Augustus Young IRISH UNIVERSITY REVIEW Spring 1985
George Oppen (1908-1984)
It was an overcast afternoon in September 1972. My friend Anthony Rudolf had arranged an outing for George and Mary Oppen. I was invited along as an Oppen acolyte.
There were perhaps six Oppen acolytes in London at the time (his reading with Robert Duncan at the Central Polytechnic had not yet happened). Otherwise, George Oppen was regarded, if he was regarded at all, as a protege of Ezra Pound recently resurrected by a Pulitzer Prize (and Allen Ginsberg was backing Louis Zukofsky).
However, xeroxes of Oppen's long poem Of Being Numerous were being passed around. This was mainly amongst a rather withdrawn group of young writers with an interest in poetry which went beyond performance art and public confessions. There was a feeling abroad in timid quarters that poetry was increasingly becoming a dangerous game for stunt-men and -women to play on the high wire of suicide bridges (with a psychiatric ward safety-net for the lucky losers). It was the noon night of R.D. Laing and Zen Zing and Li Po and even Fu I. But the joss-sticks of yesteryear were growing damp, and flower-picking poets were once more looking for lapels and vases in order to free their hands for the grubby but honest business of biro pushing. A return from the Jungian platform to the individual page was on the way.
This was not a mass movement. Still, the more provident young (the six acolytes amongst them) were on the look out for non-dramatic survivors from earlier generations who were not of the received canon. Grandfather figures perhaps, prodigal grand-fathers were due for a return. Pound's favourite sons of the thirties, the American Objectivists were particularly ripe for revival. Zukofsky was around and about, a problematic precedent perhaps. But Rakosi, Reznikoff and George Oppen had kept out of the seamier side of the literary sixties, and were still alive and writing.
It should be said, the fervent half dozen were not wholly pure of heart and out for poetry merely. The fact that Oppen stopped writing during the thirties Depression and did not start again until McCarthyism exiled him to Mexico, meant more to them than perhaps it should. He was admired as much for his NOT writing as for his writings. I do not think it would be ungenerous to suggest, the acolytes were less impressed by the political reasons (though they were respected) than the creative restraint: young practitioners of the craft find it almost impossible NOT to write. I speak at least for my youthful self in this. What stirred them most, though, was the way Oppen picked up poetry again as though nothing had happened ("Public silence indeed is nothing"). The clear, controlled line of thought and music was resumed,
There are things
We live among 'and to see them is to know ourselves'...
So spoke the existence of things
(Of Being Numerous, 1967)
Oppen seemed to be telling the acolyte that there is a time for saying and a time for doing, and he had done and said exactly when he should. The supreme arrogance of this statement on art and life bespoke wisdom and judgement and moral assurance. In other words, the six young author/acolytes were in search of character. It was not George Oppen's fault that they found it in him, reading his character rather than his poetry. (At the Poly- technic American Poetry conference in the spring of 1973, Oppen's deep, slow-motion voice spoke for the poetry with moving clarity. One acolyte remembers being chastened. The posse of performing Beats that Robert Duncan brought with him responded respectfully to his simple, dignified and humorous presence.)
Anthony Rudolf planned a singular excursion, a barge trip on the Grand Union Canal. When invited, I questioned its appropriateness. I always regarded the canal as a glorified gutter. I did not tell Anthony this. His answer was characteristically mysterious ("I will tell you another time"). I was glad I had not spoken my mind. Though not because I expected Anthony would ever give me an explanation. Tony was given to deep reasons and I was merely a paddler in them.
