This is the thirtieth anniversary of George Oppen's death. In recognition of his poetic influence, a number of publishers have issued books examining various aspects of Oppen — his poetics, his life, his writings. This review will discuss four of them examining the ways by which, through their interconnectedness, they weave a complete picture of the man and his poetry.
The first question to be addressed is 'What is Objectivism?' as, without this understanding, Oppen himself cannot be understood. In the introduction to George Oppen: New Collected Poems, Michael Davidson defines: "the Objectivist movement, a loosely organized group of poets who came of literary age under the influence of Pound and Williams and who shared a belief in the values of the hard, spare artifact. Along with Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, and Carl Rakosi, Oppen built on the lessons of Poundian Imagism, with its stress on the object clearly seen and directly presented."(xxxv) Davidson, earlier in his introduction, stated that: "It was in [Oppen's, Zukofsky's and Reznikoff's] company that the plot for a new publishing venture was hatched, with Zukofsky as editor and Mary [Oppen's wife] and George as publisher/printers. The name of the press was To Publishers, an abbreviation of "The Objectivists," but also celebrating function words like "to" and "the", upon which Objectivist aesthetics would be found."(xxii)
But what was it that distinguished Objectivism and Imagism as represented by its foremost figure, Ezra Pound. Even though Pound and Oppen became friends — a surprising fact given that Oppen was a Jew and Pound an anti-Semitic fascist, Oppen did not entirely agree with the Imagists nor Pound: "If Oppen's Objectivism can be broadly differentiated from Imagism, it is in the former's claim to experiential grounding of the poem...Objectivism served as a corrective to (not a repudiation of) Imagism's faith in the visual by linking the phenomenal object with an experiencing, language-using subject."(xxxv-vi)
This brief introduction to Objectivism serves to introduce us to the poetics of George Oppen. But what of the person? All four books under review provide a more or less detailed description of Oppen's life so only the more salient facts will be set out here. Perhaps the most salient of all is that he was born into wealth — Oppen being a foreshortening of Oppenheimer — but rejected that station feeling more empathy for the common man. During the early years of their marriage during the 1930s, he and his wife, Mary, chose to live a vagabond existence hitchhiking around the western states and working sporadically. His humanity resulted in his joining the Communist Party, organizing rent and other strikes and serving the needs of his fellow man. He published his first book Discrete Series in 1934 but, then "stopped writing altogether for a twenty-five year period, from 1934 to 1958."(xxv) Davidson gives two reason for this: "he could neither write poems in service to social causes nor sequester these causes in hermetic formalism."(ibid) Part of this was spent living in Mexico as part of an enclave of artists who had left the United States due to McCarthyism and the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was only after a dream involving rust and copper that he resumed writing. He and Mary returned to the U.S. in 1960 and, when they did finally return to New York City, resumed their acquaintance with Zukofsky. However, "although the two old friends continued to see each other, there was a general cooling of their relationship."(xxix) Davidson attributes this cooling off to differences in temperament: "However oblique his poems, George always felt that clarity was his primary goal…Oppen felt that Zukofsky used obscurity and incomprehensibility as a tactic, leaving the reader behind."(xxix). Oppen published his second book The Materials in 1962 signalling the resumption of his writing career publishing five more books before his death on July 7, 1984 at the age of seventy-seven.
