A Spectre in Every Street: George Oppen and the Poetics of Communism

Robert Duncan, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and Carl Rakosi

Communist Verse

Just after publishing his first book, Discrete Series (1934), the American modernist George Oppen abandoned poetry and joined the Communist Party. The significance of this abandonment – the apparent antagonism it implies – raises difficult questions about the social utility of poetry, troubling the intersection of literature and politics. For other communist writers, such as the transnational Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay, the social function of poetry was much clearer: to aid, unflaggingly, those who struggle to destroy repressive cultural and political institutions. McKay’s most famous poem, “If We Must Die,” published in a 1919 issue of The Liberator, appropriates the rhetoric and stanzaic forms of classical English poetry to defend acts of violent black resistance against imperialist and capitalist oppression:

        Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

         And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!

        What though before us lies the open grave?

        Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

        Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!1

Formally conservative but politically radical, McKay’s poem is representative of a specific brand of American poetry that sought to radicalize the “genteel” literary styles of the late 19th century in service of the working class. Though often dismissed by the academy as an aesthetic failure, this “proletarian literature” was quite popular in its time, and the Communist Party USA gave it a significant amount of support through the Party’s official newspaper, The Daily Worker, and communist literary magazines such as New Masses. On the other hand, the poems in Discrete Series (and the rest of Oppen’s oeuvre) never wax polemical, and—if such artificial distinctions are allowable—their strange, elliptical forms place them more within the genealogy of American and European avant-gardists than the radical political writings of the Harlem Renaissance. Most of the poems in his first book comprise a mere twelve lines or less and rarely feature titles, let alone outline a clear political function. The closest we come to something like social criticism in Oppen’s first book is the following gnomic piece, haiku-like in its imagistic concision:

        Bad times:

        The cars pass

        By the elevated posts

        And the movie sign.

        A man sells post-cards.2

Written in 1929, the first year of the Depression, “Bad times:” is as skeletal in form as a starved body. Its first line’s ironic understatement, the sorrowful presence of the culture industry and the faint heartbeat of capital circulation all feature in the poem, however dimly. Other, marginally less bleak poems in the collection imagine “Deaths everywhere,” in the streets, yet move, a few lines later, to the “two geraniums / In your window-box…his life’s eyes,”3 a small gesture of poetic hope and human intimacy. While the poems in Discrete Series and elsewhere don’t attempt the impossible task of eschewing historical circumstance to become wholly “aesthetic,” the politics that inform their production are certainly not textually evident.

But Oppen’s explanation for why he stopped writing to become a Communist creates problems that run more deeply than aesthetic theory or historical circumstance alone can capture. If his remarks on this long silence have made anything clear, it is that Oppen occupies a unique place in the already-marginal canon of communist American poets: rather than being mutually constitutive practices, for Oppen writing and political action exist in constant tension­. In fact, some of his comments suggest they are utterly incompatible modes of being in the world, each excluding the possibility of the other. In a 1969 interview with L.S. Dembo, for example, he explains the “dilemma of the thirties”:

I didn’t believe in political poetry or poetry as being politically efficacious. I don’t even believe in the honesty of a man saying “Well, I’m a poet and I will make my contribution to the cause by writing poems about it.”….If you decide to do something politically, you do something that has political efficacy. And if you decide to write poetry, then you write poetry, not something that you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering.4

A lifelong Marxist and a decorated literary modernist, Oppen nonetheless found it impossible to live simultaneously as a poet and a Communist. In his 2017 book Writing, Not Writing: Poetry, Crisis, and Responsibility, Tom Fisher expresses Oppen’s dilemma as an extension of two notoriously hopeless claims about the social function of poetry: W.H. Auden’s declaration that “poetry makes nothing happen” and Adorno’s remark that “to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”5 For Oppen, he argues, poetry is “not only an ineffective response to social or political emergencies, but is an immoral refusal of, or barbaric response to, an essential social and political responsibility.”6 By his own account, Oppen gave up poetry “because of the pressures of what for the moment I’ll call conscience.”7 At the same time, however, his notes and letters problematize this polarized model that keeps literature at a critical distance from politics.

