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GEORGE OPPEN AND POSSIBILITIES OF THE POLITICAL
December 17, 2016
Thank you for coming.
Thank you to Steve Dickison, hugely, for inviting me to do this.
And thank you to George and Mary Oppen for the lives they lived and the work they did,
which is why we all are gathered here tonight.
In 1963, in the summer issue of Kulchur magazine, there appeared the only essay that
George Oppen published. LeRoi Jones was Music Editor at Kulchur; the Art Editor was
Frank O’Hara and the Film Editor was Bill Berkson. George Balanchine was on the cover
of the summer issue, and next to Oppen’s text inside is a piece by Louis Zukofsky—the
only quote-unquote Objectivist on this New York School roster, a dear friend of Oppen’s
from whom, by this point, he had been painfully estranged. So this was in many ways an
awkward venue for him. Given the content of the essay, this is appropriate.
The title of Oppen’s essay is “The Mind’s Own Place.” It was written in March and April
of 1962 for submission to Denise Levertov, who was then poetry editor at The Nation.
Levertov rejected it. But a few months later, the editor at Kulchur, Lita Hornick, took it.
In 1975, Eliot Weinberger and Geoffrey Hamburger reprinted the essay in their own little
magazine, Montemora, also based in New York.1 So “The Mind’s Own Place” circulated
in Oppen’s lifetime, and it has been mentioned fairly often in these lectures over the
years, as well as in other posthumous studies of Oppen’s life and work.
Most of these discussions address one of two elements in the essay. The first is a quarrel
about politically motivated poetry that Oppen had been having with Levertov before his
text was written, which he extends in this dense, short piece. The second is the relation of
the essay to Oppen’s deeply held belief in the poem as an unfolding of experience; the
poem as the movement of active thought, rather than a declaration of belief or statement
of already-certain knowledge.
As far as I know, there is no lecture or essay devoted exclusively to “The Mind’s Own
Place,” and scholars who have discussed these two concerns—a) the dispute with
Levertov around politics in poetry; and b) Oppen’s conviction regarding a poetics of
independence and discovery—do not fully take them on as a dyad in which each term
requires and contextualizes the other. I want to do this with you this evening.
More specifically, I want to ask how Oppen’s understanding of the mind’s own place as a
locus for existentially risky poeisis dovetails with, and works against, what he calls “the
feminine technologies.” This phrase derives not from “The Mind’s Own Place,” but from
a poem titled “Technologies”—a poem that continues the argument with Levertov. So I
want to map the contours of “the mind’s own place” as Oppen frames it, and look into the
operations of the feminine technologies as they support and nourish but also block and
dissipate creative force. I want to think about why Oppen names the blocks and
In order to do this, I will look closely at “The Mind’s Own Place” while thinking
biographically about Oppen’s exchanges with Levertov and his relations with the women
in his family—his wife Mary Colby Oppen and daughter Linda Oppen Mourelatos; his
sisters June Oppen Degnan and Elizabeth (or Libby) Oppen Hughes; his niece Diane
Meyer, who was nicknamed Andy; and especially his mother Elsie Rothfeld
Oppenheimer—who committed suicide in 1912, when her daughter Libby was seven and
her son George was four, several years before their father George August Oppenheimer,
Sr. shortened and Anglicized the family name.
There is one more element to my inquiry tonight. In thinking about the mind’s own place
as the refuge from which principled (poetic) action can emerge, and in asking how that
place maintains integrity not only by banishing certain desires—for example, the desire
for self-assertion in a public mode—but also by coding such desires as narcissistically
female, I want to turn back to the essay’s title, and think about what Oppen is doing when
he borrows this phrase from a poet, and a poem, that we might take to be as far from
Oppen as it is possible to get, much farther than Levertov in the early 1960s: namely John
Milton and his epic Paradise Lost.
I’ve divided what follows into three mini-essays. I’m going to talk about “the feminine
technologies,” and ways in which the intersubjective, affective maneuvers that travel
under this label can be coded by Oppen as life-sustaining or truth-denying.
Then I’ll spend some time on a close reading of Oppen’s essay.
But first, I want to turn to Milton and the assertion that “the mind is its own place.” This,
of course, is language the poet places in the mouth of Satan—which means that, snaking
through the apparently rock-solid declaration is a seam of fool’s gold.
So this is Mini-essay I: “The mind is its own place” (Milton version)
Milton begins Paradise Lost, Book I, in medias res. The rebel angels have lost the
always-already futile War in Heaven, and have been flung headlong off the cosmic
battlements, falling for nine days and nights through Chaos to land finally in the volcanic
gulag of Hell, newly purpose-built by God to hold them. As the scene opens, the stunned
losers are still rolling in the sulfurous Lake of Fire. But as our point-of-view zooms in to
witness the action, they are waking from their stupor, and the ex-angel formerly known as
Lucifer lifts his head above the waves of flame, rallying his troops:
Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: farthest from him is best
Whom reason hath equal’d, force hath made supream
Above his equals.
A leader whose might alone arrogates to himself the right to rule over equals is, of
course, a tyrant. But—of course—this is Satan’s hubris talking; God’s force is indeed
supreme, but so by definition are his reason and his justice. It is Satan’s rational
processes that are fatally convoluted. He is the tyrant—as Milton emphasizes in Satan’s
speech to his followers about making the best of their exile:
Farewell happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.
By this slippery logic, light can turn into dark and dark into light just by saying that it
must be so; in a parody of God’s Logos, the pretender styles himself king, and treason
masquerades as liberation. The non-divine mind that presumes to turn heaven to hell and
vice versa just by thinking about it, that imagines itself unchanged by its actions and
circumstances, is mortally deluded.
