“Objectivists” 1927-1934

The ”Objectivists” Publications1

Avant-garde in the Great Depresssion, the ”Objectivist” writers, George Oppen, Ezra Pound, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, William Carlos Williams, and Louis Zukofsky, had difficulty getting published, while it seemed the work of those they couldn’t admire was readily accepted. The Roaring Twenties were over; editors and publishers, faced with economic ruin, were not as willing to take chances on the new and unknown, nor were there as many willing to buy and read it. The situation did not create but intensified distrust of the avant-garde. The ”Objectivists” decided to publish themselves only after many years of failed alternatives.

Ezra Pound’s short-lived magazine, The Exile, was first published at Pound’s expense in Dijon, France, in Spring 1927. Luckily, Pound found an American printer, Pascal Covici in Chicago, who was willing to float the magazine for three more issues. In Number 2, Autumn 1927, Pound discovered Carl Rakosi, and in Number 3, Spring 1928, Louis Zukofsky, both of whom were included in Number 4, Autumn 1928, which also published Williams’ TheDescent of Winter, edited by Zukofsky. Zukofsky claimed that his piece in The Exile, 3, “Poem beginning ‘The,’” was rejected by about twenty-four other editors before Pound accepted it. In The Exile, Rakosi and Zukofsky, then both under twenty-five, appeared in the company of Richard Aldington, Ernest Hemingway, Robert McAlmon, Samuel Putnam, William Carlos Williams, and William Butler Yeats.

With Exile failing either to show a profit or, from Pound’s point of view, to generate any interest in la vie literaire in the United States, Pound repeatedly expressed doubts of continuing it. Zukofsky wanted to do a Number 5 himself, and Williams suggested that he could cover its losses if Zukofsky’s “poem beginning ‘A’” could be printed in it, but even this seemed futile.

Their most optimistic reason for abandoning Exile was that a new magazine was being proposed by Charles Henri Ford, who was later helped by Parker Tyler. Blues, begun as a monthly in February 1929, became a quarterly with the first summer, and continued for nine issues, through the fall of 1930.

Meanwhile, Pound had been urging everyone he had contact with in America to stir things up and to reform the conditions which prevented writers from living from their work. Pound’s “Program 1929,” which he offered Ford for publication in the March issue of Blues, noting that “it is civic NOT political,”2 is representative. It made three points: that governments should be for utility only, that the censorship laws should be modified to exclude works of scientific and literary merit, and that the copyright laws should be reformed. And it recommended that attention should be directed to the nation’s capital instead of to New York City.

Blues turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment, in that Ford and Tyler didn’t take up the full crew from The Exile, and in that Williams, as contributing editor, couldn’t get the first movements of Zukofsky’s “A” published by them, although they did publish several of Zukofsky’s shorter poems.

Bearing the brunt of Pound’s incitements, Zukofsky, although he wouldn’t admit it, became the center of an informal group of sympathetic writers. Zukofsky maintained a weekly correspondence with Pound, first as the American editor of The Exile, and later simply to work with Pound in editing and getting published the writers they believe in. Zukofsky’s group included Whittaker Chambers, T. S. Hecht, George Oppen, Jerry Reisman, Charles Reznikoff, Tibor Serly, René Taupin, and William Carlos Williams. Their break came when in October 1930 Pound talked Harriet Monroe into letting Zukofsky edit an issue of Poetry. Known as the “Objectivists” issue, this was published in February 1931, and it added to Zukofsky’s group Basil Bunting and Carl Rakosi, plus less active notables such as Robert McAlmon, Emanuel Carnevali, Norman Macleod, Kenneth Rexroth, and Parker Tyler.

These writers had common literary ideals. In Pound’s anthology, Profile (Milan, 1931), which included Bunting, Carnevali, Eliot, McAlmon, Tyler, Williams, and Zukofsky, Pound wrote:

A “reform” in writing is always a partial reform of the prevailing defects of a period. It is never the reform against the best work of predecessors.

“Objectivism” satisfied these requirements. Reacting against the diluters of Pound’s Imagiste innovations, whom Pound called the “Amygists,” the “Objectivists” based their poetics on Imagisme, but, aside from individual peculiarities, developed it along the same lines as two original and still active Imagistes, Pound and Williams, had followed.

The “Objectivists” poetics corrected the Amygist’s defects: their attempt to write verse without any notion of measure, musical or otherwise; their abandonment of Pound’s principle to use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation; and their simplification of the Image from Pound’s phenomenological “intellectual and emotional complex” to the simple visual impression with sentimental or whimsical suggestiveness. In addition, it re-established Pound’s original belief in the specific emotive values of the elements of the craft in their precise application to the thing expressed, and it added “epos”: the idea of the poem as a synthesis of the direction of historic and contemporary particulars, which involved a more sincere regard for objects in the real world as the subject of the poem.

