Oppen, George

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OPPEN, GEORGE (1908–1984), U.S. poet. Oppen's life is exemplary of Jewish American culture and poetry in the 20th century. Born in New Rochelle, n.y., Oppen was the child of George August Oppenheimer, a diamond merchant, and Elsie Rothfeld. His mother committted suicide when George was four; his father remarried in 1917 and moved to San Francisco, changing the family name to Oppen in 1927. Raised in a highly assimilated, wealthy milieu, the young Oppen's early years were not happy, and he eventually rejected the world in which he grew up. His stepmother was abusive, and he was expelled from high school for drinking just prior to graduation when a car that Oppen was driving had an accident and one of the passengers was killed. On a whim, Oppen entered Oregon State University at Corvallis the next year. In a class on modern poetry, he met his future wife, Mary Colby. When the two stayed out one night, George was suspended and Mary expelled. The two traveled together across the country, hitchiking, sailing, and working at odd jobs. Soon after their arrival in New York City, the Oppens made the acquaintance of Louis *Zukofsky and Charles *Reznikoff. With connections to older modernists, including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, the Objectivists (the term was coined by Zukofsky when he edited a special issue of Poetry in 1931) were active through the mid-1930s, first through Oppen's To Publishers and then through the Objectivist Press, which published Oppen's first book, Discrete Series, in 1934. But a year later, the Oppens joined the Communist Party, abandoning their cultural activities and immersing themselves in political organizing. When the U.S. entered World War ii, Oppen enlisted; serving in the infantry, he was seriously wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, the Oppens, with their daughter Linda (born in 1939), moved to California, but upon being investigated for their earlier political activities, they moved to Mexico and did not return to the U.S. until 1958, settling in Brooklyn in 1960. Oppen had by then returned to poetry, and entered into an extraordinary period of artistic productivity. Reconnecting with some of his old Objectivist colleagues, and meeting many younger poets, he published The Materials (1962), This In Which (1965), and Of Being Numerous (1968), which won the Pulitzer Prize. The Oppens moved to San Francisco in 1966. Oppen's Collected Poems appeared in 1975 (the same year he and Mary visited Israel); his final volume, Primitive, in 1978, by which time Oppen was evincing symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. His mental and physical condition gradually deteriorated but he continued to write in the fragmentary style out of which nearly all his poems emerged. New Collected Poems was published in 2002.

Oppen has gradually come to be recognized as one of the most important American poets of his time, as a growing body of critical and biographical studies attest. His work forms a crucial bridge between modernism and more recent tendencies in American poetry, and his years of poetic silence, during which he lived, in effect, the crisis of midcentury American history, resonate with extraordinary force and gravitas in his lyrics of the 1960s, culminating in his masterpiece, the serial poem "Of Being Numerous." Yet Oppen, following the dicta of Objectivism, always wrote with great humility, insisting on his poetry as a "test of truth" or "test of sincerity" and devoting himself to intense scrutiny of "the materials" of everyday life, its social fabric and physical being. It is out of this scrutiny, supported on the one hand by Marxism and on the other by Heideggerian phenomenology, that a profoundly philosophical, formidably compressed, and beautifully constructed poetry emerges.

Given his completely secular upbringing and lifestyle, and the relative lack of Jewish references in his poetry, it is difficult to consider Oppen in the light of a specifically Jewish literature. Yet a number of Oppen's most important poems may be understood in terms of Jewish themes and identity. "Psalm," one of his most frequently anthologized poems, celebrates the natural world and the way it almost kabbalistically folded into language. "Of Hours" addresses Oppen's vexed relationship to the antisemitic Ezra Pound, one of his most important mentors. "Exodus" beautifully recalls Oppen's reading about "The children of Israel" to his young daughter, while in "Semite" the poet insists on "my distances neither Roman nor barbarian."


R.B. DuPlessis and P. Quartermain, The Objectivist Nexus (1999); R.B. DuPlessis (ed.), Selected Letters of George Oppen, (1990); B. Hatlen, George Oppen: Man & Poet, (1981); N. Finkelstein, "Political Commitment and Poetic Subjectification: George Oppen's Test of Truth," in: Contemporary Literature, 22:1 (Winter 1981), 24–41; M. Heller, Conviction's Net of Branches: Essays On the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (2002).

[Norman Finkelstein (2nd ed.)]