Section 12 - American Poetry 1920-1930
Zukofsky finished his essay “American Poetry 1920-1930: A Sequel to M. Taupin’s Book, 1910-1920” on 2 June 1930,1 and would have used it, instead of “Charles Reznikoff: Sincerity and Objectification,” for the program of the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry if it had not been accepted by another magazine.2 It appeared in the Symposium: A Critical Review, January 1931, to which Zukofsky referred the readers of Poetry:
To avoid repetition: the visiting editor of this issue of POETRY has indicated his interest in American poetry of the last decade in an article published in the latest quarterly number of The Symposium.3
In this article, Zukofsky did more than indicate his favorite writers of the previous decade; he indicated the principles by which he selected work for the “Objectivists” issue and anthology.
I. The Canon
Zukofsky disputed with René Taupin as to the nature and direction of literary modernism. In L’Influence du Symbolisme Francais sur la Poésie Américaine (del 1910 à 1920), Taupin was concerned with “an ‘evolution’ of poetry” discernible in the differences between generations, in which “’E1iot should be considered as forming the transition between pure imagism and the new symbolism which is more complex; between a first generation which sought sincerity of expression and of rhythm, and a generation of poets taking from the world of their conscience forms and sounds to combine them according to the laws of harmony and sensibility and to express the movements of their brain’ (p. 287)”;4 Zukofsky was concerned with a more sustained “progress” evident in the individual developments of significant modernists, for which James Joyce’s development of the lyric of Chamber Music into the epic of Finnegans Wake should be considered the model. Zukofsky countered Taupin by noting that “the first generation” of literary modernists “developed, after 1920 or shortly before, as did Joyce, literary mechanisms for expressing the movements of individual brains,”5 and by showing that the followers of Eliot are much less advanced than Eliot himself. Zukofsky felt that the significant movement of literary modernism was not of generations but of individuals and that it was not a movement toward a symbolist presentation of private worlds but a movement toward an lmagiste presentation of the shared world. The individuals whom Zukofsky admired—”Pound, Williams, Eliot, Marianne Moore”—extended “the monolinear image” to “include ’a greater accessibility to experience.’”6
Wishing to present a direct view of the object, Zukofsky’s “Objectivists” differed from their contemporaries who wrote either free or formal verse. They differed, first, by freeing themselves from pretentious imitation of the great French, English, and even American poetic models. Zukofsky referred to Taupin’s claim that “American do not need to blush if it is ‘la poésie,’” and responded that “Reznikoff’s poetry, singularly, does not speak French; but neither does it speak immemorial English in so many light-stress syllables of regular verse, or speak prettified octopus-Whitman.”7 Similarly, Zukofsky attributed HD’s failure in her “later work” to achieve “a greater accessibility to experience” to her “Anglicized dilution of metric and speech value” and noted that the “new work” by Wallace Stevens “is marked by an attenuated ’accessibility to experience’ characteristic of the latest Eliot . . . perhaps because, like Eliot, he has purposefully led his rather submerged intellectual excellences (as contrasted with Pound’s rebelliousness and awareness of changing forces) to a versification clambering the stiles of English influence.”8 Furthermore, “the work of the new formalists—Allen Tate, [John] Crowe Ransom, Malcolm Cowley— seems also to droop from the stem of English influence; perhaps via Eliot. In any case, their linear and stanzaic impalings [sic: impalements] do not even possess Eliot’s spark of craftsman’s accomplishment,” and the work of Hart Crane, whose “technical regularities” associate him with the formalists, is spoilt by being “Elizabethian drive”, being “iambic in the grand manner. Such imitation helps an indefinite language and prolongs verbal indecision past the useful necessity of meaning.”9
The “Objectivists” differed from their contemporaries, secondly, by using their freedom to fill Pound’s proscription for “direct treatment of the ’thing,’” to present, as Zukofsky put it, the “poetic emotion” in “constructions mentally alive, precise, and ramified and sub-ramified as to meaning.” In contrast, Zukofsky noted, the “steadiness” of the new formalists “is that of truncated emotions.” Their work, saved neither by “poetic emotion” nor “metaphysical construction,” is “‘inte1lectual’ rhetoric” from which “blurred tangibilities hang disjointed.”10
The work of the “Objectivists” achieved a “metaphysical” unity of message and medium—emotion, idea, and constructionr—by exact correspondence to the effects of the object. “In Donne,” wrote Zukofsky, “the idea was also his fee1ing-tone and was also a particular metaphysical concept of his time—emotion propelling the crowding on of metaphysical things.” Similarly, “Williams’ feeling-tone, as Donne’s, groups an order of tangible objects.”11 The poem presents the vortex which the experience of the object set in motion.