The “Objectivists” issue of Poetry, however, came only after everything seemed hopeless. In the fall of 1928, Zukofsky outlined a scheme to publish limited, signed editions by subscription, beginning with Pound’s How to Read or The Cantos, and Williams’ collected poems, and including the work of young men, such as Oppen and himself. Pound approved and immediately made suggestions for the project, such as publishing a paperback, which was being done in France but not in the United States at that time. Outside funds couldn’t be found and Williams couldn’t be persuaded to join the club, so the idea was temporarily dropped.

In January 1929, Zukofsky was involved, with Tibor Serly, in another scheme, The States Quarterly, based in Philadelphia. Zukofsky collected for this magazine manuscripts from Oppen, Hecht, Reznikoff, and Williams, but that spring the stock market started vacillating dramatically, and the project was finally dropped after the crash in November.

In December 1929, Pound became interested in buying a small modern press. When Pound learned that Reznikoff had printed three books (Nine Plays, Five Groups of Verse, and By the Waters of Manhattan: An Annual) on a hand press which Zukofsky had provided, Pound spurred Zukofsky to discover its further possibilities, recommending publishing on Reznikoff’s press contemporary authors “IN SERIES,” so that there would be enough people to do the running around. The disadvantages of using Reznikoff’s press, however, proved major. It required expertise to operate, and the humble and unambitious, even pessimistic Reznikoff was too preoccupied with his job writing legal definitions, with his daily consumption of the Bible, Homer, and Dante, and with his own work. As Zukofsky wrote, it was enough that he had to give his own work away.

This scheme was dropped by February 1930, when a more efficient possibility was offered. Pound seemed to have gained influence over Nancy Cunard of the Hours Press in London, which would publish A Draft of XXX Cantos in August 1930. They believed she would publish Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The’” and Williams’ Primavera or Novelette, both of which were edited by Zukofsky. Cunard, however, failed to fulfill their expectations.

After the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry, Zukofsky and Pound hoped that Harriet Monroe would permit a series of twelve issues edited by their friends, beginning with an English issue by Bunting and a French issue by Taupin, but Monroe could not be budged a second time.

In January 1931, Pound revived the super book-club subscription idea, and Zukofsky, with the “Objectivists” issue at the printers, took it up, suggesting, as possible subscribers, Joseph Freeman (a Communist writer whom Zukofsky didn’t know personally), Horace Gregory, Richard Johns (of Pagany, the magazine started in honor of Williams), Lincoln Kirsten (of Hound and Horn), Archibald MacLeish (whom Zukofsky did not know personally), Norman Macleod, Sherry Mangan, Carl Rakoksi, Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Reznikoff, John Wheelwright (of Symposium), and Morton Zabel (the prose editor of Poetry), all of whom, as writers or editors, were among the same avant-garde, none of whom could be counted among the public. Nothing immediately came of the idea.

In early spring, 1931, Zukofsky and Pound seemed to have persuaded Samuel Putnam to do an issue of the New Review devoted to an “Objectivists” anthology edited by Zukofsky. In this anthology, Zukofsky tried to correct the faults of the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry; he focused on fewer authors, including this time Pound and Eliot, wrote a more emphatic if less clear introduction, and divided the anthology into three sections: epic, lyric (sincerity and objectification), and collaboration (although this section was largely work so heavily edited by Zukofsky that it could no longer be accepted as its original author’s). Finishing this anthology in October 1931, having received no committment or remittance from Putnam, Zukofsky turned his attention to George Oppen’s plan to establish a publishing firm: TO, Publishers.

At this time the Oppens were living in France. With Zukofsky as salaried editor, they planned to print books paperback in Toulon to be sold in the United States for 50 cents, which they thought would eventually pay for the printing and the $100 plus royalties given to the authors. They were ambitious, planning to print Williams’ uncollected prose; then the first of six to ten volumes comprising Pound’s complete critical works, Prolegomena; Bunting’s translation of Tozzi; Zukofsky’s 55 Poems; something by Reznikoff; the second volume of Pound’s Prolegomena; and so forth—perhaps eventually The Cantos. Moreover, the several volumes of Prolegomena, when completed, would be collected into a large folio.

But they had trouble with their French printers; the proofs were rich with errors. And when printed, United States Customs refused to consider the paperbacks as books and ruled that they should be taxed as magazines unless they were bound in bundles of twenty-five or less. This required numerous trips by the Oppens and by Zukofsky to the Post Office. They also had trouble finding a place to store them, and they had further problems with bookstores who refused to give the books shelf-space because they were not hardbacks. And finally, the books didn’t sell well. The price was raised to 75 cents in January 1932, but TO, Publishers still had financial difficulty.

