Oppen, George (Vol. 7)
Oppen, George 1908–
Oppen, an American poet, operated the Objectivist Press with Louis Zukofsky in the 1920s. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for Of Being Numerous. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
[In older American poets the reader expects to find mature wisdom.] George Oppen's This in Which rewards the expectation. His collection is one in which we find the understanding that how something is seen and felt comes much before how something is formally perfected into poetry. Oppen is concerned with "the arduous path of appearance," with avoiding the iambic line, and most of all with strict honesty. (pp. 273-74)
Oppen asks …: How can the poet communicate a realization of the concrete object as object without drawing the reader's attention to the way in which he communicates? How can we avoid the confusion of gesture and object? How can we focus the attention directly upon the apple without the reader thinking the hand is just as important as the apple?…
Oppen is not as inventive as Miss Wakoski or Robert Sward, but that is not his purpose. The inventiveness came before these poems, is an accepted fact, and the lines are handled with spontaneous confidence. (p. 274)
Dick Allen, in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1966 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. 26, No. 2, 1966.
In Oppen's work, the assertion of immediacy is made the excuse for a number of deficiencies. There is little in the way of connection present [in This in Which], though the suggestion of connection is continually present. Sentences are set up in which a complicated syntactical relationship is predicated, but in which a different and simple relationship takes place. The sense of shifting relationship shows in this passage:
Van Gogh went hungry and what shoe salesman
Does not envy him now? Let us agree
Once and for all that neither the slums
Nor the tract houses
Represent the apex
Of the culture.
I may indeed agree with Oppen's conclusion, but hardly with his assumption that he has proved it true in his statement about Van Gogh and shoe salesmen. Is that statement in fact true? Is it useful? The relationship looks as if it should be a supported argument, when in fact it is more of an accidental collision of objects. Such collisions seem to me to make up a very large part of Oppen's work.
Oppen … asserts things as if they were relationships, as if their slightest juxtaposition necessarily conveys meaning. (p. 151)
William Dickey, "The Thing Itself," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1966 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1966, pp. 146-55.
George Oppen is one poet who is at home in the world. I don't mean that he is always comfortable in it, or that he doesn't have grave misgivings about some of the foundations of his house, but rather that he does know his way around in it, and that he means to keep his tenure uncluttered and authoritative. It is refreshing to read him on just these grounds. I don't mean to quarrel with any who have tried this sort of engagement, and have come away with a sense of disillusionment. It depends upon what is individually important to a man. But there are many who have been convinced sight unseen that the world is a hopeless case, and that slum clearance is the only way to begin to rectify matters. Unfortunately the matter usually ends there, and then the whimpering begins. But Oppen is no malingerer, and he avoids the equally narrow view of others who find one thing which they feel can be affirmed safely, and then close all other doors. He lives here, and he makes his presence felt. His stature as a poet has been achieved through a relatively small output over a great number of years. Evidently he feels that he should speak only when he has something to say, This is no great thing in itself—there are many poets who need a great deal of pump-priming to get the sense of their presence across to us. Simply, this is not Oppen's way, and the poems themselves stand far enough apart from each other to show that a great deal has gone on subliminally which we are at liberty to reconstruct if we feel it necessary, or we can admire the poems as complete, in that they resist comparison or fusion with other poems of his. I don't mean to imply that he speaks ex cathedra, or announces incontrovertible truths for all time. Far from it. He lives in his house. He takes out the waste paper when it's necessary, even breaks a few dishes at times. But it is living that is concerned with the best possible means to live. So he can write as familiarly of the city in A Language of New York as he can or rural Maine in Penobscot, or of "ideas" in Eros, definitions of poetry itself in Five Poems About Poetry, or the inner climate of the poet himself in Boy's Room. There is no sense anywhere of his reaching for an effect. He says all of these things, talks about them, as a man who knows, whose authority is not to be questioned, not through will, but because he conveys a consistent enthusiasm for what he has to say—all of it. And this is not merely a matter of relative maturity. It is an ease, and an ability to put others at ease, sometimes in very difficult positions.