Or is it? Seen in one light, Satan is an egomaniac, a violent depressive committing step
by compulsive step to destroying himself and everything he seduces, i.e. the world. But
shift your gaze slightly, and Satan’s Book I speech reads as an impassioned declaration of
individual freedom and existential courage.
One follower of Milton who read it this way is the poet whom Oppen claims as perhaps
his major influence, William Blake. The poet/hero or demi-god in Blake’s poem Milton
descends to earth to defend the powers of imagination. Or, rather, he falls like a meteor—
just as Lucifer, the Morning Star, had fallen. But while Satan in Paradise Lost drops into
the burning lake, Milton in Blake’s Milton drops straight into the body of one William
Blake, who happens to be standing in his garden in Felpham on the Sussex coast:
so Milton’s shadow fell
Precipitant loud thund’ring into the Sea of Time & Space.
Then first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star,
Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift;
And on my left foot falling on the tarsus, enter’d there;
But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe.
Then Milton knew that the Three Heavens of Beulah were beheld
By him on earth in his bright pilgrimage of sixty years.
To Annihilate the Self-hood of Deceit & False Forgiveness.
(Plate 14, Book I2)
Later in Blake’s poem, in a kind of flashback, Milton is lying on the Couch of Death,
ministered to by Seven Angels. They instruct: “Imagination is not a State; it is the Human
Existence itself.” (II, p. 115). “State” here is a pun, suggesting not only the condition of
the poet’s inward faculties, but also the unjust and unsettled Europe over which the black
cloud of magical refusal spreads.
So, human existence, for Blake, inheres not in the political, but in the mind. And the
smarmy self-hood of “Deceit & False Forgiveness” serves only to hobble imagination, to
pervert the poet’s pursuit of truth.
This is also Oppen’s argument in “The Mind’s Own Place.”
In making this point, Blake understands the historical John Milton very well. Christopher
Hill, in his monumental study Milton and the English Revolution, describes the man
Milton’s dedication to living and working much as Blake and indeed the later Oppen each
saw himself living and working—as “a heretic in the truth” standing stubbornly alone in
the light of personal revelation.3
Such independence of mind for Milton was political as much as it was religious, for he—
unlike Blake, but like Oppen—was a political animal, no matter how thwarted his
revolutionary hopes. Milton agitated for the overthrow of what he saw as the tyranny of
Charles I, and having served during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell as Secretary of
Foreign Tongues (think something between Secretary of State and Minister of
Propaganda), he suffered from the violent reversals of the Restoration. Hill remarks that
under the 1648 Blasphemy Ordinance, Milton would have been liable to five
capital charges and eight involving life imprisonment [….] Let us halve [this]
estimate, and have Milton liable to only two and a half executions, imprisonment
for only four lives; it still gives us an idea of the dangers that beset him (p. 102).
It was during this period, while prison and death hung over him and censorship hemmed
him in, when he had gone blind and was living under house arrest, wrestling with the idea
that these catastrophes might be God’s punishment, that Milton wrote Paradise Lost.
One cannot help but think of George and Mary Oppen in the 1950s, in exile in Mexico
under pressure from the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But, I know that many of you know the Oppens’ biographies very well, and as you will
remember, even before McCarthyism temporarily capsized their lives, the Oppens had
been prone to transformations. They left the United States to expatriate themselves to
France in 1929, and just as suddenly came home to join the Communist Party and take up
community organizing during the Depression. George trained as a pattern maker in the
Machinists Union and obtained a draft deferment, only to give it up because he felt it was
his duty to fight fascism and defend European Jews.
Like so many of their generation, in grief and disillusionment, the Oppens gave up
Communism too. Talking with an interviewer about his decision to begin writing again
after the return from Mexico in 1960, Oppen says, “Rome had recently burned, so there
was no reason not to fiddle.”4 In a notebook, thinking about the collapse of Popular Front
politics and the disasters of Stalinism, he writes to himself: “And I broke off that book”—
he is talking about his first book, Discrete Series, the book with an introduction by Ezra
Pound and a favorable review from William Carlos Williams—“I broke off that book and
the writing of poetry for that search once more on the actual ground, and returned to
poetry only when we knew that we had failed.”5
Even before any of this had happened, the young George Oppen had rebelled against his
wealthy Jewish family. He had gotten expelled from military school for driving drunk (a
passenger in his car was killed); and enrolled in Oregon State University—where, in a
poetry class, he met the blonde non-Jewish daughter of a downwardly mobile western
family, Mary Colby, and they ran away together in his friend’s car.
This is what Christopher Hill says about John Milton as an undergraduate at Cambridge:
He already had a mind, I suspect, more open than most of his peers to change, to
novelty, to improvement, to heresy. At all events, that is the way he went” (p. 63).
So we have fearless young George and Mary, catapulting into their lives.
We have iconoclastic old Milton, adamant about the sovereignty of imagination—and
about the dangers of said sovereignty.
Let’s turn to someone radically less positive, but no less influential.
This is Mini-essay II: The Feminine Technologies
Elsie Rothfeld Oppenheimer died in 1912, at the age of twenty-eight, of a self-inflicted
gunshot wound. (I don’t have a picture of Elsie. I wish I did.) “She left a suicide note”—I
am quoting Rachel Blau DuPlessis in the biographical sketch with which she introduces
The Selected Letters of George Oppen, which she edited:
She left a suicide note (not apparently extant) whose terms haunted Oppen; he
recites it, or reconstructs it, from memory in a 1960 letter to June Oppen Degnan.
