George Oppen Oppen, George (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

George Oppen 1908-1984

(Full name George August Oppenheimer) American poet.

A highly esteemed contemporary American poet, Oppen was one of the founders of Objectivism, a movement in American poetry during the early 1930s dedicated to extending Imagism by treating the poem itself as a physical object. After his first volume, Discrete Series appeared in 1934, Oppen—determined to work for social and economic change—stopped writing poetry and became a labor organizer in the Communist Party. It was not until the late 1950s that he began writing poetry again, emerging as a leading figure in a new wave of Objectivism and proving a significant influence on succeeding generations of poets. In 1969 his collection titled Of Being Numerous (1968) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Biographical Information

Born April 24, 1908, into a wealthy family in New Rochelle, New York—his father was a wholesale diamond merchant—Oppen endured a painful childhood. His mother, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, committed suicide when Oppen was four. His father's second marriage, when the boy was nine, “opened upon me,” Oppen has written, “an attack totally murderous, totally brutal, involving sexual attack, beatings.” When Oppen was ten, the family moved to San Francisco. Six weeks before his high school graduation from Warren Military Academy, Oppen, apparently drunk, had a car accident in which another person was killed. He was expelled from school and his family sent him to travel in Europe. Upon returning to the United States, he finished high school and enrolled in Oregon State University. He studied poetry and, there, he met Mary Colby. On their first date, they stayed out all night. She was expelled; he was suspended, but elected to leave as well. The two had decided to become poets, and set out on a life of travel and experience rather than academic pursuits. They married, hitchhiked throughout the United States and lived in New York City, where they met William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukovsky, and Charles Reznikoff. In 1929, supported by a monthly income inherited from his mother, Oppen and his wife moved to France, and visited Ezra Pound in Italy. Oppen wrote and ran TO, Publishers, the press he established which published the new Objectivist poets as well as Pound and Williams. Because of the poetic radicalism of Objectivism and the reluctance of booksellers to handle paperbacks, the business was unsustainable. Anti-Semitism, the first wave of fascism, and Pound's political allegiance to it contributed to their returning to the United States. In 1935, the Oppens joined the Communist Party and worked as labor organizers until 1941. At the beginning of the World War II, Oppen worked at Grumman Aircraft, and was, therefore, exempt from the draft. Feeling a sense of responsibility to fight against Nazism, he left that job so that he would be drafted. In 1944 he was seriously wounded in battle. After his discharge from the army with a Purple Heart medal, he and Mary withdrew from political work, but supported Henry Wallace for president in 1948. In 1949 FBI agents began investigating the Oppens, and they fled to Mexico to avoid testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, where they would be forced to name names or go to jail. In Mexico Oppen managed a furniture factory, but did not resume his writing. In 1958, with the demise of McCarthyism, the Oppens were granted passports, and returned to the United States. On the trip back, as he has told interviewers, Oppen had a dream which led him to begin writing poetry again. He also maintained his social commitments, marching on Washington, D.C. in opposition to the Vietnam War and supporting the Civil Rights movement. Though Oppen continued to write, publish, give public readings, and grant many interviews, he also shunned fame, faced crises of confidence, and turned down more invitations to read than he accepted. He died of Alzheimer's disease July 7, 1984.

Major Works

The greater part of Oppen's poetry from The Materials through Primitive was written after his period of political activity and exile. It is nevertheless recognizably similar to the verse of his first book, Discrete Series: experimental, laconic, compressed, syntactically disjunctive, sparsely punctuated, and projecting disconnected, not always fully formed images. The subject of his poems is the dislocation, alienation, and debasement of individuals, personally and collectively, in a culture in which humane values have eroded, corporate rules and rigid structures are pervasive, things dominate, the idea of “humanity” itself is dubious, and words have lost meaning. It is a lyric poetry concerned not with the self of the poet, or with myth or psychology, like so much modern of poetry, but with the actualities of the world out of which the self is constructed, and with the concreteness of the words which reproduce the world. Despite the fact that Of Being Numerous is often thought of as his major work, it is truer to Oppen's art as well as to his politics to see his work as a collection of separate parts which contribute meaning to each other and derive meaning from the whole. The poems establish themselves as word-objects built to represent the things of the world as they are, not to suggest a particular way to interpret the world or the poet's consciousness. In all his work, Oppen attempted to reveal the phenomenological reality of the world reduced to its essence. As a poet, as much as a political organizer, his concern was to impinge upon consciousness with concrete words-as-objects in order to challenge reality by charging consciousness with vision.