In the work of Hart Crane and Elinor Wylie, however, idea conflicts with feeling-tone, and feeling-tone conflicts with the object. Accordingly, Zukofsky criticized Crane’s use of synesthesia and inaccurate diction, and associated Crane with Elinor Wylie, whose work “errs on the side of mysticism” by “repeated shifting from one feeling-tone (one kind of ecstacy) to another.” The root evil in both is the vagueness of inaccuracy and inconsistency. Although Crane has “energy,” Zukofsky explained, it is “an energy too often pseudo-musical and amorphous in its conflation of sense values.” He follows, in Pound’s words, “the Wagnerian ideal” of exciting and confusing the audience by “smacking as many of his senses as possible.” In addition, “his single words are hardly ever alone, they are rarely absolute symbols for the things they represent.” They lack exactitude, the accurate correspondence of word to thing. His poems are too seldom “of the senses,” that is, they seldom present the object in terms of the senses which apprehend it. “The result is an aura—a doubtful, subtle exhalation—a haze.”12 The work of Crane and Wylie is, rather than metaphysical, “mystical.”
The effects of imitation of the iambic are limited or arbitrary; the effects of allegory are indirect. A poem dependent on such effects cannot be vital. Zukofsky admired Herrick’s “Divination” for its “contemporariness”—which he revised as “exactness.” The poem must present the truth that stays true. The work of Robert Frost, on the contrary, “is just too cutely pastoral, too cutely rampant to be alive, to be true.” Zukofsky believed that “it is in the nature of things that poets should want to live; and ethically living cannot be a Wordsworthian dilution.” Frost’s “thought as well as his versifying involved in the allegorical dies at the hearth.”13
Implicit in Zukofsky’s criticism of Frost is an equation of “ethically living” with writing vitally. “I believe in technique as a test of a man’s sincerity,” wrote Pound.14 Zukofsky went further: ’Ultimately, poetry is a question of natures, of constitutions, of mental colorings.” The fact that Pound was capable of “the distinction of an ethical commonplace by Spinoza,” wrote Zukofsky, allowed Pound in the opening of “Canto XXX” to present “the composite of internal rhyme, repetition of word, repetition of line with one word altered, delayed and rapidly extended cadence, and tendency toward wrenching of accent.”15
“In contrast, it cannot be said that the ’idea’” in Pound’s lines, wrote Zukofsky, “is the substance of Robinson Jeffers’ works, for his melodrama has vitiated all idea as expression. . . . Compared with Jeffers, the sad, honest work of Archibald MacLeish (much, too much, overburdened with Eliot) is at least an obvious attempt at meaning.”16 The poem and the vitality of its meaning is killed by anything, such as Jeffers’ melodrama, that can not correspond with subtlety and integrity to the object.
