“Some of us are writing to say things simply so that they will affect us as new again''. Louis Zukofsky's comment to Harriet Monroe, at the time of the ‘objectivist’ number of Poetry, in 1931, is relevant to George Oppen's first book, Discrete Series. Saying things simply, however, is unlikely to be what any reader finds at a first reading of Discrete Series or, for that matter, of much of George Oppen's poetry. But, as with any poet who says things “so that they affect us as new again'' our initial difficulty in understanding will be due largely to what we bring to the poems - expectations formed by poetic conventions, and their way of structuring the world, from which the poet has freed himself, and from which the poems can free us. Understanding George Oppen means coming alive to his way of seeing.
George Oppen himself has said of Discrete Series: “What I felt I was doing was beginning from imagism as a position of honesty. The first question at that time in poetry was simply the question of honesty, of sincerity”. I doubt whether any poet has been as conscious as George Oppen of the need for honesty in the poem, and of what it actually requires in the act of writing. He is faithful in all his poetry to his perception of the essential lesson of imagism and tests each word to see whether it holds meaning, and whether in using it he is being true to his experience. As he said in the same interview, he is “really concerned with the substantive, with the subject of the sentence, with what we are talking about, and not rushing over the subject-matter in order to make a comment about it”. The result in his poems is an extraordinary attention to the primary unit of meaning, the word, and to the relations between words which both articulate meaning and form the poem as an object. With The Materials and his later books, he extends “the position of honesty'' from the instance of perception to complex processes of thought. His achievement is a philosophical poetry which retains what he has called “the imagist intensity of vision”.
Starting with Discrete Series George Oppen has steadily refused to let any conventional poetic or commonsense or ideological order represent the world for him; he has done his own seeing. The strangeness of Discrete Series - its initially estranging effect upon the reader, and its enactment of the author's estrangement from conventional modes of perception -is not a subjective remaking of the familiar but the effect of a mind which is uncompromising in its truth to what it sees. We learn with these poems to trust George Oppen not to say more than he means. As he said later, “what I couldn't write l scratched out. I wrote what I could be sure of, what I could write ....what I could think, could say, could do.'' The empirical attitude denotes a radical scepticism about the world - specifically, urban America in the late Twenties and early Thirties - as seen, explained, interpreted, taught to see itself, in terms of conditioned images.
George Oppen, from the beginning, is a breaker of false images in the tradition of William Blake, with a scepticism towards the received world equal to Blake's scepticism towards the values handed down in his time. There are obvious considerable differences between, say, Blake's “London'' and the following poem from Discrete Series:
The cars pass
By the elevated posts
And the movie sign.
A man sells post-cards.
In Blake's poem a rich metaphorical language connects one human action and instrument of state power with another, exposing “the mind-forg'd manacles'' with which all are shackled together. George Oppen's language is stark, but in its scrupulous attention to the relationships between words and images and things, no less capable of exposing man's plight in the web of a false system. These “bad times'' are not a condition of nature but of a society with false values, in which a word of great value - “elevated” - has been so devalued as to be associated only with posts which the “cars pass”, as if their mechanism had taken over the city from human agency. The only human action is a complete reduction of the human being: “A man sells postcards”. What George Oppen shows is that in the value-system of these bad times a man is less than a post or a machine.
To alter our perception of things and enable us to grasp them anew, poetry must change our sense and valuation of the words naming them. This is what George Oppen does in Discrete Series. There he begins his work of slowing down the mind, concentrating it on words and things one at a time, and so quickening it to a new sense of the relations between them.
Before the reader's attention adapts itself to George Oppen's care, most of the poems in Discrete Series are easy to read over. For example:
The edge of the ocean,
The shore: here
By the water.
