Section 20 - Critical Reactions
I. Harriet Monroe
Harriet Monroe’s editorial in the March 1931 issue of Poetry, “The Arrogance of Youth,” defended the poets of the teens against the “Objectivists.” She thought that the former achieved in their youth much to be preserved and respected, and the latter were, where not incomprehensible, banal or arbitrary. Referring to the passage in “Program: ‘Objectivists’ 1931” where Zukofsky discussed his “stricture of names generally cherished as famous,”1 Monroe observed:
There we have it. With one grand annihilating gesture this young exponent of a “new movement” sweeps off the earth the proud procession of poets whom, in our blindness and ignorance, we had fondly dedicated to immortality. I turned to his Symposium article for comfort, but in vain; if any of these were mentioned there, it was deprecatingly, to enforce a contrast with the elect. Robinson, Lindsay, Frost, Masters, Sandburg, Jeffers, Miss Millay, Amy Lowell, Elinor Wylie, the once-revolutionary imagists—these and the other unfortunates born too soon are lost forever in that age of darkness when there was “no literary production—none at all”—like those nine blank reigns recorded by the Chinese sage. And why? Not because their work lacked beauty of rhythm or phrasing or imagery, richness of emotional or intellectual quality, essential truth of motive, close regard for the difficult exactitudes of poetic art—not for lack of all these or any one of them are these poets of the last two decades consigned to outer darkness, but because they possessed “neither consciousness of the objectively perfect nor an interest in clear or vital particulars.” In short, because these poets do not fit into a theoretic scheme spun out of brain fabric by a group of empirical young rule-makers, they are simply not poets at all, and the waste-basket is their proper destiny.2
Monroe not only loved the work of these “non-poets,” she detested the work Zukofsky claimed as models of perfection. She offered the case to “our readers” but left them no doubt as to their decision.
Monroe’s difficulty, and the difficulty of most of her readers at that time, was with realizing the practical sense of Zukofsky’s “theoretic scheme.” His definitions of the new poetic virtues were too abstruse to express their newness, let alone the appropriateness of their newness. Monroe wrote: “Mr. Zukofsky rightly stresses sincerity, but he rarefies this solid solid virtue, common enough among artists, with gaseous definitions to be breathed only by the elect.”3 Although she had read Zukofsky’s essay on Reznikoff, Monroe still thought that “sincerity” was “the same old process of the poet’s mind which the world heard of long ago.” She missed entirely the fact that Zukofsky applied the term not to the poet but to the poem. She sensed Zukofsky’s theoretical nervousness, but she did not locate it; she did not realize its cause or its meaning. She was right in valuing both “essential truth of motive” and “close regard for the difficult exactitudes of poetic art,” but not in believing that her admired poets had achieved both. The virtue of integrity can only be embodied in the common sincerities of the poet and the poem. Neither intended genuineness (personal sincerity) nor technical exactitude (poetic sincerity) can stand on their own. The sincerity of the mind and soul of the poet regards the effective conception of the poetic truth; the sincerity of the sense and music of the poem regards the effective communication of the first sincerity in its regards. Pound’s principle, “The perception of the intellect is given in the word, that of the emotions in the cadence,” correlates personal and poetic sincerities to achieve the virtue of poetic integrity.
The “Objectivists” were reacting against a generation of poets whose integrity was asserted but not substantiated by their work, whose sincerity regarded only, as Monroe wrote, a virtue “among artists,” a process “of the poet’s mind.” They did not know the meaning and use of current technical innovations. That knowledge had been left with its inventors—Stein, Joyce, Pound, Williams—and with the exceptional few—Cummings, McAlmon, Moore, Stevens. That knowledge was passed on mostly by Pound and Williams only after they had lost the general respect, by surpassing the general comprehension, of their own generation, and it was passed on only to a few—including Basil Bunting, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, Louis Zukofsky. Meanwhile, the verse of Monroe’s “once revolutionary imagists” either was structured without responsibility to an integrity of emotional response to the generative experience or object, to “what one encountered, what one saw, the reality of the world,” as Oppen put it (Section 6), or was free without means to establish a technical integrity to correspond with, to communicate, an integrity of perception. The weakness of their work, its lack of exact correlation of emotion and technique, had reached a critical stage in the twenties, and by the Depression, with too few exceptions, it was either quaint or frivolous, rigid or effusive, obdurate or indulgent. Failing to achieve an integrity of both poet and poem, they failed to communicate an integrity of either, and so, in a bad time, gave poetry a bad name. “Objectivism” was the necessary corrective. The virtue of sincerity must be conceived in the integrity of the poet, but it can not be communicated without the integrity of the poem. “Consciousness of the ‘objectively perfect’” and “interest in clear or vital ‘particulars’” were intended to satisfy this latter requirement.
“The first question at that time in poetry was simply the question of honesty, of sincerity,” said George Oppen. Romanticism and imagism had failed to achieve integrity by failing to substantiate emotion in technique—by not “forming a poem properly,” by not “achieving form.” “That’s what,” Oppen claimed, “’objectivist’ really means. . . . People assume it means the psychologically objective in attitude. It actually means the objectification of the poem, the making an object of the poem.”4
“Objectivism” took for granted the necessity for personal sincerity and focused on poetic sincerity. Williams wrote that without technical integrity a poem may be intended to mean anything, “but it will for all that be as empty as a man made of wax or straw.” Further: “Only by being an object sharply defined and without redundancy will its form project whatever meaning is required of it. It could well be, at the same time, first and last a poem facing as it must the dialectic necessities of its day.”5 “Objectification” is not, as Monroe mistook it, “our old friend imagination, somewhat circumscribed and specialized.”6 The practical sense of Zukofsky’s theoretic scheme was to give a new measure of integrity, a discipline by which a poet could validate in the particulars of language the sincerity that existed in his good intentions, and, if he had enough skill, achieve the poem as object, an outer integrity to convey his inner integrity.
The “Objectivist” corrective suffered the fault of all correctives. Zukofsky insisted on the nervous extreme, the poem as a passionless, mechanical thing, in reaction against those whose shapes were justified only by an intuition of the forms of things unknown,” by “the same old process” of “our old friend imagination” which, by habitual repetition, had lost its meaning.
