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George Oppen 1908-1984

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(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...

(The entire section contains 62178 words.)

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George Oppen Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Oppen, George (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)