Principal Works

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Discrete Series (poetry) 1934

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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)

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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

and more—well, Mr. Rexroth disregards a basic need in art: there must be trees (particulars), but you must be able to discern a wood; some woods have no trees, and are thus bad art; good art needs both the trees and the wood. Objectivists, as exemplified in this anthology, lack the power, the intelligence, to organize their poems. Sometimes, because there is only a single observation, organization is impossible. When Frances Fletcher, in a twelve-line twenty-word poem, A Chair, informs us that an electric chair differs from the one I now sit on because it has an electric current to burn bodies, I can merely note that I have so many more, and more profound, associations and connections with an electric chair, that Miss Fletcher's observation not only does not integrate my own experience but irritates me because of its essentially frivolous comment on a mighty symbol. And when a reader's rich experience is impoverished by poetry, this poetry is worthless.

But the most important objection to this book is number (3). The next line after Mr. Zukofsky's definition of an “objective” as the desire for good poetry reads: “Inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.” But it is direction that is lacking in all this work. Mr. Zukofsky's “A, ” because it is the longest poem and therefore contains...

(The entire section contains 101300 words.)

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Oppen, George (Poetry Criticism)


Oppen, George (Vol. 13)