A few weeks ago, I was invited to write a short essay for the Edge Effects blog. If you’re not already familiar with it, Edge Effects is an outstanding blog run by CHE [the Center for Culture, History, and Environment], a group that belongs to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, which I’ve been a proud grad student affiliate and member for some time now. In response to their invitation, I wrote a short essay about Lorine Niedecker, my favorite Wisconsin writer, and ecopoetics, a term of art in my home discipline of English literary studies. You can read the essay here. Enjoy!
In 1934, when George Oppen was 26 years old, he published Discrete Series, a volume of his poetry. It included a preface from Ezra Pound, then living in Rapallo, Italy, which ended with these lines: “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.” It was accurate in many ways, emphasizing Oppen’s carefully cultivated identity as a craftsman, a skilled laborer and mechanic, even as it contained a slight dig at Oppen’s own lack of erudition or learning. Shortly after its publication, George and his wife Mary would abandon poetry for many years, joining the Communist Party and becoming active organizers in several Popular Front efforts around labor, housing, and relief in New York City.
It would be roughly 25 years before George Oppen would return to writing poems, and almost 30 before he published another book of poems, his The Materials, published in 1962 by New Directions Press (with the support of his sister June Degnan Oppen, who was then the publisher of the San Francisco Review).
That same year, Oppen sent a copy of The Materials along with this letter to Ezra Pound, who was then living in Italy and suffering from fairly severe depression after the failure of European fascism, his own arrest for treason and subsequent 12-year incarceration in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a federally run psychiatric facility in Washington, D.C.:
You’ll see that the back cover of this book quotes an introduction you wrote for my poems many years ago. I was in fact about twenty-one.
I suppose if we should take to talking politics to each other I would disagree even more actively than all those others who have disagreed, but there has been no one living during my life time who has been as generous or as pure as you toward literature and toward writers. Nor anyone less generously thanked.
I know of no one who does not owe you a debt.
As this letter may in part make clear, Oppen had complex and ambivalent feelings about Pound. He and Mary certainly disagreed with (perhaps even hated?) his politics, and among the scraps of paper Oppen had in his working space at the time of his death was this note, pinned above his writing desk:
A Note to Pound in heaven:
Only one mistake, Ezra!
You should have talked
What for me is remarkable about all of this is what seems to be Oppen’s extraordinary kindness. Certainly there was respect for Pound, the man and the poet, and they had their own personal history. But it seems to me that Oppen did not have to write to Pound, nor acknowledge his own debt to Pound’s extraordinary personal generosity, nor omit Pound’s ferocious anti-semitism or monstrous politics (of which Oppen was certainly aware). But he did, and with what I think is wonderful grace and great magnanimity. In 1980, just a few years before he died, and in the period where Oppen was suffering from the Alzheimer’s which would ultimately claim his life, he tells Burton Hatlen and Tom Mandel this story, of his and Mary’s going to meet Pound in James Laughlin’s (the publisher of New Directions) office:
GO: We wept on each other in the New Directions office, that’s what happened.
MO: In 1969.
GO: And I don’t know how sincere he was or wasn’t. That was when Pound came out of St. Elizabeth’s and Jay Laughlin had arranged small groups to talk to Pound. Everyone was somewhat afraid that-
MO: We met in Jay’s office.
GO: We met in Jay’s office-that was our little group-he wanted to keep the groups small so that the news shouldn’t break out that Pound was roaming around free or anything of that sort that might make waves. And we were waiting for Pound to come in and ah, making chatter and finally Pound arrived with Olga and sat absolutely dead silent and everybody became nervous and started chattering and Jay had a moment of inspiration and said, “Ezra, show George your new book.” And Pound in a sepulchral voice said, How do I know he wants it?” You understand well enough what that means. So I stood up and walked over to him and held my hand out and said, “I want it” -a very dramatic thing-and Pound stood up and once he stood he was very close to me. We were in fact touching, and Pound began to weep, so I wept. So we went home. Neither of us could speak, so we went home, and it’s impossible to understand-
MO: That book?
GO: No, to understand Pound.
MO: But that book [Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII, 1968] also had the blacked-out phrases and so on that Jay would not print-the unspeakable and anti-Semitic-
GO: I think Pound in fact was caught in the idea of being macho, though the word didn’t exist at that time. He was going to be the pounding poet, the masculine poet.
There is obviously great pathos in this story, and some wry irony, humor, and self-deprecation (Oppen’s description of his actions as “a very dramatic thing” is not to be read as virtuous, if you understand Oppen), but what moves me is the way that this story plays out as a series of embodied gesture. Oppen stands up and walks over and holds his hand out and Pound stands up and the two of them are touching and Pound begins to weep, so George Oppen weeps, and neither of them could speak, and then they go home. Perhaps some might read this story as a failure of masculine communicativity, but that’s not how I choose to read it, and I don’t think that’s how Oppen chose to interpret it, either.
