Section 19 - The Poetry
The “Objectivists” issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, “FEBRUARY 1931 / Edited by Louis Zukofsky,”1 features the work of twenty-seven writers, including Arthur Rimbaud as translated by Emanuel Carnevali, Ernest Hemingway in Zukofsky’s “Program: ‘Objectivists’ 1931,” André Salmon as presented in review by René Taupin, Taupin himself, and the authors of the three poems in the “Symposium”—Parker Tyler, Charles Henri Ford, and Samuel Putnam.2 I have divided the twenty writers whose work is in the body of the issue into two groups. The first group includes those whose greater representation in this issue (by number of pages and poems) and whose representation in Zukofsky’s subsequent anthology identify them as core “Objectivists.” These are, in their order in the issue, Rakosi, Zukofsky, McAlmon, Reznikoff, Rexroth, Oppen, Bunting, and Williams. The second group, the peripheral “Objectivists,” were limited in this issue to one page or one poem and were not represented in An “Objectivists” Anthology. These are Howard Weeks, “Joyce Hopkins,” Norman Macleod, S. Theodore Hecht, Harry Roskolenkier, Whittaker Chambers, Henry Zolinsky, Jesse Loewenthal, Emanual Carnevali, John Wheelwright, Richard Johns, and Martha Champion. I discuss Horace Gregory, also a peripheral “Objectivist,” in Section 20.11. I have discussed “A”-8 by Zukofsky in Section 18, “Joyce Hopkins” in Section 14, and the third and first poems of Discrete Series (such is their order here) titled “1930’s: I and II” by George Oppen in Section 6. A poetic movement must ultimately depend not on theories but on poems. The following pages, therefore, detail how the poems yet undiscussed are or are not successful in “Objectivist” terms.
I. The Core
Four poems by Carl Rakosi under the collective title “Before You” begin the issue. They seem to be the work of an insecure and introverted man who is capable of great clarity and self-comprehension, for in these poems, Rakosi presented himself as a fool to parody his human weaknesses and the practices of “quasi-poets” which do not overcome such weaknesses. By the finest “Objectivist” technique, he not only overcame them himself but he achieved poems which stand as objects of “depth and novelty.”3 Healthy psychic and poetic techniques are synonymous for the “Objectivist.” Rakosi’s poems are ingenious, playful, and comic; they also deal with serious issues of sex, psychology, history, and theology.
The first parodies the external and internal extremes of poetic and personal abandon. Its title, “Orphean Lost” refers to Orpheus the poet, whose songs tamed animate and inanimate—the beasts, the birds, and even the rivers, stones, and trees. The protagonist is like the decadent Orpheus of Ovid, who, after he failed to rescue Eurydice his bride from Hades, “refused to sleep with women”—whether in fear or in faithfulness—but “taught the men of Thrace the art / Of making love to boys.”4
- The oakboughs of the cottagers
- descend, my lover,
- with the bestial evening.
- The shadows of their swelled trunks
- crush the frugal herb.
- The heights lag
- and perish in a blue vacuum.
- And I, my lover,
- skirt the cottages,
- the eternal hearths and gloom,
- to animate the ideal
- with internal passion.5
The protagonist is the poet lost in the “bestial evening”; it and the oakboughs “descend.” The trees are animated (by the poet’s music?) to satiate their sexual potential; trunks are swelled like penises and seem to rise to “heights” which “perish” in consuming climax with the sky. In the second strophe we see that this Orphean, like the original, is separated from his lover. He “skirts” the animated corporeality that surrounds him and, instead, animates the immaterial ideal.
The scene and the protagonist parody extremes of poetry and the psyche: the corporeal and the ideal. The corporeal is “bestial and “swelled”—gross and pretentious. Its “shadows” (inexactitude) “crush the frugal herb” (poetic economy) and it perishes in a formless “vacuum.” The ideal, in skirting the corporeal, internalizes passion. But the healthy psyche and the true poet can be found in neither extreme: this Orphean is lost. The effect of either sensations without meaning or intentions without contact is the mystical haze that Zukofsky identified with poets whose “feeling-tone” and idea are in conflict or whose “accessibility to experience” is “attenuated.”6
A characteristic of “Objectivism” is the unity of meaning and technique. Rakosi’s rhythm-form and diction emphasize and specify the points of his parody. With seven dactyls and two spondees, the poem is not iambic; quantity is more important than stress. When one reads the poem aloud, the words “descend,” “swelled,” “crush,” and “gloom” tend to assume extended quantities (each syllable is given more time than the words around it) to suggest the macabre. As for diction, “skirt” sets the ideal balance of aversion and attraction, and “herb” is the perfect natural symbol for frugality, “vaccum” for formlessness, and “hearths” for basic human corporeal needs.
“Fluteplayers from Finmarken” is not a record of an actual encounter with Swedish fluteplayers. Like Rakosi’s other poems here, it is an example of what Pound called the subjective Image,7 and demonstrates the writer’s ability to create a poetic object where nothing equivalent already existed; it is a case of naturans instead of naturata.8 Rakosi recollected:
I can only make a guess at “Fluteplayers.” This will give you some idea then as to how the other poems originated. I think it has to do first of all with the fascination I’ve always felt towards the extreme north, the barrenness and so on of the extreme north. I must have started with that as a tone. And then the extreme north has in my mind a certain beauty, and, since it’s such a simple landscape, I would associate that beauty with the sound of a flute.
