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"THE BUS TRIP" JOEL OPPENHEIMER
(1960) Unlike the occasionally baroque lines of Charles olson, Joel oppenheimer's teacher at black mountain College, or, say, the instant intimacy of many new YORK school poets, Oppenheimer's poems often read with a kind of rhetorical flatness, atypical for his generation. "The Bus Trip," for example, leaves out the first-person singular and other accoutrements of personality, such as cheerful exclamation marks, an extro verted tone, and any details to contextualize place or time.
While many contemporaneous poets who were thought to be of similar sensibility—such as Paul blackburn and members of the objectivist school— eschewed symbolism, Oppenheimer starts his poem by comparing the Moon to a lit clock, but a time piece that does not mean anything to the poem's speaker, who seems to be looking at it from a bus window. The Moon is an icon of the romantic poets, and here Oppenheimer devalues it as something irrelevant to a 20th-century bus rider. "The Bus Trip," then, is not just a mundane perceptual account, the urban anecdote typical of postwar poetry; it is an ideological critique of the received English poetic tradition.
Yet the symbol of the Moon does not quite make sense. The Moon may look like a lit clock, but it is unclear why that clock would not remind or instruct the poem's speaker. Also enigmatic is "J—," an unseen character whose images assail the speaker. By substituting dashes for J—'s full name, Oppenheimer uses a literary convention dating back to Richardson's Pamela and its antagonist, Mr. B—. Pamela, the first English novel, used this convention to hide the real name of its villain, but in "The Bus Trip," it is unclear if J — is even a person. Foreshadowing the postmodern poetics yet to come, here, a "poetic" symbol like the Moon means nothing to the speaker. He is instead terrified by J —, a signifier that leads to nothing, a mere letter.
The idea of a man being terrified by an initial makes "The Bus Trip" read almost like a precursor to poetry of the LANGUAGE SCHOOL. The poem plays with grammar, but Oppenheimer succeeds at making sense because he always grounds his experiments in a romantic tenderness. When the speaker wonders what would happen if his wife "were not beautiful," Oppenheimer writes, "what could he do and live."
While the poem shifts in syntax, it also shifts in plot. The poem starts with a description of the Moon as useless. The reader then learns that this is only the observation of a man on the bus, who spends the rest of the poem meditating on beauty, his wife and child, and death. And, most mysteriously, the poem begins and ends with the same inexplicable line: "images of J— assail him."
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