Carl Rakosi Biography

Start Your Free Trial

Download Carl Rakosi Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Carl Rakosi was born on November 6, 1903, to Hungarian nationals Leopold Rakosi and Flora Steiner, who were at that time living in Berlin. The young Rakosi was brought to the United States in 1910; his father and stepmother reared him and his brother in various midwestern cities—Chicago; Gary, Indiana; and Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Rakosi made many attempts to begin a career. After earning his B.A. in literature at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he tried social work in Cleveland and New York City. He returned to Madison for an M.A. in educational psychology and then worked as the staff psychologist in the personnel department at Bloomingdale’s for a time. He taught English at the University of Texas at Austin and made forays into law school (in Austin) and medical school (in Galveston). Having found neither law nor medicine congenial, he taught high school in Houston for two years. At the outset of the Depression, he tried social work again, returning to Chicago to work at the Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare. By now he had changed his name, to Callman Rawley. He served a two-year stint as a supervisor at the Federal Transit Bureau in New Orleans; then, following a period of working as a field supervisor for Tulane University, he started to work—in a pioneering role—as a family therapist at the Jewish Family Welfare Society in New York. At the same time, he pursued graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania; in 1940 he received an M.A. in social work.

His professional course was now clear. After three years as a case supervisor at the Jewish Social Service Bureau in St. Louis and two years as assistant director of the Jewish Children’s Bureau in Cleveland, he became executive director of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Minneapolis in 1945. He continued in this post until 1968; between 1958 and 1968, he also had a private practice.

One notes in this chronology the marked absence of any job directly connected to writing. Rakosi’s first spell as a poet had resulted in publication in the prestigious Little Review, alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) in serial form; he had also been included in An “Objectivists” Anthology (1932), edited by Louis Zukofsky, which many years later came to be seen as a landmark event. The long hiatus that followed has been described thus by Rakosi himself:By 1939 writing was coming harder and slower to me as more of me became involved in social work and in reading and writing professional articles. . . . I wrote some sixty . . . and my evenings were swallowed up by the things that a man who is not a writer normally spends his time on in a big city: the theater, concerts, professional meetings, friends, girlfriends. . . . In addition, my Marxist thinking had made me lose respect for poetry itself. So there was nothing to hold me back from ending the problem by stopping to write. I did that. I also stopped reading poetry. I couldn’t run the risk of being tempted.

In December, 1965, he received a letter from British poet Andrew Crozier asking what had become of his poetry since 1941. This letter prompted him to take up his pen once again.

The results were soon made available to the poetry-reading public in a series of books; the work was much anthologized, and Rakosi was asked to give readings at a number of distinguished venues. This Rip Van Winkle of poetry had reawakened to a different decade—one for which his gifts appeared to have been waiting.

His résumé soon began to show many jobs related to his poetry and writing: From 1968 to 1975, he was writer-in-residence in Saratoga Springs, New York; he was writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin from 1969 to 1970; he served as a faculty member for the National Poetry Festival in 1973; and he was poet-in-residence for Michigan State University in 1974. In 1986, he became the senior editor of the literary magazine Sagetrieb, a critical journal located in Maine.

In 1939, Rakosi was married to Leah Jaffe. Their daughter, Barbara, was born in St. Louis in 1940, and a son, George, was born in Cleveland in 1943. The couple stayed together for half a century; Leah Jaffe Rakosi died in San Francisco in 1988. San Francisco continued to be Rakosi’s home until his death in 2004.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Carl Rakosi (RAH-koh-shee), usually identified with the Objectivist poetry movement in the United States, came to the United States at the age of seven. He was educated at the University of Wisconsin, where he received two degrees, and at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he received his M.S.W. Later he also studied at the University of Texas in Austin and at the University of Chicago. In 1924, he legally changed his name to Callman Rawley, hoping to avoid both mispronunciation and discrimination, but he decided to keep Carl Rakosi as his pen name. In 1939, he married Leah Jaffe; they had two children, Barbara and George.{$S[A]Rawley, Callman;Rakosi, Carl}

Much like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, Rakosi chose to work in a field unrelated to writing and teaching. He worked as a caseworker in public welfare and other social services, changing positions often during the Depression, and he was the executive director of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Minneapolis from 1945 to 1968. He also had a private practice in psychotherapy from 1958 to 1968. As of 1968, he began to give more time to his writing, applying for and being granted writer-in-residence status at the prestigious Yaddo Colony each summer from 1968 to 1975.

It is not coincidental that he earned his first award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1969, which was followed by NEA fellowships in 1972 and 1979. In 1988, Rakosi received both a Fund for Poetry Prize and an award from the National Poetry Association. In 1986, he became the senior editor of the literary magazine Sagetrieb, located in Maine. Rakosi’s manuscripts and letters are split between the holdings of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the Widener Library at Harvard.

The Objectivist movement began in the 1930’s and really only applies to four American poets: Rakosi, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Charles Reznikoff. Even a cursory reading of their poems shows how disparate their work is. Rakosi’s early poetry, for example, is filled with social and political commentary, issues that completely escape such poets as Reznikoff, whose poetry is much more playful and witty.

It was Zukofsky who defined the Objectivist movement and decided who should be included in it. Zukofsky was a distant student of Ezra Pound, which led to eventual disagreement with the other three Objectivists. Rakosi in particular disagreed with Zukofsky’s worship of Pound, and he declared that a poem should be clear and that readers should be able to understand it as it stands. Pound believed in obfuscation, and many of his poems are only decipherable with reference works at hand. With the exception of his long poem A, written in later decades, Zukofsky’s poetry echoes Pound’s values and style.

Much of Rakosi’s early poetry is proselike and simple; with the exception of line structure, easy similes and metaphors are the only nods toward the poetic medium. The early poems deal with such subjects as the place of the people in a mechanistic society and the unfairness of contemporary cliques and attitudes, among them anti-Semitism.

By 1975, the subjects of his poetry had changed, at least in part because he was able to spend more time reading and writing and less time earning a living. In Ex Cranium, Night, many of the poems are about the place of poetry in the world and the uses of figurative language. Rakosi had not eliminated his awareness of social issues, as is clear from such titles as “The China Policy” and “Nuclear Ode.” However, he had become more interested in the place of the poet in the world and to what uses the poet can be assigned.

Many critics regard Objectivist poetry as being focused on a meditative response to the world. That may have been the case in the 1930’s, but by the mid-1970’s Rakosi was writing decidedly nonnarrative poetry. Some of the poems are almost prose pieces, though these narratives work because of their poetic technique, and in the place of meditations are conclusions. Many of his poems are philosophical but light, much like those of Reznikoff. In his poem “Day Book,” Rakosi writes, “The special characteristic of the very short poem is that the reader has to be hit before he realizes he’s been shot. But for this to happen the author, in the writing of it, also has to be hit before he realizes he’s been shot.” Carl Rakosi injected much-needed irony and wit into twentieth century poetry without reducing the seriousness of most of his subjects.