Section 21 - “Recencies” in Poetry
“‘Recencies’ in Poetry,” the preface to An “Objectivists” Anthology, was Zukofsky’s final statement as a spokesman for “Objectivist” principles. It was first given as a lecture at the Gotham Book Mart in New York City on 19 August 1931, as he mentioned to Zabel, commenting that he had hoped it would once and for all clarify “Objectivism,” but the reactions of his audience more than disappointed him.1
The essay, seemingly unrevised from Zukofsky’s notes for oral delivery (witness its redundant verbalizations of quotation marks), is sometimes confusing because of Zukofsky’s peculiar usages and his concise but complex and elliptical syntax. As Zukofsky later said of his early criticism as a whole, “there are certain infelicities of style in the original.”2
Zukofsky might have chosen his title, “‘Recencies’ in Poetry,” in response to Stanley Burnshaw, who wished to know how “Objectivism” was “related to past poetry” (Section 20.III). Zukofsky answered that “Objectivist” work, like past poetry, was “poetry,” but that interpretation of that absolute depends on the individual and the age, and that he could only speak for himself, not for the other contributors. Here, he wrote that “poetry” is contemporaneous: “The subject of this: ‘Recencies’ in Poetry. Quotes around ‘recencies’ because only good poetry—good an unnecessary adjective—is contemporary or classical.”3
I. Critical Qualifications
Zukofsky began his lecture by apologizing, in his fashion, for the confusion that made necessary two clarifications of his position in the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry. His apology is preceded by a denial of apologies, qualified by a “perhaps,” and followed by a disparagement of the critics who made it necessary. His first clarification, repeated from his reply to Burnshaw, was intended to address the confusion between linguistic and epistemic objectivity: “The quotes around ‘objectivists’ distinguish between its particular meaning in the Program of Feb. Poetry, and the philosophical etiquette associated with objectivist.” The term “Objectivists” refers to the understanding of the poem as an object, not to any limitation to the ontologically objective. The “thing” they represent may be either subjective or objective. They neither denied the efficacy of the subject nor believed in art for art’s sake. Their “poem as object” is both conceptive and emotive and in it is inherent a transitive relation to objective reality.
Zukofsky’s second clarification was intended to address the error that Ferrill made in stating that poetic criticism bears no “organic relation to poetry itself”: “The several definitions of an Objective and the use of this term extended to poetry—as slightly reworded in the Feb. issue—are from the sixth movement of the editor’s partly published poem “A” dated the early summer of 1930, almost a year before the ‘Objectivists’ number.”4 Quoting the lines in “A”-6 to which he referred (see Section 15), Zukofsky explained:
Assuming the intention of these lines to be poetry, the implications notwithstanding the hurried convictions of certain hasty readers that analysis has no “organic relation” (quotes) to poetry, seem to be that as a critic the editor of Feb. Poetry began as a poet, and that as a poet he had implicity to be a critic. Wm. Carlos Williams had said before him, in Spring and All,—”I believe it possible, even essential, that when poetry fails it does not become prose but bad poetry.”