Much has been written, particularly in the last several years, about Oppen's craft, his precision, the taut spareness of his language, and I would quarrel with none of it. It is so, and it is good that it is so, but it seems to me that it is more important to stress this other aspect, that of the man who is able to talk about anything with which he comes in contact, because he doesn't allow any contact to be unimportant to him. If I feel at ease in this way about Oppen's work, I imply the smaller technical excellence. He couldn't write as he does unless he brought the same care to the making of poems as he does to the life behind the poems. He says as much himself in Technologies:
The inelegant heart
Which cannot grasp
And makes art
Is small (pp. 339-41)
Theodore Enslin, "The Third Path," in Poetry (© 1966 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1966, pp. 339-41.
[Of Being Numerous] is George Oppen's fourth book of poetry and his best. The title poem gathers up his major themes into a single vision: man in his city, the city as an expression of man at a given time that is now. For those who have read William Carlos Williams' Patterson, one of the great modern American epics, Of Being Numerous will have striking parallels.
Both Williams and Oppen concentrate upon the anonymity and incoherence of city life. They see the crowd and its mass movement through the streets as a futile, wasted energy in which the uniqueness of the individual, as Oppen has it, is obliterated by the sheer weight and density of numbers.
For these poets, communication no longer exists between persons, for the sense of self, that strength and stability that could support enduring personal relationships, has been shattered. In the flux of city life, often wrenching and violent, the individual is subjected to the pressure for perpetual change simply to survive, only to become unrecognizable even to himself. The tragedy is compounded as people become anonymous to one another and form the mass. It is at this point, however, that the two poets diverge significantly in their solutions to the problems raised….
The difference resides in the conception of the poet's role in reacting to the kind of crisis the city represents. Williams would set the man apart who can form a way independent of the disparate, disorganized, unformed elements that are the city. For Oppen, no man can divorce himself from the crisis to lead his own unique existence. Once he understands and accepts his own involvement with this crisis, however, he may rescue the self through the consistent exercise of consciousness which is the self in being. And since that is the desired result of the use of consciousness, it is to Oppen a successful exercise….
[He is] determined to live with or without the shield of his esthetic sensibility, for the crisis has eclipsed that possibility and must be faced and lived with in all its ugliness and threat to life itself. Paradoxically, it is this intense participation in, and grappling with, chaos that forges the title poem. Its very sound, movement and the frequent first person standpoint—elliptical and muted like a man bending before a storm—draws us into his struggle to survive. (p. 20)
What is so remarkable here is that Oppen has been able to resolve the very pressures of disintegration in the writing of such a deeply integrated poem. It becomes an exhilarating exhibition of strength in complexity that one is drawn to with enthusiasm and hope.
Technically, the title poem is divided into 39 brief sections, each virtually a poem in itself but related through subject and, primarily, by a transitional mode of writing. The poet progresses from self-doubt and self-searching through the artifacts of the city, to a moment in which his mind is revealed to itself as its own strength….
Stylistically, "Of Being Numerous" goes far beyond Oppen's earlier works in the power evoked through condensation and ellipsis. It is now a shorthand of the poetic act, with masterly strokes to underline meaning. If the city is the expression of man, then Oppen's poem surely is its finest exponent, in its capacity to think and to take pride in its judgments. A civilized poem, a lone being, it's true, but one for which we may feel ourselves fortunate. A comfort among the ashes….
[Of Being Numerous] is the work of a man who rests his faith in the mind as a value in itself on which the individual may depend. Concurrently, there is an awareness of disaster and chaos, this awareness being an affirmation of the possibility of order. Oppen is in the line of our best contemporary poets: Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound—carrying the point a step beyond them in time, close to our very skin. (p. 21)
David Ignatow, "Poet of the City," in The New Leader (© 1968 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), July 8, 1968, pp. 20-1.