Although Zukofsky, Reznikoff, and Oppen, as well as others, have been grouped under the rubric of Objectivism, they "did not rally around a coherent program or manifesto. Rather, they saw themselves as outsiders to official American literary and political life and unique within their own cohort."(xxiv) What they did have in common was a debt, as indicated earlier, to the concept of Imagism. To begin to understand Oppen's poetics, we must begin to understand this. As Peter Nicholls states, at p. 6 of George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism: "In the work of Pound, Eliot, and Williams, the Objectivists had discovered a new 'visual clarity' and a 'freedom from the art subject'. Now they, too, called for 'clarity of image and word-tone' and defined 'the accuracy of detail in writing' as 'sincerity'. (Pound's notion of 'technique as a test of man's sincerity' was an obvious touchstone here.) A further Poundian image emphasized the importance of verbal concentration as Zukofsky defined 'An Objective' as 'The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus.' . . . . a practice of writing which was ultimately concerned less with objects than with what Zukofsky called the 'shape' of the poem and 'the resolving of words and their ideation into structure'. What was objectified was the poem itself, as Zukofsky put it: 'This rested totality may be called objectification — the apprehension satisfied completely as to the appearance of the art form as an object."'(p.6-7) Oppen added his own spin to this, holding that, as Eliot Weinberger stated, at p. xv of his preface to George Oppen: New Collected Poems: "the function of poetry was a test of truth; he may have been the last writer in the West to use the word "truth" without irony . . . . The poet's task was to restore meaning to both a thing and a word." It was through emphasis on the little word that Oppen sought this truth. As Weinberger added, at p. xvii: " in his quest for truth, he believed that the little things and the little words — pronouns, articles, prepositions, short declarative sentences — were the truest, yet even they had to be taken apart and sometimes left unreassembled." And it is in the 'little words' that Oppen found himself separated from Pound and the Imagists. As Davidson stated, at p. xxxviii: "He places his faith in parts of speech and speech acts rather than images, because it is only in its reduced, functional state that language may reveal its complicity in the production (rather than reflection) of reality." Davidson goes on, at p. xxxvi-vii, to define Oppen's poetics: "We may see George Oppen's poetics as emerging within this tradition [of telling it slant, as Emily Dickinson said, meaning being 'sceptical of the full, adequate word'], and we could identify three frames within which his refusal is embodied: the social, the epistemological, and the textual. As frames, these categories are by no means discrete but overlap and interpenetrate each other . . . . The second frame of refusal, the epistemological, refers to that odd merging of American pragmatism and European existentialism in Oppen's poetry. In both systems, knowledge is a relationship between rather than of things, a negotiation rather than an appropriation . . . . There is, in other words, no privileged vantage, no natural standpoint, from which one may know either oneself or the entities that make up a phenomenal field. One finds oneself already in a world of intersecting particulars, no one of which may be isolated for purposes of scrutiny. Oppen is less interested in what is discovered than he is in the condition or mood in which things can be apprehended, in which things constellate a world." It is this foregrounding of his poetry by philosophy that forms the field of inquiry of Nicholls' George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism.
In George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism, Nicholls applies a philosophical analysis to Oppen's work referring to Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, and the entire existentialist pantheon as the basis by which Oppen came to create. We'll deal with the American pragmatic, which Nicholls seems to have neglected in his discussion of Oppen's poetry, later. Our focus now will be on the much discredited philosophy of existentialism. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy states, at plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/:
while a philosophical definition of existentialism may not entirely ignore the cultural fate of the term, and while Sartre's thought must loom large in any account of existentialism, the concept does pick out a distinctive cluster of philosophical problems and helpfully identifies a relatively distinct current of twentieth- and now twenty-first century philosophical inquiry . . . . What makes this current of inquiry distinct is not its concern with 'existence' in general, but rather its claim that thinking about human existence requires new categories not found in the conceptual repertoire of ancient or modern thought; human beings can be understood neither as substances with fixed properties, nor as atomic subjects primarily interacting with a world of objects.
. . . . 'existentialism' may be defined as the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence . . . . and while the idea that philosophy cannot be practiced in the disinterested manner of an objective science is indeed central to existentialism, it is equally true that all the themes popularly associated with existentialism — dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, nothingness, and so on — find their philosophical significance in the context of the search for a new categorical framework, together with its governing norm.
It can be readily seen why Oppen, with his emphasis on the concept of 'truth', would have been attracted to this philosophy. This search for truth proceeding as it would from this existentialist perspective would have prevented Oppen from pursuing any type of Romantic notion of poetry and eschewing the use of the devices which the Romantics were so fond of falling back on. As Davidson stated: "Uniquely among American poets, there are almost no mythological references and no myth-making, no exotica, no personae, only one or two passing historical references, and almost no similes in his work; in Oppen's world, things are not 'like', they are there, right in front of you, and there with an exclamation point."(xvi) This also served to further separate him from the poetry of Pound and the Imagists.
