Section 8 - Sincerity and Objectification
The autograph manuscript of Louis Zukofsky’s essay “Charles Reznikoff: Sincerity and Objectification” is dated 4 February 1930.1 It was never printed in its entirety. In the fall of 1920, Zukofsky shortened it in manuscript from 27 to 15 pages (and made a few minor changes according to Pound’s suggestions) so that it could fit into the crowded “Objectivists” issue of Poetry, February 1931, where, titled “Sincerity and Objectification: with Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff,” it became the chief public manifesto for the group.2 The Poetry version contains about half as many examples from Reznikoff’s work as the original and omits sections of the original which deal with Reznikoff’s neglect, which define more fully the term “sincerity,” and which discuss his Nine Plays and miscellaneous prose works. The version in Prepositions, among Zukofsky’s collected critical essays, is even more dramatically abbreviated.3 Under two pages, it renders Zukofsky’s definitions entirely abstracted from poetic practice by omitting all examples of and references to the work of Reznikoff and others. These omissions have helped divorce “Objectivism” from the “Objectivists” and have left Zukofsky’s concepts underdetermined and therefore too easily misunderstood. In order to fully understand “Objectivism,” one must restore the original subjects and contexts of Zukofsky’s ideas. I have therefore relied on the original manuscript whenever it was appropriate to relate Zukofsky’s definitions to the poetry they were meant to define and to the tradition they were meant to develop.
Reznikoff’s virtue depends on the relation of two sincerities, which we might term personal sincerity and poetic sincerity. The first is the quality of a man who stands beside his word, and whose word, accordingly, is a consequence of his personal integrity. The second, which is a major concern in Zukofsky’s essay, is both a chief criterion separating “Objectivist” work from the general and popular practices in verse at that time and delineating the conditions of words which satisfy that criterion: poetic sincerity presents with clarity or exactitude the details of a real experience in words which are a consequence of the integrity of existence.
Although both Pound and Zukofsky claimed that personal sincerity is unnecessary so long as the poet achieves poetic sincerity,4 the rarity of the latter suggests that it is at least helpful if the poet’s personal sincerity be invested in achieving poetic sincerity, if, that is, the poet’s personal integrity is involved in and committed to the integrity of the experience he presents in his work. His concern must be with the technique of presenting work that is an object of experience, of objectifying, as Pound wrote, “the thing that is true and stays true that keeps fresh for the new reader.”5 Such a concern comes naturally to Whitehead’s objectivist, who believes in the independent validity of the real and in his ability to realize it. Poetic sincerity can not be counterfeited, just as one can not literally live in a fantasy. As Zukofsky said, one lives in the world with things as they are no matter what one thinks about them, and the poem enters this world as one’s sensations and thoughts enter it. Either the details of the real are in the writing or they are not.
Zukofsky speculated that Reznikoff’s difficulty with finding a publisher and the lack of public interest in his work were due to Reznikoff’s delight in the experience of his senses and his capacity to accept, without support, responsibility for his own writing.6 Reznikoff was sustained in his life and in his art by his joy in experience and his peace with the world. His personal sincerity required him to project—no matter what publisher or public valued—the honest impression, the perception rooted in evidence of his senses.
Sincerity among authors differs with the range of their sensations and apperceptions, but what is negative to sincerity remains negative to all who are sincere. So much that is vicious, as writing, is omitted from all of them, and of these there are probably no more than can be counted on the fingers of both hands in a generation. Reznikoff is included among these.7
Poetic sincerity differs with poets’ abilities to realize (as well as to objectify) the real and the uncounterfeitable. The unreal and the counterfeitable, the “vicious,” must be omitted. Zukofsky called this “the process of active literary omission” and wrote that it may be discussed in terms of “two criteria: sincerity and objectification.”8
Zukofsky compared the original editions of Reznikoff’s five groups of verse with the revised and collected edition of 1927 to discover the poetic considerations behind the omissions that Reznikoff made or did not make. First, he noted that Reznikoff kept a poem from 1918 which anticipated T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and “Hollow Men,” “not for any care the author may have had for the particular dejection expressed, for since that state he has been concerned with other matters, but for the element of method then already apparent in the clarity of image and word-tone.”9 Furthermore, Reznikoff omitted one poem for its “symboliste semi-allegorical gleam” and another for its “surrealism.”10 These poems ran counter to the desire to project the mind’s peace in the eyes’ sights, the ears’ hearing, and the fingers’ touch; they conveyed either perceptual distortions or no perceptions at all.
