George Oppen

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

:: Poet Home :: Poetry :: Short Stories :: Contact ::
George Oppen on board Galley Board, Long Island Sound, 1935; a picture featured on "Selected Poems" (2003)
George Oppen on board Galley Board, Long Island Sound, 1935; a picture featured on "Selected Poems" (2003)

George Oppen (April 24, 1908 - July 7, 1984) was an American poet, best known as one of the members of the Objectivist group of poets. He abandoned poetry in the 1930s for political activism, and later moved to Mexico to avoid the attentions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He returned to poetry — and to the United States — in 1958, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.


  • 1 Early life
  • 2 Early writing
  • 3 Oppen the Objectivist
  • 4 Politics and War
  • 5 Mexico
  • 6 Return to poetry
  • 7 Last years
  • 8 Posthumous publications
  • 9 Further reading
  • 10 Notes and resources
  • 11 External links

Early life

Oppen was born in New Rochelle, New York. His father, George August Oppenheimer, a successful diamond merchant, changed the family name to Oppen in 1927. Oppen's childhood was one of considerable affluence; the family was well tended to by servants and maids and Oppen enjoyed all the benefits of a wealthy upbringing: horse riding, expensive automobiles, frequent trips to Europe. Oppen's mother committed suicide when he was four and his father married Seville Shainwald, from whom Oppen was apparently abused. 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. It is speculated that during this time in his life, Oppen's early traumas with both his mother's suicide and an abusive stepmother led to fighting and drinking, so that by the time he was reaching maturity Oppen was experiencing a personal crisis. By 1925, this period of personal and psychic transition culminated in a serious car wreck in which George was driver and a young passenger is killed. Ultimately, Oppen was expelled from high school just before he graduated. After this period, he traveled to England and Scotland by himself, visiting his stepmother's relative, and attending lectures by C.A. Mace, professor in philosophy at St. Andrews.

It can be speculated that by this time Oppen reached a new level of maturity and independence so that by 1926, Oppen started attending Oregon State Agricultural College (what is now Oregon State University). Here he met Mary Colby, a fiercely independent young woman from Grants Pass, Oregon. On their first date, the couple stayed out all night with the result that she was expelled and he suspended. They left Oregon, married, and started hitch-hiking across the country working at odd jobs along the way.

Early writing

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, musician Tibor Serly, and designer Russel Wright, among others.

In 1929, George came into a small inheritance which meant that they had relative financial independence. In 1930 they moved to California and then to France, where, thanks to their financial input, they were able to establish To Publishers acting as printer/publishers 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 Objectivist history. Some of these appeared in the February 1931 Objectivist issue of Poetry and the subsequent An "Objectivist's" Anthology published in 1932.

Oppen the Objectivist

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 formal aim. According to Zukofsky, a poem could only achieve perfect rest 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.

Imagism, as formulated by Pound in the 1910s, promoted, as Oppen told interviewer L.S. Dembo in 1968, an "intensity of seeing" favoring, as Pound describes it, "direct treatment of the thing" and to "use no word that does not contribute to the presentation" or as Williams later wrote in his Autobiography, 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's early poetry began "from imagism as a position of honesty" Oppen told Dembo. "The first question at that time in poetry was simply the question of honesty, of sincerity." What Zukofsky's "Objectivist" poetics achieved, in Oppen's interpretation, was to add a distinctly formal element to Pound's Imagism. Oppen told Dembo:

People assume it means the psychologically objective in attitude [...] It actually means the objectification of the poem, the making an object of the poem.

"Objectivist" poetics:

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 therefore an attempt to create poems by strictly adhering to the principles of "Objectivist" poetics as described by Zukofsky and interpreted by Oppen. Elsewhere Oppen describes the poems as burdened by the weight of the necessity of this sincerity. As Oppen explained to Dembo:

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 itself is taken from "a phrase in mathematics," Oppen explained. "A pure mathematical series would be one in which each term is derived from the preceding term by a rule. A discrete series 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" which give the impression of not being written so much as constructed; they are limited one poem to a page, with no more than fifty words on each page. 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 syntaxual and logical indeterminancy and grammatical experimentalism. The poems abandon almost entirely metaphorical or symbolic strategies.