See that’s a single tone or note—the simplest of all instruments, its sound, like a fine line drawing. So that then you people it with two flute players meeting there.9
The poem was constructed, Rakosi added, “out of my original, formless inchoate feeling about the north,” but the formlessness of the generative feeling does not prohibit the clarity of the final poem. Rakosi had to construct his own clarity, his own Image, by conscious selection and creation of consonant details and corresponding poetic structures—cadence, assonance, consonance. If the poem presents an Image, it does so with the formal devices that all poems use. The specific effects of these devices are not dependent on their objective referents; the “Objectivist” poem is an object. Thus in his letter of 17 November 1930, Zukofsky claimed that the poem’s clarity was notable.
Here is its first stophe:
- How keen the nights were,
- Not a star out,
- not a beat of emotion
- in the humming snowhull.
- (Now and then an awful swandive).
The extreme north presents the image of extreme clarity. In fact, it is so clear that no familiar support of star or emotion prevents the imminent, nightmarish self-revelation of the protagonist. Both “awful swandive” and the intrusion of the deadening soft vowels “u” and “i” and the liquid and nasal consonants “l,” “m,” and “n” into the clear, confident tone established by the hard vowels “ē,” and “ī,” (IPA vowel sounds [i] and [aI]) and hard consonants “k” and “t” presage the revelation described in the second strophe:
- It seemed ordained then that
- my feet slip on the seal bones
- and my head come down suddenly
- over a simple rock-cistvaen,
- grief-stricken and archwise.
- Thereon were stamped
- the figures of the noble women
- I had followed with my closed eyes
- out to the central blubber
- of the waters.
The fall presaged by “swandive” and the movement of the sounds of the first strope is here extended to a physical fall which in turn symbolizes a metamorphical fall, the protagonist’s failure with “the noble women / I had followed.” In the imagined hell10 of this revelation, their figures are stamped with a dreamlike or Dantesque logic on the rock-cistvaen, and lead the protagonist out to nowhere. Appropriately, the comic imaging of his failure with women may also describe the methods of quasi-poets. The “central blubber / of the waters” could be the mystical object of blind desire, of personal intentions unsubstantiated with poetic sincerity.
The fall of the protagonist returns him to the stillness and barenness of the extreme north in the third strophe:
- (There is not a pigeon
- or a bee in sight.
- My eyes are shut now,
- and my pulse dead as a rock).
Rakosi said he peopled his extreme north with “two flute players meeting there.” These would be the speaker and “Svensen” of the first strophe. Svensen may speak either parenthetical lines or alternating strophes; his voice may be differentiated either by punctuation or by theme. Yet the third strophe above has the same realization of the north’s extreme beauty as the first, and the fourth, which follows, has the same concern with the “qualm” or moment of human weakness as the second strophe:
- The Swedish mate says he recalls
- this fungoid program of the mind and matter,
- where the abstract signals to the abstract,
- and the mind directs a final white lens
- on the spewing of the waterworm
- and the wings of the midsea.
Here the “Swedish mate” (Svensen) is said to recall an analogue of the speaker’s failure. It, too, is described in terms of parodic “midsea” imagery and may be interpreted as the abstracting “program” of quasi-poets. One can be sure that Rakosi does not advocate “this fungoid program.” It is ironically true that the protagonist’s failure with women led to such abstraction; he is lost like the Orphean in the first poem. The “Objectivist” program is not where “the abstract signals to the abstract.” Even this description is presented with concrete and dramatic particulars: the parasitic “fungoid,” “signals,” “white lens,” “waterworm,” and “wings.”
The final strophe completes the piece and clarifies the purpose of the whole:
- It was not clear what I was after
- in this stunted flora
- and husky worldcold
- until the other flutes arrived:
- four masters musing
- from one polar qualm to another.11
With the arrival of two more fluteplayers, the music of the poem transcends the singular qualm depicted in the second strophe. In the clarity of this “worldcold,” the fluteplayers compose a music which moves from one “polar qualm” (one revelation of the weakness of man) “to another.”
The next poem, “Unswerving Marine,” is a complex of parallel elements: the mind and the wind, an old seaman and a ship in sail, pacing the planks and parting the sea. The parallel, essentially “Objectivist,” is parodic. The tone of the poem is of a wistfulness varied by comic nobility. The sea reflects the seaman’s gruff dissatisfaction with the idleness of his old age. Both sea and seamen are restless, weedy, distracted, forceful, aimless:
- This is in the wind:
- that an old seaman
- paces the planks again
- as his weedy hull parts
- the saltseries inaudibly.
- What ho! She carries full sails
- And the chant of the grog-quaffers
- in an important manner.
- But there is no port
- and the wind is distracted
- from her simple stern
- like the mind.
- Continuously the undefined plane
- in the form of a ship,
- her nose speeding in the brine-ellipsis,
- routing the shads and alewives
- from her shaping way.
- And the wind
- and the mind sustain her
- and there is really
- no step upon the gangway,
- nothing but the saltdeposits
- of the open.12
If interpreted like the others as a parody of human weakness and of the practices of quasi-poets, this poem describes the man and the poet who has outlived his usefulness. He has no commodity of commerce or poetry to engage him. His ship is his body and his crew is a fellowship of “grog-quaffers.” Whatever “important” matter he envisions is only in the distracted wind; it is the manner of a drunk routing barmaids rather than of a ship routing fish in the sea.
The “Objectivist” practices of emphasizing cadence by arrangement of line and typography” are made obvious here by Rakosi’s divergences from the margin. Zukofsky noted in “American Poetry 1920-1930” that these practices in the work of Pound, Eliot, Williams, Moore, and Cummings “clarify and render the meaning of the spoken word specific.”13 In reading Rakosi’s poem aloud, because the line is a graphic indication for the voice, one is able to find the proper intonations in each cadence. After the long vowels of the line “What ho! She caries full sail,” the next lines convey a sense of the comic self-exultation of humbled greatness: “And the chant of the grog-quaffers / in an important manner.”
