It Looks Quite Curious: Oppen's Whitman
George Oppen's "Of Being Numerous" ends after forty sections with a quotation from a letter from Walt Whitman to his mother. Whitman was writing her from Washington, D.C., where, after pursuing his brother George, who had volunteered for the 13th New York Regiment, and determining he was uninjured, he had installed himself as a kind of nurse for wounded soldiers:
Whitman: April 19, 1864
The capitol grows upon one in time, especially as they have got the great figure on top of it now, and you can see it very well. It is a great bronze figure, the Genius of Liberty I suppose. It looks wonderful toward sundown. I love to go and look at it. The sun when it is nearly down shines on the headpiece and it dazzles and glistens like a big star: it looks quite curious...? (Oppen, 2002).
The word curious is dropped from the flow of Whitman's prose, isolated and singular. Surely, this separation of curious from the bulk of the letter makes this poetry.
In an undated letter to John Crawford, keyed to a letter from 1970 in The Selected Letters, Oppen discusses the "almost audible click in the brain to mark the transition between thought which is available because it has already been thought, and the thinking of the single man, the thinking of a man as if he were a single man..." The word curious makes the most audible click in "Of Being Numerous." Oppen describes to Crawford how the poem ends almost jokingly with the word, qualifying, "But it is not a joke entirely...it is curious—the thing is curious—." Curious comes from the Latin curiosus, for careful, diligent, itself derived from cura, from which we get both care and cure in English. In my mind, I've read " Of Being Numerous" as the one twentieth-century complement to Whitman's poetry, "Song of Myself" in particular, but also the great prophetic poems surrounding it, such as "The Sleepers," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." I've felt guided in this sense by not only Oppen's section 40 but also repeated gestures and phrasings in the poem that seem to summon a Whitmanian "process of thought, section by succeeding section" (Oppen, 1990), such as section 15:
Chorus (androgynous): 'Find me
So that I will exist, find my navel
So that it will exist, find my nipples
So that they will exist, find every hair
Of my belly, I am good (or I am bad),
Or section 24:
In this nation
Which is in some sense
Our home. Covenant!
The covenant is
There shall be peoples.
Or, in some cases, an inversion of Whitman's speech, a questioning of it, as in these "anti-ontological" lines from section 17:
He wants to say
His life is real,
No one can say why
It is not easy to speak
A ferocious mumbling, in public
of rootless speech.
I've realized, however, that this claim of complementarity to Whitman is somewhat difficult to maintain. To make it stick, there needs to be evidence of an ongoing engagement, or at least an intensified exploration, of Whitman's rhetoric or his poetry or his intelligence. Oppen's writings contain scant evidence of anything of the sort. The quotation in section 40 is without question his most sustained involvement with Whitman in print. And let's be honest: it's a curious citation. The question is what kind of curiosity is at work here: carefulness and diligence? Or strangeness and frivolousness? Or something altogether different.
As is now well inscribed in the lore of twentieth-century poetry, Oppen, along with his wife, Mary, in an act of devotion to the Communist Party, which he had joined in the 1930s, effectively took a vow of silence from poetry, committing himself instead to working for the party and not writing a thing for twenty-five years. According to the legend, while living in Mexico to avoid U.S. government scrutiny, Oppen had a vivid dream in September 1958, in which he found himself at his father's files, where he located one labeled "How to Prevent Rust in Copper." When he awoke, he realized the joke of this dream because copper is a metal that does not oxidize to rust. Apparently, in relating this dream to his therapist, who told him it concerned an anxiety that he was going to rust, Oppen realized its true message. He promptly purchased a ream of paper and returned home to write poetry again (Oppen, 2002).
In short order, he had work ready. By August 1959, he had written, among other work, "Myself I Sing," which was included in The Materials, published by New Directions in 1962. "Myself I Sing" echoes Whitman's opening Inscription to Leaves of Grass, "One's-self I Sing," which begins "One's-self I sing, a simple separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En- Masse" (Whitman, 1999). Oppen's poem begins with a vision of Whitman's coaxing him back into poetry:
Me! he says, hand on his chest.
Actually, his shirt.
;And there, perhaps,
Pioneers! But trailer people?
