“The Rescue of the Singular”

George Oppen. New Collected Poems. Ed. With an Introduction and Notes by Michael Davidson. Preface by Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 2002. xlv + 433pp. $37.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Published in CL, 43, no. 2 (September 2002): 560-69.

In April 25, 1968, that watershed year in our history, George Oppen sat down with L. S. Dembo, the founding editor of Contemporary Literature, for an extensive interview on his poetry and poetics. The bulk of the discussion became part of the “Objectivist” Poet series published in CL in the Spring 1969 issue. [1] It was also Larry Dembo who wrote for The Nation (1969) one of the first important essays on what many consider Oppen’s masterpiece, “Of Being Numerous,” the long title poem of the 1968 volume that won its author a Pulitzer Prize. Now, more than thirty years later, Michael Davidson’s superbly edited and annotated New Collected Poems, handsomely produced by New Directions (which had brought out the earlier Collected Poems in 1975), can be read as fulfilling the promise of Larry Dembo’s early Oppen advocacy in this journal.

Davidson’s new edition is especially welcome because Oppen remains to this day a curiously marginalized poet. True, he has a circle of staunch admirers (of which I count myself one)—a circle that has included such leading critics as Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie, and, in the next generation, Alan Golding, Peter Quartermain, and Peter Nicholls, as well as poet-critics from Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis to Michael Heller, Norman Finkelstein, David Ignatow, Ron Silliman, and Charles Tomlinson. True, Geoffrey O’Brien, the editor for the Library of America, who had discovered Oppen early on, saw to it that American Poetry: The Twentieth Century (2000) contained a sizable selection from Oppen—a decision with which the Advisory Board (Robert Hass, John Hollander, Carolyn Kizer, Nathaniel Mackey and myself) wholly concurred. But it is also the case that reviewers of the Library of America volume—notably Helen Vendler, William Pritchard, and William Logan—were quick to object to the Oppen and Zukofsky selections as excessive and boring. Again, the Yale Critics—Harold Bloom, Hillis Miller Geoffrey Hartman, and the late Paul de Man—have consistently ignored Oppen’s existence. And as recently as 1999, at the first national meeting of the Modernist Studies Association, when Peter Nicholls, who happens to have a heavy London accent, gave a keynote address on Oppen, a good part of the audience evidently thought he was speaking about W. H. Auden!

New Collected Poems should go a long way in making that particular confusion impossible. The edition places Oppen’s work squarely in its biographical, literary, and philosophical context, and, by including fifty-odd pages of previously uncollected or unpublished poems, testifies to the poet’s remarkable tenacity and devotion to his craft. Here, for example, is an early ’60s poem called “Light of Day”:

The sun
Slanting down
Toward evening

Lights the edge of a table
And two chairs
In the café

At the corner of McAllister
And MacDougall streets
And we are suddenly happy

Not for the warmth
But because the event
Is so large which has caused this.

‘Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane,
Hony of roses–’ ‘The stubborn rhetorical passion’
Stretched thinner than flame

(NCP 328-29)

Davidson’s note tells us that according to the holograph typescript, line 13 comes from George Herbert’s “The Forerunners” and the passage “The stubborn rhetorical / passion” from Erich Auerbach. The collocation of the great English devotional poet and the German refugee critic who wrote Mimesis in his Istanbul exile, where he had no books to rely on, is apposite. What begins as a Williamseque Imagist lyric moves quickly to the larger question of poetic vocation. Oppen doesn’t specify the nature of the “event . . . so large which has caused this,” because that event is in fact unnamable: he is referring to the complex turn in his life which made it possible, in the late fifties, to return to New York and take up the life of the poet left off twenty-five years earlier. The poem celebrates the power of “lovely enchanting language” and “stubborn rhetorical passion,” even as it recognizes that, given the circumstances of the poet’s middle age and uncertain health, that passion was “stretched thinner than flame.” Only those who have been through bad times, the poem implies, could feel so naively happy at the mere pleasure of sitting in a MacDougall Street café at sunset and thinking about poetry.

