George Oppen

George Oppen

George Oppen (April 24, 1908 - July 7, 1984) was an American poet, best known as one of the members of the Objectivist group of poets. He abandoned poetry in the 1930s for political activism, and later moved to Mexico to avoid the attentions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He returned to poetry — and to the United States — in 1958, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

Early life

Oppen was born in New Rochelle, New York. His father, George August Oppenheimer, a successful diamond merchant, changed the family name to Oppen in 1927. Oppen's childhood was one of considerable affluence; the family was well tended to by servants and maids and Oppen enjoyed all the benefits of a wealthy upbringing: horse riding, expensive automobiles, frequent trips to Europe. Oppen's mother committed suicide when he was four and his father married Seville Shainwald, who apparently abused Oppen. Oppen developed a skill for sailing at a young age and the seascapes around his childhood home left a mark on his later poetry. He was taught carpentry by the family butler; as an adult Oppen found work as a carpenter and cabinetmaker.

In 1917, the family moved to San Francisco where Oppen attended Warren Military Academy. It is speculated that during this time in his life, Oppen's early traumas with both his mother's suicide and an abusive stepmother led to fighting and drinking, so that by the time he was reaching maturity Oppen was experiencing a personal crisis. By 1925, this period of personal and psychic transition culminated in a serious car wreck in which George was driver and a young passenger was killed. Ultimately, Oppen was expelled from high school just before he graduated. After this period, he traveled to England and Scotland by himself, visiting his stepmother's relative, and attending lectures by C.A. Mace, professor in philosophy at St. Andrews.

In 1926, Oppen started attending Oregon State Agricultural College (what is now Oregon State University). Here he met Mary Colby, a fiercely independent young woman from Grants Pass, Oregon. On their first date, the couple stayed out all night with the result that she was expelled and he suspended. They left Oregon, married, and started hitch-hiking across the country working at odd jobs along the way.

Early writing

While living on the road, Oppen began writing poems and publishing in local magazines. In 1929, and 1930 he and Mary spent some time in New York, where they met Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, musician Tibor Serly, and designer Russel Wright, among others.

In 1929, George came into a small inheritance which meant that they had relative financial independence. In 1930 they moved to California and then to France, where, thanks to their financial input, they were able to establish To Publishers acting as printer/publishers with Zukofsky as editor. The short-lived publishing venture managed to publish works by William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Oppen had begun working on poems for what was to be his first book, Discrete Series, a seminal work in early Objectivist history. Some of these appeared in the February 1931 Objectivist issue of Poetry and the subsequent An "Objectivist's" Anthology published in 1932.

Oppen the Objectivist

In this situation, as in so many others, I remember with attentiveness the poetry and example of George Oppen, who wanted to look, to see what was out there, evaluate its damage and contradictions, to say scrupulously in a pared and intense language not what was easy or right or neat or consoling, but what he felt when all the platitudes and banalities were stripped away.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
In 1933, the Oppens returned to New York where, together with Williams, Zukofsky and Reznikoff, they set up the Objectivist Press. The press published books by Reznikoff and Williams, as well as Oppen's Discrete Series, with a preface by Pound.

Politics and war

"...Oppen found value in the not said, in the incomplete phrase, in the bare noun. His silence was political in that it represented the inability of art to provide an adequate image of human suffering. His return to writing was political by representing the inability of communal forms to account for individual agency. The meaning of being numerous is the conversation we continue to have about a poet's decision not to write."
Michael Davidson
Faced with the effects of the depression and the rise of fascism, the Oppens were becoming increasingly involved in political action. Unable to bring himself to write verse propaganda, Oppen abandoned poetry and joined the Communist Party USA, serving as election campaign manager for Brooklyn in 1936, and helping organize the Utica New York Milk Strike. He and Mary were also active for relief and Oppen was tried and acquitted on a charge of felonious assault on the police.

