Exploring Silence in Whitman & Oppen

For the final paper, I want to explore the trope of silence in poetry. What sparked my interest in this topic was Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Sit and Look Out.” Whitman ends the poem with a rare silence – one that is infinitely meaningful. To be at a loss for words is a universalizing, human feeling, and for a poet to admit the act of silence reveals that there must be a profound meaning behind it.

In my paper I will closely examine Whitman’s silence in as well as the meaning of silence behind George Oppen’s poetry. Silence played an arguably weightier role for George Oppen than it did Whitman. From 1935 to 1958 after a great deal of success as a poet, Oppen stopped writing all together. He felt poetry seemed trite in relation to the world and said, “Surely there are situations in which it’s absurd to write poetry! One could approach his own death with poetry – I should think one would. But a slaughter, a slaughter for which he bears perhaps some responsibility? Or, he does what he does. I don’t know what one ‘should’ do…” (Oppen xiii). Here Oppen suggests the insufficiency of words and the uselessness of poetry in times of difficulty or crisis. Whitman also suggests this in I Sit and Look Out, when he says “All these— All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon/ See, hear, and am silent.” However, the irony is that Whitman suggests this concept in a poem, therefore contradicting himself, while Oppen suggests it by truly neglecting poetry for twenty-three years.

Ultimately, I will attempt to answer the following questions: What kind of impact does the act of silence make? Is the act of silence one of power or weakness? Are the hardest parts of life impossible to express through words, as Oppen suggests in the above quote? How is the silence of Whitman similar to the silence of Oppen? How is it different?

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One Response to Exploring Silence in Whitman & Oppen

  1. Justine Rowe says:

    I think this is a really interesting topic and the questions you ask are very thought-provoking. Silence and communication are fundamental parts of our daily lives; therefore, I am intrigued that you are applying this to poetry and the role of speech and silence within it. I especially like the ironic contradiction between Whitman, who suggested silence, yet was never able to repress his comments, and Oppen, who truly felt the uselessness of words and chose not to write for decades. I think this opposition will lead to interesting discoveries. Good luck!

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