Choosing poems like “Light of Day” for inclusion was, as Davidson explains in the Introduction, a daunting task. The Oppen archive, housed at the University of California, San Diego, is large and unwieldly and it is rarely clear whether a given “poem” is part of a larger work, a continuation of a prose remark on the same manuscript page, or an independent entity. “For every poem typed by itself on a single sheet of paper, there are dozens of others that appear in the midst of other kinds of writings, scribbles, lists, and prose jottings, heavily amended in pen and pencil. . . . [often], Oppen would paste corrections directly on top of previous lines, creating a textual pile, often dozens of layers thick” (NCP xxxix). Davidson has written on these “palimtexts” in his Ghostlier Demarcations (1997), and sections from Oppen’s “Daybook” have been appearing in a number of venues. But for our purposes here what matters is how accomplished many of these unpublished poems are and how rigorously Oppen pruned his own volumes, beginning with Discrete Series of 1934.

That particular book is now restored to its original format: each of its twenty-six poems gets a full page to itself. In the earlier Collected Poems, they were crowded into fourteen pages, thus losing their place in what Oppen called a “discrete series.” This phrase, as the poet tells Dembo, comes from 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” (CW 175). Discrete Series circles around a set of related dialectics—man and machine, the one and the many, the mental and the erotic—and modulates specific recurrent images like that of the automobile speeding down a nameless road. But because each poem is distinct, and because, as Oppen insisted, “the meaning of a poem is in the cadences and the shape of the lines. . . . The meaning of the lines will be altered—if one changes the line-ending,” CW 180), the “discrete” poem depends heavily on the white space (or silence) that surrounds it. Consider the following:

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-hilt         (NCP 8 )

In the 1975 edition, this poem is wedged into the lower third of a page that features the 14-line poem beginning “Thus / Hides the / Parts—the prudery / Of Frigidaire”; the layout doesn’t make clear how the second poem relates to the first or indeed, whether the second continues on to the next page, which opens with the line “her ankles are watches.” But in the NCP, placed on its own white ground, Oppen’s early “Objectivist” lyric emerges as at once quite “complete” and yet curiously ambivalent and disjunctive. The opening metaphor of evening as “water in a glass” suggests containment, the separation of the life flow (man and wife) inside the glass bubble of the sleek black car, from the darkness outside. Is their state desirable or oppressive? The question of line 3 remains open: evidently the night now fogs over, but there is no response but silence, the space between lines 5 and 6 capturing the noiseless movement of “that dark instrument,” whose “Origin” remains “obscured.” And now, to compound the mystery, we are given the single word “Which,” prefaced by an open parenthesis (never to be closed) and followed, oddly, by a period. Does “Which” modify “A car”? And if so, why does the relative pronoun fail to introduce a subordinate clause? As in the later volume This in Which (1965), the word simply hangs in space, suspended, unaccountable. The poem’s concluding line, moreover, doesn’t seem to follow: “(Which” gives way to “Ease”—evidently the ease of driving the car, one’s hand on the “sword-hilt” or stick shift.

Is this phallic image positive? It is hard to say because the sword metaphor is embedded in so powerful a context of determinedly separate elements—the “air frozen,” the “obscured/ origin,” and especially the isolated “(Which.” But the sounds of these words do cohere: the short “i” of “Which” (lines 2 and 7) looks ahead to the final word “hilt,” and there is prominent alliteration in “runs on a higher road” and “hand on the sword-hilt,” as well as near-rhyme at line endings in “instrument” / “sword-hilt” and “road” / “obscured.” The “evening,” moreover, easily turns to “water” in the context of line 1 because both words are trochees. Yet—and this is the most curious Oppenesque quality—the poet’s affective response to the scene in question remains ambiguous. We know the location is “our” car, but after this one first-person plural reference (presumably to George and his wife Mary), there is no other—not “my hand on the sword-hilt,” for example, but “the” hand. No response from the poet’s traveling companion, no self-reference or overt statement about sexual love or speed or darkness. Rather, the poem tracks the actual phenomenology of being, stripped of all commentary.