The first poem in the series borrows from a character in a novel by Henry James, a favored author among the modernists, 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 by extension the skyscraper) and a soda fountain (and by extension refrigerators), 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 other relatively recent inventions as the automobile and the telephone. There are a number of subtly erotic poems describing his early romance with his wife Mary. Only one poem seems to refer to the current economic emergency, though this interpretation has been contested quite persuasively by a number of Oppen's critics.

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 approaching 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.

Politics and War

Faced with the effects of the 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 CPUSA 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 and returned 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 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 in association with the FBI. 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.

Return to poetry

The reason for the length of Oppen's silence is highly speculative; 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 "disullusioned" with the party as early as 1943. In 1958, following a dream involving "rust in copper" and his daughter's beginning college at Sarah Lawrence, Oppen returned to writing poetry, resulting in his first poem, titled "To Date" (later retitled "Blood From the Stone"), 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 university, the Oppens returned to New York early 1960, at first 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 Poetry where he had first published and in his half-sister June Oppen Degnan's San Francisco Review.

But what kind of poetry do you understand with one reading that you go on using and remembering all your life? I mean the poetry that's most important to me is poetry that's been important to me for most of my life. I want to go back to it, and I find new things in it.
Mary Oppen

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. Eliot Weinberger has stated that the poems of this volume were written "for the anthologies" (though as poet John Taggart has argued, Oppen's poetry by its nature is in opposition to the self-contained "finished" verse to be found in the "typical" anthology as the poems "radiate process, often in a jagged hesitating manner").

The poems are an investigation of Oppen's past and his immediate present and are, in some ways, a poetic reconciliation of Oppen's previously irreconciable political position. Now a self-described "populist," Oppen is free to write non-polemical meditations of a political nature (as in "The Crowded Countries of the Bomb") a thinking through and with the poem. 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." As Michael Heller, a keen critic of Oppen's work, observes: "Oppen's 'subject' is these awakenings, awakenings which are capable of transcending the usual notions of self and of society."

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 wants:

"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 immoral as well as his moral 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."

And so it is that the final poem in The Materials, "Leviathan", ends with (as Michael Heller observes) "truth also is the pursuit of it," and that "we must talk now. Fear / is fear. But we abandon one another." The subsequent volumes Oppen published during the 1960s, This In Which (1964) and Of Being Numerous (1968) are, in Heller's estimation, "an exploration of the nature of such talk." In fact, this mode of address would find "scope, mere size" or be further refined and delineated in the course of six books of poetry Oppen published between 1962 and 1978. Most prominently, and in Oppen's view this would merely be for the sake of "reportage", he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for Of Being Numerous.

Last years

In 1975, Oppen was able to complete and see into publication his Collected Poems. In September of that same year, the Oppens traveled to Israel at the behest of the Mayor of Jerusalem. They were to be his guests at the Mishkenot Sha'ananim, a residence facing the walls of the Old City and a "retreat" of sorts for distinguished artists, writers and musicians from abroad.[1] The trip was cut short for reasons that neither George and Mary were willing to discuss publicly. It can only be speculated what series of events prompted their hasty return to the United States, but George was showing signs of declining health. The arduous task of documenting a life's work (represented by the recent publication of his Collected Poems), along with an attempt to renew his "severed" ties to a Jewish ancestry (with the trip to Israel) seems to have been traumatic for him.

