George Oppen

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George Oppen (April 24, 1908July 7, 1984) was an American poet, most famous as one of the members of the Objectivist group of poets. He abandoned poetry in the 1930s for political activism, and later moved to Mexico to avoid the attentions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He returned to poetry — and to the United States — in 1958, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.


  • They have lost the metaphysical sense
    Of the future, they feel themselves
    The end of a chain
    Of lives, single lives
    And we know that lives
    Are single
    And cannot defend
    The metaphysic
    On which rest
    The boundaries
    Of our distances.
    • from "Of Being Numerous" #26, 1968; New Collected Poems, New Directions, 2002, ISBN 0-811-21488-5
  • 'O city ladies'
    Your coats wrapped,
    Your hips a possession
    Your shoes arched
    Your walk is sharp
    Your breasts
         Pertain to lingerie
    • from "Discrete Series", 1934; New Collected Poems, New Directions, 2002, ISBN 0-811-21488-5
  • And we saw the seed,
    The minuscule Sequoia seed
    In the museum by the tremendous slab
    Of the tree. And imagined the seed
    In soil and the growth quickened
    So that we saw the seed reach out, forcing
    Earth thru itself into bark, wood, the green
    Needles of a redwood until the tree
    Stood in the room without soil—
    How much of the earth's
    Crust has lived
    The seed’s violence!
    The shock is metaphysical.
  • 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
    Of vertigo.
    • "The Building of the Skyscraper" st. 1, 1965; Collected Poems of George Oppen", New Directions, 1976, ISBN 0-811-20615-7

The Selected Letters of George Oppen (1990)[edit]

The Selected Letters of George Oppen (1990) edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
  • Perhaps what I would like is a truly democratic culture. Not a polemic nor a moralistic culture in the arts but a culture which permits one man to speak to another honestly and modestly and in freedom and to say what he thinks and what he feels, to express his doubts and his fears, his immoral as well as his moral impulses, to say what he thinks is true and what he thinks is false, and what he likes and what he does not like. What I am against is that we should all engage in the most vigorous and most polemic lying to each other for each other's benefit. — Who could have the conceit, the self-confidence to believe that that is what we should do throughout all the rest of human history?
    • Letter to Charles Humboldt (mid-1962), p. 64

Quotes about Oppen[edit]

  • Oppen believes that “Poetry has to be protean; the meaning must begin there. With the perception.” In his notebooks he says that “the present, the sense of the present arrives before the words — and independent of them.” He paraphrases Jacques Maritain: “we awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things.” But even as he recognizes that neither the self nor the objects of the world can be seen apart from the world that contains them, Oppen does not obliterate their differences. He avows, “a blurring of the distinction between subjective and objective — There has been no instant in my life when such a blurring was possible for me/ for one thing: too much a carpenter: I know what a blue guitar is made of”.
  • Oppen writes in his notebooks, “I choose to believe in the natural consciousness, I see what the deer see, the desire NOT TO is the desire to be alone in fear of equality/ I see what the grass (blade) would see if it had eyes”. Instead of the traditional Western account of a consciousness that digests the external world, Oppen honors a consciousness interwoven with the world of objects, a consciousness that is nothing if not a collaboration with the world.
    • Forrest Gander, in "Finding the Phenomenal Oppen", in A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, and Transcendence (2005)
  • In his poems, George Oppen wanted words to act out “truthful, lived experience.” His poetry is very literally a practice of perception. He even speaks of emotion “as the ability to perceive.” The syntax of an Oppen poem rivets our attention to both word and world in an enactment of intentional consciousness, the very act of perception and thought coming into being, of language and feeling arising as experience. His poems can be intricate, the syntax polyvalent, the disclosure nonlinear and difficult to render into anything like statement. And as such, his poetry might be considered an expression of life. As the Biblical Isaiah reminds us, “it shall be a vexation only to understand.” Clarity is not the same thing as simplicity.
    • Forrest Gander, in "Finding the Phenomenal Oppen", in A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, and Transcendence (2005)
  • I've gone back more and more to Creeley, Duncan, and Olson in recent years. More recently to George Oppen, Robin Blaser.

External links[edit]

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