Oppen and Whitman have been found by Zack Finch to be figures united by touch. In his article “Walt Whitman and the Aesthetics of Curiosity in George Oppen’s Critique of Violence”, Finch discusses how Oppen’s opinion about touch developed into finally acknowledging “penetration as essential”. Finch begins by explaining that touch can be divided into two forces: the wounding and the loving (Jean-Luc Nancy). According to Nancy, the wounding “penetrates the other person”, while the loving “contacts the other at his or her limit and goes no further”. The distinction between these two types of touch can also show the opposition between Oppen’s early work and Whitman’s work. While both men know the value of interpersonal connection, they felt communion among people differently. According to Finch, Oppen felt that an understanding between people could be felt without penetrating contact, while Whitman clearly values the overlapping and assimilation of bodies. However, after Oppen’s hiatus from poetry, Finch finds that Oppen realizes that penetration is a natural force—even the leaves of grass have a wounding touch. While Oppen had hoped each touch could be deliberate and loving, he came to realize that “the ordinary course of things growing and changing, dying and being born….characterized all life”. This realization changed his perception of connecting to people, which Finch finds most important in a reading of “Of Being Numerous”.
In the introduction to George Oppen, Selected Poems, Robert Creely says that for Oppen “poetry is a function of perception” and he “is trying all his life to think the world, not only to find or enter it” (xi). It seems that for Oppen, penetration wasn’t enough; he wished to absorb and understand the world. These claims match up with Finch’s assessment of Oppen’s early career. I can also see that the internal struggle that Finch notices in Oppen can be boiled down to Creely’s assertion that “the singular act of poetry could not outweigh the need to work in concert with those he felt oppressed” (xiii). His acceptance of that fact probably led him to what Finch calls, “a willful acceptance of [violence]”, or penetration.