George Oppen Oppen, George (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Discrete Series (poetry) 1934

The Materials (poetry) 1962

This in Which (poetry) 1965

Of Being Numerous (poetry) 1968

Seascape: Needle's Eye (poetry) 1972

Collected Poems (poetry) 1975

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

Primitive (poetry) 1980

The Selected Letters of George Oppen (correspondence) 1990

Morris U. Schappes (review date 1933)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of An “Objectivists” Anthology, in Poetry, Vol. XLI, No. IV, March, 1933, pp. 340-43.

[In the following review of An “Objectivists” Anthology, Schappes attacks Objectivism as esoteric, nihilistic, lacking direction, and without a revolutionary, proletarian ideology.]

If we are to understand Objectivism, there are three ideas in its program that must be stated and analysed. (1) “An objective,” as defined by Mr. Zukofsky first in his poem, “A,” and now in his editorial preface, is the “desire for what is objectively perfect.” That is, objectivists, like other poets, aim at writing first, poetry (“I believe it possible, even essential, that when poetry fails it does not become prose but bad poetry,” says William Carlos Williams), and then good poetry. Objectivists like to think that they differ from other poets and critics in stressing craftsmanship: “poetry defined as a job, a piece of work.” In this belief, of course, they are naive: every poet and critic worth his paper emphasizes technical integrity. And here I must report that in almost 200 pages of paper I found only about a half dozen intelligent poems, and those mostly by Mr. Williams. This criticism brings me to point

(2) “Impossible to communicate anything but particulars,” Mr. Zukofsky asserts with italic force. But nominalism in the psychology of aesthetics is just as inadequate as nominalism in philosophy. There is no artistic communication of particulars only. When Mr. Rexroth confronts us with “Black / Blue black / Blue / The silver minuscles[!] / In early dawn the plume of smoke / The throat of night / The plethora of wine / The fractured hour of light / The opaque lens / The climbing wheel / The beam of glow / The revealed tree / The wine crater / The soft depth / The suspended eye” and forty more such lines, or (since I may have outraged his typographical sense by printing these horizontally instead of vertically with white huge margins), with

stones sabers clouds kings nights leaves wishes arbors sparks
shells wings mouths stars oranges fabrics ewes queens skins vehicles
accents seeds cinders chutneys mixtures fevers apes eggs corpses


(The entire section is 937 words.)

William Rose Benét (review date 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

[In the following review of Discrete Series, Benét pans Oppen's verse and challenges Pound's endorsement.]

A serious craftsman: [t]hat is what Ezra Pound, in his preface, calls George Oppen, author of Discrete Series (The Objectivist Press, 10 West 36th Street, New York City). 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.

William Carlos Williams (review date 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The New Poetical Economy,” in Poetry, Vol. XLIV, No. IV, July, 1934, pp. 220-25.

[In the following review of Discrete Series, Williams discusses what makes a poem a poem, what makes a poem good, and praises Oppen for writing good poems.]

[In Discrete Series] Mr. Oppen has given us thirty-seven pages of short poems, well printed and well bound, around which several statements relative to modern verse forms may well be made.

The appearance of a book of poems, if it be a book of good poems, is an important event because of relationships the work it contains will have with thought and accomplishment in other contemporary reaches of the intelligence. This leads to a definition of the term “good.” If the poems in the book constitute necessary corrections of or emendations to human conduct in their day, both as to thought and manner, then they are good. But if these changes originated in the poems, causing thereby a direct liberation of the intelligence, then the book becomes of importance to the highest degree.

But this importance cannot be in what the poem says, since in that case the fact that it is a poem would be a redundancy. The importance lies in what the poem is. Its existence as a poem is of first importance, a technical matter, as with all facts, compelling the recognition of a mechanical structure. A poem which does not arouse respect for the technical requirements of its own mechanics may have anything you please painted all over it or on it in the way of meaning but it will for all that be as empty as a man made of wax or straw.

It is the acceptable fact of a poem as a mechanism that is the proof of its meaning and this is as technical a matter as in the case of any other machine. Without the poem being a workable mechanism in its own right, a mechanism which arises from, while at the same time it constitutes the meaning of, the poem as a whole, it will remain ineffective. And what it says regarding the use or worth of that particular piece of “propaganda” which it is detailing will never be convincing.