This might be shrugged off with a careless “so what?” except that Discrete Series establishes a way of seeing, and a pitch of attention, which enable the mind to grasp the non-human otherness of “ocean”', and the shore as its “edge”. Here/Somebody's lawn” then comes as an astonishing fact: something human, a possession, a piece of cultivated wideness, alongside everything that it is not. In this, as in many poems, George Oppen takes us to the roots of America and relates the peopled, settled world to elemental conditions, and to the forces and processes by which they were converted to serve human need. His words name the things of an interaction between man and nature and he restores meaning to each word and to the relations between them. Consequently, in the first line of the next poem in the series, “Tug against the river'', “against” carries the effort of the tug's struggle with the current and we see a thing - the tug - made by man for use, and able to move with or against the forces of nature. This is not the poetry of a man who cares nothing for the rich resources of language, but of a man for whom language and the world are deeply involved in each other.
George Oppen's awe at the things of the world is the measure of his scepticism about what man makes of them, socially and mentally, with his ideas and forms of order. For him, there can only be one response to awe:
Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful
A limited, limiting clarity
I have not and never did have any motive of poetry
But to achieve clarity
The motive ensures that at times his poems seem to be a kind of pointing at things, as if things can be seen through words:
Not to reduce the thing to nothing -
I might at the top on my ability stand at a window
and say, look out; out there is the world.
But the transparency of words is an illusion, as George Oppen knows. Man is in a world which his language orders or disorders, and he sees India words or is blinded by them.
In “Psalm” George Oppen's awe at the deer is not conveyed by gesture or by a simple act of naming alone - even the exclamation “That they are there!” is an emotive verbal action. He conveys the otherness of the deer by imaging them “in the strange woods”, in their bodily activities, and in their relationship with the things of their world - grass, roots, earth, woods, fields, leaves, sun. He juxtaposes their world with the words naming it:
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.
“this in which” is wholly other, and at once local and cosmic, but it is an order of existence, not life as a blind force. The faith is in language and in the world, or in language in the worldiin the relationship between the language man has made, and the world he has not made, but shares with the creatures.
George Oppen's awe belongs, in part, to a specifically American tradition which arose from the experience of the pioneers and settlers, and found literary expression in Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman among others. The tradition apprehends nature with conflicting emotions of wonder and fear. Nature is absolutely other than the human world, a fearful barrier to be overcome, and a savage wilderness, but also the ground which man must tend with care if he is to exist on it; the ground supplying materials which man may adapt with his skills to make a harmonious settlement, and which in misusing he will destroy, and destroy himself. To the latter perception, as well as to his experience as a craftsman, we owe George Oppen's contactual knowledge of the practical crafts by which men and women make their world, and a poetry that recognises, as fully as any poetry can, the impermanence of human order, and the threat of universal destruction posed by our misuse of knowledge. If there are poems that are equal to the nuclear threat, in the sense of seeing what it means, then George Oppen has written them, in “Time of the Missile” and “Crowded Countries of the Bomb”. The recognition is less a matter of particular poems, however, than of the knowledge of the complete vulnerability uniting us from which George Oppen always writes, and of his understanding that man cannot live without a sense of the future.
Clearly, George Oppen is in no way a naive explorer or celebrant of American “roots”. The distinctive character of his thought comes from his combination of crosscurrents within the American tradition arising from the making of a new world out of the wild, by diverse peoples, with an existentialist philosophy - owing something to Buber and Kierkegaard as well as much to Heidegger - which apprehends the difficulties of achieving meaning and authentic being in the world.
Wonder and fear are equally present in “The Building of the Skyscraper”
0, the tree, growing from the sidewalk -
It has a little life, sprouting
Little green buds
Into the culture of the streets.
We look back
Three hundred years and see bare land.
And suffer vertigo.
Here, in the last verse, there is awe at the continuing presence of nature in “the culture of the streets”, and vertigo at the distance travelled in three hundred years from the “bare land'' to the city superimposed upon it. Yet to isolate these meanings, germane to the American experience, is to simplify the poem. For “The Building of the Skyscraper'' is also concerned with the poet's work in a world where
There are words that mean nothing
But there is something to mean.
