Utopian Tenderness

New Collected Poems by George Oppen, edited by Michael Davidson. New York: New Directions, 2002. 468 pages. 35.00$


George Oppen has been one of the great, under-recognized voices in twentieth-century American poetry; this despite the fact that he has decisively shaped the direction of much experimental poetry in the US (and elsewhere) since the sixties. Charles Tomlinson, Rachel Blau Duplessis, John Taggart, Michael Bernstein and Michael Palmer, to name just a few of his admirers, have all expressed their respect for Oppen’s work. New Directions’ newest version of his collected poems not only helps to show the shape of a poetic career that spanned some fourty years (with a famous twenty-five year silence) but in doing so it should also help to contribute to a fuller assessment of his achievement. New Directions’ earlier collection, The Collected Poems of George Oppen, published in 1975, brought together his collection from the 1930s, Discrete Series (1934), with his post-silence volumes, The Materials (1962), This in Which (1965), Of Being Numerous (1968), Seascape: Needle’s Eye (1972) and Myth of The Blaze (1972-1975). Since The Collected Poems of George Oppen was published in 1975, it did not include his exquisite last volume, Primitive, handsomely published in hardback in 1978 by Black Sparrow Press. Davidson’s edition brings together all of these volumes, along with his uncollected published poems and selected unpublished poems. The inclusion of Primitive, now out of print, allows us to see the refinement of his technique in light of his earlier work and in itself is worth the price of admission.

George Oppen was a friend of Williams, Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Rakosi and more distantly, Pound. Through these connections, particularly Zukofksy, he became identified as an “Objectivist.” For Oppen, Objectivism was not a worked-out poetic or philosopical dogma so much as an insistence upon seeing the poem itself as an object, part of a world of objects that the poet does not so much create as he discovers. For him, this seemed to mean a de-throning of the Romantic notion of the poet as the creator of the world. Instead, Oppen’s work proposed poetry as a process of revelation, in which the world, once submitted to the pressure of intense scrutiny, yields itself to the human observer. One of the epigraphs to This in Which is a quote from Heidegger: “the arduous path of appearance.” For Oppen, poetry needed to be arduous in order to do justice to the complexity of the world. If Oppen’s poetry favors a voice of hesitancy it is because it is reluctant to name the world and so confine it within that formulation. Yet Oppen’s work does describe the world, does name it, but it does so in a way that is both suasive and tentative, in a voice that is both powerfully assertive, even declarative, and at the same time, reluctant to reduce what is seen as its final irreducibility.



A city of the corporations

Glassed in dreams
And images–

And the pure joy
Of the mineral fact

Tho it is impenetrable

As the world, if it is matter

Is impenetrable.

There is much that is typical of Oppen in this poem. If he has abandoned part of the Romantic legacy, he has kept faith with it too inasmuch as he affirms the Romantic role of the poet as a monitory presence; the poet as witness and social critic (indeed, one of his favorite poets was Blake).

“A Language of New York” offers evidence of Oppen’s social consciousness, a leftist sensibility that saw capitalism as not only inherently unjust, but also, in its corporate manifestations, a contributor to the demise of a truly democratic American polity. Just as the corporations of New York are “Glassed in dreams,” so too is the American community. For some, Oppen’s attractiveness is rooted in his life’s story, a story which is the record of an extraordinary dedication to his own social and political ideals. In the thirties, Oppen became an activist, labor organizer and Communist Party member. The Depression for Oppen required difficult choices: unable to reconcile art in the service of politics, Oppen chose instead to abandon art for more direct political action. And so he began his silence. In the 1940s, Oppen was drafted into the war, a war he did not oppose because he saw it as a war against fascism. He served in France as an infantryman and subsequently received a Purple Heart. Later, his role as an activist and Communist Party member came back to haunt him in the McCarthy era. Although he had ceased at that point to be an active member of the party, he feared that he would be required to name names; he elected instead to exile himself and his family in Mexico. In the 1960s, his poetry engaged the Vietnam war with an extraordinary minimalist power. Oppen had achieved a form which allowed his poetry to be at once socially engaged, experimental and dynamic. In his Pulitzer Prize winning volume, Of Being Numerous, Oppen hangs his delicate, wiry poems in white space, like a mobile:

Now in the helicopters the casual will
Is atrocious

Insanity in high places,
If it is true we must do these things
We must cut our throats

The fly in the bottle

Insane, the insane fly

Which, over the city
Is the bright light of shipwreck.

The gesture here, again, is that of the witness, but the poem goes beyond mere witness to a meditation upon the destructive effects of atrocity upon the body politic. If there is anger and indignation in Oppen’s verse, it is almost never without a qualifying tenderness, a tenderness that in itself–as in Of Being Numerous— suggests that the intimacy of action and the necessity of recovering that sense of relationship between actions if any semblance of a just life, or a just community, is to be salvaged from the shipwreck.

In his less obviously political poetry, Oppen combines this tenderness with a wholly distinctive sense of awe at the materials of the world, both man-made and natural:


The new wood as old as carpentry

Rounding the far buoy, wild
Steel fighting in the sea, carpenter,

Carpenter and other things, the monstrous welded seams

Plunge and drip in the seas, carpenter,
Carpenter, how wild the planet is.

Oppen’s poetry strives towards a new materialism, a materialism that takes seriously the material nature of words as things, as well as being signifiers. Language for Oppen is not either wholly self-reflexive nor wholly transparent; in this sense, his poetry can be seen as a resource for contemporary American poets who often seem compelled to choose between one philosophy of language and the other. Ultimately, Oppen’s idiosyncratic materialism sees the poet as being closer to the carpenter than to the priest. Like the carpenter, he works on, but is also worked upon by the materials, indeed by the world he inhabits.

This sense of words as material, of words as mysterious, and of the world as material and mysterious is never more beautfully embodied than in his last haunting lyrics in Primitive. The poems here are retrospective of his life, his work, his work in poetry and his place in history. Yet the sense of history that is embodied in them is non-linear, deconstructive and radically integrative–a kind of lyrical vorticism achieved with a rare purity out of the fragments of twentieth-century experience:


how shall I light
this room that measures years

and years not miracles nor were we
judged but a direction

of things in us burning burning for we are not
still nor is this place a wind
utterly outside ourselves and yet it is
unknown and all the sails full to the last

rag of the topgallant, royal
tops’l, the least rags 
at the mast-heads

to save the commonplace save myself Tyger
Tyger still burning in me burning
in the night sky burning
in us the light

in the room it was all
part of the wars
of things brilliance
of things

in the appalling
seas language

lives and wakes us together
out of sleep the poem
opens its dazzling whispering hands

Oppen once expressed the necessity of writing not to the past, but to and for the future. Michael Davidson’s finely edited edition of Oppen’s collected poems shows that this was indeed his achievement. In the New Collected Poems, the future of American poetry is still on display.