He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life, his first book, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life discusses a poet, George Oppen, best known for his silences: for the austerity and fragmentation of his poems and for the 25 year period in which he wrote no poetry while working to reconcile the conflicting commitments of art and politics.Read an excerpt from Being Numerous, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press.
Quoting “Psalm,” written after Oppen’s return to writing—
In the small beauty of the forest—I describe how Oppen steers his readers away from the “small” sensual particulars so central to art’s appeal, seeking instead to bring to mind a large and difficult abstraction. The idea that something (or someone) not ourselves exists is, of course, one of the deepest occasions for skepticism. It is a conclusion that cannot follow of necessity from the evidence of our senses. Thus even as the poem confidently, joyfully, proclaims “that they are there,” it is silent (“—“) about the path that leads from its observed scene to its metaphysical certainty.
The wild deer bedding down—
That they are there!
Oppen’s silence—his willingness to sacrifice his poetry in the interest of a greater knowledge—exemplifies the central question in Being Numerous: What happens when one of the traditional achievements of poetry—its ability to make another mind or voice vividly present to us through the scoring of sound and sense—comes into conflict with one of its traditional obligations: to assert and preserve the value of persons against the inevitability of forgetting or loss? These poetic triumphs and tasks have always had an uneasy economic relation; for every poem that limns a human ideal, there is a human who falls short of meeting it. Every poetic success at opening our eyes to the presence of a person produces a concomitant blindness to the existence (and perhaps the suffering) of whole classes of persons of whom no one has thought to sing. Under the pressures of a century of disasters (world war, and genocide, but also the levelings of capitalist culture), the poets I discuss come to feel this exchange to be an intolerable one. To them, the idea that (as Hannah Arendt would claim) “nothing and nobody exists in the world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator”—that persons, like poems, must be perceived in order to be valued—subjects persons to unbearable risks of inattention and failures of perception.
As the consequences of our ordinary failures to perceive and value the presence of persons comes to seem catastrophic or total, these poets are driven to turn away from the sensual richness of their strongest poems, to undermine the particularity of their imaginative or moral visions, and to reject the consolation of shared experience or sympathetic understanding—all in an effort to bring to mind concepts of personhood (“Being”) that are at once minimal, placing as few restrictions as possible upon the legitimate forms a person can take, and universal (“Numerous”), tolerating no exemptions or exclusions.