Not a declaration which is truth
But a thing
Which is. It is the business of the poet
“To suffer the things of the world
And to speak them and himself out”
The concerns are one. Vertigo is at the meaninglessness of some words, wonder at the fact of meaning. (Neither is a natural phenomenon, of course, any more than skyscraper is. Meaning for George Oppen depends on what a man intends). George Oppen has lived a life in which questions of personal integrity have been inseparable from his relationship with the people, and his roots are entangled with the roots of cities raised in the wild.
“The data of experience”, George Oppen has said, “is the core of what modernism restored to poetry, the sense of the poet's self among things.” This is a statement of relationship, and George Oppen is above all a poet who looks for meaning in relationships and interactions, between the self and others, the self and things, people and the world they make, man and nature. He knows, in the words of “Of Being Numerous” 10, that “the isolated man is dead, his world around him exhausted”. This is not a didactic gesture indicating a poetic stance to which he opposes himself as a poet at home in a sustaining community. On the contrary, George Oppen's sense of other people, let alone of “the people”, always implies his need of them, as a man who knows isolation and what it means. In “World, World-” he writes:
Soul-searchings, these prescriptions,
Are a medical faddism, an attempt to escape,
To lose oneself in the self.
The self is no mystery, the mystery is
That there is something for us to stand on.
His poetry is an attempt not to lose himself in the self but to find himelf in the world. He faces the difficulties inherent in the aim with complete honesty, and neither denies that being a poet increases isolation, nor accepts the fact complacently. He is certainly a metaphysical poet, and may even be described as mystical, if we take the full force of “the mystery is/That there is something for us to stand on”. The poem continues, and ends:
We want to be here.
The act of being, the act of being
More than oneself.
He may be called mystical not by virtue of any transcendentalism but because of the intensity with which he regards “the act of being”, seeing the “world” and the relationships in and by which “we” and “the self” exist anew.
There are times when the purity and intensity of George Oppen's vision recall Simone Weil and the desire for self-effacement which led her to write: “May I disappear in order that those things that I see may become perfect in their beauty from the very fact that they are no longer things that I see”, and “If I go, then the creator and the creature will exchange their secrets”. There are, indeed, affinities between George Oppen and Simone Weil in respect of their integrity and the uncompromising truthfulness with which they follow through and face up to ultimate intellectual consequences. The parallel between them might be developed further on the basis of Jewishness, and if we were to make much of George Oppen's remark to Charles Tomlinson during a visit to Wells Cathedral: “I guess I'm a Christian, but with all the heresies”. Personally I think it would be as wrong to dismiss this remark as insignificant as it would be to build on it a theory of specific Christian orientation to apply to the religious sense which is everywhere present in his poetry. Nor must the observation of the mystic in George Oppen be allowed to obscure his humanism, which is as fundamental and all pervasive in his work as it is in William Carlos Williams' and Charles Reznikoff's too. It is a humanism which shares Simone Weil's concern for the spiritual and material welfare of people but also has a dimension which is not only absent from her thought but is alien to the desire for self-effacement which was temperamentally hers. This may be seen in his Fine “Birthplace: New Rochelle”:
Retuming to that house
And the rounded rocks of childhood - They have lasted
A world of things.
An aging man,
The knuckles of my hand
So jointed! I am this?
My father's once, and the ground. There is a color of his
In the sun's light.
A generation': mark.
lt intervenes. My child,
Not now a child, our child
Not altogether lone in a lone universe that suffers time
Like stones in sun. For we do not.
Here we see the metaphysical sense of human continuity which is very strong in George Oppen, and which he knows to be precarious and increasingly vulnerable in the modem world - which is indeed widely distinguished by loss of the sense. It is, of course, a sense of relationship, linking past and future and experienced in the present, and in this instance connecting three generations, his father, himself, and his and Mary's child, and also his childhood and his manhood. l have described this sense as alien to the desire for self-effacement because it is totally dependent upon the existence and agency of the self and of other selves, and upon the relationship between self and world. Returning to his childhood home George Oppen perceives “a world of things'' and seeing this he sees himself with wonder and surprise: “An aging man,/The knuckles of my hand/So jointed! I am this?” The wondering self-recognition comes with the recognition of all that is involved in the place: the people with their own impenetrable and irrevocable lives - for his father has gone, and though “there is a color of his times the sun's light'' he belonged, as all do, to time, his time - yet who are people who leave “a generation's mark”, which “intervenes” and who are “I”, “my father”, “my child,/Not now a child, our child”, people who have lived or are living in the relationships which brought them into being, and in the love which is implicit in the poem. This is a human world which George Oppen shows, where we do not suffer time “lke stones in sun”, and are “not always together lone in a lone universe”. The poem, like all George Oppen’s, is itself “an act of being more than oneself”. Discovering the self in the world, and among others, makes the self-recognition a necessary act of being there, and the opposite of an egotistic gesture.