Fisher cites a 1973 letter in which Oppen exclaims: “FROM DISCRETE SERIES TO MARXISM WAS NOT A BREAK––––––––––BY ANY MEANS.”8 At a later point in the Dembo interview, Oppen also adds that although he wasn’t actively writing poetry, during his silence he “at no time thought [he] wasn’t a poet.”9 If we take his interview together with the remarks in his letters, it begins to look as if Oppen’s stance on “dilemma of the thirties” was less consistent than we might at first believe: it appears, in fact, that his personal commitment to communism, the force which in 1934 drove the wedge between the practice of writing poetry and Oppen’s “conscience,” also compelled him to return to the poem, twenty-five years later, and write continuously until his death in 1984. While it might not be possible (or even desirable) to reconcile Oppen’s politics with his poetics, their uneasy coexistence in his work allows us to imagine relationships between politic and poem that disturb the binary separating autonomous and committed works of art.

Civilian Life

The bare facts of Oppen’s political life are necessary but insufficient grounds for understanding these problems: Oppen and his wife Mary were active Communists for five years and collaborated primarily with the Workers Alliance of America, a radical Popular Front coalition that organized laborers left jobless in the wake of the Depression. According to Peter Nicholls, Oppen participated in the New York Milk Strike in Utica and delivered speeches for CPUSA’s King’s County election campaign in 1936. Though no record of those speeches survived, Nicholls remarks that Oppen’s oratory earned him the title “best of the soap boxers.”10  Disillusioned by the CPUSA’s support of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany, Oppen left the Party in 1941, enlisting as an infantryman in the US military to continue his antifascist work. During World War II, he saw action at the Battle of the Bulge and suffered grave wounds in Alsace when shrapnel exploded in his foxhole, fissuring his body. Unlike the two American soldiers he was hiding with, Oppen lived, receiving a Purple Heart in 1945. The theater of the Second World War became a pivotal image in Oppen’s later poetry, culminating in his poignant, disquieting poem, “Myth of the Blaze” (1978):

the dark to escape in brilliant highways

of the night sky, finally

why had they not

killed me why did they fire that warning

wounding cannon only the one round I hold a

                    superstition

because of this            lost to be lost   Wyatt’s

lyric and Rezi’s

running thru my mind

in the destroyed (and guilty) Theatre

of the War11

Oppen’s civilian life had barely begun before the sharp rightward turn in American politics landed him under the scrutiny of the FBI, which had been monitoring his activities for the better part of a decade.12 When the House Un-American Activities Committee set their sights on artists and writers, Oppen’s communist ties forced him and his family to Mexico, where they lived in exile until the late 1950s. He broke his silence in 1958 and completed “Blood from the Stone,” his first poem since Discrete Series, published in his 1962 collection The Materials. Two years later he returned to the United States, this time for good, and wrote steadily for the rest of his career. His 1968 collection, Of Being Numerous received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry; the rest of his oeuvre includes This In Which (1965), Seascape: Needle’s Eye (1972), Myth of the Blaze (1972-75), and Primitive (1978).

Very little about Oppen’s political activity exists beyond this meager sketch. Throughout his silence he kept almost no record of his reading, destroyed what little poetry he may have written, and sent only a single letter from Mexico. Unfortunately, his early life and literary career, too, suffer from a similar condition; as Eliot Weinberger laments in his preface to Oppen’s New Collected Poems, “[Oppen] may never be the subject of a biography, for his life beyond its outline remains a mystery.”13 Born in 1908 in New Rochelle, New York, Oppen was the child of George August Oppenheimer, a wealthy diamond merchant. Though he grew up in relative luxury, Oppen would soon reject his family’s bourgeois lifestyle and live as a transient with his wife, the artist and fellow writer Mary Colby. Surviving on Oppen’s small inheritance and performing manual labor when necessary, they hitchhiked across the country, settling for short periods in Oregon, San Francisco, and then more permanently New York City. During these years, their lives were not merely transient, but communal: the motels, trailers, low-rent apartments, and even catboats they occupied were often shared with other writers, couples, and whole families. Weinberger emphasizes: “his whole life was in resolute flight from a wealthy childhood.”14

