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Doren Robbins, poet, mixed-media artist, and educator
The poet Thomas McGrath has said that Robbins’s work is unified by both anger and love.  Other critics and reviewers have compared him with Francois Villon, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, and Gerald Stern, writers whose work is equally intense.  Indeed, Robbins is an ecstatic poet whose vision is uncompromised, whose poems are rich with extraordinary attention paid to the often undocumented, ordinary lives that deserve it.  His is a deeply rooted devotion, as is evident from his first collection of poems.”

               Andrea Hollander Budy
Encyclopedia of Ethnic American Literature


poet, mixed-media artist,
and educator
“The poet Thomas McGrath has said that Robbins’s work is unified by both anger and love.  Other critics and reviewers have compared him with Francois Villon, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, and Gerald Stern, writers whose work is equally intense.  Indeed, Robbins is an ecstatic poet whose vision is uncompromised, whose poems are rich with extraordinary attention paid to the often undocumented, ordinary lives that deserve it.  His is a deeply rooted devotion, as is evident from his first collection of poems.”

                    Andrea Hollander Budy
Encyclopedia of Ethnic American Literature


Doren Robbins poet, mixed-media artist, and educator
"The poet Thomas McGrath has said that Robbins’s work is unified by both anger and love. Other critics and reviewers have compared him with Francois Villon, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, and Gerald Stern, writers whose work is equally intense. Indeed, Robbins is an ecstatic poet whose vision is uncompromised, whose poems are rich with extraordinary attention paid to the often undocumented, ordinary lives that deserve it. His is a deeply rooted devotion, as is evident from his first collection of poems.”

Andrea Hollander,

from the Encyclopedia of Ethnic American Literature

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     Forthcoming in Onthebus


        Although a seminal study has been done of William Carlos Williams's relation to cubism and the avant garde of the early part of the twentieth century in Bram Djikstra's Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams, no research, to my knowledge, has thus far related George Oppen's modernist poetic style to that of the cubists. This appears to keep Oppen historically relegated, or situated in, the "Objectivist" school of American poetry, of which he was a founder. And his historical placement as such has unfortunately limited critics to discussions that focus on "Objectivist" (and its antecedent Imagist) tenets only. In his essay "On Objectivism," Michael Palmer in discussing Oppen along with Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff points out that "within the fractured narrative of modernism, we can probably say that Objectivism begins with the perceived necessity to add active intellect to the verbal and visual economy of imagistic method" (121). This is an accurate statement concerning the Objectivists, especially in distinguishing their method from that of the Imagists, while at the same time stating how Objectivism extends the admirable qualities of Imagism. Still, when considered with earlier movements in literature and painting the roots leading to the practice of Objectivist technique are broader. In articulating his Objectivist concerns Oppen conveys his feeling about the significance of "the necessity for forming a poem properly, for achieving the making of an object of the poem" (see Interview p.160).  Although these are the common concerns of all serious practicing poets, beyond the "fracturing of the narrative" that Palmer speaks of, Oppen achieves this "forming" in his longer poems  by breaking up the poem into sections which are not representationally associative, but that intertextually cohere. And these non-chronologically developed sections are essentially parallel to the planes and cubes of a singular object. That is, Oppen's technique induces an evocative fragmentary clarity similar to that of the cubist paintings of Picasso, Braque, Gris and Leger. It is Oppen's "cubist sense of clarity," his method of arranging the constituents of perception in such a way that subjects and objects are presented with a precise intention of giving expression to multiplicity that makes his poetry unique.

        Before he was awarded the Pulitzer prize for Poetry in 1969, George Oppen worked in a variety of non-academic occupations such as house-builder, cabinet-maker, and pattern-maker in the aircraft industry—all occupations in which technique relies on precision, and the success of technique is reduced to how precise one is. With this in mind, it is not surprising that Oppen's poetry shows a clear sense of poetic precision in its handling of imagery as well as in the selection and placement of words within a particular poem, and that Oppen strove quintessentially for clarity in each poem he wrote. An example of the achievement he strove for is immediately apparent in his poem "The Forms of Love":     
                Parked in the fields
                All night 
                So many years ago,
                We saw
                A lake beside us
                When the moon rose.
                I remember
                Leaving that ancient car
                Together. I remember
                Standing in the white grass
                Beside it. We groped
                Our way together
                Downhill in the bright
                Incredible light

                Beginning to wonder
                Whether it could be lake
                Or fog
                We saw, our heads
                Ringing under the stars we walked
                To where it would have wet our feet
                Had it been water  (CP 86).