The “Objectivist” controls this effect, as Zukofsky noted, by diction as much as by quantity and lineation. Rakosi achieved “music of word” by a fully varied diction. The fish routed by the ship are not just any fish; they are, specifically, “shads and alewives.” Both are edible herring-like fish common to the North Atlantic coast. ‘Alewives” also playfully refers to the women who keep the alehouses that the seamen would frequent. Also, the sea is not simply “sea”; it is “saltseries,” “brine-ellipsis,” and “saltdeposits / of the open,” each a marvelous metaphor for the sea’s pluralistic nature.
The final poem is the title poem of the sequence, “Before You.” In manuscript, it was titled “Memories,” but Zukofsky suggested “Before You” as if to direct the reader of Poetry to the presentation before them. “Memories” had for Zukofsky the indignity of advertisement.14
The poem consists of reflections on the passage of civilization. Its theme, similar to “Orphean Lost,” is our failure to transcend corporeality. Its first strophe follows:
- Before you is Corinth—
- once a pedestal for wrestlers
- in classical shorts.
- What method in their manner!
- Shall we say the gods
- with lights behind us
- have broken wind
- in a changing system?
- Yesterday behind the olive boughs
- they too were lucid.
- Send us again, O gods,
- peppers and poppyseed,
- porphyry and white cocks.
These first thirteen lines satirically represent nostalgia for the Hellenic age, whose truth can not be regained, either by tourists or by poets. Zukofsky disapproved of the neo-classicism of H. D., for example, and claimed that another Rakosi manuscript suffered because its content seemed too dependent on a personalized set of myths, so that its language seemed like H. D.’s spurious and incoherent bacchanalia, instead of quickly conveying the precise fact at its inception. Pound, said Zukofsky, succeeded in making his allusions seem precise even when one did not know what they alluded to.15
The attempt to reproduce a gone age with allusions to things whose meaning has been lost results in work which is vague or merely personal. In “Before You,” the references are objective and quickly conveyed—except in as much as they parody items whose meanings, since they were dependent upon an unsustained, transcendent ideal, have been lost. “Peppers and poppyseed, / porphyry and white cocks are physically specific but significantly meaningless.
All that remains of Corinth is pedestals or foundations. The word “pedestal” puns on the fact that Corinth gave its name to the most elaborate order of Greek archetecture, distinguished by a particular style of column and capital. It, like the wrestlers, had good form: “What method in their manner!” But these words allude to a famous line in Shakespeare; Polonius observed of Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (Hamlet, II, ii, 208). The poet imagines the pedestal for the display of wrestlers ridiculously garbed in “classical shorts.” The manner of the Greek gods would also seem mad, and so the poet asks if we shall say “with lights behind us”—in the shadow of the truth? with lucidity?—whether the gods “have broken wind / in a changing system.” Have they made their mark or built their sheltering monument against the flux of time? But the question answers itself; the pun reduces the godly to the corporeal—the flux they might have broken to flatulence. The gods are no longer lucid as they once were “behind the olive boughs.”
So much for the gods of the old world. Of those of the new, the poem continues:
- After a thousand years
- Saint Casper said: Behold
- the apple blossoms of the new world,
- the early grapes,
- the young man’s cartograph
- on which appears an arrow
- pointed north to heaven.
- There the gentle still idealize,
- the heart is lighter.
- And the good Cross is attended.
- But we pass obscurely
- from post to sleep,
- opening the constructions
- of the virtuous and loghouse
- Puritans of Massachusetts.
- They planted radishes
- and hailed the Savior
- spreading His alarming
- feathers over the pickets.
Saint Casper’s view was optimistic; the young man’s “cartograph” could not still be so directed. Neither Greek nor Christian idealism can free us from our corporeal nature. We yet “pass obscurely”; our Puritan devotions to the Savior and to radishes are equally absurd; “His alarming / feathers”—protective wings or threatening snowflakes—do not enlighten us.
After another thousand years, we have abandoned Greek and Christian idealism for our individual perceptions of the “physical and resolute” facts of life:
- A country house in April
- after a thousand years.
- Poor headpiece,
- you are unhappy.
- Buy yourself some alcohol for winter
- and a squirrel rifle for Sunday morning.
- You too will juggle
- rabbits, eggs, bananas—
- physical and resolute.
- Tumblers in the nebula,
- is not every man
- his own host?16
If every man is the keeper of his own spirit, then he is free to explore any possible cure for his unhappiness, no matter how unideal. For winter, there is some alcohol; instead of Sunday service, there is a squirrel hunt. The “Objectivist” recognizes the pragmatic nature of these alternatives no matter how pathetic. Although alcohol does not bring spring and squirrel meat does not provide community of spirit, “rabbits, eggs, bananas,” at least, are “physical and resolute.” Man may waver, but can rely on items of objective and precise reference. Their meanings will not be lost.