A New Objective

What we do have to help us navigate these questions is the poetry itself, the direct product of Oppen’s labor and his collective publishing ventures with other modernist writers. Along with Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, and William Carlos Williams, Oppen was a core member of the Objectivists, a loose collection of (mostly) male, Jewish-American poets – with the notable exception of Lorine Niedecker, the only woman involved – who were both influenced and made anxious by the modernist work of Ezra Pound. In 1928, Oppen, Zukofsky, and Reznikoff founded To Publishers, an abbreviation of The Objecivists, but also, Michael Davidson notes, a celebration of “function words like ‘to’ and ‘the,’ upon which Objectivist aesthetics would be based.”15

This investment in grammatical minutiae, the neglected cornerstones of poetic expression, is one of the few aesthetic fascinations shared by each member of the “school.” The publishing venture did not last more than a few years, but it did provide an outlet for the Objectivists that gave temporary coherence to something which approaches a literary philosophy – although even that description stifles the fierce intra-group debates which characterized the relations between the poets. In spite of their brief association, each Objectivist had a strikingly different poetics. Indeed, if there’s one quality that unifies the writers affiliated with Objectivist poetry, it is a negative one: resistance to the kind of formally conservative, Party-adherent poetry illustrated by McKay, Joseph Freeman, and Langston Hughes – what Oppen called “Communist verse.”  

Zukofsky, whose political and aesthetic ambitions most resembled Oppen’s, wrote “An Objective,” a piece of critical poetics that served – momentarily – as a manifesto. Zukofsky defines their “objective” in terms of “optics” and military jargon, as a “desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.” If this definition seems muddled, Oppen’s defense of the term as the creative use of poetic “form” to “objectify the poem, to make the poem an object” might do little to clarify. The only credible way of understanding what “Objectivist” means is by looking at some of the poems the Objectivists produced. Zukofsky’s poem, “Mantis,” exemplifies this drive towards an “objectively perfect” form: though it is a homage to communism, one could hardly call the poem “politically committed” in the sense of Hughes, Freeman, or McKay. Zukofsky’s poem articulates the communist idea within the biomechanical figure of the praying mantis:

        Android, loving beggar, dive to the poor

        As your love would even without head to you,

        Graze like machined wheels, green from off this stone

        And preying on each terrified chest, lost

        Say, I am old as the globe, the moon, it

        Is my old shoe, yours, be free as the leaves.

        Fly, mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves

        The armies of the poor, strength: stone on stone

        And build the new world in your eyes, Save it!16

In this case, the “objective” form the poem takes is the sestina, a twelfth-century fixed verse featuring six stanzas of six lines, with a three-line concluding “envoi.” The last word of each line repeats in a fixed pattern, which gives each stanza its disorienting, elliptical beauty. Like the “proletarian” poets, then, Zukofsky renovates an obsolete poetic form in service of a revolutionary ideology. The specifically Objectivist element of Zukofsky’s poem, which distinguishes it from “proletarian literature,” lies in the fastening of form to content so that the idea expressed becomes inseparable from its mode of expression: Zukofsky’s “objectification” of the poem into a sestina registers the “exoskeletal” surface of the praying mantis in its own textuality, drawing together the mantis’s industrial body with the machinelike encroachment of revolutionary communism:  “You whom old Europe’s poor / Call spectre, strawberry, by turns…//…build the new world in your eyes, Save it!”

A Proof of Communism

At first pass, Oppen’s hardline against politically committed poetry, epitomized by his position that poetry has no “political efficacy,” may strike us as excessively hostile towards the material political change that poetry can bring and has brought about, especially in early 20th-century America. In Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory (1910-1945), Cary Nelson’s thorough research into the anthologies, periodicals, and small presses of the later modernist era emphasizes the “power [of] poetry and song…to raise consciousness, build union membership, generate solidarity, and offer individuals discursive sites in harmony with the general values of the movement.”17 Moreover, Nelson argues convincingly that these poems gave readers an “oppositional language” with which they could not only “understand the material conditions of their existence but also… envision ways of changing them.”18