But why Nicholls would have ignored the pragmatic element in Oppen's work is an enigma. It is the pragmatic that underlies a great deal of Oppen's thought, as Davidson pointed out. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines 'classical' American pragmatism as:
a grouping of philosophies that were developed from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century, and were largely influential in the Progressive Era (1890-1915) and up until the Second World War. Pragmatists, such as John Dewey, William James and Jane Addams, were interested in the intersection of theory and practice, bringing philosophic thinking into relationship with the social and political environment. For these thinkers, philosophizing was an active process, both as a way to change social realities and to use experience to modify the philosophies themselves. Early pragmatists were often humanists; they saw the social environment as malleable, capable of improvement through human action and philosophic thought. Because of this, many of the classical pragmatists were engaged in social action, often participating in experiments in education and working for egalitarian social reforms. Both early and contemporary pragmatists reject the idea of a certain Truth that can be discovered through logical analysis or revelation, and are more interested in knowledge gained through experiences of all sorts, while emphasizing the social context of all epistemological claims. Because of this understanding of knowledge as shaped by multiple experiences, pluralism has been a central value in pragmatism.
Consider Oppen's concept of 'truth' and how it is distinguishable from that of the Imagists; Oppen's complaint that the Imagists did not operate out of a basis of practical experience. Consider the entirety of Oppen's life and his eschewing writing in order to pursue his interest in the betterment of his fellow man. Cope, in his George Oppen: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, includes a couple of instances where Oppen specifically refers to pragmatism: at p. 129, in Daybook 2, where Oppen writes "Pragmatism . . . . that we cannot judge the reasonableness or logic of our reason except by the result of our actions." Or, at p. 141, in Daybook 3, where we find "On the pervasive contemporary pragmatism: the assumption that a statement that does no good is not true is useless, is not true." Certainly, these statements are somewhat ambiguous in that Oppen does not commit himself to nor comment on them; still, Nicholls does not make any attempt to refute their effect on Oppen's writing. As part of the prose included by Cope, we find, in 'The Mind's Own Place', at p. 30, where Oppen is considering the role of reality — or at least the word 'reality' — and its denial, Oppen quotes favourably from Bertrand Russell: "If I were to describe reality as I found it, I would have to include my arm." as restoring meaning to the word."
While Nicholls has focused his study on the philosophical underpinnings of Oppen's work, Barzilai has sought another way in — through Oppen's use of language. At p. 5 of her introduction, Barzilai states:
His poetry functions in two diametrically opposed directions: a movement from primary to secondary processes in the construction of the poem itself, and a movement from the sophisticated to the elemental as language is broken down, dismantled, to get at the elemental energies which are the foundation of the poem. Oppen's work is often obscure as a result of this dismantling of language; the syntax is fragmented, often a series of noun phrases juxtaposed without conjunctions, a set of images linked only by dashes and an apparent mismatch of disjointed items.
It is interesting in this regard to recall Oppen's criticism of Zukofsky's poetry where he accused Zukofsky of purposefully creating obscurity. The obscurity of Oppen is as a result of the pursuit of 'truth' in language.
But Oppen's language is more than just elemental. It is, according to Barzilai, also primitive. And it is "through the simplification of language into its smallest and most concrete units of meaning, and by his primary images of stone, water and fire"(8) that 'Oppen arrives at' these states of language. Barzilai dedicates her first chapter to an exploration of this 'primitive' mode giving as its foundation "a more psychological and social orientation, rather than an anthropological one, synchronic rather than diachronic" - (9) which she sees as akin to Jung's 'collective unconscious', Mercea Eliade's 'illud tempus' or 'time of origins' and Eliot's 'still point' - "where the temporal, or historical, and the atemporal or ahistorical merge in a moment of illumination."(10) In order to enter into "a sub-verbal state where images and symbols embody some sort of genesis" (11-12), Oppen "must bring into force the other elements of poetry which can convey this mode of symbolic thinking (in addition to the symbolic images themselves), such as rhythm, spaces and breaks in syntax through which the symbolic meaning can 'leak through'."(12) It is through this primitivism, particularly as expressed by Carl Jung, that Barzilai examines Oppen's relation to the Deep Image poets, particularly W.S. Merwin.
