George Oppen’s “But so as by Fire” is a poem in free verse, its twenty-six short lines divided into thirteen verse paragraphs resembling brief phrases. The paragraphs, or phrases, vary in length from one to four lines. The title suggests an alternative to the effects of fire—effects achieved by something else as though “by fire.” Fire often triggers new growth, as seen, for example, in the forest after a fire. Another fitting example within the poem’s context is the rebirth of the mythological phoenix from the ashes of its own fiery death. The word “fire” is not in the poem; the regenerative connotation is unspoken.
There is immediacy of place in the first sixteen lines of the poem as the reader observes “this” life that is guarded by the trees’ dark shade. Describing and extolling the virtues of nature are frequent themes of lyric poetry. In this poem, the “magic” of the natural world is protected by darkness, a significant departure from most poems about nature, wherein darkness is associated with fear or even death. The darkness here is not forbidding but nurturing.
The first two paragraphs present the larger picture, from a viewpoint of some distance—a general image of thick-foliaged woods covering the rocky ground. Then, suddenly, the author focuses in on his subject, and the images become more specific. The next four paragraphs—lines 7 through 14—detail the world under the trees. Broken boughs on the ground foster the decomposition cycle, as new life sprouts from the rotting matter on the ground. Small animals thrive in protective shadows, and pools, not stagnant but clean with the “trickle of freshwater,” nourish the healthy life cycle.
The shift in perspective from the small, detailed world of the woods to the world of humanity begins in paragraph 7. The only punctuation in the poem occurs in line 15 as all that has gone before is identified, emphasized, and set apart by the comma and the white space after the phrase “New life.” Oppen’s poetry often involves clean-cut silences framing words; the usage here is consistent with the “beauty of silence” of the shadowed world.
The rich compost generates its own gentle heat on the forest floor and engenders new life. Unrealized potential is intimated in the “hidden starry life” that is “not yet/ A mirror like our lives.” In paragraphs 8 through 10, the speaker intensifies his focus on struggling humanity and speaks with inclusive spokesmanship, likening “our lives” to a mirror: hiding nothing in light and reflecting mere copy images. Nothing new is produced in a mirror, in sharp contrast to the new life created by decay in the shaded forest.
In the generalizing manner of the sage, the poet muses in the last four lines (three concise phrases) that, paradoxically, light is to be feared more than shadows. He implies that in the silent dark places, literally and figuratively, are found possibilities, creativity, and strength to “Summon one’s powers.”
Forms and Devices
Precision of language is characteristic of Oppen’s poetry. It is evident in the compressed language and spare method used in the poem as well as in Oppen’s use of imagery. Oppen’s poetry is most approachable through its imagery. As John Taggart states in an essay entitled “Deep Jewels: George Oppen’s Seascape,” in the journal Ironwood (1985), “Oppen has chosen to stand fast to the conception of image as center, foundation, and base for composition.”
Oppen’s imagery renders the abstract in concrete terms throughout the poem. For example, the new life generated by “the dark green moss/ In the sweet smell of rot” conveys the poem’s concept of darkness as nurturer. Plain and original dispensing of ordinary words mark the precise and concrete imagery.
As with the objectivist method of poetry that he helped to originate in the 1930’s, Oppen strove for a new refinement of imagery toward a poetry of simplicity and most important, thought. Imagery involves only the eye, but objectivism engages both the eyes and the mind equally. Oppen once said that in his poetry he was trying to describe how “the test of images can be a test of whether one’s thought is valid.” Consistent with that statement, in this poem the imagery is arresting, but its thrust is toward thought.
This thrust toward thought is accomplished in three ways. The first is characteristic of Oppen’s bare, terse style. The language may be spare, but with a single word it can establish an attitude or a mood. The “thin ground/ That covers the rock ledge” is rendered beautiful because it is “magic.” The darkness is not fearsome for it “guards” life. The rot is “sweet” smelling. Clearly, the organic structures are generated to lead toward thought.
Key patterns of sound accompany the word pictures in the second method of supporting the poem’s meaning. The alliteration is subtle, but in this poetry of such reticence that it almost moves toward silence, compression and precision of language give each letter greater significance. Gentle, explosive b sounds link and grant “beauty” to “broken boughs.” One can sense the forest’s subtle regenerative heat in the quiet hiss of the phrase “moss/ In the sweet smell of rot.” In contrast, the assonance in “lives reflect light/ like mirrors” is loudly bright and penetrating.
Finally, it is the combination of imagery and didacticism that leads the reader to meditative conclusions. The shadow imagery suggests protection and creativity. When, however, attention is turned to the situation in which humanity finds itself—exposed in light and “gone/ As far as possible”—the tone becomes didactic. The positive connotations of darkness—the images of safety in shadows—are replaced by the shock of rhetoric that defines the stated paradox that the danger to humanity exists in the light, not in the darkness. For example, the poet asks who knew “To be afraid/ Not of shadow but of light.” Thus is traditional thought undermined by the restrained but powerful amalgam of statement with imagery. The “test of images” successfully guides the reader to final, thoughtful conclusions.
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.