“Objectivists” 1927-1934 Section 23 - Notes Contents

Section 23 - The Shared World

This history has been recorded in great detail to establish the fact that Zukofsky, Williams, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Pound, and Oppen had a long, complex, creative, and meaningful association. Such a history disproves the allegations initiated by Zukofsky after this period that the “Objectivists” were a group in name only, a matter of editorial convenience or public relations, and that they had no theoretical common ground. Any set of writers who edited, published, and reviewed each others’ work as often as the “Objectivists” must be considered a literary group. The critical aspect of this history, therefore, has attempted to define by induction the consensus of their association, that is, the principles of “Objectivism.”

I. The Political Context

A primary context for their consensus, a ground so common that in their time it was assumed without comment and in our time it is too often ignored, was economic. A particular problem for writers in a free society, especially for writers who are bent on doing something new, and especially in times of economic uncertainty, is being on the economic fringe. They find it difficult to make a living with their art. In Exile 3, Pound wrote: “What largely ails the ‘arts’ is unemployment.”1 The appearance of prosperity for others under Coolidge alienated such people—especially when high unemployment prohibited alternative work:

While stock prices had been climbing, business activity had been undeniably subsiding. There had been such a marked recession during the latter part of 1927 that by February, 1928, the director of the Charity Society in New York reported that unemployment was more serious than at any time since immediately after the war.2

In this situation, since the public bought fewer books and the publishing industry took fewer risks, writers’ work and others’ opinions of it suffered. Writers of the time had to respond to the fact that as economic difficulties became more serious literary difficulties seemed less serious. They could resopnd by scorning public acceptance, creating art without relevance, or by serving the proletariat, creating relevance without art, but the “Objectivists” wanted both relevance and art. They therefore enhanced the realness of both referential and self-referential literary form (sincerity and objectification) and asserted the beneficial effects of that realness. They created writing to counter the forces of isolation, abstraction, and dehumanization.

In these efforts they were guided by the polemics of Ezra Pound. In Exile 2 Pound claimed a connection as well as a distinction between society and literature, as between the public and the private:

The drear horror of American life can be traced to two damnable roots, or perhaps it is only one root: 1. The loss of all distinction between public and private affairs. 2. The tendency to mess into other peoples’ affairs before establishing order in one’s own affairs, and in one’s thought. To which one might perhaps add the lack in America of any habit of connecting any act or thought to any main principle whatsoever; the ineffable rudderlessness of that people. The principle of good is enunciated by Confucius; it consists in establishing order within oneself. This order or harmony spreads by a sort of contagion without specific effort.3

Pound’s analysis put the artist in a fortunate position. Since the arts establish private order, they are of vital importance to the health of society. The epigraph of the Exile is “Res publica,” which Pound translated as “the public convenience,” referring to the fact government should be for the convenience of the peop1e.4 A government which interfered with the arts was not for the convenience of the people; it created chaos by ignoring the root source of all order. The artist has reason to be bitter when his position is unacknowledged; the artist-exile strikes back at the situation in which “public affairs have arrived at a state of annoyingness where they interfere with the proper conduct of life and the fine arts.”5

The idea that order is established best through art is a constant concern throughout Pound’s writings. Zukofsky wrote of him:

For a quarter of a century he has been engaged in ‘the expression of an idea of beauty (or order)’ and his results are one aspect of a further personal comprehension.

—intent upon ‘language not petrifying on his hands, preparing for new advances along the lines of true metaphor, that is, interpretive metaphor, or image, as opposed to the ornamental.’ ‘Artists are the antennae of the race,’ words to him are principals of a line of action, a store, a purpose, a retaining of speech and manner, a constant reinterpretating of process becoming in himself one continuous process, essentially simplification.

He has treated the arts as a science so that their morality and immorality become a matter of accuracy and inaccuracy.6

The meaning of words was to the pragmatic Pound the basis of truth in the process of his experience: “principals of a line of action, a store” of the facts of experience, “a purpose of life, and a retention “of speech and manner”; they enact the proper relation between a man and the world. Words were, that is, the principals of principles.