Wood box full of tools—
American. A sort of
in themselves. A
Less than adult: old.
When Oppen registered the creative oracle of his dream and began to write, curiously it was Whitman—some might see this vision as ironic—who stood before him, pointing to a strange range of American people: workers, pioneers, the aging—in short, Oppen himself.
When we look among Oppen's letters, we find only a few discussions of Whitman, of which this bit from a 1966 letter to David Ignatow is typical:
Our seminar on Whitman: I should have said:
When we say that poetry must be at least as well written as prose, we don't mean that it should be the "same." And if I say, it should also be at least as important as prose, I don't mean it should be "the same." The flaw is occasionally in Whitman's spirit, as I think you would agree, despite what you said, and a flaw almost continuously in his intelligence (Oppen, 1990).
Perhaps Oppen's most telling discussion of Whitman appears in a letter to William Carlos Williams, written in the summer of 1960, following a visit Oppen and Mary had made to Williams and his wife, Flo, following Williams's stroke:
I agree on the American language. It's true you've said it before: it's worth saying again. Surely there'll be poetry in this country only insofar as that lesson is learned. People who are afraid to talk won't produce much poetry. Tho Whitman has been no use to me. Perhaps arriving after you I didn't need him. I always feel that that deluge and soup of words is a screen for the uncertainty of his own identity (Oppen, 1990).
A few of the terms in this letter are worth expanding on, particularly in relation to "Of Being Numerous." "Song of Myself," it might usefully be argued, presents a vision of a prophetic self, an identity uncertain if only because fully dilated—"Through me the afflatus surging and surging...through me the current and index" and "What is a man anyhow? What am I? And what are you? / All I mark as my own you shall offset it with your own, / Else it were time lost listening to me." "Of Being Numerous" presents at times an uncertain self expressed in terms of multiplicity, the variousness of city living, and the quests and questions that can make such life meaningful, as in these lines from sections 32 and 33:
And the beauty of women, the perfect tendons
Under the skin, the perfect life
That can twist in a flood
Not truth but each other
The bright, bright skin, her hands wavering
In her incredible need
Which is ours, which is ourselves,
This is our jubilation
Exalted and as old as that truthfulness
Which illumines speech.
But more significant in this letter to Williams is Oppen's admission that he doesn't need Whitman because Oppen came after Williams. In this respect, Oppen's feeling toward Whitman—the sense of his wordiness, of his seeming lack of intelligence—firmly echoes the opinion set forth by the major modernist tastemaker, Ezra Pound, whose 1909 essay "What I Feel About Walt Whitman" contains this appraisal: "As for Whitman, I read him (in many parts) with acute pain, but when I write of certain things I find myself using his rhythms" (Pound, 2005). Oppen wasn't immune to this lure. In "Daybook II:V, " he writes: "Whitman. Dirge for two veterans: The key is the phrase 'the great convulsive drums'. With that phrase, something happens, beyond that phrase two things are going on simultaneously, one of which is a very bad poem. The other is not" (Oppen, 1990).
Williams, in a 1932 letter to Kay Boyle, is less forgiving of Whitman.
Free verse—if it ever existed—is out. Whitman was a magnificent failure. He himself in his later stages showed all the terrifying defects of his own method. Whitman to me is one broom-stroke and that is all. He could not go on. Nature, the Rousseauists who foreshadowed Whitman, the imitation of the sounds of the sea per se, are a mistake. Poetry has nothing to do with that. It is not nature. It is poetry. Whitman grew into senseless pudding, bombast, bathos. His invention ended where it began. He is almost a satirist of his era, when his life itself is taken as the criterion. He evaporates under scrutiny—crumbling not into sand, surely, but into a moraine, sizeable and impressive because of that (Williams, 1984).
"Perhaps arriving after you I didn't need him." Williams clearly didn't have much need of Whitman or didn't believe he did. Does this mean "Of Being Numerous" might better be thought of as a poem in the mode of Williams? No, I think the Whitman influence persists. But clearly not in terms of the complementarity I imagined at the start. "Of Being Numerous" is less a response to or even a correction of "Song of Myself " and Whitman's work more generally, than it is a question put to the work. A curious question: How do you live in a Whitmanian republic? I'd like to invoke two passages from Whitman to suggest a context to the answer Oppen supplies for this question in his own poem. Both passages are as vivid as they are famous. The first immediately follows the description of ecstatic sexual union in "Song of Myself ":
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace
and joy and knowledge that pass all the art
and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand
of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest
brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my
brothers...and the women my sisters and
And that a kelson of the creation is love;
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen and pokeweed.