George Oppen's differences from William Carlos Williams are instructive. Williams, though as skilful a maker as any poet, spoke in his Autobiography of the poem as the “underlying meaning” in the lives of the people. “It is actually there” he wrote, “in the life before us, every minute that we are listening, a rarest element - not in our imaginations but there, there in fact. lt is that essence which is hidden in the very words which are going in at our ears and from which we must recover underlying meaning as realistically as we recover metal out of ore.” For George Oppen, on the other hand, the poem is to be found not in recovering meaning from what people say but in meaning which is made by the poet living in the world, in relationships, in personal authenticity. He shares Williams' openness towards experiencing America, but the ground is less firm under his feet than it was under Williams’, and he is more philosophical, more sceptical, much less certain of what and where he is, and therefore more exploratory in his attitude towards self and world. Perception is more complicated in George Oppen's world than in Williams', because his mind is more questioning of both the self which sees and the nature of that which is seen.
For all the continuity between Discrete Series and George Oppen's subsequent books, a major obvious difference between them is that the latter contain another thirty years of experience. These were years when George and Mary Oppen, as political activists on the streets and in the tenements of New York, were closely involved with the lives of of people suffering the injustice and hard conditions of their time. Those years also saw George Oppen's war experience in Europe and the Oppens' exile in Mexico during the McCarthy era. All were experiences that evidently strengthened George Oppen's sense of the impermanence and precariousness of human order, especially in the city itself, which is a current within the American tradition, and which in his case, no doubt, also owed something to his break with his original home and class. At any rate, it is easy to understand why Charles Reznikoff's line “a girder, still itself among the rubble” should have come to mean so much to George and Mary Oppen, who found themselves and kept their integrity among the rubble of their time.
Mary Oppen has said that Charles Reznikoff's poetry “really is what's happening on the streets”. Reznikoff's strength is different from George Oppen's in this respect. He developed the imagist technique, in poems like Jerusalem the Golden, to present the life of the streets as he saw and heard it, and he himself is there alongside the rest, a man keenly alive, but little troubled by questions of the reality of self and world. There are vivid passages in George Oppen's poetry, which justify the claim that he shares viii Williams and Reznikoff and a few others, the great distinction of opening modem American poetry to the urban experience. George Oppen, however, is much less an observer than Reznikoff and, in the act of seeing, much more self-questioning. The self-questioning intensifies as the tensions inherent in his way of seeing increasingly manifest themselves in experience. In experience, not theory - for it is apparent that he was aware of the tensions when writing Discrete Series. For George Oppen, the “I” of the poem is never a dramatic convention or the eye of a camera but always his experiencing self. In his poetry, therefore, some terms of Louis Zukofsky's definition of the “objective” - writing “which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist” - combines with an “I” that is integrally personal. “Honesty” and “sincerity” are among the words which George Oppen revalues by his use of them; so too, are “honour” and “companionship” (see, for example, “Pro Nobis” and “To C.T.”). Such revaluation of debased words is a distinguishing feature of all important modem poets, and in George Oppen's case it is a consequence of the necessary relationship between personal integrity and the integrity of the poem. Or, in short, of meaning, as George Oppen handles it. He has spoken in these terms of his reason for giving up poetry, an abstinence which lasted 25 years: “when the crisis occurred we knew we didn't know what the world was and we knew we had to find out so it was a poetic exploration at the same time that it was an action of conscience, of feeling that one was worth something or other. And I thought most of the poets didn't know about the world as a life”.