All this to say that I want to be generous in this way, even to those whose ideas and speech I find hateful, to return generosity for generosity, and to see other beings in their full complexity, wherever I can. I want to enact the embodied gestures which show clearly that I want to receive the work and gifts of others and which unlock the possibility of remorse and reconciliation, even if poorly articulated. And I am grateful to the letters of George Oppen for what I see of these lessons there.
It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind ever since I dug out the old issue of the Whittenberger Summer Writing Project and decided that I wanted to try to find and contact everyone who had attended. I can only imagine what organizers of high school reunions have to deal with, but this has been a little different–to start with there were only about three dozen of us, and we started off being scattered all over the state (little chance of family connections or mutual friend networks among someone from, say, Pocatello, and someone from Bonner’s Ferry, for instance), which made finding everyone seem like an especially thorny endeavor.
Nevertheless, the idea that I might be able to find and reconnect with 30+ people who had shared a couple of idyllic weeks together in Caldwell, Idaho during the late 90s seemed to me to be an absolutely beautiful challenge: as a search problem (how to use google and other search tools to find so many people after so long, particularly when, due to marriage customs and gendered traditions, several of the participants would be unlikely to still have the same surname as they did when they were teenagers?), a communicative problem (once I found someone, how to contact them, to tell them what I had in mind and share my sense of enthusiasm and genuine excitement and curiosity without creeping them out?), and as an organizational and technological problem (where to meet/convene once we have connected? How to include someone who doesn’t use or want to use the connective tool we’ve selected?).
The most common method I’ve used to find people have been combining google searches with social media queries (Facebook and LinkedIn have been especially rich harvesting grounds). I’ve usually started by plugging their name into the search engine, then adding quotation marks around it, and then adding words like Idaho, their hometown, and or anything that I think I’ve learned about them from prior searches. The most frustrating results have been the ones from the pay services, the social media aggregators or ‘public records locators’–the ones who give you a slice of information, maybe an age and hometown, and then want to charge you 29.95 to get a ‘full report.’ These sites are terrible and I’ll never pay that fee. I wanted my searches to be absolutely in the public domain (things that have been placed freely onto the open web, preferably by the individual themselves) and to be free. I’m no private investigator and I’ve no desire to dig through people’s court records or other personal information.
One of the other most notable effects of this searching process on me has been that it has led to a realization about how I conceive of the nature of communicative technologies. In the case of Facebook or LinkedIn, when I’ve located someone, I’ve had no qualms whatsoever about sending a friend or connection request along with a brief, simple message, something along the lines of: “[Person], my name is Steel Wagstaff. I was just digging through a box in my closet and found an old publication put together by a host of Idaho high school writers way back in 1998. Did you attend the Whittenberger Summer Writing Project in the Summer of 1998? If so, I’d love to invite you to join a Facebook group I’ve started as an experiment 15 years later to see what everyone’s up to these days. If I’ve contacted the wrong person, of if you’re not interested, I’m sorry for messaging you. All best!” I’ve noticed in sending these requests, however, that Facebook has added a layer of distance to these messages (as well as a potential moneymaking provision). If I’m trying to send a message to someone that I’m not yet friends with, Facebook will usually show me a radio menu with two button options–the top one informing me that I can send my message directly to the person in question’s normal message inbox for a fee (usually around $1.00, but sometimes a little bit more), while the free option will send my message to their ‘other’ message folder, which I imagine gets used and checked much less frequently. I can see why Facebook would have instituted this change, but it’s a new one to me, and felt a little limiting, particularly because they’ve removed the ability to send messages along with friend requests. LinkedIn has its own limitations on messages that you send along with ‘connect’ requests–they have to be fewer than 300 characters and they can’t include any links. Neither of these restrictions are particularly onerous, but it’s been instructive to see the ways that social media services enable (while limiting, constraining, and controlling) people who aren’t yet part of a mutually approved network relationship to communicate with each other.
I said earlier that this has led to realization about my own conceptions of the nature of these communicative technologies, and I got a little distracted. It has, and here’s how: I’ve been able to find what I think is a web-based avatar/representation almost every single one of the roughly three dozen attendees of Whittenberger in 1998, and I’ve felt very little compunction about contacting these people through these web-based/social media networks (that’s what they’re for, isn’t it? That’s our expectation at least, that they’re tools not only of connection and reconnection, but also of discovery. I imagine that all of us have, at some point, whether recent or at our beginning of tool use, have had that strange wonderful experience of finding or being found by someone we’ve once known and are pleased to ‘know’ again). There have been, however, a few instances where I’ve been unable to find a person on a social media platform, but I think that I have found a possible (even likely) address or phone number (occasionally a home number, but more likely a work number). And here’s where I have pause. I certainly wouldn’t visit one of these home addresses to find this person, even if I lived in the same town, and I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to drop by their work place, nor would I feel comfortable cold calling them, either at home or at work. Part of it is the way that presence demands response, I think, by which I mean that if I were to speak to your face, say hello and make some kind of request, it would be very hard for you to observe social etiquette and not respond or ignore me. Using social media, I’m able to give people this out (the ability to ignore a message without my ever really knowing for certain that I had found the right person, that they had seen my message, and chose to disregard it) which allows everyone to potentially save face and avoid embarassment. This is true of phone calls as well as in-person visits, with the added awkwardness of my pretty limited experience with using a phone call to someone’s workplace to say, “Hey, do you remember me? We went to a writing camp together in Idaho for 2 weeks once. Oh, yeah, and it was in 1998, when we were 15 years old. Half our lives ago. Yeah, so I found your work number and thought I’d call and see if you want to join a Facebook group I started. Hello? Hello?”
