George Oppen

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.

6 replies on “Oppen’s “The Bicycle and the Apex””

When I spent a year as an adult with a bike as my only transportation option, it was like finding an old friend. Of course I lived in a place supportive of bike transportation. I found the bike a mechanism that made life, even in winter, a barrage of surprises.

=v= It’s interesting how everyday things shift and change with the times, yet the meanings remain. If anything’s become a platitude of discontent these days, it’s cars and tract housing, and our society has tried to compensate by supersizing them into SUVs and McMansions.

Bikes, on the other hand, have become even lighter and more miraculous. Like kjm, I returned to bike riding as an adult, and I reconnected with the old feeling. Life at a bike scale is life at a human scale, closer to the apex.

It occurs to me that computers are like bicycles,

The mechanisms. Light
And miraculous …

allowing us to, in your apt words, “capture light or to find words that accurately convey half-conceived thoughts.”

So many of the poets you choose help me see cycles (!) of history, with their moments of contentment and eras of discontent and disillusion.

My father’s father was an idealistic lawyer who wrote books and poetry, the first American-born son of a western Minnesota farmer from Norway. Grandpa R. didn’t make enough money to buy a house in the city for his wife and five children, but inspired his sons and daughters to do what it took to go to college and buy houses in the suburbs. He didn’t learned to drive, choosing to walk to work in the city. He died four months after I was born. As a mature man, he recalled with joy the time he had spent growing up far from cities.

My father’s first job was as a successful paperboy, which led him to choose a career in business. I imagine that he began by carrying his papers on foot and then bought a bicycle, but I don’t know that for sure, as it was during the Depression.

The first house my father bought in his marriage to my mother (for each of them, a second marriage), was a tract home in the suburbs of San Francisco and that was with the help of a loan from his older married sister. Previous to that we had lived in two apartments by the time I was 3 years old. Soon after that he was transferred, sold the home, and we again lived in a rental home. That was where my father taught me ride a bicycle. After his final job transfer, he bought another tract home in the suburbs of San Francisco. I remember the freedom I had as a young girl, riding my bicycle, exploring my neighborhood and the surrounding land outside of city limits.

I’m still thinking about Robert Pirsig’s ZEN AND THE ART …, how cars and motorcycles followed bicycles, and how some people left farms for small towns, left small towns for cities, left cities for suburbs, and then some of their children returned to small towns and rural areas again, where they sustain distant, sometimes international, social connections by utilizing computers. Many of them and their children are riding bicycles again, finding them “Light and miraculous.” The “quality” that Pirsig contemplates is a persistent thread, rather than an apex.

My father bought a Honda motorcycle for one of my younger sisters. It was what she wanted for her 20th birthday. She took shop classes and learned to maintain her motorcycle. At 20, she was in a serious motorcycle accident which changed the course of her life, but she didn’t regret the exhilarating time she spent exploring the San Francisco Bay Area coast hills on her motorcycle.

Where I live now, an area of both high- and low-income housing, at what was once the edge of small town, there are frequent car prowls. A member of the police department came to talk to our small neighborhood community and noted that car prowls in our area are often done by drug addicts riding bicycles after midnight. All neighborhoods in my town, high- and low-income, are prowled by drug addicts.

Startling to read in Wikipedia how the The John Birch Society has continued since George Oppen wrote “The Bicycle and the Apex.”

Didn’t expect to write so much. Thanks again for your generous writing and photos.

Half-concieved? Sounds like you’re pandering for my comments, because my thoughts are always in such shape! You’re getting thought-provoking in your old age, so watch out!

You’re right, ron, I consider you the master of half-conceived ideas, which is probably why I check them every day.