One recent afternoon when I was sick and desperate for something new to read, I flipped through those books that somehow manage to appear on my bookcase without any recollection of how they arrived: a 600-page biography of Vivienne Eliot, George Bernard Shaw’s music essays, a Russian Literature Triquarterly from 1971. I don’t think I bought any of these, and since I am not prone to shoplifting, I can only assume they were gifts and can only hope I thanked the gifter. I settled on George Oppen’s 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection On Being Numerous, a volume I figure was given to me by a professor a few years back and promptly forgotten.
I sped through the title poem in a state near despair over its genius. (I also despaired over the thought that this book might not get published today because of its peculiar composition—one long poem and five smaller ones. It is not tidy in the way that so many new poetry collections are.) “On Being Numerous” is its own kind of ode to New York City despite the late-60s turmoil of the nation. Section 7 suggests, “Obsessed, bewildered / By the shipwreck / Of the singular / We have chosen the meaning / Of being numerous.” As if the real gift of living in NYC is not loneliness nor privacy, to use E.B. White’s terms, but identity. Identity in spite of the anonymity of riding a crowded subway train or weaving through Union Square. Group identity in the same way that we check the boxes next to race and gender on school applications. In the same way we introduce ourselves to strangers as doctors, teachers, sculptors.
As William Carlos Williams wrote in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “It is difficult / to get the news from poems, / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” And what is found there? Hope? Insight? Perhaps community, the sense that you are not alone in your thoughts, experiences, feelings. Oppen suggests, and I nod in agreement that yes, it is “Strange that the youngest people I know / Live in the oldest buildings // Scattered about the city / In the dark rooms / Of the past.” And yes, “the rain falls / that had not been falling / and it is the same world.” The same world here as in Iraq, here as in 1969, here as before there was poetry giving us, not news, but sustenance.
I’m not providing any remarkable insight by suggesting that Oppen speaks to our time as much as he did to his own. He writes, “It is the air of atrocity, / An event as ordinary / As a President—” One of poetry’s appeals (even poetry pulled randomly from a bookshelf) is that it can transcend its time and place. And that is why those of us already enamored with line breaks, metaphors, etc. try during April to convert the skeptics. National Poetry Month is an appropriate time to defy those boring people who claim that poetry is dead and to remember that those of us who read and write verse are numerous, as well. Perhaps no New York City, but a community, nonetheless.