When technique achieves clarity, it expresses the poet’s conviction in his experience. Zukofsky wrote that poetic sincerity is the representation of experience and the assertion of existence. An “Objectivist” believes that words are not only referential, but that they are also objects of experience in and of themselves. Words refer to details, and they are details. Since we must be referred continually to details which our attention misses because we are barraged by so many details, we desire writing whose words are a warehouse of truth—in counterdistinction to writing which tries vainly to represent the past or the future, ignoring the present which in its particularity is universally relevant. An “Objectivist,” therefore, omits what is abstracted by its distance from direct experience, which is a matter not merely of personal desire, but of poetic craft. Intentions must be invested in actual words and word-forms. Egotism and ignorance can not excuse its absence, and imitation of current literary modes can not replace it. With this poetic sincerity as his criterion, Zukofsky claimed that most “successful” work of the day seemed only barely competent: hastily superficial and commercially modish in its treatment of idea and locale.11
Those whom Zukofsky admired were unique in having attended to what Pound wrote in 1917:
Technique.—I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity; in law when it is ascertainable; in the trampling down of every convention that impedes or obscures the determination of the law, or the precise rendering of the impulse.12
Zukofsky, however, in order to describe the work of the “Objectivists,” added to Pound’s early formulations the requirement that the impulse must have its origin in the real, and emphasized that the real includes not only things as they exist but things as one experiences them. This produced poems which were capable of more than the mere phanopoeia that was characteristic of the dilutors of Imagisme of the twenties. It produced poems which were real as existence and as experience.
According to Zukofsky, poetic sincerity is the product of perceptions, of conceptions which are integral with things experienced, and of poetic technique. It is composed of “the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody.” One is aware of “shapes” which are “concomitants” of both things experienced and “word combinations” but are in themselves only “precursors of . . . completed sound or structure, melody or form.”13 In other words, sincerity “records action and existence and incites the mind to further suggestion,” but does not in itself “attain rested totality.”14
Zukofsky noted that each word in Reznikoff’s verse adds to the presentation of particulars: each noun retains its integrity, each adjective is either “simple” and “sensory” or a metaphor “presented with conciseness in a word.” “One is brought back to the entirety of the single word which is in itself a relation, an implied metaphor, an arrangement and a harmony.”15
Simile and metaphor should not be ornamental; they should be “confirmation of the objects or acts which the writer is setting down,” of similarities “strongly felt together.”16 Zukofsky affirmed the physical accuracy of Reznikoff’s line, “Old men, wrinkled as knuckles, on the stoops,” for example, by saying that the word “wrinkled” describes the old men’s knuckles as well as their faces, contrasted with the geometric linearity of the stoop’s steps.17
Zukofsky noted that Reznikoff’s particulars suggest the wholes of which they are parts: “The verbal qualities of Reznikoff’s shorter poems do not form mere pretty bits (American poetry, circa 1913) but suggest . . . entire aspects of thought: economics, beliefs, literary analytics, etc.”18 Reznikoff’s poems, like the oriental lyric, are unions of succinct expression and implied thoughts. His plays, like the Noh, are controlled by the speeches of their characters, which are accurate to and suggestive of their times and places. His narrative verse does not imitate ancient narrative, but presents his observations of New York City and is decidedly Reznikoff’s and therefore “sincerely” modern. His prose, like that of Joyce’s Dubliners, presents the common matters of living in their true significance. He relies on the original effects of present situations to bring freshness to his rendition of them; his commentary is implicit in his expression of sights, sounds, and actions; his writing is not discursive.19 Reznikoff’s writing was not only new and stayed new, but it anticipated, like Romains’ Unanimisme, a convergence—an inextricable “direction of historic and contemporary particulars”20 ; his descriptions of the details of different people’s struggle for livelihood among shops and factories, Zukofsky claimed, anticipated the concerns of the revolutionaries of the late twenties. But Reznikoff also had the conviction to learn poetic sincerity—the technique of rendering his sympathies in words.21
