'Feminine Technologies': George Oppen Talks at Denise Levertov

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Author: Burton Hatlen
Editor: Elisabeth Gellert
Date: 2002
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 35)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,165 words

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[(essay date 1993) In the following essay, Hatlen suggests Oppen's poem "Technologies" is a response to Denise Levertov's "Who Is at My Window."]

In 1958 George Oppen returned to New York City determined to resume the literary career he had suspended in 1935, when he and his wife Mary joined the Communist Party. But the New York cultural scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s was very different from the one Oppen had left behind in 1935. By 1959, various currents which would later issue in the New Left and the counter-culture of the 1960s were already stirring in New York City. In this paper I want to focus on Oppen's response to one movement which would swell in force throughout the 1960s: the new wave of feminist consciousness, which revived a movement largely dormant since the victory of women's suffrage in the early 1920s. A surprising number of the poems that Oppen wrote in the early 1960s and collected in This In Which--by my count at least, sixteen of the forty-two poems in the book--touch in one way or another on women's distinctive experience and consciousness. Oppen often plays "the feminine" off against what he calls "the Roman," a shorthand term for the male will to control other people and the natural world, which Oppen sees as having brought us to the edge of destruction. Yet Oppen also felt uneasy about some qualities which he saw as distinctively feminine, especially "feminine self-love"1 and what he saw as a feminine desire to arrive at "edifying ... or comforting conclusions."2 Rachel Blau DuPlessis, a friend of George and Mary Oppen from the mid-1960s until the end of their lives and the editor of Oppen's letters, says that "Oppen was fascinated by 'the feminine' in poetry and by the task of women poets, about which he was both forthright and ambivalent";3 and I want to examine both his forthrightness and his ambivalence on this issue. In particular, I want to explore how these attitudes played themselves out in Oppen's response to the person and the work of Denise Levertov, both of which, for a few years, fascinated him to the point of obsession.

George Oppen and Denise Levertov shared some important poetic affinities. Both poetis traced their poetic lineage to Imagism--see, for example, Levertov's poem "September 1961" and Oppen's essay "The Mind's Own Place." In particular, both shared an admiration for the poetry of William Carlos Williams, and both adapted to their own purposes Williams's supple open-form line. Oppen and Levertov also shared some common political commitments. By the early 1960s Oppen no longer called himself a Communist, but he remained distinctly a man and a poet of the Left. For example, in "The Mind's Own Place," Oppen declares, "The people on the Freedom Rides are both civilized and courageous; the people in the Peace Marches are the sane people of the country."4 As for Levertov, by the early 1960s she, too, had aligned herself with...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420036993