Section 15 - Program: “Objectivists” 1931
“Program: ‘Objectivists’ 1931” begins with a definition of “An Objective” taken in essence from “A”-6. In An “Objectivists” Anthology, this passage reads:
- An objective—rays of the object brought to a focus,
- An objective—naturans—desire for what is objectively
- Inextricably the direction of history and contemporary
There follows a series of “particulars,” including Bach, his St. Matthew’s Passion, Zukofsky’s friend Kay, Beethoven and Goethe, a historical account of Napoleon, a statement on the unemployed by Henry Ford, a contemporary opinion of communism, one of labor, Ford on industry and culture, and a view of Brooklyn Heights in rhyme. The poem then gives two definitions:
- History: the records of taste and economy of a civilization
- Particular: Every fall season, every spring season, he
- needs a new coat, (he loses his job)—
- Poetry? it has something to do with his writing of poetry.1
The present, like history in the making, is comprised of particulars; poetry, like history in the writing, should be composed of particulars. In this case, the poet needed a new coat (he lost his job); that was history in the making, which, in the writing, became poetry, “and, in a special sense, history.”2 In other words, the objective of the writing was the tasteful and economic direction of those particulars. Five pages of particulars later, “A”-6 mentions the Russian revolution, a particular:
- “It is more pleasant and more useful,”
- Said Vladimir Ilytch, [sic]
- “To live thru the experience
- Of a revolution
- Than to write about it.”3
And, on the next page, the rise of metallurgical plants in Siberia:
- 12 years after Ilytch’s statement
- When the collectivists
- Raised the great metallurgical plants
- In Siberia,
- For a people’s idea,
- As well as their practice.4
These particulars from “A”-6 coalesced with others in the note heading the “Program”:
An Objective: (Optics)—The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus. (Military use)—that which is aimed at. (Use extended to poetry)—Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.
It is understood that historic and contemporary particulars may mean a thing or things as well as an event or a chain of events: i.e., an Egyptian pulled-glass bottle in the shape of a fish or oak leaves, as well as the performance of Bach’s Matthew Passion in Leipzig, or the Russian revolution and the rise of metallurgical plants in Siberia.5
The “Objectivist” brings the rays of particulars into focus, aiming at a new or renewed object. Zukofsky’s example of “a thing” is the title to and object of a poem by Marianne Moore: “An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish,” and his example of “things,” “oak leaves,” is a phrase from Williams’ January: A Novelette.6 His example of an event presumably specifies the original performance in Leipzig of Bach’s Passion (see “A”-1), and recalls its performances in Vienna attended by Williams and in New York City attended by Zukofsky.7 His example of “a chain of events” is from “A”-6 as above and also reflects Pound’s statement in Exile 1: “Both Fascio and the Russian revolution are interesting phenomena; beyond which there is the historic perspective.”8 Zukofsky’s examples, therefore, reflect the roots of “Objectivism” in Moore, Williams, Bach, Pound, Zukofsky’s “A”, and Zukofsky’s sense of history.
Zukofsky made these roots more explicit by listing, as he listed in “American Poetry 1920-1930,” the works of Pound, Williams, Moore, Eliot, Cummings, Stevens, McAlmon, and Reznikoff which Zukofsky thought show individual developments from Imagisme to stand above the “dilutors” of free verse and imitators of the English iambic. Zukofsky felt that these works modeled “Objectivist” principles: “These poets seem to the present editor to have written in accordance with the principles heading this note. So do the contributors to this number.”9 The principles to which he referred are objectification (”desire for the objectively perfect”) and sincerity or history (composed of “historic and contemporary particulars”), the minimum requirements of “Objectivism.”