The “Objectivists” thought that the work of Monroe’s immortal imagists had lost its original freshness, its generative integrity. Lines like Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “A flying word from here and there / Had sown the name at which we sneered,” “Vachel Lindsay’s “It is portentous, and a thing of state / That here at midnight in our little town,” Robert Frost’s “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still,” or “My Sorrow, when she’s here with me, / Thinks these dark days of autumn rain / Are beautiful as days can be,” Edgar Lee Masters’ “I do not like my garden, but I love / The trees I planted and the flowers thereof,” Carl Sandburg’s “What was the name you called me?— / And why did you go so soon?,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Love has gone, and left me and the days are all alike. / Eat I must, and sleep I will—and would that night were here,” Amy Lowell’s “The white mares of the moon rush along the sky / Beating their golden hoofs upon the glass heavens,” and Elinor Wylie’s “Say not of Beauty she is good, / Or aught but beautiful” no longer struck, if they ever did, “at the basis of thought, at the mechanism with which we make our adjustments to things and to each other.”7
On 16 January 1931, before the “Objectivists” issue was released, Zukofsky replied to a letter from Morton Zabel, who had implied that Zukofsky’s issue was already being criticized. Zukofsky wondered who these tactfully anonymous critics were.8 By March, of course, he knew that Monroe was chief among them. Poetry had become a grudging host; its editors seemed to have little understanding or sympathy for their guests. But even Zukofsky, who had been urged to stir up controversy, was unprepared for the controversy that ensued. The correspondence sections of subsequent issues of Poetry represented the confusions of critics trying to clarify principles and rectify the “Objectivists.”
II. Horace Gregory
The correspondence section of the April issue of Poetry began:
Contradictory comments have reached us in regard to the February number and Mr. Zukofsky’s editorship: from that of the Princeton student who congratulates us upon achieving an interesting issue at last, and wonders if, after that climax, we will go back to our old benighted ways—to the protest of the Long Island editor who mailed back his copy first-class, with a letter demanding the price of it:
- My money
- is what i want
- you heard me . . . money
- You got it
- and i got poetry
- which, metaphysically speaking, is
- nothing but horsehair and metal discs in a Bach fugue . . .
- my money, my god, my money!
and so forth—a page of it, which gave all the editors a merry moment.9
The “Objectivists” were not without a serious defender, although he came from within their own group, and his approbation was mixed with disapprobation, at least to the degree that he did not understand, with some reason, Zukofsky’s intentions. The correspondence section of the April issue continued:
But certain letters we have received are more serious. Horace Gregory, having read the number twice and dreamed about it, congratulates everybody concerned, and continues:
I believe the issue is a landmark, an important event in the writing of American poetry. It is, however, a Left Bank issue with offices on lower Fifth Avenue, New York, where the Menorah Journal appears whenever it can raise enough money to ship copy to the printer. There is a curious strain of Jewish nationalism, disguised as a Greek chorus, reciting its refrain throughout the poems. As a middle-westerner of pioneer American stock, with a touch of Edgar Lee Masters in my make-up, I feel a bit lonely, particularly in New York.10
Of this criticism, Zukofsky wrote to Monroe on 11 February 1931 that Gregory was charitable, at times too charitable (for instance, perhaps the issue was not a “landmark”), and at times too hasty in conclusion. For instance, Zukofsky proffered evidence showing that the “strain of Jewish nationalism” was inessential to the “Objectivists.” Specifically, Zukofsky had only twice visited the offices of the Menorah Journal, they had rejected his article on Reznikoff claiming it was not in their customary line, and if Gregory was to read “A”-4 and 5 he would discover that Zukofsky was not biased toward the Jews.11
At the risk of being a dogmatist, I’d like to express a full opinion of the Objectivists. Mr. Zukofsky has done valuable work indeed by making an effort to combine the little poetry movements of the last ten years under one banner. This issue of poetry clears the air and will be the starting-point of a new movement. So far, so good. My quarrel with his program is that it doesn’t go far enough and that we are left gasping for fresh air.
If Gregory had read “American Poetry 1920-1930,” he might have thought Zukofsky went too far, but on the basis of what had been included in the February issue he felt the “Objectivists” were too limited.
This limitation I think has several reasons for being: I D’ (1) Mr. Zukofsky has placed Charles Reznikoff, a man of minor abilities, at the top of his scale and then proceeded downward. he has failed to show how his movement has a relationship to such men as Hart Crane, Yvor Winters, Malcolm Cowley, Allen Tate, Kenneth Fearing, and even—this is a long jump, but an important one—Robinson Jeffers. (2) If his movement means anything at all (and as I see it, it does) it must embrace at some point the work of every original poet in American today. Mr. Zukofsky should make some effort to show how such an original artist as Hart Crane either falls outside or may be included within his range of definitions. Although I believe that such men as Yvor Winters and Allen Tate have shot their bolts, their early work showed some of the same tendency that we find in this issue of POETRY. (3) Isn’t Mr. Zukofsky’s preoccupation with technique driving him into the same dilemmas that have cut short the activities of Yvor Winters and Allen Tate? With his program he has had an opportunity to drag poetry out of the library (where the revolt of 1912-1916 died), and into the streets, in much the same fashion that Antheil drove music out of the concert halls.12
Gregory’s desire for Zukofsky to have placed Crane, Winters, Tate, and Jeffers in relation to “Objectivism” would have been entirely satisfied by Zukofsky’s article in the Symposium. And there Gregory might have learned that Zukofsky’s criteria had nothing to do with originality; good writing is good for all time. But in his third point Gregory found the unprotected substance of Zukofsky’s narrow-mindedness. Unlike Monroe, Gregory understood Zukofsky’s redefinition of “sincerity” as a matter of technique; moreover, he recognized the error of Zukofsky’s particular bias, Zukofsky’s insistence on poetic sincerity to the point of neglecting personal sincerity. Although Zukofsky also wished “to drag poetry out of the library,” his “theoretical scheme” dangerously skirts the obduracy of the formalists. In the Symposium, Zukofsky wrote that the “steadiness” of the “new formalists . . . is that of truncated emotions,” and that their emotions are “truncated” by an iamb and a stanza incapable of reproducing anything ethical, contemporary, or alive, but nowhere in the “COMENT” section of the February issue did Zukofsky insist on “a unified emotional source” or the “poetic emotion.”13 There he assumed without stating the inseparability of emotion, image, and cadence, which he discussed in the Symposium, and made the grave mistake, while denying in his opposition the virtue due to them, of appearing to deny it in himself.
