The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A spare, free-verse poem, George Oppen’s “The Translucent Mechanics” comprises twenty-nine lines, four of which contain only a single word. The title invites readers to experience the poet’s vision into the tentativeness and transparency of things, revealing them as organic mechanisms, ever in flux.

The poem is written in the third person, as the poet takes on a persona that views things from shifting perspectives. First, he assumes the point of view of the wind, moving through “the clever city”—specifically, the port of San Francisco—penetrating its “hinges,” or workings, to discover its “secrets of motion”—that is, its life.

“Flaws” are discovered, as well as “fear,” but so is commerce with vital forces. A “message” is “fetchedout of the sea again,” the sea indicating the primordal matrix of life. “Angel” and “powers,” or spiritual voices, now declare the dialectic of “‘things and the self.’” “Prosody” that “sings/ In the stones” entrusts to “a poetry of statement” a “living mind.” Objects in poetry inhabit both human language, including the poem itself, and the physical, material world—both of which are themselves objects.

The “living mind/ ‘and that one’s own,’” the individual synthesizing imagination, willing to see things “at close quarters,” paradoxically attains the transcendent view of “archangel.” Oppen has called this way of seeing existence as one “the imagist intensity of vision”—that is, perception that penetrates the complex interrelationship between language, thought, and things. It perceives the correspondent, dynamic structures of self and universe. Without this unifying vision, “earth crumbles”; the experience of reality deteriorates.

The Translucent Mechanics Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Oppen has been associated with Objectivism, a school of poetry that links the structure of objective reality with that of the human mind. The poem mediates the world of things and that of human language; it serves as a nexus of words, images, and things.

Moreover, the poem exists as an object itself, a universe of its own, exemplifying authenticity and coherence. It exhibits organic form, with cadences and contours produced by a particular voice and time. Objectivism’s commitment to integrity, to precise articulation of word and event, and to scrupulously rendered experience decries superfluity or ornamentation. To achieve clarity, the poet rejects mellifluousness or melodic flourishes in favor of the pure resonances of well-honed imagery.

The poem’s spareness, along with its syncopated rhythm, forces the reader to concentrate on words and images one at a time, necessitating their redefinition. According to Jonathan Galassi of Poetry, “Oppen’s lines move in fits and starts; they are slowly accrued ‘discrete series’ of phrases, chains or associations.The lesson, the articulations of a meaning, is what matters.” Cid Corman, also a poet, has noted that “Oppen often repeats wordsas if he were literally discovering the sense in them and he were started by it.” The words Oppen repeats—“fear,” “say,” “what”—suggest the crux of the poem, as symbolized by the wind: a blind groping for definition.

Words that imply communication of meaning dominate the poem: “voices,” “murmur,” “message,” “say,” “prosody,” “sings,” “poetry,” “statement.” Phrases appear in quotes within the poem—“‘things and the self,’” “‘and that one’s own’”—drawing attention to them as language.

The poet indicates that definition is variously mutable and stable by using imagery linking restless wind and transcendent spirit. For example, both express themselves in sound: The wind “murmurs”; angels and powers “say.” This connection harkens back to the Scriptures, in whose original languages the same word signifies both. Significantly, the poem climaxes with an invocation to “Archangel/ of the tide,” suggesting the divine spirit that brooded over the waters of creation.

The Translucent Mechanics Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Duplessis, Rachel Blau, ed. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Hatlen, Burton, ed. George Oppen, Man and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1981.

Ironwood 5 (1975).

Ironwood 13 (Fall, 1985).

Nicholls, Peter. “Of Being Ethical: Reflections on George Oppen.” Journal of American Studies 31 (August, 1997): 153-170.

Oppen, Mary. Meaning a Life: An Autobiography. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.

Paideuma 10 (Spring, 1981).

Thackrey, Susan. George Oppen: A Radical Practice. San Francisco: O Books and the Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives, 2001.