The preface seems to me irrelevant. Why mention something which the book is believed definitely not to resemble? “Discrete” in the sense used by Mr. Oppen, is, in all probability, meant merely to designate a series separate from other series. I feel that he is justified in so using the term. It has something of the implications about it of work in a laboratory when one is following what he believes to be a profitable lead along some one line of possible investigation.

This indicates what is probably the correct way to view the book as well as the best way to obtain pleasure from it. Very few people, not to say critics, see poetry in their day as a moment in the long-drawn periodic progress of an ever-changing activity toward occasional peaks of surpassing excellence. Yet these are the correct historic facts of the case. These high periods rest on the continuity of what has gone before. As a corollary, most critics fail to connect up the apparently dissociated work of the various men writing contemporaneously in a general scheme of understanding. Most commentators are, to be sure, incapable of doing so since they have no valid technical knowledge of the difficulties involved, what has to be destroyed since it is dead, and what saved and treasured. The dead, granted, was once alive but now it is dead and it stinks.


(The entire section is 1444 words.)

Thomas Merton (essay date 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Madman Runs to the East,” in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Image Books, 1965, pp. 348-50.

[In the following excerpt, Merton uses some verses of Oppen's as the basis of a homily.]

Priests and ministers suddenly believe it urgent to assure everyone that “the world” is telling us the truth—not always making clear what world they mean. And often those who insist that “the world” is deceiving us mean only the world which refuses them and their message, not their own world, their own tight system of fragments of the past held together by money and armies.

I think only the poets are still sure in their prophetic sense that the...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

George Oppen with L. S. Dembo (interview date 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Contemporary Literature, Vol. X, No. 2, Spring, 1969, pp. 155-77.

[In the following interview, Dembo questions Oppen about his life and his poetry.]

In February 1931 Poetry, under the acting editorship of a young man highly recommended to Harriet Monroe by Ezra Pound, issued an “Objectivist” number. As that young man, Louis Zukofsky, tells it, the term “Objectivist” was little more than a response to Miss Monroe's insistence that he produce a movement and a label to go with it. And Zukofsky is here generally supported by three other poets to whom the term has been applied, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi....

(The entire section is 8159 words.)

L. S. Dembo (review date 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Individuality and Numerosity,” in The Nation, New York, Vol. 209, No. 18, November 24, 1969, pp. 574-76.

[In the following review of Of Being Numerous, Dembo illustrates his assessment of Oppen as “a poet of the first order” by selected textual explications.]

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...

(The entire section is 2198 words.)

Donald Davie (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Notes on George Oppen's Seascape: Needle's Eye,” in George Oppen: Man and Poet, edited by Burton Hatlen, National Poetry Foundation, Inc., 1981, pp. 407-12.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1973, Davie considers Oppen's poems on their own merit rather than as representative of a particular movement or tradition.]

For us to come to terms with Oppen, the time has long gone by—if it ever existed—when it was useful to start plotting his place in a scheme of alternative or successive poetic “schools” or “traditions.” Imagism, objectivism, constructivism, objectism: if there was ever any point in shoving those counters about,...

(The entire section is 1954 words.)

George and Mary Oppen with Michel Englebert and Michael West (interview date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, July-August, 1985, pp. 11-14.

[In the following interview, originally published in 1975, George and Mary Oppen discuss philosophy, politics, and poetry.]

This conversation took place in 1975 at the Oppen residence on Polk Street in San Francisco.

[Interviewer]: Mr. Oppen, you are known to be among the handful of poets who consistently decline invitations to read their work in public. May I ask why?

[George Oppen]: Of course, the primary reason is that I don't absolutely have to, and that if a poet possibly can make his living outside poetry,...

(The entire section is 4027 words.)

Mary Oppen (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “France” and “New York City,” in Meaning a Life: An Autobiography, Black Sparrow Press, 1978, pp. 117-39, 143-63.

[In the following excerpt, Mary Oppen describes the life she and her husband led from the late twenties to the beginning of the Second World War, and tells of their transition from avant-garde artists to communist organizers.]

George and I avoided joining the groups that surrounded the artists and writers we visited. We had found our beginnings in our own roots, and we had found Zukofsky, Williams and Pound; we were twenty-two years old and full of ourselves. We wanted to observe and learn from the impressions we received as well as from the...

