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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 Six: A Realist Poetry


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A Realist Poetry

When Oppen does express his views about the function of poetry within the commonplace, and discusses all the necessary political ramifications, they receive little attention. There is indeed no better catalyst than Oppen’s essay “The Mind’s Own Place” to reveal how strongly the critical consensus can sometimes resist a much-needed and very basic sense of the commonplace. Oppen’s one published essay, “The Mind’s Own Place,”, which originally appeared in Kultur 7 (Autumn 1962), along with reprints of five essays by Louis Zukofsky, including his early objectivist critical prose, illustrates the (re)birth of post-World War II objectivist poetics. Yet lately called “a poor performance,” “rambling and confused,” and “an evasion of the poet’s deepest insights” (Weinfield 2009, 26), it has yet to be taken seriously enough. Henry Weinfield’s vehement rejection stems from a perceptible disappointment at the thought that Oppen should have still rehashed “a crude and narrow empiricism” which “by now, in 1962, is a shop-worn group of ideas” (Weinfield 2009, 27). Although I will argue against Weinfield’s dismissal of Oppen’s essay, it is important to wonder why that essay is in fact generally received as pretty anachronistic. The reasons depend for the greatest part on one’s views on objectivism, and on Oppen’s own trajectory before and after 1960. A palpable discomfort with venerable notions like sincerity and truthfulness—both questionable and even impractical critical tools to be sure—has everyone trying to label Oppen...

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