“We’ve been happy - - I love you – I worry about the children and school and
their clothes – it seems – since I did this and don’t know why – that I am not fitted
for the business of life.”6
Oppen’s half sister, June, was not Elsie’s child. June was the daughter of George’s
stepmother Seville Shainwald Oppen, and was also his sometime publisher and full-time
supporter. June was publisher of the San Francisco Review, an advisor to James Laughlin
at New Directions, a powerful figure in the Democratic Party, and later in life publisher
of Oceans, an environmental magazine. This letter of George’s, with its relaying of his
mother’s words, was written in response to the death of his and June’s other sister, Libby
(who was Elsie’s daughter), in January 1960—just as George and Mary were moving
back to the U.S. from Mexico. Libby overdosed, and George assumed that she too had
committed suicide. He ends his note to June like this:
Your letter is somehow blindingly full of life. For which, thanks. And for which
all of these people need you very much (SL, 35).
He doesn’t say who “all of these people” are—presumably himself, and Libby’s daughter
Andy, to whom he was very close, as well as Mary and Linda. But what I want to draw
out is the juxtaposition of two kinds of emotional activity by women in the family. Elsie’s
legacy, and now Libby’s, are marked by trauma. June’s contribution, in contrast, is a
dazzling vitality. Here we have two versions of “the feminine technologies.”
Oppen’s responses to women poets were complex, and have been treated in detail in
several wonderful essays. I will briefly touch on some of their main points, and offer you
the sources if you’d like to have them.7 My own interest is to insert two other figures into
this consideration of female interlocutors—two figures of maternal complication and
fateful intensity: Elsie Oppenheimer, and Milton’s Eve.
The phrase “the feminine technologies” comes from Oppen’s poem “Technologies” that
I’ve already mentioned.8 The poet’s thoughts are roaming, quote:
Without horizons, streets
Of the feminine technologies
And compassion which will clothe
Gardens, desire, compassion covering all: Sounds nice. But, for Oppen, this is precisely
the problem. The feminine technologies are too nice, artificially so.
Writing to June about his draft of “The Mind’s Own Place” and Levertov’s rejection of it,
the thing is almost written at her, and at her latest poems, some of which are very
bad. Denise says that it [the essay] was ‘extremely hard’ to follow [….] Of
course, she may just not be in a position to permit herself to follow it: she is very
determined to be (or become?) a good mother, to enter political (anti-bomb, at
least) activity, etc etc – The essay very nearly tells her to stop writing for a while
--- if she must, just now, arrive at edifying conclusions.
conclusions (mid-1962; SL, 57-8).
He is angry at Levertov for fostering what Blake calls “the Self-hood of Deceit & False
The poem in question is Levertov’s “During the Eichmann Trial” from her book The
Jacob’s Ladder, published in 1961. Her fault in this poem, in Oppen’s view, is that she
ends the first part of the three-part piece with an invocation of all-inclusive fellowfeeling. “Pity this man who saw it,” she writes:
whose obedience continued—
he, you, I, which shall I say?
isolate in a bulletproof
witness-stand of glass,
a cage, where we may view
ourselves, an apparition
telling us something he
does not know: we are members
of one another.
Oppen explains in an interview:
the feminine technologies I take to be a kind of medical pragmatism . . . There are
times one is infinitely grateful for the feminine contribution, and times one just
has to fight about it, and this poem [“Technologies”] was more or less fighting
(L.S. Dembo, Speaking with GO, 32).
Feminine technologies are medicine plus spoonfuls of sugar. Here is Adolf Eichmann, the
architect of murder. But let’s pity him; let’s remember that we are all universally human.
I should say that I don’t agree with Oppen’s appraisal of Levertov’s poem. I wish I had
more time to do her justice. But I do think that the failings he attributes to her are failings
that poets striving for political gravity often do fall into; I do think that unearned
certainties and ingratiating attitudes are failings that, in striving to make political sense
through poetry, we fall into. And my immense respect for Oppen, and my desire to learn
from him—especially now—demand that I think through his criticism.
So: The feminine technologies are driven by a neurotic desire to be liked, to be useful, to
be good and right. They afflict the mother who pretties up yucky truths; and they dumb
down the ambition of younger women, trapping them in narcissistic loops where they
exist only as affirmed by others. Writing to the poet Diane Wakoski in 1965, Oppen
exaggerates the voice of a self-conscious girl artist:
‘I, I I I I, find me, find my navel, so that it will exist, find my nipples, so they will
exist, find every hair of my belly, find…’ […] Because it seems to me the pitfall
that has trapped every women poet who has written in English: I am good (or I am
bad); find me (SL, 110).
This passage about belly and nipples appears again in the poem “Of Being Numerous”
(part 15)—where it is transposed into the voice of a “Chorus (androgynous).”9 It’s not
exclusively a woman’s plaint anymore, and it is significant that Oppen felt the context of
a poem required this adjustment. Still, in a letter to his niece Andy, he puts the issue again
I think that the last refuge of scoundrelly women is that they wish to feel beautiful
while they make something (SL, 111).
These visions of the narcissistic mother-poet and the narcissistic femme-poet are curious,
in that Oppen’s actual mother, and the real woman poet (and translator, and painter, and
memoirist, and activist) with whom he lived, were not like this at all. The nicey-nice
mother concerned to clothe everyone with compassion is just the opposite of his real
young mother Elsie, who could only struggle to speak concern for her children’s lives
through distress about their school clothes; who not only did not swaddle them in care,
but abandoned them in her own hopelessness. And regarding George’s feelings about
Mary—I could cite many examples, but here is one, from the poem “Of This All
There are the feminine aspects,
The mode in which one lives
As tho the color of the air
And not indoors
Only——. What distinction
I have is that I have lived
My adult life
With a beautiful woman, I have turned on the light
Sometimes, to see her
(This In Which; NCP, 129)
Erotic happiness and the comfort of Mary’s presence embody the beneficial feminine
technologies, the life-giving powers of domestic warmth. Note, too, that Mary is not
asking to be “found” in this poem; she is asleep, leaving George free to look at her for his
own benefit—his own “distinction”—not for hers.