While there is probably little controversy in applying the Jung/Eliade/Eliot triumvirate and the concept of primitivism to Oppen's use of language, the subject matter of chapter 2 may be another story. Here Barzilai applies a post-structuralist/deconstructionist approach looking at Oppen through the lens of Derrida, Barthes and Kristeva. Certainly she has some interesting things to say, things which will provide literary critics and scholars with pause to ponder. For example, at p. 24:
Kristeva herself believes that poetic language is one form of discourse which explores the rupture of the symbolic realm through rhythm, tone and "musical" language…This 'irruption of the drives' through rhythmic distortions in the overt text of poetry is clearly at work in the poetry of Oppen, who employs visual elements such as line breaks and spaces between words as well as tonal elements such as rhythm to reflect the primary forces which manifest themselves in the poetry and provide an underlying, primitive 'phonotext' to the overt 'genotext' of syntax and signification."
The problem here is that she does not define the terms 'phonotext' and 'genotext' nor does she cite an example of Oppen's writing which would qualify as this 'irruption of the drives'. She then goes on to say, at p. 26, "both Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida take a deconstructionist view of language, casting serious doubts (like Lacan) on the ability of language to convey the true essence of reality." But Oppen himself has stated that he was seeking truth through his poetry. Barzilai follows this with a mention of Barthes' concept of 'jouissance' "which is discovered when we go beyond the overt meaning of a text and, unexpectedly 'bump against' some unorthodox use of language," and which she says "should be considered when examining the ways in which Oppen manipulates language" — which she herself neglects to do. This is the weakest chapter of the book as Barzilai fails to convince the reader that these aspects of post-structuralism and deconstructionism are applicable to Oppen's work.
Stephen Cope describes the George Oppen archives, housed at the University of California, as "consist[ing] of thousands of pages of Oppen's published and previously unpublished writings. These writings vary in kind from letters (completed letters and drafts, sent and unsent), drafts of poems (again, both completed and abandoned), reading notes, writing notes, and that which comprises the bulk of the collection: Oppen's Daybooks and a voluminous archive of poem drafts, drafts of letters, aphoristic reflections, and incidental writings gathered under the heading 'Notes, Jottings, etc."'(14) Cope has winnowed this down into "an edition of Oppen's previously published prose, a selection from his five Daybooks, and 'Twenty-six fragments,' scraps of paper and notes pasted to Oppen's wall or found on or near his desk after his death", in order to create George Oppen: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers (SPDP).
This bounty presents us with Oppen's thought process – both in the writing of his poetry and of his prose. We can watch while things evolve and are sometimes even presented with Oppen's thoughts on why they needed to do so. We have pieces like the following from his 'Daybook 1':
At least two kinds of devotion. The devotion to art, a sort of pragmatism of art which refuses to think anything which will not contribute to poetry. The other is a devotion which tries to makes poetry of what the mind, the free and operating mind thinks can know — or must know — and is going to know.(58)
Through this we are given insight to Oppen, access to the deeper part of him that lay beyond and behind his writing - or at least the things that he chose to place on paper. In Daybook II, after castigating the "French moderns" for "stringing [words] on the most ordinary syntactical structure," he goes on "But words of themselves carry only the most conventional, that is, the most generalized meanings. It is necessary It is the purpose// It is the proper purpose or the first purpose of the poem to restore the meaning of words.//the generalized meaning, the mere color and 'suggestiveness' of words absolves the poet of responsibility and protects him from censure."(68) Refer back to Barzilai's statement re Barthes and Derrida. How can the statement quoted apply to Oppen? If Oppen truly believes in this duty, then he, and every other poet, is doomed to failure. But, then, perhaps in this mad delusion called poetry, this is the case. Oppen goes on to say that ". . . the poem, the structure of meaning which restores the words to clarity. The word is the burden, the words are the burden, of the line which it must bear ^lift^ up into meaning."(69)
