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Zack Finch

“I am / of that people the grass / blades touch”:

Walt Whitman and the Aesthetics of Curiosity

in George Oppen’s Critique of Violence

Paragraph 1

“As English...allows us to say, other beings are me because they give me access to the origin; they allow me to touch it; they leave me before it...This occurs in the face of a newborn child, a face encountered by chance on the street, an insect, a shark, a pebble...but if one really wants to understand it, it is not a matter of making all these curious presences equal.”

                    — Being Singular Plural, Jean-Luc Nancy


“ looks quite // curious...”

                    — “Of Being Numerous,” George Oppen


Few poets in the 20th century wrestled more productively with Walt Whitman than George Oppen. Oppen’s complex engagement with Whitman sprang from a deep anxiety about the elder poet’s core belief in a transcendental premise — that all things, being identical with one another, can be fused into coherent, spiritual totality by any imagination capable of perceiving it. The notion that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” sounds harmless enough in the context of a poem or a sermon — indeed, its truth is fundamental and inspiring. But Oppen was haunted by the potentially violent consequences of an Enlightenment ideal that assumes, as it did increasingly for Whitman, a sense of moral and historical imperative.


John Peck in his essay “George Oppen and the World in Common” has noted how Oppen’s poetry negotiates Whitman in order to rethink the “misconception of the common world bequeathed to us” by “Rousseau and then the revolutionaries of 1789” (79—80). As a means of exploring Oppen’s rethinking of Whitman in greater detail, I’d like to consider how the figure of touch is emblematic of a significant distance between the two poets, which Oppen attempts to bridge in a handful of important poems. Of all the senses, touch embodies a range of erotic and political meanings in a most immediate way, for it takes place at the threshold where separate bodies, realizing their essential difference, respond to fundamental needs for intimacy, proximity, solidarity and love.


Susan Stewart’s Poetry and the Fate of the Senses has described how touch entails “the process of identification and separation by which we apprehend the world aesthetically,” since “to be touched” by the world implies the physical responses of feeling and emotion (162). The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, on the other hand, has drawn our attention to the ethical dimensions that emerge from this figure, by proposing two basic types of interpersonal touch: that which penetrates the other person, called wounding; and that which contacts the other at his or her limit and goes no further, called loving. These two extremes may help us to differentiate Whitman, whose commitment to the idea of “The People” tends toward the liquidation of individual limits (perhaps most evident in his call-to-arms poems at the beginning of the Civil War) from Oppen, whose particular ethical stance leads him to struggle with a deep-seated fear concerning the penetration of those very same limits.


Having proposed touch to be the paradigmatic figure for relation in both Oppen and Whitman, we might begin by observing how differently the two poets portray the experience of being among the jostling populace of an urban environment like New York City. Whitman, it is well known, often celebrated his bodily proximity with others and the ecstasy of even casual contact with strangers, as in this moment from “Song of Myself” (section 27):


Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.


A century later, George Oppen offers a more sobering depiction of Whitman’s so-called “city of orgies.” “We are pressed, pressed on each other,” Oppen laments in “Of Being Numerous.” In this poem, moments of “pure joy” do not occur through erotic physical encounters, but rather Oppen finds “love down there with the streets / And the square slabs of pavement.” It is the impenetrability of matter that Oppen honors in each “mineral fact” that composes the world’s brilliance. Immensely skeptical of an incorporated “People,” a mass that he claims “is incapable of love,” Oppen aims to contact this side of each relational limit without going further.


For Whitman, however, the end of touch tends to be the fusion of identities. Every object moves “harmlessly through me,” he writes: the “instant conductors” of his body electric are what allow his persona’s “I” to dilate like a lyric O, incorporating everything it contacts. Whitman’s professed ability to be moved through, like an avenue between buildings or like the American continent that no states should subdivide, permits the omnivorous “One’s-Self” of his opening inscription of Leaves of Grass to contain the democratic “word En-Masse” of the American body politic. Touching for Whitman — at first a sign of adhesive, handholding fraternity — ideally disintegrates those limits that Oppen is committed to sustaining.