Between the good feminine technology of sensual abundance, and the bad feminine
technology of needy self-consciousness, there hovers the anti-mother, the mother of noncare.10 Writing again to Andy Meyer in 1969, Oppen responds to something depressive
she has said, and fuses his agitation about young women’s vulnerabilities straight into his
sense of the mother’s crisis:
What you say frightens me That you say it.
You want not to be
[‘]obstructed by the apparatus of living’
And Elsie, my mother, wrote, ‘I
cannot face the business of living’ And I think she meant most of all the children.
That she couldn’t left Libby in bad shape, but I cannot bring myself to say that we
must live in order to deceive each other, even to deceive the children. And Linda
grew up to discover that the world was not as snug as we pretended - - - -11
In a way, he is excusing Elsie. “I cannot bring myself to deceive the children”—even if
the truth of one’s condition is a despair that leaves one’s children naked, parentless.
Better that hard truth than the deception of which he accuses Levertov. And yet in the
next sentence he confesses that he and Mary have dissembled to protect their daughter.
Of course, like Elsie but unlike Levertov, they used pretense in life, not poetry.
This letter to Andy ends with a double lament, linking the falsity of feminine
technologies to the oppressions of patriarchy—while still condemning feminine self-love:
What is the feminine? The love of standing still, of hugging to oneself
containing? It is not a feminine culture, it is very hard for women. Terribly,
terribly hard (SL, 184-5)
Now: Women’s role in patriarchal culture; the original operations of feminine
What does Milton think of Eve? It’s hard to tell; like Adam, and Satan—and, one
suspects, God—he finds her confusing. We first see Eve in Paradise Lost through Satan’s
eyes, and she and Adam are gorgeous and perfect—though her perfection consists as
much in subordination as attractiveness. We overhear her cooing to Adam:
My Author and Disposer, what thou bid’st
Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains,
God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.
And they walk off hand in hand to their bower of bliss to have unfallen sex, much to the
chagrin of Satan, the original peeping Tom. But when Eve takes it into her head that she
wants to work alone, out of Adam’s sight, near the fatal tree, she wheedles to get her
way. She is enfranchised with free will too powerful for her own good; she is too ditzy
and complacent to use it wisely. Or, to restate: She wants primary access to knowledge;
she wants independence; she wants to undergo what Oppen calls “a test of truth.” It
seems wrong to her that she and Adam should feel constantly threatened by evil; as she
Fraile is our happiness, if this be so,
And Eden were no Eden thus expos’d.
Like Levertov daring to speak about the public matter that is Eichmann’s trial for war
crimes, Eve wants to respond without mediation to the world beyond the horizon of
domestic identity. So she leaves, and Adam lets her leave, because the feminine
technologies flummox him. He puzzles aloud to the angel Raphael:
For well I understand in the prime end
Of Nature her th’ inferior, in the mind
And inward Faculties, which most excel,
In outward also her resembling less
His Image who made both, and less expressing
The character of that Dominion giv’n
O’re other Creatures; yet when I approach
Her loveliness, so absolute she seems
And in her self compleat, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say,
Seems wisest, vertuousest, discreetest, best;
All higher knowledge in her presence falls
She goes off alone. Her attempt at rational argument doesn’t fool Adam; he knows it’s a
bad idea. But Eve “hugs to herself”—as Oppen would say—a power that Adam can’t
You know what happens next.
And what of Levertov? She was a kind of sister-doppelganger to Oppen. Like him she
was a secular Jew, a Communist, a young Imagist who became an Objectivist. Like him,
though not as violently, she had seen World War II up close, serving as a civilian nurse in
London during the Blitz (Rifkin, 714).
They knew each other slightly when she reviewed Oppen’s book The Materials—the
book with which he returned to poetry—in a double review with By the Waters of
Manhattan by Oppen’s great friend Charles Reznikoff. The review appeared in the leftist
magazine The New Leader, and her take was largely sympathetic.
Oppen’s poems, Levertov writes, “Are essentially of process, not tasteful art objects.”
One would think that this distinction would please him. But Oppen wrote to Levertov to
protest. He accuses her of encouraging him toward “mendacity,” and defends his right to
resist what he calls “a duty of joviality”: to resist, that is, the blandishments of feminine
After reading “The Mind’s Own Place,” and understanding that, as Oppen told June, the
essay was “almost written at her,” Levertov answered. “Dear George,” she writes:
Far from being angry, I count it as a solemn good fortune to have the concern and
admiration of someone I respect as much as yourself. Only a true friend would so
take me to task.
Now, maybe this is feminine technology in action; maybe Levertov just knows how to
placate a grouchy older man with lavish praise.
But she goes on to argue in detail with his concerns. Let me quote at some length, since
Quartermain and the other writers about the Levertov kerfuffle don’t discuss her letter.12
Levertov goes on:
In your letter you say that ‘poetry is not merely a statement of belief but a test of
truth; or at least a test of belief…’ …merely to make statements, to find ways
of saying things, is likely to be saying merely what one would like to believe? I
don’t think I fully understand this. Is it that you mean that if one tries truly to be
honest with oneself in the act of writing, then the words one has written will tell
one—as soon as one has thus objectified them, projected them onto the page—
whether one really believes what one is saying? In that case—always
remembering, though, the possibility of autointoxication, of convincing oneself by
one’s own rhetoric—I agree with you. But how are you (or anyone) to judge:
whether the writer believes his own words? O.K., you will answer, perhaps, ‘by
the quality of the writing, by whether the ring of the words is true to my (the
listener’s) ear.’ But that is no test, surely; I mean it is certainly no objective test.