In what Cope refers to as Book II:III is a long list of aphorisms among which is the following: "The weakness of Imagism a man writes of the moon rising over a pier who knows nothing about piers and is disregarding all that he knows about the moon."(82) Such aphorisms, when they actually complete a thought (which many do not), are quite telling regarding Oppen's aesthetics. For example, doesn't "I DO NOT MEAN TO PRESCRIBE AN OPINION OR AN IDEA, BUT TO RECORD THE EXPERIENCE OF THINKING IT"(88) lay it out in a nutshell. There are also items beyond the aphorism which are extremely valuable in decoding Oppen's life, such as:
I think the question asked more frankly would be: is it more important to produce art or to engage in ^take political action^. Of course I cannot pretend to answer such a question. I could point this out, however, that art and political action are in precise opposition in this regard: that it can always be quite easily shown that political action is going to be valuable; it is difficult to ever prove that it has been in the past ^that political action has been valuable^. Whereas art is precisely the opposite case; it seems always impossible to prove that it is going to be valuable, and yet it is always quite clear that in the past it has been ^the art of the past has been of value to humanity. I offer it only as a suggestion that art lacks in political action, not action. One does what he is most moved to do.^(89)
Certainly with the volume of material which confronted Cope, we would expect that he would have had to exclude some. He freely admits this stating, at p. 53 (as well as at the start of every new daybook he comes to), that "Drafts of poems later included in The Materials, This in Which, and Of Being Numerous are among incisions. Also excised are personal notes, drafts of letters (sent and unsent), illegible writings, and poem drafts." It is the poem drafts that cause concern. Unless he is intending to publish a second book examining the process by which Oppen came to write his poems (something he never alludes to), wouldn't these drafts be the most important writings available to the public? Wouldn't these have given the greatest insight into Oppen's poetics?
There is another problem with the Daybooks that Cope could not do anything about. That is the lack of certainty as to the 'date of composition' so that there exists "the possibility that some of these writings were composed before the family permanently returned to the United States in January 1960."(53) This is truly unfortunate in that none of the other books discussed (other than the Collected Poems, of course) considers Oppen's first book Discrete Series, published in 1934, which would have contained his most Objectivist of poetry.
In 1975, New Directions released Collected Poems by George Oppen. Although he passed away in 1984, Oppen suffered from a severe case of Alzheimer's which prevented him from writing for several years. So why this new collection — besides being the thirtieth anniversary of his death? For one, this new collection includes Oppen's last published book Primitive (1978). Michael Davidson also includes poems "drawn from his uncollected and unpublished poems those which he worked on over a period of time or which elucidate other published poems."(xx)
Discrete Series begins with the Preface by Ezra Pound in which Pound condemns bad criticism for ignoring the subject matter of the poem in favour of the deficiencies, questions the concepts of obscurity, originality and 'reform', and finishes with "I salute a serious craftsman, a sensibility which is not every man's sensibility and which has not bee got out of any other man's books."(4). Most of the poems here are untitled. Discrete Series contains one of Oppen's most analyzed which Davidson titles 'Thus' which is the first and only word of the first line of the poem. Thus, we will leave it to others. What has not been said of Oppen is how immersed he is in the history of English poetry and how he uses the past to create a new present. Take 'Her ankles are watches'. This is the sentiment of Shakespeare at his finest. Is this not Sonnet 130 'My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun' but restructured into Objectivist poetry? Here the ordinary "Walks on the carpet, dressing,/Brushing her hair" mixes with the exalted "When she steps/She walks on a sphere" so that the world of experience mixes with the image. He has a unique way of writing love poetry. In 'No interval of manner', we read:
No interval of manner
Your body in the sun,
You? A solid, this that the dress
Your face unaccented, your mouth a mouth?