The art of poetry is more than choice and treatment of content, and so the “Objectivist” must consider more than the criterion of poetic sincerity. If he did not, his work might degenerate into propaganda for the implications of locale or ideology. The necessary further consideration is objectification, the criterion by which one evaluates the success of a piece of writing as a whole. Although the sincerity of a poem’s parts is a prerequisite, objectification primarily depends on the interrelations of its parts. Objectification is “the arrangement, into one apprehended unit, of minor units of sincerity—in other words, the resolving of words and their ideation into structure.” Whereas the details of sincerity suggest the wholes of which they are parts, objectification is itself a whole, and gives a sense of “rested totality,” “the apprehension satisfied completely as to the appearance of the art form as an object.” It is “writing (audibility in two-dimensional print) which is an object or affects the mind as such.”22
For the “Objectivist,” the distinction between “an object” and a thing in writing which “affects the mind as such” is trivial. He does not seek to make a real red wheelbarrow; he seeks to make a thing that will affect the mind as a wheelbarrow or any other object. His unspoken assumption is that real objects and verbal objects are the same in the psychology of awareness. Therefore, Zukofsky dismissed epistemological distinctions between “real” and “ideal.” In his interview with L. S. Dembo, he said: “I don’t care how you think about things, whether you think they are there outside of you, even if you disappear, or if they exist only because you think of them. In either case you live with things as they exist.”23 In his essay on Reznikoff, he wrote: “It is assumed that epistemological problems do not affect existence, that a personal structure of relations might be a definite object, or vice versa.”24 The “poem as object” is predicated on the possibility of this formal equivalence. In this way, objectification is dependent upon sincerity. As Zukofsky wrote, “more objectification cannot be expected from writing than from its subject matter.”25
Zukofsky applied his two criteria to three examples from the poems of Reznikoff. The first of these satisfies the criterion of sincerity:
- I. Aphrodite Urania
- The ceaseless weaving of the uneven water.26
Zukofsky noted that each word of this one-line poem is referential, translating the patterned energy of its object. Together, they give a visual image but do not achieve objectification:
The first example illustrates sincerity, not objectification, each word possessing remarkable energy as an image of water as action. The title carries connotative and associative meaning in itself and in relation to the line; yet the line and the title together, tho interdependent, have not been arranged as a unit in the condition or relation of an object. Instead, the mind is attracted to the veracity of the particular craft, the validity of writing apprehending the most energetic constituents of possible objectification.27
The poem is not objectified because it attracts the mind first not to a sense of its self-completion but to its relation to myth and actuality. The relations it suggests have not been internalized.
The next two examples by Reznikoff satisfy, however, the more difficult criterion:
- II. Hellenist
- As I, barbarian, at last, although slowly, could read Greek,
- At “blue-eyed Athena”
- I greeted her picture that had long been on the wall:
- The head slightly bent forward under the heavy helmet,
- As if to listen; the beautiful lips slightly scornful.
- How shall we mourn you who are killed and wasted,
- Sure that you would not die with your work unended—
- As if the iron scythe in the grass stops for a flower.28
To explain why these are examples of objectification, Zukofsky detailed matters of poetic structure—rhythm, length of word, accent, and line—not of content. The fact that the second example “translates the Hellenic” is incidental, and that the third alludes to Gaudier-Brzeska “adds nothing to the poem as object”:
The second and third examples are objectification. In the second, the purposeful crudity of the first line as against the quantitative (not necessarily classic) hexameter measures of the others, the use of words of two syllables (greeted, picture, slightly, etc.) with suitable variations of words of four and three (barbarian, beautiful); the majority of the words accented on the first syllable, all resolve into a structure (which incidentally translates the Hellenic) to which the mind does not wish to add; nor does it, any more than when it contemplates a definite object by itself. The mind may conceivably prefer one object to another—the energy of the heat which is Aten to the benignness of the light which is Athena. But this is a matter of preference rather than the invalidation of the object not preferred.
