OPEN TO OPPEN
Of Being Numerous, by George Oppen (1908 – 1984)
a discrete series of notes
(1) A long poem (40 “chapters” and near 600 lines), Of Being Numerous is an expansive revision of an earlier poem: “A Language of New York.” Short lines dominate the poem, though it is occasionally interrupted by prose. It closes with a passage from Walt Whitman’s Civil War diary.
(2) It is not the kind of poem that is easily paraphrased or synopsized, but it is concerned with the issues that arise from the identification of oneself as One of Many, such as a member of a faith or faction or party, or as a citizen of New York City, or as one of many humans. Oppen’s gist might be summed up as asking “What’s the matter?” – not simply in the sense of “what’s the problem?” but, more fundamentally, “what’s it made of?”
(3) A poem, said William Carlos Williams, is “a machine made out of words” – and to the genuine poet, words matter (they had better matter!): they are the primary material of construction. Wordsworth spoke of “the language of everyday men” and Oppen’s machine operates perhaps obliquely but with small familiar words, and images that are known and knowable. There seems a slight emphasis in the poem on Speech, to my mind establishing a difference between Talk (or chat) and a more purposeful use of language. Language’s highest application is the poem, charged with emotion and thought.
(4) This inspired materialism is a constant of Oppen’s work, he stays close to the facts of life, and a poem is a fact of life, we might say that a poem is really a poem, an object as much a part of the real world as that table over there. This counters the more common stance that poetry is immaterial, merely make believe, but consider “make believe” more seriously, and we may claim that it is in fact making something: a poem is an act of faith. To argue that there is a value to a poem rests upon the presumption that there is a value to language itself. It is easy enough to dismiss Hallmark verse as trite and sentimental, but in that case, we must be on guard against the debased language in the air all about us. Also from Williams, this:
. . . It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably everyday
of what is found there.
That American poets seem particularly concerned with establishing the value of poetry through poetry (recollect Marianne Moore, for example) is a result of that anti-intellectualism that is as American as Apple Pie. We should not, however, mistake intellectualism with academia. So long as poetry is kept caged in classrooms, then so long shall misery prosper.
(5) I wondered recently in what a good education, circa 1919, might consist, and one of the primary literary allusions in Of Being Numerous is the story of Robinson Crusoe, a story largely familiar to us, even before we enter the classroom. I suspect it is possible to discuss Crusoe without ever having read it: a very fine example of the profound reality of fiction.
(6) And so the choice is made to think of oneself as one of many, to be part of the group. Though an independent individualism is supposedly a major component of American life, it is easily seen to be otherwise; self-reliance and self-sufficiency have been replaced by how-to books of self-help, geared to assist the reader in rejoining the mainstream. In the USA, we are interested in self-help because it is a billion dollar industry, not because the Self, that deep well of mystery, needs help or is helped.
(7) Policy not poetry overwhelms the language of the United States; politics over poetics: it is significant that when the Oppens joined the Communist Party in 1935, they felt it necessary to conceal their artistic inclinations. For all I know, they did this without complaint, but then Communism has had a traditionally dim view of individuality. Whether coming from the Left or the Right, poetry (and all arts other than the cinematic entertainments of Hollywood or television and the hits of pop music) is cheaply held. George Orwell bluntly stated that political language exists to make lies palatable: for the years spent talking about peace and justice, there seems to have been very little accomplished. Dating from the 1960s, Of Being Numerous speaks directly to (and against) the War in Vietnam, and includes Oppen’s recollections of his own service during the Second World War. Isn’t it a sign of political failure, that such references are not thought old-fashioned, that humanity is happy to hang on to those definitions of numerousness: race religion us versus them?
(8) Listening to a long poem, the parts will not add up to something neat and potable: the act of attention is the meaning (or one meaning) of the poem: one must be open to Oppen. The great critic and minor poet Kenneth Burke spoke of “language as symbolic action” – Oppen’s poem moves with the assured weaving of a New Yorker making passage through crowded streets – and ideally, your experience will be a series of, in Pound’s phrase, “luminous moments.”
Woodside January 2007