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.

11 thoughts on “Oppen’s “The Building of the Skyscraper””

  1. Loren, thank you so much for these discussions of Oppen’s poems. This one is very beautiful. Oppen is in the Norton edition of Modern poetry that I’ll be using in the fall; however, unfortunately, this poem is not included. I see you are enjoying your spring. It was hot here to day, a record 91. Next week it should cool off, though.

  2. I find the idea of skyscraper interesting in connection with the recent release of a book of photographs by a man named Nickel (not sure on spelling) who spent a great deal of time photographing buildings of Louis Sullivan. He fought to preserve them and died taking photos of one in the midst of deconstruction. Anyway, it may be a bit of an associative leap but I thought the poem triggered this image of what disappears.kjm

  3. Funny, the skyscraper image reminded me of Cat Steven’s “Where Will the Children Play,” particularly the line “crack the sky.”

  4. My comment is indirect. It’s a poem by John Ciardi,
    one I have liked for years. In reading it, think of Nona as a surrogate for that poet (or steelworker
    and her stoic perspective as a version of theirs.

    Nona Domenica Garnaro
    Nona Domenica Garnaro sits in the sun
    on the step of her house in Calabria.
    There are seven men and four women in the village
    who call her Mama, and the orange trees
    fountain their blooms down all the hill and valley.
    No one can see more memory from this step
    than Nona Domenica. When she folds her hands
    in her lap they fall together
    like two Christs fallen from a driftwood shrine.
    All their weathers are twisted into them.
    There is that art in them that will not be carved
    but can only be waited for. These hands are not
    sad nor happy nor tired nor strong. They are simply
    complete. They lie still in her lap
    and she sits waiting quietly in the sun
    for what will happen, as for example, a petal
    may blow down on the wind and lie across
    both of her thumbs, and she look down at it.

  5. Thank you for introducing me to George Oppen’s poetry. I keep re-reading this enigmatic poem.

    It is a startling thought that looking back in time three hundred years can bring on the distressing, dizzy, spinning feeling that is vertigo. That some words and poems can become like skyscrapers. That other words and poems, like trees, grow organically from an urban sidewalk with “bare land” beneath it.

    I remember standing on street level at the Twin Towers in New York City in the fall of 1982 and experiencing a reverse sort of vertigo as I stood close and looked up the side of one of those immense buildings to the exquisitely clear blue sky.

    Some poems feel like being on top of a skyscraper. Others feel like looking down into the Grand Canyon. Two very different experiences of vertigo. For me, reading “The Building of a Skyscraper” is like looking into the Grand Canyon. In the business of being a poet, Oppen suffers the struggles of a tree as well that of a steelworker.

  6. I own all his early albums, Teresa. In that sense i was certainly a fan and considered his music the most complex (in a good sense) of rock, at least until I started listening to Bruce Cockburn.

    I’ll have to admit I nearly disowned his music when I finally found out where he ended up on his spiritual quest. But then I decided that his music belonged as much to me as it did to him, so I went back to replaying the albums regularly — albeit with a little more skepticism than in my younger days.

  7. I also listen to and enjoy his albums. I can’t speak to what’s in his heart now; but his early work will always be part of me. There’s something almost prisine about his early vision. It’s good to find another fan; so many people I know either hate his music or are closet fans, ashamed to admit to liking him.

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