Zukofsky further defined these principles by an example and by the association with Pound which his example implies. If Ernest Hemingway’s “They All Made Peace—What is Peace?” is not “objectively perfect,” it is at least predicated on vital particulars. The poem brings into focus the politics and politicians of the conference in Lausanne that climaxed the war between Turkey and Greece.10 Furthermore, Hemingway’s poem affirms the “good writing” from which “Objectivism” was developed. In “Small Magazines,” Pound wrote:
The active interest in prose centered in the opposed methods of Hemingway and McAlmon. Hemingway to all extents and purposes accepting the principles of good writing that had been contained in the earliest imagist document, and applying the stricture against superfluous words to his prose, polishing, repolishing, and eliminating, as can be seen in the clean hard paragraphs of the first brief In Our Time, in They All Made Peace, in The Torrents of Spring, and in the best pages of his later novels.11
Both “They All Made Peace—What is Peace?” and McAlmon’s poem in the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry, “Fortuno Carraccioli: A Satire,” are attempts to deal satirically (a logopoeic device) with absurdities of human society—the diplomat’s hypocrisy, the sensitive man’s desperate isolation. McAlmon’s method, however, was “taking a fresh canvas, a fresh wad of typing paper, and beginning a new story whenver he has failed in a first one.” If Hemingway developed the second Imagiste proscription, condensation, McAlmon developed the first, direct treatment. Although “McAlmon remains (A.D. 1930) the one very important American writer whom no American publisher will touch with a ten-foot pole,” Pound continued,
there is a greater variety of character and of situation, a greater fidelity to the scene and the life before him, than in other American writers. There is less of the received idea. There is a greater readiness to tackle hitherto untackled material. There is no effort to exploit the already exploited literary situations. There is already a more extended panorama of contemporary life than in other writers. . . . The freshness of McAlmon’s writing is due to his unperturbed gaze.12
The breadth and fidelity of McAlmon’s dispassioned view of the American scene gave his work the freshness that Hemingway achieved by careful pruning. Both Hemingway and McAlmon model “Objectivist” “good writing.”
The exclusiveness represented by the fact that “no American publisher will touch” McAlmon is reflected again in the evaluation by Pound of Emanuel Carnevali by which Zukofsky chose to justify the presence of Carnevali’s translations of Rimbaud in the issue. Carnevali’s work, Pound wrote, “has shown temperament, ‘fire,’ a refusal to be controlled, an intensity of feeling without which no poet is ever satisfactory, though this fury,” in spite of the judgment of Michaud at the Sorbonne “that Carnevali was one of the two poets in America whose work attained an international standard,” “is not in itself a complete poetic equipment.”13
Zukofsky echoed Pound’s sentiments about the exclusiveness of “Objectivist” criteria in two paragraphs which Monroe, in her editorial for the March 1931 issue of Poetry, attributed to “the arrogance of youth.” Zukofsky wrote:
Implied stricture of names generally cherished as famous, but not mentioned in this editor’s American Poetry 1920-1930 or included among the contributors to this issue, is prompted by the historical method of the Chinese sage who wrote, “Then for nine reigns there was no literary production.”14
This Chinese sagacity came to Zukofsky through Pound, who responded to Zukofsky’s point of 6 November 1930 against the idea of having a historic section: “My idea of historic section was NOT to record vile names of the incompetent. My model historian is the chink whose name I forget. sic ‘Then for nine reigns there was no literary production.’”15 Zukofsky felt that the “Objectivists” were the only writers who produced from 1920 to 1930 anything of literary value:
None at all; because there was neither consciousness of the “objectively perfect” nor an interest in clear or vital “particulars.” Nothing—neither a new object nor the stripping of an old to the light—was “aimed at.”16
Literary value is predicated on “consciousness of the ‘objectively perfect’ (objectification), on “interest in clear or vital ‘particulars’” (sincerity), and on aiming at a new or renewed object (history).
