Reviving Oppenheimer

I was turned on to the poems of Joel Oppenheimer right out of college, and I have turned back to them time after time — for inspiration, for amusement, for the heck of it  — every year since. Oppenheimer, who will have been dead 20 years this October, was an important figure in late 20th Century literary circles, especially in New York; he was important member of the original Black Mountain poets under Charles Olson; he was important to the development of the Village Voice and the scene around Greenwich Village in the 1970s; and he was important to me and I think he matters.

But I suspect that very few of you reading this have any idea who he was. That’s why, for this week’s post, I take up Ron Silliman’s cry to save Oppenheimer from obscurity. It’s a noble and worthy cause, for sure. But how?

Start by writing about him, I suppose. Why do I like him? First and foremost, he was eloquently plainspoken and rarely used quote-poetic-unquote language in his poems. He let the simplicity of ordinary words convey complex thoughts. For instance (from “The News”): “when the doctor / called, the diagnosis confirmed, / motherhood again, she / ate all my strawberry cheese / napoleon, then told me.” As Hayden Carruth, who introduced me to the Yonkers-based writer, says, Oppenheimer “combined the most idiomatic speech with both poetic and intellectual language to make poems that were both natural and tricky at the same time.” His poems are simple and direct, often short and compact, affectionate, always interesting, and usually very funny.

He was known as an accomplished occasional poet, meaning he wrote poems that celebrate important occasions and events in people’s lives — weddings, funerals, birthdays, holidays. And he wrote equally convincingly about ordinary matters, too, like throwing darts in a bar, watching baseball games, taking a bath. Oppenheimer called poetry “the ecology of the soul,” because, he believed, it helps us learn how to “live with ourselves and where we are.” Most of my favorites deal with issues that I face every day: the intricacies of marriage and fatherhood, holding down a job, struggling with the idea of being a writer.

Certainly one way to save Oppenheimer would be to bring out a new collection of poems, even a slim selected or a best of, like the recent, handsome Sixty Poems, published to coincide with Charles Simic’s stint (short-lived, as it turns out) as Poet Laureate. Poems I would pick include “The Lover”: “every time / the same way / wondering when / this when that. / if you were a / plum tree. if you / were a peach / tree”; “The Gardener”: “on the left branch, a / blossom. on the / top branch, a blossom. / which child is this. / which flowering / of me. which / gold white bloom. / which the force of my life”; and this one, which I think is the first one I encountered:

For David

eyes wide, we
have dumped it
in your lap. you
do not know that
yet. hands opened
and closed, the
panorama stretches
before you, you
do not know that
yet. lips ready
you will take all
we have to give you.
and will survive.
and will pay
back in our own
coin. even love,
if we come to deserve it. 

He has also provided encouragement to me as a writer. I think continually of his dictum about the necessity of perception, about being open to what’s around or inside you and learning to live with it: “be there when it happens, bring it all together, write it down.” It has become a mantra for me whenever I sit down to write. And I have lately gained some comfort from another one of his sayings (as I knew I might one day, when I read it years ago), a quote from the French painter Delacroix: “if you are a poet when you are 20, it’s because you are 20; if you are a poet when you are 40, it’s because you are a poet.”

Another way to keep his legacy alive is to buy and read his books, if you can find them, and books about him. I could locate only a few of the more than two dozen or so books he published available on Amazon, including Why Not and New Spaces; most are out of print and must be purchased through used book sellers. Definitely seek out either of the two “collected” volumes, especially Names & Local Habitations, an elegant volume of earlier poems published by Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Society. I can also recommend Don’t Touch the Poet: The Life and Times of Joel Oppenheimer, a highly readable biography by Lyman Gilmore. A collection of his essays from days with the Village Voice, called Drawing from Life, is also still in print.

So, why should you like him? He was an everyman, an average guy’s thinking man. He spent a good deal of his life socializing, going to parties and sitting in bars. He sought out people and liked just being “out there.” And he was more than just a poet, too — he made his living as a printer, a journalist, a playwright, an author of non-fiction books. He wrote affectionately about pop culture, and jazz, and sports — he was an avid baseball fan — and about being a husband and a father. In other words, he was in many ways just like everyone else, and he lived in his world (not outside of it), and he wrote about his experiences in trying to make sense of it all.

I guess the best way to prevent Oppenheimer from falling into obscurity is to talk about him. I plan to and, if you like what you have read here, I ask you to talk about him, too, online here (and here and there), at bookstores, coffee shops, or anywhere else. I don’t know if there’s any other way. I don’t know any publishers and so I don’t have any way to coax a book onto a printing press (surely Silliman has connections and perhaps he’s making some calls). And I don’t even know if a book of Oppenheimer’s poems, selected or otherwise, would sell more than a handful of copies to anyone besides students and poetasters like myself.

Does anyone buy (or even read) poetry books any more? I can’t think of more than a half-dozen of my acquaintances who do. But I do know, I’m convinced in fact, that if more people read Oppenheimer’s poems, and those by people who write like him (poets like David Budbill, David Ignatow, and Charles Bukowski), more people would read poetry with more regularity.

And maybe that’s the best outcome of all, and it would undoubtedly suit Joel Oppenheimer just fine.

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