JOEL OPPENHEIMER (USA, New York, Yonkers 1930-1988 / act: New York & New Hampshire)

Joel Oppenheimer Joel Oppenheimer was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1930 to Jewish parents. He failed out of Cornell University after one year (in 1948) and spent less than one semester at the University of Chicago. In February of 1950 he enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he became friends with Fielding Dawson and Ed Dorn and took classes with Paul Goodman and poet Charles Olson, while also working at the school's print shop. In his earliest poetry, Oppenheimer shows clearly the influence of William Carlos Williams, but he soon developed his own style. While at Black Mountain, Oppenheimer met and married his first wife, Rena Furlong ("Cissie"). He left the school in January of 1953 without taking a degree, eventually settling in New York and working in a print shop while continuing to write poetry.

The Dutiful Son was published by Jonathan Williams in 1956. The Love Bit and Other Poems came out on 1962. Oppenheimer's marriage fell apart by 1960, and his wife and two sons moved to New Mexico (Oppenheimer saw these two sons only rarely after this time). Oppenheimer had another son with activist Margaret Randall, although he was to see this son even less frequently (Margaret Randall spent years in Mexico and Cuba with her family). Oppenheimer enjoyed a period of sexual freedom in New York during the early 1960s, and attended parties given by LeRoi Jones. Oppenheimer wrote a successful play, The Great American Desert, in 1961. Publisher Jonathan Williams held on to a manuscript of poems from this period, entitled Just Friends/ Friends and Lovers from 1962 until its eventual publication in 1980. Oppenheimer married his second wife, Helen, in 1964, and eventually had two more sons. He left his job as a printer in 1966, when he became the director of the St. Mark's Poetry Project. This lasted until 1968, when Oppenheimer handed over the reins to Anne Waldman. Subsequently, Joel made ends meet by giving poetry readings, teaching classes at the City University of New York, and by writing a column for the Village Voice. Oppenheimer reached the height of his popularity as a poet in the late 1960s and early 1970s, publishing three books with Bobbs-Merrill Company, including In Time (1968), On Occasion (1973), and The Woman Poems in 1975. He also wrote a popular book about his love of baseball and the New York Mets in The Wrong Season (1972), as well as a book about Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Lives! (1981).

In addition to his work as a poet and a journalist, Oppenheimer is interesting to consider in some other contexts. He was a well known figure in the New York scene of the late 1960s. He supplied the name for Max's Kansas City restaurant. He was a regular at a pub called The Lion's Head from the 1960s through much of the 1970s, even after he quit drinking cold turkey in 1971. Oppenheimer also lived for many years in the Westbeth artists's community in Manhattan. His correspondence also shows that he was something of a mentor to many of his own students.

Oppenheimer moved to New Hampshire in 1984. That same year he married his third wife, Theresa Maier (a former student). He worked at New England College and wrote a column for a local newspaper. Two new volumes of poetry, Why Not and New Spaces, both appeared in 1985. By this time Oppenheimer was battling lung cancer. By the spring of 1988, the cancer had spread to Oppenheimer's brain, and he was forced to give up both teaching and writing. He died at home in October of 1988.

[Megakles Rogakos 12/2004]