Gregory was not as far from being an “Objectivist” as he thought from having read only the February issue; Zukofsky’s acceptance of Gregory’s poem, “A Tombstone with Cherubim,” which (too late for the February issue) appeared in the March issue, is a sign of Gregory’s and Zukofsky’s poetic agreement.
“A Tombstone with Cherubim” is a memorial, an attempt by the speaker to deal with the death of, perhaps, an old flame, to contrast the poem’s title, the traditional manner of dealing with the dead, with the facts of her life and death. No one would accuse her of being an angel if one knew her. The poem is a polemic for the honesty of the facts, and, implicitly self-reflexive, justifies its own means.
- She loved relaxed security,
- sleeping with men occasionally—
- as it were, exotic dreams—
- and rich meaningless words
- draping the tender portions of her body.
Gregory made it clear that neither what others thought of her nor what she thought of herself “contain the facts.”
- The facts are these:
- She died in Lesbian serenity,
- neither hot nor cold
- until the chaste limbs stiffened.
- Disconnect the telephone;
- cut the wires.14
As Gregory’s letter continued, it began to read more like the work of an “Objectivist” writing about the worst of the dilutors and reactionaries of the twenties:
I am as you know interested in developing American speech into formal poetry. I believe that both Pound and Williams have done much in the very direction in which I’m moving. Mr. Zukofsky’s Objectivists will die for lack of oxygen if they ignore the panorama of strictly American life, including the class struggle. Like the Humanists, they will be forced backward into the library, and their material for poetry will merely feed upon past performances. In this retreat they will forget the power of the specific images out of which some of the greatest poetry of all times is written. Their effort should be to carry on the non-“literary” elements in their work to survival, something for which Ezra Pound and Carlos Williams will be remembered; and here I might well include such men as Sandburg and Bodenheim.15
In his letter to Monroe, Zukofsky argued that if Gregory thought the “Objectivists” “ignored the panorama of strictly American life” then he overlooked the salient intention of their program and the implicit character of nearly all their poems, particularly “A”-7.16 Indeed, Gregory’s “A Tombstone with Cherubim” is neither propagandistic nor, any more than one can expect of any short poem, evokes “the panorama of strictly American life.”
Gregory was not, as his opening comment shows, against the movement. He only wished to explain that he thought it did not go far enough.
I would say that Mr. Zukofsky’s definition of objectification and sincerity would open the way for new subject matter (American life in the detail which we recognize as charcteristic, and the rejection of much of what we call “poetic” diction). With this plank in his platform, he would be able to utilize whatever equipment he has to offer.
As to the individual contributors to this issue, I believe that Carl Rakosi and Whittaker Chambers show most promise. Such men as McAlmon I believe to be dead as Tate and Winters, but in his own fashion. However, it is hardly fair to isolate the work of individuals here—the issue is planned as a mass movement, rather than for the selection of striking individual pieces. On the whole I find myself more in agreement with Mr. Zukofsky than with any other group that has come into the limelight. My only regret is that the tendency to speculate exhaustively about the technic of writing leads more often than not to the creation of introverted and minor poetry.17
Gregory’s concluding sentence shows his awareness of his own sympathy for the whole whose part received Zukofsky’s too exclusive attention. The other Objec“Objectivists”tivists used “Objectivist” techniques to present details characteristic of American life.
III. Stanley Burnshaw
The editors of Poetry next printed in full a letter to Louis Zukofsky from Stanley Burnshaw, followed by Zukofsky’s full reply. Burnshaw was a poet as well as a critic. His poetry first appeared in the March issue of Poetry. The note on him in that issue claims for him a translation of André Spire and magazine publications of verse and prose in French and English in addition to work printed on his own hand press. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh in 1925, and later employed in a steel mill, “He is now in the advertising business.”18
His letter began:
Dear Sir: As spokesman for the “Objectivists” you will doubtless be willing to answer several questions which rereadings of the current issue of POETRY have failed to explain: 1) How is Objectivism related to past poetry? ls it a new ramification (such as Dadaism, Jemenfoutistism, Surrealism, for instance), or can it be traced to certain verse existing in past centuries (as in the case of so-called “metaphysical” verse, for example)?19
Zukofsky gave two answers to this first question, the first serving also for Burnshaw’s questions 3, 4, and 5. He declared:
1) Poetry is “past” or “news” only to historians of literature and to certain lay readers; to poets (craftsmen in the art of poetry) and to competent critics, poetry. Interpretation differs between individuals and sometimes there are schools of poetry; i.e., there is agreement among individuals. But linguistic usage and the context of related words naturally influence an etiquette of interpretation (common to individuals, and, it has been said, “for an age”—though all kinds of people live in an “age”).20
This does not directly answer Burnshaw’s question (whether “Objectivism” represents a break with or a development of certain past verse), but says that, although there are “schools” of agreement, “poetry” is an absolute whose interpretation depends on the individual, except in as much as the age, through changing usages, influences “an etiquette of interpretation.”
Zukofsky’s second answer collects and supports three statements by Zukofsky on the subject:
1) Vide, Sincerity and Objectification (in February POETRY): “ . . . anticipated a conviction that surrealism in 1928 was not essentially novel.” (P. 273.) “The process of active literary omission” is implied in “past poetry” but “at any time has been rare.” “New writers had better be given a chance to find their own forebears.” (American Poetry, The Symposium, p. 60). Mr. Rexroth reads Dante, Chapman, Racine, Kynaston, Davies of Hereford, Du Bartas; Mr. Williams, Shakespeare. The writer has read Bach’s and Picander’s text of St. Matthew Passion.