The second example is so much an object that the title, Hellenist, is a mere tag not even necessary for designation. The third example needs no title and has none. The fact that it was originally an epitaph for Gaudier Brzeska may compel the attention of a few, but adds nothing to the poem as object. Objectification in this poem is attained in the balance of the first two lines; the third line adds the grace of ornament in a simile, as might the design painted around a simple bowl.29
“At any time,” Zukofsky continued, “objectification in writing is rare. The poems or the prose structures of a generation are few.” These high-toned pronouncements were characteristic of Zukofsky. Even in the work of Reznikoff, “the degree of objectification . . . is small.” On the other hand, Zukofsky conceded that “it is questionable . . . whether the state of rest achieved by objectification is more pertinent to the mind than presentation in detail.” Perhaps sincerity is more important than creating “poems.” Reznikoff, after all, never claimed to achieve objectification, and out of deference to the ideal “called his writings in cadence, not poems, but verse.”30 Similarly, Zukofsky later admitted that in the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry there was little objectification, but suggested that there was much sincerity.31
Zukofsky judged the rest of contemporary poetry with equal rigor. His list of the standards of contemporary “Objectivist” writings begins with Pound: “The poems of Ezra Pound alone posses objectification to a most constant degree; his objects are musical shapes.” Objectification in the work of other contemporary writers is much less frequent. “Objectification is to be found,” however, in Williams’ Spring and All “in Poems VIII, X, XVIII, XXIII, XXVI,” five out of the twenty-seven poems in the book. In comparison, only two poems by Marianne Moore and one poem by T. S. Eliot achieve objectification, although Moore and Eliot often achieve sincerity: “It is interesting that the work of Marianne Moore is largely a portrait of the author’s character intent upon the presentation which is sincerity, rather than the revealed rest of objectification” which is found in “An Octopus” and “Like a Bulrush.” And “in the work of T. S. Eliot it is often the single quatrain (or whatever the unit of composition may be) which possesses objectification; together, his quatrains are a series rather than the entirety of a poem.” Objectification occurs more frequently in the more erratic poetry of E. E. Cummings—that is, in “Him Song III, Amores VII, Unrealities V in Tulips and Chimneys” and “at least a half-dozen poems in Is 5,” and Zukofsky explained the nature of Cummings’ success as “an equilibrium between the extremely connotative speech of an energy of five senses which are vitally young, and an aptness of purposeful print, and musical rhetoric weaving this energy into an interlacing (sometimes, unfortunately, astray).” Since objectification depends on the sincerity originally inherent in the poet’s subject-matter, poetic success may be a register of cultural health: “To what extent objectification bearing the trade-mark of the Americas may be expected out of a geography and humanity constantly shifting, is indicated with ironic evenness in Robert McAlmon’s North America, Continent of Conjecture (1929).” In this sequence of poems, claimed Zukofsky, “mock historicalness . . . joins isolate attenuations . . . and offers not merely North America’s but the race’s Unfinished Poem.”32
Pound’s influence on the “Objectivists” explains the prominence of Pound’s work among Zukofsky’s models of poetic excellence and underlies the poetic agreement among the “Objectivists“ including Williams, Moore, Eliot, Cummings, and McAlmon. These writers are in a common tradition which sprang from Pound’s Imagiste manifesto. Zukofsky’s poetic sincerity, accordingly, is a restatement and clarification of the first Imagiste prescription, direct presentation. Presentation, although to my knowledge Pound never explicitly defined it, is the inclusion in writing of only those elements which absolutely correspond with essential qualities of the object. Presentation provides knowledge of acquaintance and may be directly experienced.33 Pound used the phrase “the economy of words” to describe the second Imagiste proscription: “To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.”34 Similarly, Zukofsky defined sincerity as writing which does not indulge in ideas without “presentation” or “tangible rendition,“35 and wrote that “the economy of presentation in this [Reznikoff’s] writing is a reassertion of faith that the combined letters—the words—are absolute symbols for objects, states, acts, interrelations, thoughts about them.”36
The analogy to music of the term “absolute” is clear in Pound’s “Treatise on Harmony.”37 Pound adapted the term from a concept in music theory: absolute pitch, the ability to sing or name a note asked for or heard. An absolute is the exact poetic form or element required to reproduce the object. Rhythm, metaphor, and symbol may all be absolute. Pound wrote, “I believe in an ’absolute rhythm,’ a rhythm, that is, in poetry which corresponds exactly to the shade of emotion to be expressed,”38 and, he wrote, “I believe that every emotion and every phase of emotion has some toneless phrase, some rhythm-phrase to express it.”39 We can also see, more systematically, that Pound distinguished absolute melopoeia from absolute logopoeia: “I believe in an ultimate and absolute rhythm as I believe in an absolute symbol or metaphor. The perception of the intellect is given in the word, that of the emotions in the cadence.”40 He also mentioned absolute phanopoeia: “one believes that emotion is an organizer of form, not merely of visible forms and colours, but also of audible forms. This basis of music is so familiar that it would seem to need no support. . . . The rhythm form is false unless it belongs to the particular creative emotion or energy which it purports to represent.”41 The ability to find these exact forms and to judge the exact perception given by a certain form is necessary to implement Pound’s direct presentation and Zukofsky’s poetic sincerity. Their existence is part of the “Objectivist” faith.
