by Eric Hoffman


The body of criticism devoted to the poets associated with the late modernist, "Objectivist" movement in poetry has recently enjoyed a critical and commercial renaissance.  A biography of Louis Zukofsky by Mark Scroggins has recently been published, together with collections of his non-fiction works and a new selected edition of his poetry by a major press.  Lorine Niedecker has finally received the collected poems she rightly deserves and Charles Reznikoff has been the subject of a book-length study.  On-line journals (Jacket) and print journals (The Chicago Review) have also showcased the works of these poets, adding to their readership and critical reception. 

George Oppen, too, has recently amassed an impressive recent scholarly apparatus: in 2006, Lyn Barzilai's George Oppen: A Critical Study was published; in 2007, Stephen Cope published a selection of Oppen's writings, Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers; and 2008, the centennial year of Oppen's birth, saw the publication of two major critical works on Oppen: Michael Heller's Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen and Peter Nicholls' George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism.  That same year, numerous celebrations of Oppen's work were held in Europe and the United States: at the Poets' House in New York City, at San Francisco State University (which has also held an annual George Oppen Memorial Lecture since 1984), at the State University of New York Buffalo, at the Kelly Writers' House at the University of Pennsylvania and at the University of Edinburgh.  Most recently, Jacket has published a considerable contribution to Oppen Scholarship in its excellent George Oppen feature. In 2009, Henry Weinfield's The Music of Thought in the Poetry of George Oppen and William Bronk was published, and in 2010 editor Stephen Shoemaker published Poetic Thinking: Essays on George Oppen.

All of this new critical work, the sheer quantity of which is both impressive and somewhat daunting, is the culmination of a quietly steady accumulation of a major critical response to George Oppen's life and writing.  Michael Cuddihy's pioneering literary journal Ironwood published two special issues on Oppen in 1975 and 1985, respectively; Burton Hatlen at the National Poetry Foundation in Orono, Maine dedicated issues of their journals Paideuma and Sagetrieb to Oppen's works (in 1980, 1984, and 1993), and Hatlen also edited the monumental 1982 collection of essays on Oppen, George Oppen: Man and Poet, now sadly out of print. Michael Heller's 1985 book on the "Objectivist" poets, most particularly Oppen, Conviction's Net of Branches and Rachel Blau DuPlessis' essential 1990 collection of Oppen letters did much to contribute to Oppen scholarship, as has her 1999 collection of essays, edited with Peter Quartermain, The Objectivist Nexus.  It is to these groundbreaking studies of Oppen that I turned when looking for inspiration in bringing together the readings and reactions to Oppen's work collected here.  It is clear that a re-appraisal of Oppen's work is in order: following the publication of 2002's New Collected Poems, edited by Michael Davidson and with an introduction by Eliot Weinberger (which New Directions has recently brought back into print in paperback together with a compact disc of Oppen reading his poems) and 2003's Selected Poems, edited and introduced by the late Robert Creeley, and now Cope's edition of Oppen's prose, more of Oppen's work is in print than ever before. In formulating a guiding thesis, or theses, for this body of essays, I was most interested in establishing Oppen's current position in American literature: Oppen as a key figure in twentieth century American poetry. 

Oppen's life (born 1908, died 1984) was significantly interwoven with the events of his century, from his 19th century-style Edwardian childhood immersed in the infancy of that distinctly 20th century medium of motion pictures (D.W. Griffith was a neighbor, his father was a partner in Warner Brothers and owned movie houses in and around San Francisco, where Oppen would find work and a love of Charlie Chaplin), to his brief affiliation with the modernists (particularly Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams), to his controversial quarter century commitment to communism resulting from his desire to combat fascism abroad and unemployment at home, to his readings in, reactions to and writings about politics, philosophy and poetry and the degree of which his own poetry, pre- and post-communism (contrary to the insistence of the ahistorical language poets who have adopted Oppen as one of their own) is weighted by historical circumstances both public and private, and how his oeuvre as a whole can be read as an extended meditation on the complex intermingling of the two.

In keeping with this overall thesis, I asked contributors to provide essays approaching particular Oppen poems, focusing primarily upon Oppen's aesthetics and prosody, together with critical reactions to recent Oppen scholarship (in particular Cope [2007], Heller and Nicholls [both 2008]). This was only the most general of requests as I wanted as little restriction as possible in discussion of the work. As Oppen himself wrote, he could not bring himself to write poetic "exercises," nor did not want my contributors to be forced to contribute critical ones. It was therefore with great pleasure when I received these essays, which I believe mark the distance Oppen scholarship has come since the work of Cuddihy and Hatlen at the same time pointing the way forward for future Oppen scholarship.

Oppen was a poet who wrote the main body of his work during the height of the Cold War, when the possibility of the extinction of the human race by nuclear war appeared both possible and imminent. The Cold War may have ended, yet the path of history continued to be pursued by global powers, combined with the newly recognized impact of human behavior on the environment, pushes civilization ever closer to the brink of disaster.  It is Oppen's penetrating recognition of the danger and the marvel of existence, what Oppen calls "survival's thin, thin radiance," which lends his work its brilliancy and its impact.  The power of Oppen's work arguably derives from its display of human consciousness, of human being, in interaction with the world.  This relationship is necessarily frightening, yet it is also "dazzling," to borrow a description from Oppen. And it is this quality, I think, which draws readers of wholly different backgrounds and experiences to his poetry, and which lends it its depth and its universality. Oppen's utterly original writing speaks to us and respects us as fellow human beings while managing to communicate an experience of human existence that is both familiar and strange.


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