Section 1 - History 1927-1928
Ezra Pound’s short-lived little magazine, The Exile, was the first instrument that brought together a group of writers who were eventually called the “Objectivists.” It was their first public meeting place and it expresses many of the principles, especially about the importance of group activity, that Pound continued to impress upon them.
Exile 1 (Spring 1927) contained an editorial which linked literary with public affairs:
As to an editorial program:
The republic, the res publica means, or ought to mean “the public convenience”. when it does not, it is an evil, to be ameliorated or emended out of, or into decent, existence.
Further, Pound claimed that if the
capitalist imperialist state . . . will not bear comparison with the feudal order; with the small city states both republican and despotic; either as to its “social justice” or as to its permanent products, art, science, literature, the onus of proof goes against it.1
The editorials in Exile 3 (Spring 1928) elaborated not only on the crimes of government against the arts—unemployment, censorship, customs, and the passport system—but on the role of the arts and the responsibility of artists in reforming civilization:
Quite simply: I want a new civilization. We have the basis for a new poetry, and for a new music. The government of our country is hopelessly low-brow, there are certain crass stupidities in administration that it is up to the literate members of the public to eradicate.
A new art requires a new civilization, without which it cannot flourish; artists must therefore reform the stupidities of the old.
Pound did not identify “the basis” for the new art. He wrote only: “(Parenthesis: No, dearie, when I say: the basis for a new poetry, I don’t mean the vers libre movement as it was in the year 1912.)”2 He had in mind, however, the set of discoveries which he had made or recognized during and after his Vorticist period (c. 1914-1916), for which I use in this work Pound’s term, in its French form, Imagisme. Imagisme, whose principles are presented in Pound’s critical works, is the basis upon which he created the Cantos and edited The Exile. Further, he implicitly identified examples of this “new poetry” based on Imagisme, by including in The Exile work by Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, Robert McAlmon, Carl Rakosi, and himself, writers who Zukofsky later identified as writing in accordance with “Objectivist” princip1es.3
These poets, Pound must have thought, had to make exceptions to the traditional isolation of artists from public affairs, since the new suffers the worst under an old regime. Pound complained about artists who do not try to alter the conditions that interfere with their work:
The ivory tower is too often made of paper-maché. Our intellectuals are lacking in savagery, and public affairs have arrived at a state of annoyingness where they interfere with proper conduct of life and the fine arts. Everybody not engaged in actual contribution to art and science ought to turn to and turn out the scoundrels and imbeciles.4
Pound wanted the Exile to be a form for the free exchange of good writing and enlightened ideas. His advertisement in the June 1927 issue of Poetry contains the most concise statement of his expectations:
I do not want mss. that any other editor will print. I want mss. which, in a moment of abandon I might say, “other editors are too stupid to print”; or at least mss. that could not appear elsewhere without inordinate complications and delays. . . .
Apart from this, I also want a place where I can speak freely concerning superstitions and idols of the American people which, as Molochs and other superstitious fetiches, are deeply reverenced by many, and are for that all the more hideous. In the main these arise from two roots, or perhaps it is only one root:
First: The loss, in the United States, of all distinction between public and private affairs; leading to the tumid bureaucracy, the plethora of idiotic “laws,” etc., and the character of the bureaucrats.
Second: The tendency inherent in most occidental religions and moral systems, to mess into other people’s business before arriving at any harmonization or order in one’s own.
There is possibly a third division: the lack in America of any tendency anywhere or in anything; or thinking of anything in relation to any fundamental principle whatsoever; the acceptance of ideas based on forgotten origins, etc., etc. . . .