A poet finds the continuously present analysis of his work preferable to criticism so-called.5
Different purposes, not different forms, distinguished poetry and “criticism so-called.” The poet’s ongoing self-critical and self-analytical awareness of his work is more useful than the work of critics. Poetic criticism either shares with poetry a common source—as Zukofsky put it, “a poetically charged mentality”—or it is a brand of “circumlocution requisite to ponderous journals and designated by Mr. Pound as backsidebeforeness.”6
Zukofsky then took two examples of “‘critical’ backsidebeforeness“ to show the ways in which it differs from “Objectivist” principles. Both examples are criticisms of Samuel Johnson. The first, by T. S. Eliot, was found, he wrote,
in a recent preface to a volume containing Johnson’s London and The Vanity of Human Wishes: ‘Those who demand of poetry a day dream, or a metamorphosis of their feeble desires or lusts, or what they will believe to be the “intensity” of passion, will not find much in Johnson. He is like Pope and Dryden, Crabbe and Lander, a poet for those who want poetry and not something else, some stay for their own vanity. I sometimes think that our own time with its elaborate equipment of science and psychological analysis, is even less fitted than the Victorian age to appreciate poetry as poetry.’7
Zukofsky wrote that Eliot made two mistakes: “First, Mr. Eliot makes the graceless error of writing down to those who consciously want something else from poetry—not poetry—as some stay for their own vanity.”8 In other words, whoever refuses to condescend, to those who rightly see in poetry the poet’s sense of the world, must read poetry only to boost their own egos, to regard themselves as an elite. For an “Objectivist,” there is no such thing as poetry which does not have “something else” in it; a poem’s particulars are of a shared world. This brings us to Eliot’s second mistake. The “Objectivist” poem uses and relates facts:
Secondly, he [Eliot] seems to “sometimes” think that minds elaborately equipped with specific information, like science[,] always must confuse it with other specific information, like poetry. That may be the case with unfortunates. The point, however, would be not to proffer solemnity or whiningly confusions to the confused, but to indicate by energetic mental behavior how certain information may be useful to other information, and when the divisions which signalize them are necessary.9
Relations are not confusion except to the confused; they do not inevitably obscure necessary distinctions. “Science and psychological analysis” is useful to interpretation of poetry whenever the poetry is related to the matters of science and psychology.
The author of Zukofsky’s second example of critical backsidebeforeness, who is not named, comments on another passage by Johnson. Its poetic precision, lucidity, and purity, the critics claimed, are the result of a “maturity” which is no more than isolation from “ceaseless social change” and “too much speculation.” Johnson was not “lost in the mutability of sensation”; he had his mind “made up.” “Such a poet will have taste”—not “sensation.”10
Zukofsky discounted all these assumptions. First, the passage by Johnson to which the critic referred “does not seem precise and lucid, i.e. profoundly entire . . . in anything but its versification.”11 In contrast with Johnson’s generalized language, the “Objectivist” deals with particulars; only particulars guarantee clarity; only by exactitude is a poem made a thing “profoundly entire.”
. . . Johnson must, in spite of or because of his maturity have been aware of the ceaseless social change around him or at some time, for where else could the armful sweep of perorated obsequy have come from?—”And bids afflicted worth retire to peace”—(Worth: cultural involved with economic standing? afflicted implying at least an impress if not an oppressor and obviously an oppressed?)12
No matter what his poetic principles, a mature poet can not be unaware, as Oppen phrased it, “of the world, weather-swept, with which / one shares the century.”
Thirdly, one need not deny “the mutability of sensation” altogether in order to avoid being lost in it. As Lowenfels asserted, the Objectivist poet seeks a balance between original and received apprehensions, or, as Zukofsky might have put it, a counterpoint of naturans and naturata (see Section 18 and section 20.VII).
Fourthly, “taste” is not preconception. One learns from experience; the “taste” of an “Objectivist” resides in his handling of the precise particulars of experience, not in having his mind made up beforehand.
it will not do to say “that part of Johnson which is not poetry is nothing,” one cannot speak of a part of a poem any more than a part of a flow.—“Words, writes Mr. Pound, do not function in this manner. They are like the roots of plants: they are organic, they interpenetrate and tangle with life, you cannot detach them as pieces of an anatomical figure. This dissection of capillaries and vein is at a certain stage no longer possible.”13
As if in reply to Horace Gregory, each of Zukofsky’s excep’ tions to critical backsidebeforeness implicity assumes the importance of the worldly referential qualities of the poem. Very little has been said about “the technic of writing.” Instead, Zukofsky has concentrated on the epistemological and ethical assumptions of the “Objectivists.”