“The world as a life”: this is the “position of honesty”, in which being true to experience and the truth of the poem cannot be separated. By this, the clarity of the original imagist perception becomes the aim of every thought; the integrity of the person and the integrity of the poem are interdependent, as they must be when the poet uses the poem to see; the poem is both an object, a thing well made, and a man speaking, finding the meaning in his experience. Academic attitudes that enable the reader to regard the poem as something other than a meeting place, where two minds come together to grasp a meaning which is important to both, and which may question both, and change them, have to look for playgrounds elsewhere. “The world as a life” also complements with personal terms the relationship between self and world which Jacques Maritain expressed philosophically: “we awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things”. Together they indicate the process of thought in George Oppen's poems: the seeing of things which is simultaneously a self-enlightenment.
George Oppen has an acute sense of all that is not himself, but in relation to which he finds himself. For him, love does not merge selves but recognises and companions the other, sharing meaning and the search for meaning. His answer to Whitman's incorporate ego containing multitudes, and infinitely permeable, in “Myself I sing”, is that a man “finds himself by two./Or more.” He is a poet capable of great tenderness, who like Williams has a special appreciation of the warmth and courage of women.
“Sara in Her Father's Arms” is perhaps George Oppen's finest short poem:
Cell by cell the baby made herself, the cells
Made cells. That is to say
The baby is made largely of milk. Lying in her father's arms,
Moving, trying to see, smiling for us
To see, she will make a household
To her need of these rooms - Sara, little seed,
Little violent diligent seed. Come let us look at the world
Glittering: this seed will speak,
Max, words! There will'be no other words in the world
But those our children speak. What will she make of a world
Do you suppose, Max, of which she is made.
Love and wonder are the emotions of this metaphysical poem. In George Oppen, as with all major philosophical poets, the primary emotions are not disconnected from the intellect but issue in thought. So, here, seeing the baby with love and wonder stimulates the perception of the nature of creation, first biological, in the process of growth, then human in the making of a household, and a world. The baby, the “seed” has the violence and diligence with which things are made to serve human needs. (A conjunction of qualities which speaks eloquently of the experience of pioneer settlement still haunting George Oppen's culture.) The need, however, is to make a household, and here, as in other poems, George Oppen sees the woman as the source of human sustenance and the creator of order. “Household” receives from the poem its full meaning: of the house and its inmates, the home that contains and sustains them. The act of making such order depends upon seeing and upon speech. Sara is already “trying to see, smiling for us/To see”, and to see, as the repetition shows, is to form a relationship between the seer and that which is seen, and at the same time to become a conscious self. The natural, instinctive being achieves human creativity with faculties of vision and speech that are as innate in the baby as the creative properties of cells. Words do not create nature, but they are “in the world”; active in the formation of human order, they enable the woman to seek the meaning “of a world…of which she is made”.
“Sara in Her Father's Arms” combines intimacy attic clarity, and a concentrated strength of thought and expression. These qualities, which make George Oppen so stimulating for the reader who is prepared to meet his mind in the poems and see with him, make him difficult for the critic who believes - as I do - that the most useful thing he could do, at the risk of being clumsy, would be to give some idea of how George Oppen actually uses a poem to see.
“Return” is a fine example of his extension of “the imagist intensity of vision” to a process of thought. It accordingly shows how George Oppen, though, as he has acknowledged, indebted to Ezra Pound, is one of the very few modem poets to show, in his poetic practice, an intelligence equal to Pound’s. George Oppen's poems demonstrate, in Pound's words, that “all poetic language is the language of exploration”. And because “the image is the word beyond formulated language”, we can be made to see what we can indicate only with difficulty.
