George Oppen Essay - Critical Essays

George Oppen American Literature Analysis

Oppen’s decision to stop writing poetry—literally in midpoem, as he wrote in a letter in 1972—stemmed from his belief that he was not prepared, either experimentally or technically, to satisfy his vision of what a poem could be. As the critic Rachel Blau De Plessis has pointed out, however, this act was not a negation of his career as a poet but a self-chosen silence that helped Oppen to prepare himself for the moment when he would feel ready to begin again. He was able to recommence his craft with such verve in 1958 because of changing factors in his life, but he was still essentially dependent on the solid conception of a poem that he had developed during the relatively brief but intense time from 1928 to 1934, when he was in close association with Zukovsky, Williams, Reznikoff, and Pound.

The term “Objectivist” has been applied to this group—with Pound regarded as an allied member and mentor and Carl Rakosi and Lorine Niedecker as a part of the loose affiliation—but the association was never a conscious movement or a part of a strategy for gaining attention. What these poets shared was a group of assumptions—with individual variations. What drew them together was a mutual interest in a poetics that was at a distinct remove from many of the conventional or traditional ideas about what constituted a poem. The Objectivists were working in a near void as far as a general audience was concerned, and they needed one another’s responses as well as a strong sense of their craft to work at all. Even the most prominent figures, Pound and Williams, were almost invisible for the early decades of the twentieth century. Oppen and the others wrote sporadically, with great gaps between volumes, and relied on their personal visions to sustain them.

As Oppen saw it, the term “Objectivist” had nothing to do with an objective viewpoint but expressed the idea that the poem itself was an important object—an entity recording not merely reality but a distinct and separate aspect of reality. For Oppen, the act of writing was not primarily a means of ordering the world (as critic Paul Auster has put it) but a discovery of it. As Oppen remarked, one has to “write one’s perceptions, not argue one’s beliefs,” and the process of composition was one way to engage the perceptual apparatus.

This led Oppen to the revolutionary position that familiar poetic forms were not the only ways to arrange a poem. Oppen contended that the poet “learns from the poem, his poem: the poem’s structure, image, language.” This is one of the first statements of the distinction between “closed” (or traditional) and “open” (or original) form, and Oppen argued that “the danger is that as the poem forms, the doors close.” In other words, as Robert Creeley, one of Oppen’s most accomplished poetic successors, has phrased it, “there is an appropriate way of saying something inherent in the thing to be said.” Oppen also observed, “the poet does not write what he already knows.”

The effect of these striking and radically new assertions was to make Oppen’s poetry, even his work from the early 1930’s, so unusual that it has not dated at all; in fact, the tremendous changes in poetry initiated by Oppen and his colleagues have made his work more accessible in the decades since. On the other hand, this treatment of poetry as a record of the poet’s mind in action tends to make poetry narrowly specific, so that Oppen’s style still may not be immediately accessible for a reader who has not moved beyond more conventional approaches to poetry.

Although there are interesting rhythmic patterns in Oppen’s work, he has essentially eschewed the most magnetic kind of song that often makes poetry initially compelling. His use of elliptic, often austere word groupings and suggestions of images tends to produce a compression that is resistant to immediate emotional responses. As Oppen pointed out, “the weakest work . . . occurs where the poet attempts to drive his mind in pursuit of emotion for its own sake . . . I would hold that the mere autonomy of the mind or the emotions is mendacity.” Oppen is not suggesting that emotion or feeling is inappropriate but rather that an easy evocation of an emotional response will prevent the more significant and hard-won kind of deep feeling he hopes to achieve. Therefore, the position of the poet with respect to the world is a function, in Oppen’s work, of the totality of the poem rather than of any particularly dynamic line or image, and the effect of the poem depends on the entire piece, or in some cases on a grouping of poems that are linked, if not directly interconnected.

Hugh Kenner has called Oppen a “geometer of minima” and has rightly pointed out how effectively Oppen has used Williams’s oft-quoted dictum “no ideas but in things.” While this makes Oppen’s poetry almost “unanthologizable” (as critic John Taggart has remarked), the difficulties of his style may eventually yield to an understanding of and appreciation for an original conception of how a poem works to connect a person and the world.

“O Western Wind”

First published: 1962 (collected in The Materials, 1962)

Type of work: Poem

The poet regards the woman he loves, and his reflections on her beauty are deepened by his sense of her vital place in his life.

Oppen’s determination to avoid what he...

(The entire section is 2236 words.)