Therefore, while you may feel I am often mistaken you ought to grant that I
would not be honest if I expressed a pessimism I don’t feel.
She signs the eleven-page handwritten letter:
Love, + to Mary—
Thus the pleasures and dangers of the feminine technologies, that reify love and care as
self-obsession and codependency.
Or, conversely, thus the risk for the woman who speaks from her own optimism—or from
her own pessimism—and acts—creating connection or breaking it—by articulating the
stakes of her own knowledge.
Thus Levertov, speculating about human connection even in the face of genocide. Thus
Eve, going off to talk to the snake alone. Thus Elsie, refusing the world that contains her
“Empty space must be the mother from which we are born,” Oppen writes in a letter,
“deserted too outside a closed door of nothingness” (SL, 31-2).14
Here, then, is the last of my mini-talks, about the ways in which Oppen proposes to avoid
these feminine over-exposures by claiming existential solitude as a prerequisite for the
Mini-essay III: “The Mind’s Own Place” (Oppen version)
“The Mind’s Own Place” begins abruptly, not with Satan, Eve, Hell, Milton, or Blake,
but with Impressionist painting:
Sargent is reported to have said to Renoir that he painted “cads in the park.” And
Sargent was of course quite right.
For those who recognize the Miltonic title—and Oppen’s audience could be expected to
recognize it—these opening lines of the essay jar strangely, unless one thinks of Satan as
a Byronic “cad.” But such neat continuity is not Oppen’s concern. His point is that art’s
subject matter is not definitive; a work does not secure validity via topical reference. The
“passion,” as Oppen says, of art, is “to see, and to see more clearly [….] The emotion
which creates art is the emotion that seeks to know and to disclose.”
This is perhaps Oppen’s bedrock principle.
Note, too, that the constitutive “emotion that seeks to know and to disclose” is again
gendered. Renoir’s paintings as feats of social exploration are not reducible to the
behavior of caddish lads in straw boaters; it is the handling of paint, regardless of subject,
that is (or was, in the 1880s) form-breaking. Here in the first paragraph of his essay,
Oppen gives us to understand that the will to “see, and to see more clearly” is structural;
it has to do with the work of art as an object. And it is hard, masculine—for its clean-
slicing rigor is contrasted, explicitly, in the next sentence, with “the cocoon of ‘Beauty’
[scare quotes] as the word is often used.”
This is a “beauty of background music and of soft lights,” and “though it might be an art,
is an art of the masseur and the perfumist.” Such sensuality, the essay implies, is
sycophantic, decorative, a plaything of the rich. As such, it is effeminate and
The stakes are not merely sissy versus virile. They are social. “Such an art,” Oppen
continues—truth-seeking art—“has always to be defended against a furious and bitter
Bohemia.” This petulant clique clings to “an onanism which they believe to be artistic,”
to the picture of “the artist as a sort of super-annuated infant.” Self-pleasuring and selfdeluding (read: effeminate; read: Satanic), the Bohemians are in a way worse than lowbrows who don’t care about art at all. The poet, in contrast, is brave; and Oppen—who
rarely has much use for the avant-garde—permits himself a military metaphor. The artist
in pursuit of the objectivizing image is trapped in a no-man’s land between ignorant
armies that clash by night:
it is the nightmare of the poet or the artist to find himself wandering between the
grim gray lines of the Philistines and the ramshackle emplacements of Bohemia.
If he ceases to believe in the validity of his insights—the truth of what he is
saying—he becomes the casualty, the only possible casualty, of that engagement.
I think here of the infantryman George Oppen, two days before his 38th birthday and so
much older than other soldiers in his outfit that they called him Fader Oppen, trapped in a
foxhole somewhere over the Rhine in Germany, gravely wounded, while the man above
him in the hole begged him to go for help, and finally died. To be the “casualty” of the
“engagement” between rivals whose actions are shamefully alike is not an empty
metaphor for Oppen the soldier, nor for Oppen the disenchanted Communist.
So. Here we arrive at the separation from other people that characterizes “the mind’s own
place.” The poet must not “cease to believe in the validity of his insights—the truth of
what he is saying.” He must not be beguiled by invitations to inflate and kitsch-ify, to gin
up images to suit a preconceived, pseudo-aesthetic plan. Shifting from the battlefield to
another symbolic landscape, Oppen introduces one of his favorite images for this
If the poet is an island, this is the sea which most lovingly and intimately grinds
him to sand.
“This” being the conflict between kitsch and decadence. Elsewhere Oppen argues that
what he terms “the bright light of shipwreck”—the fatal charm of isolation—is selfgenerated, a will o’ the wisp of the will. Consider, for instance, Part 7 of the poem Of
Being Numerous, from the book of the same name, which reads in its entirety:
By the shipwreck
Of the singular
We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.
This poem, famously, considers the conditions under which we might achieve the mutual
belonging that Levertov discusses, without the saccharine “mendacity” that Oppen
imputes to her version of it.15
But here in “The Mind’s Own Place,” in 1962, numerosity is for grains of sand, ground
down to sameness.
We are still on the first page of Oppen’s essay. He turns now to questions about the
definition of the real:
We cannot assert the poet’s relation to reality, nor exhort him to face reality, nor
do any of these desirable things, nor be sure that we are not insisting merely that
he discuss only those things we are accustomed to talk about, unless we somehow
manage to restore a meaning to the word.
