To think a poem is a decidedly difficult task. You could probably write pretty things on a page and some would call it a poem. Robert Creeley makes many observations and statements about George Oppen’s approach to poetry, but one that was particularly striking was one concerning what poetry, and especially Oppen’s poetry, can “make happen.” Creeley states that poetry is “an inscription of the apparent world which registers its relation to our transient human lives –something that will matter, something that can count.”
He further goes on to question the play between understanding that we as humams are many, but that a human is one. Kind of like, how can you speak as a poet for your country when you are a single voice? Through Oppen’s poetry, a reader can see how thinking in a poem is necessary, but also knowing yourself as part of a whole — knowing the part, but also the whole. I found Oppen’s poem “Product” extremely useful in understanding his approach.
There is no beauty in New England like the boats.
Each itself, even the paint white
Dipping to each wave each time
At anchor, mast
And rigging tightly part of it
Fresh from dry tools
And the dry New England hands.
The bow soars, finds the waves
The hull accepts. Once someone
Put a bowl afloat
And there for all to see, for all the children,
Even the New Englander
Was boatness. What I’ve seen
Is all I’ve found: myself.
So, you’ve got to think, you’ve got to make it matter, and you’ve got to know yourself. Sounds kind of hard, but Oppen seems to make it work in light of Creeley’s standards.
In “Product” the boats could almost be a metaphor for humanity. Maybe, but I’m not quite sure. What is obvious though is what Oppen draws from the wholeness of this community of boats into himself. In “What I’ve seen/Is all I’ve found” one can note his reverence to the boats and their “boatness.”
In the second line I think he plays with the difference between the self and the whole within the Objectivist view. He calls attention to each boat being different with “Each itself,” but answers that differentiation with what he finds at the end of the poem, which is “myself.”
Oppen, a sailor, was obsessed with boats and ships. From the “shipwreck of the singular” to that eerie section of “Image of an Engine” that tracks the seagull’s gaze watching a ship sink, nautical images occupy a central role in Oppen’s work. Whitman’s poems are full of ships as well. If you search the Whitman Archive for the word “ship” in his poems, you will come up with more poems that you would even want to read tonight. An interesting topic for a final paper perhaps?