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George Oppen's Poetics of the Commonplace

Xavier Kalck

Few poets have been as adamant about the uselessness of their art in the face of history as American poet George Oppen (1908–1984), and yet, few poets have been as viscerally convinced of the important role of the poem in restoring meaning to our words. Oppen came to maturity between two world wars, at the time of the Depression, and gave up poetry just when he had embraced it. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, his new work seemed to many poets and critics to represent the epitome of poetic virtue in dark times. Whereas Oppen wrote of the lost sense of the commonplace, his readers found in his poetry the means to reclaim the poet’s role within the community.
George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace offers the first survey of the critical consensus which has now built up around the poetry of George Oppen, after over two decades of substantial interest in his work. It proposes a comprehensive perspective on Oppen and the criticism devoted to Oppen, from the Objectivist strain in American poetry to the thinkers, such as Heidegger, Levinas, Marx and Adorno, which critics have brought to bear on Oppen’s poetry, to pave the way for the consideration and exemplification of a new methodology which sheds a critical light on the ideas and practices in contemporary poetics, through well-researched close readings.
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Chapter Five: A Dream of Politics


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A Dream of Politics1

Among the problems regarding how statements exist in a dialectic with images, one issue has consistently interfered with Oppen’s emphasis on clarity—the role of politics in shaping the poet’s vision. Presenting a political reading of Oppen’s poetry has often meant two things. First, it has involved setting up context, topicality, and possibly even content, in the hope of fleshing out the poem’s bony frames. As such, this is a useful, if tricky, task. For “political” then seems to mean “historical,” if not really “biographical”—a confusion which can pass for a resolution of all conflicts regarding the problem at hand. Secondly, it has implied expressing judgment, either in praise of Oppen’s political commitments, or to dismiss Oppen’s political commitments and signs thereof in his poetry and among critics of Oppen. Conflict is then limited to rhetorical confrontations, as Terry Eagleton suggests in The Function of Criticism, in which the battleground where conflicts exist is the public sphere. I would rather argue, along with Robert Eaglestone, that understanding “criticism as either revolutionary or reactionary” (Eaglestone 1997, 12) offers such a restrictive framework that it discourages from close analysis.

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