Saturday, February 25, 2006

George Oppen Struggles for the Truth

George Oppen was poet, Communist and soldier. He came from a wealthy Jewish-American family who had settled in San Francisco. He came into an inheritance young, which allowed him and his wife to go to France, where Oppen wrote and he and his wife started a small poetry press, and published in the early 1930s some of the best American young modernist poets--W.C. Williams, Ezra Pound, etc. At first Oppen was an imagist following Pound.

With the increasing Depression, Oppen returned to the U.S., joined the Communist Party, started organizing the unemployed, and quit writing poetry for over two decades. He also volunteered for service in the U.S. army, fought more than any other American poet in difficult battles, and was in a group of U.S. soldiers than liberated a concentration camp. When he returned to the United States after the war, the FBI investigated him repeatedly, so he and his wife went into exile to Mexico. He returned to live in San FRancisco in the late 1950s, returned to writing.

When he returned to poetry he criticized his mentor Pound who had become a fascist and who had made broadcasts for Mussolini during World War II. Oppen's of the late 1950s and 1960s is committed to creativing a democratic culture, and Oppen was now calling himself a "populist." His book The Materials ends with the poem "Leviathan" that 'truth also is the pursuit of it,' that 'we must talk now." Oppen's work is often difficult to understand but I think the struggle is worth it. In his poems he struggled to make imagism deal with moral truth. Obviously Pound was such a failure when it comes to connecting imagism to moral ideas, often writing a dogmatic polemic, but Oppen of the 1960s was committed to connecting the poetry of modernist tradition to moral truths necessary for democratic culture. Since Pound's imagism is so influential in 20th century American poetry, I think that Oppen was strugging with central questions for modern American poetry.

In the "Bicyles and the Apex," written in the 1960s, captures the mood that all the gadgets and machines that fascinated in the 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1950s are now taken for granted. Oppen seems to be showing how we longer are in love with all the gagets and machines that we once were. He starts with saying "How we loved the/Once, these mechanisms/" but now the poet no longer loves bicycles but sees them as part of "the platitude/the gadgets" as if too many gadgets were producing "our discontent." He compares hungry Van Gogh with shoe salesmen who envy him now.

He argues that neither slums nor tract homes are "the apex/Of the culture/They are the barracks." He does see basic elements--barracks, food, garbage,. tires--as needed but still producing disconent, particular with gangs in the slums and John Birch Societies, right wing groups, in the suburbs. He returns in the last stanza to saying "But we loved them once/" adding the "once," as if to emphasize we no longer love these gadgets. The poem captures an important intellectual mood in the 1960s.

In "The Building of the Skyscraper" Oppen compares a steel worker building a skyscraper who is trained not to look down with a writer who knows not to look for certain words that are empty and meaningless. If we look at these words we like the steel worker "are on the verge/Of vertigo." He says that, although certain words "mean nothing/But there is something to mean." The poet must find that meaning, what he calls "the thing/Which is. It is the business of the poet/To suffer the things of the world/and to speak them and himself out." The poet must find kernels of moral truth out of his difficult experiences. That's what Oppen tried to do in his poetry.

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