When George Oppen stopped writing poetry in the mid-1930s, he had behind him only a small volume of imagistic poems, hardly enough to mark him for the stature he has achieved today. His efflorescence, after twenty-five years of silence, is remarkable. It would be irrelevant to speculate on what Oppen might have done had he been writing steadily, just as it would be sentimental to lament his silence. The four volumes that he has completed are in themselves an impressive contribution to American poetry.
There is nothing in his first volume, Discrete Series, to suggest that Oppen's social consciousness was strong enough to lead him to abandon poetry and commit himself fully to political activism. Yet that is exactly what he did. He and his wife joined the Communist Party in 1935, not for philosophic reasons, says Oppen, but out of the desire to do something about mass hunger. That this decision was not foreshadowed in Discrete Series is characteristic of Oppen's whole way of viewing his art. He never believed that politics could be made into poetry or, conversely, that poetry could have any effect on social conditions. When a poet could no longer tolerate what he saw before his eyes, Oppen felt, poetry was a luxury.
The following two and a half decades were years of activism, military service and exile. Harassed by the McCarthy committee in 1950, faced with the prospect of informing on friends or going to jail, he fled to Mexico with his wife and child and did not return until 1958, after McCarthy's death. By this time he had been working on some new poems. This opened his most creative period….
Just as Oppen's involvement in political activities marked a divorce from poetry, so his return to poetry marked an exhaustion with politics. Unsurprisingly, the latter poems proceed from the same "objectivist" impulse as the earlier, even though they are, of course, broader in subject and more profound….
Objectivism begins for Oppen as an attempt to "construct a method of thought from the imagist technique of poetry—from the imagist intensity of vision." He called it a test of sincerity, based on the idea "that there is a moment, an actual time, when you believe something to be true, and you construct a meaning from these moments of conviction." Imagist thought," first embodied in Discrete Series, is a form of nominalism in which appreciation of the existence of an object, in its tangibility or luminosity, is the primary poetic feeling. The moment of conviction is aesthetic, not philosophic or ethical….
Poetry, then, ought not to have a social or moral intention, any more than the poet should be what Oppen called a "medical pragmatist" offering remedies. What matters is the "sense of the poet's self among things," not a display of "right thinking and right sentiment," which could not "substantiate themselves in the concrete material of the poem."
The aesthetic qualities of objects or events—apprehended not in terms of their associations or conventional meaning but in terms of their form or motion—were considered by Oppen to be "empirical." They nonetheless depend on the point of view of the perceiver. The chief interest in Discrete Series is not so much what is observed but how it is observed or experienced. (p. 574)
Of Being Numerous, with the title poem and its sequel, "Route," gathers up the themes of the preceding volumes into a coherent meditation. Both are major poems which mingle autobiography and metaphysics in an objectivist style that is anything but confessional. Investigating the philosophic implications of his own experiences and, conversely, the experiential basis of his philosophic generalizations, Oppen reveals little of himself except his proclivity to avoid soul searching. Furthermore, if "Of Being Numerous" and "Route" can be called meditative poems, they are meditative according to the logic of "imagistic thought." That is, each is a mosaic of observations that might justly be considered a discrete series; they are phenomenological rather than psychological renditions of the poet's consciousness….
One of the important, if obscure, questions ["Of Being Numerous"] raises is, Is there such a thing as "humanity," a vital whole that might be its own justification for living, or are men simply numerous, part of a meaningless, "infinite series"?…
The poet is aware of his own individuality, but it is an awareness made possible only by the sense of isolation. Undoubtedly Oppen's actual exile lies behind this universal appraisal, and a personal sense of shipwreck gives force to the abstraction:
The isolated man is dead, his world around him exhausted And he fails! He fails, that meditative man! (p. 575)
No less intense a poem than "Of Being Numerous," "Route" reflects the profound determinism that marks the whole range of Oppen's work. It has a vision of love, but love understood as a biological phenomenon. A matter of chromosomes and genes, it "occurs," no less unknowable an event than any other natural phenomenon. "Route" sees aesthetic clarity as the sum of knowledge….