Reznikoff decided to omit surrealistic verse from Five Groups of Verse (1929); the discretion evident in his process of omission is characteristic of but not exclusive to the “Ojectivists,” but each “Objectivist” must judge the value of symbolism for himself, chosing his own literary models. Even though the “Objectivists” might be in relative agreement, here Zukofsky did not say so. In “‘Recencies’ in Poetry,” however, he suggested that although the “Objectivists” did not agree in common to establish a movement, they might form, by their individual attentions to “the craft of poetry,” a common revolution:
The interest of the issue was in the few recent lines of poetry which could be found, and in the craft of poetry, NOT in a movement. The contributors did not get up one morning all over the land and say “objectivists” between tooth-brushes. Somewhere the so-called program of the number implied that a “poet” who is not conscious of Lenin’s statement that it is better to have lived thru a revolution than to write about it is not worth his salt. This may seem pigheaded—but the interest of poets is after all in particulars.22
To Burnshaw’s second question:
2) Is the poetic of Objectivism imputed to inherencies of the language (as was René Ghil’s system, for example), or is it created and invented into a new system (as was Jean de Baîf’s vers mésuré, or Spire’s vers libre)?23
Zukofsky replied, first, curtly: “2) The poets in the February issue of POETRY have written obviously in English,”24 and then, as a corollary, obscurely:
2) “Inherencies in the language” (French presumably) of René Ghil were created or invented by Spire? or not used by Jean de Baîf? Of course, there are different prosodies: counting syllables, accent, quantity. Mr. Basil Bunting, in The Word, is interested in the adaption of classical quantitative measures to English, as was Jean de Baîf in their adaption to French. Ezra Pound’s How to Read, explaining the poetic charging or energizing of language, is again offered for publication to some enterprising book-concern, as against “the codifications of rhetoric books.”25
The poetic of the “Objectivists” is neither “imputed to inherencies in the language” nor “created and invented into” a specific prosody. It is “imputed to inherencies” which transcend languages (French or English) and to which all prosodies (systems of meter) are subservient. A poetic is a set of epistemological and ethical assumptions and criteria which different prosodies might follow and satisfy. The “Objectivists” do not share a prosody; they share the principle that prosody must serve the object of the poem.26 Bunting would have been interested in quantity because it could form patterns which more subtly present the precise forms of the object than stress could. Although the “Objectivists” share a language, “Objectivism” is not a “codification”; it depends on shared human perceptual abilities to charge or energize their language. In How to Read, Pound wrote that a poet’s work is fresh, durable, and useful “in proportion as his work is exact, i.e., true to human consciousness and to the nature of man.”27 The “Objectivist” poetic is the obligation to present with exactitude the immanent qualities of the human condition and the reality of the world in which we find ourselves.
3) Is Objectivist poetry a programmed movement (such as the Imagists instituted), or is it a rationalization undertaken by writers of similar subjective predilections and tendencies (as was the case with the neo-classic movement which centered about Moréas)? Is there a copy of the program of the Objectivist group available?28
Zukofsky felt his first answer, regarding individual interpretation and agreement among individuals, answered this as well, but he added:
3) To those interested in programmed movements “Objectivist” poetry will be a “programmed movement.” The editor was not a pivot, the contributors did not rationalize about him together; out of appreciation for their sincerity of craft and occasional objectification he wrote the program of the February issue of POETRY, which is contained in the several definitions of An Objective and the use of this term extended to poetry.29
The “Objectivists,” as Zukofsky asserted from the first, was not a “new group”; it was a new choosing. Pound wrote to Monroe of the issue:
The point is that although most of the contents was average, the mode of presentation was good editing. The zoning of different states of mind, so that one can see what they are, is good editing.30
The “Objectivists” issue was more a reflection of Zukofsky than Burnshaw imagined. The contributors did not use him as a “pivot.” Rather, he used their work to present what he considered best in poetry of his time. Burnshaw had already seen the only “copy of the program of the Objectivist group available.”
The above issues concern the extrinsic nature of “Objectivism.” Burnshaw’s fourth matter concerns its more intrinsic qualities:
4) These questions pertain to generalities and are not so difficult for my intelligence to solve, as are the questions arising from the distinguishable characteristics of Objectivist poetry itself. I believe I understand that two characteristics are particularly typical of Objectivist poetry: sincerity and objectification. I believe l understand what you mean by sincerity. It is “inevitability of verbal expression” is it not? . . . and as such it is true of all estimable poetry.31
Zukofsky agreed, but, for him, “poetry” is an absolute term, not a value term: “estimable” is redundant; work not worthy of esteem is simply not poetry.
But as for objectification, I can see two possible meanings deducible from your exposition in POETRY: (1) an application of James’ stream-of-consciousness hypothesis employed in some manner different from that of Gertrude Stein; or (2) the quality of satisfying-wholeness which makes a poem an entity, which accords it “rested totality” in your phraseology. This first possible meaning is proved wrong, however, by the presence of W. C. Williams and Reznikoff as Objectivist poets. And the second possible meaning is invalidated by the fact that all estimable poetry is marked by a satisfying-wholeness. And in this case, your two criteria would be true of all estimable poetry, and would merely indicate that the Objectivists are only offering new interpretations of a purely subjective nature to matters of inevitability-of-verbal-expression (sincerity) and satisfying-wholeness (objectification). Obviously this conclusion which I find myself with, is an absurdity; and I am left with only one other possibility deducible from your exposition. If I have read it correctly: namely, that by objectification is meant the fact that a poem contains a new and absolute individuality which acts as a self-contained, created object in itself.33
Zukofsky’s response is brief to the point of opacity, although part of the problem is the result of the printer’s errors with punctuation:
“Objectification”—yes, “self-contained” interpretations and therefore objective (contextual) not “subjective” in nature: (1), also “satisfying-wholeness;” (2), statement; (1) esthetic, statement; (2) psychological. Again, “true of all poems.” “Absurdity:” cf., note 3 above in answer to question 3.34
Objectification is not a matter of a subjective interpretation, an estimation of poetic value; it is the achievement of the poem as object. Whereas Burnshaw uses “self-contained” to describe the poem, Zukofsky uses it to describe its interpretation. In this light, it appears, so long as the interpretation is “objective (contextual) not ‘subjective’ in nature,” it does not matter whether the interpretation is psychological or esthetic; i.e., whether it regards the poem’s means (1) of reflecting a stream of consciousness or (2) of achieving a “satisfying-wholeness.” In other words, according to Zukofsky, Burnshaw’s three possibilities are not exclusive. Although Zukofsky balked at the adjective “subjective,” the “Objectivists” were giving their personal (hence subjective) interpretations of criteria applicable to all great poetry. Burnshaw invalidated his first possibility because he wrongly assumed that “Objectivism” was a programmed movement which requires a uniformity of prosody. The “Objectivist” program dictates a poetic—that the consciousness presented in the poem is of particulars, “things as they exist,” and that those particulars be directed toward a unified effect. An “Objectivist” may avoid the unreal and achieve the presentation of an object in a sonnet or in a series of seven of them, even if its words have movement such as is typical of Stein.
