Section 2 - Carl Rakosi
In 1923, his junior year at the University of Wisconsin, Carl Rakosi wrote a letter to Miss Purnell, the editor of Palms:
I was born in Berlin, Germany, 1903. Lived in Southern Hungary, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin. Had short jobs in factories, stores, farms, telephone and electric companies, etc. Studied at the University of Chicago (1920-21), a puppy without company. Studied at the University of Wisconsin (1921-?) where even my few friends held me for an immoral, obscure boob. Associate editor of the Wisconsin Literary Magazine for one month!1
The biography on the back leaf of Ex Cranium, Night elaborates:
From 1903 to 1910 he lived with his grandparents in Baja, Hungary, his parents having been divorced. In 1910 he and an older brother, Lester, came to live with his father, Leopold Rakosi, and his stepmother, Rose Kulka. Leopold Rakosi was a watchmaker and had a jewelry store, first in Gary, Indiana, and then, until his death, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.2
In addition to being a Hungarian from Budapest, Leopold was Jewish and his an avid Socialist. Carl Rakosi speculated on the importance of father to him:
What my father used to tell me about Hungarian painters and literature and the whole life-sty1e in Budapest must have influenced my selection of images, color, tone—it’s possible. . . . . My whole moral stance is exactly my father’s. And my interest in society—all my father’s. He was an avid socialist aii his life. A very idealistic socialist. When he was in Germany, he met the two great leaders of the time, Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, magical names in the history of socialism. But he—I remember he was telling me about hearing them speak. His whole face would light ug. The world was never the same for him after this experience.3
Rakosi began as a Freshman at the University of Chicago, but since he was very lonely in Chicago he transferred in his sophomore year to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. There he earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in educational psychology. Kenneth Fearing was his roommate; he also met Horace Gregory and became a dear friend of Margery Latimer.4
Life wasn’t easy for this moody and unconventional young man. His letter to Miss Purnell continued:
I am sure sex chose me for destruction; that my tropsemitic-savoir will defeat itself in the way a poetic technique, too conscious of its facture, defeats itself. Since 1920, I have tried to fend off oblivion, and the domination of trifles and quasi-poets by a life of exact ritual. Nothing can convince me that my passive attention will not sometime surprise depth and novelty; nothing but a feeling of non-existence, a humour of calculation. Yet, can these defining words frame anything but the words, Carl Rakosi?5
The richness and humorous quality of Rakosi’s diction is indicative of his artistic distance. His poetic integrity is located by a precise facture, by exact ritual, even in a description of his own psyche, since for Raskosi, as for the other “Objectivists,” poetic and psychic technique were synonymous.
Rakosi’s comparison of the self-defeat of savior and poetic techniques, however, reveals a difference from Zukofsky which Rakosi shares with Oppen and Reznikoff. From the beginning, Zukofsky was unique in being able to combine theory and creation. When I asked Rakosi about his theories in the early thirties, he responded:
You note that in your effort to reconstruct the theory that preceded the Obj. issue of POETRY you lack my theoretical speculations. Well, I must have had some but I couldn’t tell you what they were. What I can tell you is that I avoided theory then. I had the feeling that I didn’t need it to write and that, in fact, it might harm my work by turning my attention away from creative impulse and making me self-conscious and expository . . . i.e., making me talk about work rather than doing it.6
This doesn’t mean that he wrote without intention, without precision, but only that his controls were not consciously expressed. Most poets learn rules only to forget them; one can’t work as a master until, with the rules internalized, one can devote one’s full attention to the game. George Oppen told me that in high school he tried to devise a scale which arranged even vowel-consonantal pairs by their position in the mouth. His awareness of the contiguities of consonants became second nature, a matter not of formulae but of ear: “So I worked with consonants etcetera but mathematical formulae or any kind of formulae I have quite a resistance to even thinking about.”7
II. Poems, 1927
Rakosi was little-known in 1927; he had only a few poems published in the Nation, Palms, and Two Worlds Quarterly. He moved from Milwaukee to Boston and then to Houstin after he submitted his work to Pound, and did not hear of his acceptance and publication until Zukofsky wrote him in November 1930 to ask for submission for the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry (see Section 14).
