The Poem

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...

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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...

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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.