Oppen on the page and stage


Book review
George Oppen: New Collected Poems.
Edited by Michael Davidson
New Directions paperback with CD
422 pages. 2008

In this re-edited version of Oppen’s 1975 Collected Poems editor Michael Davidson adds 60 previously unpublished poems, most from the 1950s through the 1970s.

The previously unpublished poems come from Oppen’s manuscripts and working papers. Davidson says that, although this edition may include a bit more of the unpolished material than Oppen would have liked, he justifies these inclusions by considering the way Oppen composed; his “tendency to embed poems in the midst of a kind of textual rubble.”

So we benefit from Davidson’s archaeological digs. He worked to respect the integrity of Oppen’s compositional standards by including “poems that he worked on over a period of time, or which elucidate other published poems.” Sixty pages of notes provide additional substance and texture to this edition.

Much of Oppen’s writing is dark. You see that not only while reading but while listening to the readings on the accompanying CD. In these readings recorded in San Francisco, New York, and London, one hears a voice that is disillusioned, perhaps tired, but committed to grappling with personal and collective experience through art. In fact, Davidson says his editorial decisions were inspired in part by Oppen’s remark that poems are forged out of social and familial forces beyond the aesthetic: He was shaped by working as a manual laborer, raising a family, the Depression, the threat of Fascism, and Communist Party activism.


6 thoughts on “Oppen on the page and stage

  1. I disagree with your claim that much of Oppen’s poetry is “dark.” While one is entitled to one’s own opinion, such a claim betrays one’s lack of knowledge about Oppen’s poetry, its rhetoric and poetics, and the circumstances of its composition. Yes, Oppen does write about a number of dark subjects, including war, nuclear or otherwise, but his poems always exhibit an optimism and what can only be described as wonder at the “open miracle of place,” to borrow a phrase from one of his best poems. Oppen quite intentionally avoided discussing death, if only because, as he puts it, he doesn’t feel one can approach it authentically, as, being alive, one necessarily has little experience of the event. In an interview with Kevin Power, Oppen proclaims his dislike of Sartrean philosophy, due to its inherent cynicism and bleakness. He favored Camus, in particular his poetic descriptions of his childhood, the sunlight of his native Algiers, symbols representative of a view of existence which celebrates its brilliant impenetrability, the “bright light of shipwreck” as Oppen puts it in his great poem “Of Being Numerous.” One can find Oppen somewhat tired or disillusioned in some of his letters and daybooks, but rarely in the poems, which always exhibit an exhuberant optimism. Given the circumstances, Oppen was one of the most positive poets of post-war America.

  2. Agree wholeheartedly with Eric Hoffman’s rebuttal of Oppen’s poetry as ‘dark’. Given the vicissitudes of life and historical circumstance in which the Oppens found themselves, it is the very ‘light’ Oppen finds in the immediate awarenesses and discoveries of life new and renewed and found, as in ‘Psalm’ : The small nouns/Crying faith/In this in which the wild deer/Startle, and stare out’ or the affirmative ‘I know that no one would live out/Thirty years, fifty years if the world were ending/With his life’ from ‘Image of the Engine’. Oppen was a poet of what metaphysicians term ‘ostension’ and I’m tempted and will succumb to this sentence from W.V. Quine, possibly to the irritation of some who like their eggs sunny-side up :”In ostension, spatial spread is not wholly separable from temporal spread, for the successive ostensions which provide samples over the spatial spread are bound to consume time”(from “Identity, ostension, and Hypostasis,” Journal of Philosophy, XLVII, 22 , 1950). Oppen from ‘And Their Winter and Night In Disguise’ : ‘It is impossible the world should be either good or bad/If its colours are beautiful or if they are not beautiful/If parts of it taste good or if no parts of it taste good/It is as remarkable in one case as the other’. Dark no, but deeply conscious of the paradoxes of identity.

  3. Further note on ostension : Eco is good on ostension, as are assorted folklorists.Pertinent to Oppen, Wittgenstein raised the following question in ‘Philosophical Inverstigations'(30) : “So one might say : the ostensive definition explains the use – the meaning – of the word when the overall role of the word in language is clear. Thus if I know that someone means to explain a colour-word to me the ostensive definition is clear.’That is called SEPIA will help me to understand the word … One has already to know (or be able to know) something in order to be capable of asking a thing’s name. But what does one have to know?” Oppen spent a lifetime digging deep into that question, to the illumination of us all, again light contra darkness.

  4. Hi Bruce. Now it’s becoming apparent that I need to spend time with Wittgenstein. He informs the work of some of my favorite writers (e.g., Hejinian, Perloff, Retallack).

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