Oppen is not the kind of man to call attention to himself; he is unpretentious, soft-spoken and, above all, modest. These perhaps are the personal qualities that lie behind his impersonal style, which is never strident, but generates its own kind of power. In his stark, chiseled idiom he frequently achieves a "limited, limiting clarity." His own poetic ideal is that of the existential man in general whose integrity compels him to face down an absurd universe and whose lucidity keeps him from despair. Behind Oppen's impersonal "reportage" there is all the intensity of personal conviction, unjeopardized by sentimentality and romantic egoism. Oppen has realized the full potential of his objectivist allegiance: he has become a poet of the first order. (p. 576)
L. S. Dembo, "Individuality and Numerosity," in The Nation (copyright 1969 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 24, 1969, pp. 574-76.
By 1944, summing up some 20 years' work, [William Carlos Williams] had defined a poem as "a small (or large) machine made of words": more like a watch than a shout or an intimate whisper. (p. 404)
About 1930 a number of men had grasped this principle clearly: Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Dr. Williams, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, Basil Bunting. Different as the work of each was from that of any other, they were (very loosely) associated as "Objectivists." The Parisian 1920's underlie the term, language as if indifferent to hearers, and an American quality underlies it too, American preference for denotation over etymology, for the cut term over association and the channelled path. Oppen's
Words say the grass blade
Hides the blaze
Of a sun
To throw a shadow
In which the bugs crawl
At the roots of the grass …
—accords no monosyllable less importance than any other, not even "a" in two occurrences, and "sun" carries no more intensity of feeling than "bug." Words "hung with pleasing wraiths of former masteries" (Williams's phrase) are not found in these poems; such were the qualities the Objectivists sought to avoid. (pp. 404-05)
Hugh Kenner, in his The Pound Era (copyright © 1971 by Hugh Kenner; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), University of California Press, 1971.
Oppen is not an easy poet to read. His poems are tightly wrought meditations which do not so much define as surround their subject with tentative thrusts of meaning. Abstractions and carefully observed details mingle to produce a line that is almost sculptural in its precision…. (p. 274)
Most of Oppen's recent book [Of Being Numerous] is devoted to a long meditative poem in forty parts, entitled "Of Being Numerous." It contains some of the finest poetry Oppen has written, and presents a difficult challenge to the reader, for the poem proceeds by side leaps and deft associations. Single words are caught up from a preceding stanza, and expanded into a constellation of images. Sharply evoked cityscapes issue into elusive statements of feeling or philosophy. The movement of the poem suggests the rigor of musical form, although I am not sure the structure of the poem as a whole is as strict as my comparison makes it seem.
"Of Being Numerous" is essentially a meditation on the city. It explores the perpetual newness and sameness of lives along sidewalks, in tenements. Above all, it describes the challenge to the singular self, presented by the "many," huddled together through sheer number. Oppen explores the precariousness of the solitary mind, its "shipwreck" in the massed movements of the urban world…. (pp. 274-75)
"Of Being Numerous" is a complex poem, which requires the sort of exploratory reading and rereading that Wallace Stevens's and T. S. Eliot's poetry demanded. Ideas are presented not only to be understood, but to be experienced suggestively, musically, so to speak. It is, I think, Oppen's major achievement to date, and one of the most important single poems to be written in recent years. (p. 276)
Paul Zweig, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1973 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 2, 1973.
The poetry of George Oppen is one of our most sustained examinations of the characteristic themes of poetry (themes of love and of death, and of a sense of history), an attempt to determine if the very meaning of such words as love or humanity can be retained in the light of what we have come to know and of what we have become. Indeed, Oppen's work has been to show forth the meanings of these terms by exploring in the deepest sense our need to resort to them.
