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Rakosi’s career before the "Objectivists" moment of
1931 needs to be read in terms of the literary situation as it presented itself to writers
of his generation. What then becomes apparent is that although it was a generation with
something of a common frame of reference — Imagism, for example — its cohesion was
superficial, and concealed a potential for rupture which developed, in due course, along
lines marked, as much as anything, by social difference. Rakosi belonged, that is to say,
to a generation of American poets who, at the start of their careers in the 1920s, took
initial direction from the expression of contemporary experience and sensibility made
possible by the innovations of the first generation of modernists. Tate made precisely
this point about Crane: "From Pound and Eliot he got his first conception of what it
is, in the complete sense, to be contemporary." Unlike some other members of his
generation (Tate himself, for example, and more especially Yvor Winters) Rakosi did not
ally his poetry to the formation and propagation of a new literary-critical canon, and
thus make a theoretically entailed connection between writing in the present and the
literature of the past on behalf of a stabilising cultural order of the sort Eliot seemed
to adumbrate in "Tradition and the Individual Talent". His writing identifies
him, instead, with poets more concerned to investigate the formal uses to which the data
of contemporary life might lend themselves. Like Rakosi, these poets were mostly from
immigrant families and, cut off from cultural traditions which American experience tended,
in any case, to negate, their attention to formal compositions that could be understood as
the specific, unprecedented resolution of their experience was expedient and necessary. It
was also their special distinction. As members of immigrant families they were immune to
nostalgia for the American past, and as Americans in the process of assimilation it is not
surprising that they were less concerned with their perception of the immediacies of
experience than with the discourses in which that experience was constituted. We need
always to remind ourselves that America in the 1920s was not the London of 1913, and that
the world of lived experience, as well as poetry, had been modernised, and continued to be
modernised and rationalised at an accelerating rate.
These "Objectivists", as they became, are to be seen as initiators of the
first revolt against institutionalised modernism by virtue of their rejection of the
impersonal theories of discourse implicit in the notion of poetic values sustained by
tradition. (It should be noted that Eliot used "tradition" as a stalking horse
while in pursuit of other game. When Tate says that Crane’s poetry is "in the grand
manner" it is its traditionalism that wins his approval.) Their work may also be seen
as an attempt, not altogether well timed, to incorporate and extend the innovations of the
first generation of modernists at a moment when that generation was losing momentum and
cohesion. Such a revolt, however, was inauspicious at the start of a decade in which the
main opposition to the academic modernism of what became the "new criticism"
came from left wing demands for a literature of solidarity and social commitment.
Objectivism represents, then, a particular development of early modernism, rather than its
straightforward evolution, still directly responsive to the instigations of the previous
generation by virtue of an understanding of poetic form as a resolution of responses to
contemporary experience and its characteristic discourses, rather than a conceptual order
able to accommodate and so regulate an awkward and perhaps undesirable novelty. This
development took place (perhaps only could have taken place: Rakosi and Zukofsky both were
refugees from university teaching posts) outside the new establishment of literary power
relations, brought into existence by the alliance with modernism of an increasingly
professionalised literary criticism. This alliance, the main site of modernist affiliation
for poets of Rakosi’s generation, was built up around an analysis of modernism of the sort
suggested by Tate’s remarks about Hart Crane. Its concepts and related values are evident
in Winters’s review of An "Objectivists" Anthology, in which he
reproached the Objectivists for their lack of "rational intelligence", and read
them as "sensory impressionists of the usual sort". For Winters, as for Tate,
the agency of form was conceptual; it represents (for Winters it could only do so by
conventions of metre; for Tate it was signified by an intuited imaginative centre) the
mind’s rational control of disorderly sensation and feeling. Inevitably, therefore, they
would find in Imagism and Objectivism no signs of unifying intelligence. Their realism
precluded anything approaching Zukofsky’s understanding of words as "absolute
symbol", and its implication that form is actualised in the local and sequential
relations between particular words. What is striking about Winters’s theory of form, in
particular, is that rational intelligence is represented symbolically, by metrical verse;
its textual domain, that is to say, is the aesthetic, which acts as a corrective to the
confused emotions and muddled thought of modern life. Despite the attention his criticism
gives to the local vitality of poetic language, its denotation and connotation are for
Winters cognitively weak. It is as though he recognised the place of modernism’s energy
and expression but can only assign such qualities affective status. What is outside the
poet’s mind, including the instrumentality of language, is a source of brute sensation and
vagrant mood; it is without organisation or unity. One does not, however, have to be a
phenomenologist not to suppose the mind capable of representing only its own coherence,
nor idly complaisant in acknowledging the discourses that constitute the greater part of
daily life. No doubt much of the twentieth century deserves our contempt, but contemptuous
dismissal is a luxury as well as a clich?.
It is not that Rakosi and the other Objectivists stood outside the literary situation
of their generation; Tate and Winters were, in their own way, outsider figures; indeed,
the figure might apply to the whole of the generation "entre les deux guerres".
The point is, rather, that the Objectivists were successfully outflanked; we can see
this being done very neatly in the pages of Hound and Horn — at first
friendly to Pound and his young men, its literary policy was eventually dominated by the
opinions of Winters. None of this any longer matters, but it is against just this
background of generational identity and rupture that the contour of Rakosi’s career shows
up most clearly.
From "Carl Rakosi in the ‘Objectivists’ Epoch." In Carl Rakosi:
Man and Poet. Ed. Michael Heller. Copyright ? 1993 by The National Poetry Foundation,
Inc. Reprinted with permission.