“The word” being reality, which for Oppen is a name for that which is, which exists,
mysteriously outside the mind, there to be perceived by the mind if the mind will
courageously hold fast in its own place. To speak passionately and precisely about
objects of perception is to look out clear-eyed from this singular location, understanding
all the while that the mind’s own place is not synonymous with—is chronically, at times
terrifyingly, distant from and distorting of—the rest of the world. It is in this spirit that
Oppen celebrates “a substantial language / Of clarity, and of respect.” These are the last
lines of his poem “A Narrative,” from the volume This In Which, published in 1965. The
first lines of the same poem are:
I am the father of no country
And can lie.
But whether mendacity
Is really the best policy. And whether
One is not afraid
He is quoting his own letter of complaint to Levertov. And midway through the poem, he
refers directly to his essay:
Whose tail is in his mouth: he is the root
This ring worm, the devil’s
Doctrine the blind man
Knew. His mind
Is its own place;
He has no story. Digested
And digesting—Fool object,
In the gutter
Of Atlantic Avenue!
Let it alone! It is deadly.
(This In Which; NCP, 150; 153)
The blind man—Milton—knew the devil’s doctrine, and Oppen acknowledges that he
himself knows it too. But the self-consuming foolishness, the deadly solipsism or “art /
[…] of the perfumist” (another repetition from the essay) that are rejected in “A
Narrative” belong to the feminine principle.16
Now comes the heart of Oppen’s essay, the parts most often cited in critical discussions.
Without drawing attention to the fact—almost burying the connection—he returns to his
key preoccupation, the idea of a poem as a zone in which contact with reality unfolds.
This means, again, that the poem is a space of confrontation with one’s own thoughts,
and therefore with one’s values. The image, Oppen writes, takes shape as
an account of the poet’s perception, the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a
test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness.
It is a part of the function of poetry to serve as a test of truth.
In Blake’s terms, again: the alternative to such truth-testing is to degrade the poem into
an empty exercise in “the Self-hood of Deceit & False Forgiveness.” Oppen:
It is possible to say anything in abstract prose, but a great many things one
believes or would like to believe or thinks he believes will not substantiate
themselves in the concrete materials of the poem.
What does it mean for a belief to “substantiate itself,” in the poem?17 As Levertov asks: If
the poem-as-encounter transpires in the mind’s own place, how is the reader to appraise
this “substantiation”? If the writer alone must judge “the validity of his insights,” how
can a reader judge too?
Yet this is exactly what Oppen goes on to do: to judge as reader rather than as writer. Just
when we notice that the unsubstantiated poem is being rebuked in the very terms in
which Oppen has rebuked Levertov, he introduces her, by name, into the essay as an
example of good perception. The image is taken from Levertov’s poem “Matins,” and it
gives us, quote:
the real, the new-laid
egg whose speckled shell
the poet fondles and must break
if he will be nourished
Levertov calls her poet “he.” But the image is maternal; the egg laid by the hen and
cooked, one assumes, by the mother. Oppen acknowledges this feminine milieu when he
goes on to applaud Levertov’s evocation of
the events of a domestic morning: the steam rising in the radiators, herself
‘breaking the handle of my hairbrush,’ and the family breakfast, to the moment
when, the children being sent to school,
comes in at the street door.
This poetry is legitimate in Oppen’s view because it
means only to be clear, to be honest, to produce the realization of reality and to
construct a form out of no desire for the trick of gracefulness, but in order to make
it possible to grasp, to hold the insight which is the content of the poem.
The positive feminine technology of nourishment is being opposed, tacitly, to the
negative feminine technology par excellence, the “desire for the trick of gracefulness.”
Against both stands the simple, and implicitly masculine, “grasping of insight.”
From here “The Mind’s Own Place” moves speedily among references. We get Bertrand
Russell; Pound, Eliot, and Williams; Carl Sandberg and Vachel Lindsay; Heraclitus; a
Zen master; the children’s books It Happened on Mulberry Street and Millions of Cats,
Winnie the Pooh and Huck Finn; and on to Alice and Henry James. Later Dante and the
dolce stil nuovo. All these citations trend toward an Emersonian point: “our need” as
Americans in the twentieth century “to make our own literature.” (Dante’s sweet style
was new. The Beats should stay home and not flirt with the exotica of Zen. Et cetera.)
In spite of himself, then, for Oppen the mind’s own place is national—just as Blake’s
Milton returns not to some unspecified land, but to Blake’s England. The stubborn
independence Oppen champions is an American virtue, and the military metaphor flickers
through the text again with an echo of “The Gettysburg Address”:
The poet means to trust his direct perceptions, and it is even possible that it might
be useful for the country to listen, to hear evidence, to consider what indeed we
have brought forth upon this continent.
From this echo of Lincoln at war, we shift again. Suddenly now Oppen is talking about
“the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants,”
men and women who found refuge in the tenements of these shores from political
and financial shipwreck. There they developed a morality of crisis, an ethos of
survival, a passionate philosophy of altruism and ambition.
Shipwreck here is societal, collective, and it gives rise to a project that Oppen treats very
seriously indeed. Altruism and solidarity in the neighborhood, in the tenement, on the
factory floor, are precious to Mary and George. This being social and socialist is a pursuit
to which they dedicated half their lives.
But. There is a huge BUT:
But neither ambition nor solidarity nor altruism is capable of establishing values.
“Political morality” is profound. But it is not the same as “values.” As for Blake:
“Imagination is not a State.” Why? As my students would say, “because capitalism.”
Political morality as Oppen defines it aims at—and if it is strong enough, achieves—
collective prosperity. But that amounts to a kind of socialist keeping up with the Joneses:
If the puritanical values proved themselves in material well-being, in the escape
from danger of starvation, in TVs and radios, electric toasters and perhaps airconditioners, electric razors and a strawberry corer, and are now pushing the
electric toothbrush, then altruism demands these things also for the other man. It
cannot, of itself, get beyond that.
