George Oppen

1908–1984
George Oppen

"George Oppen," wrote Michael Adams in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, "had one of the most unusual careers of any American poet." Oppen was one of the chief exponents of Objectivism, a school of poetry that emphasized simplicity and clarity over formal structure and rhyme. He established the movement with William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukosfky, and other poets in the early 1930s. In 1932 Oppen helped found the Objectivist Press, which published his first collection of poems, Discrete Series, in 1934. After the press ceased operating in 1936, Oppen abandoned poetry for politics, and didn't publish his second book until some twenty-eight years later. In the intervening years, Oppen and his wife joined the Communist Party in 1935 and worked as organizers for the party for a number of years. He supported himself in New York City by working as a tool-and-die maker and mechanic, and continued his political activities after fighting in World War II. Oppen wrote no poetry while politically active. He "never believed," L. S. Dembo of the Nation wrote, "that politics could be made into poetry or, conversely, that poetry could have any effect on social conditions."

In 1950 Oppen came under investigation by the Un-American Activities Committee for his communist beliefs. Rather than betray friends or serve a prison term, Oppen moved to Mexico City. For the next eight years he worked in Mexico as a furniture maker. Only in 1958 did Oppen return to America, after the death of Senator Joe McCarthy, head of the Un-American Activities Committee. Shortly after returning to the United States, Oppen began to write poetry again and continued to write and publish thereafter.

A member of the Objectivist school, Oppen concerned himself with the question, as Dick Allen of Antioch Review stated, "How can the poet communicate a realization of the concrete object as object without drawing the reader's attention to the way in which he communicates?" Dembo believed that the "aesthetic qualities of objects or events—apprehended not in terms of their associations or conventional meaning but in terms of their form or motion—[were] considered by Oppen to be 'empirical."' Oppen's writing career, Jonathan Galassi of Poetry believed, was "a life-long confrontation between an unimpeachably free spirit's sense of order and 'a world of things."' Irwin Ehrenpreis of the New York Review of Books saw this confrontation as "the effort of the mind to reach clarity of vision by turning always upon itself, travelling back and forth between things and words, reconsidering and correcting earlier impressions or ponderings." "Oppen," wrote Michael Heller in American Poetry Review, "[stood] alone in this regard: that his poetry is not composed of the effects of modern life upon the self, but is rather our most profound investigation of it." Oppen once commented that he was "really concerned with the substantive, with the subject of the sentence, with what we are talking about, and not rushing over the subject matter in order to make a comment about it."

Because of this concern for clarity, Oppen's poetry is lean and precise. He had, according to several observers, a "distrust of language" that lead him to use words sparingly. "Nothing," wrote Hugh Kenner in the New York Times Book Review, "better characterize[d] Oppen than his wariness about the language itself, this distrust of inherent fluency. In a review of Seascape: Needle's Eye for Poetry, Mark Perlberg commented: "Oppen seems here to distrust most of the processes of language. Perhaps in an attempt to achieve the purest kind of statement, perfect in its honesty, he seems wary of rhythm, of patterns of rhythm, of connections, [and] of the music a poem can make." Oppen's spare poems "are tightly wrought meditations," according to Paul Zweig of Partisan Review, "which do not so much define as surround their subject with tentative thrusts of meaning. Abstractions and carefully observed details mingle to produce a line that is almost sculptural in its precision."

Oppen's style works most successfully in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Of Being Numerous, an examination of the city as man's highest expression of himself. The title poem consists of forty separate sections, "each virtually a poem in itself," David Ignatow commented in New Leader, "but related through subject and, primarily, by a transitional mode of writing. The poet progresses from self-doubt and self-searching through the artifacts of the city, to a moment in which his mind is revealed to itself as its own strength." Of Being Numerous, Zweig maintained, "contains some of the finest poetry Oppen has written, and presents a difficult challenge to the reader, for the poem proceeds by side leaps and deft associations. Single words are caught up from a preceding stanza, and expanded into a constellation of images. Sharply evoked cityscapes issue into elusive statements of feeling or philosophy." Galassi described the book as "a serial meditation on man's situation as a social animal, as the member of a tribe. Characteristically, it is highly dense, allusive, [and] laden with historical references." Zweig concluded that the collection's title poem was "Oppen's major achievement to date, and one of the most important single poems to be written in recent years."

