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.

George Oppen New Collected Poems

I can’t remember what made me decide to buy George Oppen New Collected Poems , though I suspect it was a reference on
Ron Silliman’s blog that tied him to other poet’s I like. I’m sure it wasn’t his early ties to Ezra Pound, who wrote the introduction to his first book, though it may have been his ties to William Carlos Williams’ poetry that attracted me. Just the fact that I’d never encountered his poetry may have been part of my motivation.

Certainly many of the poems from Discrete, his first book of poems, would bring to mind Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” though I like many of them better than that poem, like this one:

Tugs against the river —
Motor turning, lights
In the fast water off the bow-wave:
Passes slowly.

though ultimately I don’t think brief images like this can be enough, unless, of course, they are grounded in a literary art form like the Japanese haiku.

I prefer his longer poems that appear in later books, like


The puzzle assembled
At last in the box lid showing a green
Hillside, a house,
A barn and man
And wife and children.
All of it polychrome,
Lucid, backed by the blue
Sky. The jigsaw of cracks
Crazes the landscape but there is no gap,
No actual edged hole
Nowhere the wooden texture of the table top
Glares out of scale in the picture,
Sordid as cellars, as bare foundations:
There is no piece missing. The puzzle is complete
Now in its red and green and brown.

Though this is still a relatively “simple” poems it seems much richer in texture and forces the reader to explore the symbolism to a much greater extent.

Is such a scene really a “solution” to life? Probably not. But it’s certainly a long-held ideal, one that even seems to be making a revival recently. It’s an ideal because, looking back, many of us wish our lives could have unfolded as neatly.

There’s something appealing in the ambiguity of “the jigsaw of cracks” in the image, like a Rembrandt, or a flawed image.