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George Oppen Portrait

Born in New York and raised in San Francisco, George Oppen enrolled at Oregon State University but left after his future wife, also a student there, was expelled when they stayed out all night on a date. The couple went to France, where they founded a small press, publishing Louis Zukofsky's An "Objectivists" Anthology in 1932. In addition to Oppen and Zukofsky, the loose confederation of Objectivists included Pound, Reznikoff, and Williams. All shared at least a partial interest in the material presence of the poem and in its linguisticality. Oppen returned to New York in 1933 and published his first book, Discrete Series, the following year. Then, in the midst of the country's political, social, and economic crisis, he stopped publishing poetry and devoted himself to the New York State Workers Alliance. In the following decade, he took up a variety of other projects for the Communist Party, meanwhile supporting himself as a factory worker in Detroit and a cabinetmaker in California. He served in the army in World War II and was wounded. Then in the 1950s, under the shadow of McCarthyism, Oppen, like so many other progressive artists, was hounded by the FBI and the inquisition. He left for Mexico, where he remained for eight years. On his return, he took up poetry again, publishing a series of books, the first appearing in 1962. Oppen's poems can sometimes seem too cerebral, and they are certainly rhetorically restrained, with Oppen resisting elaborate metaphor, but they often display powerful feeling despite their constraint and frequent silences. They are also deeply invested in the problematics of language, with what can be said truthfully within a spare and heavily tested diction.