The arduous path of Oppen’s ethical stance, which skirts the edges of the relational ontologies of Nancy and Emmanuel Levinas, marks a commitment to maintaining otherness. Oppen’s term for individuality, “the singular,” which derives from mathematical models for threshold limits, has been interpreted by Susan Howe as “the point where there is a sudden change to something completely else” (173). For Howe, “it’s a chaotic point” associated with catastrophic historical change, such as European arrival on the North American continent. Oppen wants to pre-empt the violent change of one body taking over another, by preserving the difficult homeostasis where, on an interpersonal level, “the known and unknown touch.” Through an Objectivist aesthetic that seeks contact with the given world, through the perceptual poetic practice of being curious, Oppen offers a critique of the violence that Whitman had affirmed in Civil War poems like “Song of the Banner at Daybreak,” where the “idea of all” was a cause worth dying for:


Out of reach, an idea only, yet furiously fought for, risking
     bloody death, loved by me,
So loved — O you banner leading the day with stars brought
     from the night!
Valueless, object of eyes, over all and demanding all —
     (absolute owner of all) — O banner and pennant!


It is within the context of war that Whitman’s appearance in the final section of Oppen’s most famous poem “Of Being Numerous” is especially significant. Oppen’s final section locates a quietly “curious” Whitman in the text of an 1864 letter he wrote home to his mother. In this private moment, Whitman attempts to describe the appearance of the Statue of Freedom, which in 1864 had only recently been installed atop the newly cast iron dome of the U.S. Capitol Building. The statue is of course a symbol, and one that the prewar Whitman would have understood without any need to discern its details so closely. But three and a half years of battle between Union and Confederate armies had subjected Whitman to a less certain relationship with the world and the ideal of union, a change that began when he first visited the frontlines of a Virginia battlefield in 1862. Based on this experience, he wrote:


Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest, the
               first, just lift the blanket;
Who are you, elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-
             gray’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you, my dear comrade?

                            — “A Sight in Camp in the Day-Break Grey and Dim”


Here, the dead soldier’s sunken face is something that the poem cannot absorb into itself, except as a question. War transforms, or at least profoundly qualifies, Whitman’s concepts of relation. In this poem the speaker reaches out, not to touch the soldier, but to lift the blanket like a veil, to reveal something untouchable — a gesture we imagine him repeating thousands of times in the Washington D.C. hospitals where he served as an unofficial chaplain, hospice volunteer, and self-professed “wound-dresser” until the war’s end.


The root of curiosity is the Latin cura, or care. With this in mind, we find that it is Whitman in his capacity as wound-dresser whom Oppen addresses in section 38 of “Of Being Numerous.”


You are the last
Who will know him

Not know him,
He is an old man,
A patient,
How could one know him?

You are the last
Who will see him
Or touch him,


Curiosity is essentially agnostic. It leaves the object incompletely known, thus unpossessed, limiting one’s ability to reduce the other to the status of the same, to use terms from Levinas’s critique of cognition in Totality & Infinity.[1]   For Oppen’s nurse, the act of touching replaces the epistemological desire to know “what” something is with the desire to acknowledge the presence of the other.[2]  Such an acknowledgment requires a certain kind of touch, as demonstrated by the carefully lineated stanzas, where Oppen measures the distance between nurse and patient, between knowing the other and acknowledging him, while choosing to err on the side of not knowing.


The activity of choosing, of cardinal importance throughout Oppen’s poetics, goes hand-in-hand with an ethics of curiosity. His statement that “There can be a brick / In a brick wall / The eye picks,” and his observation of  “So small a picture, / A spot of light on the curb,” portray a poem’s consciousness in the act of choosing to be curious. When one makes sustained eye contact with a particular brick, or when a ray of sunlight selects just this square inch to warm with its arrival: these luminous moments realize a world that is in touch with itself, through the intimate proximity of parts that are neither identical with nor equal to each other.


Oppen’s memorable isolation of the word “curious” at the end of his citation of Whitman’s letter, then, is the equivalent of Oppen reaching out to make contact with Whitman’s text (and Whitman had always equated the leaves of a book with the skin of the body). “Find a word for ourselves,” Oppen writes in “Historic Pun,” “Or we will have nothing, neither faith nor will, the will // Touched by the dazzle.”


So had Whitman, in his letter home, sought to make contact with an ideal that he could now neither touch nor grasp. In the citation that concludes “Of Being Numerous:”


The capitol grows upon one in time, especially as they have got
the great figure on top of it now, and you can see it very well. It
is a great bronze figure, the Genius of Liberty I suppose. It looks
wonderful toward sundown. I love to go and look at it. The sun
when it is nearly down shines on the headpiece and it dazzles
and glistens like a big star: it looks quite



Oppen’s encounter with Whitman in such a conspicuous moment of his own poetic development is especially meaningful because his relation with the founding father of American poetry had not always been so sympathetic. “Myself I Sing,” from the book The Materials, had opened with a description, nearly an admonishment, of Whitman in the narcissistic act of touching himself.


