“It is possible,” George Oppen wrote, in early 1962, “to find a metaphor for anything, an analogue: but the image is encountered, not found; it is an account of the poet’s perception, the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness.” “Boy’s Room,” which is about just such a perceptual encounter, and truthful almost to a fault, appears in Oppen’s 1965 collection, This in Which, his second after a silence of more than twenty-five years. Between Discrete Series (1934) and The Materials (1962), Oppen raised a daughter; he worked as a carpenter; he joined, then became disillusioned with, the Communist party; he lived in Mexico; he fought in World War II (not necessarily in that order). What he did not do, for the most part, is write. When he returned to poetry in 1958 it was with a vigor that “Boy’s Room” amply demonstrates. The collection that followed, Of Being Numerous (1968), would win him the Pulitzer Prize. He died in 1984, and though the details of his personal life are salacious enough—an affluent childhood, his mother’s suicide; a car accident in which his passenger was killed, a first date that led to his future wife’s expulsion from college (they stayed out all night and she missed her curfew)—he is largely forgotten. It’s a real pity. “No ideas but in things” is a line from a William Carlos Williams poem, but Oppen’s work fits the bill as well as Williams’s does.
I can remember the first time I read “Boy’s Room” because of the physical sensation that accompanied it: I felt like I was falling. The drop occurs in the gulf between the first and second stanza: “A friend saw the rooms / of Keats and Shelley / At the lake, and saw ‘they were just / Boy’s rooms’ and was moved // By that.” I, too, was moved by that.
Of course, the friend is right in a purely literal sense: Keats died at twenty-five, Shelley at twenty-nine. Confronted with their actual rooms, there’s a sense of surprise and sympathetic feeling: these towering figures of romantic poetry were not only real people, they were youngsters who had not quite outgrown their adolescence. But from the discrete thing—the rooms of Keats and Shelley—comes the broader idea: “indeed a poet’s room / Is a boy’s room.” Such a sheepish admission for the poet to make, to indict himself.
A poet is like a boy—selfish, introverted, solitary—and it’s no coincidence that women and not girls know it. It helps, no doubt, in reading this poem, to know a boy or two—in temperament if not in age—more or less in need of a woman to not only know it, but to understand it and look beyond it. But it’s not necessary, for few poems crystallize as precisely the abject need any lover feels before the beloved, the fear that not only is it possible that he will not be loved in return, but that it is right that this should be the case.
A friend saw the rooms
Of Keats and Shelley
At the lake, and saw ‘they were just
Boys’ rooms’ and was moved
By that. And indeed a poet’s room
Is a boy’s room
And I suppose that women know it.
Perhaps the unbeautiful banker
Is exciting to a woman, a man
Not a boy gasping
For breath over a girl’s body.