Surrounded by Death: Oppen and Whitman

The death and sadness that plagued George Oppen’s life is entirely too much for one person to tolerate.  His mother committed suicide when he was only four years old.  To have his mother not only die when he was at a very young age, but to die violently through suicide, must have been extremely mentally destructive for young George.  A little later in his life, he was driving while intoxicated, which resulted in the death of the passenger in his car, and ultimately his expulsion from military academy.   I had a friend in highschool that was in a very similar situation, and although he was the survivor of the accident, it destroyed his life.  Later, when Oppen was serving in Europe in the army, his foxhole was hit by artillery that seriously wounded him, but killed the two men beside him in that foxhole.  Oppen received the Purple Heart.  With so much death, so close to him all of his life, he must have been thinking, “Why not me?”  I know I would have.

The following is the first half of  “Myth of Blaze” by George Oppen.  In this poem, he refers to the tragedy that occurred in Europe in that foxhole.

night – sky         bird’s         world
to know         to know         in my life to know

what I have said to myself

the dark to escape in brilliant highways
of the night sky, finally
why had they not

killed me why did they fire that warning
wounding cannon only the one round I hold a

because of this    lost to be lost    Wyatt’s
lyric and Rezi’s
running thru my mind
in the destroyed (and guilty) Theatre
of the War    I’d cried
and remembered
boyhood    degradation         other
degradations and this crime I will not recover
from that landscape it will be in my mind
it will fill my mind and this is horrible
death bed         pavement         the secret taste
of being lost


The terrible trauma of, not only the death he witnessed directly beside him in the war, but also of all three major death events in his life obviously played a major role in his writing.

I am reminded of Walt Whitman’s poem, “Captain, O Captain,” in which he is plagued by the death that surrounded him in the American Civil War.  This poem was written as a commemoration for Abraham Lincoln upon his death.  Whitman, too, was surrounded by death when he volunteered to help the wounded and dying in Washington, D.C. hospitals.

The following is the first stanza of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain.”

O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

The two poets had their own versions of death that changed their lives, and when reading their various works and studying these two poets,  it is easy to find many examples of how much those deaths affected their lives, and ultimately, their writing.

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