In a 1962 letter to his half-sister June Degnan, poet George Oppen laments that now that he is fifty-three years old; he has at most another twenty years of active writing ahead of him. As far as he is concerned, he tells Degnan, it is sufficient time in which to achieve what he set out to achieve when picking up a pen again after twenty-four years’ silence (Oppen 1990b, 56). “You men may wish ‘to write poetry,’” he observes in his personal papers. “At 55, my desires are more specific” (Oppen 2008, 177).
As his wife Mary Oppen told interviewer Dennis Young, after her husband began writing again, he did his best to maintain a highly organized and intense writing schedule. Rising early in the morning, he began each day responding to correspondence before turning to poetry. He wrote “come hell or high water,” Mary states. When he was not writing, she explains, nothing he did was nearly as “methodical” (Young 1988, 42).
In addition to this newly acquired discipline, Oppen devised a rather eccentric compositional method. That he began each writing session after answering correspondence is telling, for, as Michael Davidson notes in his introduction to Oppen’s New Collected Poems, “Oppen often began poems in the midst of writing letters or prose commentaries, retyping them in fair copy, and then revising them” (Oppen 2002, xxxix). Poems, Davidson continues, often “appear in the midst of other kinds of writings, scribbles, lists and prose jottings . . . More often, Oppen would paste corrections directly on top of previous lines, creating a textual pile, often dozens of layers thick” (Ibid). These various writings form an integral part of his compositional process, writings now primarily referred to, correctly or not, as his “daybooks.” The majority of these consist of notes and jottings, mostly undated and, as opposed to his writing schedule, maddeningly unorganized. These writings, observes Stephen Cope in his introduction to the Selected Papers, Daybooks, and Prose, often involve “traces of a process of thought and writing that operates independently of any narrow, formal concern,” writings which are an “admixture and more” of notebook, diary, journal, correspondence, essay or aphoristic statement (Oppen 2008, 16). They enact, Cope explains, an “ideal of poetry that no longer presents but participates in the process of thought,” where “the published work is not the polished performance but the temporary (and tenuous) manifestation, a kind of rehearsal, say, of which the writing is the material evidence and not the grand finale” (Ibid, 16-7).
The flow from letter to daybook entry to poem must have seemed, for Oppen, a continuous process, distinguishable yet deeply interwoven. In fact, the end product of a published Oppen poem often seems unfinished, a kind of draft, as Oppen frequently re-used titles, images and lines of poems. At times his work is a kind of self-quotation (a different kind of allusiveness than that of T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound), at other times a recasting of lines and images in entirely new contexts, giving them new meaning. Michael Heller observes of this process that
one finds at the centre of Oppen’s compositional activity, another ruminative gesture, a powerful recursiveness that both thickens and transforms his sense of a finished poem . . . His poems are full of repeats – of language, of phrase, of whole poems – as though difficulty and seriousness would yield only to multiple parsings and resoundings. The stance is one of contemplation and re-contemplation rather than consumption. Words, themes, fragments, and even whole sections of poems are constantly re-arranged and retraced in the work. Like a tribal sorcerer, Oppen keeps repeating the spell the words seem to cast for him . . . reading the new patterns for revelations. (Heller 2008, 91)
Oppen’s long poem “If It All Went Up In Smoke” and the collection Primitive are perhaps the most explicit examples of this unique compositional process. “If It All Went Up In Smoke,” composed in 1976-77 and published in the literary journal Ironwood in 1977, was restructured to make up the bulk of Oppen’s last book, Primitive, published the following year by Black Sparrow Press. Inexplicably, Oppen published “If It All Went Up In Smoke” again in 1980, after the publication of Primitive, in Howard Schwarz and Anthony Rudolf’s anthology Voices Within the Ark. What follows is a comparison between the poems as they appeared in their first incarnation in Ironwood and revised to make up Primitive. A comparison of the two will help illustrate Oppen’s incantatory and allusively self-referential poetics.
The first poem of the “If It All Went Up In Smoke” series begins with the italicized title If It All Went Up In Smoke. Oppen retains the first sections, and the italicized title, as the sixth poem of Primitive (Oppen 2002, 274). He incorporates the poem’s second section into Primitive as the poem “To Make Much” (Ibid, 271-2), then re-works the first two lines of “If It All Went Up In Smoke” (“to make much of the world / of that passion that light within) to provide the title of that poem. Moreover, he sets the title apart from the first (indented) line “of the world of that passion” and the following line “that light within” in order to distinguish the poem as a coherent whole as opposed to a part of a series. The remainder of the section as it appears in “If It All Went Up In Smoke” reappears intact in Primitive. (In his notes to Oppen’s New Collected Poems, Davidson helpfully notes that the lines “it was no dream all’s wild / out there,” derive from Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me,” a key poem in Oppen’s very selective anthology of favorite poems [Oppen 2002, 408]).
