George Oppen's is one of the more remarkable stories of twentieth-century American poetry. After an early career in which he was associated as publisher and poet with a movement that won the support of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams among others, he wrote no further poetry for 24 years, working as a political activist. Then in 1969 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, his Collected Poems was later nominated for the National Book Award, and he received lifetime recognition awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and from the National Endowment for the Arts. By the end of the century a number of contemporary poets were acknowledging his influence on their work.
Oppen was born in New Rochelle, New York, but grew up in San Francisco, where his father became a successful businessman. In 1926 he enrolled at what is now Oregon State University, at Corvallis, and met his future wife Mary Colby. The two left the university shortly afterwards, following his suspension and Mary's expulsion for violating the girl's dormitory curfew.
Married in Dallas, Texas, in 1927, they moved to New York and became associated with the objectivist poets, a group which included Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi. Although only very loosely a "movement," the poets agreed on emphasizing the materiality of the poem, economy, and the close connections of the properties of language to what it describes. Many critics have noted the relationship of objectivist ideas to the intensity of vision advocated by the earlier imagists. Oppen was included in the February 1931 issue of Poetry edited by Zukofsky, in which Zukofsky laid out some of the central tenets of objectivism as he saw them.
In 1929 the Oppens moved to France, where they set up TO Publishers in Toulon, and where the publications of the press included Williams's A Novelette and Other Prose, Pound's How to Read, and An "Objectivists" Anthology edited by Zukofsky. Returning to the United States, in 1933 they established the Objectivist Press, which published Williams's Collected Poems 1921-31 (with a preface by Wallace Stevens that greatly irritated Williams), three volumes by Charles Reznikoff, and, in 1934, Oppen's own first book Discrete Series.
Discrete Series carried a preface by Pound, termed "irrelevant" by Williams in a 1934 review in which he nevertheless praised the discipline and commitment of the poems themselves. The poem "1930's", which had also appeared in the objectivist issue of Poetry, is representative of what Williams called the poems' attempt at "an irreducible minimum in the means for the achievement of their objective, no loose bolts or beams sticking out unattached at one end or put there to hold up a rococo cupid or a concrete saint":
Parts - the prudery
Of Frigidaire, of
Plane of lunch, of wives,
(As soda-jerking from
The private act
By the following year, 1935, however, the Oppens decided to devote themselves fully to political work on behalf of those suffering from the economic consequences of the Depression. They joined the Communist Party and involved themselves for the rest of the decade in pressing for basic social services for the unemployed, and as strike organizers. In 1942 Oppen was working as a factory machinist when he was drafted into the army, being seriously wounded on April 22, 1945 - an event he refers to in a number of later poems.
The Oppens moved to California after the war, where Oppen worked as a carpenter, but, feeling hounded by the anti-communist sentiments of the time, and following two interviews from the FBI, they moved to Mexico City in 1950, where they remained until 1958. In May 1958 Oppen wrote his first poem in 24 years, "Blood from a Stone." In 1962, now living in New York City, he published his second volume, The Materials, 28 years after Discrete Series. The book was well received, as were This in Which (1965) and the volume which won the Pulitzer Prize, Of Being Numerous (1968) - which is generally seen as his finest work. Michael Heller has summarized the book as "concerned with the deepest notions of community and with the basis on which community might be established: with the meaning of humanity, ethics and love." Like all of Oppen's work, Heller argues, the poems are an interrogation of language, "an attempt to discover whether these words can truthfully be retained in the light of what humanity has become."
Alpine: Poems (1969) followed, and then Seascape: Needle's Eye (1972), poems centered on San Francisco, where the Oppens moved in 1967. A
volume of Collected Poems appeared in 1973 with a fuller edition appearing in 1975. Oppen's final volume, Primitive, was published in 1978. In his last years Oppen suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and he died in California.
Critics differ on whether Oppen's later career reflects a synthesis of his political and artistic concerns, or whether it acknowledged that neither could finally bring fundamental change. But in returning so successfully to verse, Oppen provided an important link for younger poets to the work of Williams and Pound, and the restraint, clarity, craftsmanship, and emphasis upon essentials in his work remain an important influence on many poets. His Selected Letters (1990) provide an invaluable record of objectivism and its influence; also valuable is Mary Oppen's biography of the couple's relationship and political activities, Meaning A Life: An Autobiography (1978).
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