Camden Lock was still only in the early stages of gentrification. Dinky little craft-shops had begun to tidy up the courtyard. The place had a self-regarding ambience, an arty enclave for the egalitarian elite. It had not yet been vu1garised into the nouveau Carnaby Street that it is today. On a weekday afternoon in September it was a quiet cloister. George Oppen stood out in the empty courtyard like a Giacometti, a laconic figure, lanky and at ease with the space around him. His wife, Mary, stood by him (their symbiosis was a legend amongst the acolytes) a handsome, busy-looking woman who would have made a fine female warrior. However George, though frail at first sight, did not look as though he needed defending. He had an ironic handshake, testing your grip, and holding back his true strength. Even the most gentlemanly Americans shake hands with a touch of competitiveness. It must have something to do with having to conie to grips with hearty Hemingway types. It is a sensible defence. George though did not appear like a man who needed to prove himself with Morley Callaghan in a boxing ring. But I was a bit bothered that his handshake was not wholly honest (though I understood this, being a hesitant handshaker myself).
I suppose I was still fighting this frivolous trip to Little Venice. On one bank of the canal there would be the trapeze-style aviary, and on the other the giraffe yard of London Zoo. The barge would be cramped, guttering through low-lying stagnant waters, and conversation would not have a chance with the engine. After all, I had an annotated copy of Of Being Numerous in my pocket and an idea that it derived from an argument in Kierkegaard (at the time I derived everything I liked from Kierkegaard). It was, I considered, a journey for killing time and conversation.
The pleasure barge, newly painted with circus motifs, was tethered to an antique bollard, recently restored by Camden Lock's bollard devotee. It floated on the murky water of the canal like an outsized sweet-paper, ship-shaped by a monstrously meticulous schoolboy. There was no one around. Anthony stood between the Oppens in his usual dark and heavy suit, and carrying a briefcase (if I remember right). I felt somewhat silly in my jeans, jersey and bohemian slouch hat. I should have been warned it was a formal occasion.
The ticket-boy was found lolling in the prow waiting for customers.. The party mounted the gangway and sat in the barge waiting. Sitting on wooden benches with a flimsy canopy and rain in the air, there was nothing to be said. For a moment I felt that I was a dangerous lunatic brought out for the day by Doctor Oppen, Nurse Oppen and Orderly Rudolf, Nobody else arrived. Eventually the barge manager came around to tell us that there would be no trip. The reason he gave was "insufficient numbers".
Anthony took the party to a teashop across from the Round House. It was the sort of place where Eugene O'Neill might meet George Orwell. Though on closer inspection it could be seen to have gourmet pretentions: it sold Marine Ices. The white plastic-top tables were littered with sugar cubes. The back mirrors reflected the clientele. Mainly single older women with holdalls and lone-wolf ageless, shabby men. In the merciless mirror they looked like permanent waxwork fittings. In fact, the clientele were probably recent refugees from the Enterprise pub next door, just closed for the afternoon. There was also a straggle of truant schoolchildren, and hard-pressed women rocking prams, at the take-away counter ("Marine Ices Save. . :"). Edward Hopper would have lacquered a temporary eternity out of the gloom, repainting it with cruel beauty into an American Icecream Parlour (entitled 'Afternoon Vigil '). As it was, the interior darkness merely reflected the grey inconsequence of a drizzling Camden outside, afternoons full of sparrows wings and inner-city purgatories.
The atmosphere was not conducive to table-talk. Still there was conversation, not small talk, rather an exchange of alert courtesies. I do not remember the substance. Kierkegaard certainly was not mentioned. It was conversation with a texture, interweaving with what was going on, and not going on, about us. The cafe was darkening, but too early for lights. The white table tops and the water ices had a glow coming from them. It was all oddly animating. Something was being said.
We were, in the words of the baby in one of George's poems, "having the life of our times". I was vaguely aware of being drawn with Anthony into an Oppen meditation,
By the shipwreck
By the shipwreck
We have chosen the
Driving home in the rain I found myself completely content. I was a bit puzzled. I had expected an important conversation, with questions answered, and epigrams to remember. All I could recall was that the parting handshake was straightforwardly firm and warm, and I had no hesitation in returning it. In retrospect, I realise what had happened. I had put by my self-consciousness for an hour or two in the company, allowing the world to mull me over for a change. For the duration I ceased to be a callow youth. This was a new experience for me.