Writings showing complete neglect of all the advice offered by The Exile’s editor in Poetry ten or fifteen years ago, and also obvious imitations of either the editor’s or Mr. Eliot’s verse, need not be submitted.5
In The Exile, Pound placed the work of “Objectivists” or “Objectivist”-associates—Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, Howard Weeks, Herman Spector, Carl Rakosi, Robert McAlmon, and Ernest Hemingway—in the company of work by other writers whom Pound admired—W. B. Yeats, John Rodker, Samuel Putnam, Benjamin Peret, Payson Loomis, Mark Kliorin, Guy Hickock, Joe Gould, Clifford Gesseler, R. C. Dunning, John Cournos, Morley Callaghan, Stella Breen and Richard Aldington—surrounded by Pound’s opinions on the related needs and necessities of poets, poetics, and politics. The Exile established the “Objectivists” in the tradition in poetry for which Pound was the principal spokesman. “Data,” Pound’s final editorial in Exile 4, details “the periodicals in which the struggle took place,” with names and dates, beginning with the English Review edited by Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford) in 1908 and ending with the Exile, including “Zukofsky and various writers already listed in the contents of the magazine.”6
Pound’s letter to Zukofsky of 25 February 1928 suggested that a group be formed to make use of the Exile.7 This was the beginning of an obsession that influenced Zukofsky to consider his friends and admired elders as potential members of a group to gather around Williams and as contributors to a series of publication schemes that Zukofsky would edit, influenced Harriet Monroe to surrender to Zukofsky the February 1931 issue of Poetry, influenced Zukofsky and George and Mary Oppen to establish To Publishers in France in 1931, and influenced Zukofsky, Williams, Reznikoff, and the Oppens to establish the Objectivist Press in New York in 1933.
On 14 March 1928, Zukofsky wrote Pound that if by such a to the Exile then he had already group Pound meant new contributors asked several, including Whittaker Chambers, Henry Zolinsky, and S. Theodore Hecht—three writers who were published in the Poetry issue—to send Pound their best materia1.8
Pound advised Zukofsky on 31 July 1928 that if he should discontinue The Exile not to try to edit it by himself—as Pound thought Williams’ letters suggested he might—but suggested instead a cooperative, adding that Williams should invite six to ten prospective contributors to dinner to get things going:
What might, and prob. ought to be done, is to form some sort of local council, the Mercure de France had board meeting of all contributors before each issue.
You need, I mean IF you want to run this sort of review, you need a group of people who will meet once a month or once in six weeks.
Tell Bill to invite a select six or ten to dinner, to start with.9
Pound elaborated on this idea in a seven-page letter on 12 August 1928, beginning:
As my suggestion you see Bill Wms. seems to have done no harm, but rather to have afforded some pleasure and consolation to both, I further suggest that you make an effort toward restarting some sort of life in N.Y.; sfar as I know there has been none in this sense since old Steiglitz organized (mainly foreign group) to start art.
. . .
I suggest you form some sort of gang to INSIST on interesting stuff (books) 1. being pubd. promptly, and distributed properly. 2. simultaneous attacks in as many papers as poss. on abuses definitely damaging la vie intellectuelle.
Pound suggested meeting at a “cheap restaurant . . . as we have done at various times in London,” and asked for Zukofsky’s “opinion on the availability” of Herman Spector, John Price and his friend Wadsworth, Pauline Leader, Joe Gould, Joseph Vogel, Lola Ridge, Mark van Doren or Frieda Kirchwey of the Nation, Mike Gould, Marianne Moore, and June Heap. Howard Weeks, he said, “is a live wire.” He speculated on the “magnetism” needed to attract such writers, and thought that Williams should be able to “get ’em together once,” but said that Zukofsky and Williams (whom he described as a “magnificent patriarchal elm”) could not do it on their own; they needed to have a “more active mechanism.” Pound offered to “subsidize the first meal or two, or some of the fiscally weaker members now and again,” and urged the need for “a NEW grouping,” avoiding “people tainted with the murkn equivalent” of the National Review Francais, “older elements” who were compromised “either toward mediocrity or popularity,” and “the mugs, the y,m,c,a, types, the gorddam seerryous neo-Lippmans” Furthermore, he warned, “keep free of THEATERS . . . As also the gordam marital ammosphere of N.Y. Poesy Socierty !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Dont be a society. Dont have officers and by laws.” Finally, Pound wrote:
Idea literature to be dissociated from idea Fifth Ave., idea profit, idea communism. (none of these being any more evil than plain, mountain, river, but are all different concepts, to be kept in relation and not to impinge. What group shd. mean is: convenience of literature, i.e. faculty for printing and distributing without too damnd much bother, secondly, as accessory, fight-against impingements on vie literaire.10
Zukofsky responded that everything depended on Williams, whose opinions could not be discovered until he returned from his vacation, but that he would write Vogel, Price, Gould, and the others. Although, as he had suggested, Williams said that he would have a group, he probably would not. Zukofsky’s own feelings were that more than five would be too many and that one would be enough. He would like Cummings and Moore, but both would be reluctant. He felt that he could act as the group’s representative for the young writers, at least those who he knew, and he mentioned Whittaker Chambers, T. S. Hecht, and Henry Zolinsky.11 This difference of opinion existed between Pound and Zukofsky. Zukofsky wanted the company of older, more established writers, and Pound insisted that the establishment of the younger generation should have priority. Later, although Zukofsky pleaded, Pound refused to be included in the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry, except in the program.
