Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

Oppen argued that he was trying to bring greater realism into poetry, although his realism was philosophical realism rather than the sociological or psychological realism that most readers would associate with the term. Many of Oppen’s ideas about how human beings perceive the world moment by moment were derived from and influenced by the twentieth century German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Other concepts in “Route” that also appear in Heidegger’s work include time as a dimension of being, boredom as a way to experience reality, the importance of “things” in themselves rather than just as they relate to ideas, the belief that language is not a transparent medium for ideas, and the conviction that the relation of human beings to the earth is in crisis.

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Oppen is also responding to moral questions raised by the historical events of World War II and his personal participation in combat. Although Oppen was a well-known pacifist for most of his life, in “Route” he tries to understand his time as a soldier in Europe. His enlistment could be easily understood in ideological terms: Oppen was a leftist Jew and a confirmed anti-Nazi. “Route,” however, presents more complexity. The speaker in the poem sees the war in terms of “madmen” who “have burned thousands/ of men and women alive,” but he also realizes that they were “perhaps no madder than most.” A series of rhetorical questions about war are raised in the sixth section, but the poet does not presume to answer them. In talking about the war, the speaker suggests that the truth is both “perfectly simple” and “perfectly impenetrable” and suggests that truth is not necessarily moral.

“Route,” like the larger book in which the poem appears, Of Being Numerous, compares the isolation of people as autonomous individuals with solitary perspectives to communal responsibilities to act ethically toward other people and the world. Perhaps nowhere in the poem is the existential dilemma of isolated individuals more poignant than in the wartime story about men living alone in holes in the French countryside for years, even while snow fell, even at the cost of sacrificing the safety of their families. The men’s decision to enter their lonely holes is not presented in idealistic or nationalistic terms, but the story is important because these are men who made an ethical decision not to fight while Oppen made an ethical decision to fight. The abstractions of pacifism, therefore, prove unimportant to both combatants and noncombatants.

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