Zukofsky mentioned Robert McAlmon’s poem, “Fortuno Carraccioli: A Satire” (the Italian is the name of the protagonist), to Pound on 9 November 1930 as McAlmon’s satire of the Italian immigrant—Carraccioli was apparently modeled on Carnevali.17
A long poem (108 lines), it represents with sincerity, in the detail of his thoughts and acts, the character and observation of a man who suffers and is misunderstood. He wants “to get things straight on people” (”Last night, sweating in my pyjamas, / with kitchen slop and sweat smells oppressing me, / I hated people, but I want now to call across / and tell that women, ‘I don’t hate you. / Let’s understand. It’s what we both put up with’”). He walks the poor streets of Chicago because he is not thought of there as “a poor wop.” Feeling unloved, he notes that not only “hurt romantics” dislike their lives. His self-knowledge tells him of others what they do not know themselves: “I wandered on State Street where men and women hunt. / Maybe they hunt sex, but I think they are only lonely.”18 The effect is poignantly sad and funny. The poem ends with a twenty-two line lyrical reverie of his childhood in Firenze, his sense of joy and beauty contrasted with his loneliness and his sensitivity to the sufferings of others.
After the publication of the issue, Zukofsky wrote to the associate editor of Poetry, Morton Dauwen Zabel, that McAlmon apparently attempted to present the character of the protagonist in his own idiom—which resolved his idealism and frustration, his sensitivity and distress—and in the process shed light on the times in which he lives.19 The details of sincerity in “Objectivist” poems suggest the wholes of which they are parts. Like Rakosi, McAlmon resolved the complex psyche of his character into synecdochic details —idioms, actions, observations—but, unlike Rakosi, McAlmon’s Image is objective. McAlmon’s poem suggests an objective context, the streets of Chicago and a childhood in Firenze. Nevertheless, the poems of both authors give a sense of “rested totality,” embodying the whole that is understood in the little that need be said.
Charles Reznikoff’s “A Group of Verse” contains six new poems which were later included in Jerusalem the Golden published in 1934 by the Objectivist Press.20 Like McAlmon’s, Reznikoff’s context is objective; unlike McAlmon’s, Reznikoff’s is personal:
- A GROUP OF VERSE
- All day the pavement has been black
- With rain, but in our warm brightly-lit
- Room, praise God,
- I kept saying to myself,
- And saying not a word,
- Amen, you answered.
- From my window I could not see the moon,
- And yet it was shining:
- The yard among the houses—
- Snow upon it—
- An oblong in the darkness.
- Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
- A girder, itself among the rubbish.
- Rooted among roofs, their smoke among the clouds,
- Factory chimneys—our cedars of Lebanon.
- What are you doing in our street among the automobiles,
- How are your cousins, the centaur and the unicorn?
- Of our visitors—I do not know which I dislike most:
- The silent beetles or these noisy flies.21
These poems cohere not by their objects’ disjunction, but by their common esthetic and poetic qualities. Like Discrete Series, the group owes its “fragmentary nature” to their sincerity, to each poem’s separate empirical derivation from a world of diverse particulars (see Section 6). Each fact expresses part of an event which in a particular way moved the poet to present it. The emotions that moved Reznikoff were as humanly simple as the understood communion and devotion of the first poem here, or the joys in the perceptions of the moon’s omnipresence, of a girder’s integrity, of factory chimneys’ ironic similarity to “cedars of Lebanon,” of the heterogeneity of the horse and the city street, or, in the last, of the humorous resignation of his inability to choose between two irritants.
Their forms follow with little elaboration the direct statement of the situations, or, indeed, their understatement, for where the sincerity of Rakosi and McAlmon works by synecdoche, the sincerity of Reznikoff works by meiosis. Reznikoff’s lines vary greatly in length, in intonation, in rhythm: “Room, praise, God, / I kept saying to myself, / . . . / Horse? / How are your cousins, the centaur and the unicorn? / . . . / Of our silent visitors—I do not know which I dislike most,” but only by juxtaposing them in this manner does their variation become a concern. The careful craftsmanship of each poem is deliberately effaced by phonetic, phonemic, syntactic, and semantic harmonies for the sake of each object.
Kenneth Rexroth wrote of his poem “Last Page of a Manuscript” to Harriet Monroe on 6 January 1931: “That Mr. Zukofsky saw fit to print this fragment is not altogether fortunate. I am not willfuly obscure. The long poem of which this is the end has a quite clearly developed argument.”22 The poem is, indeed, the end of a long poem by Rexroth, which appears complete in An “Objectivists” Anthology, where it is titled “Prolegomena to a Theodicy.”23
“Last Page of a Manuscript” reads:
- The silver in the firmament
- The stirring horde
- The rocking wave
- The name breaks in the sky
- Why stand we
- Why go we nought
- They broken seek the cleaving balance
- The young men gone
- Lux lucis
- The revolving company
- The water flowing from the right side
- Et fons luminis
- The ciborium of the abyss
- The bread of light
- The chalice of the byss
- The wine of flaming light
- The wheeling multitude
- The rocking cry
- The reverberant scalar song lifts up
- The metric finger aeon by aeon
- And the cloud of memory descends
- The regant fruitful vine
- The exploding rock
- The exploding mountain cry
- Tris agios
- The sapphire snow
- Hryca hryca nazaza24
Since the syntax of this liturgical summary is clear and simple and its vocabulary and allusions (except for “byss” and “Hryca hryca nazaza”) would be familiar to any Catholic or student of theology, it is difficult to explain Monroe’s sense of its obscurity except by exaggerating the dependence of the part upon the whole. It is the result of an intense effort by Rexroth to communicate by both the liturgical nature of its rhythms and the full meaning of each symbol, allusion, and metaphor. Rexroth carefully explained to Monroe the significance of some of its terms:
The term is byss, your printer made no mistake. The term is late Neo-Platonic, and is used for the plenum, roughly, Being as contrasted with Not-Being. It emerges in western culture with John Scotus Ereugina. Pico uses it. Also Jacob Boehme, who makes much of it. I believe it is found in Blake, but I seldom read Blake’s more ambitious work. And in Yeats somewhere. “Why stonde we / Why goe we noght?” is from Robert Manning of Brunne, the Tale of the Colbek Dancers, of which tale it forms a sort of chorus. Lux Lucis et Fons Luminis, from a hymn of St. Ambrose. Tris agios of course is “Sanctus Sanctus, Sanctus” The idea of the exploding rock and exploding mountain came to me while reading an early english Apocalypse of Peter, where the word petrus is played on in this way, a highly successful rhetorical device, to convey something of the intensity of Peter’s vision. Hryca hryca nazaza is from a Goliardic love song, a mediaeval student’s equivalent of “hip, hip, hooray.”25
On 12 January Rexroth added:
The poem of which you are printing an extract has as subject the governance of God in the world, I have tried to surround that subject with perspectives accessible to the world I find my contemporary, but I assure you it was not written irreverently.26
Although Rexroth wrote for readers of greater erudition than Rakosi, McAlmon, or Reznikoff (see Section 20.IV), his attempt to surround his subject with accessible perspectives is in align with the “Objectivist” “accessibility to experience.”
