Being Numerous

Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life

Oren Izenberg
Series: 20/21
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 272
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Being Numerous
    Book Description:

    "Because I am not silent," George Oppen wrote, "the poems are bad." What does it mean for the goodness of an art to depend upon its disappearance? InBeing Numerous, Oren Izenberg offers a new way to understand the divisions that organize twentieth-century poetry. He argues that the most important conflict is not between styles or aesthetic politics, but between poets who seek to preserve or produce the incommensurable particularity of experience by making powerful objects, and poets whose radical commitment to abstract personhood seems altogether incompatible with experience--and with poems.

    Reading across the apparent gulf that separates traditional and avant-garde poets, Izenberg reveals the common philosophical urgency that lies behind diverse forms of poetic difficulty--from Yeats's esoteric symbolism and Oppen's minimalism and silence to O'Hara's joyful slightness and the Language poets' rejection of traditional aesthetic satisfactions. For these poets, what begins as a practical question about the conduct of literary life--what distinguishes a poet or group of poets?--ends up as an ontological inquiry about social life: What is a person and how is a community possible? In the face of the violence and dislocation of the twentieth century, these poets resist their will to mastery, shy away from the sensual richness of their strongest work, and undermine the particularity of their imaginative and moral visions--all in an effort to allow personhood itself to emerge as an undeniable fact making an unrefusable claim.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3652-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION Poems, Poetry, Personhood
    (pp. 1-39)

    BEING NUMEROUSADDRESSES a set of interdependent problems in the history, theory, and politics of recent Anglo-American poetry. In it, I offer a challenge and an alternative to a nearly unanimous literary-historical consensus that would divide poetry into two warring camps—post-Romantic and postmodern; symbolist and constructivist; traditionalist and avant-garde—camps that would pit form against form on grounds at once aesthetic and ethical. Rather than choosing sides in this conflict or re-sorting the poems upon its field of battle, I argue that a more compelling history might begin by offering a revisionary account of what poetry is or can...

  5. CHAPTER ONE White Thin Bone: Yeatsian Personhood
    (pp. 40-77)

    AT LEAST FOUR DECADES of major American critical theorists, Daniel O’Hara writes in his 1987 essay “Yeats in Theory,” were “essentially Yeatsian.”¹ R. P. Blackmur solidified his sense of poetic form upon the work of the still-living artist whom he declared “our one indubitable major poet”;² Northrop Frye’s synoptic impulses and syncretic diagrams were decisively shaped by Yeats’s gyres and wheels;³ Harold Bloom’s theory of influence generalized the transactions between Yeats and his Romantic precursors;⁴ Paul de Man’s early work on the types of Yeatsian figuration (the only part of his doctoral dissertation he chose to preserve and publish) predicts...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Oppen’s Silence, Crusoe’s Silence, and the Silence of Other Minds
    (pp. 78-106)

    THE LAST CHAPTER ended with a poem, perfect in its paradoxical way. The occasion of “Cuchulain Comforted” was the occasion both of the hero’s departure from the land of the living and of the poet’s own imminent death. Considered as his final act, the hero’s death secures his identity; an appropriately memorable end both demands and assures immortalization. Considered as a final word, the poet’s poem rounds out the shape of his legacy and assures us that the distinctive voice will endure. There is tension, however, between the powerful impulse to regard either a poem or a life as having...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Justice of My Feelings for Frank O’Hara
    (pp. 107-137)

    This odd poem, entitled “Prose for the Times” (1952), exemplifies in condensed form many of the problems that a reader inclined to take poems seriously encounters when approaching the poetry of Frank O’Hara. Unlike Oppen’s self-inflicted silence, so burdened with moral gravity, virtually everything about O’Hara’s voluble poem seems designed as if to affront the dignity of the poetic vocation, no matter the terms in which that vocation is imagined. Note, for example, the resolutely trivial nature of the poem’s “occasion”; an inconsequence that is registered both narratively—as the strange goings-on recorded by the poem take place at a...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Language Poetry and Collective Life
    (pp. 138-163)

    BOB PERELMAN’S 1996The Marginalization of Poetry¹ ends its scholarly and autobiographical account of the recent American poetic avant-garde with an allegorical fantasy. Before Perelman’s dreaming eyes, Frank O’Hara—discerning lover of the world, aficionado of the mess of experience—and Roland Barthes— passionate reader of the world, systematizer of the codes of experience—meet for the first time in death as they did not in life. Appearing in an ersatz heaven crowned with haloes and wreathed in fog-machine smoke, the two trade barbs and witticisms, quote poems and texts back and forth. As they speak, it gradually becomes apparent...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE We Are Reading
    (pp. 164-188)

    AMIDST THE TRANSLATIONS, mistranslations, hybrids, and fictions that make up Jack Spicer’s 1957 bookAfter Lorca, we find a series of letters from the living American poet to the dead Spanish one:

    Dear Lorca,

    When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. A really perfect poem (no one yet has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in. A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.¹


  10. NOTES
    (pp. 189-224)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 225-234)