Argument, in the first line, is the key here. Because this is a passage about transcendence, it doesn't really matter that there is an argument of the earth to be surpassed. But that argument lingers in the mind; it's one of the things that gets taken up, I think, in "Of Being Numerous." With the art of the earth, there is also an argument, one that takes place in the modern city, one that gets adjudicated in front of an audience of fretful consumers, getting and spending, "The pure products of America"—" The second passage I want to invoke is the conclusion to "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," which, when it was initially published in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, was called "Sun-Down Poem":
You have waited, you always wait, you dumb
beautiful ministers! you novices!
We receive you with free sense at last, and are
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or
withhold yourselves from us,
We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant
you permanently within us,
We fathom you not—we love you—there is
perfection in you also,
You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the
The crucial word in these lines is furnish. It comes from an Old High German root that means "to provide" or "to supply."
It's in the sense of provision that I think Whitman is using the word: "you" provide your parts toward eternity. But there's an economic sense to the word as well, a sense of supplying in terms of outfitting. What's interesting, then, is the relation of the "parts" to this act of furnishing. Where do these parts come from? And how is it there are enough of them that "you" have a surplus to supply to eternity? The sense of the self Whitman conjures in these lines is one of inescapable abundance and usefulness: "Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us." In a sense, he's speaking of numerousness.
"Of Being Numerous" is a poem staged as both an argument of the earth—though narrowed, perhaps, to the city as one of the earth's privileged centers—and a furnishing of the fragmenting parts of the self and self experience to that argument. Where Whitman in his poetic vision so often reaches for a transcendent expression of life, seen from the viewpoint of eternity, Oppen arranges and manages a more hectic, hurried, and vexed expression of life, seen from the viewpoint of the street or sequenced into the thoughts of a city dweller walking down that street.
Section 13 of "Of Being Numerous" responds to and prolongs section 12, which begins with a quotation from Alfred North Whitehead: "In these explanations it is presumed that an experiencing subject is one occasion of a sensitive reaction to an actual world." (Curiously, in the notes to the New Collected Poems, it's indicated that Oppen believed the quote to have come from the writings of the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who coined the notion of the Noosphere, which many cite as a precursor for the Internet.) Section 12 seems to address the philosophical fact of the world as processed in experiencing the subject of the poem itself:
They were patient
With the world.
This will never return, never,
Unless having reached their limits
They will begin over, that is,
Over and over
An invocation of an eternal return, perhaps? Section 13 begins as if directly following the conclusion of 12:
unable to begin
At the beginning, the fortunate
Find everything already here. They are shoppers,
Choosers, judges; . . . And here the brutal
is without issue, a dead end.
Argument in order to speak, they become
unreal, unreal, life loses
solidity, loses extent, baseball's their game
because baseball is not a game
but an argument and difference of opinion
makes the horse races. They are ghosts that endanger
One's soul. There is change
In an air
That smells stale, they will come to the end
Of an era
First of all peoples
And one may honorably keep
If he can.
Oppen typically capitalizes the first letter of each line in "Of Being Numerous" but doesn't in the stanza about the argument of baseball. "Difference of opinion makes the horse races." This section describes a perilous situation all too commonly experienced by the typical wage earner: the feeling of being thrown into the world where everything seems to be available but only to a few lucky enough to afford it all, leading to a sense of morbid anticipation that this will all someday end but not before it sucks the life out of a sensitive reaction to an actual world. Where Whitman speaks of the transient peace and joy that surpass all the art and argument of the earth, Oppen describes the necessity to construct an argument in order to speak at all. Those concluding lines of Oppen offer both a moral pronouncement and a hope—one may honorably keep his distance if he can—about the argument of the earth the modern person every day witnesses.