An “Objectivist” does not deprive the immediate of its direct significance. The “aesthetics” of Williams’ “material,” wrote Zukofsky, “is a living one, a continual beginning, a vision amid pressure,” a vision of the “values in the living broken down for others by sentimentalism.” Therefore, Williams’ “exclusion of sentimentalisms, extraneous comparisons, similes, overweening autobiographies of the heart, of all which permits factitious ’reflection about,’ of sequence, of all but the full sight of the immediate.”17
Zukofsky’s criteria excluded most accepted verse of his day. His “bibliography of poetry after 1920,” he wrote, “is brief: Pound’s Cantos; Eliot’s The Waste Land; Marianne Moore’s Observations, Williams’ Spring and All, Primavera . . . Cummings’ Is 5; references to earlier volumes by Cummings, Stevens’ Harmonium, McAlmon, Reznikoff, Exile 3 and 4.”18
II. The Criteria
The difference between the “Objectivists” and their contemporaries is inherent in Zukofsky’s distinction between metaphysical and mystical poetry. Metaphysical poetry presents the rigorous emotional coherence of an apprehended thing; mystical poetry presents only a sensational haze. In making this distinction, Zukofsky attended to the principle that for T. S. Eliot distinguished the Victorian poets from the original metaphysical poets. “It is the difference,” wrote Eliot, “between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” To account for this difference, Eliot postulated a “dissociation of sensibility” which began in the seventeenth century and from which the British “have never recovered,” although certain French writers, Eliot asserted, have the “essential quality of transmuting ideas into sensations, of transforming an observation into a state of mind.”19
“Objectivism” attempts to reassociate the sensibility by integrating sensations, words, and ideas according to the relations among objective classes of existence, expression, and experience. Zukofsky took this for granted when he wrote: “Naturally in a poem image, cadence, and idea are inseparable.”20 Ontological references and epistemological effects must be inseparable properties of the linguistic structure of the poem.
Zukofsky’s correlation of image, cadence, and idea elaborated Pound’s statement that “a new cadence means a new idea.”21 The inseparableness of idea and cadence is contingent upon a belief implicit in Pound’s statements that “emotion is an organiser of form” and “emotional force gives the image,” which Zukofsky further elaborated by asserting that the image is at the basis of poetic form.”22 An “Objectivist” believes in the objectivity of emotion. He believes that the form of a direct experience (sensation) is the form of the thing experienced, whether the thing is in the world (image) or in the poem (cadence). This means that the form that inheres in the thing the poet wishes to present may be presented and experienced in the structure of the poem.
This fundamental belief in the translatability of form is implicit in Zukofsky’s admiration of poems which succeed in satisfying his criteria of sincerity and objectification. He believed that sincerity—the careful presentation of particulars, providing “knowledge of acquaintance,” is antithetical to “factitious ’reflection about,’” and that its corollary, “accessibility to experience,” is attenuated by imitation of the English iambic, intellectual rhetoric, synesthesia, melodrama, sentimentalism, and forced or arbitrary “poetic” devices such as symbols, allegory, and simile.23
Accordingly, Zukofsky admired the “inclusiveness” of McAlmon and the “incisiveness” of Moore and Pound:
Robert McAlmon in Unfinished Poem has recalled in its inclusiveness of the American mock-historical, geographical scene, the scope of Marianne Moore’s An Octopus, retained an isolate individualism similar to hers while communalizing quotation, hardly ever reached her incisiveness—the definite hardness of perhaps Whitman when he writes of a stallion “Head high in the forehead, wide between the ears”—and added the indigenous cynicism of American song blues. Ezra Pound’s conversation of American personae in the Cantos is much better than the conversation of similar personae in McAlmon’s Portrait of a Generation (1926) and Unfinished Poem (1929).24
Although McAlmon’s inclusiveness of the American scene, speech, and character are admirable, it would be preferable if his observations were also presented with the incisiveness of Moore and Pound. The “Objectivist” presents the real, but he also stylizes or “communalizes” it by isolating or condensing it to, as Pound wrote, its “essential or dominant or dramatic qualities.”25
The qualities of “Objectivist” diction are also inclusiveness (variety) and incisiveness (specificity). Diction is used for a broad range of effects, from Wi1liams’ clear statement to Cummings’ “straightforward” and parodic American and “Elizabethian virtues,” to Pound’s colloquial diction and polyglottal dialects:
Whatever one’s preferences, the diction of these poets remains their fully varied material, which includes quotations from sources apparently useful to a kind of communistic interest in preserving poetry wherever is it found.26
Variety of diction may rest on a variety of sources. In his essay on Reznikoff, Zukofsky wrote that “Reznikoff has not found it derogatory to his production to infuse his care for significant detail and precision into the excellent verbalisms of others,” and noted that the use of quotations in Moore, Pound, Williams was “for the communal good.”27 For these writers, “care for significant detail and precision,” that is, sincerity, is more important than originality. The facts may often inhere in the words of others.