"The Forms of Love" equally justifies Oppen's comment that "poetry [is] a skill by which we can grasp the form of a perception achieved" (Poetry 331), and further supports the Ars Poetica section of the longer poem "Route":
                  Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful
                               thing in the world,
                A limited, limiting clarity

                I have not and never did have any motive of poetry
                But to achieve clarity. (185)

     The kind of "clarity" Oppen refers to here is certainly achieved in such poems as "Sara in Her Father's Arms" (30), "Workman" (41), "From a Photograph" (47), "Zulu Girl" (130), "A kind of Garden" (182), "Route"(184) and several others. But if we are to judge Oppen's poetry strictly by his definition of clarity, then we must look beyond the Ars Poetica of "Route" and turn to a more complex definition deduced from poems that might challenge the notion of clarity.

        For Oppen the experience of clarity is related to what Alfred North Whitehead meant when he expressed the idea that "for the percipient the perception is an internal relationship between itself and things perceived" (9). It is also at times complicated by the many-faceted literal relationship between the objects of perception and the emotional and fantasy-life of the percipient/poet. And it is in the structuring of the content of these relations in his poetry that Oppen, at his best, displays a clarity that has not forsaken complexity. In other words, for Oppen, it appears that clarity is not necessarily synonymous with simplicity as such but, cubistically, with the angles and the depths of

        The complexity of simplicity, that is, a clarity that attempts to include the multiplicity of the world and a particular perception of it, can be easily seen in his poem "Image of an Engine," from the book The Materials. Oppen's method is to complicate the structure of the poem through sectioning, or juxtaposing, additional panels or facets ("sections" of poems) within a larger frame, attempting to create a simultaneous perspective, a clarity that exists within multiplicity. There is an unexpected dramatic instant in section #2 of the poem when "the engine" is viewed by the poet-narrator as dead: "The image of the engine/ That stops." And within that sudden perception, reflected out of the poet's introspective aloneness with the inanimate, "the image of the engine" serves as a perspective on mortality: 
                Endlessly, endlessly
                The definition of mortality
                The image of the engine
                That stops.
                We cannot live on that.
                I know that no one would live out
                Thirty years, fifty years if the world were ending
                With his life.
                The machine stares out,
                Stares out
                With all its eyes

                Thru the glass
                With the ripple in it, past the sill
                Which is dusty––If there is someone
                In the garden!
                Outside, and so beautiful. (19)

Section #2, with its resistance to explicitly defining its theme of mortality, clarifies an insight made by Rachel Blau DuPlesis concerning Oppen's technique: "Presentations—not the rhetorics of self-expression or confession—become the poet's most exacting and comprehensive task" (DuPlesis 60). Oppen's "presentations" create a subtle tension between the predictable obsolescence of the engine, and the ineluctable though "endlessly" incomprehensible end of human life, with the constancy of "the garden." Here the attempted clarity is to depict the relation between these three images co-existing at the same time in the poet's reflections. In this context, the "garden" appears not only as an emblem of the "beautiful," as Oppen has proclaimed, but also as another index of "mortality." In contradistinction to the machine that "stops," the garden is sensually tangible in terms of its organic propensity towards birth, decay, and renewal. The alternate reality of the garden, perceived as a redemptive environment ("outside" of the factory, and "so beautiful") is typical to lyric poetry but, for better or worse, in the sparseness of its presentation Oppen's pastoral evocation is less related to Wordsworth's heightened delicacy of feeling over meadows, groves, and flowers that he reflects upon in his "Intimations Ode" (Wordsworth 176-81), or William Carlos Williams's "precise visual language" (Dijkstra 173) in his poem "The Pot of Flowers" (WCW 184), than to the uniformly lush trees that "beautifully," though incidentally, line the street (almost as a visual notation) in the distance behind two men smoking in the cubist painter Fernand Leger's "Smokers"