Me! He says, hand on his chest.
Actually, his shirt.
         And there, perhaps
The question.


The childishness of this initial exclamation, plus Oppen’s substitution of the more egotistical “Myself I Sing” for “One’s-Self I Sing,” presumes Whitman’s oath-taking gesture to be founded on solipsistic grounds, rather than on any firm relation with a common world, or a common text, that one shares with others. Oppen indicates the possible disingenuousness of this posture, and alludes to the fact that the circuit of identity is not, in fact, actually being completed: Whitman is touching his shirt rather than the spot over his heart.


In the poem’s second stanza, Oppen invokes an example of Whitman’s Civil War-era writing that had struck a more militant note than the empathic curiosity of the “The Wound-Dresser” poem. The long recruitment lyric “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” had appeared in the first edition of Drum-Taps published in 1865. It begins:


Come, my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready;
Have you your pistols? Have you your sharp edged
               Pioneers! O pioneers!

    For we cannot tarry here
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of
We, the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
                Pioneers! O pioneers!


Oppen’s response:


Pioneers! But trailer people?


Whereas Whitman had addressed the courageous American youth in their vitality before they enlisted to fight, Oppen considers the plight of those — suddenly “old” and itinerant — who have returned from military duty after World War II to feel, in addition to whatever trauma they’ve sustained, “A sort of shrinking / in themselves.” Oppen’s reference to “trailer people” is partly biographical. After his return from military service in France, Mary Oppen’s autobiography informs us, George, Mary and their daughter Linda spent “a year or two” living in an improvised house-trailer: “a possible way to have a dwelling place at the moment after the war” (186).


With just this single word citation, the ironic “Pioneers!,” Oppen raises the question of Whitman’s naïve, or at least inexperienced, enthusiasm for war. 1861 was a time of high ideals for Whitman and for the country. With a religious faith that Oppen did not possess, Whitman trusted the coming Civil War as an act of divine violence which would hit like a hurricane or earthquake, in order to unify and purify the nation. The uncollected “Ship of Libertad,” written in 1860, illustrates the Lear-like pitch to which Whitman’s impatience could reach:


Blow mad winds!
Rage, boil, vex, yawn wide, yeasty waves
Crash away —
Try at the planks — make them groan — fall around, black clouds —
       Clouds of death.

Welcome the storm — welcome the trial — let the waves [sic]
Why now I shall see what the old ship is made of
Any body can sail with a fair wind, or a smooth sea [...]
I welcome the menace — I welcome thee with joy.

                                                         (qtd. in Reynolds 416).


“Myself I Sing” is the first time that the notion of “the shipwreck of the singular” appears in Oppen’s work. Stanza five announces it:


A man marooned
No longer looks for ships, imagines
Anything on the horizon. On the beach
The ocean ends in water. Finds a dune
And on the beach sits near it. Two.
He finds himself by two.
                           Or more.
‘Incapable of contact
Save in incidents’


Here the activity of “contact” with an external world corrects the solipsism of Whitman’s gesture: the survivor “finds” himself by facing the shore where the ocean meets the earth, or by talking with “the man” he encounters in the trailer park. The phrase “Incapable of contact / Save in incidents” quotes the last poem Oppen wrote in the 1930s before embarking on his twenty-five year hiatus from poetry: in the ominous “Party on Shipboard,” the ship-goers, “freely tumultuous,” are too distracted to be aware of the potential for impending catastrophe.


Jacques Derrida has offered a nautical metaphor that usefully describes two ways a catastrophic event may take place. “Running aground,” he writes in “Teleology and Architectonic: the Neutralization of the Event,” “is the moment when a ship, touching bottom, gets accidentally immobilized” (122). By contrast, the action of grounding a ship “is the moment when...intentionally, freely, deliberately, in a calculable and calculated, autonomous manner, the captain of a ship, failing to keep his heading, takes responsibility for touching bottom” (122). Oppen’s orientation toward violence — and toward failure — is in keeping with this notion of grounding and responsibility.