Career

Poet. Founder and publisher, with wife, Mary Oppen, of To Publishers, Paris, France, 1930-33; Objectivist Press Co-Op, New York, NY, member, 1934-36; Workers Alliance, Brooklyn, NY, and Utica, NY, organizer, beginning 1935; worked in factory in Detroit, MI; cabinet maker and building contractor in Los Angeles, CA, late 1940s; moved to Mexico, 1950; operated furniture factory in Mexico City, Mexico, during the 1950s; returned to the United States, 1958.

Bibliography

POETRY, EXCEPT AS INDICATED

  • Discrete Series, Objectivist Press, 1934, reprinted, Asphodel Book Shop, 1966.
  • The Materials, New Directions, 1962.
  • This in Which, New Directions, 1965.
  • Of Being Numerous, New Directions, 1968.
  • Alpine: Poems, Perishable Press, 1969.
  • (Author of foreword) Paul Vangelisti, Communion, Red Hill, 1970.
  • Collected Poems, Fulcrum Press, 1972.
  • Seascape: Needle's Eye, Sumac Press (Fremont, MI), 1973.
  • The Collected Poems of George Oppen, 1929-1975, New Directions, 1975.
  • Primitive, Black Sparrow Press, 1978.
  • The Selected Letters of George Oppen, edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1990.
  • New Collected Poems, New Directions (New York, NY), 2002.

OTHER

  • Works appeared in anthologies, including An "Objectivists" Anthology, edited by Louis Zukofsky, To Publishers, 1932; Active Anthology, edited by Ezra Pound, Faber, 1933; and Mark in Time: Portraits and Poetry/San Francisco, edited by Robert E. Johnson and Nick Harvey, Glide, 1971.
  • Contributor to Poetry, Hound and Horn, San Francisco Review, Massachusetts Review, New Yorker, Nation, and other periodicals.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, Duke University Press, 1990.
  • Griffin, Jonathan, and others, Not Comfort but Vision: Essays on the Poems of George Oppen, Interim Press (Budleigh Salterton, Devon), 1985.
  • Hamburger, Michael, Art as Second Nature: Occasional Pieces, 1950-74, Carcanet Press, 1975.
  • Hatlen, Burton, editor and author of introduction, George Oppen, Man and Poet, National Poetry Foundation (Orono, ME), 1981.
  • Kenner, Hugh, The Pound Era, University of California Press, 1971.
  • Kenner, H., A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers, Knopf, 1975.
  • Oppen, Mary, Meaning a Life: An Autobiography, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1978.

PERIODICALS

  • American Poetry Review, March/April, 1975.
  • Antioch Review, vol. 26, no. 2, 1966.
  • Contemporary Literature, spring, 1969; spring, 1970.
  • Encounter, August, 1973.
  • Hudson Review, vol. 19, no. 1, 1966; summer, 1976.
  • Iowa Review, winter, 1972.
  • Ironwood, no. 5, 1975.
  • Nation, November 24, 1969.
  • New Leader, July 8, 1968.
  • New York Review of Books, January 22, 1976.
  • New York Times Book Review, December 28, 1969; October 19, 1975; December 31, 1978.
  • Paideuma, winter, 1978.
  • Parnassus, spring-summer, 1976.
  • Partisan Review, vol. 15, no. 2, 1973.
  • Poetry, July, 1934; August, 1966; August, 1969; January, 1975; June, 1975; October, 1976; December, 1976.
  • Stony Brook, fall, 1969.
  • Texas Quarterly, spring, 1978.
  • Times Literary Supplement, June 13, 1980.

OBITUARIES:

  • Chicago Tribune, July 10, 1984.
  • Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1984.
  • New York Times, July 9, 1984.
  • Time, July 23, 1984.
  • Times (London), July 11, 1984.
  • Washington Post, July 9, 1984.

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SCHOOL / PERIOD Objectivist

LIFE SPAN 1908–1984

George Oppen

Biography

"George Oppen," wrote Michael Adams in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, "had one of the most unusual careers of any American poet." Oppen was one of the chief exponents of Objectivism, a school of poetry that emphasized simplicity and clarity over formal structure and rhyme. He established the movement with William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukosfky, and other poets in the early 1930s. In 1932 Oppen helped found the . . .

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