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.
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.
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.
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.