Zukofsky followed Pound’s lead in crediting the little poetry magazine “for helping to keep up an interest” in “the materials of poetry”:
Mr. Pound has treated this subject in detail in an article in The English Journal (Chicago) for November, 1930. The small magazines are to be praised for standing on their own against the business of the publishing racket, the “pseudo-kulchuh” of certain national liberal weeklies published in New York, and the guidance of the American University.17
Zukofsky also recognized the role of self-publication and of Pound’s criticism in the survival of work within the “Objectivist” sense of literary value:
Pound, Williams, McAlmon, Cummings, Reznikoff, etc., have had to publish a good deal of their work in privately printed editions. In every case the work was worth publishing, a statement not applicable to 95% or more of the usual publishers’ lists. At least one American publisher could save his face, and add honor and intelligence to publishing, by reprinting Ezra Pound’s critical works—Spirit of Romance, Pavannes and Divisions, lnstigations, How to Read, etc.—all of the utmost importance to any discussion of the materials of poetry.18
Against the materials of poetry are the materials of avarice and ambition. Pound wrote:
The significance of the small magazine has, obviously, nothing to do with format. The significance of any work of art or literature is a root significance that goes down into its original motivation. When this motivation is merely a desire for money or publicity, or when this motivation is in great part such a desire for money directly or for publicity as a means indirectly of getting money, there occurs a pervasive monotony in the product corresponding to the underlying monotony in the motivation.19
Unfortunately, commercial publications suffer from a monotony of the product “selected rigorously on the basis of how much expensive advertising they would carry.” Their “overhead” creates a need to minimize the risk of experiment, of ideas which have not already been accepted by the public. This monotony leaves a “vacuum”20 which the “Objectivists” tried to fill.
The “Objectivists” antagonism against the economic and political conditions of the twenties and thirties was made necessary by their poetic exclusiveness and experimentation. Yet their antagonism and the “philosophical etiquette” associated with the term “Objectivists” (which Zukofsky tried to avoid by setting the term in quotation marks)21 led some to think the definitive motives of the “Objectivists” were political. After all, objectivism (without quotation marks) was in the air of the times. The Oppens, for example, read Leon Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution in 1932.22 In his preface, dated l4 November 1930, Trotsky defined “the only possible historic objectivism” as “a scientific conscientiousness, which for its sympathies and antipathies—open and undisguised—seeks support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the casual laws of their movement,” and claimed: “Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures, nor strung on the thread of some preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the author’s task.”23
Philosophical emphasis on the priority or equality of objective reality (as opposed to subjective experience) served the political necessities of the times. Robert von Hallberg refers to Georg Lukacs and A. N. Whitehead and suggests that their common objectivism was a response to “the political and economic pressures that made the Marxist position attractive in the early thirties.” Von Hallberg also shows that Whitehead’s objectivist philosophy has deep similarities with Oppen’s populism and Zukofsky’s mass-consciousness.24
The political dimension of Zukofsky’s “objective” is evident in his use of the Russian revolution as an example of a particular. Other “Objectivists” translated this awareness into action. Whittaker Chambers and Harry Roskolenkier were Communist Party members. George and Mary Oppen joined the Party in 1935 to organize neighborhoods against forcible evictions. Carl Rakosi had socialist leanings and made his career as a social worker. Many self-respect1ng artists of the time were on the left, and felt that only the left embodied the ideals of personal and social responsibility upon which good art is based. Zukofsky, however, was always primarily engaged with poetry and its techniques and disliked epistemology, philosophy, and politics. He realized that poetry of the left descended to propaganda when it lacked technical discipline.
One could take for granted philosophical and political foundations; one could not take for granted the main concern of the “Objectivists”—ability to write well. In his editorial for Exile 1, Pound wrote:
As to our “joining revolutions” etc. It is unlikely. The artist is concerned with producing something that will be enjoyable even after a successful revolution. So far as we know even the most violent bolchvik has never abolished electric light globes merely because they were invented under another regime, and by a man intent rather on his own job than on particular propaganda.25
The job of the “Objectivists” was to invent objects that like light bulbs give light, objects whose value is permanent.
Zukofsky ended the “Program” by “parodying” what he had quoted in “A”-6, as if the issuance of the “Objectivists” were the beginning of a revolution: “Finally, parodying a great writer (V. I. Ulianov—The State and Revolution) editing this number has been too pleasant and too useful to permit further discourse about it.”26 Lenin was not a greater writer because he was a popular writer, but because he wrote about what he had lived through. The “Objectivists” issue is also a record of things its contributors lived through.
“Objectivism” was not a fiction, not a mere ploy for publicity. The “Program” describes already established “Objectivist” roots and principles, and expresses the struggle of the “Objectivists” against the literary situation of the time.