The twenty-six minimalist lyrics that make up Discrete Series—lyrics in which silence plays as large a part as does their abrupt, fragmentary phrasing–look ahead to Oppen’s famous twenty-five year silence that began in the mid-thirties with Oppen’s commitment to his work for the Communist Party and continued through World War II, (in which Oppen participated in the Battle of the Bulge and was seriously wounded, earning a Purple Heart), and then through the Oppens’ ten-year self-imposed exile in Mexico during the McCarthy era. Ironically, although we now think of Oppen as an important political poet, his own lifelong view was that the political and the aesthetic don’t mix. In a letter of 1963, Oppen remarks:

Bertold Brecht once wrote that there are times when it can be almost a crime to write of trees. I happen to think that the statement is valid as he meant it. There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art, and surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning. . . . bad fiddling could hardly help. . . .I wrote no poetry for 25 years. Don’t know if I was right. But I was right not to write bad poetry—poetry tied to a moral or political (same thing) judgment. [2]

One example of such wrongheaded poetry, cited by Oppen a number of times in letters to friends, was the sometimes shrill anti-Vietnam War poetry of Denise Levertov. What, then, should we make of Eliot Weinberger’s comment, in his compelling preface to the New Collected Poems, that in the Sixties, “only Oppen, among [the poets], spoke directly to the political consciousness and the political crisis of the time” (NCP ix)? Is it indeed the case that, as Weinberger posits, such lines as “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves’, ”[3] obliquely refer to the recognition that in 1968, “the things we lived among included the first televised scenes of war and the photographs of napalmed children”?

Such overtly political readings strike me as dubious. As Davidson points out in the notes, “Oppen’s relationship to the New Left is a complex one (NCP 379). Speaking of the old Marxist “construction of ‘Humanity’ [as] a single figure,” Oppen remarked, “Well, it’s been tried . . . We’ve SEEN it fail in our own lifetimes. Because really each one has his own life” (SL 190). As for the New Left, it may, said Oppen, “be very largely a phenomena [sic] in Night Town” (SL 190). This odd allusion to the Circe or Walpurgisnacht chapter of Ulysses suggests that Oppen had reservations about the irrationalism of sixties militancy. Burton Hatlen and other critics have assumed that the stance of Oppen’s later poetry is “specifically Marxist” in its stress on “the people exerting their labor upon the material world”(GOMP 331), but, as I have argued elsewhere [4], “Of Being Numerous” is profoundly equivocal in its response to material culture and especially toward the masses. Take the following two poems:

We are pressed, pressed on each other,
We will be told at once
Of anything that happens

And the discovery of fact bursts
In a paroxysm of emotion
Now as always. Crusoe

We say was
So we have chosen.


Obsessed, bewildered

By the shipwreck
Of the singular

We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.                      (NCP 165-66).

The reference is to Robinson Crusoe: Davidson cites Randolph Chilton’s essay in GOMP, which explains : “Crusoe is rescued from solitude to society, in other words, and simply by calling it a rescue, we make a social commitment. . . . Numerosity and singularity give each other meaning. We need a sense of collective existence to provide the context for a sense of our own reality” (NCP 381). And in another essay for the Burton Hatlen collection, Henry Weinfield relates the Crusoe motif to the passage in Kapital “where Marx inveighs against those ‘Robinsodades’ in which the pastoral illusion of being able to step outside of the world economy is projected” (GOMP 199).

But such readings cannot account for the peculiar abstraction and disconnection that characterizes Oppen’s sequence. The poet’s reference, after all, is not to “the people” or to “the crowd” or to specific faces in the crowd but to pure number (with a pun on the poet’s “numbers” or verses), and the line “We are pressed, pressed on each other,” is hardly a statement of solidarity with the masses. “The discovery of fact bursts / In a paroxysm of emotion / Now as always.” The poet may “have chosen” the “collective existence” Chilton speaks of, but he is obviously less than happy with this (or any other) specific choice. Indeed, the most moving passages in “Of Being Numerous” are those in which the poet turns aside from the “numerous” so as to perceives the haeccitas or thisness of the particular, the One in the Many, as in #21:

There can be a brick
In a brick wall
The eye picks

So quiet of a Sunday
Here is the brick, it was waiting
Here where you were born

Mary-Anne.                       (NCP 175).

