George Oppen’s “Selected Unpublished Poems”

I think George Oppen: New Collected Poems ends on a high note with “Selected Unpublished Poems” as I found some of my favorite Oppen poems here, so many that I’d never think of publishing them here and deprive you of the pleasure of discovering them yourself. Let me just say that if your library doesn’t have a copy of this volume, they should have as it ranks right up there with William Carlos Williams’ works.

One of my favorites, for obvious reasons is this one:

[The Old Man]

The old man
In the mirror
But the young man
In the photograph
Is stranger

I imagine you have to reach a certain age to appreciate this poem, but even if you don’t appreciate it yet, you can use it to keep your life in perspective.

Not surprisingly, this is another favorite:

She Steals Birds

It is known.
She saw a baby chirping sparrow
In the grass and kneeled
To rescue him. The infant bird

Opened his beak wide
Dropped his wings and made
Little rushes at her finger
While his parents shouted from the bushes.

In many ways this poem seems to represent Oppen’s poetic genius, his ability to find concrete images or scenes to convey complex ideas.

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:


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.

Oppen “wakes us together out of sleep”

Although I confess too many of Oppen’s later poems leave me confused and frustrated, I keep reading because I also find a considerable number of poems that I love, poems like this one:


how shall I light
this room that measures years

and years not miracles nor were we
judged but a direction

of things in us burning burning for we are not
still nor is this place a wind
utterly outside ourselves and yet it is
unknown and all the sails full to the last

rag of the topgallant, royal
tops'l, the least rags
at the mast-heads

to save the commonplace save myself Tyger
Tyger still burning in me burning
in the night sky burning
in us the light
in the room it was all
part of the wars
of things brilliance
of things

in the appalling
seas language

lives and wakes us together
out of sleep the poem
opens its dazzling whispering hands

Although I’d personally prefer different line breaks, the ambiguity provided by the arrangement often adds another dimension, a level of ambiguity, to the ideas. For instance, I still find myself wondering whether Oppen really intended to say, “a direction of things in us burning, burning, for we are not still” as I read the poem.

Perhaps I respond to that line because I continue to write because I have something inside of me saying, “I may not be important, but This is important, this needs to be told before it is too late, before it is irrevocably gone.

I might say “I’m Satisfied,” and I am satisfied with my own life and where I’m at, but I’m not satisfied with the world I see around me, nor can I totally separate myself from my world, “for we are not still nor is this place a wind utterly outside ourselves.”

If I cannot “save the commonplace,” then how can I “save myself?”

The language of all great poetry, all great literature, “lives and wakes us together out of sleep.”

Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous”

Lack of recent poetry entries to the contrary, I have been continuously reading George Oppen’s New Collected Poems. Generally when I delay reading a book of poems this long after I’ve actually begun it, it means I’m not particularly fond of the poems. That’s not the case here, though.

My greatest problem is simply that I haven’t been able to identify a particular poem that appeals to me or comes close to summarizing Oppen’s ideas. That left me having to deal with a 25 page poem consisting of 40 sections entitled “On Being Numerous.”

If this were a college course and I had to write a 25 page paper, I’d been in great shape because the poem is diffusely philosophic, which roughly translates into “I probably don’t have a clue what he’s saying,” but unlike much of modern poetry it still seems important to me, and worth reading. Or maybe it’s simply that Oppen and I happen to experience and process reality in similar ways. Perhaps its not translatable and has to be experienced, like a slideshow.

There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.

Occurrence, a part
Of an infinite series,

The sad marvels;

Of this was told
A tale of our wickedness.
It is not our wickedness.

‘You remember that old town we went to, and we sat in the
ruined window, and we tried to imagine that we belonged to
those times-It is dead and it is not dead, and you cannot
imagine either its life or its death; the earth speaks and the sala-
mander speaks, the Spring comes and only obscures it-‘


So spoke of the existence of things,
An unmanageable pantheon

Absolute, but they say

A city of the corporations
In dreams

And images-

And the pure joy
Of the mineral fact

Tho it is impenetrable

As the world, if it is matter,
is impenetrable.

The emotions are engaged
Entering the city
As entering any city.

We are not coeval
With a locality
But we imagine others are.

We encounter them. Actually

A populace flows

Thru the city.

This is a language, therefore, of New York

To tell you the truth, I was simply hooked by the truth of those first three lines, “There are things we live among ‘and to see them is to know ourselves’.” and apparently I’m not the first to be hooked by them, as a quick search on Google reveals, particularly this article in the Nation.