(The entire section is 9860 words.)

Charles Tomlinson (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Objectivists: Zukofsky and Oppen, a Memoir,” in Paideuma, Vol. 7, No. 3, Winter, 1978, pp. 429-45.

[In the following memoir, Tomlinson recalls his relation to Oppen and Louis Zukovsky, and describes their relationship to each other.]

‘It pays to see even only a little of a man of genius.’ Thus Henry James, of Flaubert. I saw Louis Zukofsky four times, corresponded with him—on and off—for seven years and edited in 1964 what was, I suppose, one of the earliest Zukofsky numbers of an English review for Agenda: I was by no means the first islander to discover Zukofsky—Ian Hamilton Finlay had brought out over here 16 Once Published in...

(The entire section is 6858 words.)

Rachel Blau DuPlessis (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Oppen and Pound,” in Paideuma, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 59-83.

[In the following essay, Blau DuPlessis discusses Pound's influence on Oppen's poetry, and examines their poetic and political dissimilarities.]

… poetry must be at least as well written as prose, etc. It must also be at least as good as dead silence.1

In a review of Ginsberg, McClure and Olson, published in 1962, as he was publishing the poems of his return, George Oppen strongly suggests that each of these poets exemplifies a tendency in current writing which he must reject; by this review, Oppen tacitly situates himself...

(The entire section is 10423 words.)

Constance Hunting (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘At Least Not Nowhere’: George Oppen as Maine Poet,” in Paideuma, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 53-8.

[In the following essay, Hunting surveys the effects of several geographies on Oppen's poetry.]

Oppen is such a good objectivist. Besides supplying money for the movement's early publishing efforts, he has remained true to its tenets as set forth by Williams and has made his poems artifacts “consonant with his day.” Yet Oppen is very much present in his poems—even if sometimes by his seeming absence. Over them, through them, broods a personality at once anguished and delicate, cryptic and open, terribly vulnerable to experience and...

(The entire section is 1845 words.)

Ron Silliman (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Third Phase Objectivism,” in Paideuma, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 85-9.

[In the following essay, Silliman discusses Oppen's relation to several postwar movements in American poetry.]

Objectivism's third or renaissance phase, from 1960 onward, is the most problematic of that literary movement's periods, simultaneously its most influential and least cohesive time, mixing a resurgence of interest in existing texts with the production of new writings, altering the very definition of that curious rubric as it was being used to rewrite the literary history of the thirties and forties. Its absence, the long second phase of neglect, had been marked clearly...

(The entire section is 1960 words.)

Hugh Kenner (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Oppen, Zukofsky, and the Poem as Lens,” in Literature at the Barricades: The American Writer in the 1930s, edited by Ralph F. Bogardus and Fred Hobson, The University of Alabama Press, 1982, pp. 162-71.

[In the following essay, Kenner discusses the early Objectivist poetry of Oppen and Louis Zukovsky in relation to the socio-economic circumstances of the 1930's.]

It was a bleak year, 1931, the breadlines hardly moving. “The world,” George Oppen wrote at about that time, “… the world, weather-swept, with which one shares the century.”1 It was a world in which someone approaching the window “as if to see / what really was going on”...

(The entire section is 3526 words.)

Michael Heller (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Objectivist Tradition: Some Further Considerations,” in Conviction's Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985, pp 97–106.

[In the following essay, Heller explores the poetics of Objectivism.]

George Oppen states in the opening passage of Of Being Numerous:

There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves.’(1)

Among “things” we live with, see, and come to know ourselves by are the poems of our time. For poetry, Heidegger reminds us, is an act which founds whole historical worlds. An Objectivist poetry, involving a poetics...

(The entire section is 3191 words.)

Joseph M. Conte (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Subway's Iron Circuit: George Oppen's Discrete Series,” in Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry, Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 121-41.

[In the following essay, Conte discusses the relation of parts to whole in Oppen's Discrete Series.]

When The Objectivist Press was inaugurated at the Brooklyn apartment of George Oppen in 1933, a few blocks from the site where Walt Whitman first printed with his own hands a book called Leaves of Grass, it was agreed that the authors would pay for the publication of their own work, alternative financing being unavailable. The advantage to George Oppen, acting as editor and publisher of his...

(The entire section is 8161 words.)

