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George Oppen's Life and Career


Joseph G. Kronick

Oppen was born in New Rochelle, New York, the son of George August Oppenheimer, a diamond merchant, and Elsie Rothfeld. The Oppenheimers were wealthy, assimilated Jews who in 1927 shortened the family name to Oppen. When Oppen was four, his mother committed suicide. His father remarried in 1917, and the family moved to San Francisco the following year.

After a car accident in which one of his passengers was killed, Oppen was expelled from military academy for drinking in 1925. The next year he entered Oregon State University at Corvallis, where he met Mary Colby. Following his suspension and Colby's expulsion from school for violating the curfew, they hitchhiked to New York, marrying in Dallas, in 1927. The couple rejected the comfortable world of Oppen's parents and chose a life of independence.

In 1928 he met Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff. Zukofsky's "Objectivist" issue of Poetry (Feb. 1931) established the three of them along with William Carlos Williams and Carl Rakosi as Objectivists, but like Zukofsky, Oppen denied they formed a movement, insisting that objectivism referred to the necessity of form in a poem. However, all of them shared the conviction that the poet must be faithful to the world of facts.

With the small income he received on turning twenty-one, the Oppens went to France (1929) and established To Publishers (1931), which issued Zukofsky's An ‘Objectivists’ Anthology, Williams's A Novelette and Other Prose, and, in one volume, Ezra Pound's How to Read and The Spirit of Romance (1932). Financial difficulties led to the press's collapse before it could fulfill one of its primary goals, the publication of Pound's collected prose.

Before returning to the United States in 1932, Oppen went to Rapallo where he met Pound, who included Oppen in his Active Anthology (1933). Back in Brooklyn, Oppen joined Zukofsky, Reznikoff, and Williams in setting up the Objectivist Press, which published Williams's Collected Poems 1921-31 (preface by Wallace Stevens, 1934), three books by Reznikoff, and Oppen's Discrete Series (preface by Pound, 1934). According to Oppen, the title of his volume refers to a mathematical series of terms, "each of which is empirically derived, each one of which is empirically true." Each poem gives a separate image from the perspective of the poet. This adherence to the concrete world was, for Oppen, a measure of sincerity and a consistent feature of his poetry. The book received few reviews, but Pound praised him as "a serious craftsman," and in a 1934 review for Poetry, Williams wrote, "by a sharp restriction to essentials, the seriousness of a new order is brought to realization."

The Objectivist Press issued its last book in 1936, but in response to the rise of fascism and the depression, Oppen had given up poetry and joined the Communist party a year earlier. He and his wife worked with the unemployed in New York City, agitating for basic social services, and Oppen helped organize industrial workers and direct-action strikes in Utica, New York. Although he adhered to Marxist historical materialism, Oppen later characterized his politics in the 1930s as liberal and antifascist.

With the end of the depression, he became less involved with politics. In 1940 the Oppens had a daughter, and two years later he was inducted into the army after deliberately forfeiting his work exemption as a machinist. He saw action in Europe from October 1944 to 22 April 1945, when artillery hit his foxhole, seriously wounding him and killing two others. He refers to this event in the third of "Some San Francisco Poems," "Of Hours," "The Myth of the Blaze," and "Semite." He was awarded the Purple Heart.

After the war, he moved to Redondo Beach, California, where he worked as a contractor and a custom carpenter. Although the Oppens were no longer politically active, they remained party members, and the FBI interviewed them in May and June 1949. Fearing possible imprisonment, the Oppens a year later moved to Mexico City, where they remained until 1958, making a few short visits to the United States before returning permanently in 1960.

During his years of political activity and exile, Oppen wrote no poetry. He said he "didn't believe in political poetry or poetry as being politically efficacious." In May 1958 he wrote his first new poem since 1934, "Blood from a Stone." His second book, The Materials, appeared in 1962 to largely excellent reviews and was followed by the equally successful This in Which (1965). These works express his belief that "true seeing is an act of love." His reemergence made him an important link for younger poets to the tradition of Pound and Williams. Oppen entered literary life by giving frequent public readings and enjoying a wide circle of literary friends.

On 31 May 1966 the FBI did its final report on the Oppens, which concerned their travel plans; the couple went to France and Belgium that summer, and in 1967 they moved to San Francisco. Public recognition came with the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Of Being Numerous (1968). The title poem, a sequence of forty sections, explores the idea of humanity in a world of multiplicity. The poems express Oppen's belief in the absolutely singular.