Critical Reception

Oppen's poetry is more highly esteemed than well known. His first book was lauded by Pound and Williams, and poetry magazines such as Ironwood, Paideuma, and Sagetrieb have devoted entire issues to him. Denise Levertov described his art as representing ongoing process rather than achieved work. Donald Davie has called his poetry “earnest, elegant, and touching.” Hayden Carruth, however, dismissed Oppen as “having a fine mechanic's sense,” and omitted to include any of his work in his 1970 anthology of American poetry. Nevertheless, Oppen's poetry is well represented in many other anthologies, including the Berg/Mezey collection Naked Poetry: American Poetry in Open Forms, and Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets. There also is a large body of appreciative Oppen scholarship concerned with explicating his poetry, understanding its connection to movements such as Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, relating it to his politics and to his life, and exploring its connection to the work of philosophers important to him, especially to Martin Heidegger and Søren Kierkegaard. In his last years, Oppen was awarded the PEN/West Rediscovery Award, and was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Discrete Series 1934

The Materials 1962

This in Which 1965

Of Being Numerous 1968

Seascape: Needle's Eye 1972

Myth of the Blaze: New Poems, 1972-75 1975

The Collected Poems of George Oppen, 1929-1975 1975

Primitive 1978

Selected Letters (correspondence) 1990

Ezra Pound (essay date 1934)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A preface to Discrete Series, in Paideuma, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring, 1981, p. 13.

[In the following preface to Oppen's Discrete Series Pound praises the poet for his craft and sensibility.]

I. We have ceased, I think, to believe that a nation's literature is anyone's personal property.

Bad criticism emerges chiefly from reviewers so busy telling what they haven't found in a poem (or whatever) that they have omitted to notice what is.

The charge of obscurity has been raised at regular or irregular intervals since the stone age, though there is no living man who is not surprised on first learning that Keats was considered “obscure.” It takes a very elaborate reconstruction of England in Keats' time to erect even a shaky hypothesis regarding the probable fixations and ossifications of the then hired bureaucracy of Albermarle St., London West.

II. On the other hand the cry for originality is often set up by men who have never stopped to consider how much. I mean how great a variant from a known modality is needed by the new writer if his expression is to be coterminous with his content.

One distinguishes between young men who have seriously learned the processes of their elders, and who attempt to use extant tools well, or to invent new ones, and those who merely dress up in old clothes.

The need of “reform” depends entirely on the validity or invalidity of the modes in use. At certain times it is necessary to reform it altogether. At others the adequate variation from a known mode of writing is far less visible to the uninitiate.

I see the difference between the writing of Mr. Oppen and Dr. Williams, I do not expect any great horde of readers to notice it. They will perhaps concentrate, or no, they will not concentrate, they will coagulate their rather gelatinous attention on the likeness.

I salute a serious craftsman, a sensibility which is not every man's sensibility and which has not been got out of any other man's books.

William Rose Benet (essay date 1934)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of “Phœnix Nest,” in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. X, No. 36, March 24, 1934, p. 580.

[In the following review, Benet denigrates Oppen's verse and challenges Pound's endorsement of his work.]


That is what Ezra Pound, in his preface, calls George Oppen, author of Discrete Series. He appears to think that the hasty reviewer may say that Mr. Oppen writes a good deal like William Carlos Williams. He sees a difference which he does not “expect any great horde of readers to notice.” His opinion of Mr. Oppen's work is that here is “a sensibility which is not every man's sensibility, and which has not been got out of any other man's books.” If that were literally true. Mr. Oppen would be a paragon indeed. I know of no writer who has not got something out of other men's books. Certainly anyone's sensibility is at first nourished and increased through them.

Mr. Oppen's offering exhibits that extreme parsimony of words that is taken today to imply infinite profundity. I don't believe it implies anything of the kind. Most of Mr. Oppen's observations fail to impress me. His writing is like listening to a man with an impediment in his speech:

This land:
The hills, round under straw;
A house
With rigid trees
And flaunts
A family laundry,
And the glass of windows

But the definition of “discrete” being “separate, individually distinct, discontinuous,” and this being a “discrete series,” the statements in it fulfil, fairly well, the definition. …

Denise Levertov (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poetry: Pure and Complex,” in The New Leader, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, February 18, 1963, pp. 25-6.

[In the following essay, Levertov describes Oppen as a poet whose works represent process rather than artistic completion.]

The Materials is the first book George Oppen has published since his early work appeared in 1934. I do not propose to compare his poems with Reznikoff's simply because the two books have come out at the same time and from the same publisher. I do, however, want to mention that though these two men are old friends there seems never to have been any overlapping or merging of their voices.

