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George Oppen

George Oppen (1908-1984) was an American poet, best known as one of the founders of the Objectivist group of poets. He abandoned poetry in the 1930s for political activism and eventually moved to Mexico to avoid the attentions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He eventually returned to poetry and to the United States in the 1960s and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

Early Life

Oppen was born in New Rochelle, New York. His father, George August Oppenheimer, was a successful businessman who changed the family name to Oppen in 1927. Oppen's mother committed suicide when he was four and his father remarried. Oppen had a difficult relationship with his stepmother and these early traumas, and the seascapes around his childhood home, were to leave a mark on his later poetry.

In 1918, the family moved to San Francisco and in 1926, Oppen started attending what is now Oregon State University. Here he met Mary Colby. On their first date, the couple stayed out all night with the result that she was expelled and he suspended. They left Oregon, married, and started hitch hiking across the country working at odd jobs along the way.

Early Writing

While living on the road, Oppen began writing poems and publishing in local magazines. In 1928, he and Mary spent some time in New York, where they met Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff. The four established To Publishers, with Zukofsky as editor and the Oppens acting as printer/publishers.

In 1929, George came into a small inheritance which meant that the couple were relatively financially independent. They moved to California for a time and then to France, where, thanks to their financial input, where they met Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff. The four established To Publishers where able to issue books by Zukofsky and Ezra Pound. Oppen had begun working on poems for what was to be his first book, Discrete Series, a seminal work in early Objectivist history. Some of these appeared in the Objectivist issue of Poetry.

Oppen the Objectivist

In 1933, the Oppens returned to New York where, together with Zukofsky and Reznikoff, they set up the Objectivist Press. The press published books by Reznikoff and William Carlos Williams, as well as Discrete Series, with a preface by Pound. The poems in the are pared and stripped to a minimum and presented as a single poem per page. Early drafts of the book carry the subtitle The 1930s and the poems can be read as a commentary on the Great Depression.

Politics and War

The Oppens were becoming increasingly involved in political action. Unable to bring himself to write verse propaganda, Oppen abandoned poetry and joined the Communist Party serving as election campaign manager for Brooklyn in 1936. He and Mary were also active for relief and Oppen was tried and acquitted on a charge of felonious assault on the police.

By 1939, Oppen was working in the defense industry. He was called up in 1942 and sent to France, where he was seriously wounded. He was awarded the Purple Heart and returned to New York in 1945.


After the war, Oppen worked in the construction sector. Although now less politically active, The Oppens were aware that their pasts were certain to attract the attention of Joseph McCarthy's Senate committee and decided to move to Mexico. Here they ran a small furniture making business and were involved in the expatriate intellectual community. They were also kept under surveillance by the Mexican authorities who were provided with files by the FBI and CIA.

Return to Poetry

After a brief trip in 1958 to visit their daughter at university, the Oppens returned to New York in the early 1960s, at first returning to Mexico regularly. Back in Brooklyn, Oppen, who had started writing again towards the end of his time in Mexico, renewed old ties with his fellow Objectivists and also befriended many younger poets. The Oppens continued to move around, once driving an amphibious car from Miami to New York.

Oppen published six books of poetry between 1962 and 1978 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Of Being Numerous. From the mid 1970's, he began to show signs of Alzheimer's disease. The disease was eventually to make it impossible for him to continue writing, and he died in a convalescent home in California on July 7th, 1983.

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