Perhaps Zukofsky was less interested in this poem for its “developed argument” than for its qualities of the words as sound. Coincidentally, its music is reminiscent of the devotional quality of the music of “A”-2. Zukofsky’s isolation of the last page of the manuscript put the responsibility for meaning not on the poem as a referential structure but on the poem as a direct experience. If Williams is right, its meaning rests on the workings of its practical mechanism.27 Pound wrote in his introduction to Cavalcanti:
When we know more of overtones we will see that the tempo of every masterpiece is absolute, and is exactly set by some further law of rhythmic accord. Whence it should be possible to show that any given rhythm implies about it a complete musical form—fugue, sonata, I cannot say what form, but a form, perfect, complete. Ergo, the rhythm set in a line of poetry connotes its symphony, which, had we a little more skill, we could score for orchestra. Sequitur, or rather inest: the rhythm of any poetic line corresponds to emotion. It is the poet’s business that this correspondence be exact, i.e. that it be the emotion which surrounds the thought expressed.28
Rexroth’s lines have such “Objectivist” exactitude. The emotional tenor of the last page implies the theme of the whole. Since the “governance of God in the world” can be located, synecdochic, in Rexroth’s “contemporary” world, it must also be located in this poem, and, particularly, in its last page; God is omnipresent.
It is fortunate, since few readers would know the literal meaning of the last line, that it is not necessary to know it. Its incomprehensibility, given the reader’s faith that it must mean something, makes a meaningful statement about “the governance of God in the world.”
More obviously than Rexroth, Basil Bunting intends, in “The Word,” the self-referential quality which Zukofsky achieved in Rexroth’s contribution only by isolation of the part, and yet, like Rexroth’s, Bunting’s meaning of technique emphasizes his meaning of reference. The poem begins:
- substance utters or time
- stills or restrains
- joins the design and the
- supple measure deftly
- as thought’s intricate polyphonic
- score dovetails with the tread
- sensuous things
- keep in our consciousness.
This masterful first period flows over between lines and strophes, arresting the mind but not impeding the heart. The hard consonants and the explicit timing achieved by quantity, lineation, and syntactic delays create the persuasive force absent in, for instance, Chamber’s poem in this issue. Bunting’s cadences seem to be the inevitably perfect shapes of his thoughts, so that paraphrase seems to be a corruption and not, as for Roskolenkier’s poem, a clarification.
In paraphrase, ambiguities arise which in the reading do not interfere with the immediacy and meaningfulness of the verses themselves. Does Bunting’s sentence mean that the poet’s words (which “substance utters”) can not match his intentions (his “design” and “measure”) as well as his thoughts match his experience (the “tread” of “sensuous things . . . in our consciousness”)? Or does it mean that the world (which “substance utters” and “time stills or restrains”) can not equal the harmonies of the word (which is unrestrainted or stilled by time)?
In any event, the reader feels, through the conviction of Bunting’s words, that the capability of the word is extolled, which the rest of the poem confirms by celebrating the craft of cutting form from the formless, to order, to measure, and to mime Creation in its seasons including the life and death of man:
- Celebrate man’s craft
- and the word spoken in shapeless night, the
- sharp tool paring away
- waste and the forms
- cut out of mystery!
- When the tight string’s note
- passes ear’s reach, or red rays or violet
- fade, strong over unseen
- forces the word
- ranks and enumerates. . . .
- Mimes the clouds condensed
- and the hewn hills and the bristling forests,
- steadfast corn in its season
- and the seasons
- in their due array,
- life of man’s own body
- and death. . . .
As “life” has been exemplified by the life of Bunting’s verse, death is now described as the death of poetic technique:
- The sound thins into melody,
- discourse narrowing, craft
- failing, design
- petering out;
- ears heavy to breeze of speech and
- thud of the ictus.
This is a pure statement of the primary importance of “Objectivist” experimental poetic technique. Life in every sense is fostered by expansion of the possibilities of the word. In this poem, Zukofsky claimed (see Section 20.VI), the “thud of the ictus” is replaced by the liquidity of quantity.
Following the statement above, which might be considered abstract if it were not describing also itself, is a concrete example:
- Molten pool, incandescent spilth of
- deep cauldrons—and brighter nothing is—
- cast and cold, your blazes extinct and
- no turmoil nor peril left you,
- rusty ingot, bleak paralyzed blob!29
Here “Objectivist” onomatopoetic precisions of diction and rhythm require, among its other poetic elements (for example, “spilth” and “blob”) two inversions (”brighter nothing is” and “peril left you”) and the dashes and exclamation mark describe the life and death of the metal, like the life and death of man, like spring and winter, and like the life-breath of the verse of the “Objectivists” and the cerement of the verse of poetic dilutors and reactionaries.
