusively on the unreality of urban experience; he also dwells on its realness. He presents not only things which detach one from direct experience, but also things which attract us to it. Here, for example, is the sixteenth poem, one of the book’s love poems:
- She lies, hip high,
- On a flat bed
- While the after-
- Sun passes.
- Plant, I breathe——
- O Clearly,
- Eyes legs arms hands fingers,
- Simple legs in silk.47
The meaning is in the scene itself, which is presented as clearly and sincerely as it is apprehended by the speaker. The single nonliteral word is “Plant,” metaphorical shorthand for something like “Quiet as a plant,” or, from an early manuscript of the book, “As in a closed room a plant / In darkness growing. Nightcloud.”48 But the plant’s qualities need not be explicitly stated; they are implicit in the word itself. We have here only the essentials. “Afternoon” has been reduced to “after-.” The terms in “Eyes legs arms hands fingers” are not separated by commas, for they are organically parts of one body.
In his review of Discrete Series, Williams wrote:
An imaginable new social order would require a skeleton of severe discipline for its realization and maintenance. Thus by a sharp restriction to essentials, the seriousness of a new order is brought to realization. Poetry might turn this condition to its own ends. Only by being an object sharply defined and without redundancy will its form project whatever meaning is required of it. It could well be, at the same time, first and last a poem facing as it must the dialectical necessities of its day. Oppen had carried this social necessity, as far as poetry may be concerned in it, over to an extreme.49
The form of the poem expresses the epistemological and social realizations which were the conditions of its creation.
The awareness of form that registers “the sense of the whole line, not just its ending,” and “the sense of the relation between lines,” also registers the sense of the page and the relation between pages. That this series is discrete does not mean that its terms are unrelated; it means that they are as related as are their counterparts in the real world. The twenty-ninth poem illustrates this sense of form:
- Not by growth
- But the
- Paper, turned, contains
- This entire volume50
In Collected Poems, Discrete Series has lost the sense of being a volume of discrete but related parts. It is like a poem whose lines are written out as prose with only longer spaces between the lines. The deleterious effects of the cramped design are more serious than the occasional confusion about where one poem ends and another begins and about whether the end of the page and the end of the poem coincide. In the book’s original form, each poem, however small, was printed on a page, and had a single poem facing it on the opposite page. Each leaf turned revealed two new pages. The book unfolded not organically, “by growth,” but mechanically, by “drawing,” as of cards from a deck, an induction and an accumulation.
When Oppen was asked whether in this poem he were “making a statement about the fragmentary nature of the poem and, by extension, of perception and truth,” he replied,
In a lot of the poems that’s said isn’t it? I don’t know that I was thinking of it there. I was just speaking about “pointing,” the poems have that quality of simply pointing at the thing as a way of constructing a poem. It’s an imagist base that I’m making use of there. But I’m also talking about form, and maybe even primarily since that’s a major preoccupation of this whole volume.51
To justify assertions pertaining to things external to the poem, we must identify their formal equivalents. The fourth poem in the book reads as follows:
- The evening, water in a glass
- Thru which our car runs on a higher road.
- Over what has the air frozen?
- Nothing can equal in polish and obscured
- origin that dark instrument
- A car
- Ease; the hand on the sword-hi1t52
The first sentence is elliptical and incomplete. Its verb has apparently suffered the fate of the rhetoric which would customarily link “The evening” to “water in a glass,” for example, “still, liquid, and contained as.” The verb and the rhetoric are inessential. (Just as are the additional letters spelling “through.”) Instead, The evening,” the substantive, is emphasized, and “our car” running “on a higher road” is subordinate. The “evening” is the occasion for two observations: one about the frozen air, an unresolved question, and the other about the car, a determined declaration: “Nothing can equal in polish and obscured / origin that dark instrument / A car.” The car’s polish (hiding its working parts) and its obscurity of origin make its mechanics seem magic, echoing the theme of the previous poems. That the car is a “dark” instrument suggests that this magic isn’t white magic. The following two lines contain stylistic peculiarities which Zukofsky would have noted. The parenthesis, capital, period, and lineation of “(Which.”—not witch—confer an independent existence upon the relative pronoun, which suggests that the car’s independent existence is also the fix and fiction of convention. The juxtaposition of substantives suggests both qualities and verbs, latent, not suppressed. The last line confers upon the car the ease, the simplicity and latent power, of “the hand on the swordhilt,” cutting through the evening.