Oppen sees the poet involved in a task which is as much question and inquiry as it is an order of expression, a task which asks whether the moral, religious and philosophical notions by which we live, and which have informed our common heritage, are any longer possibilities. His is a poetry which arises from our own ambivalence toward what we know and have come to rely on, a poetry very much aware of the human effort to remain in predictive and utilitarian certainties (aware also of the religious attractiveness they engender). Yet the power of his poems is that they do deliver us by a process of skeptical homage into a world seen afresh, vivified by an emergence from inauthentic and outworn sentiment….
Oppen is among our most profound and eloquent explorers of [modern uncertainty concerning reality], profound because he comes without illusion into the act of writing poetry, eloquent because the order of his craft cannot be separated from the order of his perception. In Seascape: Needle's Eye he continues an interrogation of reality in language which has always been at the very center of his work, continues it, as Wittgenstein warned, against the bewitchment of language itself … (Kenner, in The Pound Era, speaking of the yet to be written history of the Objectivists, among them Oppen, Williams and Zukofsky, puts it this way: "In that machine (the poem) made of words … (the word) is a term, not a focus for sentiment, simply a word, the exact and plausible word, not inviting the imagination to linger; an element in the economy of a sentence."). In Oppen, this is a principle raised to a very high degree of thoughtfulness and choice. Indeed, in reading him, it often seems that one is confronting not so much an innovation but a search for the adequation of means and ends, an intuitive feel for what is necessary rather than any sense of experimentation. What is given up (or in Oppen's case, better to say rarely taken up) is the analogical mode in language where image and symbol stand as metaphors for another reality. Because of this, Oppen's work seems like a kind of first poetry, not by virtue of any crudeness since it is both a subtle and sophisticated body of verse, but by virtue of the sheer unaccountability of its construction. Its beauty and power derive from the simultaneous apperception of its radical construction and the depth at which it seeks to cohere in sense.
Throughout Seascape: Needle's Eye, more so than in his earlier work, there is a heightened sense of the struggle to articulate; the language is starker, more primordial, as is the use of spacing, so that the poems have a feeling of resolution arrived at only in extremis. Against the 'mechanics' of thought, Oppen poses the world of temporality and fragility, the tragic dimension of which is stasis and death. This encounter is experienced through sight and emotions….
The world of appearance and the commonality of words (their intersubjective meanings) form the twin aspects of Oppen's poetry. The poems move as dialectical occasions between sight and naming, and the poet's truth—no one else's perhaps—is established in the encounter between what is seen and words, with the poet as mediating agency of the process. To this extent, the encounter is seen by Oppen as one which is extreme in its selflessness. Yet it is not impersonal, not a negation of personality as the word objective might imply; rather, it is a going through personality, a testing of the ego…. (p. 8)
Oppen would have us believe that there is no morality per se in the creative life—this perhaps goes against the notion of the artist as savant or enfant terrible leading us on to spiritual heights—there is only a curious kind of moral possibility within the creative act….
We have in Oppen's oeuvre a body of work then whose protagonist is language struggling with the cliched and unthoughtful language of mass mind and mass fantasy, where the artist's attempt to give voice to the visible world becomes a form of claritas by at least offering out the possibility of an intersubjective reality i.e. one in which there will be some occasions in which human beings agree, hence provisionally 'true.' If in Oppen's poetry language is transformed, it would seem to be from individuated literal words into a kind of supraliteralism consisting of statements which, as Oppen puts it, "cannot not be understood." The mystery of such statements would lie not in their need to be explained, but in the sheer substance of their existence. They would be that 'other miracle' which the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty refers to in saying: "it is easy to strip language and action of all meaning and make them seem absurd…. But that other miracle, the fact that in an absurd world language and behavior do have meaning for those who speak and act, remains to be understood."…
Intensity of sight, its literal counterpart in language, the clarity in effect which these become are the essential modes in Oppen's work by which reality is grasped. An attitude, an impression, even the deepest expression of an emotion are rendered in terms of the visible….