Recall that he is writing in 1962—consider what Warhol, for example, is doing at this
moment. Oppen is writing in the deluge of postwar prosperity, in the midst of the socalled American Century. Material equality is a foundation of civic equality; it is what he
and Mary fought for as organizers. But we get beyond the provision of such equality only
with whatever difficulty, with whatever sense of vertigo, we begin to speak for
ourselves. Be-razored and be-toastered, and perhaps anarchist and irresponsible,
the grandson of the immigrant and the descendent of the puritan better begin to
speak for himself. If he is a poet he must.
There is not even a paragraph break, and abruptly Oppen is talking not about social
struggle in the abstract, but about “The people on the Freedom Rides.” These militants,
he affirms, “are both civilized and courageous; the people in the Peace Marches are the
sane people of the country.” They are agitating for altruism and solidarity, for justice as
equal representation under the law. But this collective risk-taking is not, Oppen says, “a
way of life, or should not be. It is a terrifying necessity.”
To reiterate: During times when it is necessary, such courageous togetherness is of the
highest priority. It instantiates care—the feminine technology—at its best. But it requires
practical, instrumentalized organization and conscious dedication to the other. And, for
Oppen, this is not the same as making art.
Here is the second crux of the essay:
Bertolt 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. If one goes on
to imagine a direct call for help, then surely to refuse it would be a kind of treason
to one’s neighbors. Or so I think. But the bad fiddling could hardly help, and
similarly the question can only be whether one intends, at a given time, to write
poetry or not.
This is why he stopped writing. He feels it deeply—as we see from the fact that he uses
that “fiddling while Rome burns” metaphor more than once. The poet must speak for
himself. The activist, conversely, must answer the call of her neighbors. There are
situations which cannot honorably be met by art, and it is one’s duty to meet such
situations honorably. Fiddling cannot put fires out—and fires must be put out so that the
planet does not burn. Therefore, art must wait.18
The mind is its own place, and that place is poetry. Poetry is the mind’s intrinsic, vital
center of gravity, and poetry must make its own decisions, feel its own vigorous and
startling perceptions, take its own risks, define its own relation to that which exists
outside it. Because, in the end—and this is crucial—the collective does need art. Rome
does need fiddlers. So the artist, even in times when society is not actively immolating
itself, must be careful never to pander and cutesify; must not make vast and baffling life
sound easy and grand.
To say it again: Politics, for Oppen, means serious organizing, disciplined platform- and
coalition-building, tireless practical effort in collectives, on the street, in public. The
mind’s own place is other from, exists apart from, all that. The alternative is “medical”
art—the feminine technology at its worst—which includes socialist realism and Partysanctioned propaganda, as well as nice right-thinking poems glossing over the agonies of
ethical contradiction and organized violence. Oppen writes:
It is possible that a world without art is simply and flatly uninhabitable, and the
poet’s business is not to use verse as an advanced form of rhetoric, nor to seek to
give to political statements the aura of eternal truth.
Therefore the poet, speaking as a poet, declares his political nonavailability.
This is the end of the essay, and the address to Levertov via her poem “Matins” returns to
the center of Oppen’s discourse. The mother is at home with her children, feeling on her
pulses the ingenious organic fragility of the speckled eggshell—registering, that is, a
fresh and potent contact with her own feeling as synergistic with objects of the world.
How different this is from “the political thing,” as Oppen describes it. He is talking about
the Kennedy Administration and negotiations toward the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty:
But what we must have now, the political thing we must have, is a peace. And a
peace is made by a peace treaty. And we have seen peace treaties before; we
know what they are. This one will be, if we get it, if we survive, like those before
it, a cynical and brutal division of the world between the great powers. Everyone
knows what must be in that document: the language of both sides has been
euphemistic but clear. A free hand in Eastern Europe to Russia: to the United
States in Western Europe and in this continent and some other places. And the
hope that China will not soon acquire a bomb.
Cynical manipulations; big men and their international brutalities. “And where,” Oppen
concludes—these are the essay’s last lines:
And where is the poet who will write that she opened her front door, having sent
the children to school, and felt the fresh authentic air in her face and wanted—
The scathing emphasis is in the printed text—“that,” italicized. Where is the true
caregiver who would trade the poetics of an immediate and vivid morning for the
grandiosities of realpolitik?
So, for me, in “The Mind’s Own Place,” George Oppen asks: What are the duties of
public, interpersonal care, and what are the possibilities of interior creative speculation?
How can they be reconciled?
It’s not unlike Milton asking, in Paradise Lost: What are the duties of obedience to God,
and what are the possibilities of individual free will? How can they be reconciled?
How does one balance personal convictions—which are the only convictions, finally, that
sustain ethical examination—with altruistic necessity and organized politics?
In each case, the author pirouettes out of the problem by getting mad at a woman who, he
thinks, confuses the self with the other; and burdens public utterance with personal
anxiety; and can’t handle the demands of autonomy.
And, in each case, I come away thinking that the author is an awful lot like the woman he
holds up as the example of transgression. Oppen is a lot like Levertov, and Milton is a lot
like Eve. The uncompromising, melancholic mother is strangely symmetrical with the
uncompromising, melancholic poet.
Is it true that “there are situations which cannot honorably be met by art”? Is it true that
principled despair is more powerful than mendacious hope—that it’s better to reign in
hell than serve in heaven? Can the self-hood of deceit and false forgiveness be
annihilated in poetry, and can we tell when this occurs? I don’t know.
