George Oppen (April 24, 1908 – July 7, 1984) was an American poet, best known as one of the lead members of the objectivist group of poets. The objectivists, consisting of Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, and others, were an important transitional movement in the history of early twentieth-century American poetry. Deeply influenced by the imagism of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Oppen—like the other objectivists—attempted to write poetry which was an "object in itself"—free of rhyme, meter, and a traditional sense of "meaning." Oppen's poems are minimal and precise, resembling the Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty whom Oppen consciously imitated.
In addition to writing poetry, Oppen was also a political activist who supported the causes of Marxism and socialism, though he would eventually grow estranged from these ideologies. In the middle of his poetic career, in the 1930s, Oppen abruptly took a twenty-year hiatus from writing poetry to concentrate on politics. It would not be until the 1960s that Oppen would return to writing poetry again.
Distancing himself somewhat from the idealism of the objectivists, the later poetry of Oppen is notable for its quiet, piercing insight. In 1969, Oppen would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and in recent decades more and more scholars and poets are taking note of Oppen as a critical bridge between the modern and postmodern periods in American literature.
Oppen was born in New Rochelle, New York. His father, George August Oppenheimer, was a successful diamond merchant who changed the family name to Oppen in 1927. His childhood was one of considerable affluence; the family was well tended to by servants and maids. Oppen enjoyed all the benefits of a wealthy upbringing—horse riding, expensive automobiles, and frequent trips to Europe. Oppen's mother committed suicide when he was four and his father married Seville Shainwald, by whom Oppen was mentally and physically abused.
The family lived near the sea; Oppen developed a skill for sailing at a young age and the seascapes around his childhood home left a mark on his later poetry. He was taught carpentry by the family butler; as an adult Oppen found work as a carpenter and cabinetmaker.
In 1917, the family moved to San Francisco, where Oppen attended Warren Military Academy. His early traumas with his step-mother led to fighting and drinking and a car wreck in which George was driver; one passenger was killed. In 1926, Oppen started attending what is now Oregon State University, where he met Mary Colby, a fiercely independent young woman from Grants Pass, Oregon. On their first date, the couple stayed out all night, resulting in Mary's expulsion and Oppen's suspension. They left Oregon, married, and started hitchhiking across the country working at odd jobs along the way.
While living on the road, Oppen began writing poems and publishing in local magazines. In 1929, and 1930 he and Mary spent some time in New York, where they met Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, the musician Tibor Serly, and the designer Russel Wright, among others.
In 1929, George came into a small inheritance giving him relative financial independence. In 1930 the couple moved to California and then to France, where, thanks to their financial independence, they were able to establish To Publishers Press with Zukofsky as editor. The short-lived publishing venture managed to publish works by William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Oppen had begun working on poems for what was to be his first book, Discrete Series, a seminal work in early objectivism. Some of these poems appeared in the February 1931 objectivist issue of Poetry and the subsequent An "Objectivist's" Anthology, published in 1932.
In 1933, the Oppens returned to New York where, together with Williams, Zukofsky and Reznikoff, they set up the Objectivist Press. The press published books by Reznikoff and Williams, as well as Oppen's Discrete Series, with a preface by Pound.
"Objectivist" poetics, self-consciously referred to in quotations by its chief instigator, Louis Zukofsky, was essentially an attempt to give imagism a formal component. According to Zukofsky, a poem could only achieve perfection by adhering to the principles of sincerity, "thinking with things as they exist" and the adequate arrangement of these "minor units of sincerity" into a poetic object.
As Oppen explained to interviewer L. S. Dembo in 1968, imagism, formulated by Pound in the 1910s, promoted an "intensity of seeing" favoring, as Pound describes it, "direct treatment of the thing" which "use[s] no word that [does not] contribute to the presentation," As Williams later wrote in his Autobiography, imagism tried to "rid the field of verbiage." Once in the hands of Amy Lowell, imagism had, according to Williams, "dribbled off into so called 'free verse' which, as we saw, was a misnomer. There is no such thing as free verse! Verse is a measure of some sort."
Oppen told Dembo that his early poetry began "...from imagism as a position of honesty. The first question at that time in poetry was simply the question of honesty, of sincerity." In Oppen's interpretation, what Zukofsky's "objectivist" poetics achieved was to add a distinctly formal element to Pound's Imagism. "People assume [objectivism] means the psychologically objective in attitude [...] It actually means the objectification of the poem, the making an object of the poem."
Objectivist poetics, according to Zukofsky, "was the attempt to construct meaning, to construct a method of thought from the Imagist technique of poetry—from the Imagist intensity of vision." He referred to this process alternately as "a test of truth" or "a test of sincerity."
Oppen's early poems were thus an attempt to create poems by strictly adhering to the principles of "objectivist" poetics as described by Zukofsky. Elsewhere Oppen describes the poems as burdened by the weight of the necessity of these restrictions. As Oppen explained, "I was attempting to construct a meaning by empirical statements, by imagist statements [. . .] I had in mind specifically the meaning to the mathematician—a series of empirically true terms." The title of the book Discrete Series itself is taken from a phrase in mathematics, referring to a mathematical series where each term is derived from the preceding term. "A discrete series," Oppen explains "is a series of terms each of which is empirically derived, each one of which is empirically true. And this is the reason for the fragmentary character of those poems." The poems in Discrete Series give the impression that they were not written so much as constructed; they are limited to no more than fifty words a page, one page a poem. This adds to the fragmentary nature of the poetry and foregrounds the white spaces or the silence that surrounds and inhabits the poems themselves, poems which are, in addition to being fragmented, weighted by frequent syntactical and logical indeterminacy and grammatical experimentalism. Oppen's early poems abandon almost entirely traditional poetic strategies, and the result is a series of works far beyond anything imagined by the original Imagists such as Pound and T. S. Eliot.
