We now continue our Uncollected series, where contemporary poets write about their favourite writers which they think need more recognition. This month Caroline Crew, editor of poetry site ILK Journal, writes about one of her favourite American poets George Oppen (who is a recent favourite of mine, from reading an essay on him in Poetry Magazine).
It is strange to discover a poet who shares your obsessions.
With Oppen it seemed almost simple: a poet whose repeated fascination with light taps in to something that crops up in my own work. A similar fondness for the luminous image. Only, as any reader of Oppen will discover, this is a poet for whom no connection is simple.
This obsession with light is both image and concept. The recurrent image of the window becomes an epistemological mediation: to look out of the window, to look into the light is a way to know. More than this though, the light that pervades Oppen’s poetry works as an extended metaphor for the human condition. Or more specifically, the singular human’s condition within the larger context of humanity.
What began as the discovery of a sadly neglected later Modernist poet, ended in having nightmares that I must have been sleep-reading Oppen previously, and, later, a widened understanding of the paradoxes of writing a life.
I know that art should come before the artist, but Oppen’s incredible life seems ripe for the kind of movie treatment Ginsberg is currently receiving. The bare bones of it go like this: quit college to run away with his sweetheart, and later wife, Mary; join the Communist Party, fight on the front line of World War II, go into exile in Mexico, move back to the States and win a Pulitzer.
Incredible poetry, and incredible man. So why does Oppen fall into the underrated category? It’s too easy to blame the Atlantic divide: especially as it was a centenary conference in Edinburgh that put his work back into scholarly focus. More likely the under-appreciation of his work is Oppen’s own doing. The man maintained an almost thirty year silence—between his first collection Discrete Series in 1934 and The Materials in 1962. This silence was not only a withdrawal from literary life but a complete refusal to write. A refusal to involve art in politics, and perhaps more significantly, a lack of voice to navigate the crisis in humanity seen throughout World War II and the Viet Nam War.
It is strange to discover a poet who shares your obsessions. Not just light, but the fondness for sparse shattered lines and found texts. A philosophical bent that is emerges from a genuine desire for understanding, not just to sound smart (cough cough, Ezra Pound).
Stranger still that this poet has quietly passed into the ranks of the past.
In the midst of a year when all I seem to do academically is write on dead white guys, Oppen has been a beacon. His illumination is one I beg you to embark upon.
Below are two examples of Oppen’s writing, both chosen by Selected Poems, as an example of his work which particularly struck me as something important when reading them for the first time.
The first, The Building of the Skyscraper, is wonderfully dissected in an essay by Tony Hoagland on the Poetry Foundation’s website. The second, Five Poems about Poetry, gives an insight in to Oppen’s thoughts about the craft of his own verse and the wider writing of poetry.
You can read much more of his work by following this link on the Poetry Foundation, which also has essays by and about Oppen.
The Building of the Skyscraper
The steel worker on the girder
Learned not to look down, and does his work
And there are words we have learned
Not to look at,
Not to look for substance
Below them. But we are on the verge
There are words that mean nothing
But there is something to mean.
Not a declaration which is truth
But a thing
Which is. It is the business of the poet
“To suffer the things of the world
And to speak them and himself out.”
O, the tree, growing from the sidewalk—
It has a little life, sprouting
Little green buds
Into the culture of the streets.
We look back
Three hundred years and see bare land.
And suffer vertigo.
Five Poems about Poetry