“Return” begins by invoking the medieval sense of the world:
This Earth the king said
Looking at the ground;
The allusion to Shakespeare's Richard II seems to compound John of Gaunt's famous speech of prophecy in Act 2, Scene 1 with Richard's salute to his native ground on returning from Ireland. In any cue, the important conjunctions are between “Earth” and “ground” and “England” which together form an image of the world as the king's absolute possession, the reality he names and on which his order is founded, and which he takes for granted is eternally immutable. The poem then returns immediately to the present:
A Sunday paradise
Of parkway, trees flow into trees and the grass
Like water by the very asphalt crown
And summit of things
In the flow of traffic
The family cars, in the dim
Sound of the living
The noise of increase to which we owe
What we possess. We cannot reconcile ourselves.
No one is reconciled, tho we spring
From the ground together-
“Crown/And summit of things” continues the regal imagery but applies it not to the king, at the apex of an hierarchical order, but to the asphalt of the parkway, the public world where all merges, (as the lines now together). The Oppens' share this with others, “in the flow of traffic/The family cars”. The people are at once part of this world, flowing with it anonymously as “trees flow into trees and the grass”, and shut off, in their cars. “Family” as is often the case in George Oppen, is a source of order in an alien or unreal world. lt has this meaning here, in contrast to “the dim/sound of the living/The noise of increase”, but the confined family is part of the flow, too, and owes “what we possess” to “The noise of increase”. True to a common sense in George Oppen, of his place both inside and outside American society, the images depict a world which is at once shared and isolating, and in which between people, and between people and their “ground” there is no reconciliation. In the second movement time and place change easily again - for the space of the poem is the poet's mind - but with another organic image following the image of people springing from “the ground”, and the poem opens further into a meditation upon time and creation, natural process and man's relationship with the earth. Here George Oppen sets the force contained in “the miniscule Sequoia seed”, seen in the museum, and the time of the full-grown and disintegrated redwood tree, against “the streets of the living”. He recalls, with an echo, as he does on several occasions in his poetry, T.S.Eliot, another poet with a feeling for the ocean, and the oceanic reaches of evolutionary time; a poet with whom he has something imaginative in common, but against whom he defines an opposing sense of the ground of human existence:
This is not our time, not what we mean, it is a time
Passing, the curl at the cutwater,
The enormous prow
Outside in the weather.
Contemplation of this leads George Oppen not to prayer, as “time not our time” led Eliot in “The Dry Salvages”, but to a sense of “desertion,/Betrayal, that we are not innocent/Of loneliness”, and to tum to the living, to those closest to him. The passage that follows is one of the most tender and intimate in all his poetry:
Mary, we tum to the children
As they will turn to the children
Wanting so much to have created happiness
As if a stem to the leaves -
- we had camped in scrub,
A scrub of the past, the fringes of towns
Neither towns nor forest, nothing ours. And Linda five,
Maybe six when the mare grazing
In the meadow came to her.
“Horse,” she said, whispering
By the roadside
With the cars passing. Little girl welcomed,
As in “Sarah in Her Father's Arms” the emotion carries George Oppen's thought about the relationship between nature and the human world, which are reconciled here. “This England” was the name given to “this Earth”, the king's possession, representing “the medieval sense” that “seems innocent, the very/ceremony of innocence that was drowned”, but was not innocent, as George Oppen says quoting Yeats near the end of the poem. But here is innocence - the little girl whispering “Horse” is not possessive, or claiming dominion, but is “welcomed,/Learning welcome”. It is a true relationship, and of course, totally vulnerable. “The rest is,” George Oppen says,
Whatever - whatever - remote
The piers of the city
In the sea.
The final movement of the poem returns to the city, to “whole buildings/Razed, whole blocks/Of a city gone/Among old streets/And the old boroughs, ourselves/Among these streets,” and to a particular incident from the social and political upheavals of the Thirties. From a world made homely by the mutual welcome of child and horse we move to violent deprivation - and its resistance by Petra, defending her children and her neighbours against eviction. Petra and the incident are actual, not symbolic; but she, true to her name, gives a meaning to “endurance” and a sense of completeness to the “whole buildings”. The meanings stand though the buildings have gone. “How imagine it?” George Oppen asks. And finally:
Of streets boarded and vacant where no time will hatch
Now chairs and walls,
Floors, roofs, the joists and beams,
The woodwork, window sills
In the sun in a great weight of brick.