Zukofsky saved, for the last poem in the body of the issue, William Carlos Williams’ “The Botticellian Trees.” His high opinion of the poem is shown in the comments he made to Monroe and Pound (Section 13). He also commented on it in his letter to Rakosi of 6 February 1931 after Rakosi wrote to say he had gotten a kick out of the “Objectivists” issue but had found among the poems very little objectification.30 Zukofsky declared that he identified the poem with Williams’ best work, and that Williams’ wonderful coordination of alphabet and trees is interpretive rather than qualitative—it directly presents both alphabet and trees objectified as a thing with an ideal structure: Williams’ theme is stated in the first four lines, receives two expansions, one before and one after his row of dots, and is concluded in the final sentence.31 Not only is here a conceit optimumly deserved by the poet’s materials, but it is in a poem so conscious of its own integral mechanism that reading it one learns of the spirit in which all such legitimate and meaningful equations derive:
THE BOTTICELLIAN TREES
- The alphabet of
- the trees
- is fading in the
- song of the leaves
- the crossing
- bars of the thin
- letters that spelled
- and the cold
- have been illumined
- pointed green
- by the rain and sun
- the strict simple
- principles of
- straight branches
- are being modified
- by pinched out
- ifs of color, devout
- the smiles of love
- . . . . . . . .
- until the stript
- move as a woman’s
- limbs under the cloth
- and praise from secrecy
- with hot ardor
- love’s ascendency
- in summer—
- in summer the song
- sings itself
- above the muffled words—32
The alphabet and the trees are miraculously coordinated, not only by “trees” referring to trees and spelled t-r-e-e-s, but by the fact that the trees have the same meaning as the poem, that since words compose poems and facts compose trees, as Emerson wrote, the “words are signs of natural facts,” and “the use of the outer creation” is “to give us language for the beings and changes of the inward creation.”33 This interrelation proceeded from Williams having seen the two to the level of their common inward spirit. And so their languages state their theme in common: “The alphabet of / the trees // is fading in the / song of the leaves.” As the green leaves pinch out, the message that spelled winter in the crossed branches fades and is modified to read not of the cold but of “devout conditions / the smiles of love.”
The trees and the poem have the same meaning and they also have the same discipline, the same principles of growth and vitality. By this poem, as Williams wrote of Pound, Williams has “put us on the track of a released intelligence, a released spirit, a body that can function with what might be health.”34 To put it bluntly, a poem without a straight sense to support its parts is like a tree in full leaf without branches to support them. The poem and the tree both must be like a woman moving under cloth to arouse the passion of the inward creation. The second expansion of the theme states that “the stript sentences” must move under their muffling words (like the summer leaves obscuring “the strict simple / principles of / straight branches”) “as a woman’s / limbs under cloth,” so that they will sing of “love’s ascendancy.”
Only by such a perception, the act of what Oppen meant by “a moment of conviction,” a synchronistic link to the Tao accompanied by joy, can one make of one’s experience a “thing,” a poem as object. Having done so, the poem, in what it is, is revolutionary, for as such it strikes, as Williams claimed Pound and Stein strike, “at the basis of thought, at the mechanism with which we make our adjustments to things and to each other. This is the significance of the term culture and an indication of literature’s relation thereto.”35
II. The Periphery
The poems of the peripheral “Objectivists” are not as uniformly well-written as the poems of the core “Objectivists.” Some seem to have been included for padding, for contrast, or for personal favor; others, however, are well-written and reveal something about “Objectivism.”
Howard Week’s poem, “What Furred Creature,” is a question in ten lines which answers itself. The furred creature that “delicately lifting shy-pointed ears, / his trembling whiskers / touched by the ribbons of wet wind,” / who “will eye brightly / through a screen of new leaves / and see winter / dead again / in a coil of old snow / under a log” is, at least, described in the poem. Although the poem contains little of significance, it is self-contained, and its significance is resolved into particulars (for example, “winter” is resolved into “a coil of old snow”), and so it is more than padding for the issue. It is pleasant matter for experience. A note on Weeks appears at the end of the issue:
Howard Weeks (died June 10th, 1928) appeared in Exile 3, edited by Ezra Pound. Pound writes in the article, Small Magazines (English Journal, Nov., 1930): “I printed very little of Weeks because he seemed to me a man of great promise; one felt that his work was bound to be ever so much better in the course of the next few months. The next few months were denied him.”36
Norman Macleod’s residence in Albuquerque, New Mexico (to which the notes testify), suggests that his understanding of the Pueblo Indians is from first-hand observation. His “Song for the Turquoise People” represents the “sky” as “a kiva” in which the men discuss the incidents which are shrinking the “horizon” of their people. Although this conceit is first expressed with precise focus (“Sky a kiva of the turquoise people / to circle rusty earth where smoke drifts / underground”), the subsequent difficulties provoke confusion (”thoughts of men / and ritual of marriage-beds / not too discriminate [sic] / to be recalled, turned over / inconsiderately, perhaps, to make a trend / to place the philosphical tail / in memory. / Time, when the sky / covers too many incidents, / horizon gone / like a trail of tribal migration / marked by birds into the south / with a song in the eyes”).37 The difficulties of these lines are perhaps attributable to inaccurate syntax and diction. Unless “too” should be “to,” the verb “discriminate” seems to be used in the adjectival sense of “discreet” or “discerned”; “tale” might make more sense than “tail”; the two sentences lack verbs. Nevertheless, Zukofsky may have understood the poem or thought he did and could have included it in the issue not for contrast but because, like Williams’poem in the issue, it is governed by a conceit which reflects the identify of its parts in form and spirit, and because it focuses events in time into the concrete details of a moment.
