Meaning A Life


My first Objectivist, and still the primary one, was George Oppen. I was reminded of him this morning, and I wanted to post a poem of his that I read one bright, cold Buffalo morning years ago that brought tears to my eyes. Unfortunately, my Oppen book is at my office, where I am not. Maybe I’ll post it later.

So I got to thinking about Oppen and my initial love affair with him, an affair I shared with one other fellow grad student back then, Alicia Cohen, who is a poet too (you can see his influence in Cohen’s poem here, I think). I was attracted to the sincerity and care with which Oppen constructed his poems. He built his poems, not “about” things, but within his life, using the raw material of his life: his love for his wife, Mary Oppen, and his daughter, Linda Oppen, and his desire to understand how the individual must remain an individual, but only among other individuals. His poetics were equally attuned to aesthetics as well as emotion, and I found this balance within his poems breathtaking.

Andrea Brady explains Oppen’s motivation to create poem-objects in detail, “For Oppen, human individuals also shine in their own autonomy, but only achieve being through relation to each other and the object world.”

And also from Brady:

“Oppen might have argued that his poetry is an object, not a representation. He frequently corrected a misunderstanding of Zukofsky’s coinage ‘Objectivist’: the term did not mean ‘the psychologically objective in attitude’ but ‘the objectification of the poem, the making an object of the poem.’ Objectivist ‘meant, of course, the poets’ recognition of the necessity of form’ … Oppen built his poems as palimpsests, pasting layer upon layer of revisions until the paper became thick and rock-like, a three-dimensional object rather than a plane … These reworkings of the poem surface to include all previous versions as weight or thickness reveals the concentration and labour added to the sheet of typescript, as well as the need to create a poetic surface which also contains the depth of all previous endeavour. Just as the earth’s mantle is itself a palimpsest of mineral life and death, so the poetry would be built up with the history of its own engagements and mutations.”

But Oppen’s method and poetics did not spring fully-formed from his academic studies. Many critics refer to Mary Oppen’s memoir, Meaning a Life, to enlighten us. It is Mary who describes in detail the route their political evolution took and how George came into his ideals, so to speak. They travelled together, observed together, and discussed with one another the ways in which the world functions and how to affect those machinations.

I seem to be on a Black Sparrow kick again; they published Mary Oppen’s book in 1978. From her memoir, “We had learned at college that poetry was being written in our own times, and that in order for us to write it was not necessary to ground ourselves in the academic; the ground we needed was the roads we were travelling. . . . Hitchhiking became more than a flight from a powerful family—our discoveries themselves became an esthetic and a disclosure. [p. 68]”

They travelled across America, and then across Europe, discovering the sources that had made their American upbringing possible and considering ways to directly affect the world they populated:

“As we explored, wondered and talked, we began to learn about the people who had been here before us. In wash-houses along the streams and rivers of France women knelt with sleeves rolled up and sweaters buttoned, their knees on a board, and pounded the laundry with big paddles, commenting on all that they saw.

Women of artisan and peasant class lived more out-of-doors than did women of similar class in the United States, and they lived more in comradeship with one another; there was more of a sisterhood than we had seen at home. These women worked in the fields, took care of the cows, geese and chickens and shared the work of house and garden; women in the United States rarely have shared in the heavy outdoor field-work of farm life. We have put European ways behind us so fast that changes are hard to understand. At first in France we were shocked, and then we began to understand that the old ways had qualities that some of the newer ways in America have lost. [p. 123]”

I’m just speculating here, but I’d say that George learned a lot about taking one’s time, physically devoting one’s self to a labor, and taking care when building a poem based on what he witnessed and discussed with Mary. Her concern with recording their progress and observations is a keen, noteworthy feat itself. It’s no coincidence that most secondary articles about George rely on Mary’s words for elaboration, and indeed, the story of their lives. Beside every good man …


AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

1 Comment Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: