Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Collected Poems

Oppen, George. Collected Poems. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing Corporation,

Oppen’s collection begins with 1932’s Discrete Series and concludes with Myth of the Blaze, which contains poems written as late as 1975. To a large extent, the work within this book can be divided into three distinct phases: the Discrete Poems from the early 30s, mid-career poems (beginning with The Materials and ending with Of Being Numerous), and culminating in the poet’s later output from the 70s. Each phase exhibits particular aesthetic and content-based traits. The poet’s early work consists of lyric fragments that employ short lines, hard enjambments, irregular line breaks, and intentionally banal content. This last feature, no doubt, exemplifies “The knowledge not of sorrow…/ …but of boredom” (3). After a thirty years hiatus from writing poetry to pursue his interests with the Communist Party, Oppen’s mid-career verse explores much longer lines, focuses on content that is ideological in nature (i.e. “If the city has roots, they are in filth./ It is a slum…/ ...some black brick/ Tenement, a woman’s body” (55)), and investigates meta-poetic commentary that casts poetry and language within a skeptical framework: “Even the verse begins to eat away/ In the acid” (68) and “Possible/ To use/ Words provided one treat them/ As enemies” (97). The poems Oppen wrote toward the end of his career demonstrate the most radical alteration in his aesthetic and poetic output. Punctuation almost completely disappears, white space separates phrases and words from one another within individual lines, and the associative leaps between images and units of thought are much greater, sometimes leaving the reader unable to determine connections between them. While the poems may “speak the estranged// unfamiliar sphere” (248), these “tornado…words// piled on each other lean// on each other dance// with the dancing” (238) in an effort to simulate movement and affective correspondences. Yet, there are several traits that cross-cut Oppen’s career, one being the serialization (i.e. sequence) of poems, and another being “A limited, limiting clarity,” of which the poet claims: “I have not and never did have any motive of poetry// But to achieve clarity” (185); and, in order to do so, Oppen more often than not practiced “saying simple things” almost to the point where it appears as though “nothing was being said” (190).

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