A Political Poetics: George Oppen and the Essential Life of the Poem

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Arizona Quarterly

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Shortly after the publication of his first collection of poems, Discrete Series, in 1934, George Oppen joined the Communist Party and stopped writing poetry. Oppen’s departure from poetry was to last some twenty-five years until the late fifties when he began work on “Blood from a Stone” and the poems which were to become his second volume of poetry, The Materials, published in 1962. That same year he explains his decision to stop writing in a letter to Max and Anita Pepper: “There are situations which cannot be honorably met by art, and surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning. If one goes on to imagine a direct call for help, then surely to refuse would be a kind of treason to one’s neighbor” (Letters 65).1 Oppen here foregrounds the fundamentally moral and political dimension of his refusal of poetry’s “fiddling” in the face of crisis. As he elaborates in a 1969 interview with L. S. Dembo: “If you decide to do something politically, you do something that has political efficacy. And if you decide to write poetry, you write poetry, not something that you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering. That was the dilemma of the ‘thirties’” (“A Discussion” 174). Here, as in many passages from his letters, interviews and “daybooks,” Oppen decisively frames his earlier silence as a refusal of poetry as a politically or morally inadequate expression or response.2 Poetry, that is, cannot directly intervene on “human suffering” nor respond to the “direct call for help” that Oppen heard so clearly in the thirties.


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