So there’s that. I don’t especially think that any of this is worrying (I don’t think that social media is (or has) in this case produced some kind of atrophy of my social skills), but that social media and internet connectivities have made possible all kinds of potential interactions, social transactions that seem otherwise too risky, too difficult, too bizarre, too potentially frightening, one-sided, unsolicited even, which can be both good and bad. In the case of this Whittenberger reunion group, I’m really working hard to ensure that it’s only for the good, which means that I’ve posted notices whenever I add a photo or note or memory that I’m happy to un-tag or remove anything that I’ve posted if it makes anyone uncomfortable or feels like an unwelcome intrusion on their lives or privacy, but that’s exactly the kind of thing I’ve been thinking and wrestling with as I start digging deeper into this memory collector project. More to come soon, I’m sure, but for now I’m curious to know what you (unknown reader) think about all this. Have you developed an ethics of communication regarding face-to-face, telephone/text, online mediums? What are your guidelines for these kinds of communications or things that I should perhaps consider more thoughtfully?
One of the other things that I’ve recently decided to do (apart from weeding my library and pruning my record collection) is to finally dig into the huge pile of papers, photos, notes, letters, and memories I’ve stored in boxes and carried from apartment to apartment over the past decade or so. It’s just been accumulating, and I rarely think about it, much less look at it, touch it, or even read what’s in it.
This past weekend I decided to do something about it. It started a few weeks ago when I found out a really lovely woman that I knew in England was experiencing some serious health issues and was going in to see a heart specialist this week. It had been probably 6 years or more since we had last had any contact, and I knew that I needed to get in touch with her, to tell her that I loved and appreciated her, and that I hoped that she survived and thrived, provided that it was also what she wanted. I took my time with it, but eventually I found her on Facebook and wrote her a long message. It also got me thinking about some things that she had given me while I was in England, the first a lovely amber brooch that would have been used to fasten a ceremonial cloak worn by one of her relatives who served in the Scottish military several decades ago. The other was an undated picture postcard of this man, Peter Bowie, wonderfully attired and holding a beautiful set of bagpipes:
I knew I still had the postcard and a letter from this woman, but that it was buried somewhere amidst the boxes and boxes of things in what I’ll call my ‘personal archives.’ That was the immediate motivation for digging out the boxes and beginning the big sort, but it soon took on a life of its own. I found all kinds of strange and wonderful memories from my past, many of which I had almost completely forgotten that had taken place, and even more that I didn’t even know that I still had or had saved. One of the sweetest and most unexpected discoveries was this:
This was a kind of teenage literary magazine written and published by a group of roughly three dozen 15-16 year old high school students from all over the state of Idaho. In the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school (in 1998, just before I turned 16 years old), I applied for and was invited to participate in something called the Whittenberger Summer Writing Project. The project was really something incredible, in that it brought teenagers from all over the state of Idaho to the campus of Albertson’s College of Idaho, a small liberal arts school in Caldwell, where we lived, slept, ate, wrote, and flirted wildly with each other for a couple of weeks (I don’t recall exactly how the long the project was). The project’s director was a man named Stan Tag, then a youngish 30-something professor who quoted Cat Stevens and took us into the wilderness to observe and write. He brought his 8 year old daughter, Arwen (who I realize is probably 23 years old now–insane!). He was wonderfully earnest and is now an associate professor of English at Fairhaven College (Western Washington University), where he has cultivated a tremendous beard.
There were three other visiting instructors there at Whittenberger, all of whom were fantastic, encouraging, and very generous, in addition to being really talented writers themselves. Gretchen Legler was one of them. At the time she had already published her wonderful book All The Powerful Invisible Things: A Sportswoman’s Notebook, though I doubt that any of us knew that and had just returned from several months in Antarctica, which we did all know, an experience which became the basis of her 2005 book On The Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station Antarctica. Gretchen is now a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Maine in Farmington.
The second instructor there was James (Jim) McKean. What I remember best about him was that he was 6’8″, had played basketball at Washington State University (I think), and that he played pick up ball with me and a couple of other attendees. He’s also the first person to recommend that I read Stephen Dunn and Phil Levine, both of whom I came to love and appreciate very much throughout my high school years. Jim is an Emeritus Professor at Mount Mercy College, as well as a current Professor of Creative Writing (Poetry, Creative Non-Fiction) at Queens University of Charlotte.