As to Oppen's trademark — the emphasis on little words, could there be any poem more telling than 'The three wide'(10) where the third line consists of a centred "the" and nothing else. Oppen loves the isolation of words, as can be seen with the word 'insisted' above, using this technique repeatedly in order to emphasize. Through this emphasis, he adds a lustre to the ordinary so that the word resonates with additional meaning, a meaning beyond the confines of the dictionary.
It is not until 1962 that Oppen released his next book The Materials which opens with a quotation from Jacques Maritain's Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry: "We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things."(38) Nicholls states that this '(mis)quotation' "was arguably [the] text which provided [Oppen] with many of the core ideas of his mature poetics . . . . If Creative Intuition was in some sense a catalyst for Oppen, then, the passage…celebrated both a way of being in the world and Oppen's own reawakening to creativity."(31) From this time onwards, nearly, if not all, of Oppen's poems are titled. The Materials opens with 'Eclogue' which, as Barzilai states, at p. 33, is "a term used to define a short poem which is usually pastoral or idyllic" but in which "Oppen sweeps away any images aroused by the terms "pastoral" or "idyllic," replacing them with sharp, hard images of rock and hunger; at the same time, this poem has an organic quality compatible with a pastoral ode." We can see, in the first few lines, the changes that have taken place in Oppen's poetry:
The men talking
Near the room's centre. They have said
More than they had intended.
Pinpointing in the uproar
Of the living room
On the quiet continent.(39)
We can visualize the scene, probably a formal affair, where the men, probably in top hats and tails, have gathered to talk about the 'important' things but, by doing so, have revealed more of themselves than intended. Oppen highlights the mismatch between words and reality, word and image where the seismic wave of meaning spills out from beneath the subterfuge of words. Conversation itself arises from and is an assault upon that which pre-exists it — the world of Jungian archetypes. For isn't this scene much as what would be imagined in the rituals of a primitive tribal society. Or, as Barzilai goes on to state: "the reader has a sense of the static rather than the process; what is being described here is a state of being which underlies the chaotic din of social discourse."(33) Oppen continues his exploration of poetic history with the poem 'Myself I Sing' which returns us to Whitman's 'Song Of Myself'. Here Oppen discovers a new technique for isolating the small words — by isolating them at the ends of lines through the combination of enjambment and caesura. For example, the second stanza reads:
Pioneers! But trailer people?
Wood box full of tools —
American. A sort of
in themselves. A
Less than adult: old.(56)
Note the use of old and the new together. The isolation of 'Shrinking' by itself followed by the isolation of 'A' and 'old' at the ends of their lines and the pause before. Barzilai, at 41, discusses this poem: "Oppen's poem in a sense questions Whitman's song of human identity, as Oppen himself undertakes an undressing, a shrinking, a reduction, a slipping back through various stages, ultimately to confront and then become one with sand, sky, ocean and rocks. 'Myself' becomes merged with the elements".
This In Which was published in 1965 and opens with quotations from Robert A. Heinlein and Martin Heidegger. The Heidegger is a very short excerpt " . . . the arduous path of appearance."(92) Of these, Barzilai says "These two quotations sum up, in a sense, Oppen's approach to human experience of the world and the ways in which this experience is perceived and crafted into his poetry. Oppen seldom attempts to explain the "why" of our engagement with the events of history, both personal and political; rather, he is interested in the phenomena themselves and the truths they embody, the "what" of our experience and our existence."(56) In 'Technologies', which opens the book, we find:
Without horizon, streets
Of the feminine technologies
And compassion which will clothe
Out of uncivil
As a hawk(93-4)
Again, the isolation of small words, the resplendency beyond denotation, above connotation. From Nicholls: "And once again Oppen dramatizes problems of identification with others, striving to come to terms with the anonymous masses who people 'streets/without horizon"'(62) In The Materials, there were a few poems that were multipart, with even fewer having more than two parts. This begins to change in This In Which. 'A Language of New York' consists of eight. This poem combines many of the themes that haunted Oppen throughout his career. Take part 3 where we read:
How forget that? How talk
Distantly of 'the People'?
