[(essay date 1973) In the following essay, originally published in 1973, Davie considers Oppen's poems on their own merit rather than as representative of a particular movement or tradition.]
For us to come to terms with Oppen, the time has long gone by--if it ever existed--when it was useful to start plotting his place in a scheme of alternative or successive poetic "schools" or "traditions." Imagism, objectivism, constructivism, objectism: if there was ever any point in shoving those counters about, that time is long gone by. At present, that sort of categorizing only ducks the challenge that the poems throw down: the way of living, and of thinking about living, which they propose to us.
Oppen is not at all a representative American poet. Not only is he in earnest as few poets are, but the nature of his earnestness is not of a sort we think of as "American." In his background and his past there is a good deal of Marxism, and so his attempts to understand the moment in which he writes are a historian's attempts, not (as with most American poets of comparable seriousness) psychological and/or mythopoeic. Not for him, for instance, the naive pastoralism, the harking back to a pre-industrial economy, which is the stock-in-trade of the American poets currently most popular with the American public. And so it is ironical that when Charles Olson responded to Oppen's review of him he should have protested, "I wanted to open mr Oppen to history"; being open to history is one thing, being open to the recorded and unrecorded past is something else. And one may stay closed to that past not because of ignorance or limited imagination, but as an act of willed choice. This is the choice that Oppen seems to make in a recent poem called, "The Taste":
Old ships are preserved For their queer silence of obedient seas Their cutwaters floating in the still water With their cozy black iron work And Swedish seamen dead the cabins Hold the spaces of their deaths And the hammered nails of necessity Carried thru the oceans Where the moon rises grandly In the grandeur of cause We have a taste for bedrock Beneath this spectacle To gawk at Something is wrong with the antiques, a black fluid Has covered them, a black splintering Under the eyes of young wives People talk wildly, we are beginning to talk wildly, the wind At every summit Our overcoats trip us Running for the bus Our arms stretched out In a wind from what were sand dunes (Collected PoemsCollected Poems p. 225) [hereafter abbreviated as CPCP]
Those who know San Francisco know that wind, they know also the ships that Oppen means, and they will share his sense that in the California scene such attempts at historical pietas have an air of irrelevant connoisseurship. The poem comes in fact in a sequence with the deceptively modest title, "Some San Francisco Poems." But then ... Oppen...