The final instructor was Tim McNulty. He was also wonderful. A mountain wildman, probably the closest thing to Gary Snyder we could have had access to in southwestern Idaho in the 1990s. Lovely man, fierce advocate of wild things, of trees and animals especially, and a bearded longhair, as they might have said in an earlier time. He’s written several books of poetry and nonfiction, including In Blue Mountain Dusk, which I chanced upon at a sale at the BYU bookstore and happily purchased several years ago. Tim currently lives and writes in the foothills of the Olympia Mountains.
The project was also attended by 35 teenagers. A couple of them I’ve been friends with on Facebook for the past few years, but most of them have entirely slipped out of my life and mind. Finding this old publication, however, I decided to create a private facebook group for the project (it would be our 15 year reunion this year, amazingly), and see how many people I could find and invite to join the group to share recollections, updates on our lives and writing, and future plans and dreams. So far I’ve located about 10 of the 37, and hope to find the rest. I’ll most more in the future as my sleuthing bears further fruit, but if you happen to read this and want to help, please let me know. Detectives wanted!
I know I keep writing about Oppen and his letters, but I just can’t help it. Today I was typing up my notes from his mid-60s letters, and remembered a pretty tremendous letter he wrote to Lita Hornick, then the managing editor of Kulchur, in response to Kulchur‘s decision to print “Soirées,” a Felix Pollak poem he wrote lampooning Denise Levertov’s “Matins.” Levertov was, at the time, the poetry editor of The Nation.
I was particularly interested in this little literary spat because I’ve been a curator for the FELIX reading series I hadn’t read Pollak’s poem, and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about, so I went to Special Collections in the UW-Madison library, dug up the issue of Kulchur (Vol. 18, summer 1965) it appeared in.
I’ve scanned and included Pollak’s poem below:
Pollak claims in his footnote that he has “neither a person nor an impersonal grudge or grievance against Miss Levertov,” and then attempts to place the onus of responsibility onto Levertov–almost as if he believed he could bully her into publishing his work, writing that “a breathlessly waiting world will be able to judge … if Miss Levertov could take the above in the spirit in which it was dished out: the spirit of good dirty fun” by whether or not Levertov chose to publish in some future issue of The Nation. Others may read this differently, but my impression of Pollak’s behavior in this interaction is that of a rather cruel and dull bully, one who I suspect may have felt particularly spurned by having his poetry rejected for publication in The Nation by Levertov, though I understand that his personality had far more nuance and range in other settings. In any case, here’s Oppen’s letter to Hornick, the woman who decided to publish Pollak’s poem:
I’d like to suggest to you that if Kulchur prints such things as Felix Pollack’s attack on Denise Levertov, the magazine will become an instrument for the blackmail of editors. I would like most seriously to suggest to you that it is within the province of an editor to prevent that use of a magazine. Moreover I think that kind of attack on a woman poet — deliberately speaking of shit, menstruation, wet dreams, falsies — is obviously injurious to poetry, to the freedom of poetry, an attempt to destroy a poet, tho of course it will not do so.
I recognize that this is very much in the tone of a letter to a local newspaper; I mean it in approximately that spirit. I think the piece is unforgivable, not so much to have written — it is common to be very angry at editors who refuse a poem — as to have printed. I think really, really, really, whatever one’s debt to the poor, the unknown, the furious, I think one need not print such things. And I write to tell you so.
With regards, tho, of course,
Rachel Blau Du Plessis, the editor of Oppen’s selected letters, writes in her notes on this letter that when she read this letter to George and Mary in May of 1982, George’s response was: “Let’s send it again.” Assuming that dementia had destroyed much of Oppen’s faculties at this time, in this case the impulse seems both wonderfully sharp and possessed of a crucial lucidity.
I can’t remember exactly when I became aware of the practice, but at some point in my life I learned that my for any purchase over $100, my parents had a rule that they always needed to sleep on the decision for at least a day–that way they’d avoid rash impulse buys and be more careful and prudent in their spending. I’m very much my parents’ child in this regard, and try to practice the same thing in regard to my own spending habits. I wonder whether a similar rule might not be helpful in regard to the words we publish, commit to print, or otherwise make public? Oppen’s remark that “whatever one’s debt to the poor, the unknown, the furious, I think one need not print such things” seems so accurate and so precise to me for many of the same reasons that I often feel embarrassed to read my teenage journals–the ephemerality of sentiment combined with the failure of impulse control in these situations does not produce the kind of expression that I feel worth dignifying or preserving through poetry.