I’d rather leave you, though, with Oppen writing to Andy Meyer in 1973:
I do learn from you. I want so very much to hear about women;
the men are
Well after Oppen’s death, in 2003, Robert Creeley included “The Mind’s Own Place” when he edited Selected Poems of George
Oppen for New Directions. Stephen Cope included it as well in his 2007 culling of Oppen’s working drafts, George Oppen: Selected
Prose, Daybooks, and Papers from the University of California Press. The essay is posted, likewise, on the website of the Poetry
William Blake, Milton, edited and with a commentary by Kay Parkhurst Easson and Roger R. Easson (New York and Boulder, CO:
Random House and Shambhala Publications, 1978), p. 83.
Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (New York: The Viking Press, 1977), p. 154.
See “George and Mary Oppen Interviewed by Burton Hatlen and Tom Mandel, Polk Street, San Francisco, June 1980,” in Richard
Swigg, ed., Speaking with George Oppen: Interviews with the Poet and Mary Oppen, 1968-1987 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and
Company, 2012), 227.
UCSD 16, 17, 4. Quoted in Peter Nicholls, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2007), 40.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed., The Selected Letters of George Oppen (Duke University Press, 1990), p. xi.
A list of essays was included in the slide presentation that accompanied the talk. These were: Burton Hatlen, “‘Feminine
Technologies’: George Oppen Talks at Denise Levertov,” The American Poetry Review, Vol. 22, No. 3 (May/June, 1993); Peter
Quartermain, “‘Conversation with One’s Peers’: George Oppen and Some Women Writers,” George Oppen Memorial Lecture, 1996;
Libbie Rifkin, “‘That We Can Somehow Add Each to Each Other?’: George Oppen between Denise Levertov and Rachel Blau
DuPlessis,” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Winter, 2010); and Richard Swigg, “The test of belief, Or, why George Oppen
quarrelled with Denise Levertov,” Jacket 2, October 25, 2012.
Oppen’s “Technologies” is a rebuttal of Levertov’s poem “Who Is at My Window” (O Taste and See, 1964) in which the “hawk” of
“Technologies” appears as a “blind cuckoo” singing “Timor mortis conturbat me […] What’s the use?” See Denise Levertov: Poems
1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983), 122.
George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions 2002), p. 172.
We glimpse the mother of non-care in Oppen’s surprising confession in a letter to the novelist Julian Zimet, in which he states that
his twenty-five-year abandonment of writing was the price he had paid not to admit his own mortality, and in so doing not to abandon
his own child. “Buddy” was Oppen’s nickname in his family of origin, and it is as Buddy—the motherless child, who had to learn to
be self-sufficient—that Oppen asserts his right to refuse to offer nurture:
there were some fifteen years that political loyalties prevented me from writing poetry. After that I had to wait for Linda to
grow up. Yes:
the poem says that I don’t like to die.
Poppa couldn’t say it: Buddy says it.
Go lean on
someone else (SL, 30).
“He felt very guilty towards the women in his family,” Mary told an interviewer after George’s death:
because for his younger sister, for his niece Andy, for our daughter, for me, he was the man, he was the male, he was the
one. That’s a terrific responsibility, and he felt it very much. His older sister too, but she died. And he was the one male for
all these women. That was a tremendous responsibility. They had other men in their lives, but it never mattered. It had been
his father, and George just inherited that position. The one man who they really could trust and love and accept. See “Mary
Oppen Interviewed by Dennis Young, July 2, 1987” (Speaking with GO, 261).
Peter Nicholls, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2007), 55. Nicholls refers to an “indignant
eight-page letter” (UCSD 16, 6, 21). Setting aside the fact that I do not read this letter as “indignant,” no 8-page letter from DL to GO
exists in the UCSD archive, and the 11-page letter bears the archive number that Nicholls cites. Thanks to Heather Smedberg of the
UCSD Library Mandeville Special Collections and Archives for help in tracking down this letter and verifying its length.
Oppen also defended Levertov vigorously, in print, against a sexist attack by another man in the very magazine that had given a
place to his essay after Levertov’s rejection. In the summer of 1965 he wrote to Hornick:
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 (SL, 115).
From “Exodus,” in Seascape: Needle’s Eye:
When she was a child I read Exodus
To my daughter
‘The children of Israel. . .’
Pillar of fire
Pillar of cloud
We stared at the end
Into each other’s eyes
She said hushed
Were the adults
“Of Being Numerous” retains the doubt about feminine technologies. Oppen quotes Blake’s Jerusalem (1804-20) and goes on to
‘…a Female Will to hide the most evident God
Under a covert…’
Surely infiniteness is the most evident thing in the world
Is it the courage of women
To assume every burden of blindness themselves
(“Of Being Numerous,” Part 34, NCP, 184).
This is the same principle that, in the same poem, complains in the voice of a generic “she” that the “the park / or the river at night /
[…] is horrible” (NCP, 154). The quasi-wild zones that striate urban space are too dark, too wild, for the feminine technologies.
Oppen repeats this phrase in yet another letter to Levertov (SL, 81).
Rachel Blau DuPlessis observes: “Every time Oppen talks about truth, he raises the spectre of the absolute idea; one must, I think,
read the word as true-at-the-time or truth as ‘moments of conviction’ as he said in the Dembo interview.” RBDP, “Objectivist Poetics
and Political Vision: A Study of Oppen and Pound,” in George Oppen: Man and Poet, ed. Burten Hatlen (Orono, ME: National Poetry
Foundation, 1981), 134.
George Oppen, “Simone Weil & Women: An Excange and its Aftermath,” Ironwood No. 26 (Fall 1985; Vol 13, No. 2): George
Oppen—A Special Issue, ed. Michael Cuddihy, p. 177.