Because the burden of choice is of such moral imperative for Oppen, a fully-fledged understanding of his critique of violence must touch upon the archetypal significance of another father-ish figure for the Jewish-American Oppen: Abraham. Other than the Whitman quotation in section forty, the only other section of the poem made entirely of quotation is the sixteenth, excerpted from Kierkegaard’s treatment of the Abraham story in his book Fear and Trembling: “There were countless generations who knew the story of Abraham by heart, but how many did it render sleepless?” (28). Oppen’s citation of the first page of Kierkegaard’s “Preliminary Expectoration” affirms that sleeplessness as necessary for survival:


‘...he who will not work shall not eat,
and only he who was troubled shall find rest,
and only he who descends into the nether world shall
     rescue his beloved
and only he who unsheathes his knife shall be given
     Isaac again. He who will not work shall not eat...
But he who will work shall give birth to his own father.’


One reason Kierkegaard resonates so deeply in “Of Being Numerous” is that the call to murder which haunts Fear and Trembling goes out to the single individual who  must then wrestle with the implications of suspending the ethical law that prohibits murder, in order to sacrifice his son according to God’s command. This ethical struggle is at issue in Oppen’s “Route,” as well, which asks: “Wars that are just? A simpler question: In the event / will you or will you not want to kill a German.” A moment later in this poem, Oppen adopts a legalistic grammar as he approaches the question from a different angle: “A man will give his life for his friend provided he wants to. // In all probability a man will give his life for his child provided his child is an infant.” Structured by the term “provided,” this grammar attempts to rule out the rash, the passionate, and the accidental as factors in one’s decision to commit or submit to violence. Above all, violence must not be a “convulsion” as Whitman had experienced it. The transgression of boundaries must not result from an irrational will-to-power.


But even these principles come into conflict with the ordinary course of things growing and changing, dying and being born, according to the non-human will-to-power that Nietzsche had found characterized all life. The poem “The Occurrences,” marked by traces of both Whitman and Abraham, finds the penetration of boundaries everywhere, in the growth of the smallest blade of grass. An essential poem in Oppen’s oeuvre, it reads in full:    


The simplest
Words say the grass blade
Hides the blaze
Of a sun
To throw a shadow
In which the bugs crawl
At the roots of the grass.

Father, father
Of fatherhood
Who haunts me, shivering
Man most naked
Of us all, O father

At the roots
Of the grass the creating
Now    that tremendous


This Whitmanian blade of grass cuts several ways. It grows skyward, signifying life and providing shade and shelter, but it also plunges apparently downward, in a moment of inescapable violence marked by the Now — italicized with the force of Walter Benjamin’s jetz — and recalling Abraham’s agreement to sacrifice his son. “Help me I am / of that people the grass blades touch,” Oppen wrote not once but twice in his last book Primitive.


The word “shivering” modifies both the son and the father in the grammar of the second stanza, effectively engendering both conditions at once: of the sacrificer and the victim, of Abraham and Isaac, even of Whitman and the child whom he would sacrifice for the cause of union in “Song of the Banner at Day-Break.” “The Occurrences” acknowledges something that haunts Oppen: the idea that, to borrow words from Nietzsche, “there is a will to power in the organic process by virtue of which dominant, shaping, commanding forces continually extend the bounds of their power and continually simplify within these bounds: the imperative grows” (342). Such power transpires as the perpetual caesura of creation itself. This instantaneous overcoming of boundaries, which Nancy identifies as the criteria for wounding, occurs even in the poet’s inscription of “The simplest / Words,” a violence which we are instructed to “Watch.”   


In Oppen’s Kierkegaard citation he addresses both Abraham — “he who unsheathes his knife” — and Isaac, who “shall give birth to his own father.” Isaac’s suffering is really just as unthinkable as Abraham’s. Through an act of Levinasian forgiveness in the face of originary persecution, Isaac manages to give birth to his father, to renew the father’s life. This is another case that complicates Nancy’s notion that to penetrate is to wound. For the labor of giving birth, as an act of being penetrated from within, is both a temporary wounding and a sacrifice one typically considers to be an act of love. In giving this maternal work to a man, Oppen opens himself to the ordeal of a penetration which he actively chooses. To choose a necessity that cannot be avoided:  this paradox encompasses Oppen’s citation of Nietzsche’s phrase amor fati, or love of fate, in section 8 of “Of Being Numerous.”