To accept Oppen’s explication that politically-infused poetry is an act of self-deception starts to appear callous and ahistorical at best – at worst, complicit with the racist, sexist and otherwise reactionary forces that have repressed writing by marginalized people throughout literary history. When we consider the controversial gender politics of early feminist poets such as Lola Ridge, Angelina Grimké, and Mina Loy, or the radical songbooks composed by Joe Hill and illustrated by Ralph Chaplin for the Industrial Workers of the World, a tangible connection begins to emerge between the artistic impulse and the lived experience of organizing.19 Lola Ridge, in particular, embodies this connection: a transnational poet like Claude McKay, she was born in Ireland in 1873 and lived for years in New Zealand before settling in New York and dedicating her existence to poetry and the socialist cause. Her 1918 poem, “The Ghetto” offers empowering images of proletarian life and touches on themes of Jewish oppression:

The sturdy Ghetto children

March by the parade,

Waving their toy flags,

Prancing to the bugles,

Lusty, unafraid.

But I see a white frock

And eyes like hooded lights

Out of the shadow of pogroms

Watching… watching…20

Publications like the IWW’s Little Red Songbook (1926), which mostly featured musical compositions, and the communist poetry written by both major literary figures such as Langston Hughes as well as those marginal to the canon – H.H. Lewis, William Vaughan Moody, Joseph Freeman, among others – demonstrate the intimacy between poetry and activism, a relationship seemingly denied by Oppen’s criticism. 1934, the year Oppen’s Discrete Series was first printed by To Publishers, also saw the publication of Hughes’s “Ballads of Lenin” – a gorgeous, antiracist hymn to the late architect of the USSR and its dream of universal emancipation:

        I am Chico, the Negro,

        Cutting cane in the sun.

        I lived for you, Comrade Lenin.

        Now my work is done.

        Comrade Lenin of Russia,

        Honored in a marble tomb,

        Move over, Comrade Lenin,

        And leave me room.21

Poems like Hughes’s “Ballads of Lenin” testify to what Alain Badiou has described as the “essential link” between poetry and communism, a link forged through their shared “concern for what is common to all.”22 Badiou posits that language is the original “commons” from which poetry derives its communist essence. He further identifies poetry with what he calls “the communist Idea,” a neo-Platonic construction defined outside the “bureaucracy” and “totalitarian regimes” that, according to Badiou, corroded the legacy of Communist states. Badiou makes little reference to “actual communism” and its relationship to 20th-century literature. Distancing himself from “philosophy, sociology, economics, history, [and] political science,” he presents instead what he calls “a proof of communism by way of the poem.”23 His argument adopts the metaphor of a mathematical proof to conclude that, by being autonomous instances of a common language, all poems are committed to the “communist Idea” irrespective of their content or formal qualities.  

Badiou’s “proof” resonates beautifully with the poetic and political lives of his exemplary writers, Cesar Vallejo and Bertolt Brecht, in the same way it resonates with the examples of Hughes, Freeman, and Lewis. But as Mark Steven, author of Red Modernism: American Poetry and the Spirit of Communism (2017), has argued, such “abstract formalism” risks divorcing itself entirely from the “historical situations and therefore from the conditions of possibility for actual communism.” In a recent interview with Historical Materialism, Steven points out that although Badiou claims to have demonstrated an “essential” link between communism and the poem, his universalizing “proof” depends upon his use of particular poets whose poems are already highly political. His chosen examples reveal a hidden hierarchy within his essentialist language, one that privileges poets who wrote about communism as “more communist” than those who didn’t versify their politics. This dependency leaves a gap between his theory and its application: adopting this line of argumentation, a critic could cite the work of, say, Ezra Pound, whose Cantos contain effusive praise for Mussolini, to prove an “essential link” between poetry and fascism.