In a similar manner another organizing influence on Oppen's style, especially as it concerns the juxtaposition of industrialized images with natural ones, may also be related to Pablo Picasso's early cubist painting "Factory at Horta de Ebro"

with its geometric clutter of factory buildings and warehouses in a purposively cramped arrangement with the three lush palms that persist, as a kind of organic relief, in the background. As in the two cubist paintings with their attempt to simultaneously reproduce the multiplicity of the surfaces of streets or factory buildings without privileging the pastoral element—the inert "engine," the obsession with "mortality," and "the glass/ With the ripple in it" are merged into language-surfaces with the "garden" at the parameter of the presentation, while claiming (like Leger's and Picasso's trees) centrality in the content. It is in the two unobtrusively adorned fragments, "If there is someone/ In the garden!/ Outside, and so beautiful," that this indirect "claim" is made possible and, however quiet, achieves a vitality distinct from Wordsworth's declarative affection for "Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves" (Wordsworth 181), or Williams's "precise visual language" (Dijkstra 173) in the untitled poem from Spring And All, "the Pot of Flowers" (WCW, 184).  

        Arguably, in the closure of "Image of an Engine," there are problems concerning the way "presentations" do not work. In section #4 of the poem, Oppen seems really to have reached his closure with the image of "The gull" that can watch a "ship and all its hallways/ And all companions sink." There is a strong possibility, though it remains speculative, that Oppen refused to conclude his poem (published in 1962) with an image embodying nature's indifference to mortality because it showed a slip toward closure which might have evoked a more than similar theme previously accomplished by W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" (79), published in 1938. Auden's poem resolves in its closure the theme of the indifference of man and nature to suffering, and how the "Old Masters" conveyed that fact by not emphasizing or monumentalizing actual catastrophe. Auden's poem, however brilliant, reinforces the code of such a theme by alluding directly to Brueghel's painting "Icarus," which concludes "and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/  Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on" (80). Concerning Oppen's resistance to "the poets of right thinking and right sentiment" (quoted in Palmer, p.122) Michael Palmer has noted that "By speaking against literary contrivance, Oppen argues both for the possibility, or necessity, of an immediacy of poetic engagement or intervention, and against the poetic, that is, against the devices of a passive and acculturated representation" (123).

        Perhaps concluding the poem with the indifference of nature to suffering exemplified a "passive and acculturated representation" descending from Brueghel and Auden in this instance. But ending the poem at that point, letting it resonate with the stillness of "the gull" before the drama of shipwreck and death, might very possibly have shown a masterful handling of subject-matter. This is not an attempt to place Oppen within the tradition that modernist judgment has, in Palmer’s phrase, pronounced as "passive and acculturated." A closure of this kind, however predictably existential, would not necessarily be similar to that of Auden's or any of the other probable poets of "right thinking and right sentiment" that may have been present in Oppen's considerations. Instead, to the discredit of "Image of an Engine," Oppen imposes upon the suggestiveness he has created about the meaning of mortality by dragging in lines shaded with a desire to prophetically ameliorate the alienation of city-dwellers with a sentimental and unconvincing passage:

                But even the beautiful bony children
                Who arise in the morning have left behind
                Them worn and squalid toys in the trash

                Which is a grimy death of love. The lost
                Glitter of the stores!
                The streets of stores!
                Crossed by the streets of stores
                And every crevice of the city leaking
                Rubble: concrete, conduit, pipe, a crumbling
                Rubble of our roots
                                But they will find
                In flood, storm, ultimate mishap:
                Earth, water, the tremendous
                Surface, the heart thundering
                Absolute desire. (21)

