OPPEN, GEORGE (1908–1984), U.S. poet. Oppen's life is exemplary of Jewish American culture and poetry in the 20th century. Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., Oppen was the child of George August Oppenheimer, a diamond merchant, and Elsie Rothfeld. His mother committted suicide when George was four; his father remarried in 1917 and moved to San Francisco, changing the family name to Oppen in 1927. Raised in
Oppen has gradually come to be recognized as one of the most important American poets of his time, as a growing body of critical and biographical studies attest. His work forms a crucial bridge between modernism and more recent tendencies in American poetry, and his years of poetic silence, during which he lived, in effect, the crisis of midcentury American history, resonate with extraordinary force and gravitas in his lyrics of the 1960s, culminating in his masterpiece, the serial poem "Of Being Numerous." Yet Oppen, following the dicta of Objectivism, always wrote with great humility, insisting on his poetry as a "test of truth" or "test of sincerity" and devoting himself to intense scrutiny of "the materials" of everyday life, its social fabric and physical being. It is out of this scrutiny, supported on the one hand by Marxism and on the other by Heideggerian phenomenology, that a profoundly philosophical, formidably compressed, and beautifully constructed poetry emerges.
Given his completely secular upbringing and lifestyle, and the relative lack of Jewish references in his poetry, it is difficult to consider Oppen in the light of a specifically Jewish literature. Yet a number of Oppen's most important poems may be understood in terms of Jewish themes and identity. "Psalm," one of his most frequently anthologized poems, celebrates the natural world and the way it almost kabbalistically folded into language. "Of Hours" addresses Oppen's vexed relationship to the antisemitic Ezra Pound, one of his most important mentors. "Exodus" beautifully recalls Oppen's reading about "The children of Israel" to his young daughter, while in "Semite" the poet insists on "my distances neither Roman nor barbarian."
R.B. DuPlessis and P. Quartermain, The Objectivist Nexus (1999); R.B. DuPlessis (ed.), Selected Letters of George Oppen, (1990); B. Hatlen, George Oppen: Man & Poet, (1981); N. Finkelstein, "Political Commitment and Poetic Subjectification: George Oppen's Test of Truth," in: Contemporary Literature, 22:1 (Winter 1981), 24–41; M. Heller, Conviction's Net of Branches: Essays On the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (2002).
[Norman Finkelstein (2nd ed.)]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.