We may read in the case of Carl Rakosi at least the following: the early influence of
Williams and Stevens and, later, Zukofsky; his Jewishness, as well as what some
characterize as his Europeanness; his efforts through the twenties and thirties to settle
on the work of his lifetime; the impact of the Depression; his lifelong work as a social
worker, and his love for those he worked with who enlivened him so much; his relation to
other poets linked with him as Objectivists, both in their early years and, later, in the
sixties, what Ron Silliman characterizes as their "third or renaissance phase"’;
his decision that he could not be both poet and social worker and the effect of a
quarter-century silence as a writer; how his writing habits, circumstances, aesthetic led
to an aphoristic, epigrammatic style; how the function of poet and poetry had changed in
half a century.
Carl Rakosi born in Berlin, November 6.
"I am in a very long room, so long that I can not see its end. There is very
little furniture. The ceiling is very high and vast. There are shadows. The further away
they are, the longer and heavier. There is no one there. I lie in my crib. All I’m aware
is that I am. And the silence. The silence is loud. No one comes. The silence is
all there is. The nothing is oppressive. Hours go by and it becomes harder and harder to
bear. There is no end. There is only the silence. And nothing. But beyond what I can see
is Something ominous looming.
This is not a dream; it’s a memory, and I am bonded to it. It’s a memory of no one
being there and no one coming. A mother was not there. I’m sure."
Mother moves back to her parents’ home in Baja, Hungary, with Carl and his brother. Father
emigrates to the United States and remarries.
"I have to remember that he was only thirty at this time and soaking up new
experiences. He had one in particular which was in the nature of a revelation and forever
changed his thinking. It happened somewhere near the Tiergarten, I think. A crowd had
gathered around two speakers. He walked over to listen. One was a young man about his age.
He was almost shouting, in order to be heard, about the terrible privations of the poor,
working men included, the disabled, the homeless, the unemployed, . . . urging his
listeners to band together … in union there was strength….
. . . the realization came to my father then that this was the noblest thing a man
could do . . . he could not conceive of anything nobler . . . to have a great cause, to be
spokesman, an advocate, a champion of the oppressed and downtrodden. He never got over
that. There was awe in his voice, almost reverence and a hush, and his face became
transformed when he mentioned the names of the speakers… Karl Liebnecht and Rosa
And when he went on about the brotherhood of man and the necessity for justice, . . . a
wave of emotion surged through me and lifted me up and I was glad.
[. . .]
" . . . how else can I explain never seeing her [his mother], even in Baja,
Hungary, where we lived next with her parents, . . . until I was six, and never remember
her ever touching me an that time."
[of his grandmother]: "Her presence has always been with me. The eyes are sad and
reflective. The face tired, beginning to show wrinkles, but the mouth smiles and an
incomparable sweetness, her character exudes from her, holding nothing back, and envelops
me. She leans towards me, attentive, smiling, and I respond in like, as I had learned to
do from her, also smiling, all inside me light."
[. . .]
"I remember too … summer. . . A Serbian workingman has just sat down on a bench
to have his noon lunch and I smell something overpowering. He takes out a pocket-knife and
holding a slab of smoked bacon in one hand, he slices it with the other the way one would
slice a peach, and the way he slices his country bread too, and eats with gusto, a
thousand years of peasant life . . . the peasant and his pig … behind him … that aroma
… still in my nostrils."
Stepmother comes to Hungary and takes Carl and his brother to the United States.
"All I am thinking of is the going and the necessity to act as if this were like
any other day. She [his grandmother] has suppressed her tears so as to make the parting
bearable to me. I walk up to her … and … let myself be hugged and kissed with that
self-possession and vigilance which protect children. And I leave without recognizing her
grief or even acknowledging that this is a separation.
[. . .]
"We went second-class. I remember Lester [his brother] leading me down a forbidden
flight of stairs to see what it was like in third-class. It was more crowded there and the
talk was thicker and louder and more of it, but otherwise not different that I could see.
We tried also to see what it was like in first-class, what the rich people looked like and
what they were doing, but the steps were barred to that deck.
The only other thing I remember is throwing up night after night at the dinner table on
the clean white tablecloth . . ."
[. . .]
"There, into what looked like an enormous, barren barracks, the immigrants poured
and stood around, waiting nervously in their best clothes to check out their papers and to
go through the required medical examination, and it hit them head-on for the first time
that no one knew exactly what state of health they had to be in order to pass. . . ."
Family lives in Chicago where his father works as a watchmaker.
His father goes into business for himself in Gary, Indiana. Family moves to Kenosha,
Wisconsin, where his father opens a second jewelry and watch repair shop after the failure
of the first in Gary.
". . . one day I was sent to a room I had never seen before and given a test; …
The next day I was called out of class to the principal’s office and told I was going to
be moved ahead a grade. I couldn’t understand it. Then a month later, the same thing,
another grade ahead. I had no difficulty doing the work in the upper grades, but now
everybody in the class was two years older than I, and that did make a difference in my
life because henceforth everybody in class would always be two years older and bigger and
I would always be two years younger and smaller. . . ."
[. . .]
"Our house was a house of daily scrimping and worry because of the nature of my
father’s business . . . he had started in Gary with only a credit line from Moore and
Evans. He earned enough from his watch repairing to provide us with food and part of the
other necessities; he could depend on that, but he never knew whether he would sell enough
jewelry to provide the rest and pay his bill at Moore and Evans on time….
This is what had my parents locked in and dominated their lives, subsuming their
softer, convivial qualities. It locked me in, too. It locked me into a lifelong concern
about making a living and affected my personal habits and the way I deal with practical
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