Oppen’s “Memory at ‘The Modern'”

I’ve nearly finished George Oppen: New Collected Poems, having just finished the section entitled “Uncollected Published Poems,” a section I actually enjoyed more than many of the previous ones. Of course, since these poems have been selected by various magazine editors, the only surprising thing is that they didn’t make it into one of his previous collections.

This is probably my favorite poem of the section, though perhaps not representative of the section as a whole:

MEMORY AT “THE MODERN”

We had seen bare land
And the people bare on it
And men camp
In the city. The lights,
The pavement, this important device
Of a race, I wrote then,
Twenty three years old,
Remains till morning. Nobody knows who died
On the roads of that time, of the fact of roads.
I am a man of the Thirties.

‘No other tastes shall change this.

As I’ve looked back, I’ve realized that I, too, am very much a man of my time, though I’m not sure if that time is the 40’s, the 50’s, or both. Certainly my view of the world must have been profoundly influenced by World War II, even though I have little or no memory of it, and by the Korean War, which I only have limited memories of.

I grew up with very little, as most of our country’s production in WW II was devoted to the war effort. I got one pair of shoes and two pair of pants in a year, and if I got a hole in the knee from crawling around, I wore a patch on the knees for the rest of the year. I don’t think I’ve ever outgrown that idea, not that I want to. I don’t donate my clothes when I tire of them; I wear them until they’re no longer wearable. I buy clothes when I go to the closet and find I no longer have anything to wear.

I got one or two toys per year as a child, and it still bothers me to see grandkids with toys strewn all over the house or yard. I doubt they will ever treasure their toys like I did, which probably explains why I’m more apt to give them money for a college fund than toys when I visit.

I know what it’s like to be “poor,” at least by modern standards, know what it means to go without.

Of course, I also shared in the sudden prosperity of the 50’s and lived in the suburbs in a tract home. I know what it means to expect a little more each year than the year before.

I will probably never totally reconcile those two worlds. Perhaps that’s what it means to live in Post-Modern World.

3 thoughts on “Oppen’s “Memory at ‘The Modern'”

  1. Switch off the light when you are not in the room and never leave food on your plate are just two of the legacies I take from an upbringing you describe. It has helped me to avoid participating in this unbridled consumerism we are now paying the environmental price for and is clearly not sustainable.

  2. We weren’t poor, but we lived that way in many ways because my mother was frugal. Although I’m of a more recent generation than you, we got few presents, and those we got we treasured, and we wore our clothes out (Like you, I still do). We were raised, like Rudi, with adages like, “Turn off the lights,” “put on more clothes when you’re cold,” and “Clean your plate or else.” My ex-husband and I raised our daughter with birthday parties in which people bought food items for the local food charity instead of presents. We did that for years, and she loved to bring the food down to the food bank with us. Programs like “Bam” on cable (which we don’t subscribe to as I never watch television and I don’t want my daughter exposed to the rampant consumerism that’s pushed every minute) make me sick for the message they’re sending to unprotected kids who are raised on such a diet. Still, I have much more than many, and wouldn’t want to let go of my ’04 Toyota Matrix or my ability to pay for food and vet bills for my dogs, or the occasional traveling we do. So there is conflict in many of my choices. Thought-provoking post.

  3. Thanks always for your photos and choice of poems. This poem by George Oppen got me thinking.

    My parents were teenagers during the Depression, and were formed by that experience and World War I in their childhoods. After having worked for many years as a typesetter for a newspaper in Boston, my mother’s father went to medical school in his late 30s and eventually became an Army surgeon, serving in France in the last days of World War I. I was a child in the wake of World War II, and the Korean War was the “first war” I knew. The Civil Rights and Vietnam Era filled my teenage years, during which time I was raised by parents who were firmly in the middle class, grateful to have a modest home in the suburbs. The 50s and 60s form a basis for my continually evolving view of the world. If I don’t find a way to make a living soon, I will be finding myself living out my days as a low income person.

What do you think?