Burnshaw’s fourth point continues, speaking of the possibility that objectification means that the poem contains an individuality which acts a a self-contained object:
Now this, of course, would be true of all fine poems (exclusive of fragmentary compositions), unless you attribute to the words constituting a poem, some new identities apart from their normal meanings: unless you attribute to the words absolute meanings in themselves and look upon them not as names for things and acts, which they have been chiefly used for in the literature of the past. If this is your use of words in Objectivist poetry, where do the words derive their new meanings from, and what are these new meanings?35
Since Burnshaw thought that what is true of “Objectivist” poetry can not be true of all fine poetry, he needed a means of objectification which does not depend on sincerity, on words as “names for things and acts,” the means of other fine poetry. He needed to define some kind of self-referential, “absolute” meanings for words. The “Objectivists,” however, believed that words have both referential and self-referential meanings, and that objectification is the product of both. In his answer, Zukofsky referred to three statements in the program of the issue which testify to the “Objectivist” reliance on referential meaning and suggested that the “new and absolute individuality” of the poem that Burnshaw sought was the self-referential possibility of “words as movement” such as is typical of Stein:
“Words . . . as names, things and acts:” the writer asks his critic to read two other items included (evidently with a purpose) in the February issue of POETRY—René Taupin’s discussion of Salmon’s Nominalistic Poetry, and the editor’s note to Symposium, by Messrs. Tyler and Ford; cf., also p. 273—“writing . . . the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist.” However, for the possible meaning of words as movement, see Wm. Carlos Williams, The Work of Gertrude Stein, Pagany, Winter, 1930.36
In his essay on Stein, Williams declared that “the essence of all knowledge” is movement. Movement is a process of renewing perception, of refreshing interest. “The goal is to keep a beleaguered line of understanding which has movement from breaking down and becoming a hole into which we sink decoratively to rest.” It is to be found in Bach, where it is “not suborned by a freight of purposed design,” and it is to be found as clearly in Stein. It “must not be confused with what we attach to it,” but it is not invalidated by those attachments. Since the artist must “be democratic, local (in the sense of being attached with integrity to actual experience),” and since “observation about us engenders the very opposite of what we seek: triviality, crassness and intellectual bankruptcy,” the artist “must for subtlety ascend to a plane of almost abstract design to keep alive. To writing, then, as an art in itself. Yet what actually impinges on the senses must be rendered as it appears, by use of which, only, and under which, untouched, the significance has to be disclosed.”37 The ultimate responsibility of the poet to “things as they exist” is reaffirmed, not vitiated, by movement, by its design, by its integrity as an object.
Burnshaw’s final point:
5) I cannot understand what peculiar characteristics are responsible for grouping the various poems you have grouped as Objectivist poems. Many of these pieces are quite traditional, it seems to me; notably Champion’s, Lowenthal’s, Weeks’, Hecht’s. These poems might very well have been printed in almost any poetry magazine which functioned sometime or another during the past twelve years. I can well imagine a generous just critic remarking about Oppen’s, Macleod’s, and Chambers’ contributions the presence of a technical inability to achieve lucidity with reasonably workable material. I cannot imagine anyone failing to see that Reznikoff’s poems reveal a hokku influence which has typified the product of so many contemporary poets, as well as a pleasant ability to produce striking figures of a purely traditional nature. And as for Williams’ poem, it is surely a very simple clear poem beneath its frail cloak of unorthodoxy, carrying a lucidly exposed idea through charming, traditional, understandable imagery and reflections. In the face of all these facts, why call these poems Objectivist?38
5) Obvious now that “many of the pieces may be quite traditional”—i.e., in the sincere tradition of “writing the detail, not mirage of seeing.” The contributions to sincerity of Champion, Loewenthal, Weeks, Hecht, Macleod, Chambers, “might well have been printed elsewhere,” but haven’t been because general interest is in deceptive emulations of “past” poems and not in expressions of particulars, or “self-contained” structures of these expressions. The writer believes Oppen’s contributions qualify as to objectification by nature of their rhythmic and logical structures, and that Reznikoff’s Group qualifies as a collective sequence. Williams is not “unorthodox,” his objectification of wit as ordered and resolved movement is not unlike that of the “traditional” metaphor of “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang”—i.e., “objectivist” as indicated in the italics heading the February editor’s Program. The quotes around “objectivist” distinguish between its particular meaning in the Program and the philosophical etiquette associated with objectivist.39
According to Zukofsky, his “new group” was not only not a group but it was also not new. It was, however, superior to the work accepted as poetry by the publishers at the time. Zukofsky’s new meaning for the term “objectivist” distinguishes it not from the English language but from philosophies. This was the first time that he explained in public the meaning of his quotation marks. It was not the last time he needed to.
