George Oppen and the Public Sphere

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This article aims to demonstrate that it is less important to pigeonhole Oppen's poetics within modernism or postmodernism than it is to understand his poetic practice as a mode of critical public discourse participating in social debates concerning the state of democratic society in the 1960s. Adopting the framework of the Habermasian transformation of the public sphere allows us to understand the political impact of Oppen's volumes of poetry in the 1960s much more clearly, if we construe them as part of a distinct political engagement that reaches beyond his earlier modernist allegiances. The main argument here is that Oppen's middle and later poetry straddles a larger paradigmatic shift that occurs within the 1960s from a politics of subjectivity that is focussed upon the autonomy of the self to a politics of the self that stresses community and relational ethics. Within this context, it can be seen that a volume like Of Being Numerous addresses itself to the question of how to live as both a unique and yet a social being, and how to retain one's individuality whilst also participating within a community. The urgency and pressure of that question characterizes all three volumes of his poetry published in the 1960s, and is explored through a comparative analysis of the discourse of individuality and community in Oppen's poems and various documents of the 1960s.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)443-462
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of American Studies
Issue number3
Early online date06 Oct 2010
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2011


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