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About this poet

On April 24, 1908, George Oppen was born in New Rochelle, New York, to Elsie Rothfeld and George Oppenheimer (the family changed their name to Oppen in 1927). His father was a diamond merchant, and the family lived a comfortable, affluent lifestyle, which included servants and sailing lessons, a fact which conflicted with the strong identification with the working class that Oppen developed later in life.

After suffering mental problems and a nervous breakdown, his mother committed suicide when Oppen was four. His father married Selville Shainwald when Oppen was seven. She was a wealthy and ambitious woman with whom Oppen had a difficult and painful relationship that haunted him through his adulthood.

The family moved cross-country to San Francisco in 1917. Oppen attended Warren Military Academy, where he was unhappy and began drinking and engaging in reckless behavior, including fighting. He was expelled from school after a serious car crash in which he was driving and witnessed the death of a young passenger. He then traveled to England and Scotland, attending philosophy lectures and visiting relatives.

Oppen moved back to the United States in 1926, and began attending Oregon State Agricultural College (now Oregon State University), where he met Mary Colby. After spending the night together away from campus, she was expelled and he was suspended. The two left Oregon, got married, and began a sailing and hitchhiking trip from the West Coast to New York City. Once they arrived in New York, Oppen met poet Louis Zukofsky and soon became a central member of the Objectivist poets that flourished in the 1930s.

In 1929, Oppen inherited a small sum of money which allowed the couple to start a small publishing venture. To Publishers, with Zukofsky as editor, published work by William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, but the magazine was short-lived. The famous Objectivist Anthology which contained writing by Williams, Pound, Marianne Moore, Charles Reznikoff, and Kenneth Rexroth was published by the Oppens in Toulon, France, in 1932.

After traveling to California and living in France, the Oppens returned to New York where, along with Zukofsky, Williams, and Reznikoff, they began the Objectivist Press. Oppen's first book of poetry, Discrete Series, was published, with a preface by Ezra Pound, in 1934. That same year, the press published Williams's Collected Poems, 1921-1931.

In his introduction to Oppen's Selected Poems (New Directions, 2003), poet Robert Creeley writes about the Objectivist Group: "However different they were later to find their lives—particularly so in the instance of Oppen and Zukofsky—all worked from the premise that poetry is a function of perception, 'of the act of perception,' as Oppen emphasizes in his one defining essay, "The Mind's Own Place." Oppen's complex 'thinking with his poems' is a consistent and major factor in all his surviving work." Creeley continues: "I think much becomes clear, in fact, if one recognizes that George Oppen is trying all his life to think the world, not only to find or to enter it, or to gain a place in it"but to realize it, to figure it, to have it literally in mind."

George and Mary Oppen moved increasingly to the political left during the Great Depression, becoming social activists. During this period, Oppen's poems appeared in small journals such as Active Anthology, Poetry, and Hound and Horn, but he soon gave up writing for more than two decades. Unable to write poetry that he felt adequately reflected the political circumstances, he began working for the Communist Party USA, serving as election campaign manager in Brooklyn in 1936. Disillusioned with the Party by 1942, Oppen quit his job and volunteered for military service to fight fascism.

Oppen served in World War II, during which he was badly wounded and awarded the Purple Heart. Back in New York, Oppen and his wife found that their politics made their living situation difficult. They were targets of the House of Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era, and ultimately fled to Mexico in 1950, where Oppen started a carpentry business.

Oppen revived his poetic career when he and his wife returned to the United States in 1958. Their daughter was beginning college at Sarah Lawrence, so the couple moved to Brooklyn, where they were reunited with Zukofsky and Reznikoff. In 1962, New Directions published Oppen's second book of poetry, The Materials, which was followed by This in Which (1965). In 1969, Of Being Numerous (1968) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Oppen's Collected Poems (1975) includes all of his poetry from Discrete Series (1934) through Myth of the Blaze (1975).

About Oppen, poet James Longenbach has written: "Oppen's respect for the art of making, no matter how small, is at every moment palpable, and it infuses his work with sweetness that makes difficulty feel like life's reward."

In the late 1960s, Oppen moved to San Francisco where he became stricken with Alzheimer's disease. He was able to complete his final work, Primitive, only with his wife Mary's assistance. He lived in California until his death, from pneumonia and complications from Alzheimer's, in 1984.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Discrete Series (1934)
The Materials (1962)
This in Which (1965)
Of Being Numerous (1968)
Seascape: Needle's Eye (1972)
George Oppen: The Collected Poems (1975)
Myth of the Blaze: New Poems (1975)

Semite

George Oppen, 1908 - 1984
what art and anti-art to lead us by the sharpness 

of its definitions connected 
to all other things this is the bond 

sung to all distances 

my distances neither Roman
 
nor barbarian the sky the low sky 

of poems precise 
as the low sky 

that women have sung from the windows 
of cities sun's light 

on the sills a poetry 

of the narrow 
end of the funnel proximity's salt gales in the narrow 

end of the funnel the proofs 

are the images the images 
overwhelming earth 

rises up 

in its light nostalgia 
of the mud guilts 

of the foxhole what is a word a name at the 
     limits

of devotion 
to life the terrible knowledge 

of deception 

a lie told my loves tragically 
pitifully had deceived 

themselves had been betrayed 

demeaned thrown away shamed 
degraded 

stripped naked Think 

think also of the children 
the guards laughing 

the one pride the pride 
of the warrior laughing so the hangman 
comes to all dinners Aim 

we tell each other the children cannot be 
     alone whereupon murder 

comes to our dinners poem born 

of a planet the size 

of a table top 
garden     forest          an awning 

fluttering four-lane 

highway the instant 

in the open the moving 
edge and one 
is I 

From New Collected Poems by George Oppen, copyright © 1975 by George Oppen. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

From New Collected Poems by George Oppen, copyright © 1975 by George Oppen. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

George Oppen

George Oppen

Born in 1908, George Oppen was known for both his poetry and his political activism, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1969

by this poet

poem
                                                                  Whitman: 'April 19, 1864

The capitol grows upon one in time, especially as they have got
the great figure on top of it now, and you can see it very well. It
is a great bronze figure, the Genius of Liberty I suppose. It looks
wonderful toward
poem
Chorus (androgynous): 'Find me
So that I will exist, find my navel
So that it will exist, find my nipples
So that they will exist, find every hair
Of my belly, I am good (or I am bad),
Find me.'
poem
'In these explanations it is presumed that an experiencing
subject is one occasion of a sensitive reaction to an actual
world.'

the rain falls
that had not been falling
and it is the same world

.     .     .

They made small objects
Of wood and the bones of fish
And of stone. They talked, 
Families talked.