IV. Kenneth Rexroth
The editors next presented a passage from Kenneth Rexroth’s letter to Monroe of 12 January 1931. In this letter, Rexroth explained his elite and erudite “aims and methods as a poet”: “There have often been men, creative in the arts, who have chosen to sacrifice numerical advantages of appreciation for intensity of effect in an audience of less imposing dimensions.” Rexroth felt that his sacrifice of popularity for intensity was necessary because of the plurality of existence and the diversity of individuals, and because he did not wish to write for an audience which did not understand his experience or share his ability to experience:
Ultimately one’s audience is an extension of oneself; it is quite impossible to sit down, envisage a class of people, and say, I shall write for these people, without degenerating into journalism. If our own experience and potentialities for experience cannot be woven, warp for woof, into the texture of that class of ideal experiences of an articulate person which we call a poem, that poem is irrelevant for us.40
Rexroth believed that his readers should cultivate an availability to both George Herbert and Herbert of Cherbury, to Meleager, Catullus, Abelard, Cynewulf, Dante, and Du Bellay in spite of whether these writers might have less to say than, respectively, Menander, Juvenal, Alanus, Beowulf, Tasso, and Du Bartus.41 Allusions to any of them might be necessary to represent in the poem “that class of ideal experiences of an articulate person.” As he wrote to Monroe, “I spent two months learning a rather ugly language that I might read a poet whom I then found to be unsatisfactory, Camoens, surely you do not begrudge me a dictionary, or even an encyclopedia.”
Since nothing could guarantee the usual reader’s knowledge or understanding of esoteric content, Rexroth rejected membership in Zukofsky’s group and doubted the value of publication in Monroe’s magazine. Questioned by the present writer, Rexroth wrote that he rejected membership in any group on principle and admitted a lack of common understanding between himself and Zukofsky concerning his work.42 Questioned by Harriet Monroe, Rexroth admonished her for her narrow concept of poetic value. Although she had an obligation to limit the work she published, she should not believe her limitations delimited “the field of possible subject and treatment for poetry.” Considering such limitations, Rexroth wrote: “I do not know where those others of Mr. Zukofsky’s number expect to find their audience, as for myself I ask only to be left to my own devices.”43
The “Objectivists,” however, would have agreed with Rexroth’s arguments, except for his reliance on obscure knowledge. His elitism would have been no obstacle; the “Objectivists” were similarly convinced of the rarety of the good. Rexroth wrote, “If we do not quarrel with machinery, reject Dante because we are agnostics, or Lucretius because we are Christians, the art of the world offers us a small group of products” whose meaning “approaches inexhaustibility.”44 And both Rexroth and Taupin (in “Three Poems by Andre Salmon” translated by Zukofsky) proposed the statements of Christ as examples of “inexhaustibility.” Rexroth wrote, “The remarks of Christ possess this quality preeminently. History has found in them a fecundity of possible value comparable only to that of nature herself.”45
Rexroth’s poetic principles, moreover, are almost identical to “Objectivist” principles. His distinction between “experience and potentialities for experience” reflects Zukofsky’s distinction between sincerity and objectification. The poem must synthesize experiences (sincerity) so that their “potentialities” approach “inexhaustibility (so that further suggestion approaches objectification).
If a work of art uses only what experiences we have brought to it, previously coördinated, it leaves us exactly where we were, we might have employed the time more profitably at chess. It is the potentialities for experience that count. These potentialities are of course already funded in the previously acquired deposit of coördinated experience, but they are as yet unused for any really integral synthesis. It is the function of a valuable work of art to assume those potentialities into coördinated societies of richer meaning than would have been discovered in the chances of the occasional world, and to leave, as any achievement of coördination must leave, a realm of richer potentiality for new synthesis. When the relevance of the material is sufficiently independent of temporal contingencies the poem, or picture, or whatever, approaches inexhaustibility.46
Furthermore, Rexroth employed, as in “Last Page of a Manuscript,” meanings of “words as movement” to reaffirm meanings of words as content as Williams advised in his essay on Stein, and his description of the art product “in which this quality of inexhaustibility is at a maximum” as “machines for the enrichment of life as endurable as radium clocks” is like Williams’ description in his review of Oppen’s Discrete Series of a poem as a mechanism.47
V. Ezra Pound
The editors of Poetry closed the correspondence section of the April issue with an implicit statement of their regret for having sponsored a thing so controversial:
The above extracts from recent correspondence may suffice to give our readers a hint of the contradictory comments on the February issue. We will close the symposium with a postcard message from Ezra Pound:
Send me four more copies—this is a number I can show to my Friends. If you can do another eleven as lively you will put the mag. on its feet.
Alas, we fear that would put it on its uppers!48
In Pound’s “Our Contemporaries and Others” in the New Review for Spring 1931, the influence of Zukofsky’s formulations is evident:
Thought, dogblast you, thought is made up of particulars, and when these particulars cease to be vividly presented to the consciousness in the general statement, thought ceases and blah begins.49
In additon, a section of this essay directly concerns Monroe’s editorial in the March issue of Poetry:
- “Perhaps it does.” said Senator Edwards.
“Poetry” for March is mainly interesting for Miss Monroe’s lament over Zukofsky. We “salute” the sporting spirit which enabled Miss Monroe to hand over the Feb. number to the opposition. It is something that a middle aged review in Chicago shd. produce—by whatever means—a single issue that shd. compel at least one hardy Briton to admit that nothing as good cd. be concocted with contemporary British material, same hardy Briton having been full of objections to murkn poesy before the said Feb. issue.
Mr. Zukofsky’s number seems to have caused local distress.
Miss Monroe sought comfort in “Symposium” and found it not. She then essayed irony by giving a list of the great transpontines neglected by the rising generation. The list is as follows: Robinson, Lindsay; Frost, Masters, Jeffers, Miss Millay, Amy (not McPherson), Elinor Wylie.
Apart from Miss Lowell’s faking, pretense, minor Barnumism, we can seriously affirm that this lot of writers maintained (vis à vis European production) that inferiority in American writing that was so successfully established by Whittier, Emerson and the Concord school in general.
The discrepancy between the two standards was probably increased during the garbagesque era in which N. Y. was dominated by Howells, Underbrush Johnson, Gilder, Van Dyke etc. in opposition to H. James.