In Oppen the influence of...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Paul Zweig (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Making and Unmaking,” in Partisan Review, Vol. XL, No. 2, 1973, pp. 273-76.

[In the following assessment of Of Being Numerous, Zweig praises Oppen's poems as “tightly wrought meditations” that are “sculptural in their precision.”]

The fortunes of reputation are strange. For thirty years, George Oppen received the highest praise from men like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, yet his work was virtually unknown, even among poets. The fashions came and went. Proletarian poetry in the 1930s and 40s; bland rhetorical poetry in the 1950s; imagist surreal poetry in the 1960s. At long intervals, Oppen published volumes of difficult, tightly...

(The entire section is 950 words.)

Kevin Powers with George and Mary Oppen (interview date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Conversation with George and Mary Oppen,” in The Texas Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 35-52.

[In the following interview which took place on May 25th, 1975, Powers talks with George and Mary Oppen about their lives, their art, and their impressions of other artists.]

[Powers:] Let me begin by asking you about the poem Drawing in Discrete Series. May I quote you:

Not by growth
                    but the
Paper, turned, contains
This entire volume

Were you making a statement about the fragmentary nature of the poem and by extension of the fragmentary nature of perception and truth?...

(The entire section is 6508 words.)

Cid Corman (review date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Together,” in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 83-95.

[In the following review of Oppen’sCollected Poems, Corman praises the poet’s ability to share his experience through language.]

The facts—as they say—as the publishers provide: “born in New Rochelle, New York on April 24, 1908 … his first book in 1934 (Discrete Series) … his second (The Materials) 1962 … most of his life in Brooklyn … in the late 60s to San Francisco where he now lives with his wife, Mary … boating enthusiast … summers on the Maine coast.”

Added to this the known political activism (more...

(The entire section is 2723 words.)

John Taggart (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The New Primitive,” in Chicago Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, Winter, 1979, pp. 148-51.

[In the following review of Primitives, Taggart discusses the role of mind, light, vision, and action in Oppen's poetry.]

… not primitive, but the new primitive: a late thought retrospective with or anticipating an earliest freshness.

—Louis Zukofsky, Bottom: On Shakespeare

Not primitive as unskilled in the use of tools, but the new primitive: one who would put aside tools and the skills acquired over a lifetime to come upon the universe as if for the first time, who would...

(The entire section is 1512 words.)

Alan Young (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of “Primitive,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,029, June 13, 1980, p. 682.

[In the following review, Young praises Oppen for his “independent thought and visionary inventiveness.”]

Black Sparrow Press is one of the West Coast publishing houses dedicated to the promotion of avant-garde American poetry and prose. “Avant-garde”, for Black Sparrow, includes work by and about writers such as Charles Bukowski, Paul Goodman, Charles Reznikoff, Robert Creeley and George Oppen. There is some reference to 1920s expatriates—Gertrude Stein and Harry Crosby, for instance. In the monthly Sparrow (1972-1978) there used to be much reference...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Cid Corman (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Experience of Poetry,” in Paideuma, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 99-103.

[In the following essay, Corman demonstrates how Oppen's placement of words, spaces, and lines in a poem affects the reader's experience of its meaning.]

Rather than “review” the mettle of George's poetry—let me present and draw upon the skill that this man has in using language as experience—as focal experience—in some of his most recent work (in Primitive). Three poems will do—though it would be a mistake to imagine they exhibit all that there is in this jewel of a book.

The first poem in the collection of 13 poems is


(The entire section is 1704 words.)

Harvey Kail (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Test of Images: George Oppen's ‘Vulcan,’” in George Oppen, Man and Poet, edited by Burton Hatlan, The National Poetry Foundation, Inc., 1981, pp. 257-64.

[In the following essay, Kail explores Oppen's poem “Vulcan” in an attempt to determine if the validity of Oppen's thought can be established through a study of his imagery.]

I would like to put a poem of George Oppen's to the test, an examination using his own criterion that “a test of images can be a test of whether one's thought is valid, whether one can establish in a series of images, of experiences … whether or not one will consider the concept of humanity to be valid, something...

(The entire section is 3501 words.)

David McAleavy (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Unrolling Universe: A Reading of Oppen's This in Which,” in Paideuma, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 105-128.

[In the following essay, McAleavy offers an explication of Oppen's This in Which.]