More honors followed, including a symposium on the Objectivists at the University of Wisconsin in 1968. Oppen was named one of "Four Major American Poets" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1973 and was poet in residence at Mishkenot Sh'ananim, Jerusalem, in 1975. On his return from Israel, Oppen's health began to decline. His The Collected Poems of George Oppen (1975) was nominated for the 1976 National Book Award, and in 1977 he completed his last collection, Primitive (1978). Later honors included lifetime recognition awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and from the National Endowment for the Arts. In December 1982 he received the PEN/West Rediscovery Award. That same year he was diagnosed as having Alzheimer's disease. He died two years later in Sunnyvale, California. His work remains highly regarded for its clarity, craftsmanship, and philosophical respect for the singularity of things in a world of multiplicity. Many younger poets committed to the modernist tradition acknowledge his influence.

Oppen's papers are located at the Archive for New Poetry, University of California, San Diego. Books not mentioned above include Alpine: Poems (1969) and Seascape: Needle's Eye (1972). An indispensable document for the history of the Objectivists and Oppen's poetic theory is The Selected Letters of George Oppen (1990), which contains a valuable introduction and chronology by its editor, Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Oppen wrote only one essay, "The Mind's Own Place," Kulchur 3 (1963). Selections from his notebooks have appeared in Ironwood 26 (1985): 5-31; Conjunctions 10 (1987): 186-208; Iowa Review 18, no. 3 (1988): 1-17; and in three issues of Sulfur--25 (1989): 10-43; 26 (1990): 135-64; and 27 (1990): 202-20.

No biography has been written, but Mary Oppen's Meaning a Life: An Autobiography (1978) is important for understanding their relationship and their political activities. An account of To Publishers and the Objectivist Press can be found in Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky, ed. Barry Ahearn (1987). Charles Tomlinson, in Some Americans: A Personal Record (1981), offers a view of the enmities that developed between Oppen and Zukofsky. An invaluable interview conducted by L. S. Dembo first appeared in Contemporary Literature 10 (1969) and is reprinted in The Contemporary Writer (1972).

Bibliographies of secondary criticism can be found in a special issue of Paideuma 10, no. 1 (1981) devoted entirely to Oppen and in George Oppen: Man and Poet (1981), which contains interviews with the Oppens as well as essays and memoirs. Oppen is featured in Ironwood 5 (1975) and 26 (1985). Critical discussions of his work are available in Hugh Kenner, A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975); Michael Heller, Conviction’s Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (1985); John Freeman, ed., Not Comforts/But Visions: Essays on the Poetry of George Oppen (1985); L. S. Dembo, The Monological Jew: A Literary Study (1988); and Joseph M. Conte, Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry (1991). An obituary is in the New York Times, 9 July 1984.

From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.


Norman M. Finkelstein

As an heir of modernist poetics, George Oppen, like all poetic inheritors, appears simultaneously as disciple and iconoclast. For Oppen, Pound is a fairly remote mentor and Williams is an older pioneer. The ground they broke becomes the foundation of a literary venture that both reinterprets and challenges modernist poetics on formal and ideological grounds. Oppen and his fellow objectivists may be seen as the followers or a well-established modernist tradition, a view best expressed by Hugh Kenner: "They are the best testimony to the strength of that tradition: to the fact that it had substance separable from the revolutionary high spirits or its launching. None of them makes as if to ignite bourgeois trousers. All that was history .They simply got on with their work."

But while Oppen did "get on with his work," we must also consider what he brought to it: a profound knowledge of left-wing politics heightened by years of activism. When we consider his own remarks, we find that, grounded in the tradition as they may be, they also denote a position of ethical concern that is usually foreign to earlier modernist utterance: "I'm trying to describe how the test of images can be a test of whether one's thought is valid, whether one can establish in a series of images, of experiences . . . whether or not one will consider the concept of humanity to be valid, something that is, or else have to regard it as being simply a word." In such statements as this, and in the whole of Oppen's poetic opus, the direct confrontation with exterior reality crucial to Pound's version of imagism and Williams' version of objectivism undergoes subjectification in explicitly moral terms. This is not to say that Pound and Williams are not concerned with the moral impetus behind the development of exteriorizing poetics. But for Oppen, refining imagist techniques and developing an objectivist poetic begins with what he calls "a part of the function of poetry to serve as a test of truth."