Oppen is unique in American poetry. While he has marked out for himself the burden of the singular, the isolate man, that both more than and less than Romantic hero of the Western drama of the wind, the one who is rending the veil finds another and yet another before him, he has never taken the fashionable position of being 'alienated' or messianic. The few commentators on his work have noted his capacity to remain free of redemptive and prescriptive attitudes, to remain at once free and skeptical even with regard to his own efforts…. Yet, there is an aspect of Oppen's work which keeps it continually positive and human—human in the sense that it aligns itself with a belief in the value of that exploration of reality by creative effort. (p. 9)
Oppen stands alone in this regard: that his poetry is not composed of the effects of modern life upon the self, but is rather our most profound investigation of it. (p. 10)
Michael Heller, "Conviction's Net of Branches," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1975 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Michael Heller), March/April, 1975, pp. 8-10.
So involved is [Seascape: Needle's Eye] with a kind of gnomic reticence, that it moves toward silence. I take this to be a dangerous state for a poet. For even the poet who is attempting to bring his reader news of the uncommunicable—and I do not think that this is what Oppen is about—must do so in words, which cancel silence. Oppen seems here to distrust most of the processes of language. Perhaps in an attempt to achieve the purest kind of statement, perfect in its honesty, he seems wary of rhythm, of patterns of rhythm, of connections, of the music a poem can make. Even on his own terms, the poems in this book are puzzles, not mysteries. Hence with the exception of a few brief, vivid passages, … these highly condensed, elliptical poems remain a private shorthand that rarely leaves the page. (p. 172)
Mark Perlberg, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), June, 1975.
Nothing better characterizes Oppen than [his] wariness about the language itself, [his] distrust of inherent fluency. "The Materials" was the title of his second collection to imply unuttering things like rock and stem and iron:
… streets boarded and vacant
where no time will hatch
Now chairs and walls,
Floors, roofs, the joists and beams,
The woodwork, window sills
In sun in a great weight of brick.
It's dangerous to be fluent about slums and wreckage. In the title of his first collection Oppen concealed a similar mistrust. He called it "Discrete Series," meaning not a series like 2, 4, 6, 8 …, which you can generate forever once you know the rule (just keep adding 2), but a series like 14, 23, 28, 33, 42, which Oppen once told a correspondent he wishes he'd had the wit to put on the flyleaf. It's "the names of the stations on the east side subway," and there's no way you can derive those numbers from one another. They derive from a reality prior to number, the street grid of Manhattan (inflected by geology and commerce and history), and each gives access to a whole life. In the same way the words in the ideal Oppen poem derive not from the neighboring words but from wordless obduracy. (p. 5)
Hugh Kenner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 19, 1975.
[Oppen] deals with the process of making the self at home in the world—that is, the imaginative self in the world it must define. For him the work of the imagination is to naturalize us to our universe. In this activity the poet may seem to start from the way he sees particular objects or persons. But he is really following the reciprocal movement of the mind between the tangible, external reality and the reality of the self.
Frequently, therefore, Oppen considers places or creatures he loves, and meditates on the current of feeling or thought reaching from him to them and back. The order of his themes is seldom discursive, for he does not unfold a series of reflections leading rationally from one to the next. Rather, his themes emerge discretely, as the poet's attention reverts to the object to consider it again and yet again. So the poem is often less a sequence than a set of observations and insights stemming from a common center….
Although Oppen's language is plain, he heightens it with echoes. He alludes to Blake, Whitman, and other poets; the old quatrain "Western Wind" reverberates through [Collected Poems]. Oppen also draws on his friends' conversation, perhaps to less advantage. But a feature of his method (reminiscent of Pound's) is the constant re-employment of his own phrases. Sometimes whole poems turn up afresh in new settings. The long sequence "Of Being Numerous" includes nearly all of the earlier, eight-part sequence "A Language of New York."
This practice supports the main drama of Oppen's work, which is the effort of the mind to reach clarity of vision by turning always upon itself, traveling back and forth between things and words, reconsidering and correcting earlier impressions or ponderings….