Pound wrote on 31 August 1928 that unless there were enough life to create such a group, he wouldn’t care to continue the Exile. He could not see working any longer in isolation for the furthering of no apparent interest.12 Zukofsky responded on 5 September and 19 September to describe the uncertainty and the difficulty of organizing any group. He reported that collective schemes plainly bore Williams, and that he had received no response from Price, Gould, and Spector.13 Pound did not agree that “one is enough” but on 6 September wrote that Zukofsky’s limit of five real lives was fairly good. He advised Zukofsky to start small; “make it a cenacle.” “The more lofty figures” would drop in later. He said he had written Moore “on the general subject of cenacles” and expected “in due time” “a guarded and circuitous answer.”14
Pound wrote again on 21 October to urge Zukofsky, “cenacle or now [sic] cenacle,” to take Gould to dinner with Pound’s five dollar check, but to conceal Pound’s hand. Insisting he could not himself put more effort into The Exile, Pound complained about the laziness of Williams, especially since he “has profited from former cenacles”; as for Marianne Moore, she thought the business required the backing of a millionaire. Despite these discouragements, however, Pound called for action and warned against succumbing to a sense of futility: “As to influence, we none of us start with having it. The aggregate or sum of . . . etc . . . the assemblage of small prods. etc. is not to be despised. The beak of mosquito more perilous than claws of tom cat.”15
Williams had little time, with his two professions, for cooperative schemes, and Zukofsky preferred to fraternize with great men. Although Williams and Zukofsky needed convincing, Pound had the force to convince them. He considered a “group” to be a beneficial tool. In 1909 he had attended the meetings of T. E. Hu1me’s unnamed group at The Eiffel Tower, a restaurant in Soho, London, in company with Joseph Campbell, Florence Farr, Desmond Fitzgerald, F. S. Flint, Edward Storer, and Frances Tancred,16 of whom only Pound and Flint became known in the movement. Pound not only attended but he gleaned from Hulme several of the tenets upon which he based his own movements. He formed the core of his own little group of lmagistes in 1912 with H. D. and Richard Aldington, who agreed on the three proscriptions to help publicize themselves before they had enough material for a full book. Pound wrote:
Upon many points of taste and of predilection we differed, but agreeing upon these three positions we thought we had as much a right to a group name, at least as much right, as a number of French “schools” proclaimed by Mr. Flint in the August number of Harold Monro’s magazine for 1911.17
Pound published their manifesto with an introduction by Flint in the March 1913 issue of Poetry, and then took eleven poems by Aldington, seven by H. D., and seven by himself and added five by Flint, two by Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford), and one each by Skipwith Cannell, John Cournos, James Joyce, Amy Lowell, Williams, and Allen Upward to comprise his anthology, Des Imagistes, published in 1914. But by then Amy Lowell had appeared on the scene and diluted Pound’s authority by the force of her personality and her money.18 When she offered a more democratic means of publication, a series of anthologies, to Aldington, H.D., John Gould Fletcher, Flint, and D. H. Lawrence, Pound abandoned them to whatever they could understand of his theories. Apparently his “Doctrine of the Image” remained mysterious. By 1914, he joined another movement, Vorticism, and reformulated his theories into more dynamic metaphors to insure them against ineffective popularizations.
