New Directions & Poetry

Of Being Numerous

Posted in Uncategorized by New Directions on June 8, 2009

Looking through the New Directions’ library, my finger crossed over the spines of many books, quite a few yellowed and frayed edges, until I stopped upon the slender 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous. Here’s #27 of the long poem:


It is difficult now to speak of poetry —

about those who have recognized the range of choice or those who have lived within the life they were born to –. It is not precisely a question of profundity but a different order of experience. One would have to tell what happens in a life, what choices present themselves, what the world is for us, what happens in time, what thought is in the course of a life and therefore what art is, and the isolation of the actual

I would want to talk of rooms and of what they look out on and of basements, the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks of wood in the concrete, such solitude as we know —

and the swept floors. Someone, a workman bearing about him, feeling about him that peculiar word like a dishonored fatherhood has swept this solitary floor, this profoundly hidden floor — such solitude as we know.

One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands,
He must somehow see the one thing;
This is the level of art
There are other levels
But there is no other level of art

On reading Oppen, one cannot help but feel a somewhat awed respect at Oppen’s hewing to honesty, not so much as a style of vernacular but of choosing the words that most clearly approached his thoughts….or so it strikes me. There is something of the American Transcendentalist, perhaps, in him: that seeking for larger meaning within the details of the daily life, as well as a persistent seeking — a questioning that elicits further thinking but not necessarily answers.

Even though we no longer publish Of Being Numerous as a stand-alone volume, we do have a collected volume which contains a CD of Oppen reading. I found listening to Oppen a revelation, that deep voice that enunciated each word as carefully as they were written.

~Soo Jin


2 Responses

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  1. Forrest Gander said, on June 9, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Yes that voice. It was splendid to include the cd with the Collected Poems. His short breath– all those years of heavy smoking– intensifies the readings, dramatizes the serial construction of the syntax, the sense of incompletion and arrival, doesn’t it? As though the struggle to breathe and the struggle to arrive “at clarity” were one in the same, as they are.

  2. Jeffrey said, on June 9, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Forrest hits the nail in the soul — and the occasional disparity between what’s on the page and what GO read. Devoted poetry scholars, there’s a dissertation in there! His daughter once said that GO didn’t give that many readings because of stage fright (!) But we were actually able to track down quite a few readings to pull from for this cd, which includes poems from all his books. Why not buy 3 for those summer encounters?

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