II. Poem as Object
Next, the essay explicity presents the principles by which such sensations are raised “to honesty and intelligence” and to a “precision of style.”14 Poetry is a job and a poem is a piece of work, just like any other job and any other piece of work. The poet, therefore, “has an economic bias. He has been doing a job. It will perhaps as soon as not be his salvation.”15 Thus Zukofsky pitched his concept of the poem as object against a society which dismissed poetry as subjective and ephemeral, and therefore impractical. As in his “A”-9, poetry is considered in the light of Marx’s theory—a product given value by the labor of making it.16 Such value is the poet’s reason for being; the poem is socially redeeming.
Zukofsky introduced the characteristics of the poem with such value by analogy: “A desk as an object.”17 A desk depends for both its construction and its realization, its meaning, on things outside itself, on its relation to human life.
For even a desk has something to do with capillaries and veins the dissection of which at a certain stage is no longer possible—The desk then as a piece of work, the parts, the process of making it—“We cannot,” says the critic of Mr. Eliot’s criticism of Johnson, “have a classical attitude in perfection without a classical society.”18
With such an attitude, the desk is also “classical”; it adheres to and is representative of the values of the society for which it was made. A poem, like a desk, is also an object whose context explicitly relates to a world outside it:
A poem. Also the materials which are outside (?) the veins and capillaries—The context—The context necessarily dealing with a world outside of it—The desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars—A desire to place everything—everything aptly, perfectly, belonging within, one with, a context.
A poem. The context based on a world—Idle metaphor—a lime base—a fibre—not merely a charged vacuum tube—an aerie of personation—The desire for inclusiveness—The desire for an inclusive object.
A poem. This object in process—The poem as a job—A Classic.19
This theory substantiates the definition of “An Objective” given in “A”-6 and the February program. As “what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars,” the poem is synecdochic with its worldly context; it is an “object in process”; it perfectly belongs in the whole of which it is a part. As such, it is inclusive and extensive: the world has meaning in it, and is given meaning by it. Zukofsky:
The mind may construct its world—this is hardly philosophy—if the mind does construct its world there is always that world immanent or imminently outside which at least as a term has become an entity. Linguistic usage has somewhat preserved these acts which were poems in other times and have transferred structures now.20
This extensiveness, dependent on exactitude, is what “is true and stays true that keeps fresh for the new reader,” as Pound put it.21 Zukofsky called a thing with these characteristics a “Classic,” and he gave an example: “Homer’s The Wet Waves not our The Wet Waves but enough association in the three words to make it mean a context capable of extension from its time into the present.”22
In addition to being an object with a context “with communicative reference,” the poem is a “‘musical’ shape.” In “Sincerity and Objectification,” Zukofsky wrote that writing is the detail of directing “things as they exist . . . along a line of melody.”23 Here he elaborated: “A poem: a context associated with ‘musical’ shape, musical with quotation marks since it is not of notes as music, but of words more variable than variables, and used outside as well as within the context with communicative reference.”24 Poetry’s musical shapes are the shapes which, in “Sincerity and Objectification,” appear concomitants of word combinations.” Words, for an “Objectivist,” are both referential and self-referential.
Finally, the things which are included and extended as a musical object are the elements of human experience—particulars:
Impossible to communicate anything but particulars—historic and contemporary—things, human beings as things their instrumentalities of capillaries and veins binding up and bound up with events and contingencies. The revolutionary word if it must revolve cannot escape having a reference.25
If the pattern of the generative experience is transferred in the integrity of its particulars into the words of the poem, one raises sensations “to honesty and intelligence” and to a “precision of style.” The revolutionary value of the poet’s job is not in transcending the world of sensation, the world of “ceaseless social change,” but in expressing with precision the movement inherent in that world. Zukofsky wrote: “Poems are only acts upon particulars, outside of them. Only thru such activity do they become particulars themselves—i.e. poems.”26 Only by such a process does the poet’s work, according to Zukofsky, become poetry (”good an unnecessary adjective”). Such work is both referential and self-referential; its universals inhere in particulars; and it is the product of both “exclusion” and “invention.”