In his memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, who was killed in the Great War, Pound wrote of the fact that Gaudier-Brzeska, Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, Mr. Etchells, and himself chose to call themselves “Vorticists”: “The name does not imply any series of subordinations, it means simply that we were in agreement concerning certain fundamentals of art.”19 The group did not imply loss of individual identities, nor that anyone in the group was forced to imitate another:
One cannot ask Mr. Synge’s admirers to like Mr. Yeats, one does not seek to bring the admirers of Gaudier-Brzeska to the feet of either Mr. Lewis or myself, but when I see in the Press statements to the effect that Gaudier was not a vorticist, or that I am not a vorticist, I am compelled to think that the writers of such statements must have read into the term “vorticism” some meaning which is not warranted by our meanings and our definitions. At no time was it intended that either Mr. Lewis, or Gaudier or myself or Mr. Wadsworth or Mr. Etchells should crawl into each other’s skins or that we would in any way surrender our various identities, or that the workings of certain fundamental principles of the arts should force any one of us to turn his own particular art into a flat imitation of the external features of the particular art of any other member of our group.20
The lesson is that agreement on fundamental principles need not (and did not) imply surrender of individual character or practice. Zukofsky’s statement that he was never a member of the group of “Objectivists”—in the light of such fundamentals—could only be credited to misunderstanding and personal differences. If we regard the grounds upon which they agreed (even if they had only ten percent agreement), we are justified, according to Pound, in regarding the Objectivists as a group.
Acting on the advice of Pound’s letter of 12 August 1928, Zukofsky wrote to Joseph Vogel, who replied to Pound. On 21 November Pound wrote to Vogel his thoughts on “the science of GROUPS,” and asked him to pass his words on to Zukofsky. First, he wrote, “at the start you must find the 10% of matters that you agree on and the 10% plus value in each other’s work.” Secondly, you should not expect a group to remain constant: “Take our groups in London. The group of 1909 had disappeared without the world being much the wiser. Perhaps a first group can only prepare the way for a group that will break through. The one or two determined characters will pass through 1st to 2nd or third groups.” Thirdly, “No use starting to crit. each other at start. Anyhow it requires more crit. faculty to discover the hidden 10% positive, than to fuss about 90% obvious imperfection. You talk about style, and mistrusting lit. socs. etc. Nacherly. Mistrust people who fuss about paint and finish before they consider girders and structure.” Fourthly, “You ’all’ presumably want some sort of intelligent life not dependent on cash, and salesmanship. . . . Point of group is precisely to have somewhere to go when you don’t want to be bothered about salesmanship. (Paradox?? No.)” And, finally, “When you get five men who trust each other you are a long way to a start. If your stuff won’t hold the interest of the four or of someone in the four, it may not be ready to print.”21
Pound’s reasoning did not satisfy Vogel. On 23 January 1929, a more antagonized Pound wrote:
Dear Vogel: Yr. painfully evangelical epistle recd. if you are looking for people who agree with you!!!! How the hell many points of agreement do you suppose there were between Joyce, W. Lewis, Eliot and yrs. truly in 1917; or between Gaudier and Lewis in 1913; or between me and Yeats, etc.?
Pound recommended that if Vogel respected decent writing, writing which expressed a man’s ideas, then he ought to exchange his with others who have “ideas of any kind (not borrowed clichés) that irritate you enough to make you think or take out your own ideas and look at ’em.”22
A group, as Pound conceived it, meant a few people who decide to work together against their common enemies. In America, economic considerations made it almost impossible for a writer to live by his writing, and so a group must also see that its members get published. Pound believed that the arts and the state, poetics and politics, were distinct but interrelated. Practical contingencies dictate the functions of a group: publicity, publication, “pleasure and consolation,” “gathering information,” “enlightenment, and stimulus to action.” “What a group shd. mean is: convenience of literature, i.e., faculty for printing and distributing without too damned much bother, secondly, as accessory, fight against impingements on vie 1itteraire.”23
The “Objectivists” were a group in Pound’s sense. They learned from, advised, edited, and published each other. And, although it takes more careful attention to perceive, both the grounds of their fundamental agreement and the particulars of their differences provide positive and negative delimitation to the concept of “Objectivism.”
III. Publication Schemes
Zukofsky detailed a scheme to publish limited, signed editions by subscription for Pound on 22 October 1928. The series might begin with Pound’s How to Read, or his Cantos, or Williams’ collected poetry, but would include work of young men. The only drawback was that he had no money to invest in it. However, once such a thing were established, he claimed, a group would form itself around it; the problem was that there was nothing to involve them. But his letter also noted that he had found new poetic ability in the twenty-year-old George Oppen.24 That conjunction of poets would precipitate the group that Zukofsky came to designate “Objectivists.”