Diction is not used to impress or mystify; it must have specificity: “The only diction which is dead today is that of poets who, as some one has said of Matthew Arnold, have put on singing robes to lose themselves in the universa1.”28 Zukofsky quotes from “Paper,” an essay written by his friend Roger Kaigh, to criticize those who indulge in categorical imperatives such as the iambic to the detriment of meaning. The corrective for their lack of specificity, their inability to chose and delimit among the infinite shades of available connotations, is the practice “employed by Pound, Eliot, Williams, M. Moore and Cummings.” These poets “clarify and render the meaning of the spoken word specific” by control of the poetic equivalents of, as Kaigh wrote, speech’s “context, gesture, intonation and pronunciation,” that is, by careful selection of diction for precise connotation and by “emphasizing cadence by arrangement of line and typography.” “The things these poets deal with,” added Zukofsky, “are of their world and time, but they are ’modern’ only because their words are energies which make for meaning.”29
A concept related to specificity which contributes to a poem’s sincerity is Pound’s concept of an “absolute.” (See Section 8.) If the melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia of a poem are in sufficient and necessary relations to the essential particulars of the experience, then its rhythms, metaphors, and symbols will be absolute—they will be expressive, “interpretive” rather than ornamental. This concept associates the expression with the experience and the thing experienced. In contrast with Hart Crane’s words, which Zukofsky wrote are “rarely absolute symbols for the things they represent, e.g., ’The incunabula of the divine grotesque,’”30 are Pound’s words “which are absolute symbols for things and textures,” for example, “The sand that night like a seal’s back / Glossy beneath the lanthorns.”31
Absolute terms render facts with clarity, and so Zukofsky admired the work of Moore:
Marianne Moore has allowed the “neatness of finish” of her “octopus of ice” to clarify ubiquitously the texture of at least a hundred images with a capacity for fact.32
Clarity is exactitude in presentation of fact. The “Objectivists,” in their regard for facts, their natures and their orders, wrote a “nominalistic” poetry, a poetry whose validity is secured by its revelation of the real, its synthesis of concrete and specific detail.33 Zukofsky presented nominalism as an “Objectivist” standard by including his translation of René Taupin’s review of André Salmon in the program of the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry (Section 17).
“Cummings,” Zukofsky continued, “is less nominalistic,” but he is not less specific; he is “more sensuously evocative, sometimes fanciful . . . but continually interested in something like capillaries, ’everything which we really are and never quite live,’ the sources where images begin.”34 Words, like Remains’ groups (see Section 1), are limitless; they are not separate and distinct from the world. Zukofsky’s phrase “something like capillaries” refers to Pound’s statement that words
are like the roots of plants: they are organic, they interpenetrate and tangle with life, you cannot detach them as pieces of an anatomical figure. The dissection of capillary and vein is at a certain stage no longer possible.35
Cummings’ words “interpenetrate and tangle” with life that he attempts to present.
