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George Oppen

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.