III. Exclusion and Invention
Exclusion is the poetic discipline by which particulars are perfected from existence for experience. Zukofsky wrote:
The history of EXCLUSION in poetry as recorded by an American, and in a sense for the first time in poetic criticism, since much research would have to be accomplished before its concise poetical and critical parallel can be found,—is brief. Three statements of Ezra Pound as now recorded in A Retrospect, Pavannes and Divisions, and dated 1912—27
Here Zukofsky quoted Pound’s three Imagiste principles, regarding direct treatment, economy of words, and the musical phrase, according to which, having got the Image, as Pound wrote, one “refrains from hanging it with festoons.”28
Given the principles of exclusion, a poet is able to differentiate between work that is “final . . . this highest thing, this saying the thing once for all and perfectly” and work which is mere “experiment.”29 To which, Zukofsky added,
(Not much more than Mr. Pound’s sort of experiment which will be of use to a poet in his later work, or to his successors was claimed for the sincerity of poets in the “Objectivists” number of poetry—sincerity defined in the critical section of that issue. A careful reading should show this.)30
In the program of the issue, Zukofsky described the “process of active literary omission” and “the acceptance of two criteria: sincerity and objectification.”31 Sincerity is the presentation of the particulars of an Image, as opposed to “festoons.” It ensures at least experimental value. But objectification is the achievement of work that is final, upon which could only be based lesser, imitative work.
Invention regards the positive aspects of poetic accomplishment, not what one avoids but what one uses to present the Image. Zukofsky: “The history of the principles of poetic invention as recorded by an American is also brief—Mr. Ezra Pound—In the Vortex —”Instigations” dated 1920—”32 And here Zukofsky quoted Pound’s division of poetry into “three sorts”: (1) melopoeia, (2) imagism (phanopoeia), and (3) logopoeia, or, simply, music, image, and thought. In How to Read, Pound defined the three modes and added: “All writing is built up of these three elements plus ‘architectonics’ or ‘the form of the whole.’”33 Pound’s melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia are three ways of achieving Zukofsky’s sincerity. Zukofsky, who read How to Read in January 1931,34 was in a position to relate Pound’s “three principles of poetic invention” to his concept of objectification. If melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia are the lumber, then the poem as object is the finished desk:
Adding to Mr. Pound’s statement, one can speak of an attained emotion fusing these three principles of poetic invention. There is no use in a surplus of distinctions. Obviously there can be only that emotion which in its movement, in its verbal existence, sensuously and intelligently manifests poetry—i.e. speaking of poetry—The desk, not the lumber.35
One may achieve this fusion only if all the elements in the poem have a unity in a single emotion.36 Pound did not speak of objectification, but he did speak of the Image and the organizational force of emotion. In a passage from “A Retrospect,” for example, Pound stated that a rhythm should be “a part of the emotion of the ‘thing.’” And in “The Serious Artist,” he wrote that “the words and their sense must be such as fit the emotion. Or, from the other side, ideas, or fragments of ideas, the emotion and concomitant emotions of this ‘Intellectual and Emotional Complex’ . . . must be in harmony, they must form an organism, they must be an oak spring from an acorn.”37
Zukofsky realized that emotion, Image, and the poem as object are related:
Mr. Pound again—Emotion is the organizer of poetic form. The image is at the basis of poetic form. Elsewhere, Pound had defined the image as that which presents as intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. One can go further, try to dissect capillaries or intelligent nerves—and speak of the image felt as duration or perhaps of the image as the existence of the shape and movement of the poetic object.38
Zukofsky thereby united “attained emotion,” Pound’s Image, and his “musical” shapes. All three are aspects of the same “thing”—the pattern which the experience impresses and whose essence is the emotion. It inheres in the experience of the world and, if the poet is capable of transferring it, in the experience of the poem. The poet is capable of transferring it only if he is able to locate the precise devices. If Pound’s “sorts” of poetry are not translated into poetic components, there can be no invention.