By 1942, Oppen was deferred from military service while working in the defense industry. Disillusioned by the CPUSA and wanting to assist in the fight against fascism, Oppen quit his job, making himself eligible for the draft. Effectively volunteering for duty, Oppen saw active service on the Maginot Line and the Ardennes; he was seriously wounded south of the Battle of the Bulge. Shortly after Oppen was wounded, Oppen's division helped liberate the concentration camp at Landsberg am Lech. He was awarded the Purple Heart and returned to New York in 1945.


After the war, Oppen worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker. Although now less politically active, the Oppens were aware that their pasts were certain to attract the attention of Joseph McCarthy's Senate committee and decided to move to Mexico. During these admittedly bitter years in Mexico, George ran a small furniture making business and was involved in an expatriate intellectual community. They were also kept under surveillance by the Mexican authorities in association with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They were able to re-enter the United States in 1958 when the United States government again allowed them to obtain passports which had been revoked since 1950.

Return to poetry

In 1958, Oppen, while entertaining becoming involved in Mexican real estate, and following a dream involving "rust in copper" and his daughter's beginning college at Sarah Lawrence, again began to write poetry. After a brief trip in 1958 to visit their daughter at university, the Oppens moved to Brooklyn, New York early 1960, at first returning to Mexico regularly. Back in Brooklyn, Oppen renewed old ties with Louis Zukofksy and Charles Reznikoff and also befriended many younger poets. The poems came in a flurry; within two years Oppen had assembled enough poems for a book and began publishing the poems in Poetry where he had first published and in his half-sister June Oppen Degnan's San Francisco Review.
But what kind of poetry do you understand with one reading that you go on using and remembering all your life? I mean the poetry that's most important to me is poetry that's been important to me for most of my life. I want to go back to it, and I find new things in it.
Mary Oppen
The poems of Oppen's first book following his return to poetry, The Materials, were poems that, as he told his sister June, should have been written ten years earlier. Oppen published two more collections of poetry during the 1960s, This In Which (1965) and Of Being Numerous (1968), the latter of which garnered him the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

Last years

Oppen was able to complete and see into publication his Collected Poems, together with a new section Myth of the Blaze, in 1975. In 1977, Mary provided the secretarial help George needed to complete his final volume of poetry Primitive. During this time, George's final illness, Alzheimer's disease, began to manifest itself with confusion, failing memory, and other losses. The disease was eventually to make it impossible for him to continue writing. George Oppen, age 76, died of pneumonia with complications from Alzheimer's disease in a convalescent home in California on July 7th, 1984.

Selected Bibliography

  • Discrete Series (1934)
  • The Materials (1962)
  • This in Which (1965)
  • Of Being Numerous (1968)
  • Seascape: Needle's Eye (1971)
  • The Collected Poems (1975) includes Myth of the Blaze
  • Primitive (1978)

Posthumous publications

For more information on Oppen's posthumous publications, such as his Selected Letters and New Collected Poems, see Wikipedia articles on Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Michael Davidson.

Further reading

  • Cope, Stephen. "Daybook One," "Daybook Two," and "Daybook Three," from George Oppen's Working Papers," edited with an Introduction by Stephen Cope. The Germ, 4, Santa Cruz: The Poetic Research Bloc (May 1999).
  • DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, editor. The Selected Letters of George Oppen, Duke University Press, 1990.
  • Hatlen, Burton, editor. George Oppen: Man and Poet (Man/Woman and Poet Series) (Man and Poet Series), National Poetry Foundation, 1981. ISBN 0915032538
  • Heller, Michael, Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen, Cambridge UK: Salt Publishing, 2008
  • Oppen, George. "The Philosophy of the Astonished (Selections from Working Papers)." Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Sulfur 27 (Fall 1990): 212.
  • Oppen, George. Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, Edited and with an Introduction by Stephen Cope. University of California Press, 2007; ISBN 978-0-520-23579-3, paperback: ISBN 978-0-520-25232-5'

Notes and resources

External links

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