An optimist might content that Robinson and Frost reëstablished a proportion analogous let us say to the relative status of Whittier and Gautier. Miss Monroe’s generation never quite understood why one shd. make comparisons so painful to local vanity.50
Pound repeated some of these sentiments in his letter to Monroe of 27 March 1931. There he claimed that “there has been a development in American verse during 20 years; and the messy britons have not kept up with it.” We may exempt, of course, Bunting, who was likely Pound’s “hardy Briton” above. Mentioning to Monroe his “brief note on Feb. Poetry for Putnam’s New Rev.,” Pound wrote that “An editor is not there to represent him- or herself save as a PART of the period,” and that Monroe should respect diversity: “Different facets shd. be presented with as much separation as possible, so as to show what they are, not merely partly boiled legumes in the soup.”51 This was Pound’s argument for her devoting “another eleven” issues of Poetry to separate groups. (As Pound wrote to Zukofsky at the beginning, “Poetry has never had enUFF disagreement INSIDE” its own walls.)52 Pound continued:
Only a small part of any epoch or decade survives. Service of Feb. number perhaps not so much re what is to survive of present infants as in strong indication of what will not survive from former mediocrity and faintly-above-medioc. A pruning of the tree.
There always is “mightly little” being done.
P.S. Yet again: say the Feb. number doesn’t “record a triumph” for that group. GET some other damn group and see what it can do. What about the neo-Elinor-Wylites? Have they got any further than the neo-Vance-Cheneyites of 1904?
Zone the barstuds.
Or the neo-hogbutchererbigdrifties?
They all gone Rootabaga?53
These kinds of remarks, of course, were not acceptable for publication in the correspondence section of Poetry. Yet they represented valid opinions about the value of the “Object1vists” issue.
VI. Basil Bunting
“‘London or Troy?’ ‘Adest,’” in the June 1931 Poetry (Zukofsky’s review of Basil Bunting’s Redimiculum Matellarum) further asserts and clarifies the aims of the “Objectivists” according to Zukofsky. The fact that the book was privately printed helps confirm Zukofsky’s assertion in “Program: ‘Objectivists’ 1931” that the usual publishers do not publish work worth publishing (Section 15).54 Zukofsky’s title, composed of phrases from Bunting’s work,55 embodies the main themes of his review, that the synchronicity of places and times in Bunting’s poetry emphasizes the qualities they share as pattern (a music of diction and quantity), and that sincerity (evidence of the poem’s basis in experience) and the objectification (the poem as its own experience) are not contradictory.
Since vers libre, as Pound pointed out, was related to a renewal of interest in classical quantitative meters,56 it is natural that Bunting depended on not only the sense of melody but also the particular tones of classical poetry. Zukofsky wrote: “Bunting’s poetic care is measure. He is aware that quantity has naturally to do with the tones of words. His diction, as a result, tends to a classical selection, even when his themes are modern . . .”57
Asserting, with familiar elitism, that all other work is simply not poetry, Zukofsky evaluated Bunting’s work with “Objectivist” criteria:
But Mr. Bunting would not be among the isolate instances of Englishmen concerned with poetry in this time, were his content only the product of a classical ear directing a polished manner. All his poems, and especially the Villon, are grounded in an experience, though the accompanying tones of the words are their own experience.58
The experience detailed in sincerity need only be actual, not personal; the metaphor in the poem “has become the objective equivalent” of Bunting’s “personal irony.”59 “Villon” is an experience of Bunting’s experience of Villon’s experience. It is a dramatic monologue in which Bunting presented Villon’s life in the terms of his own potentialities for experience to create a marriage of time and character. Bunting expressed his attitude toward Villon’s suffering in prisons by indicting anthropometrics, a system of criminal identification. Alphonse Bertillon’s system, superseded by fingerprinting, was not in use until four centuries after Villon. From Bunting’s poem:
- Distinguishing marks if any? (O anthropometrics!)
- Now the thumb-prints for filing.
- Color of hair? of eyes? of hands? O Bertillon!
- How many golden prints on the smudgy page?
- Homer? Adest.
- Dante? Adest.60
“Villon” represents Bunting’s ethical consciousness; it is, in Zukofsky’s sense, history. Zukofsky wrote that Bunting’s “indictment of Bertillon in this poem is violence that an intelligent man confronted with historical fact has had to express, even if the name has joined the decorative scheme of his poem.”61 The phrase “O Bertillon!” is both a musical element and a detail of things as they exist. Bunting’s poems are both “grounded in experience” and give through the movement of their words “their own experience.” Sincerity and objectification are compatible. Zukofsky’s review of Bunting, then, was an attempt to clarify and exemplify “Objectivist” standards.
VII. Walter Lowenfels
The editors of Poetry continued to receive letters about Zukofsky’s issue. The correspondence section of the August issue is devoted to two such. Although both were sent first to Zukofsky for comment, his comments were published with neither. Of the first, “Note on the Anonymous Object,” by Walter Lowenfels, Zukofsky wrote simply that he approved and agreed.62 Lowenfels, “an American poet in Paris,” argued the necessity of the worldly-referential aspect of “Objectivism,” which counter-balances (more clearly and completely than Zukofsky did in his response to Burnshaw and his review of Bunting) the self-referential tendency of Zukofsky’s program.
Lowenfels began by describing the failure of what I have called the symbolist poem: “The highly personal ‘romantic’ poem that creates highly personal objects is not a thing in itself. It is the result of a reaction of the poet away from the world of common stuff.” In contrast, it is understood, the “Objectivist” poem (”a thing in itself”) is neither “highly personal” nor “a reaction of the poet away from the world of common stuff.” Yet Lowenfels believed that objectification cannot be achieved except by personal, non-objective forces. The poet must react with “the world of common stuff”: “If we are to achieve objectification it is necessary to begin with the sources from which the non-objective poem springs. You cannot legislate objectivity; it has to arise out of human experience and attitudes about the world. It is from his contact with the world through himself that the poet creates a poem with a sense of the world in it, his sense.”63 Similarly, in “American Poetry 1920-1930,” Zukofsky praised Cummings for his interest in “the sources where images begin” and for having “been himself, the cadence approximating the acctua1ity.”64
Sincerity and objectification are not only compatible; they achieve together a balance in words that are simultaneously referential and self-referential. Lowenfels wrote: “The objective poem keeps the new world the poet creates related to the world of common stuff. The poem makes new objects out of old ones, but they will not be objects for readers at all unless that fine balance is maintained between the ‘before unapprehended relations’ the poet sees and what we have seen before. Otherwise, the poem’s strangeness is too much for us.”65 Rexroth’s concept of the poem as an “integral synthesis” of “potentialities for experience . . . funded in the previously acquired deposit of coordinated experience” and Zukofsky’s concept of the poem as a fugal interplay between naturans and naturata, received and original apprehensions (see Section 19), incorporate the same balance. The poem cannot be an object unless it is both related to the real and real itself.