Zukofsky again emphasized the tradition which he shared with Pound and Williams:39
It is known now as it was known previous to 1913 when certain American writers perpetuated a great many errors and to a great extent sabotaged poetry—Mr. Pound was the only exception—that the poet’s image is not dissociable from the movement or the cadenced shape of the poem.
A new cadence is a new idea—again Pound.
An idea—not a concept. An idea—its value including its meaning. The desk i.e. as object including its value—The object unrelated to palpable or predatory intent—Also the meaning, or what should be the meaning of science in modern civilization as pointed out in Thornstein. Veblen’s masterly essay.40
Zukofsky did not state Veblen’s thesis, but one may assume it is that science is simply a tool available for either use or misuse. The object itself, like the desk, is “unrelated to palpable or predatory intent.” The predatory misuse of writing would be persuasion, propaganda. As Pound wrote, “art never asks anybody to do anything, or to think anything, or to be anything. It exists as the trees exist, you can admire it, you can sit in the shade, you can pick bananas, you can cut firewood, you can do as you jolly well please.”41 Zukofsky made this distinction to defend his art against the simplistic accusation from the left of being against the proletariat if he is not with it. Zukofsky surrendered his argument to Pound’s “Mauberley” as follows:
The protagonist of Pound’s poem—
- He made no immediate application
- Of this to relation of the state
- To the individual—
No predatory manifestation—Yet a manifestation making the mind more temperate because the poem exists and has perhaps recorded both state and individual—
By all means a literature of the proletariat—which will be only literature after all—if there are writers.42
“Writers,” one understands, are not propagandizers; however, Mauberley failed to make both the application and the distinction. Zukofsky is guilty neither of Mauberley’s decadence nor of others’ polarized predatoriness. Literary invention is a record of “both the state and individual.” The value of the “idea” in “making the mind more temperate” is its use in recording the fact, not in arguing the faction. This is as if to say that the value of a desk is to keep one’s writing paraphenalia in order, to keep a surface cleared for writing, or that the value of science is to organize our knowledge of material reality. The mind is similarly organized for use by literature.
The remaining components of poetic invention—diction, melody, and typography—must similarly serve not the ego of the poet but the meaning of the poetic object. Invention establishes the value of innovation in producing the “thing” for the health of man, for impartial use. Zukofsky quoted Williams: “‘The only human value of anything, writing included,’ says Wm. Carlos Williams, ‘is the intense vision of the facts, add to that by saying the truth and action upon them—clear into the machine of absurdity into a core that is covered.’—”43 As Oppen said, “The important thing is that if we are talking about the nature of reality, then we are not really talking about our comment about it”; we are talking about the facts and their consequences, including their emotional consequences. It is as important to locate in the real the observer and the means of observation as the thing observed. Pound wrote: “The serious artist is scientific in that he presents the image of his desire, of his hate, of his indifference as precisely that, as precisely the image of his own desire, hate or indifference.”44 Similarly, Zukofsky criticized “the work of poets who see with their ears, hear with their eyes, move with their noses and speak and breathe with their feet,” and realized that even synesthesia might be presented as precisely synesthesia: “And yet lunatics are sometimes profitably observed: the core that is covered, the valuable sceptic knows, may in itself be the intense vision of a fact.”45 Scientific precision requires sincerity in writing, without which it would not matter how sincere were one’s intentions: “Intention must, however, be distinguished from accomplishment which resolves the complexity of detail into a single object. Emphasize detail 130 times over—or there will be no poetic object.”46
Zukofsky next answered Burnshaw that, no, objectification is not “an application of the James’ stream-of-consciousness hypothesis.”47 Zukofsky agreed with Pound’s statement in “Small Magazines” that the “stream of consciousness in Ulysses” is as much a product of “composition” and “condensation” “as a plot of Racine’s,” and that “the relative value of presentations of such imagined streams will depend as writing in the past has depended, on the richness of content and on the author’s skill in arranging it.”48 Objectification does not depend on this or any “formula” of presentation. There is a distinction between the processes of consciousness and literature. Zukofsky did not prohibit the literary presentation of consciousness; he simply regarded that as one kind of intention. It is not objectification; it is simply a thing which might on occasion be objectified. No psychological hypothesis can substitute for artistic craftsmanship.
