What strikes me most about George Oppen’s poetry is his consistent comparison of humans and nature; not as a harmonious duality, but more as a constant battle. The first place I noticed this was in The Edge of the Ocean: “The edge of the ocean,/The shore: here/Somebody’s lawn,/By the water.” I read this as an indirect critique on humans; as he views the ocean as the purist form of nature, he recognizes the placement of it right next to someone’s lawn. He points out the natural human tendency to claim pieces of the earth, alongside commenting how essentially unnatural it is to possess a piece of the earth, especially next to something as grand and idyllic as the ocean.
Once I had this particular reading in my head, I couldn’t help but read the other poems with this notion that humans have somehow tainted the world – a notion that reminded me of the Whitmanian idea that something is off or lost in the world. In Eclogue, he comments on and critiques language, the very characteristic that makes us human. He refers to language as an “uproar” and an “assault” on the “quiet continent,” portraying it as a way of alienating ourselves.
Oppen’s critique of language ties into this overall notion and takes it a step further to suggest that learned human tendencies hold us back from finding the truest essence of ourselves. This idea shows up again in Myself I Sing in the lines “For we are all housed now, all in our apartments.” Oppen consistently reveals this problematic disconnect between humans and nature, and how we too often live opposed to it instead of submerged in it.
In World World, Oppen explores people who live disconnected from nature, suggesting the lack of meaning in their lives in the line “One cannot count them/Tho they are present.” Although it’s presumptuous for Oppen to assume that people are not able to feel the way he does, I think the point he’s attempting to make is profound; a life disconnected from nature leads to a life disconnected from the self – nature is where we can find the truest essence of our selves.