The efficient formal reliance on the substantive was Oppen’s answer to “the first question at the time in poetry”—”the question of honesty, of sincerity,” a dialectical necessity of his day. He achieved this by efficiently presenting the concrete experience, refraining from comment. Even a phrase that has the appearance of being comment, such as “a false light,” was meant to be a shorthand expression of his feeling of the concrete thing. It is the difference between saying “it was unreal” and “I felt that it was unreal.”
Oppen’s sentiment “of the greater reality of certain kinds of objects than others” finds concrete expression throughout the book. We have seen two methods that he uses, the ironic presentation of the unreal, and the direct presentation of the real. He also uses a third method of presentation, juxtaposition, which invites comparison of different categories of realness. An example is the nineteenth poem:
- In the frame
- Of the building——
- A ship
- Her immense keel
- A stone
- Under fifteen feet
- Of harbor
- The fiber of this tree
- Is live wood
- Running into the
- Branches and leaves
- In the air.53
The dashes here divide the poem into three terms whose shared element is wood. The terms, as I see it, are arranged in order of ascending value; the inert, the dynamic, and the organic. The tree’s vitality excels the ship’s force, which excels the building’s harnessed stresses.
The following poem about women, the twenty-third, twenty-fourth, and twenty-fifth, are another such triad:
- Your spiral women
- By a fountain
- Your picture lasts thru us
- its air
- Thick with succession of civilizations;
- And the women.
- No interval of manner
- Your body in the sun.
- You? A solid, this that the dress
- Your face unaccented, your mouth a mouth?
- Practical knees:
- It is you who truly
- Excel the vegetable,
- The fitting of grasses—more bare than
- Pointedly bent, your elbow on a car-edge
- Incognito as summer
- Among mechanics.
- ’O city ladies’
- Your coats wrapped,
- Your hips a possession
- Your shoes arched
- Your walk is sharp
- Your breasts
- Pertain to lingerie
- The fields are road-sides,
- Rooms outlast you.54
These poems present three moments of conviction, the clarity of Oppen’s immediate emotional responses to a painting by Fragonard, to a photograph of a woman, probably Mary Oppen, leaning on a car, and to a line of verse descriptive of the women of New York City streets. These three moments, if the criteria is duration, are in order of descending value. But, if the criteria is realness, the middle woman, excelling the vitality of the vegetable, is most real. Oppen agreed that the intention of the Fragonard poem was the clarity of his immediate emotional response, “the light coming off what is seen”: “Yes, the picture, the actual picture. But I was also interested there in the women themselves as almost a mediation of the culture. I see it as coming down through the women.”55 If so, then the culture comes down through the type of woman in the second poem above, and through the type of art in the first, not through the women or the art of the third, which even rooms outlast.
These and all the poems of Discrete Series are the concrete results of Oppen’s empirical investigation into the nature of what is real, and of his ability “to construct a method of thought from the imagist technique of poetry—from the imagist intensity of vision.” In them Oppen presents, by the three methods I’ve discussed, the meaning of what truly excels the vegetable, the meaning of things in which our culture is mediated, the meaning of the apprehensions resolvable into form, and the meaning in “the sense of the necessity of what one encountered, what one saw, the reality of the world.”
The twenty remaining poems in Discrete Series further juxtapose contiguous objects perceived by George Oppen in the environs of New York City in 1929. In the last, Oppen deals with the formal relations among his art, possibility, pleasure, and probability:
- Written structure,
- Shape of art,
- More formal
- Than a field would be
- (existing in it)——
- Her p1easure’s
- (the telephone)56
One recognizes in the last three lines a description of (and a model for) a discrete series. The series is like successive calls on a telephone, events which might have no relation to each other except that their medium is the same and that their audience holds the same receiver. Yet the series of Discrete Series is unlike successive calls on a telephone because it consists of events ordered by Oppen’s art into objects in and of themselves.
George Oppen stopped writing after Discrete Series was published by the Objectivist Press in March 1934. in 1958, when he began writing again, the world had only begun to understand, by confirming the importance of his immediate predecessors, the significance of his work. Discrete Series still stands as a testimony to the value of the objective Image and the power of language to register not the fiction but the fact. Oppen cleaved the clean—the essential, the concrete—from the unclean. In doing so, he adapted with integrity, as all writers must, old words to our new world in a new way.