In some respects, the ubiquity of social media and personally-branded expressive digital publishing platforms seems to have moved petulance and public expressions of idiocy, cruelty, or snap judgments into a particularly important role in contemporary culture. Witness the rise of sites like Undetweetable and Politwhoops and the way that the web economy’s drive for page views had Gawkerized news content and journalistic standards. I suppose what I’m saying is not that there is no place for “first thought, best thought” philosophies, or for content produced to drive up page counts. Certainly, there are many editors who would defend Hornick’s decision to publish Pollak’s decision as shrewd business–it lampooned a semi-famous figure, it titillated and perhaps delighted some of its readers, it prominently featured sex and excretion, and it perhaps even generated a bit of buzz, some conversation. Fair points, I suppose. It’s just that for me, poetry does (and should do, ought to do, even must do) something else. Poetry editors can (and do) publish whatever they like for whatever reasons (no matter how whimsical, haphazard, or even capricious they may be) the want, all fine and true. That doesn’t mean that we must respect them or their editorial judgments. As for me, I’m going to start drafting letters to editors–both appreciative and otherwise–but I won’t send them until I’ve slept on them for at least one night.
I will try to keep this post brief, and being brief, it will certainly fail to capture the depth and breadth of my admiration for George Oppen as a poet and a human being, but I feel the need to essay–to make an attempt. I’ve just finished, this evening, a thorough reading of Oppen’s Selected Letters, selected and edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Sadly, the book is now out of print, and very expensive–I was fortunate enough to buy a used hardcover copy that had previously been owned by the Amarillo Public Library of all places.
I’ve been working my way through the letters slowly for several months now, savoring them, admiring them, feeling as though I’ve slowly been getting to know Oppen a little bit more and loving and appreciating him and his relationship with his wife Mary more and more the further I read. It certainly helps that DuPlessis, a longtime friend and admirer’s of Oppen’s, edited the letters–there were a few moments where I cringed slightly, but not many, which could be partially attributed to DuPlessis’ excisions but more likely attests to the fact of Oppen’s integrity and general uprightness.
For any of you who don’t know Oppen’s biography or poetry, you really should remedy the situation. For the biography, I’d suggest either DuPlessis’ Introduction to the letters (brief–about a dozen pages) or Mary’s Meaning A Life (it’s book length, but still very readable) and for his poetry, please buy his New Collected Poems, and if you’re a poet or an ambitious, his recently published Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. In terms of single collections, the three 1960s books are his best work, in my opinion: The Materials (1962), This in Which (1965), and Of Being Numerous (1968), the latter being the book for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Beautiful, beautiful writing. Some good Oppen resources online are up at Big Bridge, Jacket, and Cary Nelson’s MAPS.
The reason I’m writing this post though is that I felt immensely moved as I came to read the late Oppen letters. It appears that by the early-to-mid 1970s Oppen gradually began to suffer from the effects of what he called ‘senility’–what we would probably today call ‘dementia’ or even ‘Alzheimer’s disease.’ Apologies for his poor typing appear with greater frequency in his letters, and some of his confessions to friends and others become occasionally poignant, sometimes heart-breakingly sad. The first possible hint that he’s beginning to suffer from mental decline comes in a letter to the poet Phil Levine in late 1969-early 1970:
not sure whether I replied to your letter — nothing I regard as pathology, but I note with a certain dizzy feeling that I become markedly elderly in my ways — I no longer seem to keep track of mail — or know where anything is – – – – Well. A very odd thing to happen to a child.
This could be an early confession of encroaching dementia, but I think it more likely an apology for being so late in replying to correspondence.
The first clear description of actual mental deterioration occurs in a Fall 1975 letter to Harvey Shapiro, a New York poet and longtime friend, where he includes this handwritten insert along with his typed letter:
(( and my correspondence is a mess. Also a number of other things Senility: no other word for it. I cannot remember what happened yesterday: I fail to recognize people I know well – – -. 67: a little early for such things- – – I cannot do simple arithmetic: I mis-read clocks – – Maybe I went too far in the home-made slingshot business [a reference to a remark he made earlier in the type-written letter] – – – It is very extreme. Been talking to a doctor: he begins with no coffee, no tea, no alcohol, and of course no tobacco, but I don’t find that possible. – – I see myself walking about supported by Mary’s elbow – – – pretty soon ( Or is Mary’s elbow a stimulant, and therefore forbidden? )
[written in margin with a line drawn to the last paragraph] This is the news: you wanted news. This is it.
A terrible admission to make, dark and depressed-sounding with a tinge even of self pity–all so unlike Oppen, but characteristically honest, blunt even, and leavened with humor (“is Mary’s elbow a stimulant…”). More than a year later he writes to his daughter and son-in-law:
Mary has acquired a business manner — neither rough nor gruff nor suspicious, but – – – – I guess ‘unhurried’ would be one word for it.
— I have acquired the manner of an idiot, an idiot who has been entrusted with various papers, licenses, etc, and who cannot find any of them. Perhaps an excellent tactic: a seller who does not try to take advantage of me is a saint Or at least a member of the Rotary Club
– – – I now carry a license, a social security card, a car registration, a – – – – well, there are about six pieces of paper tucked away in my clothes and our generation is not accustomed to this (I remember our fury when we first went to france because the French police demanded that one carry an Identity card!! we used to fight about it
Times change. We don’t. Or we do, but we make quite a fuss about it.