This at first seems an odd stance for a modernist heir to assume, and indeed, the ideological quandary it presents to Oppen at the outset of his career compels a drastic solution. For the subjectivity of Oppen's concern with truth, or at least personal sincerity—"a moment, an actual time, when you believe something to be true, and you construct a meaning from these moments of conviction "—goes hand in hand with extreme forms of nominalism and empiricism that demand concrete evidence for abstract assertions, especially in the field of the poem. This attitude is at its height in the early poems, when Oppen's empiricism places reality in the poem as a "discrete series," fragmented and unrelated to itself except through the poet's consciousness. As L. S. Dembo points out, "While the poet aimed to be empirical, the best he could be in actuality was true to his own perceptions—not necessarily true to the thing as it was but true to it as encountered." This is the paradox of objectivism, a dialectical impasse in which the goal of objectivity directs the poet back on himself and his faith in his own perceptions. Williams discovered this when he sought an objective poetry that could deal with complex political issues, and Pound certainly discovered it when he departed from imagism into an increasingly more confused quest for historical truth.

But for Oppen, the young rebel determined to break with his bourgeois background, the harsh political realities of the thirties make the question of objectivity a moot point: the poet's immediate perceptions were of "fifteen million families that were faced with the threat of immediate starvation." Previously, Oppen and his wife Mary had studied Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, and, on their visit to Pound in Rapallo, were chagrined by their mentor's support of Fascism and economic naivete. Despite their youthful involvement with the arts, the next step in their careers was becoming clear. As Mary writes in her autobiography, "An appeal was made to intellectuals by the seventh World Congress of the Communist Parties in 1935 to join in a united front to defeat fascism and war. We responded to that call, and in the winter of 1935 we decided to work with the Communist Party, not as artist or writer because we did not find honesty or sincerity in the so-called arts of the left. . . . We said to each other, 'Let's work with the unemployed and leave our other interest in the arts for a later time."'

The Oppens' decision to abandon what was essentially a Bohemian existence and instead attempt to organize the unemployed as members of the Communist Party indicates one direction that the poetic consciousness may take when confronted with the ethical imperative of social action as a response to the immediate conditions of reality. There comes a point when poetry is no longer serviceable; it becomes a luxury, and therefore antithetical to its origins in the poet's thought and emotions: "There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art." Oppen knows that ultimately, man formulates his political vision through an artistic response. As he says, "the definition of the good life is necessarily an aesthetic definition." This "definition" is implicit throughout the poetry as a rigorously controlled but still vital Utopian impulse, quietly visionary despite the poet's professed distrust of such "subjective" matter. But in the midst of actual political struggle, the aesthetic decision upon which the creation of art is contingent must be set aside. When the circumstances change, and the poet returns to his calling, the reverse becomes true: he must "declare his political non-availability," an attitude that certainly dates back to Sidney's assertion that "the poet, he nothing affirms."

This split in Oppen's poetic identity is the legacy of the socialist realist aesthetic that dominated the artistic policy of the Communist Party when Oppen was politically active. Obviously, the young objectivist could have no truck with such an aesthetic: "The situation of the Old Left was the theory of Socialist Realism, etc. It seemed pointless to argue. We stayed carefully away from people who wrote for the New Masses." This explains Oppen's thirty year silence, extending from his initial political involvement, through his military service in World War II, and into his self-imposed exile in Mexico during the McCarthy years.

The long silence that Oppen felt it necessary to impose upon himself can be explained in aesthetic, that is, poetic terms, as well as in the sociological terms that Oppen himself offers. Indeed, such an explanation is a necessary adjunct to what has been summarized above. Oppen argues that a desire for political efficacy must be satisfied by political action rather than being channeled into an artistic response. Yet Oppen's poetry, in that the impetus behind it is the same impetus that caused him to give up poetry, is thoroughly political, and grapples with some of the most basic and significant ethical issues that have informed political action in our time. How does the individual, locked within his own consciousness, reconcile himself to the contradictions of contemporary society's "numerosity"? Is such a loss of subjectivity possible, of even desirable? Oppen struggles to find the ethical answers to these questions in the face of overwhelming skepticism, a skepticism justified by his immediate perceptions of the society in which he lives. For Oppen, as for Williams, the poem is a field of action, and if the action with which Oppen is concerned is political in nature, then politics perforce enters the poem. Along the same lines, Oppen condemns any notion of "the poet-not-of-this-world" and declines exhorting the poet to face reality only with great reluctance. Clearly, it is in the poems, so intimately bonded to Oppen's social experience, that a resolution is sought to the dialectical tensions of skepticism and commitment the poet has confronted all his life. The totality of the poems within the life is Oppen's test of truth.

from "Political Commitment and Poetic Subjectification: George Oppen's Test of Truth."


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