Remembering Oppen

No. I don’t really remember him, but I’m old enough to forget the good (if not great) poems that I have read. This is a feeble effort, therefore, to ensure that I remember a few more in these (middle?) years. I recently gave six months to limping through The Collected Poems of George Oppen (New Directions, 1976) and I do not want to forget what I found there. I made a few passes and marked the poems … as if guessing which might be most memorable. Gradually, I narrowed a list of 20-or-more poems down to three, or maybe five. It wasn’t easy going, as many were good. On the other hand, many left me flat. Oppen’s later poems were not enjoyable–they’re exercises, precise and beautiful (in a way), but exercises nonetheless. Careful studies in pacing the fragment and testing breaks in syntax. But then, that is what Oppen excels at even in his earlier, more coherent poems. It’s as if he took his gift and honed all the approachable, humble edges off to leave his readers with shining plates of steel. Not-so-curiously, much of the imagery, theme, and content of the early poems remains in the later, nearly impenetrable shields. Don’t get me wrong, the later poems are good (perhaps even “masterful” — whatever that is; see: “Myth of the Blaze” or “The Little Pin: Fragment” or any of the numerous sections of “Of Being Numerous”), but they’re just not the kind of thing you want to spend time trying to recall.

Or so, the above makes the excuse for why I have gravitated toward a few poems from the earlier books: “Image of the Engine” and “Return” from The Materials (1962), and “A Narrative” from This in Which (1965). However, to be honest with myself –no one else reads this blog, right?– there are others that I am likely to remember too. I worry that I have let the brain and the ego interfere and I have chosen these because they are just beyond comprehension, and thus, trying to read and re-read them makes me feel smarter. I should probably shoot for something easier as I’m likely to get dumber as the years go by. The following poems were all arresting, surprising little jewels of imagery. I recall them now (at the sight of their titles) like clever tricks on the eye, visual fables built with words: “Workman”, “From a Photograph”, “The Tugs of Hull”, and maybe “Sunnyside Child”–all, not-so-incidentally, from The Materials (1962). Of these, “Workman” is the strangest–and somehow flawed, maybe a mixed metaphor–but it makes me want to go outside and stare at the roof lines in the neighborhood and re-looking at the world is always a good thing, a hopeful act of living.


Leaving the house each dawn I see the hawk
Flagrant over the driveway. In his claws
That dot, that comma
Is the broken animal: the dangling small beast knows
The burden he is: he has touched
The hawk’s drab feathers. But the carpenter’s is a culture
Of fitting, of firm dimensions,
Of post and lintel. Quietly the roof lies
That the carpenter has finished. The sea birds circle
The beaches and cry in their own way,
The innumerable sea birds, their beaks and their wings
Over the beaches and the sea’s glitter.

(George Oppen, The Collected Poems of George Oppen. New Directions, 1975. p. 41)

If I am diligent (and I am not) I will share my thoughts on my-three-Oppen poems to remember in one blog post per poem. Let’s agree that I’ll finish this self-imposed task by August–you pick the year. (April 1, 2009)


One response to “Remembering Oppen

  1. Pingback: Oppen’s “Return” « Commonly

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