S. Theodore Hecht’s “Table for Christmas” describes a female figure setting a table for Christmas with a little tree, bread, and four bottles with pink ribbons. The simplicity of her movements and of the arrangement, unfortunately, is not presented by a simplicity of poetic mechanism; its parts are descriptive and redundant. Its first eight lines, for example, “Carefully along / The runners on the floor / She walked: / Reminded one / Not a little / Of a church aisle, / A figure going up / To an altar,” might be condensed to “She walked / As to an altar / Along runners.” Furthermore, the terms of Hecht’s title do not bear the repetition that Hecht gives them. “The little Christmas tree” in the poem need only read “The little tree”; “And in each corner of the table / Four in all” could read, simply, “And in each corner.”38 Perhaps Hecht’s friendship influenced Zukofsky to accept this poem as an example of sincerity. If it has virtue, it lies in direct statement. Although Hecht described and repeated the facts, he did not generalize or abstract them.
Following the poems by Hecht and Oppen is Harry Roskolenkier’s “Supper in an Alms-house,” in which the persona reports that on the city streets the exhaust of the autos of “the comfortable” “leave poison for my nose,” and that among “constant scenes” and everyone’s effort to maintain appearances, “a man collapses.” Finding himself desperate, he says: “I shall bow to him in religion / for a bowl of string-bean soup,” and forget the Lord “as the soup finds its worship.” The final line, “And the cannons do not aim at the sky,” was taken by Zukofsky from another poem (see Section 14). By it, Zukofsky expressed more capably than Roskolenkier the radical intention implied in the speaker’s lack of direction. The poem implies an an indictment against a government whose “cannons” are set for self-destruction, a society which discourages the proper ethical resolution of its problems. Although the whole seems weak and confused, at least its parts have sincerity. Roskolenkier wrote: “Even an aged man will change his shirt and boil his cuffs / his collar starched, his suspenders lifted to the neck,” when he could have said “Everyone maintains appearances.”39
In Whittaker Chambers’ “October 21st, 1926,” the speaker, before his “brother” on a railroad siding, observes the momentum of the clouds and freighters and preaches resignation to inevitable death, as is clear in the first of the poem’s five stanzas:
- The moving masses of the clouds, and the standing
- Freighters on the siding in the sun, alike induce in us
- That despair which we, brother, know there is no withstanding.40
Chambers’ analogies are located in the scene and are methodically brought to bear in developing his theme. The second and third strophes expand the statement of the first, the fourth argues that flowers must gather their roots in darkness, and the final two preach resignation.
What Chambers gains by alliteration, he loses by the high tone of the diction, by (as the poem unfolds) feminine rhymes on -ing, -asses, and -ation, and by a repetitiveness and lack of rhythmic driving force. Nevertheless, this poem, more obviously than other “Objectivist” poems, was meant not merely to give knowledge but to make something happen; it is in this sense an object of experience. This date marks the third or second day after the expulsion of Leon Trotsky and Grigori Zinoviev from the Politbureau following Joseph Stalin’s victory over leftist opposition, the first day after the death of the socialist Eugene Debbs, and, more significantly for Chambers, a month and a half after the death of his brother, Richard Godfrey, who was also memorialized by Zukofsky in “A”-3.41
Henry Zolinsky’s “Horatio,” in contrast to Chambers’ poem, is a hymn expressing the speaker’s joy in life; however, except for two lines (”Into the gold upon puddles and mudflats” and “Taut fingers combing the wind”), there is little in the poem to cause joy. Its rhythmic ineptitude (”The squatting stones, and / Streams to flow”) is unrelieved by slant-rhyme (roll / flow) and falsely ambiguous chiasmus (”Joy bringing so little, / But so little bringing joy”). The phrases by which the speaker perhaps intended to produce levity (”A burden of ding-dong-bell” and “This golden-day-part of me”) give it a childish tone. Its epigram is misquoted from Hamlet: “Are you there, Horatio? / A piece of him.”42
Jesse Loewenthal’s “Match” gives another conceit. Since a paraphrase could only be more wordy, I quote it in full:
- I will not rub your green head,
- Match of black waxed paper,
- Where it says: strike here.
- Others have been torn from
- Their stems before,
- I see,
- By soot-covered headstones,
- Where the R. R. passes the cemetery.43
This is a similarity (or “match”) between things “strongly felt together,” an interpretive metaphor.44 But the poem’s meaning is not limited to the perception of similarity; its conceit also suggests an agent to tear off and strike the matches. By association, that agent is the railroad, representative of the megolithic industrial powers which drive the common man to his grave. Loewenthal’s sincerity resolves this abstraction into its concrete terms—matches and headstones, and produces a very good “Objectivist” poem.
Following Loewenthal’s poem are Emanuel Carnevali’s translations: “From Arthur Rimbaud: Wakes—III, To One Reason.” Perhaps Zukofsky made the best of what he received from Pound in a show of support for his fellow writer, since Carnevali was suffering from encephalitis and scapolin, but these poems are not excellent translations. Unless Carnevali began with a corrupted text, it appears that he obscured the sense of the originals by mistranslation of simple words including pronouns (“rut” for coque: hull; “wood” [only questionable] for taillis: copse; “of his” for toi: of yours, and “I” for on: they), by using non-English word order (”sing to you those children”), and by omitting quotation marks and an entire line and phrase.