Note how light, how jovial, playful even, a tone he adopts here when writing his daughter. This was certainly characteristic of Oppen–his letters to his daughter nearly always seem playful, jubilant, full of mirth and play, and it would be shocking to see him admit the kind of weakness or despair he admits to his old friend Harvey Shapiro when writing to his daughter. In fact, while the political aspect of Oppen’s long silence (almost 30 years passed between the publication of Discrete Series, his first book, and The Materials, his second) has been much commented on, in Oppen’s letters he makes it clear that his silence was also fueled by a sense of parental duty, his desire to keep his daughter safe and sheltered–crucially, it is not until she leaves home to attend college that he seriously takes up poetry again. He takes on a third tone when describing his difficulties to his sister, the San Francisco publisher June Oppen Degnan, in summer 1977:
weather beautiful but cold. We seem amazingly debilitated & clumsy physically – – – hope to improve during the summer – – – Been a hard year somehow : the new poems were a strain – – – and it seems that walking is not enough exercise – – – – –
well, it’s strange. On a little path fifty yards long from here to the road (and which I’ve been over a hundred times) I somehow got lost! Mary said: I’m not far behind you. I said: There’s something worse; maybe you’re just seven months behind me (Mary’s birthday is Sept. [November] 28th)
well: we will, I think, get our bearings – – (the nautical term is obviously appropriate) It’s true that we’re dazed: things had somehow got away from us – – (My relation to the mail in S.F. was the relation of the running man to the structures he’s got hold of: he can’t let go or jump on – – – alright, alright, we’ll heal in Maine. If not, we won’t never come home
Here, Oppen describes his frightening situation with plain honesty–he gets lost while walking on a familiar road–and allows himself to imagine the pain of Mary suffering the same affliction. There’s an ambivalence in his tone here–he balances frankness “It’s true that we’re dazed,” with reassurance and tinges of black humor “If not, we won’t never come home.” While he is not as light-hearted with his sister as he was with his daughter, there is still a certain optimism: “we will, I think, get our bearings” & “alright, alright, we’ll heal in Maine.”
The last of Oppen’s letters to directly address his worsening health is a letter to Paul Auster dated March 8, 1980, in response to Auster’s proposal of an interview for a series he was conducting for the Paris Review:
Very tempting– a pleasant prospect to see you again, and to talk. What worries me is the question of whether or not I can say anything that I have not already said– And my own condition at this moment which is something alas, very like senility– I am not being very brilliant these days, and I have not writ anything since Primitive
It is not that I fear being less than brilliant: I find that my only recourse is to admit to myself and to others that on familiar streets I cannot find my way home. I am not attempting to deny this fact, but “Alas; how the mighty mites have fallen. /”
What will you manage to report of me that will be interesting enough to be a credit to your ability as an interviewer?
It would nevertheless be a great pleasure to me and to Mary to talk.
I’ll do my best if you go ahead.
What a difficult letter to write! What an admission to have to make, and in such a way as this–it almost paralyzes the mind. Some of Oppen’s traits that are most visible in this letter are his concision, his directness, his forthrightness, his honesty, and his personal warmth, his sincere kindness and regard for authentic human friendship–for speech, for talking. In his late letters Oppen also shows his remarkable gift for spare, beautiful, essential storytelling, particularly in a couple of letters he exchanges with the poets Philip Levine and Sharon Olds. At the end of the Levine letter cited earlier Oppen writes:
(another small story: after the war. We were in L A, I had been working in a tool and die jobbing shop, then started building tailor-made radios — phonographs, and then with a partner building houses Message that my father (in S F) was dying. Hypochondriac family; my father less ill than that, the meeting in his hospital room as equivocal, as difficult, as dangerous to me as all our meetings – – The nurse came into the room and asked me to wait outside a moment. I walked down the hall to a little waiting room and sat down. The floor-nurse on duty recognized me (I look like my father) She said, I guess what a man cares most about in his life is his son. I was startled, I was absolutely startled and absolutely unprepared. My father’s temperature was running fairly high, I realized that he must have talked of me. My face must have shown how startled and how unprepared I was. The nurse saw it, and she began to cry God help us all.
Well, there it is.
Confession. Some self-congratulation too. Obviously. Some cruelty on my part too – – – There it is.
–survival. never a wholly admirable story.
To my knowledge Oppen never repeats this story elsewhere in his correspondence, nor does he convert it into a poem. I have a powerful personal memory of encountering the idea, as a young Mormon kid preparing for a mission, that there were some experiences “too sacred to share,” an idea that marked and shaped my thinking for many years, and still exerts a pretty considerable influence on my artistic mores. I feel differently about the idea now, but remnants of this idea that some stories are not for general circulation, that not all of our lives are fit for conversion to narrative or even art, abides and remains quite a firm conviction for me, and I think, for Oppen.