Ironically, Oppen's reliance on a formal, even a prophetic utterance in the closure to "Image of an Engine" contradicts one of the most vital aspects of his style which, as Mark Linenthal noted in his "An Appreciation," is to have created "a poetry of language rather than statement, a rendering of experience which keeps the process of rendering in view, authentic personal presence among the circumstances of its unfolding" (38). Although there is something to be said for the consonant and vowel music of the morally evocative lines in which the detritus of a neighborhood is depicted as "a crumbling/ Rubble of our roots," the closure arrived at here obfuscates the difficult complementing "presentations" he achieved in sections 1-4 in which concrete images of the engine, reflections on mortality, the fortuity of a garden's beauty, and the indifference of nature to human mortality are presented with a multifaceted clarity. 


        The use of sections (much like surfaces presented in facets or planes) in "Image of an Engine" can be seen to be foundation work for the kind of successfully complex forms that will later occur in the poems "A Narrative" (132) and "Route" (184). In relation to the verbal "architecture" of such language, Kenneth Rexroth's definition of cubism in poetry offers a clear perspective on how Oppen uses sectioning in his poems to complicate the sense of clarity:  "What is literary Cubism? It is the conscious, deliberate dissociation and recombination of elements into a new artistic entity made self-sufficient by its rigorous architecture" (Rexroth p.vi). Distinct from Pierre Reverdy, whose work Rexroth focused on in formulating his ideas about literary cubism, Oppen is involved more with the proof of the image rather than the creation of the image.  Reverdy expressed interest in "an art of creation and not of reproduction or interpretation" (in Balakian 88). Each uses the "dissociative" technique toward their own preferences. And Oppen's method of "making an object of a poem," or of seeking to attain "the imagist intensity of vision" (Interview 161-2) is not related to Reverdy's sense of "creation" or the sense of "rapture" Rexroth attributes to Reverdy's poetry.

        Fundamentally, Oppen, like William Carlos Williams and, to some extent, Marianne Moore, before him, introduces into his poems a strong concern for exact reproduction, a structuring of the syntax and juxtaposition of images that can be paralleled with what Picasso said when he spoke of how he and other cubist painters had "introduced into painting objects and forms that were formerly ignored" (Picasso, 59). Picasso's statement sheds light on the further significance of Oppen depicting the "flywheel," the "manifold," and the "idle cylinders" in "Image of an Engine." Closer to home for Oppen in the visual arts are some of the paintings of the American artist Charles Demuth, especially his painting "Machinery" (see plate #3 http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/prec/ho_49.59.2.htm) in which the painter depicts "the metal of pipes and machinery" in such a way that "they take on a steely illumination which brings us directly to tactile and visual reality" (Dijkstra 156). In section #1 of "Image of an Engine," consider Oppen's lines

                Likely as not a ruined head gasket
                Spitting at every power stroke, if not a crank shaft
                Bearing knocking at the roots of the thing like a pile-driver
                A machine involved with itself. (18)

The engine-parts in themselves fulfill a continuity of dimensions to the poet. Not only do they denote the visual autonomy of a machine and an image of it and its parts "involved with itself" (59), they also have indirect but precise metaphorical nuances, such as the already discussed "the image of an engine/ that stops." Hung from its hoist and inoperative, it reflects mortality to the poet amidst the monotony of factory work. But Oppen has not completely settled for that as a conclusive revelation; he also puns on the word "foundered" in section #3: "all embarkations/ foundered" (18). "Foundered" is not only the foundering of shipwreck that the gull witnesses in #4 (mortality again being inserted, or cubistically juxtaposed), but also the subtextual fact that engines and their parts (flywheel, manifold, etc.) are cast, foundered. Manufacturing and the manufacturing/writing of the poem are fused in the interplay of "production" and "invention." The machine "spitting at every stroke [and] knocking at the roots of the thing" is therefore a trope for the pleasures and the vicissitudes of the imagination.