In Service of Class Struggle

Although critical of Badiou’s position, Steven, as well as other leftist literary critics such as Eric Homberger and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, have emphasized the importance of communism to American modernist poetry. For instance, as Red Modernism shows, the poetry of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Louis Zukofsky are in continuous dialogue both with Communist states as they actually existed as well as the utopian communist ideal.24 Similarly, Homberger argues that in “the cultural moment of the mid-1930s…the proletarian literary scene was in high gear.” He cites the explosion of socialist and communist literature, much of which has been forgotten or marginalized, including novels by Robert Cantwell and Edward Dahlber; Kenneth Burke’s essay “My Approach to Communism”; critical texts Literature and Dialectical Materialism by John Strachey and “Notes on Revolutionary Poetry” by Stanley Burnshaw. Finally, perhaps most important to American literary culture, the CPUSA founded the League of American Writers, a short-lived association of playwrights, journalists, poets and novelists dedicated to producing its own canon of proletarian literature. These critics’ materialist interventions suggest that there in fact exists a historical and conceptual—if not quite “essential”—link between the poetry and communism, though not always the most harmonious one.

Though Badiou doesn’t mention Oppen in his criticism, his implicit claim that some poets are “more communist” than others might lead him to denigrate Oppen’s work as insufficiently communist: after all, his poetry features no Party rhetoric or exhortations to proletarian uprising, and resists engaging in “the most vigorous and polemical lying for each other’s benefit.”25  It soon becomes clear that, despite his stated distance from the “realities” of actually existing Communism, the logical conclusion of Badiou’s argument winds up repeating the orthodox position on politically committed art, endorsed by the CPUSA, Comintern, and many communist poets of the 20th century.

A significant part of the dissonance Oppen experienced between poetry and politics has to do with this orthodoxy, most salient in the Communist Party’s merging of aesthetics with political ethics. In his essay “Objectivists and Communists,” Eric Homberger explores how after the stock market collapse of 1929, Communist-affiliated poets and literary critics like Edmund Wilson “articulated the need for writers to take sides.” “To earn their place within the Communist literary movement,” Homberger continues, “a harder, more programmatic opposition to capitalism and imperialism was demanded, as was a more direct commitment to put literature at the service of the class struggle.”26 The Objectivists, in refusing to make their poetry an organ of their politics, became the target of criticism from both “the Communist literary establishment” and those Homberger calls “roughnecks,” poets like Edwin Rolfe and Herman Spector who wrote “immediately satisfying” poetic hymns intended to animate a proletarian class-consciousness.

Homberger emphasizes that “many of the leading Objectivists were either sympathizers or actively engaged in left-wing politics.” Nevertheless, their work was accused of being out of step with a “dialectical comprehension of the life-process” and, even more damning, they were found guilty of identifying modernity’s life-process with the “waste land” of capitalism, adopting a “neutral stance” instead of provoking revolution against it.27 The choices, Homberger concludes, were clear: “either to write the sort of poem that would be acceptable to the editors of radical journals, or to write for the diminishing number of avant-garde little magazines.” Or – with a nod to Oppen – “they could stop writing altogether.”28

Oppen’s decision to abandon poetry represents the full meaning of what he meant by “conscience,” a social awareness which operates in two directions. On the one hand, as we know, he stopped writing because there exist “situations which cannot be honorably met by art.”29 On the other, he chose to be silent because the aesthetic demands of the Communist party were too onerous for him to write the kind of experimental verse he felt exhibited the relation between the creative act and communist organizing. Oppen understood that the mistake the Communist Party made lay in its adherence to a narrow definition of the political, one that suffocated those poets whose aesthetic experiments were part of their imagining an alternative to capitalism. It is nearly the same mistake Oppen himself makes when he pits his own poetry against the “Communist verse” of allegedly inferior poets.

To Know Ourselves

As Cary Nelson reminds us, cleansing poetry of its politics serves the interests of the ruling class, fueling reactionary forces that operate as barriers to social and political change. In fact, he writes, in materialist criticism “the nature of the ‘political’ is, in fact, itself continually being extended and called into question.” “In the 1920s and 1930s,” he explains, “there is simply no obvious boundary to political subject matter.”30 While Oppen’s poems don’t try to persuade their readers of the urgency of the class struggle, they intend to offer a specifically communist way of seeing the world, a historical materialism at the level of sense-perception. As he wrote in his long poem, “Of Being Numerous,” for which he won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize:

There are things

We live among ‘and to see them

Is to know ourselves’.

