Oppen, Whitman, and War

War seems to have had greatly influenced the poetry of both George Oppen and Walt Whitman. Oppen’s poem “Disasters” was likely inspired by Oppen’s time spent in the second World War. Both poets were voluntarily active in America’s wars of their time. While Whitman volunteered wholeheartedly with sick, wounded, and dying soldiers, Oppen quit his job to make himself eligible for the draft. While Oppen took a break from writing poetry during his war years, those years of his life had a large impact on his writing when he later returned to poetry- just as Whitman’s experience with the devastation and sense of hopelessness he witnessed affected his writing to a great extent.

“of wars o western / wind and storm /of politics I am sick with a poet’s /vanity       legislators /of the unacknowledged”

In the poem “Disasters”, the mention of wars could not only refer to the breaking up of nations, but the breaking up of people within and between nations. Oppen is frustrated with the people who have “become strangers in this wind that / rises like a gift / in the disorder”. I think that Whitman had similar feelings about what war was doing to the country, but more importantly- the people within the country as well as the people of the opposite side. In his poem, “Populist”, Oppen envisions himself to be one of the men on the other side of the fight looking toward America.

“I dreamed myself of their people, I am of their people, / I thought they watched me that I watched them / that they / watched the sun and the clouds for the cities / are no longer mine     image    images / of existence     (or song / of myself?)”

The subject of the poem dreams that from the other side of things they watch for cities, clues of existence, or a “song of myself”. I think Oppen is saying that whatever side we are on, we are able to see a sense of likeness and hints of ourselves in images from the other side. We are all humans fighting senseless wars between each other, between ourselves.

At the end of “Disasters”, the speaker of the poem sees a young boy in the desert who is “lost”, “clumsy”, and “alone”. A young girls voice is lost among marching armies. It seems that Oppen is suggesting that a sense of individuality and independance is lost during a time of war. This, I think, is a very Whitmanesque way of thinking. Like Whitman, Oppen did what he could during a time of war and strove to depict the senseless suffering he witnessed in his poetry.

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One Response to Oppen, Whitman, and War

  1. AVZ says:

    I like that you bring in these two poems–I had taken them off the syllabus because I didn’t want to over-extend your guys. They’re “late” Oppen–and Oppen became even more syntactically strange in his later years. But I like what you are able to do and say about these poem, despite their real difficulty. I love the echo’s of Shelley with the western wind, and how Oppen reverses Shelley’s famous statement: Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. For Oppen, it becomes “legislators of the unacknowledged world”–a kind of vanity of removal and exception. Great post!

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