Nevertheless, Rimbaud is worth having in spite of such distractions, and the translations have some virtue as objects. The quick succession of metaphors in “Wakes—III” causes the reader to refocus on the essentials of the poem. “Objectivist” poetics requires neither simplicity nor propagandistic message, only the unity of exact emotion focused as the direction of clear and vital particulars.
“One is brought back,” wrote Zukofsky of Reznikoff’s “metaphor . . . presented with conciseness in a word,” “to the entirety of the single word which is in itself a relation, an implied metaphor, an arrangement and a harmony” (Section 8).45 In Carnevali’s translation, the structure of “Wakes—III” is based on the multiple meanings of the title word. Firstly, it refers to the watch held over the body of a dead person prior to burial. It is in this sense that “the lamps and carpets,” the “tapestry,” and the heaving “breast of Amélie” are found in the poem. Secondly, it refers to the track left by a moving ship in the water. Thus “The lamps and the carpets of the wake make the noise of waves / in the night, along the rut and around the steerage.” This is not a case of the synesthesia of sight and hearing. The line precisely indicates a relation between the two senses of the word. Although this is an extreme example, “Objectivist” poetics is not without verbal play. The next line substantiates the conceit: “The sea of the wake, such as the breast of Amélie.” Amélie’s sighs, in the wake of the death of the loved one, heave like the sea in the wake of the ship. The two senses are indisputably related. Passings create disturbances.
Lastly, the third sense of the word refers to the state of being awake. If the first two senses could not awaken the reader to the structural possibilities of the single word, then the third might do so, for it presents the flight of turtledoves in a wall cloaked by an artistic illusion, a tapestry representing a green copse. “The tapestry, just at medium height, the wood of laces dyed / in emerald, where the turtle-doves of the wake throw themselves.”46 The poet awakens the doves in the tapestry and throws them into the imaged Eden, just as the attendants at the wake in their passion might imagine the dead (the spirit is frequently symbolized in literature and art as a bird) to have been thrown into heaven, which is also, perhaps, an illusion. Although the reader upon which the awakening of art depends is like the attendant of the wake, waiting for the miracle, the reader has more chance, like Pygmalian, of being satisfied. Confronted with the death of poetry in the twenties (“thud of the ictus”), no lover of poetry should remain unmoved. This “Objectivist” poem is an emerald copse woven with words to be so imagined.
The second translation, “To One Reason,” in spite of its obscurity as translation, is interpretable as a prophesy supporting “the arrogance of youth.” The first line, “A hitting of your fingers on the drum shoots out all the sounds and begins the new harmony,”47 could refer to the possible success of the “Objectivist” poetic revolution. Once the poetry public becomes conscious of “objectively perfect” and becomes interested in clear or vital particulars, they should agree with Zukofsky that “there was no literary production” in the previous decade, and the new harmony should begin.
John Wheelwright’s “Slow Curtain” presents yet another conceit: the terms in which the relationship of two lovers may be considered as a stage production. The poem’s cadences are liquid, quick, and effortlessly read. Moreover, the poem has, in proper proportions, humor (“It is an amateur performance”), perspicuity (“The actors are their own audience. / As actors, they are artists; / but as audience, they are critics”), and pathos (“The lovers face one another. / Neither moves a muscle. // There is no applause”).48 The sincerity of this poem in my opinion falls short of achieving objectification only because it is too abstract; it is a schematic representation of any relationship rather than a presentation of a particular relationship.
Zukofsky felt obligated to include in his issue a poem by Richard Johns, who had published Zukofsky and his friends in Pagany (Section 15, Zukofsky’s point 11 of 6 November 1930). Here, “The Sphinx: for W C W” describes Williams on a day off at the beach building and destroying a sphinx of sand as his “wife and boy watch; laugh, / sleepy.” This falls short of sincerity. Perhaps Zukofsky included it only to avoid alienating Johns. To its credit, the lightness of its lines present the gaiety of the “brain forgetting, / letting go,” but this emotion seems inconsistent with the object Williams builds there, the sphinx. The function of the sphinx in the poem is antithetical to the 1ife-threatening riddle; that it connotes it represents, simply, the worries of his life which, “playing hookey / from pills and potions,” he destroys in effigy: “building a body / he may destroy / with down-patting feet // happily / daily.” These lines demonstrate the superficiality of the poem’s conception. A man’s problems are not solved “happily / daily” by “playing hookey.”49
Martha Champion’s “Poem” might be read as a comment on Johns’. There are places we will not go, however inviting they are, because thye lull us, like the lotus, to sleep:
- There are places we will not go:
- Where yellow birds fly—
- And the high hum of their voices
- Is like the whir of sewing-machines.
- Or ancient
- Moss grows, and the ground is soft,
- And yellow-throated lizards with purple backs,
- Kneel in the grass.
- And what the air does is simple: it makes us sleep.50
Champion’s craftsmanship is not flawed as was Johns’ by redundance and trifle. Her lines’ weight and timing are precisely graphed by their arrangement in three margins. Her alliterations and assonances are eminently musical (”we will not go,” “where yellow,” “grows,” “ground,” “yellow-throated,” “grass”), and their music is of the emotion most appropriate to the discretion she takes, ironically, in describing where she will not go.
Although these poems may not be monuments of poetic genius and public attention, they are examples of different poetic techniques employed in a common effort (with different degrees of success) to communicate things (whether subjective or objective) of actual and human significance in terms of particulars composed in appropriate forms coalescing into wholes which strike the reader with the intensity of the real.