Zukofsky considered three levels of craftsmanship, or “carpentry.” In the first, “certain joints show the carpentry not to advantage,” and in the second the joints “are a fine evidence,” showing but at least to advantage; however, in the third, “necessary craftsmanship is hid in the object.” The third level of craftsmanship is Zukofsky’s aim, even for his criticism:
Against obvious transitions, Pound, Williams, Rakosi, Bunting, Miss Moore, oppose condensation. The transitions cut are implicit in the work, 3 or 4 things occur at a time making the difference between Aristotelian expansive unities and the concentrated locus which is the mind acting creatively upon the facts.49
In the “Symposium” with Tyler and Ford in the February issue (Section 16), Zukofsky claimed that “Pound’s Cantos discard the Aristotelian unities but are a continuous experience in themselves.”50 As in Bunting’s work, particulars of different actions, times, and places are meaningfully juxtaposed, yet the differences between such particulars are no more destroyed than are the differences between an apple and an orange by being placed together on a table. Moreover, juxtaposing different fruits on the table can say something about their shared and distinctive qualities and about the characteristics of the orchards in which they grow more concentratedly than walking from orchard to orchard. An “Objectivist” poem presents such “complexity of detail” and aims at resolving it into a meaningful experience.
In contemporary poetry 3 types of complexity are discernible. 1—the swift concatenation of multiple references usually lyrical in movement—almost any poem by Donne, for example. 2—the conceit—Shakespeare’s “when to the sessions,” his working out of love as bookkeeping, or Donne’s Valediction, his “two twin compasses”—3—the complexity of the epic—Byron’s Don Juan, or most of it.51
He gives further examples: (1) his “Madison, Wis., Remembering the bloom of Monticello (1931),” (2) Williams’ “The Botticellian Trees,” and his “Prop. XLI,” and (3) Eliot’s The Waste Land, McAlmon’s Portrait of a Generation and North America, his “Poem beginning ‘The’” and “A”, and Pound’s Cantos.
Of the epic, Zukofsky wrote:
M. Taupin’s accurate statement regarding Salmon’s Prikaz was included in the Feb. issue of Poetry as indicative of what poets should ultimately attempt. “—give to the epic its rightful qualities, to find again the essential distinction of the epic, which is neither love nor hate but the restitution of these sentiments to a chain of facts which exist, and the existence of which confers upon them the marveleous indispensable to all poetry.”52
The differences between epic, conceit, and lyric poems are only of their degrees of complexity of detail. All three types must be inclusive and extensive, the product of poetic omission and invention, and restitute emotions to an order of facts. This order is the shape “of the poetic object and its simple entirety.” In this sense, it resolves “complexity of detail” into a unity; i.e., “The Cantos meaning is The Cantos: in spite of all the complexities they deal with.”53
The ideal is from Walter Pater:
If music be the ideal of all art whatever, precisely because in music it is impossible to distinguish the form from the substance or matter, the subject from the expression, then, literature, by finding its specific excellence in the absolute correspondence of the term to its import, will be but fulfilling the condition of all artistic quality in things everywhere, of all good art.54
Zukofsky added to this the requirement that the intention be disinterested:
I.e. order and the facts as order. The order of the Cantos as the order of all poetry is to approach a state of music wherein the ideas present themselves sensuously and intelligently and are of no predatory intention. A hard job, as poets have found reconciling contrasting principles or facts. In poetry the poet is continually encountering the facts which in the making seem to want to disburb the music and yet the music or the movement cannot exist without the facts, without its facts. The base matter, to speak hurriedly, which must receive the signet of the form.55
The poet, aware of the sensuous and intelligent qualities of words, strives to act with words upon particulars in such an order that his act becomes a particular of such an order.