Introduction

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Oppen, George 1908–

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Oppen is an American poet associated with the Objectivist school. In poetry noted for its precision of language, he explores the traditional themes of love and death, history and human knowledge. He won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1969 for Of Being Numerous. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Cid Corman

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Oppen declared: "I'm really concerned with the substantive, with the subject of the sentence, with what we are talking about, and not rushing over the subject-matter in order to make a comment about it."

To make a thing of it—the poem—declaring itself:

                 The edge of the ocean,
                 The shore: here
                 Somebody's lawn,
                 By the water.

And here—if your breath bothers to shape the articulation as articulateness you will find—characteristic of this poet—each word loving itself—that sacrament of dancing together Eliot described in East Coker. As if the ear perceived what the mind breathed.

You will say: But it's not profound. Yet love is revealed in just such quiet modulations, such excellence of attention, where the lover does not have to point to himself to exist. (pp. 85-6)

Oppen has a transparent faith—an active confidence—a loyalty to—his word—which is—as he realizes—ours too. "I was thinking about a justification of human life, eventually, in what I call the life of the mind." He joins Stevens at this point. But where Stevens—in his own version of the romantic—improvises and brings off remarkable cadenzas—Oppen prefers to try to see closer to find his leverage—as metaphysical Archimedes—towards spiritual community…. (pp. 86-7)

Oppen often repeats words—not for mere effect ever—but as if he were literally discovering the sense in them and he were startled by it…. The shock is metaphysical. (pp. 87-8)

Perhaps Oppen's most telling power is in his deceptively quiet—almost hidden—statements. Firm and yet requiring us to meet him in the words in order to come across—to reach their true depth…. (p. 89)

One fact only remains: Oppen is a poet—a maker of poems. And by that I mean in all simplicity and difficulty—one who has found through language a way to share what he has realized AS realization—AS experience…. You ask: What has happened through the years to the man's poetry? Has it developed—has it "grown"? You can see and hear the move beyond thing—beyond poem itself (not poetry)—into the plenum of what he is at—where a lifetime of feeling and intelligence brings him to be. "All that there is, is / Yours …" "We must talk now. Fear / Is fear. But we abandon one another." This is no longer a poetry of theoretics; it is one that can embrace its doubt. (pp. 90-1)

Cid Corman, "Together," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Poetry in Review Foundation), Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 85-91.

Jonathan Galassi

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George Oppen's Collected Poems is … the record of a lifelong confrontation between an unimpeachably free spirit's sense of order and "a world of things"…. [His poems] are built out of words themselves. Oppen's lines move in fits and starts; they are slowly accrued "discrete series" of phrases, chains of associations which aim directly, often painfully, at an identifiable point. The lesson, the articulations of a meaning, is what matters. Words, imperfect and sometimes untrustworthy, are only the means to this end…. (p. 167)

The conception of the poet's role as that of the teacher accounts for the openly, even severely didactic tone of much of Oppen's work, though the sobriety and ponderousness are occasionally relieved by pure word-pictures, which Oppen uses to beautiful effect…. I suppose he is most approachable through his imagery, though the rhythm can also be seductively real. But Oppen is probably destined never to be popular, for he demands too much of the reader. His fragmentary approach, his moral certitude, his conception of the poet's task in life (To Make Much of Life), hark back to the modernism we have been running away from for a generation. But his work resonates more and more profoundly the longer we spend with it. Oppen's deeply historical conception of himself as a Jew ("Neither Roman / nor barbarian") in an essentially alien culture is, by extension, a portrayal of the poet—and man himself—in the world; and his collected work, for all its scatteredness of exposition, presents a whole world-picture, embracing history, politics, race, society. Each of these slowly achieved, hard-won pieces of Oppen's thought is nothing less than an utterly authentic response to the grain of an idea which has irritated the poet into words, meant to be slowly taken. The poems often work together in groups; Oppen's best-known book, Of Being Numerous, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, is a serial meditation on man's situation as a social animal, as the member of a tribe. Characteristically, it is highly dense, allusive, laden with historical reference. Many of the poems, predictably, deal with the nature of the poet's work and his role, in and out of society, as a user of language; i.e., as someone chosen—with all the responsibility and privilege the term implies—to speak for others…. (pp. 167-68)

Jonathan Galassi, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1976.

Michael Heller

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[While] the poems in "Primitive" are charged, as befits a man writing in his 70's, with the meaning of being a poet, they are also perhaps Mr. Oppen's most public and visionary poems. They are poems that … are a keeping of faith, an almost Whitmanesque faith, with the sources of his poetry:

                 … I am
                 of that people the grass
 
                 blades touch
 
                 and touch in their small
 
                 distances the poem
                 begins

They are at once celebratory and elegiac; even as they affirm kinship ("I dreamed myself of their people …") they probe loss, often speaking of something failed or incomplete, reminders of how much of Whitman's hopes remain unfulfilled. The lines intense, painful and declamatory have that unique tone that is Mr. Oppen's main contribtion to our poetry:

     … young workmen's
     loneliness on the structures has touched
     and    touched    the    heavy    tools    tools
     in our hands in the clamorous
     country birth-
     light savage
     light of the landscape

And suffused throughout is the presence of the companion he has lived with "fellow / me feminine / winds as you pass," of Mary Oppen as so much an essential part:

     hat-brim fluttered in the air as she ran
     forward and it seemed so beautiful so beautiful
     the sun-lit air it was no dream all's wild
     out there as we unlikely
     image of love found the way
     away from home
                                         (pp. 9, 19)

Michael Heller, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 31, 1978.

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