        The complexity of Oppen's form and thought is understood in the context of another of Picasso's statements: "All of this [cubism] is my struggle to break with the two-dimensional aspect" (61). Or as Oppen himself said in his journal: "OBJECTIFICATION" it creates a simultaneity of vision, a simultaneity of statement" (Sulfur #26, 148). An instance of the skill of simultaneity is evident in the poem "Route" from which I have selected the final section #14:
                There was no other guarantee
                Ours aren't the only madmen tho they have burned thousands
                of men and women alive, perhaps no madder than most

                Strange to be here, strange for them also, insane and criminal,
                who hasn't noticed that, strange to be a man, we have come
                rather far

                We are at the beginning of a radical depopulation of the earth

                Cataclysm...cataclysm of the plains, jungles, the cities

                Something in the soil exposed between two oceans

                As Cabeza de Vaca found a continent of spiritual despair
                in campsites

                His miracles among the indians heralding cataclysm

                Even Cortes greeted as revelation...No I'd not emigrate
                I'd not live in a ship's bar wherever we may be headed

                These things at the limits of reason, nothing at the limits
                of dream, the dream merely ends, by this we know it is the

                That we confront (196).
It is as though Oppen, in these more discursive passages written in the 1960s during the Vietnam war, is driven to shape his content in quick associations because of the "limits of reason" he himself was morally driven to.  Oppen's "simultaneity" in this poem (not completely unlike his French precursors Apollonaire and Cendrars), his method of sudden theme-variation as compared to parallelism in the succession of his stanzas or lines, his inserting of passages or complete sections in order to create the effect of "simultaneity," succeeds in creating a solemn and disturbing ambience of lenses and fractures.  

        Many of the rudiments for the technical approach in Oppen's poetry were already present in the various aesthetic positions of the Simultanist, Cubist, or Imagist movements in poetry or painting in the early part of the 20th century.  These movements were themselves dramatically influenced by the more imagistic—sometimes photographic—lyricism of Walt Whitman's shorter poems, as well as his collage-like "sectioning" in "Song of Myself." The artists and poets influenced by the Simultanist, Cubist, and Imagist movements set the precedent for breaking with styles and forms (such as French Impressionism in painting, the indirect use of images among the Symbolist poets, and especially iambic pentameter in English and American poetry), which were deemed conventional around the period of 1909-1914. Of course what Oppen (or any other artist or poet) accomplishes in their more original works is not so easily related to a specific "school." But one can find a line of descent from W.C. Williams (especially from the period of Kora in Hell: Improvisations and Spring And All). Williams stated,

                According to my present theme the writer of imagination would
                attain closest to the conditions of music not when his words are
                disassociated from natural objects and specified meanings but when
                they are liberated from the usual quality of that meaning by
                transposition into another medium, the imagination. (Spring And All 97)

Williams does not mean abstraction (see Perloff 113), but the capacity for perceiving subjects and objects in "forms that were previously ignored" (Picasso 163). Williams's slightly older avant garde contemporaries in photography and painting, Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler, corroborate the ideas of Williams and Picasso and provide a similar angle to view the technique Oppen used. This becomes clear when we consider Bram Dijkstra's assertion that it is their penchant (Stieglitz's and Sheeler's) for representation that is "to a direct attention for the position of the object as such within nature...a concept of realism which [has] nothing to do with the familiar romantic concept of a return to nature" (Dijikstra, 24).

        Oppen, in section #5 of his poem "Of Being Numerous," without creating a "familiar" referentiality for the images of the "great stone," the "moonlight," and "consciousness" has nonetheless created neither clarity nor obscurity, but what might be referred to as an evocative opacity in viewing "the position of the object":       

                The great stone
                Above the river
                In the pylon of the bridge


                Frozen in moonlight
                In the frozen air over the footpath, consciousness
                Which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,
                Which loves itself  (150).

