George Oppen and Mary Oppen at Point Reyes, 1977.
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.
Yes, I believe you hit the nail on the head with you’re observation that—for Oppen “a life disconnected from nature leads to a life disconnected from the self.” I’ve been wrangling with a similar aspect in Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” where I was trying to get a feel for what Oppen was getting at with his notions of the “singular” and the “numerous.” The only definitive conclusion that I came to is that in a broad sense, Oppen appears to be a bit of a pastoralist: the “singular” loosely represents nature and the “numerous” symbolizes city life.
He appreciates the isolation of nature to the cacophony of the cities, although by “isolation,” I don’t mean “solitary isolation,” since he does seem to enjoy the company of others. Yet in the context of “Of Being Numerous,” Oppen continually returns to the image of the “shipwreck of the singular,” and I think the first place this image appears is after the 6th poem, where he frets over the idea that Robinson Crusoe was “Rescued” and returned back to civilization, where people are continually “pressed on each other” and the idle gossip of the hour “bursts in a paroxysm of emotion.” So what Oppen was observing and maybe lamenting in the 7th poem is that, just like Crusoe, we can’t handle the isolation of “the shipwreck of the singular” and “have chosen the meaning \ Of being numerous,” or living in urban society, as some sort of defense mechanism.
I felt a similar vibe when I contrasted poems 12 and 13 in “Of Being Numerous.” For instance, in poem 12 Oppen returns to an era in pre-recorded history where we lived in an egalitarian forager-based society. He then contrasts this “time before time” with modern urbanity in poem 13, where he states “unable to begin \ At the beginning, the fortunate \ Find everything already here.” In other words, Oppen kicks off poem 13 by chiding us for forgetting about the “time before time” and believing that everything we need is right here in the city. Although I disagree with Oppen’s view somewhat (I happen to think that arguing about sports is a very human and liberating activity…difference of opinion implies that we’re not all emotionless robots), I can also appreciate the fact that yes, sometimes we need to pull up the stakes and break away from the humdrum of everyday life and get back to nature.
Someone in class also mentioned that reading Oppen was similar to reading haiku poetry, and I’d also like to thank that person. I was initially overwhelmed by Oppen, but once I took the haiku approach and just read his stanza’s in small, extremely focused chunks I began to enjoy his poetry a lot more and became less intimated by it.