Oppen’s fascination with the meaning latent in an individual word, and his interest in the manner in which meaning is established and explored through the arrangement or construction of the words in a poem, led him in many works to compare the artist to an artisan or builder. In “The Building of the Skyscraper,” Oppen begins with a rather specific image, a steelworker who has “learned not to look down,” suggesting a kind of focus or concentration on the task at hand. Then, in a characteristic shift in vision, Oppen moves directly to his philosophic position, extending the poem beyond the steelworker by saying, “And there are words we have learned/ Not to look at,/ Not to look for substance/ Below them.” He thus opens the poem to include a broader human reliance on the materials available for building an artifice of understanding—materials that might not bear the weight of too much close scrutiny.
In a letter, Oppen explained that, for him, the word “building” carried connotations of creation and “the building of one’s life.” He explained further that he felt the word “skyscraper” had a kind of “homeliness” that grounded the poem in the fundamental flow of life. This grounding permits a turn toward the reflective that brings the poet to “the verge/ Of vertigo.” The balance between the skills required to continue a person’s daily tasks and the curiosity that draws a person to inquire into areas that reveal no real or...
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