Something is hinted at having a fertilizing capacity in the surfaces or planes of inanimate objects, in the images "frozen in moonlight;" something that allows for a kind of integration that permits Eros to occur. Although Oppen's imagery remains on the surface in the above-quoted section, there is an element of "implied" interiority, of an equivalence of emotion with the arrangement of the objects of perception, where the line pauses at the end, "In the frozen air over the footpath, consciousness..." Concerning the "consciousness" of Oppen's sense of his interior world, Rachel Blau DuPlesis has remarked that "A sense of void is, of course, hard to describe. I am talking of an illuminated blankness before an image, an accident, an event. This is a defining moment in which the self is elected (out of its own resistances) as the explorer of that silence in which it is dissolved" (80). According to DuPlesis, it is that defining moment before an image, and the poignant but ambiguous qualities of "consciousness" which Oppen seems to be conveying about his experience beside "The great stone/ Above the river." Moreover, since Oppen is dealing with the images of "The great stone/ and "the pylon of the bridge," we are not only reading his poetic notation of an experience of "illuminated blankness" (mirrored by "The great stone") within which he is "the explorer," we are also dealing with a mass of material which has been "worked" (the chiseled date "In the pylon of the bridge").

        Earlier I mentioned the context of poetic "invention" and industrial "production" mirroring each other in the way Oppen structured his themes and images in the poem "Image of an Engine." But in the passage quoted above (from "Of Being Numerous"), it seems that Oppen is speaking from the context of poetic ecstasis, of being transported, of a full state of "consciousness" which is mirrored by the illuminated stillness of the date "in the pylon of the bridge/ Frozen in moonlight," which is perhaps a transpersonal reflection of the percipient himself. There is also an echoing of a Vorticist theory of Pound's that "The image is itself the speech [in the frozen air over the footpath]. The image is the word beyond formulated language" (A Memoir, 88). This idea seems especially true in Oppen's illumination of the banal in which he describes: "In the pylon of the bridge// '1875'// Frozen in moonlight."  The sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, a member of the Vorticist group and a friend of Pound's, discusses aspects of Vorticism in relation to defining the characteristics of "materials" and how they may reflect "interiority," and invention/production, when he writes in his Vortex statements that   
                Sculptural energy is the mountain.
                Sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses
                in relation.
                Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses
                by planes  (in A Memoir, 20).

Following the logic of Brzeska's statements, it may well be that sculptural dexterity is the way Oppen works with language, and its unapparent philosophical links within his poems, creating a kind of erosion into meanings that lie beneath the surface of the images and the words ("beyond formulated language"). The "consciousness [which] awaits nothing,/ which loves itself" is the embodiment of language eroding into contemplative fulfillment of the intimately and actually seen, the clarified emotion resulting from the conjunction of the percipient with the perceived.

        This "erosion" into meaning, the occurrence of the unexpected and the transformative, contains a further and specifically philosophical link in Oppen's relation to Martin Heidegger’s conception of personal immanent presence. Regarding Heidegger's existential instance of "being-in-the-world" (Dasein), Oppen writes in a letter from 1968: "a poem is really about my self. It is an instance of 'being-in-the-world'" (177). Here Oppen paraphrases Heidegger's "Metaphysics is the basic occurrence of Dasein [being in the world]" (Heidegger 112), by substituting "metaphysics" with the act of creating poetry. Oppen's illumination of the banal, his cubistic arrangement of images creating a sense of simultaneity, often allow his poems to essentially "attain to unconcealedness" (178), Heidegger's designation of the metaphysical instance in which it is possible for "Art [to let] truth exist" (186). In fact, Oppen's experience of a poem being "an instance of 'being-in-the-world,’ " of being about a "consciousness// which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,/ which loves itself," transcends the Heideggerian proposition of the riddle-like instance when "...an answer becomes impossible or the impossibility of any answer becomes clear" (98).

        There is a primal element of intensity then for Oppen in the making of a poem, in the connection of emotionally fused language with the material of images and words, and the care given to their syntactical arrangement which, when it is evoked, suggests what D.H. Lawrence understood as an "ungraspable sheer present...life surging into utterance" (Lawrence 183). Oppen's wording, imagery and structuring of his poems enforces a de-conventionalizing of perceptions. His motive throughout his work, the way he recombines subjects and objects to permeate a deeper, unpredictable and previously unapparent clarity, becomes vivid.    


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Copyright © Doren Robbins, 2010. All rights reserved.