Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous”

Lack of recent poetry entries to the contrary, I have been continuously reading George Oppen’s New Collected Poems. Generally when I delay reading a book of poems this long after I’ve actually begun it, it means I’m not particularly fond of the poems. That’s not the case here, though.

My greatest problem is simply that I haven’t been able to identify a particular poem that appeals to me or comes close to summarizing Oppen’s ideas. That left me having to deal with a 25 page poem consisting of 40 sections entitled “On Being Numerous.”

If this were a college course and I had to write a 25 page paper, I’d been in great shape because the poem is diffusely philosophic, which roughly translates into “I probably don’t have a clue what he’s saying,” but unlike much of modern poetry it still seems important to me, and worth reading. Or maybe it’s simply that Oppen and I happen to experience and process reality in similar ways. Perhaps its not translatable and has to be experienced, like a slideshow.



There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.

Occurrence, a part
Of an infinite series,

The sad marvels;

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

‘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 sala-
mander speaks, the Spring comes and only obscures it-‘


So spoke of the existence of things,
An unmanageable pantheon

Absolute, but they say

A city of the corporations
In dreams

And images-

And the pure joy
Of the mineral fact

Tho it is impenetrable

As the world, if it is matter,
is impenetrable.


The emotions are engaged
Entering the city
As entering any city.

We are not coeval
With a locality
But we imagine others are.

We encounter them. Actually

A populace flows

Thru the city.

This is a language, therefore, of New York

To tell you the truth, I was simply hooked by the truth of those first three lines, “There are things we live among ‘and to see them is to know ourselves’.” and apparently I’m not the first to be hooked by them, as a quick search on Google reveals, particularly this article in the Nation.

Perhaps we can never really know any time but our own, but visiting a historical site often seems to add a dimension to our knowledge that we cannot get merely from reading. Reading about The Hudson Bay Company is one thing, but it’s quite different to visit a reconstructed Fort Vancouver, see a blacksmith making nails, touch original nails, and see some of the furniture that was in the original fort.

It may well be impossible to know New York, but the population flowing through the city is the “language…of New York.” Seeing images of New York may impress us, but unless we meet the people of New York we can never hope to know it.

2 thoughts on “Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous””

  1. Not sure what to make of that poem.
    I like the line that we imagine others are coeval with a locality. That’s a poetic insight. I think there’s a problem with the link to The Nation review.

  2. Fixed the link, thanks, Tom.

    Guess I shouldn’t post late at night when I’m on my way out of town the next morning.

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