The Wisdom That Comes from Rest: George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous


In the 1930s a group of poets sought to create a style of poetry that would concern itself less with classical notions of poetry, instead choosing to treat the poem itself like an object and to rely on intelligence and emotion as the primary tools with which to build to poem.  The group was called the Objectivist poets and the man you see above, George Oppen, was counted among their number.  His work of poetry, Of Being Numerous, is one of my favorite works of poetry.  It is beautifully written, unique among anything else I have ever read in its honest approach to what it means to be alive, and profoundly insightful.  Some of my favorite lines include;

“Of this was told
A tale of our wickedness.
It is not our wickedness.”

“For the people of that flow
Are new, the old
New to age as the young
To youth”
“Yet I am one of those who from nothing but man’s way of thought and one of his dialects and what has happened to me
Have made poetry”
…and that’s just in the first ten of the work’s forty sections.

When I first learned of George Oppen and this work in particular I was inspired by a lot of elements of the poet’s life, mostly that he wrote this incredible work (and a number of others) after a 23-year hiatus from writing poetry.  Not that I am glad that he spent a large portion of his life not writing, but I appreciate the principles which led him to that decision; during the Great Depression he did not feel that he could write poetry that appropriately conveyed the times and so he became more politically active.  However, I am thrilled that his life led him back to writing and specifically to this piece.  It clearly gave him the time to live, to see, to learn, and to think.  When he finally began writing again Mr Oppen truly embodied the spirit of his former Objectivist clan in the clarity of his vision of the world around him.

It is a poem that has made me think, made me cry, made me see the world differently.  It has planted itself into the deepest parts of my heart and soul and changed me (as only the greatest art does).  I believe that this poem can and will help anyone understand what it means to be human, to be alive, to be numerous.

I hope that you will take the time to listen to the clip posted above, which finds George Oppen reading this incredible work, in its entirety, in Buffalo, NY a couple of years before its first publication.
(The mp3 above comes from the incredible PennSound website.)

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