To be read posthumously It will as a matter of fact happen And it is a big fact It is a big fact which will happen for very small reasons.
George Oppen

It has been theorized[2] that the Oppens found themselves in a city, Jerusalem, witness to that all-consuming firestorm of contradictory forces which is Faith: both conflict and resolution, psychic unrest and liberation, hope and despair. For the Oppens this experience, in the city and in a site where (for millions of people) at any moment the sacred could be made manifest and upon which converge three major western monotheistic religions, must have exacerbated some private trauma George and Mary shared. Ultimately, and against any speculation itself, what must remain is their own testimonial of this private and harrowing trip manifested in the last poems George assembled for a book (with significant help from Mary) and saw into publication: Primitive (Black Sparrow Press, 1978). Indeed, it's after their return from this trip, Mary reports to friends and family, that she now could not ignore the decline of her husband in his health and a waning in his artistic authority.

In 1977, Mary provided the secretarial help George needed to complete his final volume of poetry Primitive. According to Rachel Blau DuPlessis[3], this "help" was atypical of their practice and was related to George's decline. During this time, George's final illness, Alzheimer's disease, began to manifest itself with confusion, failing memory, and other losses. Subsequent to and aside from some fragments and abandoned poems on scraps of paper during the late 1970's and early 1980's, the disease was eventually to make it impossible for him to continue writing. George Oppen, age 76, died of pneumonia with complications from Alzheimer's disease in a convalescent home in California on July 7th, 1984.

Posthumous publications

The Selected Letters of George Oppen appeared in 1990
The Selected Letters of George Oppen appeared in 1990
New Collected Poems appeared in 2002 with a jacket painting by Mary Oppen
New Collected Poems appeared in 2002 with a jacket painting by Mary Oppen
For more information on Oppen's posthumous publications, such as his Selected Letters and New Collected Poems, see Wikipedia articles on Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Michael Davidson.

Further reading

  • DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, editor. The Selected Letters of George Oppen, Duke University Press, 1990.
  • Cope, Stephen. "Daybook One," "Daybook Two," and "Daybook Three," from George Oppen's Working Papers," edited with an Introduction by Stephen Cope. The Germ, 4, Santa Cruz: The Poetic Research Bloc (May 1999).
  • Oppen, George. "The Philosophy of the Astonished (Selections from Working Papers)." Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Sulfur 27 (Fall 1990): 212.
  • Oppen, George. Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, Edited and with an Introduction by Stephen Cope. University of California Press, 2007. ( Not yet published, forthcoming December 2007; hardcover: ISBN 978-0-520-23579-3, paperback: ISBN 978-0-520-25232-5)

Notes and resources

  1. ^ THE OBVIOUS AND THE HIDDEN: Some Thoughts About "Disasters" link here for this piece by Shirley Kaufman, republication on-line of an essay which first appeared in Ironwood 26 (1985), the issue devoted to George Oppen.
  2. ^ This theory of trauma and disturbed psychic witness has been put forth most prominently, and perhaps for some most notoriously, by John Taggart in a controversial essay "Walk-out: rereading George Oppen" . which appeared in the Chicago Review, March, 1998
  3. ^ see DuPlessis: "Chronology" in Oppen's "Selected Poems" and her "Introduction" to Oppen's Selected Letters
  • Oppen at Modern American Poetry
  • the George Oppen Papers
  • George Oppen Homepage at Electronic Poetry Center
  • Factbites website on Oppen 'dozens of essential quotes featuring direct source & links'
  • Seeing the World: The Poetry of George Oppen essay by Jeremy Hooker, first published in Not comfort/But Vision: Essays on the Poetry of George Oppen(Interim Press, 1987)
  • George Oppen in Exile: Mexico and Maritain (For Linda Oppen) essay by Peter Nicholls
  • Finding the Phenomenal Oppen on-line reprint of an essay by Forrest Gander which first appeared in No: a journal of the arts
  • OPPEN TALK by Kevin Killian transcription of The Tenth Annual George Oppen Memorial Lecture on Twentieth Century Poetics (1995) presented by the Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives of San Francisco State University
  • The Romantic Poetics of George Oppen thesis on Of Being Numerous
  • This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from a Wikipedia article. To access the original click here.
    Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document
    under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
    or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation;
    with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.
    A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU
    Free Documentation License".