The Mystery of Oppen

This week I must say I was particularly fascinated with the simultaneously revealing and befuddling poems of George Oppen.  Oppen was the poster-child of what came to be known as the “Objectivist” school of poetry, which has been categorized by a lack of symbols and a rejection of Imagist poetics, “in which the detail — not the mirage– calls attention to the materiality of both word and world.”  Reading this description, it would seem that at first glance, Oppen and Whitman would have little to nothing in common. 

However, I was struck by Oppen’s poem “The Edge of the Ocean,”  which, after reading several times, harkened me back to my first post on this blog.  In the post, I spoke of Whitman and his tendency toward ambiguity in many of his poems — he could be talking about three different things at the same time and you still wouldn’t be able to decipher his exact meanings.  Or, he could be purposefully vague, so that the reader might fill in their own personal details, feelings, experiences, etc., and let them be the judge.  Oppen’s poem, shown below, consists of merely thirteen words, yet speaks volumes;

“The edge of the ocean,
The shore: here
Somebody’s lawn,
By the water.”

At first glance, the poem seems to echo William Carlos Williams’ works, but it lacks the specificity of details of an image poem.  It is clear that Oppen is not trying to paint a picture in our heads.  Rather, in my opinion, it seems that he is attempting to recreate a feeling which may force some emotions or reflections within ourselves.  Like Whitman, he chooses his words with the utmost care.  To me, the poem is pregnant with a sense of both new beginnings and ruminations on lessons learned in the past.  It conjures that strange duality one feels when they must walk into the unknown.  A precipice of sorts; both a goodbye and a hello.  Or perhaps just the feeling of really being next to someone.  To me, it is a night poem.  And, Oppen’s own twist on the Whitmanian ideas of nature and human connectedness.

Who is to say if I am wrong or right?  I think Oppen’s main goal in his poetry is to both reflect on his life and make connections to others, and it seems that ambiguity of detail is quite effective in this sense. 

What do you see in this poem?

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