The dramatic changes in the poetry that follows Of Being Numerous display a new acknowledgment of penetration as something that simply happens as an order of being. I want to suggest that, in light of everything I’ve suggested about Oppen and violence, his ultimate critique of violence is a willful acceptance of it. The poems of Seascape: Needle’s Eye, for example, are framed by Simone Weil’s affirmation of pain and affliction as endemic to living. Beginning with the first poems in Seascape, Oppen’s lines, now more disjunctive than ever before, are penetrated from within, pried open, as if by the violence of bodily affliction. “When we hit a nail with a hammer,” writes Weil in “The Love of God and Affliction,” “the whole of the shock received by the large head of the nail passes into the point without any of it being lost, although it is only a point” (134). According to this Christian formulation, the wounding touch and the loving touch converge at the moment the nail receives the blow from the hammer. This leads me to think of Oppen’s act of driving a single nail through a stack of notebook pages, binding “Daybook III” with a force not unlike Emily Dickinson’s repeated stabbing of her fascicles in order to bind them. The ventilated disjunction of Oppen’s later style is evident in the poem “Of Hours:”


at the nail’s point the hammer-blow

Holes             pitfalls open
In the cop’s accoutrement


The destitute metal

Jail metal

Impoverished            Intimate
As a Father did you know that


If Whitman’s concept of relationality was transformed by his service in the Civil War as the wound-dresser of history, then Oppen’s later poetry effects its own reversal, admitting penetration as essential. Such an understanding is to be underscored by a term coined by the poet Rob Halpern (in his talk at the University of Buffalo’s recent celebration of Oppen’s hundredth birthday): the patient of history. Like one of the wounded soldiers Whitman observed and touched but could not appropriate or know, Oppen’s later poetry patiently survives the affliction which history’s “fathers” have asked it to suffer, and which a patient’s body itself suffers organically.


It would be melodramatic to claim that, after the first thirty-nine sections of “Of Being Numerous,” Oppen’s fortieth section gives birth to an image of “his own father.” The poem also gives birth to an image of Whitman the son, writing home to his mother. But above all, the poem gives birth to a new vulnerability about to open out in Oppen’s work. This acceptance of penetration follows in the long, nourishing shadow cast by that word “curious...” That ellipsis which punctuates this non-terminal term indicates a future that is perpetually flush with its past, where the touch that wounds and the touch that loves must sometimes meet, where “the known and the unknown / Touch...”


Civil war photo:
Grass near the lens;
Man in the field
In silk hat. Daylight.
The cannon of that day
In our parks.


[1] The critique of Totality & Infinity, writes Levinas, “does not reduce the other to the same as does ontology, but calls into question the exercise of the same. A calling into question of the same—which cannot occur within the egoist spontaneity of the same—is brought about by the other. We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics” (43).

[2] I owe this phrasing to Stanley Cavell’s concept of acknowledgment, his cure for the anguish of other minds skepticism, which appears in his first book Must We Mean What We Say?

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt.. Trans. Harry Zohn. Schocken Books: New York, 1968.

Cavell, Stanley. Must We Mean What We Say? Cambridge University Press:  New York, 1969.

Derrida, Jacques. Rogues: Two Essays On Reason. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas. Stanford UP: Stanford, CA, 2005.

——— .  On Touching — Jean-Luc Nancy. Trans. Christine Irizarry. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA, 2005.

Halpern, Rob. “Becoming a Patient of History: Oppen’s Domesticity.” George Oppen: A Centennial Conversation. State University of New York at Buffalo. April 24, 2008.

Howe, Susan. The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history. Wesleyan University Press: Hanover, NH: 1993.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling, Repetition. Ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 1983.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Duquesne University Press: Pittsburgh, PA, 2002.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Trans. Robert D. Richardson & Anne E. O’Byrne.Stanford UP: Stanford, CA, 2000.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. Vintage: New York, 1968.

Oppen, George. New Collected Poems. Ed. Michael Davidson. New Directions: NY, 2002.

——— .  Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. Ed. Stephen Cope. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA, 2007.

Oppen, Mary. Meaning a Life: an Autobiography. Black Sparrow Press: Santa Rosa, CA, 1978.

Peck, John. “George Oppen and the World in Common: A Descriptive Polemic.” George Oppen: Man and Poet. Ed. Burton Hatlen. The National Poetry Foundation: Orono, Maine, 1981.

Reynolds, David. Walt Whitman’s America: a Cultural Biography. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1995.

Stewart, Susan. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2002.

Weil, Simone. Waiting for God. Trans. Emma Craufurd. G.P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, 1951.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Library of America: NY, 1984.

Zack Finch

Zack Finch

Zack Finch is currently doing doctoral work in the poetics program at SUNY Buffalo. He teaches periodically as a visiting lecturer in creative writing at Dartmouth College. Poems and essays have appeared in journals such as American Letters and Commentary, Boston Review, P-queue, Interval(le)s, Radical Society, and Poetry magazine.

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