Discussion Topics

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What is objectivism, and what is George Oppen’s particular slant on it?

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Does Oppen’s long “preparation,” comprising the years when many poets are at their peak, make sense?

What is Oppen’s conception of the relationship between emotion and poetry?

Building as a metaphor is fairly common in poetry. What makes the skyscraper a particularly useful one in Oppen’s “The Building of the Skyscraper”?

What is most original in Oppen’s poetry?

Other literary forms

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In addition to his poetry, George Oppen (AHP-uhn) published several reviews and essays. Of these, two are central to an understanding of his work: “The Mind’s Own Place,” published in Kulchur, in 1963, and “A Letter,” published in Agenda, in 1973. Oppen’s many published interviews and his extensive correspondence with both American and British writers provide an in-depth look into Oppen’s poetics and his sense of poetry’s place in the contemporary world; The Selected Letters of George Oppen was published in 1990.


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In a long and distinguished career, George Oppen never wavered from that which Ezra Pound in 1934 noted of his work: its commitment to sustained seriousness, craftsmanship, and individual sensibility. Out of this commitment, Oppen created one of the most moving and complex bodies of poetry of the twentieth century.

Oppen was one of the original Objectivist poets; his work can be associated with that of William Carlos Williams, Pound, and the Imagists. However, more than any other poet associated with that group, he was to develop a radical poetics of contingency, a poetics as wary of formalist assumptions about art as it is about naïve realism in poetry. His unique combining of imagery and rhetoric, the breadth of his subject matter, and its nearly populist strain have made his work extremely important to younger poets.

With the receipt of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1969 and an award for his distinguished contribution to poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and with increasing critical attention (much of it contained in George Oppen: Man and Poet, published in 1981), Oppen’s place in twentieth century poetry is beginning to be recognized as one of major significance.


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Duplessis, Rachel Blau, ed. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. Oppen’s correspondence provides a human face to a man whose poetry is known for its austerity and deep moral commitment. Includes bibliography and index.

Freeman, John, ed. Not Comforts/But Visions: Essays on the Poetry of George Oppen. Budleigh Salterton, Devon: Interim Press, 1984. This volume, intended to introduce Oppen to British readers, contains contributions by poets and critics. The essays survey Oppen’s work rather than analyze the poems.

Hatlen, Burton. “Feminine Technologies: George Oppen Talks at Denise Levertov.” The American Poetry Review 22, no. 3 (May, 1993): 9. Oppen wrote more than fifteen poems that in one way or another touch on women’s distinctive experience and consciousness. Oppen’s fascination and correspondence with poet Denise Levertov are examined.

Hatlen, Burton, ed. George Oppen, Man and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1981. This homage dedicated to Oppen and his wife is an anthology of twenty-eight articles and two separate bibliographies, all but six published for the first time. The essays are well organized, and good bibliographies appear in notes. Two essays give political and philosophical contexts to the poetry. Contains an index and two personal memoirs by Mary Oppen.

Ironwood 5 (1975). This special issue devoted to Oppen contains, among other things, an “Introductory Note on Poetry” by Charles Tomlinson; seven poems by the poet; an interview, photographs, and memoirs by Charles Reznikoff and Mary Oppen; and a critical essay by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Includes a bibliography.

Ironwood 13 (Fall, 1985). This second special issue on the poet contains a number of excellent essays, memoirs, and appreciations. This volume contains more critical work than the first volume, and a different selection of critics, poets, and scholars is presented.

Nicholls, Peter. “Of Being Ethical: Reflections on George Oppen.” Journal of American Studies 31 (August, 1997): 153-170. Nicholls discusses why Oppen’s work continues 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.

Nicholls, Peter. George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University, 2007. Nicholls takes a look at the twenty-five year period in which Oppen did not write, and studies the ways in which his poetry changed and progressed. This volume is extremely helpful for anyone looking to gain insight into Oppen’s writing and his place in literature.

Paideuma 10 (Spring, 1981). This journal, normally dedicated to Ezra Pound studies, is a memorial to George Oppen. It contains a collection of more than thirty appreciations, poems, explications, biographical sketches, and memorials, and it begins with Pound’s preface to Oppen’s Discrete Series. This, like the 1975 Ironwood special issue, is really a commemorative collection of material on the poet’s life and work.

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Critical Essays