This conception of communist poetry diverges from Badiou’s essentialism, acknowledging that poems that don’t exclaim their ideologies may still have value as politically radical art. Because “no obvious boundary” divides the poetic from the political, this conception reveals the communist ideal hidden within Oppen’s poetry, opening his political activity to interpretation as a form of poetry.

Oppen’s political poetics, then, can be understood in two irreconcilable, irreducible ways: the first obtains in that precise moment when he picks up his pen after twenty-five years of silence. We are fortunate that the dearth of biographical information about Oppen still permits us to know which poem emerged from that moment—first titled “To Date,” then renamed, aptly, “Blood from the Stone.” Its second stanza deals with the years when he stopped writing, offering a poeticization of his political work that attempts speaks to this materialism of the senses:

        The Thirties. And

        A spectre

        In every street,

        In all inexplicable crowds, what they did then

        Is still their lives.

        As thirty in a group –

        To Home Relief – the unemployed –

        Within the city’s intricacies

        Are these lives. Belief?

        What do we believe

        To live with? Answer.

        Not invent – just answer – all

        That verse attempts.

        That we can somehow add each to each other?

        – Still our lives.31

This stanza, haunted by the Communist “spectre / in every street,” draws a direct line connecting the urgent political efforts to organize the homeless with the social utility of poetry. The material reality of “the unemployed – / Within the city’s intricacies” leads us unswervingly to existential questions taken up by poetry, suggesting that “What do we believe / To live with?” is an unanswerable question when it is removed from historical contingencies and asked without the requisite class consciousness. The stanza’s final couplet –“That we can somehow add each to each other? / –Still our lives” marks the closest the poem comes to a “communist” thesis, citing the poem’s ability to turn the distant, foreign “other” into the collective, familial “each other.” In the material form of the poem itself, however, we can still see the stammering uncertainties that incurred the Party’s suspicion decades earlier: the staggered dashes that slice like anxious blades into the stanza denies the poem any hope of being read aloud at socialist marches; moreover, that the crux of the poem is presented in an interrogative rather than declarative form evokes a kind of political indeterminacy simply not permitted in more committed writing: The crowds, the working masses, rather than acting a univocal symbol of revolution, remain “inexplicable.”  

If the first way of understanding Oppen’s political poetics involves locating the communist impulse that compelled him to write verse again, the second lies in the possibility of reading his silence as poetry. The uneasy coexistence of Oppen’s writing and what Rachel DuPlessis has termed its “silent Doppelgänger”32 then becomes a dialectical struggle, amounting to something more than his mediation of aesthetic strictures and political responsibility. During his work with the Communist party, Oppen does not “subordinate” his poetry so much as he extracts the poem from the isolating space of the writing table and delivers it into the social world, fraught with exploitation and suffering. In this way, Oppen never “returned” to poetry because he never stopped writing it: in a 1980 interview, he claims something close to this, calling his silence a “poetic exploration at the same time that it was an action of conscience, a feeling that one was worth something or other.”33 Citing an unpublished poems from the 1960s, Tom Fisher finds Oppen reflecting on the coexistence of these forces:

        Presses were busy enough

        With no help from me

        For twenty five years

        Perhaps I was dealing nevertheless

        With the essence of Literature

        To get down

        Never the effort to go up34

It may be that for Oppen, the “essence of literature” is not just the abstention from writing, but a way of manifesting that writing in the world: He certainly did not begin to write again because global and national disasters had been ameliorated and the rubble had been cleared: the Cold War, Vietnam, and the consolidation of American imperialist power all occurred during and after Oppen began his second book. This returns us to Adorno’s famous remark, that “to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”35 Later in the same paragraph in which that statement occurs, Adorno qualifies his absolute stance, claiming that it “also remains true…that literature must resist this verdict, in other words, be such that its mere existence after Auschwitz is not a surrender to cynicism.”

