In one of George Oppen’s poems, the poet is being driven around an island off the coast of Maine by a poor fisherman and his wife. The landscape, the lobster pots and fishing gear, the harbor, and the post office are noted, and the poet is, unaccountably, moved by a nearly metaphysical sense of passage. The experience is at once intimate and remote, and the poet is moved to exclaim to himself: “Difficult to know what one means/ —to be serious and to know what one means—.” Such lines could be emblems for Oppen’s entire career, for, of contemporary poets, none has more searchingly investigated through poetry the attempt to mean, to examine how language is used, and so to account for the very vocabulary of modernity.
For Oppen, inquiry is synonymous with expression. In a world of mass communication and of a debased language riddled with preconceptions about the nature of reality, the poet, according to Oppen, must begin in a completely new way; he must begin, as he says in one poem, “impoverished of tone of pose that common/ wealth of parlance.” In Oppen, this is not so much a search for a language of innocence or novelty as it is a resolve against making use of certain historical or elegiac associations in language, a desire on the part of the poet not to be bewitched (as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein warned) by conventional ways of speaking and of making poetry.
Oppen’s entire body of work can be seen as a modern test of the poet’s capacity to articulate. The terms of his poetry are the common meanings of words as they attempt to render the brute givens of the world of appearance. For this reason, Oppen has called his work “realist”; it is realist in the sense that it is “concerned with a fact (the world) which it did not create.” In a way, the subject of all Oppen’s poetry is the nature of this encounter, whether with the world or with others. The task for the poet is neither to beautify sentimentally nor to categorize such encounters but to render their living quality, to make the poet’s relatedness to the facts into something felt. As Oppen acknowledges in one of his poems, “Perhaps one is himself/ Beyond the heart, the center of the thing/ and cannot praise it/ As he would want to.”
In all Oppen’s work, there is an attempt to render the visual datum accurately and precisely; this is in keeping with the Imagist and Objectivist techniques at the root of Oppen’s poetics. The aim of the technique, however, is more philosophical than literary; it is to establish the material otherness of the visual event. In the poems, objects and landscapes obtrude and reveal their existence as though seen for the first time. Discrete Series, Oppen’s first book, is nearly procedural in its epistemological insistence on what is seen. The short lyrics which compose its contents are less like poems than they are the recording of eye movements across surfaces juxtaposed with snatches of statement and remembered lines from older poetry and fiction. The white space of the page surrounding these elements becomes a field of hesitations, advances, and reconsiderations, and the burden of meaning in the poem resides in the reader’s recomposition of the fragmented elements. It is as though a crystal or prism had been interposed between poet and subject.
By the time Oppen had resumed writing poetry in the late 1950’s, he had greatly modified his reliance on visual sense as a source of knowledge. One of the chief distinctions of his poetry remains its persuasive powers of registration, as in a poem written in the 1960’s where “the north/ Looks out from its rock/ bulging into the fields,” or from a poem of the 1970’s where the sun moves “beyond the blunt/ towns of the coast . . . fishermen’s/ tumbled tumbling headlands the needle silver/ water. . . .” Such...
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- Critical Essays