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  • "That We Can Somehow Add Each to Each Other?":George Oppen between Denise Levertov and Rachel Blau DuPlessis
  • Libbie Rifkin (bio)

"Poetry: Pure and Complex," the title of Denise Levertov's review of Charles Reznikoff's By the Waters of Manhattan and George Oppen's The Materials, neatly sums up her assessment of the two volumes. "The illumined transparency of Reznikoff's poetry," she writes, "stems from a rare innocence which makes him unafraid to say the almost-ordinary …; and to say it in a language bare of ornament, revealing its intrinsic music" (25). Oppen's poems, on the other hand, "rise up with an effort out of inner conflict, coming to no facile resolution but pulling the conflict with them into the cruel daylight. Man in his environment, man with his machines; 'how to live, what to do': It is with these complexities that Oppen wrestles" (27).

Levertov's review was published on February 18, 1963, in The New Leader, a magazine founded in 1924 by Eugene V. Debs and other leading members of the American Socialist Party. The paper changed hands in the 1930s, and by the 1950s solidified its place as a liberal, anti-Communist journal of news and opinion, assembling contributions from an international array of dissident public intellectuals.1 Levertov was an occasional reviewer at The New Leader in addition to serving as poetry editor at The Nation in 1961 and again from 1963 to 1965—a formidable combination when it came to shaping access to and opinion about [End Page 703] poetry for an audience that extended beyond strictly literary circles. One member of this wider readership makes her way into the review itself; an "unknown young woman," reading By the Waters of Manhattan over Levertov's shoulder in the subway, asked her to turn the page back so that she could reread a passage that, as Levertov puts it, "spoke for her." Levertov reports that she "kept the book open and tilted for [the young woman] to read more." The scene of the two women's intimate communion over Reznikoff's book mirrors the images of homely urban connection that Levertov selects from his poetry. Transitioning to The Materials, Levertov writes, "though Oppen and Reznikoff are old friends there seems never to have been any overlapping or merging of their voices." Her representation of Oppen's passionate yet solipsistic struggle with his "inner conflict" seals his work in opposition to Reznikoff's "human poetry for human beings," which, she writes, "in another age or society would surely be called 'popular.'"

In this context and against this assessment of Reznikoff's By the Waters of Manhattan, whose publication by New Directions Oppen had actually facilitated, Levertov's representation of Oppen's poems as "complex" and "intricate" most likely struck him as both inaccurate and hurtful, perhaps even pointedly so.2 The Materials was Oppen's first book of poetry since Discrete Series in 1934. Given that Oppen's nearly twenty-five years of nonwriting activity between the two volumes have been analyzed in great detail, I'll sketch in only the aspects of his biography that clarify the stakes of Levertov's particular act of reception.3 Oppen himself both wrote and talked about this critical [End Page 704] time in his life on numerous occasions. As he put it in a 1969 letter, "the catastrophe of human lives in the 'thirties … seemed to me to put poetry and the purposes of poetry in question" (Selected Letters 186). In a later interview, he said, "[The Depression] … was not something in the newspapers. There were actually hungry people in the streets under one's window.… You either did something or you didn't do something" ("Conversation" 23). For Oppen and his wife Mary, "do[ing] something" meant joining both the Communist Party and the Workers Alliance of America, a group that brought together communists and socialists, and organizing the unemployed ("'Objectivist' Poet" 175). It meant simultaneously questioning the "doubtful knowledge of the Pounds, Zukofskys, Olsons" and refusing to write Marxist poetry, an intellectual tightrope that made the decision to stop writing poetry virtually unavoidable.4 When he returned to writing in 1958 with the work...


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