George Oppen: The Pursuit of Clarity
“Truth is also the pursuit of it.”–George Oppen
More than anything, the best advice there is for aspiring poets is to read. Read, read, read. Read poetry dissimilar to your own, pick up one end of a daisy chain of poets and follow the links to poetry movements, poets whose work will eventually influence your own.
George Oppen (1908-1984) is generally known for his association with the Objectivist group, Modernist poets who collaborated starting in the 1930’s and were influenced by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.
Williams’ effort to write in an “American” vernacular is significant, and created openings for poets like Oppen to express ideas that prior to 1920 would not have been expressed. Williams (as contrasted with T.S. Eliot) preferred a colloquial voice and spare, open style with a natural rhythm, with the intention to take poetry “out of the classroom”. Oppen and his contemporaries like Luis Zukofsky and, later, Lorine Niedecker share the philosophy of “looking clearly at the world”. Their work is sincere, intelligent, approachable, honest, but also demonstrates inventiveness that inspired later groups of poets.
(As a parallel in visual art, I suggest studying Cy Twombly’s work; though he was not a contemporary of these poets the philosophy, style, and approach is similar, as is his allusion to ancient history, expressed with modern sensibility; analogies such as this lead to deeper understanding.)
Oppen’s published work (written between 1934 and 1978) is fiercely individual, human, and skeptical of the values and structures in place during his time. My interpretation of his work is that he is constantly aware and accepting of an overarching unity or “original state of being” while “present in the immediate world”. I see a tension in his work between collaboration and solitary reflection, individual and political/communal, and above all a meta-cognitive awareness (and critique—including self-critique) of conventional reality.
From: Of Being Numerous (1968):
There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.
Occurrence, a part
Of an infinite series,
The sad marvels;
Of this was told
A tale of our wickedness.
It is not our wickedness.
‘You remember that old town we went to, and we sat in the
ruined window, and we tried to imagine that we belonged to
those times—It is dead and it is not dead, and you cannot
imagine either its life or its death; the earth speaks and the sala-
mander speaks, the Spring comes and only obscures it—‘
By the shipwreck
Of the singular
We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.
The roots of words
Dim in the subways
There is madness in the number
Of the living
‘A state of matter’
There is nobody here but us chickens
He wants to say
His life is real,
No one can say why
It is not easy to speak
A ferocious mumbling, in public
Of rootless speech
Only that it should be beautiful,
Only that it should be beautiful,
Red green blue—the wet lips
Or the curl of the white shell
And the beauty of women, the perfect tendons
Under the skin, the perfect life
That can twist in a flood
Not truth but each other
The bright, bright skin, her hands wavering
In her incredible need
(and on, there are 40 sections total)
From George Oppen: New Collected Poems, 2008; ed. Michael Davidson.
In short, read! Find the poets who opened new paths, so that now you can write freely. Write in context of the poets who came before, and write Yourself. Oppen’s sincerity, humility, and intelligence is personally inspiring to me. I hope that you will read his work. Coming soon, I will write about a very different poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, one of my uber-inspiring influences.