Marjorie Perloff (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Against Transparency: From the Radiant Cluster to the Word as Such,” in Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, The University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 79-87.

[In the following excerpt, Perloff considers Oppen's poetic diction within the context of the popular use of words and images in advertising.]

Oppen's famous twenty-five-year silence (he published no book between Discrete Series [1934] and The Materials [1962] has often confounded readers: what can it mean, it is asked, to abandon one's chosen art for a quarter of a century? And did the poet's political activism (he worked for Communist party causes on and off for some...

(The entire section is 3448 words.)

Michael Heller (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Oppen and Stevens: Reflections on the Lyrical and the Philosophical,” in Sagetrieb, Vol. 12, No. 3, Winter, 1993, pp. 13-32.

[In the following analysis of the poetry of Oppen and Wallace Stevens, Heller explores the boundaries between poetry and philosophy.]

“If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, stand still unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.


It was on my way toward writing this paper that I encountered two essays in the Spring 1993 issue of the magazine...

(The entire section is 7234 words.)

John Shoptaw (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lyric Incorporated: The Serial Object of George Oppen and Langston Hughes,” in Sagetrieb, Vol. 12, No. 3, Winter, 1993, pp. 105-24.

[In the following essay, Shoptaw considers similarities between the work of Oppen and Langston Hughes, and their relation to the socio-economic cultures in which they were produced and which they reproduced in their poetry.]

Well, I can understand what people who object to taking a poem apart are saying. On the other hand, I don't think a poem is all that fragile.

—George Oppen1

Be nice to people on your way up because you'll...

(The entire section is 7171 words.)

Norman Finkelstein (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “In the Realm of the Naked Eye: The Poetry of Paul Auster,” in Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster, edited by Dennis Barone, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995, pp. 52-56.

[In the following excerpt from a study of writer/poet Paul Auster, Finkelstein examines the Objectivists’, and especially Oppen's, importance to Auster's poetics and worldview.]

If Paul Auster's work were concerned only with the past or with the flickering self, it would not have achieved the tensile strength and jagged expressivity that mark it as among the best American writing of the last twenty years. In poetry especially, a concern solely for tradition or solely for...

(The entire section is 1580 words.)

Michael Davidson (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Palmitexts: George Oppen, Susan Howe, and the Material Text,” in Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, University of California Press, 1997, pp. 64-93.

[In the following excerpt, Davidson examines how Oppen's method of composition “built” his poems into objects.]

Piling up pieces of paper to find the words

—George Oppen

In the previous chapter, I described how Gertrude Stein's most recalcitrant work reveals a social narrative in textual practices that would seem to serve entirely aesthetic ends. Those practices include her use of repetition, her deployment...

(The entire section is 5363 words.)

Peter Nicholls (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Of Being Ethical: Reflections on George Oppen,” in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2, August, 1997, pp. 153-70.

[In the following essay, Nicholls explores the meaning of “ethical” when applied to a state of “being-between” which Oppen's career and his poems both suggest he occupied.]

The poems of George Oppen continue to occupy a marginal place in most literary histories, even though his work encapsulates some of the major shifts in American writing between high modernism and contemporary Language poetry. In part this marginalization is due to the habit of tying Oppen to Louis Zukofsky's shortlived “Objectivist” tendency of the...

(The entire section is 7536 words.)

Stephen Fredman (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘And All Now Is War’: George Oppen, Charles Olson, and the Problem of Literary Generations,” in The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, edited by Rachel Blau DePlessis and Peter Quartermain, The University of Alabama Press, 1999, pp. 286-93.

[In the following essay Fredman explores similarities in the poetry of Oppen and Charles Olson.]

The convenient notion of literary generations has been an important part of the fictional structure of literary history, helping to separate it from history proper. In literary histories, we have used named generations as markers in the assembling of an orderly narrative of innovation, struggle, triumph, and...

(The entire section is 3397 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


McAleavy, David. “A Bibliography of the Works of George Oppen,” in Paideuma, 10 (Spring 1981): 155-169.

A comprehensive listing of Oppen's work.


Oppen, Mary. Meaning A Life, Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1978, 213 p.

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


Hatlen, Burton, ed. George Oppen: Man and Poet. Orono: National Poetry Foundation/University of Maine Press, 1981, 514 p.

A formidable collection of essays about Oppen with a...

(The entire section is 199 words.)