His poems in Exile 2 (Autumn 1927), like “Poem beginning ‘The,’” are parodic, but whereas the basis for parody in Zukofsky is literary, in Rakosi it is modern advertising, and whereas Zukofsky’s object is personal, Rakosi’s is social.8 The objects of his sarcasm are the values and conventions of society: in “Characters” the accepted male and female roles, his bravado and her mysteriousness, in “Wanted” the means by which one must rise to popularity, in “Superproduction” the sentimentalisms of the popular romantic movie, and in “Revue” the lack of a means on the stage of the world for the individual to comprehend anything but the urges of his own psyche.9
“Characters” seems obscure because of its syntactic abbreviation and verbal indirection, but these features can be one’s reward for puzzling the poem out. The almost telegraphic abbreviations, for example: “in grandstand,” and “bares biceps,” make up for the indirection of much of the diction by their directness, and the poem’s strangely mixed, heavily alliterated diction gives the poem a peculiarly humorous quality. The poem does not draw a simple picture or story; it presents two characters as male and female reflections of personal magnetism. The first, the male, is a stock-market wizard and a baseball hero:
- One of our brassy beefeaters
- in grandstand on the continent
- bares biceps to the gaping millions,
- sinks shaft in market, pockets wheat
- holds cornucopia of cash.
- Cheers heard before his private front
- as he lands place with notables.
- We call this tribute in a nutshell,
- a miracle of entertainment.
His ostentatious, ritual display of physical and economic power is symbolically linked to his sex: bares biceps, sinks shaft, and so on through to the climax. The second character, the female, is a romantic virgin:
- Speaking of beaus sartorial,
- perplexed young girl hands laugh to love-wise.
- I am a lovely, irresistible girl
- of seventeen, with wonderous witching orbs.
- Why do I blaze in my intangibles
- like any mandolin romantic,
- you, stable as the sterling?
Her subtle, mysterious charm contrasts with the overt showiness of the male. She is perplexed; her power is a covert magic which neither she nor those she impresses can resist. Rakosi ridicules these roles by the manner in which he exaggerates them. The “millions” are “gaping”; his “entertainment” is a “miracle.” Her “orbs” are “wonderous” and “witching”; and she blazes in her “intangibles.”
“Wanted” is a preposterous advertisement for writers:
- Expert experiences black on white
- by men who are all white from the midriff
- to the arches through the lowest joints.
Their required whiteness seems an ironic indication of their acceptability to the American public, a superficial innocence.
- We train you in accepted imagery,
- the sights of love, and other popular sports,
- and keep your eyes pealed for the gems of gab.
So far, this seems to reveal the young Rakosi’s scorn for the popular, accepted poet, but the next two lines suggest that he’s also talking about himself, as a Jewish poet whose “larnyx” is “without gentile deformations.”
- Diction or fact, it’s all one to the larnyx,
- that is, one without gentile deformations.
Rakosi realized that he was sometimes fascinated with sound to the detriment of meaning. In 1968, Rakosi explained:
Well, at first I was very much seduced by the elegance of language, the imaginative associations of words; I was involved in a language world—a little like the world of Wallace Stevens, who was an idol of mine during a certain period. But at the same time, another part of me did not get away from social reality. You’ll find in the Youthful Mockeries section of Amulet a lot of scorn for what was going on in the social world.10
The poem represents Rakosi’s discovery that the manner of expression may conflict with the matter of fact, and that the latter is preferable. Although Rakosi retains some of Stevens’ techniques, his epistemology is different. The “Objectivist” concern for the veracity of their subject is a characteristic by which they clearly differ from Stevens’ romantic-poetic world of the imagination.
Not only is the poem an ironic self-portrait of Rakosi’s desires as a poet; it is also a criticism of the society that encourages and rewards those desires. Rakosi ridicules “their behavior, their values, and their way of talking.”11 The poet is expected to gain popular acceptance by cribbing the superficial and cliched standard style; he must be a proud, urbane, and merciless hustler, a man who is conceited from his ability to harm others, one whose strong intentions are merely to master mockery:
- The applicant is to be oriented,
- a hustler from his collarbutton up,
- upright and spry, a snotshooter who spares
- no words or pleasant whispers of address.
- Report to us at once with sample pomp
- and testimonies of urbanity.
- Also a man to master mockery,
- a spotlighter with strong intentions.
