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January 07, 2009


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Oppen’s relationship with his overbearing and domineering father was difficult; his father’s death, Mary believed, in some way psychically relieved Oppen of whatever ambivalence he had about being a poet. In a letter to poet Philip Levine from 1969 or 1970, Oppen relates some details concerning the death of his father:

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 started and how unprepared I was. The nurse saw it, and she began to cry . . . God help us all . . . --survival . . . never a wholly admirable story. (SL, 208).

Oppen considered his father's need for a relationship with his son, with whom he was mostly confrontational, to be pathetic. In addition, Oppen had been placed in the strained and uncomfortable position of being unable to reciprocate his father’s feelings - fearful of death, desperately wanting some sort of reconciliation - though it appears that this reconciliation was something that neither he nor his father were prepared to seek.
If Oppen needed to be relieved of his father, he also needed to be relieved somewhat of being a father. His delay in writing again was to some extent exacerbated by their having a young daughter to raise, and this prior obligation required he and Mary, according to Oppen, to remain “disguised” in order that their daughter could be “brought up differently and to be different.” Elsewhere in his letters, Oppen explains that “there were only some fifteen years that political loyalties prevented me from writing poetry. After that I had to wait for [my daughter] to grow up” (SL, 30). As Mary observes in an interview, their daughter “had to leave home for either of us to get going again.”
“I stopped writing,” Oppen later explained in a 1969 letter to June, “to begin with [because of] the catastrophe of human lives in the 'thirties . . . But later we had a daughter.” At the time of his writing this letter, Oppen confessed that he found himself “hesitat[ing] over a line, thinking of my daughter reading it . . . tho she is twenty-seven and in no way weak” (SL, 186). He wanted to protect his daughter from the world's horrors, and not to deprive her of happiness and this became one of the reasons he delayed writing again. Yet there was also a lingering fear that he may no longer possess the ability to write (“Also (1958) . . . that I confessed to myself that I possessed a marked ability” (SL, 315)). In fact, his decision not to begin writing may be better understood as a more generalized sort of fear, of which protection of his daughter from a world that he feared to admit to her (or to himself) was nearing the brink of nuclear destruction, coupled with the feeling of inadequacy or ambivalence over his perceived lack of talent, were but more obvious symptoms. This period of silence became in some ways a prism through which these various tensions and fears were put forth by Oppen and in some way came to be resolved by the poetry. “There was a good deal of unspoken guilt in Oppen,” DuPlessis argues, “untrackable feelings on which the poetry helped him make good.”
In a 1969 letter to his niece Diane Meyer, Oppen states that if “all of us – people – have come about as far as humans were ever fitted to go, had or have the any possibility of going” then “I cannot bring myself to say that we must live in order to deceive each other, even to deceive the children. And [our daughter] grew up to discover that the world was not as snug as we pretended.” Despite the lack of hope for a better world and the dream of utopia destroyed by everyday realities, we “get born into the thing, we just find ourselves here and we are as we are.” Oppen felt his it duty as poet to “promise happiness sometimes in the poems, I suppose, merely by describing happiness.” He wonders if it is sufficient “comfort if I say Me too . . . Us Too . . . We know . . . Here we all are . . . This is what we are talking about always, and the children will not always be children, and will talk of this” (SL, 184-85). A passage from “Of Being Numerous,” makes evident Oppen's ambivalence as to whether or not this saying amounts to comfort or self-deception:

My daughter, my daughter, what can I say
Of living?

I cannot judge it . . . And it was not precisely
Happiness we promised
We say happiness, happiness, and are not

Tho the house on the low land
Of the city

Catches the dawn light

I can tell myself, and I tell myself
Only what we all believe

. . . even if this truth amounts to despair. As he remarks in a letter to his sister from 1962, while “it is necessary to talk, to begin to talk . . . we are afraid the children will overhear us. But someday someone will overhear the children and face absolute despair” (SL, 55). Quoting Irving Younger in The Nation in his 1971 poem “Some San Francisco Poems,” Oppen writes:

So with artists. How pleasurable
to imagine that, if only they gave
up their art, their children would be
healed, would live (NCP, 223)

Oppen came to accept that the artist must confront the world with honesty. Whether or not one writes, the world remains violent and men, women and children continue to die as a result of this violence. This acceptance, in some ways, is a kind of acquiescence, an admittance of failure that he as a communist, having given up his art, could achieve a socialist ideal where such violence would be eradicated. The removal from political activism, inasmuch as the Oppens took part in civil disobedience and other acts that might result in imprisonment, to dedicate one's self to the raising of a child, required a degree of remoteness from the political stage. Yet, his daughter's maturity and the increasingly desperate political situation again required his attention, albeit as poet rather than political activist. As Oppen observes in his personal papers, the return to art came about as a result of this emergency:

we devoted ourselves to creating happiness for the three of us [himself, his wife and daughter], and for a few friends and their children so far as possible . . . But now what will happen to us in twenty years is ---- We must discuss it again, We must try to understand it.

