George Oppen: Selected Poems

by George Oppen
ISBN: 0811215571

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A Review of: George Oppen: Selected Poems
by Richard Carter

.. . .Wallace Stevens describes in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words"(1942) the denotative and careful effort to mirror reality, and the connotative and imaginative attempt to shape it. Unlike its fertile cousin "connote" (meaning to relate), "denote" means to indicate-to narrow the range of references so a word can be pinned to a definite, unwavering meaning. While denotation can hamstring words by stripping them of meaning, connotation can drown language by "dissipating [its] sense in a multiplicity of associations." The first emphasizes truthfulness based on experience, the second a bountiful fancy. Of course, most poetry is neither one extreme nor the other. (William Carlos Williams, for example, who wrote more sparely than almost anyone, called out poets "through metaphor to reconcile the people and the stones . . . Invent!") But the distinction between the spare and lush approaches is a useful starting place for an introduction to George Oppen's poetry.
Oppen, an American poet whose work stems from the Objectivist movement of the 1930s, was a realist and his work slots neatly into the 20th Century denotative tradition. Little irked him more in poetry than a nostalgic urge to block out unpleasant reality. Scorning false comforts, he distrusted poems that commented more than they revealed; yet while he sought fidelity to life, he favoured intuitive perception more than logic, and likely identified with Theseus's remark that poems circumvent reason to give the inexplicable "arbitrary fact" [Oppen's words] "a local habitation."
Oppen's work has been receiving more attention recently. In 1990, CLOUD, a British press, published a small edition of Oppen's poems selected by Charles Tomlinson. In 2002, New Directions printed a revised edition of his collected poems-originally printed in 1975-and last year the company followed up this collection with George Oppen Selected Poems, the volume under review. I was sorry poems such as "Population" and "The Men at Sheepshead" (from The Materials) didn't make the cut, but Robert Creeley, who selected the poems, deserves credit: the book includes the full text of Oppen's Pulitzer-Prize-winning long poem "Of Being Numerous" (1968), as well as Oppen's only known essay, "The Mind's Own Place" (1962), which is not available in the New Collected Poems. In addition to selections from Oppen's seven major books, the volume contains "Twenty-six fragments", aphorisms and statements he wrote on old envelopes and notepapers in the last few years of his life when he was suffering from Alzheimer's. Besides making the selections, Creeley wrote an introduction especially valuable for giving readers a glimpse of Oppen's personality as well as his poems.
The truth is, Oppen disliked the idea that a writer, as a personality, mattered. But what makes the work of any writer enduring is the personality-not the surface interest in oneself that sickens readers, and causes real lovers of poems to smack their foreheads, but the integrity that gives writing substance. George Oppen was born into a wealthy American Jewish family in New York State and grew up in California. In 1926, he met Mary Colby at a university English class. Together they formed a life-long bond, agreeing to reject privilege and wealth and dedicate their lives to art, to opposing capitalism and to alleviating poverty. This decision, made when they were just 18 in the late 1920s, was pivotal. Forfeiting wealth for good, they travelled to Dallas, married, then hitchhiked to Detroit where they bought a small boat. Then they sailed through the Great Lakes and up the Hudson River to New York City. Throughout much of the 1930s, they were involved in poverty relief efforts and supporting the Communist Party. Oppen worked in factories, and as a carpenter. Meanwhile, both George and Mary were engaged in writing, and had befriended several other New York poets by the early 1930s. These included Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky. Poetry (Chicago) editor Harriet Monroe agreed in 1931 to publish an issue of the journal featuring poems by Zukofsky, Reznikoff, William Carlos Williams, Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Basil Bunting, and others. Furthermore, Monroe agreed to Pound's request that Zukofsky he made one up: he called them Objectivists.
The Objectivist Press-which George and Mary founded-printed Oppen's first book, Discrete Series, in 1934. Oppen then wrote no poems for 25 years. The reasons for this decision were mostly political. He felt there were more important things to do during the '30s than write poems. Another reason for this 25-year silence was aesthetic pride; unlike many other writers, he refused to write poems containing left-wing propaganda. During the Second World War, Oppen volunteered, fought, and was wounded by an exploding shell in France. It was only in the late 1950s, operating a small furniture shop in Mexico City where he and Mary lived in exile due to McCarthyism, that Oppen started to write again. The Materials appeared in 1962, followed by This In Which (1965) Of Being Numerous (1968), Seascape Needle's Eye (1972), Myth of the Blaze (1972-1975) and Primitive (1978). He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1969 for Of Being Numerous.
The Imagists pioneered a fresh attempt to achieve clarity, stressing the musical phrase instead of regular metre, and brevity instead of decoration. Fifteen years or so later, the Objectivists took over where the Imagists left off. They developed this passion for clarity and sparked the skill of thinking with images, rather than just expressing them, so a poet could integrate perceptions. Instead of thinking consciously, Objectivists aimed to think intuitively "with the things as they exist", as Louis Zukofsky put it. Instead of heaping up words in a poem as if they were expendable, Objectivists emphasized everyday parts of speech like articles and prepositions (Zukofsky, incidentally, entitled a whole book "A"). And instead of building formal blocks of verse, Objectivists followed the Imagist free verse example of using the spaces between words and stanzas like rests in a bar of music. George Oppen's use of space creates unsettling intensity. Here's an excerpt from his poem "The Little Hole", in which the little hole' is the human eye:

Blankly the world
Looks in

And we compose

And the sense

Of home
And there are those

In it so violent
And so alone

They cannot rest.

In the first two lines, Oppen uses a discomfiting generality to pinpoint emptiness, and suddenly personifies it. In the space between the first two couplets the "world" gazes at us in boredom until, in response to this indifference, "we compose/Colors//And the sense//of home" in a wilful stand against the silence.
Canadian poets such as Louis Dudek, Raymond Souster, Margaret Atwood and the Tish poets all followed, to a degree, the Imagist, Objectivist (and later, Black Mountain) emphasis on sparsity. Nowadays this view might seem old-fashioned, so it is worth considering the context in which it developed. By the time the Americans had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of the Second World War, it was perfectly reasonable to be not just wary of human activity but actually contemptuous of it. Writers like Oppen were experiencing a consumerist world without reverence, in which just pressing a button could demolish civilization: a world, in other words, in which nothing seemed made to last or even to matter. This thought troubled Oppen throughout the Cold War years, especially during the 1950s and 1960s. "Love," he remarked in one of his catchy aphorisms, "is love of the future." But imagining a future is tough when even the present could end any second, without any normal person being able to do much about it except go to demonstrations. So while munitions factories were putting the finishing touches on their latest batch of warheads, poets like Oppen were aware that, with language, they had to craft a response to the bulk of military hardware, jumbo corporations and ephemeral media. In his poem "The Building of the Skyscraper", Oppen wrote: "There are words that mean nothing/But there is something to mean." In a social and political climate like this, each word had to count.
....There's a difference, he once said, between a noun-the subject of the sentence-and your comment on it, and "if we are talking about the nature of reality, then we are not really talking about our comment about it; we are talking about the apprehension of some thing." A recurrent theme in Oppen's poetry is the feeling we exist with others alongside what he called the "great mineral silence." What this "mineral silence" tells us, he suggested in his daybook, is that we have to trust "the simple intuition of existence. Of one's own existence, and in the same instant the intuition . . . of the existence of things, absolutely independent of oneself, and, in some form, permanent." Stars die, grass yellows and tree trunks rot, but all this stuff is simply a part of "the mixing and separating of primordial elements which are themselves indestructible." One potential problem with seeking to mirror reality, rather than shape it, is surrendering to this "mineral silence" and trusting in several deep-rooted but crippling convictions: that human beings are incapable, weak and small; that the universe is frightening, unknowable and big; and that language-being a merely human medium-can never reflect the world properly. Put simply, people should stand back from reality and leave it alone. Sometimes this means avant-garde self-reflexivity; sometimes it means accessible solipsism. And sometimes it means frail anorexic verse. But without engaging reality, writers shirk the difficulty of expression. Whittle too much and you end up whittling more than articles, adjectives and adverbs: you end up whittling your inborn pluck and verve.
Oppen's pluck, however, was never shaken. Although obsessed with this "mineral silence", Oppen fought with it. Nothing blank or terrible exists in his poems that he did not try to stare down with his sober face and make beautiful with an attentive ear. The work's power is its clarity: nothing trivial, nothing excessive, nothing self-aggrandizing. Favouring an ascetic language that directed attention away from himself, he believed too much in his own worth, and the worth of people generally, to waste time surrendering to an ego on the one hand or a gaping emptiness on the other. This is evident, not just from his life, but also from the sinew of his poems. In short, Oppen's work-like that of Paul Celan and Robert Creeley-matters because in most poems every letter, every space and every comma is a necessary victory: necessary because they bond together to urge the human heart. To bring images or sensations, thoughts or bricks into contact with one another, to acknowledge to a degree the connotative instinct-as Oppen does ultimately-is not just the poet's job: it's the task of every person who has courage. Either you give "to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name" or, as Robert Graves put it, "We shall go mad, no doubt, and die that way."

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