Discrete Series, 1934
The Materials, 1962
This in Which, 1965
Of Being Numerous, 1968
Seascape: Needle’s Eye, 1972
The Collected Poems of George Oppen, 1975
New Collected Poems, 2002
The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 1990
George Oppen (AHP-uhn) was one of the principal participants in the small but influential group of poets called Objectivists in the 1930’s, but a combination of personal uncertainty and political necessity led to a withdrawal from literature for nearly a quarter of a century. His return to an active writing life resulted in nearly two more decades of poetry and eventual recognition by the community of American letters that he was one of the most innovative and intellectually interesting poets of the twentieth century.
Oppen was born near New York City, the son of a prosperous wholesale diamond merchant, George August Oppenheimer (who changed the family name in 1927), and Elsie Rothfeld, a troubled woman who committed suicide when Oppen was four. In 1917 his father remarried and a year later relocated the family to San Francisco, where Oppen attended a military academy. Oppen’s youthful artistic inclinations (he had already stated in adolescence that he wanted to be a writer) clashed with his family’s expectations, and his difficult relationship with his stepmother caused a continuing tension that was sometimes expressed in moments of violent behavior. In 1925, he was driving when a serious crash took the life of one passenger, six weeks before he was scheduled to graduate, and Oppen was expelled from the academy for drinking. After a brief trip to Europe, he finished his high school education requirements at a local prep school and followed a friend to enroll at Oregon State University.
There, in a class in literature, he became fascinated by Conrad Aiken’s anthology of modern poetry. He also met Mary Colby, who shared his interests in the arts and who “saved” and “freed” him, as he put it, from the “wounds and limits” of his social background. Forming what was to be a lifelong commitment, Oppen and Colby left college together following mutual curfew violations. They hitchhiked across the United States in 1927 and were married in Dallas. The couple moved to New York City in 1929, when Oppen turned twenty-one and began to receive a small legacy from his mother’s and maternal grandmother’s estates.
Oppen began to write the poems of his first book, Discrete Series, and by 1930 he had a manuscript of thirty-two pages. He was encouraged by a friendship with the poet Louis Zukofsky. The Oppens moved to France in 1931, where they formed the press To Publishers with Zukofsky as editor, and in 1932 they produced work by William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound as well as Zukofsky’s An “Objectivists” Anthology, key modernist texts. Returning to the United States in 1933, the Oppens collaborated with Zukofsky on a new publishing venture, the Objectivist Press, which brought out Oppen’s Discrete Series in 1934 as well as books by Charles Reznikoff and Williams’s Collected Poems 1921-1931.
In an idealistic gesture characteristic of their total involvement in any venture, the Oppens joined the Communist Party in 1935, determined to work as organizers for social change, and Oppen stopped writing abruptly and completely. In addition to his participation in political activities, he believed that he did not have the experience with either life or literature to be able to achieve anything further as a poet. Working as a union organizer and campaign manager, Oppen maintained an active party membership from 1936 to 1941. He was also strongly antifascist, and he regretted to some extent his inability to enlist in the Republican cause in Spain. This spurred him to move to Detroit in 1942 to increase the likelihood of induction into the armed services–he had a work exemption as a pattern maker for an aircraft company on Long Island and was the father of a young child (Linda Jean, born in 1940).
Oppen served in an antitank company in Europe between October, 1944, and April, 1945, participating in the landing on Marseilles and the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded by shell fire and given the Purple Heart, among other commendations.
After the war, the Oppens moved to California, where Oppen became a custom carpenter and discontinued active affiliation with the Communist Party. However, in the climate of Cold War anxiety, Oppen was kept under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (from 1941 to 1966), and in 1950 he went into political exile in Mexico. There he supervised a furniture factory, took courses on the G.I. Bill at art school, and did some investment counseling.
When the Oppens were granted passports in 1958, Oppen sensed a significant transformation in his life. After some consultation with a psychiatrist for an episode of depression, he felt ready to write again. In May, 1958, he completed his first poem since the mid-1930’s. His reentry into the community of letters was marked by the publication of some poems in Poetry magazine in 1959 and the first of his books with New Directions Press, The Materials, in 1962.
The Oppens moved back to the United States in 1960, living in New York City near old friends from the Objectivist era until 1966, when they moved to San Francisco. He assisted Reznikoff with a book of selected poems in 1961 while working on his own book This in Which. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for Of Being Numerous and saw The Collected Poems of George Oppen published in the United Kingdom in 1972 and the United States in 1975. Oppen read his work extensively during the 1970’s throughout the United States and was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1980’s. Declining health forced a reduction in his extensive correspondence at that time, and he died of Alzheimer’s disease in July, 1984.