Oppen’s correspondence with Olds is also a beautiful story, quiet and touching in its own way. Apparently, he chanced upon some of her work in George Hitchcock‘s small magazine Kayak and decided to write her a note of appreciation (they’d never met). Here’s his first letter, dated November 18, 1975:
Dear Sharon Olds
flatly impossible for me to read all the magazines that are delivered to my helpless door Troubles me, for I had once dreamed of becoming old and being as responsive and perceptive as Bill Williams and Ezra had been – – -Foolish dream; I’m not fitted for it, aside from lacking their influence
But I possess a guardian angel – – I’ve been aware of this for some time Glancing thru the deluge of mags in the most cursory and unconscionable way, I read what I should read. I’ve noticed this before. And still I’m amazed that among the 19th century lithographs of Kayak I come upon a poem as fine and powerful as Satan Says Your angel-devil watches over me among the pin-cushions
(and thanks to him-her)
In the notes to this letter, DuPlessis writes “Olds reported that this letter about her work in Kayak “came to me out of the blue. […] It was largely because of his letter that that particular poem began to seem central to me, finally giving its name to my first book.” Olds responded to his letter, and she and Oppen corresponded intermittently over the next few years. In one letter, she apparently commented appreciatively on Oppen’s poem “Night Scene.” He responded by telling her the story which occasioned the poem:
Here is the story of that poem that moved you.
a young friend and his girl — the girl’s mother coming to New York to visit – – – They wanted us to meet the mother to display – – – I don’t know. Adult approval, adult connections – – – Adult respect ? — I don’t know. But of course we obliged. Pete [Young] — the young man — said: let us go for a walk, and we walked thru Greenwich Village, and out the 14th street pier – – nine or ten o’clock at night, the pier populated by drunken men . We sat down on the string-piece – – both the mother and the young girl dressed very stylishly. – – I was not sure it was a very wise thing to be doing – – – or very reassuring to the mother as a sample of the wise adults ? – – – and indeed a very drunk man, a tremendous man and very drunk came over and wedged himself between me and the dainty mother – – – – talking loudly to us, a bullying manner unmistakably – – –
I interrupted. . I don’t know: maybe not altogether merely scheming, merely being clever – – – there was something in the man’s face. There truly was. And yet it was mostly being clever on my part: I said to him: “What was your father’s name”
. . . . . . O my god, it came pouring out, pouring out ‘My father was a good man, my father was a good man, I’m glad he can’t see me now. . .’ O my god. And me being clever.
We talked . We talked awhile. It was getting late We said good bye, and stoop up and walked back down the pier, the man following us, and telling and telling, and we listened – – – What could we do? We should say: come home with us – – – and of course we were not going to say that, and it would be useless . . . I did not know what to do, the man following behind us, what would we do – –
and then Mary stopped, and turned back to the man, and put her arms around him, and kissed him, and said: now we must leave — for we knew it could only be this moment for him – – –
and we walked off. It was then he said, Good bye momma, good bye Poppa – – – –
you will see that I have not exaggerated Mary’s beauty, total beauty, confidence, strength of beauty. I wrote the poem. As well as I could.
and thank you for reading it so well
I am sorry that I cannot Cannot type decently
How can you not admire a man who writes like this, who can tell this story truthfully, who leaves so much of it out of the finished poem, out of dignity, of restraint, of fellow human respect. And how can you not admire Mary. Such strength of beauty, indeed. I love them both. It seems to me also that a great part of Oppen’s reticence, his unwillingness to expose this story publicly, to exhibit or “explore” the suffering of another person in the poem, the refusal to attempt a persona poem in which he fills in or imagines the interior life of the drunken man is all a part of his consistent effort to produce what he called in his poem “A Narrative”: “a substantial language / Of clarity, and of respect.” It is this last element–respect–that I think is particularly notable, and for me, particularly admirable–a kind of restraint, a deep consideration of privacy, even decorum, that I find so appealing in Oppen’s poem–the absence of this respect is, in no small part, what I find so disturbing in so many contemporary memoirs and so much confessional poetry–Robert Lowell’s The Dolphin still functions in my mind as the best (or worst) example of this absence of respect.
I had a more clear idea of where I wanted to end up when I began, an idea that has become all muddled and confused as I’ve written and allowed myself so many different twists and turns and trips down side avenues. Before I end this short appreciation of Oppen’s letters, I wanted to include some of his last published correspondence, written at various times in 1981, the year before his official diagnosis with Alzheimer’s (also the year before I was born). The first of these was a letter written to Anthony Rudolf, an English poet and translator who had written to Oppen requesting a message to share with the attendees of the Cambridge Poetry Festival. Oppen’s reply, dated June 6, 1981, is as follows:
I think there is no light in the world but the world. And I think there is light. My happiness is the knowledge of all we do not know.
The penultimate letter DuPlessis includes in the selected letters is a stunning short letter from Oppen to his sister June describing a cluster of intertwined memories about their mother (who committed suicide when George was four years old). The last letter from Oppen in the book was dated September 26, 1981 and addressed to Claude Royet-Journoud, a French poet who had requested a one-line poem from Oppen for an anthology he was editing with Emmanuel Hocquard. Oppen sent a five-line poem, Royet-Journoud wrote back and asked again for a one-line poem, and Oppen wrote this letter, his last published correspondence:
I am truly sorry to refuse anything that you ask of me, but I cannot bring myself to write poetic “exercises.” We come back to that old saying: a poem is a poem is a poem. (and never an exercise)
it is tied to the world, and the stones of the villages.