The first poem in Discrete Series borrows from a character in a novel by Henry James, who, from her privileged perspective of a wealthy house (similar to Oppen's own privileged background) surveys the streets "weather-swept/with which one shares the century." The poems then embark on crucially ambiguous descriptions of an elevator and a soda fountain, two examples of recent modern and social developments in keeping with Pound and Zukofsky's belief in a poetry that "includes history" or at least conveys the author's knowledge of his/her historical position. Other poems in the book describe such other relatively recent inventions as the automobile and the telephone.
The poems convey Oppen's inability to accurately achieve "sincerity" and evince a growing social consciousness enlivened by the very real emergency of worldwide depression. A number of critics have noted a subtle foreshadowing of Oppen's subsequent abandonment of poetry in favor of work in the Communist Party as part of his need as a poet to confront and reflect the world sincerely. This abandonment has also been interpreted as a criticism of modernist poetry which Oppen may have felt was insufficient in adequately addressing social and political issues. This ethical dimension to his poetry, informed by an early acceptance of the social responsibility of language in addition to his refusal to limit his poetry by making it a tool of political agenda, seems to have given these early poems a hesitancy and tension noticeably eased in the less restrained and less fragmentary works written following his return to poetry in 1958.
Faced with the effects of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, the Oppens were becoming increasingly involved in political action. Unable to bring himself to write verse propaganda, Oppen abandoned poetry and joined the Communist Party, serving as election campaign manager for Brooklyn in 1936 and helping organize the Utica, New York Milk Strike. He and Mary were also active for relief and Oppen was tried and acquitted on a charge of felonious assault on the police.
By 1943, Oppen was deferred from military service while working in the defense industry. Disillusioned by the Communist Party of the United States and wanting to assist in the fight against fascism, Oppen quit his job, making himself eligible for the draft. Effectively volunteering for duty, Oppen was called up in 1943 and saw active service on the Maginot Line and the Ardennes; he was seriously wounded south of the Battle of the Bulge. Shortly before the end of his tour of duty, Oppen helped liberate the concentration camp at Landsberg am Lech. He was awarded the Purple Heart, returning to New York in 1945.
After the war, Oppen worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker. Although now less politically active, the Oppens were aware that their pasts were certain to attract the attention of Joseph McCarthy's Senate committee and the couple decided to move to Mexico. During these admittedly bitter years in Mexico, George ran a small furniture-making business and was involved in an expatriate intellectual community. They were also kept under surveillance by the Mexican authorities who were provided with files by the FBI and CIA. They were able to re-enter the United States in 1958 when the United States government again allowed them to obtain passports which had been revoked since 1951.
The reason for the length of Oppen's silence is the subject of much speculation; according to his wife Mary, a "life had to be lived from which to write." Oppen was fond of quoting an observation of literary critic, Hugh Kenner, that "in short it took 25 years to write the next poem." Certainly, Oppen was unable to write propaganda and the level of his activity in the party didn't leave much time to write. However, Oppen noted that he had become "disillusioned" with the party as early as 1943.
In 1958, following a dream involving "rust in copper" and his daughter's entrance to Sarah Lawrence College, Oppen returned to writing poetry, resulting in his first poem, titled "To Date." It was quite literally an exquisitely concise summary of his and Mary's life over the intervening 24 years of silence. After a brief trip in 1958 to visit their daughter at college, the Oppens returned to New York early in 1960, while at first still returning to Mexico regularly. Back in Brooklyn, Oppen renewed old ties with Louis Zukofksy and Charles Reznikoff and also befriended many younger poets. The poems came in a flurry; within two years Oppen had assembled enough poems for a book and began publishing the poems in the journal, Poetry, where he had published his earlier works, and in his half-sister June Oppen Degnan's San Francisco Review.
The poems of Oppen's first book following his return to poetry, The Materials, were poems that, as he told his sister June, should have been written ten years earlier. The poems are an investigation of Oppen's past and his immediate present and are, in some ways, a poetic reconciliation with Oppen's previously irreconcilable political position. Now a self-described "populist," Oppen was free to write non-polemical meditations of a political nature (as in "The Crowded Countries of the Bomb"). Many of the poems are quite lyric and beautiful meditations on, as Oppen described them, "the Infantry, skilled workers, row boats, people in trailer camps, the unemployed movement in the thirties, a family, marital love, children, the old codgers of Southern California, the H-Bomb." The poems also introduce Oppen's philosophical concern, a concern that significantly deepens in later volumes. The Materials opens with a quote from Jacques Maritain, whose book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry was an influential text for Oppen during this period: "We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things."
In a letter written in 1962, just before The Materials appeared (in an edition co-published by his sister June with James Laughlin's New Directions Publishing) he wrote his sister that he wanted "a truly democratic culture. Not a polemic or moralistic culture in the arts but a culture which permits one man to speak to another honestly and modestly and in freedom and to say what he thinks and what he feels, to express his doubts and his fears, his moral as well as his immoral impulses, to say what he thinks is true and what he thinks is false, and what he likes and what he does not like. What I am against is that we should all engage in the most vigorous and most polemic lying to each other for each other's benefit."
Oppen published six books of poetry between 1962 and 1978 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Of Being Numerous. From the mid-1970s, he began to show signs of Alzheimer's disease. The disease eventually made it impossible for him to continue writing, and he died in a convalescent home in California on July 7, 1984.
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