Meanwhile, in December 1931, Putnam offered to publish “A” and said he liked An “Objectivists” Anthology. In January 1932, Zukofsky hoped tht Morton Zabel, the associate editor of Poetry, would agree to do a follow-up on the “Objectivists” issue, which Zabel never came through with. Zukofsky even had hopes, with Harriet Monroe seeking retirement, of becoming associate editor of Poetry. Then in February Putnam rejected the anthology, and Zukofsky resolved never again to do uncommissioned work or to submit unsolicited manuscripts.

Fortunately, in April, the Oppens agreed to publish the anthology but this was their last commitment. In August 1932, having published only three books: A Novelette and Other Prose by Williams, Prolegomena 1: How to Read, Followed by The Spirit of Romance, Part 1, by Pound, and An “Objectivists’ Anthology, they had to tell Pound and Zukofsky that they could not continue TO, Publishers. As Mary Oppen writes:

Financially we had taken on too big a burden; we could not support ourselves, Louis, and the printing and publishing of the books unless at least a small amount of money came back to us. And no money came back to us.3

The price of the books was raised to $1.25 in September 1932, but it was really no help. Besides, the Oppens had read and discussed Pound’s ABC of Economics and could not in conscience publish it.

Zukofsky next helped James Leippert, at his alma mater, Columbia, with the first issue of The Lion and Crown, which included work by Frances Fletcher, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Forrest Anderson, Bunting, and Jesse Loewenthal (all of whom were in the “Objectivists” issue or anthology), and a review by Jerry Reisman of A Novelette and Other Prose. The magazine promised in future issues work by Williams, Gertrude Stein, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Oppen, Archibald MacLeish, and Frances Fletcher, but it folded very quickly.

In 1933, the Oppens were back in New York City. Pound was editing, with Zukofsky’s help, Active Anthology, to publish work by himself, Bunting, E. E. Cummings, Eliot, Marianne Moore, Oppen, Williams, and Zukofsky. Zukofsky was unemployed. The Oppens had stopped supporting him after November 1932. In April 1933, Zukofsky passed around a prospectus for a writers’ union, “Writers Extant,” or W. E. Publishers, whose board would be composed of Tibor Serly, René Taupin, and Zukofsky, and whose members would include Robert McAlmon, Mina Loy, Oppen, Rexroth, Reznikoff, Wallace Stevens, and Williams. This proposal went back and forth between Pound, Zukofsky, and the skeptical Williams, and an agreement was finally reached by Zukofsky, Williams, Reznikoff, and Oppen in the Oppen’s Brooklyn apartment in September 1933, establishing the Objectivist Press.

The name was suggested by Zukofsky to capitalize on the publicity that the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry had given them. Zukofsky’s elaborate prospectus had been reduced to a statement proposed by Reznikoff: “The Objectivist Press is an organization of writers whose work they think ought to be read.” The “advisory board” consisted of Pound and Williams, with Zukofsky as secretary. The members of the group agreed to pay for the publication of their own books, except for the first, Williams’ Collected Poems 1921-1931, which had a preface by Wallace Stevens, and which sold out, bringing a small profit. Oppen paid for Discrete Series, which had a brief preface by Pound. And Reznikoff, working at American Law Book Company on Corpus Jurus, could afford to publish four: Jerusalem the Golden, the prose Testimony with a preface by Kenneth Burke, and In Memoriam: 1933 (all in 1934) and Separate Way (1936). But Zukofsky couldn’t afford to publish 55 Poems. In April 1934 he worked two to three hours a day for the press but the enterprise never turned a real profit. By the end of May he wrote Pound that he was no longer receiving mail at the Objectivist Press office.

In 1935 the Oppens joined the Communist Party, and even Zukofsky, who did not join, began arguing Marx’s concept of the labor theory of value against Pound’s rising obsession with economic reform. Zukofsky also did some unpaid editing for the New Masses. In 1935, James Laughlin, III, founded New Directions, and took up the publication of Pound and Williams, beginning with Williams’ novel White Mule. He published Zukofsky’s “Mantis” with “Mantis, an Interpretation,” in the 1936 New Directions Anthology, and he published “A”-8 in the 1938 anthology. In 1941, in his pamphlet poets series, Laughlin published Rakosi’s Selected Poems. In 1948, Celia Zukofsky asked Reznikoff for the Objectivist Press copyright and published A Test of Poetry, which Zukofsky had finished writing in December 1937.

1 First published in Sagetrieb, Volume 3, Number 3, Winter 1984, pp. 41-47.

2 Selected Letters: 1907-1941 (New York: New Directions, 1971), p. 224.

3 Mary Oppen, Meaning a Life (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1978), p. 121.