It is a statement and an exclamation. As for the questions it contains - how imagine the life of that time, now it has gone? How imagine that which is real, beyond imagination? - any answer would be an imposition upon the poem and an insult to its honesty. “Return” is a profound, subtle, and inevitably inconclusive meditation on man's changing social relationships, and his relationship with the ground of his existence, based on the ancient metaphor of human life as a tree, in the context of time and the forces of nature. It is also, (and this the word “meditation” may belie), “the world as a life”, a poem in which the thought proceeds exploratively, with “imagist Intensity of vision”, each image having the integrity of lived experience. And when in this poem George Oppen turns to Mary he makes explicit what is usually implicit in his poems, that for him the world is a life shared. The medieval “Westem wind” is one of his motifs, and he admires Wyatt's poetry - not surprisingly, since there is in his own a similar emotional intensity and wholeness. The language of Donne's “each has one world and is one”, or of Arnold's sudden intimacy in “Dover Beach”, or of Hardy's evocation of places charged for him with the essence of Emma, is in no case George Oppen's language. He is, however, essentially a love poet, who has in common with these poets an acute sense of love as a stay and a strength in an endangering world. Love is not an escape for him but a sharing, and a shared meaning.
The act of seeing places George Oppen in a world, but seeing also distances him from the world in which the majority live:
“Whether, as the intensity of seeing increases, one's distance
I know, of course I know, I can enter no other place
from them, the people, does not also increase'”
(“Of Being Numerous” 9)
Yet it is this fact, and George Oppen's honesty in face of it, that enables him, in “Of Being Numerous”, to write the most penetrating poem about the possibility of poetry in our time. And all his poems exist in the awareness of this critical problem; for the possibility of poetry depends on the possibility of meaning. Questions about the poet's relationship with his people, with those with whom he shares a language, are necessarily the most important questions about what poetry is, and what it means. In George Oppen's circumstances, which are those of most poets in the West, there can be no justification for a Wordsworthian confidence that searchings of the self will penetrate the ground of humanity, and the poet looking into himself speak to and for others. Nor is it in uncritical populism that the poet will find the people, but only, perhaps, in exploring his complex and troubled relationship with them, which includes his distance from them. It is relatively easy, of course, to evade the problem of meaning altogether, by catching a poetic style from the time or writing according to the expectations of a past poetic convention. George Oppen is one of the most important modem poets because he has done neither but has tested every word for its meaning, in full awareness of the subtlety as well as the power of meaninglessness in the modem world. The truth of George Oppen's poetry is the truth of his poem “The Gesture”. Whether writing of things shared or of things seen in the light of “the shipwreck/Of the singular”, he has never had a bauble to sell but has always held “something/In the mind which he intends/To grasp!”
All quotations from the poems in this essay are from "The Collected Poems of George Oppen" (New Directions, 1976).
1. Zukofsky, an interview WITH L.S.Dembo, Contemporary Literature, Spring 1969.
2. L.S.Dembo, "Oppen on his Poems: a Discussion", in “George Oppen, Man and Poet” ed. Burton Hatlen), 1981
3. George Oppen, "The Mind's Own place", Montemora 1 (Fall. 1975).
4. Simone Weil, "Gravity and Grace" (1952).
5. Charles Tomlinson, "Some Americans, a Personal Record" (1981).
6. William Carlos Williams "Autobiography" (1948,New Directions, 1967).
7. Burton Hatlen and Tom Mandel, “Poetry and Politics: A Conversation with George and Mary Oppen”, in "George Oppen Man and Poet".
8. Louis Zukofsky, "An Objective", Prepositions (1981).
9. Ezra Pound, “Gaudier-Brzeska” (1916, 1960).
copyright © Jeremy Hooker, 1987. First published in "Not comfort/But Vision: Essays on the Poetry of George Oppen", pub. Interim Press 1987