The third section(“to the shining”) consists of the second section of “To Make Much” in Primitive. To make matters more confusing, “To Make Much” is a re-working of an earlier poem, “To The Poets: To Make Much of Life,” originally published in Myth of the Blaze (1975) (Oppen 2002, 260). Oppen omits the first two lines and part of the third “‘come up now into / the world’ no need to light // the lamps in daylight” (Ibid). He also omits the following lines: “(the old men were dancing // return / the return of the sun)” (a reworking of lines from “A Narrative” ). Line seven omits “to light,” line eight adds “of” to “of lamps,” and replaces “working” with “writing.” Line fourteen adds a space between “image” and “the transparent.” Lines nineteen and twenty are combined to form the line “storm the fathers said we are old.” Finally, the “To the Poets” version does not include the section beginning “to the shining” (Ibid).
The fourth section(“how shall I light”) appears as the third poem in Primitive, entitled “The Poem.” The first sixteen lines are as they appear in Ironwood, but Oppen revises the final three stanzas, beginning with “part of the wars” (Oppen 2002, 270).
In “If It All Went Up In Smoke” Oppen revises an earlier poem “Disasters” from its original incarnation as a coherent poem in a 1975 issue of American Poetry Review. This is the only poem in the series to have appeared in print primarily as it appears in Ironwood and Primitive. Oppen makes the poem into the fifth section, with the title now acting as the poem’s first line, while in its version in Primitive Oppen restores the poem’s title. The remainder of the poem repeats in both its Ironwood and Primitive versions.
Oppen considered “Disasters” an important poem, judging by the relative consistency of its three versions and by the relatively copious number of drafts and re-workings extant in his personal papers. It is one of Oppen’s more allusive late poems – the lines “it is dreary / to descend / and be a stranger,” notes John Taggart in his essay “Walk Out,” derive from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables:
why are poets apt to choose their mates, not for any similarity of poetic endowment, but for qualities which might make the happiness of the rudest handicraftsman, as well as that of the ideal craftsman of the spirit? Because, probably, at the highest elevation, the poet needs no human intercourse; but he finds it dreary to descend, and be a stranger. (Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables, 141) (Taggart 1998, 59; see also Oppen 2002, 408)
The lines “we wanted to know // if we were any good” are from Sherwood Anderson’s poem “Song of the Soul of Chicago” from Mid-American Chants (Anderson, 1918, 62-63). The reference to “the five / bright elements,” notes Cynthia Anderson,
are in fact Manichean, not Gnostic, as Oppen had written and crossed out. The following explanation comes from The Religion of the Manichees (F.C. Burkitt, AMS Press reprint of the 1925 edition published by University Press Cambridge; reprinted in 1978, New York, p. 107): “The Primal Man, according to the Manichean story, was arrayed with the Five Pure Elements as a sort of panoply when he went forth to fight with the Demon of the Dark. Ephraim speaks of them as –, usually transliterated ZIWANE and supposed to mean ‘brilliant.’ Four of them were Light, Wind, Water, Fire, but Ephraim curiously avoids naming the fifth . . . Indeed, I do not know of any Syriac source that names the fifth Element at all. On the other hand it is given as aer by Augustine (c. Faut II 3) . . . The Arabic . . . gives ‘the gentle breeze’ or ‘zephyr.’” (Oppen 1985, 146)
Material culled from “fifteen drafts and fragments” identified by Anderson show
Oppen . . . working on the ideas which were incorporated into the first half of the poem. No version presents these ideas together in their final form, nor does any draft contain lines from ‘O / O I see my love . . .’ to the end of the poem as printed . . . The drafts fall into three groups, those with an outspoken political bent, including ‘Third World,’ ‘A Wind,’ ‘Breaking of Nations,’ and the verse meditation on a poet’s vanity . . . those titled ‘We Wanted to Know,’ two of which are dedicated to Allen Planz; and those of a group variously titled ‘Senility’ and ‘Senility / A Political Poem.’ The idea of ‘the five bright elements’ is worked on separately and is not incorporated in any other draft. (Oppen 1985, 146)
Oppen cut the poem’s first eighteen lines from an earlier draft. Anderson includes them in her selection of the drafts and fragments (see Oppen 1985, 146-47). She also provides three discrete poems utilized in the completed version of “Disasters”: “Breaking of Nations,” “We Wanted to Know” and “Senility.” Each of these poems obsessively repeats four core phrases with only slight variations between them: “I am sick / with a poet’s / vanity”; “dreary to descend / And be a stranger”; “tho a wind / like a gift / in the disorder / rises”; and “we who wanted to know / if we were any good out there” (Oppen 1985, 147-50).