Responding to L. S. Dembo, George Oppen described the “faith” in his lines “The small nouns / Crying faith / In this in which the wild deer / Startle, and stare out”:
Q. What exactly is the faith: Is it in the world as world or is it in man’s ability to know the world?
A. Well, that the nouns do refer to something; that it’s there, that it’s true, the whole implication of these nouns; that appearances represent reality, whether or not they misrepresented it: that this in which the thing takes place, this thing is here, and that these things do take place. On the other hand, one is left with the deer, staring out of the thing, at the thing, not knowing what will come next.42
The “Objectivist” faith is in the potential of words to present the world to man, in the absolute relations between expression, existence, and experience. If a poem has sincerity, its details imply the whole of which they are parts—”appearances represent reality”—the poem is an understatement, a kind of paradigm or synecdoche. One must look from the words to the reality they symbolize, just as, Zukofsky’suggested, in a poem by Reznikoff whose words “render the equivalent of the sounds” of birds, a traveller “Whom a bird’s notes surprise” looks for the bird in the trees.43
Sincerity and objectification govern distinct stages of poetic technique. Zukofsky might have discovered this distinction in Spring and All, where Williams wrote that “prose has to do with the fact of an emotion; poetry has to do with the dynamization of emotion into a separate form.” ’Prose” is “statement of facts,” and its form is “the accuracy of its subject-matter”; “poetry” is “new form dealt with as a reality in itself” and its form is “related to the movement of the imagination revealed in word.”44
Zukofsky might also have discovered his distinction in Pound’s essay “Affirmations . . . IV. As for Imagisme,” where Pound wrote that the ability to find the absolute could be a direct response to existence and experience. As he put it, “energy creates pattern. . . . emotional force gives the image. . . . Intense emotion causes pattern to arise in the mind—if the mind is strong enough.” “Pattern,” like sincerity, refers to the poem’s parts, for he continued: “Perhaps I should say, not pattern, but pattern-units, or units of design.” Zukofsky might have chosen his phrase “minor units of sincerity” with Pound’s terms in mind. Furthermore, Zukofsky might have chosen his phrase “word combinations” with Pound’s “arrangement of forms” in mind. Zukofsky wrote that in sincerity “shapes appear concomitants of word combinations.” These are poems or parts of poems which do not attain rested totality—but each word of which retains its integrity. Pound wrote: “The difference between the pattern-unit and the picture is one of complexity. The pattern-unit is so simple that one can bear having it repeated several or many times. when it becomes so complex that repetition would be useless, then it is a picture, an ’arrangement of forms.’”
Pound’s “arrangement” is not yet the final poetic achievement. Objectification translates a third unit created by emotion, the Image:
Not only does emotion create the “pattern-unit” and the “arrangement of forms,” it creates also the Image. The Image can be of two sorts. It can arise within the mind. It is then “subjective.” External causes play upon the mind, perhaps; if so, they are drawn into the mind, transmitted, and emerge in an Image unlike themselves. Secondly, the Image can be objective. Emotion seizing up some external scene of action carries it intact to the mind; and that vortex purges it of all save the essential or dominant or dramatic qualities, and it emerges like the external original.
In either case the Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy.45
Pound thus gave Zukofsky three units of poetic composition—the pattern-unit, the arrangement of forms, and the Image. Although perhaps Zukofsky’s theories can not be fully understood without Pound’s, Zukofsky had the genius to organize Pound’s random prescriptions and beliefs under two criteria, relate them to one another according to the requirements of a unified poetic process, and emphasize certain aspects of the process to correct the deficiencies of the “accepted” verse of the time.