Who are the people? that they are
That force within the walls
Wherein the cars
Echo like history
Down walled avenues
In which one cannot speak.(115-6)
Here we find themes of isolation, existentialism, the cruelty of the city, the inability of humanity to communicate. This poem preoccupied both Barzilai and Nicholls: Barzilai stating that the poem "deals with urban landscapes and our human relationship with the different elements of city life, and objects and the truths they represent."(61); Nicholls stating that "this idea of an aspect of the world which is resistant to thought plays an important part in his subsequent work. Such resistance can be the source of 'joy' in the sheer facility of the world, or it can be associated with the dull inertness of an objective world which mutely exceeds humanity." (81-2)
1968 takes us to the publication of the book which won Oppen the Pulitzer Prize Of Being Numerous. From this point on Oppen abstains from epigraphs. This, and the next three, books are much shorter than the preceding three. Of Being Numerous contains two of Oppen's longest poems to date: the title poem consisting of forty parts and 'Route' consisting of fourteen. Barzilai describes 'Of Being Numerous' in these terms:
each section an individual poem but together comprising a coherent body of work which presents and examines images of the city and its people. The poems portray New York city life and Oppen's explanation of its various manifestations such as doorsteps, bridges, glass and steel structures, brick walls. In many of these poems, Oppen picks out the fine details, the concrete images, the small cameos of daily urban life, examining them minutely, deliberating over their significance within the larger pattern of things, finding in a study of these objects and situations the possibility of discovering and knowing our selves, using the collage of individual buildings within a cityscape as a metaphor for the individual and his place in the greater collective of humanity.(79)
Nicholls describes the return to 'A Language of New York' which, 'revised and expanded', initially bore the title 'Another Language of New York' until, just before publication, when it was retitled to 'Of Being Numerous', of which he states:
the historical perspectives of Williams's poem [Paterson] no longer seemed accessible to Oppen. Certainly, the urban landscape of 'Of Being Numerous' often registers a disturbing loss of historical and linguistic depth…
Against the backdrop of national violence [of Vietnam protests, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, etc] and a 'rootless speech' . . . , Oppen's long poem would seek to gauge 'how close we are to each other', though its open form and intermittent opacities would emphasize that its situation was, to use one of Oppen's loaded words, 'precarious' in the extreme.(84)
Oppen changes his approach to poetry in 'Of Being Numerous' becoming much more philosophical. We sense this in the opening stanza of part 1: "There are things/We live among 'and to see them/Is to know ourselves"'(163) There are also knew techniques employed, in particular mixing lyric with prose poetry (which of itself is new) of which the last stanza of part 1 provides the first example:
'You remember that old town we went to, and we sat in the ruined window, and we tried to imagine that we belonged to those times — It is dead and it is not dead, and you cannot imagine either its life or its death; the earth speaks and the salamander speaks, the Spring comes and only obscures it —'(163)
Part 7 defines the meaning of the poem "Obsessed, bewildered//By the shipwreck/Of the singular//We have chosen the meaning/Of being numerous."(166)
Seascape: Needle's Eye (1972) leaves New York behind for San Francisco where, perhaps because of the greater spaciousness of the west, Oppen begins to open his poems more. For example, in 'Song, The Winds of Downhill', at 220, we read:
so poor the words
would with and take on substantial
meaning handholds footholds
They take on that meaning by being isolated — a technique with which we have become familiar throughout Oppen's career.
Myth of the Blaze (1972-75) continues Oppen's allusions to poetic history. In the title poem, he refers to Blake's "tyger, tyger burning bright" but, in the following lines, mixes the metaphysical with the practical: "end of the funnel what are the names/of the Tyger to speak/to the eyes//of the Tiger blaze/of the tiger who moves in the forest leaving//no scent"(249).
Primitive (1978), his last book, and its poem 'The Poem' provides a fitting way to end this review/essay:
how shall I light
this room that measures years
and years not miracles nor were we
judged but a direction
of things in us burning burning for we are not
still nor is this place a wind
utterly outside ourselves and yet it is
unknown and all the sails full to the last