This renewal, or, as Peter Nicholls describes it, “beginning again,” rather than merely picking up creatively where he left off two decades earlier, is also conveyed in his 1968 interview with L.S. Dembo. Speaking with Dembo, Oppen elaborates:

there was the fact of the child too. But this is a little difficult for me to say. There is a difference in one's attitude, in what one wants to say and doesn't want to say, doesn't want to put down on paper, when one is speaking to a child – well, I can't say I was speaking to our baby daughter. I'll simply say I was being a father, and fathers don't confess to fears even to themselves. This is in its way political, too. It's part of the whole pragmatism of social and political attitudes, the test of goodness, which extends awhile when one is thinking of a child. But it's much more complex. It was actually sort of a different time of life that I sat down again and set myself, for the first time really, to complete a poem, to really finish a poem and to be sure I felt I had completed it. It was as a matter of fact in 1958.

Eric, It's fascinating to me how much pressure Oppen puts on his poetry vis-a-vis his daughter. It's as if his poems could create a world that truly would either protect or deceive her -- an astonishing amount of power for a poem to have. Was it an anguish for him to face the fact that a poem could not protect her from the world? or was the fear a function of his own disappointment with the world he had in part created (or failed to create) in his activism? How close to the harsh world did Oppen feel he came in his poems? It must have been very close, in the writing of it if not the actual poems. It makes me think of the psychic distance between me and my son when I write. I feel the distance is far, and must be. I almost feel he is part of an entirely separate world -- I don't think about him at all, even when it's him I'm writing about.


Yes, certainly one gets the sense Oppen felt his poems to be "very close" to the "harsh world" - and I think much of his belief in the power and efficacy of the poem can be traced back to his complex(if somewhat flawed) understanding of Heideggerean philosophy. How this translates to his "awareness" of his daughter in writing a poem I cannot entirely comprehend and it seems Oppen did not care to clarify or elaborate this point. I can only reconstruct the tenor of his thought through what he did write down or how he attempted to explain this conflict.

I think (but did not state above) that Oppen's fear may be projected somewhat on his daughter (to use a psychological term from which Oppen undoubtedly would have recoiled), that in fact the fear was his own, and included his fear of saying something that might disturb her when it is more likely he would have only disturbed himself.

Additionally, with regards to his later description of his silence as "poetic" and his continued belief that he "never stopped being a poet" - I think one might take with a grain of salt. It seems Oppen might be projecting again, this time from his rediscovered literary concerns back to a period when it seemed poetry was the furthest thing from his mind. To state it differently, and perhaps closer to the truth, he never stopped seeing "in the manner of poetry," as he writes of the man in the ditch in his poem "Route." That is, he never stopped viewing the world in that way that he felt was "poetic" - seeing the water trickle through the rubble in wartime France, or remembering Reznikoff's "girder / still itself in the rubble" while trapped in a foxhole facing death. I think it safe to say he stopped being a poet - he stopped writing poetry for over 24 years, completely.

As far as your identification with Oppen as father, and your struggle to identify with that role in terms of women artists, I might add that I have difficulty understanding Oppen's reticence, and share your feeling of "disassociation" with my daughter, particularly when I am writing about her. These are merely words on a page, after all, and one's art is a small part of one's life, taken as a whole. Or perhaps this is what Oppen is getting at, or feels should be the case.

As far as the opposition to "baby art," Oppen wrote some rather breathtaking poems about his daughter, and other's children. "Sara in Her Father's Arms," to cite one example, is perhaps one of Oppen's best poems, in my estimation. This may be for rather personal reasons, however; soon after my daughter was born, I read Oppen's poem after picking up the 1975 Collected Poems in my neighborhood bookstore. It was the first poem I read out the book, and its observations and images were immediately recognizable and relatable to me. So it was Oppen the father, speaking to a new father (his friend Max Pepper), but also speaking to me. I've since been unable to stop listening.

I wonder if renouncing poetry and then returning to it is different than wondering whether the poems ever would come back (as I did in the months after Chance's adoption)? Would I see and think that way again? During that period I feel I was much less a poet than Oppen was over his 24+ years not writing. (I realize it sounds like I'm competing for the prize of Least Credible Writer.) Thank you for pointing out Oppen's poem. I think it's breathtaking, too.

When I read the tragically spurious bit about "baby art" in that article i thought right away of Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight." And of course the women poets I admire who are writing about birth and mothering, including Rachel Zucker, Arielle Greenberg, Rebecca Wolff, and many others. I think Rukeyser's "Nine Poems for the Unborn Child" is breathtaking.

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as I enter
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