Nevertheless, Oppen implicates himself in what we might read as the confusion and compassion the modern world around him generates; at least, this is how section 14 begins:
I cannot even now
Altogether disengage myself
From those men
With whom I stood in emplacements, in mess tents,
In hospitals and sheds and hid in the gullies
Of blasted roads in a ruined country...
Oppen, confronting the economic chaos of the modern city, finds himself remembering his time in the trenches, when he fought as a soldier in the Second World War. (His great poem "Route," included in Of Being Numerous, recounts some of his experiences as an infantryman.) The memory's value, for the poet, is the empathy it forces on him: he realizes that he spent his time with "many men / More capable than I," some of whom he names, leading him to ask himself, scoldingly:
How forget that? How talk
Distantly of 'The People'
Who are that force
Within the walls
Wither in their cars
Echo like history
Down walled avenues
In which one cannot speak.
It's a beautiful passage, undercutting the material critique certain parts of the poem perform, especially the temptation to adopt a morally superior view section 13 seems to advocate. Even so, Oppen hears this echo of unspeaking voices—memories, presumably?—in the sounds of cars roaring through the city.
In section 26, the single longest section of the poem, Oppen makes a soliloquy out of difficult questions, principally the question of the value of life, particularly the value of living the life of a poet in a Whitmanian republic:
Stupid to say merely
That poets should not lead their lives
They have lost the metaphysical sense
Of the future, they feel themselves
The end of a chain
Of lives, single lives...
How shall one know a generation, a new generation?
Not by the dew on them! Where the earth is most torn
And the wounds untended and the voices confused,
There is the head of the moving column
Who if they cannot find
Wither in the infirmaries
And the supply depots, supplying
The parts the poets furnish to eternity are in danger of being worthless, meaningless. The argument of the earth has torn it apart. In the face of this metaphysical crisis, Oppen proposes a solution, or perhaps a solace: the life of the mind:
The power of the mind, the
Power and weight
Of the mind which
Is not enough, it is nothing
And does nothing
Against the natural world,
Behemoth, white whale, beast
They will say and less than beast,
The fatal rock
Which is the world—
Explaining these lines to L. S. Dembo in the interview that appeared in Contemporary Literature in 1969, Oppen remarked: "I suppose what I'm saying really is that there is no life for humanity except the life of the mind. I don't know whether it's useful to say that to anyone. Either people will have discovered it for themselves or else it won't be true for them." When Dembo asked him to clarify what he meant, Oppen invoked the conclusion to the poem, bringing us full circle: "I mean the awareness...I suppose it's nearly a sense of awe, simply to feel that the thing is there and that it's quite something to see. It's an awareness of the world, a lyric reaction to the world. 'Of Being Numerous' ends with the word 'curious' partly as a joke on Whitman, but also because men are curious, and at the end of a very long poem, I couldn't find anything more positive to say than that" (Dembo, 1969).
Curious, then, as an attribute of a vital force of life itself. (Elsewhere in the Dembo interview, Oppen compares his use of the word curious to his use of the word joy at the end of the poem "The Narrative" [Dembo, 1969].) Curious as a Whitmanian adjunct to numerousness, signifying the primary experience for most of us of sensitive reaction to an actual world. Curious as a compass to being. Rewritten, the conclusion to "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" might then read:
You furnish your numerousness to the present
You furnish your numerousness to the city
Which, in the right light, looks quite curious.
Dembo, L. S. "Interview with George Oppen." Contemporary Literature 10.2 (Spring 1969).
Oppen, George. New Collected Poems. Edited by Michael Davidson. New Directions, 2002.
Oppen, George. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Duke University Press, 1990.
Pound, Ezra. Early Writings: Poems and Prose. Edited by Ira B. Nadel. Penguin Classics, 2005.
Whitman, Walt. Selected Poems 1855–1892: A New Edition. Edited by Gary Schmidgall. St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Williams, William Carlos. Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams. Edited by John Thirwall. New Directions, 1984.
An earlier version of this essay was initially presented in April 2008 at Poets House, as part of "The Shape of Disclosure," the George Oppen Centennial Symposium, organized by Michael Heller and Stephen Motika. Grateful thanks to them both. Karl Gartung helped clarify the linkages between different parts of "Of Being Numerous." I'm grateful for his insights.