George and Mary Oppen
|Above, the OSU 1926-7 Women's Handbook, which each student was required to carry at all times. Below: the relevant transcription.|
A-I. Hours to be observed.
a) Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday—
Closing hour l0 :00 p.m. Women will leave the library in time to reach home by this hour
Closing hour - 11:30 p.m.
Lights out -12:00 p.m.
Friday afternoon—callers 4:00 to
Prize Winner George Oppen
George Oppen attended Californian public schools, and in 1926 he enrolled in the Agricultural College, presently Oregon State University, at Corvallis. Soon after his arrival at Corvallis, Oppen met Mary Colby, formerly of Grants Pass, Oregon. Both George and Mary were forced to leave the university before the end of their first semester--George for a semester and Mary for good--because of violating the girl's dormitory curfew while on their first date.
Oppen returned to San Francisco to work for his father for a short time. Shortly after Mary joined him in San Francisco, the two decided not to return to university studies, or to accept the middle class comforts that Oppen's father offered. As Mary Oppen explains in her autobiography Meaning a Life:
"We were constantly searching--searching in our travels in our pursuit of friends and in our conversation concerning all that we saw and felt about the world. We were searching for a way to avoid the trap that our class backgrounds held for us if we relented in our attempts to escape from them...We had learned at college that poetry was being written in our own times, and that in order for us to write it was not necessary for us to ground ourselves in the academic; the ground we needed was the roads we were travelling."
In 1927 George and Mary left San Francisco and were married in Dallas, Texas while on their way to New York City. The Oppens arrived in New York City in 1928 and soon fell into company with Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff, two New York City Jewish poets who, following the example of William Carlos Williams, were intent on reclaiming Ezra Pound's Imagism from the influence of Amy Lowell and other "Amygists." Out of the nexus of like-minded poets the Objectivist movement was born. The term was first employed in Zukofsky's essays "Program: 'Objectivist', 1931" and "Sincerity and Objectification," which Zukofsky included at the end of an issue of Poetry he had edited for Harriet Monroe. Besides Zukofski, Oppen, Williams, and Reznikoff, the issue also included work by Carl Rakosi, Kenneth Rexroth, Basil Bunting, Robert McAlmon, and several other poets whose work Zukofsky believed to exemplify the Objectivist program. In 1929 the Oppens moved to France where they established To, Publishers. Though they published work by Pound, Williams and a larger version of Zukofsky's Objectivist anthology, the venture failed because American booksellers considered their books paperbacks and, thus, refused to stock them. After returning to the United States in 1933, the Oppens again tried their hand at publishing with the establishment of the Objectivist Press. Besides additional works by Pound and Williams, the press published Oppen's volume of poetry, Discrete Series, which had been written in 1929 before the Oppens left for France and revised shortly after their return to the States. The Objectivist Press may have succeeded if it had been the Oppen's foremost concern. However, the suffering brought on by the Depression and evident throughout the country captured their attention.
"Apprehesion mixed with elation," (Mary Oppen writes), "as we disembarked at Baltimore and began the drive to New York City. As we approached the first stoplight, grown men, respectable men--our fathers--stepped forward to ask for a nickle, rag in hand, to wipe our windshield. This ritual was repeated every time we paused, until we felt we were in a nightmare, our fathers impoverished."
In 1935 the Oppens turned their backs on their lives as artists and for the next five years worked as strike organizers, first in Brooklyn and later in Utica, New York, for the Communist Party of the United States of America.
According to Mary Oppen,
"we decided to work with the Communist Party, not as artist or writer because we did not find honesty or sincerity in the so-called arts of the left....We said to each other, 'Let's work with the unemployed and leave our other interest in the arts for a later time'"
Oppen's own explanation to L.S. Dembo in 1968 is more to the point: "If you do something politically, you do something that has political efficacy. And if you decide to write poetry, then you write poetry, not something that you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering...In a way I gave up poetry because of the pressures of what for the moment I'll call conscience."
The "later time" did not occur until 1958. The years of political activism were followed by the birth of the Oppens' daughter Linda. Oppen then worked as a die cutter in a factory until 1942 when he was drafted into the United States Army. Shortly before V-E day, he suffered multiple wounds from an exploding shell. After the war, the Oppens settled in Huntington Beach, California where Oppen employed himself first as a housing contractor then as a maker of hi-fi cabinets. Oppen was forced to give up his business and flee to Mexico with his family in 1950, after the FBI(click here) began to threaten him and Mary with imprisonment for their refusal to betray their friends.
Soon after arriving in Mexico City, Oppen joined with a native of Mexico in operating a furniture factory and entertained thoughts of entering the Mexican real estate market. Those thoughts were put to rest when Oppen wrote his first poem in twenty-five years. In 1958, he and Mary returned to New York City where they lived until the late 1960s. Throughout the 1970s, until Oppen's affliction with Alzheimer's disease prohibited his travelling, the Oppens spent their summer months on Deer Isle, Maine and the rest of the year in San Francisco.
It is difficult to say whether Oppen's return to writing poetry signifies the synthesis of his artistic and political impulses or his confession that political activism is no more useful to changing the world than art is. Regardless of how critics have responded to this question, they typically share the opinion that Oppen's return to writing resulted in the production of a formidible and important collection of poetry "whose craft and inquiring intelligence are a significant influence on contemporary American poetry."
In 1962 Oppen published The Materials, his second collection of verse. It was followed three years later by This is Which (1965). In 1968, his third collection of verse, Of Being Numerous, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Seascape: Needle's Eye was published in 1972 and was followed in 1973 with the appearance of the Fulcrum Press edition of his Collected Poems. In 1975, New Directions brought out a more complete edition of Oppen's collected work, which also included a section of the work titled "Myth of the Blaze." Finally, Oppen's last collection, Primitive, which was edited by Mary Oppen, appeared in 1978.
-from the Geisel Library, UCSDHome