Pound then wrote two letters condemning the American pub1ishing industry and approving Zukofsky’s book-of-the-quarter scheme. He suggested on 2 November the publication of Williams’ collected poems, Gould’s History, something by Pound himself, possibly his Cavalcanti, the poems of Zukofsky, Rodker’s Adolphe, the tales of McAlmon, Marianne Moore’s collected poems, and the work of two strangers, Cockburn and Stokes. The next day, he added E. E. Cummings and enclosed a manifesto on the need for such a club, calling for the repeal of censorship, Article 211 of the U.S. Criminal code. Also: “It would be a great step along if one could start the sale of unbound stuff in the U.S. allee samee la France. pay the author higher % royalty, and charge the buyer less.”25
Zukofsky reported on 19 November that although Williams said the scheme sounded good, he would not commit himself to it, and that he would likely remain uncommitted in spite of Zukofsky’s persuasions. The same night, Zukofsky’s follow-up mentioned that he had been scheming with Gorham B. Munsun and Vogel about publishing. He listed three younger talents: Hansell Bough, R. Ellsworth Larsen, and John Riordan who edited Salient at the New School of Social Research, and forwarded Munsun’s request for a manifesto from Pound to be read at a New School dinner on 8 December.26
Pound sent the following on 26 November 1928:
There is no time to elaborate a program if it is to reach you by Dec. 8.
HWOEVER [sic], main points for any group of “young writers, especially in America.”
Neither crap nor flatter each other. Look for the ten percent of possible good in each other’s work.
2. Decide or dig out the two or three points on which you agree and fight those issues against the outer darnkess [sic].
3. Ivory Tower attitude is ambiguous and misunderstood. It is O.K. if it means attending to your own job, first last and always. One decent poem is more aggressive than any amout a talk round and about the matter.
BUT, aloofness on part of yr. elders went too far, they got superior, couldn’t touch contemporary issues.
It is probably not your job to mess into politics, but when the unspeakable filth, bureaucracy, half-men anthopoids etc, who boss the general show trespass on your ground, when they pass legislation definitely interfering with your job, then you shd. fihght [sic] like tiger cats, every day and all day, until these infamies are removed.
Among these assaults and infamies are
ART. 211 of the Penal Code.
(Borrow, INSTIGATIONS from BILL, and read it to the blighters) p. 247
THAT represents the unspeakable shit which your fathers have permitted to govern the country. The blue-arsed baboons who passed that are the RULERS of your bleeding and withering country.
2. The same shits, in the later crop have tied up the frontiers with passport system, you can no longer as you cd. have done before 1914, wander about in peace free from interference of ronds de cair.
3. You can’t have your intellectual communications circulated at reasonable rate, because of a copyright law, ninety years behind those of all civilized countries.
4. Your frontiers are watched by a set of lice who interfere with the import of books and works of art. Including, mine, Hokusai’s and Brancusi’s.
YOU HAVEN’T THE LEAST IDEA OF THE POWER YOU ACTUALLY POSSESS; I.E. IF YOU WILL ACT TOGETHER, or of the power actually used by your semblables, the intelligentzia in other literate countries.27
Points 1 and 2 of this manifesto summarize Pound’s advice to Zukofsky about the meaning and use of groups: first, that cooperation need not require any more than ten percent agreement, and, second, that a group can work effectively on that ground of agreement against their common enemies. Point 3 elaborates the issue which was haunting Pound more and more, the relation of literature to the state. Here he begs a distinction between politics and the politics of literature. Writers have an obligation to change the atrocities of the latter, which include the present systems of censorship, passports, copyrights, and customs.
In spite of Williams’ reluctance, however unfortunately, the uncorrected difficulties against which Pound complained were in league with the Depression to eventually persuade him of the necessity for cooperative publishing. The work Zukofsky suggested for his subscription scheme, i.e., Pound’s How to Read and Williams’ A Novelette and Other Prose, were published by TO Publishers in 1932 in France to take advantage, as Pound suggested, of the printing of paper-bound books, and to circumvent their difficulties with customs and bookstores, Williams’ collected poems were published in hardbound by the Objectivist Press (in which Williams played a greater hand) in 1934 in New York with books by Oppen and Reznikoff.
Permission to quote the letters by Ezra Pound at notes 9, 15, 25, and 27 from New Directions Pub. acting as agent, copyright © 2015 by Mary de Rachewiltz and Omar S. Pound. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Permission to quote the letter by Ezra Pound at note 10 from POUND/ZUKOFSKY, copyright © 1981, 1987 by the Trustees of the Ezra Pound Literary Property Trust. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.