Another concept related to sincerity is “history”—“history defined as the facts about us, their chronological enlivening for the present set down as art, and, so, good for the next age and the next,” which Zukofsky admired in the work of Williams. Williams, according to Zukofsky, “is of rare importance in the last decade (1920-1930), for whatever he has written the direction of it has been poetry—and, in a special sense, history.” In this special sense, history is a poetic record of the present focussed to give a sense of the energy and ethical consciousness of a human being: “History, or the attractions of living recorded—the words a shining transcript.” The transcription of history is sincerity, “in which something was seen, a quantity heard, an emotion apprehended,” but history is sincerity whose “direction” is the writer’s political stance against conditions which hinder happiness and creativity. History represents the writer’s “social awareness”: “the singular creature living in society and expressing in spite of the numb terror around him the awareness which after a while cannot help be but general.” As an example of history, Zukofsky gave Williams’ poem “To Elsie,” which begins “The pure products of America go crazy.” This poem succeeds “through its realization of points of aesthetic, living values,” its realization of the facts of the “social determinism of American suburbs in the first thirty years of the twentieth century.”36
Zukofsky recognized in the work he admired certain structural features that emphasize relations among word, sensation, and thing. After he noted that Reznikoff’s “equilibrium” between accentual and syllabic meters “give an image,” he continued:
The principle of varying the stress of a regular meter and counting the same number of syllables to the line is thus transferred from “traditional” to cadenced verse. Williams began this procedure in Spring and All . . . there seems to have been a decided awareness of the printed as well as the quantitative, looseness of vers libre.37
In fact, Williams later declared: “There is no such thing as free verse! Verse is measure of some sort. ’Free verse’ was without measure and needed none for its projected objectifications.”38 An “Objectivist” needs measure—provided it is flexible enough to render the nuances of his object—to realize his objectifications, and is therefore concerned about stress, syllable, cadence, quantity, lineation, and their effects.
Balancing accent against syllable, syllable against word, or word against line could not only bring the reader’s attention to the intended melody but could also create melodies to render a variety of specific nuances. The essentially predetermined nature and overemphasis on extensive form of regular meters make them less able to render both the full range of experiences which the “Objectivists” value and the precise movement appropriate to each experience. Furthermore, their expectability may dull the attention of the reader to intended effects. Zukofsky wrote that Pound’s passage on “Pity” itself in “Canto XXX” “is effective because the cadence of the word ’pity’ is never perfectly expected. The versification is not a matter of each syllable finding its usual place in an iambic pentameter, as in Frost’s ‘One bird begins to close a faded eye.’” Frost’s “main drawback” is his “submission to” or his “continued tinkering with accent.”39
An “Objectivist” wished to achieve with words and their arrangement on the page the controlled effects that music may achieve with notation of rhythm and tone, that is, as Zukofsky put it, melody.
There is, of course, melody in the passage on Pity. Melody, with Frost, is by now almost a dead issue. There was melody in the Frost of A Boy’s Will, a melody often on par with R. C. Dunning. There will be when the Cantos are finished the complete music of the Cantos, and it will include successfully those conversational overtones which Frost seems to have labored over for about 20 years, only to falsify them with Simple Simon naiveté.40
The effects of poetic melody in an “Objectivist” poem render and enhance rather than falsify the forms experienced in the object. Melody must be organic with the thing experienced.
The “Objectivists” based their measure on quantity, the relative durations of the sounds of words. Quantity’s intensive nature, the fact that it cannot be as easily systematized as stress, the fact that it must always be heard rather than merely known and counted, make the poem less subject to predetermination and overemphasis of surface than regular meters. Quantity is flexible enough to register the precise forms and rhythms of objects consonant with new worlds and time. “Pound’s contribution,” wrote Zukofsky, “is quantity, and the dealers in stock and trade sonnets and iambs have never taken up his challenge. They have also dissipated the sonnet as a form; it is time someone resurrected it.”41
The “Objectivists” took up Pound’s challenge. Zukofsky admired Cummings for “partly” resurrecting the sonnet form—when he is “not palpably Shakespearean.” Imitation of the past cannot be organic with the present. Although Cummings is occasionally Poundian or Eliotic, “for the most part . . . he has been himself, the cadence approximating the actuality.” Similarly, Zukofsky observed, “Eliot has always been more interesting in his effects with quantity than in his effects with accent” and Moore achieves a music varying from “quantiative couplets” (in which “she does not, like Robert Frost, seem to say ’Look, I am writing couplets’”) to complex stanzas and extended structures which rival the work of John Donne.42
Finally, arrangement of line and typography may not only clarify and specify diction; it may also emphasize melody. An “Objectivist” gives his verse an audible order which he emphasizes with a visual order to intensify the reader’s direct apprehension of the object. Zukofsky observed that Williams, “since 1923, printed his poems differently—used print as a guide to the voice and the eye. His line sense is not only a music heard, but seen, printed as bars, printed (or cut as it were) for the author [the reading]—the sentimentalisms which might possibly have encroached brushed off like flies as at those clear times when the dynamic feeling of a person is not disturbed.”43 Williams’ audible and visual 1ine-sense provides the reader the dynamic clarity of Williams’ object, the sense of the thing in its undisturbed integrity.
