(Poets and Poetry in America)

Because of his early connection with Louis Zukofsky, Carl Rakosi is often spoken of as an Objectivist poet. When both poets were young, Zukofsky had been advised by Ezra Pound to start a literary movement, the better to draw attention to his own poetry. Pound told him that he need not look for complete agreement among the members of his movement, as long as certain views were held in common. Zukofsky took his mentor at his word. He contacted several poets of his generation (along with William Carlos Williams, who was some twenty years their senior) and published their work as An “Objectivists” Anthology, with an introduction by himself. This essay has long been puzzled over by students of American poetry.

Rakosi himself found Zukofsky’s definition of Objectivism baffling. “It was so at odds,” he says, “with any association I could make with the word ’Objectivist,’ which has ’object’ in its belly.” Rakosi has characterized Zukofsky’s tone in the essay as “aloof” and “rebuffing,” as if he were simultaneously presenting the poetry for inspection and arrogantly dismissing his readership. Zukofsky’s explanation, according to Rakosi, fit only his own poetry. There was a fundamental gulf between Zukofsky and the three other poets most often named as Zukofsky’s fellow Objectivists:Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and Rakosi. These three “were credited with a place in literary history for the wrong reason, because of a name.”

Nevertheless, Rakosi came to like the label“Objectivist.” Although Zukofsky’s tortuous definition left him cold, the name “conveyed a meaning which was, in fact, my objective: to present objects in their most essential reality and to make of each poem an object, meaning by this the opposite of vagueness, loose bowels and streaming, sometimes screaming, consciousness.” Even as Zukofsky spurned the term, Rakosi welded it to his own practice. He aimed to convert the subjective experience into an object “by feeling the experience sincerely; by setting boundaries to it and incorporating only those parts which belong together.” The poem, he has said, should be like a sculpture; the reader should be able to come at it from any angle and find it “solid and coherent.” Honesty and craftsmanship are the qualities needed for constructing such poems.

As is often the case when a poet supplies a definition of poetry, there is a certain amount of question-begging here. What guarantee can the poet give (even to himself) of his own sincerity and honesty? By what criteria does one decide which parts belong together? Will everyone who “views” (reads) the poem find it solid and coherent? If so, how does one account for readers’ variation in taste? Yet Rakosi’s aims become clearer when they are viewed in historical context and in the light of his actual practice.

Zukofsky launched his movement in 1930, some two decades after Ezra Pound and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) had declared themselves Imagists in the process of renovating poetry by throwing out “bad habits dear to the poets of the Victorian age.” Zukofsky was heavily influenced by Pound and by another inductee in the Imagist movement,William Carlos Williams. Given that Rakosi, Reznikoff, Oppen, and others anthologized under Zukofsky’s editorship were also mindful of, and to some extent sympathetic with, the principles of Imagism, it is small wonder that there are several points of resemblance between Imagism and the Objectivists.

“A Retrospect”

The theoretical writing of Ezra Pound, however, had a lucidity of expression that frequently eluded Zukofsky. In “A Retrospect,” Pound articulated the following principles for Imagism:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subject or objective.

2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

The result is well known: a radical reappraisal of poetic terms and practice; the birth within English-language poetry of “the modern”; “free” verse; a cessation of “moral tagging” or other explicit aid to the reader as to the poem’s meaning; an endeavor to rescue the art from the muddyings to which it had been subjected when its practitioners sought to truck and higgle with the increasingly wide—and not necessarily deep—audience brought by universal education.

Rakosi’s brief lyrics are rightfully classified as modernist for their terse, stripped-down qualities, which give the impression (and that is what counts) of sincerity and honesty. Yet they could hardly be called straightforward—and that is fortunate. They have far too much art to them. In fact, it is hard to take at face value Rakosi’s oft-repeated assurances of his ingenuous nature, for his poems strike one as weapons of supreme irony. Ingenuousness is simply one of the more empowering poses available to such an artist, although on any given occasion he may be actually ingenuous. Reading Rakosi, it is hard to forget that for many years he worked as a psychotherapist, picking with care the words needed to lead his clients toward self-discovery....

(The entire section is 2147 words.)