George Oppen
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

George and Mary Oppen, c. 1968. Photograph by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

“When the man writing is frightened by a word, he may have started,” remarked poet GEORGE OPPEN (1908-74), who knew fear. At the age of four, Oppen’s mother committed suicide and, though affluent, relations with his father and stepmother were difficult. In 1926, Oppen met future wife Mary Colby (1908-90) while both attended Oregon State; vagabond travel followed. In New York, Oppen met older poets Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976) and Louis Zukofsky (1904-78) who — despite substantial aesthetic differences — would together form the core of the February 1931 “Objectivist” issue of Poetry, which included verse by one Whittaker Chambers (1901-61). Wither Depression-era poetics? Soon after the 1934 publication of George’s first book, Discrete Series, the Oppens quit literature for the Communist Party USA: Brooklyn elections, Utica strikes, Trotskyite taunts. Distraught by Nazi genocide, Oppen joined the Army in 1942, and survived severe artillery wounds in 1945. After the war, the Oppens’ Communist activities in Redondo Beach, California attracted FBI attention, not lessened by the August 1948 Congressional testimony of now-former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers. In 1950 the Oppens exiled themselves to Mexico City, where they remained until 1958. Before returning to America, Oppen again began writing and he continued writing in Brooklyn: spare, coiled works of unsettling philosophical rigor (hear “Narrative” below) which received unlikely acclaim., including a 1969 Pulitzer. How to explain it? The Oppens’ own accounts of their Communist decades were evasive and unsatisfying. A preponderance of evidence, however, suggests that Oppen underwent a crucial de-Stalinization following Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschnev’s shocking 1956 denouncement of his predecessor’s brutal despotism. Free your mind and your verse might follow.

NARRATIVE

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Captain Sensible.

READ MORE about members of the Partisans (1904-13) Generation.

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.