Finally, John Taggart identifies lines removed from a worksheet draft of “Disasters.” These lines focus on Oppen’s overwhelming (and overwhelmingly intricate) feelings of guilt, stemming from a number of past experiences; the most painful of them had to have been his inability to rescue a fellow soldier killed while under attack in Germany during the Second World War (see Taggart, 1998, 67). (The lines “I / is another,” obviously of significance here given the implications of Oppen’s failure to rescue a fellow soldier and his near-death in the same foxhole, is, Taggart notes, a translation of Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” [Ibid]).
Oppen revises the sixth section (“waking who knows”) to be included as the fifth poem of Primitive, entitled “Waking Who Knows.” He refashions the first line of that poem to provide the revised version’s title. Once again, this is set apart from the first line “the great open,” originally the second line of the poem as it appears in Ironwood. Oppen retains the remainder of the poem for its version in Primitive. A reworking of lines seven and eight, “mind / is burning // the world down,” originally appeared in the typescript for Primitive as a short poem, “Omega Point” (a reference to Teilhard de Chardin) which originally concluded the manuscript (Oppen 1988, 306).
The seventh section, entitled “the tongues,” reappears as the seventh poem of Primitive, “The Tongues.” As with most of the poems reworked into Primitive from “If It All Went Up In Smoke,” Oppen revises the first line as the poem’s title. In “The Tongues,” Oppen omits lines twelve through fifteen, reworking them into the final four lines of “The Poem” (see above).
The eighth section of “If It All Went Up In Smoke,” “the natural,” becomes the tenth poem of Primitive. Oppen revises the first line as the (non-italicized) title, “The Natural,” and the first line from “world” to “world.” Moreover, he omits the remainder of the second line through the middle of line ten. The remainder of line ten is reworked from “‘the fog / coming up in the fields’ we learned those” to “‘the fog / coming up in the fields’ we learned those” (Oppen 2002, 281). The italicized passage, notes Davidson, is a variation on Oppen’s 1964 poem “The Forms of Love” (Ibid, 409). Oppen reworks the poem’s twelfth line from “rural words later we thought it was ocean” to “rural words later we thought it was ocean the flood.” Lines thirteen through sixteen are compressed from “ocean the flooding / light the light / of the world / it was the light / of the world help me I am” to “of the ocean the light / of the world help me I am” (Ibid, 281). The remainder of the poem is the same, save the penultimate line where Oppen omits the space between “distances” and “the poem.” The poem as it appears in both “Smoke” and Primitive is only half the length of its worksheet draft (see Oppen 1988, 317).
As this brief summary of Oppen’s re-envisioning of “If It All Went Up In Smoke” from serial poem to poetry collection indicates, Oppen’s increasingly experimental and comparatively radical innovations in poetic form shows a masterful poet fully in control of his modernist poetics of fragmentation, quotation (albeit primarily of his own work) and opacity.
Much of the revision on a line-by-line basis is done for sound-sense concerns or lineation. The majority of the changes involve a restructuring of the poem to emphasize an enlarging awareness of the poem’s inherent ambiguity, as if Oppen is deconstructing his own poem in order to better comprehend its poetic meaning. Primitive, then, is an example of a poet undergoing significant transformation. It is evidence of a lifelong poetic undertaking of realizing in poetry, to the best of his ability, a view of poetry as process as opposed to artifact.
Finally, Oppen’s new poetic style, primarily found in his poetry of the 1970s, Seascape: Needle’s Eye (1971), Myth of the Blaze and Primitive (1978), evinces a growing familiarity with literary techniques often associated with postmodernism: heterodoxy, and indeterminacy of language, self and world. A more detailed consideration of the development this highly original poetic style is, as well, regrettably, beyond the scope of this brief essay. Perhaps this tentative study will help to stir a more detailed consideration.
Anderson, Sherwood. Mid-American Chants. New York: John Lane, 1918.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of Seven Gables. New York: Penguin, 1984.
Heller, Michael. Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen. Cambridge: Salt, 2008.
Oppen, George. “Disasters.” American Poetry Review 5.5 (September-October 1976).
—. “‘Disasters: Versions and Notes.’” Cynthia Anderson, ed. Ironwood 26 (fall 1985): 146-152.
—. “If It All Went Up In Smoke.” Ironwood 9 (1977): 105-111 and Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets. Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolf, ed. New York: Avon Books, 1980: 570-79.
—. New Collected Poems. Michael Davidson, ed. New York: New Directions, 2002.
—. “The Philosophy of the Astonished: Selections from the Working Papers.” Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed. Sulfur 27 (fall 1990a): 202-220.
—. “Primitive: An Archaeology of the Omega Point.” Cynthia Anderson, ed. Ironwood 31/32 (fall 1988): 306-317.
—. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990b.
—. Selected Papers, Daybooks, and Prose. Stephen Cope, ed. San Diego, CA: University of California Press, 2008.
Taggart, John. “Walk-Out: Re-reading George Oppen.” Chicago Review 44 (1998): 29-93.
Young, Dennis. “Conversation with Mary Oppen.” Iowa Review 18, no. 3 (1988): 18-47.