Joel Oppenheimer Essay - Critical Essays


This “sports-loving Jewish intellectual/ writer” (“Dear Miss Monroe”), who “still grew up a jew in/ yonkers new york” admits at one moment that “finally i am through with it, with/ the american dream, a dream that ran through/ all my ancestors who fought here for you/ america” (“17-18 April, 1961”). Don’t believe him. Joel Oppenheimer’s own language and ideas give him away. His book On Occasion includes ”Life,” the poem, and “Life,” a subsection of the collection. Two major sections are titled “Liberty” and “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

Not only does the triumvirate of American independence reign throughout his work, but the language of his poetry also shows that he has not abandoned America. Instead of the Christmas jingle “not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,” he writes, “inside the/ window/ not even a/ football game not even/ a haiku disturbing/ us” (“Found Art”). He defines “contra naturam” as “the pot which boils while/ watched” (“The Zoom Lens”). Beginning “The Riddle,” he asks, “what/ s gray and comes in quarts”; answering, “is an elephant or my brain.” His biblical allusions take the form of “it/ is very hot/ my sweat runneth over, even if/ my belly be not sheaved/ wheat” (“The Bye-Bye Happiness Swing”). He reaffirms or readjusts the platitudes “love is a/ many-splendored thing” (“Untitled”) and “it’s the world we live in/ we can’t eat our cake or have it/ either” (“Four Photographs by Richard Kirstel”); and he haunts one with an echo of the now classic radio line, “who knows what shadows lurk in the hearts of old girl friends” (“Come On Baby”). As he exclaims in “Poem Written in the Light of Certain Events April 14th, 1967,” “finally, i am here, goddamnit!/ i am american, goddamnit!”

Political poems

Only an American would take and insist on such liberties with language. Oppenheimer insists not only that one can take liberties with language, but also that it is language that gives us our liberty and freedom. He vehemently defends that right, to “defend that truth/ that is our inheritance” (“Poem in Defense of Children”). The fight is against those that would take it away—“the first amendment was here/ before mendel rivers or lbj” (“A Dab of Cornpone”)—as well as against those who would equally damage individual freedom by manipulation and lies. Echoing Williams’s complaint against T. S. Eliot, he rejects language that is not part of and does not express one’s own experience: “there is the problem of words, how/ to sound like language, and/ one/ s self” (“The Great American Novel”).

Oppenheimer’s American heritage runs from Thomas Jefferson through Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson—“andy/ show them all. once/ a free man ruled the free” (“The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans”). His other ancestors include such persons (and literary banners) as Walt Whitman (I sing of myself), William Carlos Williams (“no ideas but in things”), Ezra Pound (“make it new”), and Olson (“form is but an extension of content”). His immediate kin he addresses in “The Excuse”:

dear god, dear olson, dearcreeley, dear ginsberg, myteachers and makers, bringme again to light, keepme...

(The entire section is 1434 words.)