Again sorry to refuse to do anything you ask of me,
What a way to end one’s correspondence. A poem is a poem is a poem. To be tied to the world, and the stones of the villages. Not only an aspiration for one’s poems, but one’s life. My life’s aspiration.
This is second half of a two part post on making and designing invitations. While this post isn’t technically about invitations, it does involve design work and letter press printing, so I thought it would make a nice complement to yesterday’s post.
Because Laurel and I are both poets, we decided that we wanted to make a highly personalized wedding favor for our guests: a small pamphlet which included two wedding poems (one written by each of us to the other) printed by hand on a letter press. Since this was my second major letter press project, I had a better idea of how to handle the design and prep work. Instead of sending the digital files off to be printed and waiting two weeks to receive the negatives, I had AJ Nordhagen, a grad student who was enrolled in my art class (check out some of his recent work), print them in his lab (they looked great and were ready the next day), and then made the plates from his negatives. Based on my experience with the first letter press project, I chose the same style of paper (22″x30″ 250 gsm Canson printmaking paper from my local Artist & Craftsman), only I selected light gray instead of cream, mostly because I liked its particular tone and thought it would pick up color well. I also made the overall design much larger (the sheets were roughly 11″ square, with a vertical fold) and used fewer design elements and gave the text a lot more breathing space on the page.
The front cover design was fairly simple. For the typeface, I used Bernhard Modern Std, setting the top line in small caps at 40 pt, the middle text at 34 pt, and the date at the bottom in small caps at 36 pt. The images are identical (flipped horizontally and vertically) and were taken from the fine collection of free resources maintained by the good people at Briar Press (as were the rest of the images in the design). I designed the pamphlet so that the deckle would be on the right hand side of the folded page, which would be slightly narrower than the straight-edged back page.
For the inside of the pamphlet, I used Bernhard Modern Std for the titles, setting the type in small caps at 32 pt, and 12 pt Arno Pro for the text of each poem. The plant images were also taken from Briar Patch and modified in Illustrator to fit the required spaces.
The back cover is the simplest part of the design. It features a large triangular shaped image of daffodils (from Briar Press) with a colophon in 20 pt Bernhard Modern Std beneath. I printed 100 usable copies of the pamphlet (I ended up with about half a dozen with various printing defects).
The only other major change I made from the first project was actually a change in machinery. One of my frustrations with the first project had been that the roller heights seemed to be pretty unreliable–they’d lower themselves after every two or three runs, which meant that I’d often have additional unwanted ink around the edges of my plates unless I checked the heights after every 2-3 passes and raised it carefully. Our class did contain a second letter press, but it was a little larger, the crank was heavier, and it just seemed more complicated and a little intimidating (it used a motor to spin the rollers during the application of ink!) and it wasn’t a machine that we had been trained to use. I don’t know if I would have switched presses, but the smaller press was in near constant use during the week I planned to make our poetry pamphlets, so there wasn’t much choice if I wanted to get the project done in a reasonable time and during convenient hours. The press did take a little bit of getting used to, but I ended up liking it much more than the smaller press–registration was easier, the grippers were better placed and kept my paper more flush, the ink applied smoothly and evenly, and best of all, the roller heights stayed stable which made the project MUCH faster than it would have taken me on the smaller Vandercook SP15.
Once the design was set, the last thing I had to decide on were the colors of ink I wanted to use. I briefly considered using a three color design, but decided that two colors would probably be easiest to manage and look nicest. I knew that I wanted to use an electric blue color–I thought it would look really sharp on the gray paper, but I wasn’t sure what color to pair it with. For a while I considered a bubblegum pink–they paired really nicely and would have been fun, but they seemed a little too gendered (blue is for boys, pink is for girls) and cliche for our taste. I tried out a few other possibilities before settling on a dynamic sea green color (my poem was about prairies and we had a plant theme in some of the visual components of the design). Mixing inks was one of my favorite things to do in the shop. The letterpress printing inks we had in our classroom were all kept in fairly large circular metal tins, and in order to print anything you had to take a small metal trowel, scrape out some of the rich, thick ink in whatever color(s) you wanted to use, and spread and scrape the two together until you’d achieved the color you wanted. With both of the colors I ended up using, I knew I wanted a color lighter than the base blue and green we had in the class, so I started with a large quantity of white and slowly added small quantities of the darker color until I had the hue that I wanted. It wasn’t exactly scientific, but it was tremendously fun, and I was really pleased with how the colors turned out (I actually had to mix the blue on two separate occasions because one of my plates had an exposure problem and had to be remade, but I was able to get the batch so close the second time that the difference between batches is indiscernible).
Below I’ve included several images of the project in greater detail. Enjoy!