Oppen's identification of himself with the poor leads directly into his practice of poetry. Here he rejects fullness, richness, abundance. So he shies away from the sublime, from rhetoric, from anything like role-playing. The poet, he says, must be "impoverished/of tone of pose that common/wealth / of parlance"—a phrase in which "parlance" is chosen for its absurd richness.
For Oppen the original impression of an experience upon the mind is not something to be worked up or elaborated but rather to be cut down: the process of eliminating does the work of shaping. For him a complete sentence has less integrity than a fragment which the reader can finish by himself. How elliptical may one be—he seems to ask—and still suggest a meaning that carries an emotional charge?
So he likes to imply his meanings by juxtaposing impressions and omitting interpretative links….
Honesty, clarity, illumination, are his desiderata.
But sparseness has little power by itself. When Oppen rejects the common privileges of a poet, he not only adds little excitement to his language; he also risks bathos. The elliptical character of his style barely distinguishes it from the cryptic. When one receives his insights, they often sound like those of Pound and W. C. Williams, and though truly felt are unsurprising. Even humor is rare; Oppen sounds averse to wit or satire. I wonder whether by resisting the lure of abundance he has not been left with a style that is pinched and thin. (p. 4)
Irvin Ehrenpreis, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), January 22, 1976.
One thing that is possibly obscured by the term "modernism" is the archaizing tendency of its genuine works—archaizing not in the revival of outdated mannerisms, which is exactly what these poets do not do, but in the search for an archē, a beginning, and the initiating force of a beginning. George Oppen is a modernist in that sense. In his continual searching into the ground and the relationships of a public life, political in the original sense, he recalls one of the beginning tasks of poetry: the holding open of the common world, the place of humanity. He is a civic poet, as Solon was a civic poet; but without a polis, and that is the modern aspect of his work. Hence the dialectical tensions that inform this austere and integral book [Collected Poems].
When Oppen asked, in an interview, "whether or not we can deal with humanity as something which actually does exist," he was not posing an ontological problem. That is, he was not asking whether this mass of human beings can be perceived as existing, but whether the notion of humanity still has any meaning and what the conditions of its existence are, or might be. That is a fairly complicated question, and it is central to his work. Yet the habit among his readers has been to talk about the simplicity, the clarity, the "minimal" quality of these poems, and their presentation of a "primitive reality." I think there is some confusion in that way of thinking. Imagist poetics are problematical anyway; imagism is based on the primacy of sight, of seeing, in poetry; but how can words translate something seen, how can (or do) they make an image see-able? (pp. 316-17)
A merely empirical poetry, if such a thing existed, could be developed endlessly but only and always on the same level; it would have to transcend itself on pain of falling into absurdity. And that is true of human beings also. "The universe exists for all time, and is without value for all time," as a French philosopher wrote. But Oppen has said that his aim from the start was "to construct a method of thought from the imagist technique of poetry," which is something else again….
The profound and unexpected originality of Oppen's poetry lies in its construing of the relationships between perception ("virtue of the mind") and the opening of a public realm, a polis, a place for humanity, in which humanity transcends mass isolation. (p. 318)
The richness of meaning that Oppen condenses into separate poems is revealed only in their relation to each other, only, that is, in re-reading. These relations are constantly present in his work and are constantly in question in his mind; they are what is unspoken in the ellipses between poems and between parts of the same poem; they are what is to be seen, which cannot be said any other way. That is nowhere more true than in the sequence, Of Being Numerous. He understands the nature of alienation as "world-lessness," and that both the singular and the numerous are negations of the common, that political, open space constituted by a plurality of singular acts. The opening of the common holds people together as it holds them apart; it is, above all, the place for speaking…. Reading the poem, one realizes how directly the problematics of modern poetry, not to mention modern politics, are connected to the disappearance or closing-in of the common world…. (p. 319)
Richard Pevear, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Summer, 1976.