Zukofsky traced this correlation of the visual with the semantic aspects of words back to Fenollosa, “back to the feeling for image in handwriting and type—vidê Pound’s translation of Fenollosa, The Chinese Written Character.”44 Chinese notation, according to Fenollosa, is “based upon a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature.”45 In it, supposedly, the relation between symbol and thing symbolized is direct; the “printed arrangement” emphasizes the expressive arrangement of each unit of sincerity.
The fundamental “Objectivist” belief in the translatability of form is also implicit in Zukofsky’s admiration of poems which have achieved objectification. In his essay on Reznikoff, Zukofsky explained that whereas sincerity “incites the mind to further suggestion,” objectification brings to it a sense of “rested totality” or “complete appreciation.”46 The ultimate literary means of associating the sensibility is constructing a poem upon a “metaphysical” unity of word, sensation, and thing which not only presents particulars of sincerity but organizes those particulars into a coherent whole to strike the reader as a gestalt.
Accordingly, Zukofsky admired the capacity shown in Reznikoff’s work not only for presentation and clarification of facts but for “the composite of objectified fact which makes a poem” and for “becalmed accuracy of concrete idea in cadence.”47 Zukofsky’s phrase “concrete idea in cadence” associates the thing (the concrete), the experience of the thing (idea), and the expression of the thing (cadence). Furthermore, his concern for sincerity is reflected in his word “accuracy” and for objectification in “becalmed.” Zukofsky gave as an example of “becalmed accuracy of concrete idea in cadence” Reznikoff’s one-line poem “After Rain”: “The motor cars in the shining rain move in semicircles of spray, semicircles of spray.”48 In this poem the repeated pattern of “semicircles of spray” accurately gives the experience of observing the recurring passing of the cars through the water, each phrase depicting onomatopoeically the sound of a car splashing. The reader is also satisfied by the image of the spray in the sunlight, which moves like sunlight in rays, but from a different center. The one line says all that need be said about the object.
Another poem by Reznikoff, “The English in Virginia April 1607,” describes the facts, apparent to Captain John Smith upon landing, of trees and meadows, vines and flowers, berries, birds, deer, fresh water, and savages, each item concisely detailed in a separate strophe of varied line-lengths. Zukofsky commented: “Reznikoff attains here a poised balance of picture in the resultant equilibrium of a conflict between stress and counting syllables so that they give an image—precision and concision.”49 Objectification is achieved as a “poised balance” of references (with “precision”) in appropriate forms (with “concision”). This verse both reproduces the emotional patterns of the object and binds those patterns into unity.
Objectification produces the “poem as object,” the poem with the properties of a thing in the world. “In the last ten years, Zukofsky wrote, “Pound has not concerned himself merely with isolation of the image—a cross-breeding between single words which are absolute symbols for things and textures . . . but with the poetic locus produced by the passage from one image to another. His Cantos are, in this sense, one extended image.”50 Each part of the Cantos is dependent upon the whole, and cannot itself represent the meaning of the whole: “A synopsis may no more be given of them than of a box, a leaf, a chair, a picture: they are an image of this world, ‘an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.’”51
Although the critical genius responsible for the synthesis of “Objectivist” poetics described in the foregoing pages was Zukofsky’s, the creative genius Zukofsky described was not merely his own. The terms “sincerity,” “accessibility,” “history,” “variety,” “specificity,” “melody,” and “objectification” were synthesized from the principles and practices also of Williams, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Pound, and Oppen, writers who shared with Zukofsky a common purpose.