In that ample matrix of possibilities, The Materials (1962), Oppen sometimes hoped to explain or integrate self-consciousness by using a metaphor of birth: the self, he argues, is born into the world and grasps outward toward the present. If the self-conscious self should fully reach the present—which is the giddy hope of The Materials—union could occur. Such a transcendence is contemplated or aspired to in “Eclogue,” “Image of the...

(The entire section is 7161 words.)

Norman M. Finkelstein (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Political Commitment and Poetic Subjectification: George Oppen's Test of Truth,” in Contemporary Literature, The University of Wisconsin Press, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 24-41.

[In the following essay, Finkelstein argues that Oppen resolves the conflict between ethics and aesthetics in his poetry through “interpenetration of the subject's reaction to the object.”]

As an heir of modernist poetics, George Oppen, like all poetic inheritors, appears simultaneously as disciple and iconoclast. For Oppen, Pound is a fairly remote mentor and Williams is an older pioneer. The ground they broke becomes the foundation of a literary venture that both...

(The entire section is 5837 words.)

Andrew Crozier (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Inaugural and Valedictory: The Early Poetry of George Oppen,” in Modern American Poetry, edited by R. W. (Herbie) Butterfield, Vision and Barnes and Noble, 1984, pp. 142-157.

[In the following essay, Crozier examines the poems in Oppen's first collection, Discrete Series.]

Although Of Being Numerous (1968) and Primitive (1978) are arguably George Oppen's mature achievement, rightly attended to and admired as such by many of his readers, these late works are rooted in and a fulfilment of his early work, which they comment on and acknowledge. Yet reference to Oppen's ‘early’ work incurs immediate uncertainty, since his career can be...

(The entire section is 5448 words.)

Michael Heller (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Mind of George Oppen: Conviction's Net of Branches,” in Conviction's Net of Branches, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985, pp. 73-96.

[In the following essay, Heller characterizes Oppen's poetry as not merely reflecting the effect modern life upon the self, but rather showing the self investigating modern life.]

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 the fishing gear, the harbor and the post office are passed, and the poet is, unaccountably, moved by a nearly metaphysical sense of passage. The experience is at once...

(The entire section is 6600 words.)

Alan Golding (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “George Oppen's Serial Poems,” in Contemporary Literature, The University of Wisconsin Press, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 220-40.

[In the following essay, Golding argues that the disjunctive structure of Oppen's poems represents a formal expression of the central concerns of his poetry: disconnected relationship and the foregrounding of individual words.]

George Oppen is often discussed as if he were a kind of miniaturist, preoccupied with the small, the particular, the concrete detail. Readers note how modest his ambitions seem, how he writes mostly short poems capturing what he calls “moments of conviction” (“George Oppen” 174), how he pays...

(The entire section is 8136 words.)

Burton Hatlen (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Feminine Technologies’: George Oppen Talks at Denise Levertov,” in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 22, No. 3, May-June, 1993, pp. 9-15.

[In the following essay, Hatlen suggests Oppen's poem “Technologies” is a response to Denise Levertov's “Who Is at My Window.”]

In 1958 George Oppen returned to New York City determined to resume the literary career he had suspended in 1935, when he and his wife Mary joined the Communist Party. But the New York cultural scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s was very different from the one Oppen had left behind in 1935. By 1959, various currents which would later issue in the New Left and the...

(The entire section is 4810 words.)

Cauthen Cramer (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Deep Image and the Poetics of Oppen's ‘Of Being Numerous,’” in Sagetrieb, The National Poetry Foundation, Inc., Vol. 13, No. 3, Winter, 1994, pp. 71-82.

[In the following essay, Cramer compares Oppen's objectivism with the deep image poetics of James Wright and Robert Bly.]

In 1963, June Oppen Degnan attempted to interest her brother in Jungian psychology. Although George Oppen found Jung's character compelling, he dismissed the Jungian system, calling it finally “muddy, so lazy minded” (“Letters” 224). In his rejection of Jung, Oppen opposed himself to the philosophical basis for the “deep image” poetry exemplified by Robert Bly and James...

(The entire section is 4195 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


McAleavy, David. “A Bibliography of the Works of George Oppen.” Paideuma 10, (Spring 1981): 155-69.

A comprehensive listing of Oppen's work.


Oppen, Mary. Meaning a Life. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1978, 213 pp.

Mary Oppen traces the courses through which she and her husband steered their life together.


Auster, Paul. “A Few Words in Praise of George Oppen.” Paideuma 10, No. 1 (Spring 1981): 49-52.

Praises the decency and integrity of Oppen's work.


(The entire section is 264 words.)