Oppen’s determination to avoid what he considered a sort of easy emotionalism or cheap sentimentality restricted his production of poems that reached for a mood of intense feeling. Yet the absence of conventional protestations of desire and the austerity that is a signature of his style made his lyric moments glow with a special quality that he called “emotional clarity.” He hoped to capture the moment “when the world stops, but lights up,” as he put it.
The importance of love for his wife, Mary, is evident in his frequent comments in his letters. When she was the energizing figure for a poem, he wrote, “You will see that I have not exaggerated Mary’s beauty, total beauty, confidence, strength of beauty.” These attributes presented a challenge for Oppen, who did not want to resort to familiar styles of praise but who was aware of the power of the literature of romance. “O Western Wind” is an attempt to evoke the impact of the myriad moments when he looked at his wife and felt, afresh but with the memory of similar instances, the mystery and pleasures of her being.
The poem begins with an image that is construed in metaphysical terms. “A world around her like a shadow” is Oppen’s first statement, suggesting both the tangible and the evanescent. The woman is presented in motion (“She moves a chair”), and her action implies a purposeful or useful endeavor (“Something is being made—/ Prepared/ Clear in front of her as open air”). There is no punctuation at the end of the first stanza, carrying the poem toward Oppen’s familiar shift to a reflective mode. “The space a woman makes and fills,” he says, reemphasizing the tangible and the theoretical. He then assumes an unusually direct position, his typically distant, sharply observant poetic consciousness transformed by the very personal phrase “I write again.” The poet is fully involved, “Naturally,” because he is concentrating on what is most familiar, his wife’s face.
The third stanza is a direct continuance of the previous one. “Beautiful and wide/ Blue eyes/ Across all my vision,” Oppen observes. He once explained that “the noun ’eyes’ directly above ’across all my vision’ gives immediacy to the poem—gives reality to the poem.” In this stanza, the lyric impulse charges the poem with an indelible impression of a profound love that remains undiminished by custom and routine, alive still in the power of the poet’s vision.
Duplessis, Rachel Blau, ed. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.
Hatlen, Burton, ed. George Oppen, Man and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1981.
Ironwood 5 (1975).
Ironwood 13 (Fall, 1985).
Nicholls, Peter. “Of Being Ethical: Reflections on George Oppen.” Journal of American Studies 31 (August, 1997): 153-170.
Oppen, Mary. Meaning a Life: An Autobiography. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.
Paideuma 10 (Spring, 1981).
Thackrey, Susan. George Oppen: A Radical Practice. San Francisco: O Books and the Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives, 2001.
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