The heroic urbanism of modern poetry has its origins in such diverse figures as Baudelaire and Whitman. It grows in the work of the French and English Symbolists, and reaches maturity but also sours in The Waste Land. It is reinvigorated in the lofty mythic metaphors of Hart Crane, in the lean and angular innovations of Williams, and in the post-immigration austerities of early Reznikoff. During their brief but crucial first flowering in the Thirties, the Objectivists simply assume that they live and write in what Trotsky, visiting New York City, calls in My Life "the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged." The Objectivists, however, see that fate being forged in a myriad of tiny insights, compelling glimpses, fortuitous snapshots, momentary constellations. The power of these constellations lies in their brevity, their containment in time and space, expressed through intense linguistic compression. Already growing skeptical of grand narratives, the Objectivists observe and record the mundane life of the city as it abruptly coincides, again and again, with "world-historical forces"—a phrase which Oppen, as a Communist, no doubt tired of reading in Party propaganda or hearing in conversation with more doctrinaire comrades.
By the time Oppen writes "The Building of the Skyscraper" (originally published in the Dec. 14, 1964 issue of The Nation and then included in This In Which), heroic urbanism with its concomitant idealization of "the workers" has reached a point of total self-consciousness and is probably somewhat out of date. The stirring black-and-white photographs of steel workers fearlessly riding cranes, eating their lunch or resting on beams high above the city streets had been taken long before. It would only be a matter of a few years before construction workers were taunting (if not physically assaulting) young Vietnam War protesters, and the term "hard hat" would become synonymous with the worst sort of reactionary populism. A long-haired teenager from Queens going into "the city" to hang out, I gave construction sites a wide berth. And yet when I first read Oppen's poem with its paradigmatic steel worker in the early seventies, I was attracted to it immediately, and it remains one of my favorites of his lyrics. For me, it is its self-consciousness, both historical and linguistic, that makes it so memorable.
Its linguistic self-consciousness appears in its opening stanza and is developed throughout the poem, taking on greater historical resonance at the poem's conclusion. Oppen appears to draw an analogy between the steel worker who "Learned not to look down, and does his work" and "we" (readers? poets?), who have learned not to "look for substance" below certain words. But the analogy immediately breaks down: the steel worker, having learned what he needs to know, presumably does not get dizzy and fall; whereas we are still on "the verge / Of vertigo" even when we resist looking down into words which have no substance below them. Thus, there are some human activities, such as building a skyscraper, where looking into the depths is counterproductive, while there are others, such as working with words, where looking for substance below the surface is a necessity, avoided at one's risk.
One of the most interesting features of the poem is the way Oppen deliberately does not utter any of the words which he has found to have no substance, the words, as he declares, which "mean nothing." What could those words be? My guess is that he is thinking at least to some extent of the political terms that he heard for so many years as a Party member, the clichés of the left he ostensibly endorsed as well as those of the right which he opposed. As he writes in section 3 of "A Language of New York" (which becomes the basis of Of Being Numerous), "How talk / Distantly of 'the People'?" And in section 4, "Possible / To use / Words provided one treats them / As enemies." I think too of the bitter irony of section 2 of "A Narrative":
And truth? O,
On the innocent
If all we have
Likewise, in "The Building of the Skyscraper," the same problem of using language to make truth-claims, the problem of political manipulation and the will to power which arises when we use words to declare the truth, asserts itself again. But in this case, Oppen both raises the question and answers it:
There are words that mean nothing
But there is something to mean.
Not a declaration which is truth
But a thing
Which is. It is the business of the poet
'To suffer the things of the world
And to speak them and himself out.'
The poet, who must use words with the utmost precision, care, respect and (considering that they may be "enemies") caution must also learn to recognize the words "that mean nothing," the words would impose truth claims which may not, in the end, be true at all. Instead, the poet must side with "something to mean," the potential for meaning which resides not in words but in things. Rather than make a declaration of truth (the word "declaration" is intended to remind us of risky political rhetoric, even when it is as noble as, say, the Declaration of Independence), the poet suffers the things of world, and speaks from that experience of suffering. Only then can he "speak them and himself out."
Two questions come to mind. First, why suffering? And second, why those single quotes around those two remarkable lines? So often in Oppen, as in the paradigmatic "Psalm," the things of the world are a source of wonder and joy. But in this case, we suffer these things. Perhaps this is related to the things that pertain to the building of the skyscraper itself, the girders, the acetylene torches, the scaffolding and cranes, all "the materials" which Oppen so values but which he also knows offer a threat to the fragile human bodies at work among them. Moreover, the risks taken by the steel workers are necessary if they are to maintain their livelihood; the labor in which they are engaged (whether or not one sees it, as do the Marxists, as "alienated labor") bears a full load of potential suffering and in that sense, the things among which they labor must be suffered too.
This leads to my second question, regarding the single quotes. The suffering actually pertains not the steel worker but to the poet, though as we observed, Oppen attempts to compare the two in the first stanza. The steel worker may indeed suffer the things of the world, but now Oppen is concerned with his own vocation, the work that he does as a worker in words, not in steel. His suffering must be of a different order: it is a sort of metaphysical suffering, for as Oppen well knows, there are few writers and intellectuals up there on the girders. The world bears down on the poet because of his "business," that is, his responsibility. He is responsible to the things of the world (and presumably, to the people of the world there among the things); he must realize their potential for meaning when he speaks them and himself out. Oppen puts those two crucial lines in quotes as a sort of motto, and indeed, Oppen's critics regard them as one of a number of the poet's precise formulations or essential statements of his poetic.
It occurs to me that many poets might be content to stop at the end of the second stanza, thinking they have written a resonant and heroically affirmative poem. Oppen, however, is too smart and too self-aware; he refuses to pat himself on the back. That motto, true as it may be, might also be too rhetorical. Even these carefully chosen words might risk insubstantiality. So he abruptly changes direction and offers a third stanza:
O, the tree, growing from the sidewalk—
It has a little life, sprouting
Little green buds
Into the culture of the streets.
We look back
Three hundred years and see bare land.
And suffer vertigo.
With a sudden "O" (which in Oppen always denotes a turn or dialectical swerve), he gives us "the tree, growing from the sidewalk" which has "a little life, sprouting / Little green buds / Into the culture of the streets." By this time, Oppen has already composed numerous lyrics devoted to "the culture of the streets": one has only to look at the tables of contents of The Materials and This In Which to see how completely devoted he is to presenting that culture and uncovering its value. The urban culture of streets and stoops and skyscrapers stands in contrast to, but is also enhanced, by the tree with its "little life." It is the necessary counterpoint to the builded density of the city, a poignant reminder of nature, which, three hundred years ago, appeared as "bare land," prior to urbanization. In the end, it is neither the building of the skyscraper nor even the (mis)appropriations of language which lead us to vertigo. Rather, it is the experience of history, coming as a momentary realization of difference. What was once bare land, the natural surround of the forest, is now the brick and concrete of city life. When we think about it, the transformation makes us dizzy. It is the poet's business in particular to present, to articulate such moments of realization. At the end of Oppen's poem, those three hundred years are telescoped in just a few lines. This engagement with history and language is precisely the poet's "business."