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.

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