Perhaps we can never really know any time but our own, but visiting a historical site often seems to add a dimension to our knowledge that we cannot get merely from reading. Reading about The Hudson Bay Company is one thing, but it’s quite different to visit a reconstructed Fort Vancouver, see a blacksmith making nails, touch original nails, and see some of the furniture that was in the original fort.

It may well be impossible to know New York, but the population flowing through the city is the “language…of New York.” Seeing images of New York may impress us, but unless we meet the people of New York we can never hope to know it.

Oppen’s “The Building of the Skyscraper”

The yard is calling and I’m finding it difficult to spend the time I’d really like to devote to George Oppen : New Collected Poems.

But with family on the way this weekend and most of next week, I’ll have to post what I can as I can. I’m driving to Vancouver tomorrow to visit old friends and plan on stopping at the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge, so perhaps I’ll get some good pictures there.

All of which is not to say that I don’t have time to post a few more of Oppen’s poems. Personally I like the way this poem defines the “business of the poet:”


The steel worker on the girder
learned not to look down, and does his work
And there are words we have learned
Not to look at,
Not to look for substance
Below them. But we are on the verge
Of vertigo.

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:

0, 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.

though I’m not sure many people still see poetry this way. I’m not sure I know precisely what Oppen means when he says “It is the business of the poet/To suffer the things of the world/ And to speak them and himself out” but it sounds right, and I suspect that’s what he’s attempting to do in the final stanza.

When one contrasts the skyscraper in the title with what the land must have looked like three hundred years ago, many of us feel a little dizzy. It’s frightening how fast we’ve altered the landscape, destroyed what was naturally here and built skyscrapers to mark our existence.

What will happen in another three hundred years if we continue at the same pace? It is a frightening thought when seen from our current perspective, which might explain why I — like the steelworker — continue to seek out the wilderness rather than constantly dwell on the future.

Oppen’s “The Bicycle and the Apex”

I’m finding that there are so many Oppen poems that I like in this part of his New Collected Poems that I’m having a hard time deciding which to discuss, particularly since I’m not sure yet what his dominant themes are.

I particularly love the way he makes simple, everyday THINGS function as symbols for abstract ideas, as in:


How we loved them
once, these mechanisms;
We all did. Light
And miraculous,

They have gone stale, part
Of the platitude, the gadgets,
Part of the platitude
Of our discontent.

Van Gogh went hungry and what shoe salesman
Does not envy him now? Let us agree
Once and for all that neither the slums
Nor the tract houses

Represent the apex
Of the culture.
They are the barracks. Food

Produced, garbage disposed of,
Lotions sold, flat tires
Changed and tellers must handle money

Under supervision but it is a credit to no one
So that slums are made dangerous by the gangs
And suburbs by the John Birch Societies

But we loved them once,
The mechanisms. Light
And miraculous ...

If you’re as old as I am, you probably remember the moment you got your first, and only, bike, or, in my case, when I finally got my older brother’s hand-me-down bike. It was a miraculous moment, a moment that expanded my universe forever since it could take me much further than my steel-wheeled roller skates. In a very real sense, it was a prelude to my first car.

It wasn’t long, though, before that miraculous bike seemed a poor substitute for a car, especially when richer classmates were driving to school in hot rods and getting all the cutest girls.

I can still remember the apprehension, and excitement, of purchasing my first home, but even that soon lost its newness and became little more than an expensive necessity. Two homes later, I have no desire for a huge home with too many rooms to clean and too much yard to maintain.

I don’t have or worry that someone has more than me. Enough is enough.

Now I spend my days trying to figure out how to capture light or to find words that accurately convey half-conceived thoughts.

Oppen’s “The Source”

I haven’t read enough of George Oppen to identify his major themes, but, like William Carlos Williams, he has written a number of poems focusing on the poor, and so far those tend to be my favorite poems, this one in particular:


If the city has roots, they are in filth.
It is a slum. Even the sidewalk
Rasps under the feet.

-In some black brick
Tenement, a woman’s body
Glows. The gleam; the unimaginable
Thin feet taper down
The instep naked to the wooden floor!

Hidden and disguised
-and shy?

The city’s
Secret warmth.

perhaps because it reflects some of my own experiences.

It seemed to me that the men in the poor areas where I grew up were most often angry or “tough,” perhaps because they needed to be to survive.

The women were tough, too; they had to be in order to survive; but they were often secretively kind and loving, managing to make such a life bearable.