George Oppen, New Collected Poems (Carcanet)

I don’t know the poetry of George Oppen well. I almost don’t know it at all. I’ve only had the more than 400 page Collected Poems for three or four weeks, and I’ve only read half of it, and since reading a book of poetry entails a bit more than just turning the pages to get to the end to see what happens, this almost amounts to not having read it at all.
While I waited around for the book to arrive (smoking, drinking, loafing) I prepared myself a little. I’m also not much of an expert on the Objectivists (of whom Oppen is/was nominally one) but I did a bit of brushing up, which served at least to remind me how in the past I’ve often found that stuff kind of dry, but my tastes are changing (albeit slowly) and perhaps it’s time to have another look. Which I haven’t yet. My somewhat limited refresher course also reminded me (in more detail than before) of Oppen’s personal history.

And I immediately took to him. This was initially and primarily on the level of an immense respect, because I figured that anyone who could be serious enough about poetry and about social and political concerns to give up the former because he wasn’t going to rope poetry in to the service of social causes, to fall into the trap of writing slogans and doggerel, was someone worth thinking about. And for this refusal to write poetry and commit oneself to social and political work to last 25 years….. Well, 25 years is a long time, and he obviously meant it. As for the poetry he did write, there’s also a nice line in the Preface by Eliot Weinberger to the Collected which is worth taking note of: “A product of the 1930s, Oppen had spent the first years of that decade attempting to rally a second generation of American modernism, relocated from Europe to the American city, that would continue and modify the poetic principles of its immediate predecessors while rejecting their political principles: a poetry that might not be for the masses, but one that did not loathe them.” (my italics)

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This combination of what I perceived to be a decent human being (which is not always the case with poets) had me more than a little inclined to be sympathetic and receptive when I eventually got to the poems themselves. But before I get to them, there’s Ezra Pound, who wrote the Preface to Oppen’s first book, Discrete Series, (1934) and said, among other things, “I salute a serious craftsman, a sensibility which is not every man’s sensibility and which has not been got out of any other man’s books.” As ever, Pound manages to say something that we forget all too easily or, to put it around another way, something we should remember more than we do, almost all the time: poetry is (or should be, when it’s the genuine article) another person’s sensibility, not necessarily a comforting reflection of one’s own. And not got out of books but, by a process of elimination, out of life.

And “life” -- in inverted commas here, but out there it doesn’t have inverted commas, it simply has factories and conveyor belts and long hours and not enough money and all those life things – is hanging all around George Oppen’s poems. As the first poem posits, by way of Henry James (and I quote it here in full, because it says it all, and is, anyway, quite beautiful):

The knowledge not of sorrow, you were
saying, but of boredom
Is ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­---- aside from reading speaking
smoking ----
Of what, Maude Blessingbourne it was,
wished to know when, having risen,
“approached the window as if to see
what really was going on”;
And saw rain falling, in the distance
more slowly,
The road clear from her past the window-
glass ----
Of the world, weather-swept, with which
one shares the century.