Clarity in the Sense of Silence

Today’s class discussion about “objectivism” really got me thinking, especially because so many people has responses that were different from my own initial thoughts of what it means to be an objective poet. One thing that stood out to me in George Oppen’s poetry, as opposed to some of the other poets we have read this semester, is that he does not force any kind of agenda on you, politically or otherwise. Certainly, there is a commentary on society that can be read in his work, especially commentary on city life, but his real power comes in his moments of silence and restraint. I feel that this same source of power is behind Whitman’s “I Sit and Look Out”, which I found one of his most impactful and moving poems. The silence that Whitman posits at the end of that poem is in contrast to his usual style of long, prose-like, detailed explanation and description. We talked about that silence as possibly signifying impotency, reverence, or fear, but I think it can embody all three emotions at once. Comparing Whitman’s world to Oppen’s world, and similarly comparing their moments of silence, lends even deeper meaning to Oppen’s poignant restraint throughout his work.

Silence then becomes a complex medium, which can be at once supremely subjective and somehow so objectively true. Oppen’s work, “Of Being Numerous” contains many moments of this silent restraint, not literately by claiming his silence as Whitman does, but by saying the minimum, using ellipses or dashes, and allowing the reader to embellish the poem with his own meaning. In Section five, one line simply reads, “1875”, without seeming place or relation to the rest of the stanza. Parallel lines such as “Having only the force/ Of days/ Most simple/ Most difficult” and “This is the level of art/ There are other levels/ But there is no other level of art”, seem to ring with a kind of heart-hitting truth, but it is difficult to say why. Within his minimalism, his careful choice of words and structure, there is enough space for personal interpretation, but it seems a personal interpretation of over archingly objective symptoms and feelings of mankind.

Oppen says it for himself the best in stanza 22 of “Of Being Numerous”:


In the sense of transparence,

I don’t mean that much can be explained.

Clarity in the sense of silence”

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