The Building of the Skyscraper Summary
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 final answer carries the poem onward into the second stanza, in which the question of words is directly addressed.
After asserting that “there are words that mean nothing,” Oppen states one of his basic tenets: “But there is something to mean.” It is “the business of the poet” to struggle amid the “things of the world” and “to speak them and himself out.” This is Oppen’s central goal as a poet. He explained that “to speak them out” conveys both a sense of exhausting the possibilities of meaning in a situation and the ambition of the poet to speak “out-wards,” or toward a greater meaning or larger audience.
The final stanza introduces the natural world in a heartfelt paean: “O, the tree, growing from the sidewalk,” Oppen declares, contrasting its “green buds” with the human-made, perplexing uncertainty of “the culture of the streets.” He concludes by reintroducing the vertigo of the initial stanza in a final image of a nation stretching back three hundred years toward an origin that is so open to construction—its “bare land” like a blank page—that the importance of finding amid the vastness “a thing/ Which is” offers ample compensation for the vertigo, the suffering, that the poet/builder must experience.
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).
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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.