The Symbolist creates poems which ignore the referential meanings of words and, therefore, fail to achieve this balance. Lowenfels claimed: “Instead of making words fly out of emotions, the non-objective poet makes word games by beginning with the word texture itself. That is, he uses words as objects instead of emotions about processes and objects.”66 The “Objectivist” poetic process is of inspiration and presentation rather than projection (see Section 5 and Section 6). Emotions may reflect the object and organize appropriate forms to be presented in the poem, as Pound wrote: “One believes that emotion is an organizer of forms. . . . The rhythm form is false unless it belongs to the particular creative emotion or energy which it purports to represent.”67 The “Objectivist” uses words, Zukofsky asserted, as “absolute symbols for objects, states, acts, interrelations, thoughts about them.”68
Lowenfels argued that creativity depends on a balance between the poet and the world, and that the isolation of the poet by society tends to make him a Symbolist: “The world drives the poet into himself, and in order to create at all he creates too much out of himself alone. The ego predominates, against the world and its objects . . . . Balanced creation comes out of a balance between the one and the many. If you want objective and affirmative poems you must recreate a situation that will allow them. Otherwise, creation itself will stop. Affirmation by negation cannot be continued forever.”69
Since, as Zukofsky wrote, “He who creates / Is a mode of these inertial systems,”70 the poet’s creative force may help create situations in which people do not need to negate their experience. “To become an active force to integrate the world,” Lowenfels wrote, “the poet must stress creation itself rather than his individual ego. . . . Poems give us a sense of the world; if they are integrated and affirmative then we and our sense of the world will be. Poems may act for us as the Holy Church did in the Middle Ages. And you may get poems that have the common objective reality of Gothic cathedrals.”71 Although Lowenfels’ notion of the role of the Church and the character of the cathedral (perhaps from Ruskin)72 is idealistic, Lowenfels was not naive about the inertia of the world. The principle of stressing poetic creation instead of the poet’s ego, he wrote, “implies, perhaps, anonymous art; there is, in fact, such a movement now under way. However, the practical difficulties of omitting signature are enormous, and what has a better chance to succeed is a more active union of poets than we have at present. Technical differences may be sunk to stress creation itself as a central unifying force out of which technical ‘movements’ can evolve.”73
The “Objectivists,” who believed with Lowenfels that poetry is “the mould of language as of feeling,”74 shared both Lowenfels’ diagnosis of the world’s disease and his proscription for its cure. From 1930 to 1933, the “Objectivists” made two serious attempts to form an active union of poets, in which they advocated not a comon prosody but a common poetic, the epistemological and ethical conditions which make creativity possible.
VIII. T. H. Ferrill
The editors of Poetry understood their “recent strictures on the overproduction of sonnets” to have brought “from a western poet” the second letter published in the August issue. Thomas Hornsby Ferrill’s letter, however, deals only indirectly with sonnets; its real object of ridicule is poetic theorizing. Ferrill claimed he would lobby against the writing of sonnets if Poetry would lobby for a nineteenth amendment prohibiting esthetic rationalization!” But “even this,” he felt,
would be ineffective, because the Aristotles, Longinuses, Ezras, Amys, and even Zukofskys would all begin bootlegging their precise logic, based on factual observation, into the magazines.
I think they accomplish some good to the extent that they destroy sooner weak poets who would be destroyed by something else anyway; and what they write is usually interesting, sometimes thrilling literature of a sort, an art in itself. But they feel, and I think most careless readers feel, that what they say about poetry has some organic relation to poetry itself, which it certainly has not. Being in a generous mood this morning I will give you as much as a dime if you can point to a single period of human history wherein esthetic rationalization has not been symptomatic of anything but decadence.75
This provoked from Zukofsky a vituperative reply, unfit for publication in Poetry, which he sent to Monroe on 27 July 1931 and which he confessed to Zabel on 3 August was a pasquinade and an impermissible but importunate outbreak from his customary taciturnity.76 Ferrill, unable to digest “esthetic rationalization,” like a cow who, unable to eat, sickens and dies, Zukofsky claimed, would never write poetry. Esthetic rationalization has always been in “organic relation to poetry itself.” The excellent poetry of Aristotle, Longinus, Pound, and even Dante was written not despite but because of “their precise logic, based on factual observation.”77
Ferrill continued to preoccupy Zukofsky. The nature of the “organic relation” between criticism and poetry, and the importance in both of “precise logic, based on factual observation,” were to be explicitly detailed in Zukofsky’s next attempt to clarify the confusions resulting from the February issue of Poetry—his lecture, “’Recencies’ in Poetry.”
The critical statements about the “Objectivists” issue published in Poetry are not so much “contradictory” as they are, each in their own way, limited. Critics too often fail to leap to understand new work in the light of new concepts, and to understand the other in the light of the other’s perspective. But they all—Monroe in her adoration of the writers of the twenties, Gregory in his middle-western, pioneer-stock populism, Burnshaw in his excessively analytic Francophilia, Rexroth in his erudite elitism, Pound in his rude and exaggerated aggrandizement of the good, Bunting in his ethical consciousness and poetic craftsmanship, Lowenfels in his feelings against the “highly personal ‘romantic’ poem,” Ferrill in his bias against “esthetic rationalization,” and Zukofsky in his curt, frequently unintelligible, and defensive stubbornness—they all lack the perspective which I have attempted to provide by interpreting and comparing to clarify agreements and disagreements. Fundamentals are often not explicitly stated. We should not worry about the confusion. Zukofsky’s principles were not clearly stated, and the significance of an idea may be directly proportional to the controversy it generated.