This highly condensed lyric, which was originally poem 6 in “A Language of New York” (NCP 117), was, so Davidson’s note tells us, “quoted in a letter to a friend, followed by the remark, “I believe we can’t be astonished by any hallucination whatever. Whereas we are totally astonished by daylight, by any brick in a brick wall we focus on” (NCP 385). “Focus” is achieved by Oppen’s rhetoric of extreme reticence: of the poem’s thirty words, only four (including the ordinary name “Mary-Anne”) have more than one syllable, and even these are ordinary everyday words like “quiet” and “waiting.” Each of the monosyllables functions as a kind of “brick,” repetition (“There can be a brick / In a brick wall . . . . Here is the brick”) or “Here is”/ “Here were”) and rhyme (“brick” /”picks”) intensifying what is otherwise ordinary predication: “Here is,” “it was,” “you were.” But such predication is itself deceptive: how, after all, can a brick “wait” “Here when you were born”? These lines lead us to expect a kind of punch-line, a revelatory name that will at last make sense of the blankness of the brick wall. But all that emerges is the ordinary name “Mary-Anne,” whose referent we don’t know. The brick, that is to say, never quite yields its potential meaning—its gesture to the poet.

What makes such a poem political? In the context of the sequence, each verbal brick, obscure as it may be, must be given full attention. “I would want to talk of rooms,” says the poet in the prose poem #27, “and of what they look out on and of basements, the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks of wood in the concrete, such solitude as we know—“ (NCP 180). Throughout “Of Being Numerous,” we watch the isolated figure of the poet trying to come to terms with the “city of the corporations / Glassed / In dreams” (NCP 163-64), trying to reach out to the Other even as he instinctively pulls back from “That which one cannot / Not see” (185). Nothing is prettied or tidied up, nothing allows the poet to believe that he is in control. Merely, “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / is to know ourselves’.

Oppen’s New York is antithetical to Frank O’Hara’s racy, dirty, seductive, noisy, enchanting city; indeed, Oppen seems to inhabit New York as if he were its only resident. The “riders / Of the subway” may be pressing against one another even as “the ancient buildings/ Jostle each other” (NCP 177), but the poet’s lens distances the cityspace, making it, as in the case of the open road, so much “water in a glass.” If “Of Being Numerous” is political, it is so in its depiction of a consciousness that has freed itself from the daily routine of actual politics, that has been through the fray and knows that now nothing is more essential than the separation that makes contemplation possible. Even if one didn’t know about Oppen’s Communist past, the poem’s disembodied voice would strike us in its refusal to explain itself, its acceptance of Things as They Are. The word that comes to mind for such poetic discipline—taboo though it may be today– is authenticity. Thus, in a hitherto unpublished poem called “What Will Happen” (NCP 337), we read, “I want to know / What I will be able to say / To myself,” and then, after leaving a blank space, the poet adds, “and I mean / To myself in my life.”

Will this austere, uncompromising, and unforgiving poetry ever be popular? I doubt it. But Davidson’s meticulous and highly informative New Directions edition should win Oppen a much larger readership and place him squarely in the canon as the great American poet that he was. His poetry sets the highest of standards: take care, it seems to say, if you want your lyric to achieve more than vignette or bathos. Watch your words, excise all filler, and be more exacting toward yourself than toward others. Most important: remain open to experience. “Things,” after all, “alter, surrounded by a depth / And width” (193).


The interviews were reprinted inThe Contemporary Writer: Interviews with Sixteen Novelists and Poets, eds. L. S. Dembo and Cyrena N. Pondrom (Madison: The University of Wisconin Press, 1972). Subsequently cited as CW. Dembo’s further discussion with Oppen on specific poems’ first appeared in Burton Hatlen’s George Oppen: Man and Poet (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1981), pp. 197-214 This volume is subsequently cited as GOMP.

The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), pp. 65-66. Subsequently cited as SL.

The quoted passage, according to Davidson (NCP 380), is taken from Robert S. Brumbaugh’s Plato for the Modern Age (1962).

Marjorie Perloff, “The Shipwreck of the Singular: George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” Ironwood 26 (1985): 192-204.