Oppen, in not surrendering to a cynicism that would destroy his ability to write, transforms poetic engagement into the communist impulse so as to preserve them both. The culminating idea illustrated by Oppen’s political poetics is that feeding the poor isn’t a hiatus from literature, but its realization in the world. If it’s not heroic but eminently tragic to sacrifice the poem for the sake of Communism, the miracle of Oppen’s work is to retain his status as a poet, to poeticize politics in its pure form as material action, despite abandoning the formal writing process. Considering this possibility, there may in fact be, as Badiou claims, some essential link between poetry and communism. But perhaps it resides not in any one poem or poet. Rather, the relationship between poetry and communism is a formula that must be – to borrow Marx’s language – demystified and set back on its feet: Rather than make the world into a poem, George Oppen’s example demands the making of the poem into the world.


  1. Claude McKay, Complete Poems, ed. William Maxwell, annotated edition edition (Urbana, Ill.; Chesham: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 178. 

  2. George Oppen and Eliot Weinberger, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2008), 30. 

  3. Oppen and Weinberger, 34. 

  4. L. S. Dembo and George Oppen, “George Oppen,” Contemporary Literature 10, no. 2 (1969): 159–77, https://doi.org/10.2307/1207758. 174. 

  5. Theodor Adorno et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London New York, NY: Verso, 2007), 188. 

  6. Tom Fisher, Writing Not Writing: Poetry, Crisis, and Responsibility, 1 edition (Iowa City: University Of Iowa Press, 2017). 

  7. Dembo and Oppen, “George Oppen,” 174. 

  8. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed., The Selected Letters of George Oppen (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press Books, 1990), 255. 

  9. Dembo and Oppen, “George Oppen,” 175. 

  10. Peter Nicholls, “George Oppen in Exile: Mexico and Maritain (For Linda Oppen),” Journal of American Studies 39, no. 1 (2005): 1–18. 3. 

  11. Oppen and Weinberger, New Collected Poems, 247. 

  12. Nicholls, “George Oppen in Exile.” 

  13. George Oppen and Eliot Weinberger, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2008). xxvi. Peter Nicholls, “George Oppen in Exile: Mexico and Maritain (For Linda Oppen),” Journal of American Studies 39, no. 1 (2005): 1–18. 

  14. George Oppen and Eliot Weinberger, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2008). xviii. Oppen and Weinberger, New Collected Poems

  15. Oppen and Weinberger, xxii. 

  16. Louis Zukofsky, Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems:, ed. Charles Bernstein, First Edition edition (New York: Library of America, 2006). 

  17. Cary Nelson, Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of (Publisher, 1989), 62. 

  18. Ibid., 124. 

  19. Ibid., 25 

  20. ehine, “The Ghetto by Lola Ridge - Poems | Academy of American Poets,” Text, The Ghetto, March 7, 2016, https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/ghetto. 

  21. Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad, Annotated edition edition (New York: Vintage, 1995), 183-84. 

  22. Alain Badiou, The Age of the Poets: And Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose, trans. Emily Apter and Bruno Bosteels (London ; New York: Verso, 2014). 

  23. Ibid., 108. 

  24. Steven’s chapter on Ezra Pound’s Marxist phase and the Communist influence on the early Cantos is especially illuminating in this regard, as well as his discussion of what he calls Zukofsky’s “cosmic communism.” 

  25. DuPlessis, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 64. 

  26. Eric Homberger et al., The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, ed. Peter Quartermain and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, First edition (University Alabama Press, 2015), 111-112. 

  27. Eric Homberger et al., The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, ed. Peter Quartermain and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, First edition (University Alabama Press, 2015), 124. 

  28. Ibid. 

  29. DuPlessis, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 65. 

  30. Nelson, Repression and Recovery, 171. 

  31. Oppen and Weinberger, New Collected Poems. 52. 

  32. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “‘The Familiar / Becomes Extreme’: George Oppen and Silence,” The North Dakota Quarterly 55, no. 4 (1987): 18–36. 

  33. George Oppen, George Oppen: Man and Poet, ed. Burton Hatlen, 1st edition (National Poetry Foundation, 1981). 25. 

  34. Oppen and Weinberger, New Collected Poems, 332. 

  35. In fact, the quotation is not Adorno’s, but Adorno quoting German literary critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger. 

Author of the article

is a doctoral student in the Department of English at Brandeis University. His Twitter handle is @pastelcathedral.