It is likely that the poem appealed to Pound because Pound also suffered from frustration of the same desires, and because both retaliated with scorn for society’s norms. Also, Rakosi’s style embodies principles shared by Pound. The alliterative form of lines in all four poems is reminiscent of the Old English metric of Pound’s “Seafarer” and Canto I. Raskosi’s abbreviated style and jammed accents, perhaps influenced by Gerard Manely Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm,” are consonant with Pound’s desire to condense perception into isolated and emphasized words.
“Superproduction” is another instance of se1f-conscious reporting: a sentimental story of romance and tragedy is reduced to twenty-four short lines. The poetic intention no doubt stems from the Imagiste principle of condensation. Here, however, Rakosi goes beyond Imagisme not only in presenting narrative but in incorporating the reporter’s angry and disrespectful point of view:
- St. Louis songbirds in Atlanta.
- Just a minute. This is romance.
- Enter Nancy picking daisies.
- Plughole sounds on the verandah.
- All under the bedsheets rise.
- The eyes thaw open and detect.
Rakosi, as does Zukofsky, recognizes the disintegration of the standard “poetic” forms. “Romance” doesn’t allow geographical references, and reduces Nancy to stereotypical actions:
- With the change in weather,
- exposed and cooped in cold,
- Nancy solicits your attention.
- Nancy lies finished and deceived,
- a sight to make your eyes fail
- in the heated rooms, poisoned
- by Rudolf’s talcum manner.
- Now love is slain and the well-groomed
- lover is wanted in seven states.
- Again perfidy clicks like a billiard ball
- and bounds from unexpected cushions.
- Nancy’s beloved body travels
- the long way in a silent box,
- unscented, unattended
- by rhythmical, gloved gentlemen.
The end of the poem rudely offers the absurd panecea of religious salvation:
- Voices demand a happy ending.
- Let her find more comfortable quarters,
- then, through any heated savior.
Rakosi’s purpose is not merely to ridicule Christianity for its lack of charity. The speaker himself is a “heated savior,” a man who would have been willing to take this tragic whore off the streets. His anger at her fate makes her story, like her coffin, uncomfortable for us, too direct, too real.
With economy of means, the poem rivals what Hollywood’s “superproductions” achieved with orchestras, choruses, dance groups, and star actors and actresses. Moreover, Rakosi does what Hollywood has never been able to do—he arouses us both against the accepted and admired perfidy of the pleasures of the Rudolf Valentines of the theater, and against the audiences that identify with Rudolf so much as to insist on a happy ending.
“Revue” is a review of revues, and, like Rakosi’s other poems in Exile 2, it is critical of its object, which he expands to wordly significance:
- They say in dreams they have a peetweet’s view
- of happy matters, but around them
- and ahead stand fixtures of morality.
- They scan these properties for some design
- with a macabre elegant complexion,
- but merely turn the screws of introspection;
- turn and pick a ragtime on the strings,
- and drink a soda to a better day,
- when to a maiden’s heart, the ace of wits,
- calligrapher and creeping microskeptic,
- equipped like tourists with a wordly light,
- will sing the blues of a gregarian.
- Hi Ho the Merri-o. Fashion decrees
- shaved jawbones for established gents,
- and sees them stripped to animal devotions,
- swim in oceanic notions.
- Leviathan and bulk of melancholy,
- shine with us in miserable motions.
“They” are at once theatrical producers and the leaders of society. Both claim that the intention of their efforts is to bring our happiness, but their “peetweet’s view” has the comprehension not a birds~eye but of a bird’s brain, a nitwit. They are’1ncapable only of entertainment but of providing anything other than “fixtu of morality” which like stage properties must be fabricated, hois and lowered to create the illusion of presentability. They try t effect a complex design “but merely turn the screws of introspect In their inability to see beyond the urges of their own psyches, project their neuroses to torture everyone else into doubting the selves. They deny their responsibility with the pretentiousness a bit performer.
The “Objectivist” ethic is against this kind of pretense; relies like Elizabethan drama on the bare stage and like Confuciu on the priority of putting one’s own affairs in order. It does n decree behavior, but helps one to establish equipoise by attentio what with surety exists. Rakosi’s criticisms of the social theater imply the virtues of his poetry. It gives no false view of happy matters.” Its honesty of character and verity of subject challenges the deceptive decrees that reduce women to objects of the hunt and men to animal devotions.