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On "Exodus"


Paul Lake

Now let us see what significance Oppen chooses to emphasize in his treatment of that unique moment in history when Moses led the tribes of Hebrews out of pharaonic Egypt into the "one-way time" of recorded history:

Were the adults        We dreamed to each other
Miracle of the children
The brilliant children         Miracle

Of their brilliance         Miracle
of

In a real sense, this poem emphasizes a pre-Mosaic, more ancient aspect of the historical event; it is the "miracle of," the "brilliance" of, and the childish innocence surrounding the event to which Oppen directs our attention in the poem, and this accords with what Eliade describes as the "archaic" mythical conception of time held by the Semitic tribes of the ancient Near East. As Eliade says of this more primitive conception of events which stresses the miraculous rather than the historically accurate,

It matters little if the formulas and images through which the primitive expresses "reality" seem childish and even absurd to us. It is the profound meaning of primitive behavior that is revelatory: this behavior is governed by belief in an absolute reality opposed to the profane world of "unrealities. . . ."

For Oppen, the world of events, of historical time, is the "profane world" of unrealities; time and again he opposes the "miracle" of childish innocence to, this profane world of artifacts and empire.

From "The Archetypal Gesture." In George Oppen: Man and Poet. Ed. Burton Hatlen. Copyright 1981 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.


Donald Davie

Granted that Oppen does not discard rhetoric for non-rhetoric (which last is an impossibility), but rejects an old rhetoric for a newer one, we have to admire what the new rhetoric permits him to do. In the first place it opens up for him, as it sometimes did for Williams, an extraordinary directness and gentleness in intimacy. . . .

Indeed, in the world that Oppen charts about him as he thinks of approaching his end, so hedged about as it is with apprehension and misgivings, this particular tone embodies so much of what he can still feel grateful for and sanguine about, that the newer rhetoric justifies itself on this count alone. And it is quite true that the older rhetoric cannot compass this tone of voice. It speaks again on the last page of this slim but substantial collection, in a poem called "Exodus":

[Davie quotes the poem]

I would call that (though the word may give offence) elegant as well as touching. And I would say indeed that the elegance and the touchingness depend upon each other.

From "Notes on George Oppen’s Seascape. In George Oppen: Man and Poet. Ed. Burton Hatlen. Copyright 1981 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.


Eric Mottram

The wary spacing, the run-on and hesitant pacing of syntax, and the sense of arguing positions, with himself as much as others, in Oppen's poetic forms is an explorer's poetics, remote from the cheapening fixed metrics of dogma so familiar during the past four decades. Systematic order forced him into exile, and the poets he admired (Reznikoff, Rakosi, Zukofsky, Bunting) by and large could not speak to the people. "Gift: the Gifted" ends with a possible miracle of change in the "myopic" horizons of the popular:

among the people
they have never spoken to therefore run away

into everything the gift

the treasure is

flight my
heritage

"Miracle" in this poem and in "Exodus" (Seascape: Needle's Eye) implies a future in which our children have learned the democratic potentialities. Children are the constant gift to the world, a possible hope; and behind them, the constancy of love, whose example throughout the poems, is--if one may say it so bluntly, but without the least sentimentality--George and Mary Oppen, a ground base to all the inventions.

From "The Political Responsibilities of the Poet." In George Oppen: Man and Poet. Ed. Burton Hatlen. Copyright 1981 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.


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