William James wrote, “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process, the process namely of its verifying itself, its verification.” “The pragmatic method,” he wrote, “is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.”7 The “Objectivist method, similarly, is to try to present each notion in terms of actual consequences, things actually perceived. Restoring truth to the accuracies of this discipline is, as Zukofsky said, a “simplification.” “So much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow,” wrote Williams; a picture is worth a thousand words.

Williams was more explicit than Pound about the “contagion” by which artistic order spreads. He claimed Pound and Stein used language to reconstitute thinking and therefore being:

But he is striking, as Stein is, 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.

Pound, in his studious efforts to put us on the track of a released intelligence, a released spirit, a body that can function with what might be health—has dug down into the history of the mens sana in corpore sano throughout the ages.8

In a letter to Pound on 15 March 1933, Williams expressed the same idea about his own poetry and the bitterness he felt from the lack of its recognition:

What shall you say about me? That I have a volume of verse which I have been in the process of making for the past ten years, that it is the best collection of verse in America today and that I can’t find a publisher—while, at the same time, every Sunday literary supplement has pages of book titles representing the poetry of my contemporaries. And when I say I have sought a publisher I mean just that, for I had the best agent in New York fairly comb the city for me last year. I’ll try again this spring.

This must mean something. No doubt it means that my conception of poetry is not that of my contemporaries, either in the academics or out. This should be a distinction. It means that I believe poetry to be the mould of language as of feeling in any world and that its importance as a mechanism for correct thinking makes it too difficult for ordinary use, not that my own work is anywhere near what it shd. be, & that it is my constant effort to make it.9

Pound and Williams did not merely challenge that poetry should be responsible for the health of man; they detailed how it could be kept responsible. How to Read was printed in the New York Herald Tribune Books in 1929 and in England in 1931, and Zukofsky thought it important enough for the Oppens to reprint again in 1932.10 In it, Pound claimed that literature has “a function in the state. . . . And this function is not the coercing or emotionally persuading . . . people into the acceptance” of opinions. Instead, “it has to do with the clarity and vigor of ‘any and every’ thought and opinion. It has to do with maintaining the very cleanliness of the tools, the health of the very matter of thought itself.” Pound wrote that when “the application of word to thing goes rotten, i.e. becomes slushy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and of individual thought and order goes to pot.” Poetry can be kept responsible by working for the technical condition of clarity, exactitude. Pound seems not to have observed always the distinction between expressing opinion with exactitude and propagandistic bullying; nevertheless, he is right—poetry differs from propaganda not by avoiding opinion but by being primarily concerned with the inner rather than the outer orders of man, with substance rather than with accidents. Pound continued:

Misquoting Confucius, one might say: It does not matter whether the author desire the good of the race of acts merely from personal vanity. The thing is mechanical in action. In proportion as his work is exact, i.e., true to human consciousness and to the nature of man, as it is exact in formulation of desire, so is it durable and so is it ‘useful’; I mean it maintains the precision and clarity of thought, not merely for the benefit of a few dilettantes and ‘lovers of literature,’ but maintains the health of thought outside literary circles and in non-literary existence, in general individual and communal life.

Or ‘dans ce genre on n’émeut que par la clarté.’ One ‘moves’ the reader only by clarity. In depicting the motions of the ‘human heart’ the durability of the writing depends on the exactitude. It is the thing that is true and stays true that keeps fresh for the new reader.11

With exactitude, the precise expression of the order that stays true, the “Objectivists” both established their responsibility to historical conditions and defended their work from the simplistic demand that it serve revolutionary proletarian opinions.

Williams’ “tactus eruditus,” or, as Kenneth Burke put it, his “doctrine of contact,” is a direct corollary of exactitude, and his statement “No ideas but in things” indicates its necessary discipline.12 In Williams’ work we see that the order that stays true can not be of loose abstractions; it must be of the concrete things of experience, whether objects in the world or “motions of the ‘human heart.’” Williams’ poem is superior to the student interpretation of it which follows because Williams presented the idea in terms of things of experience:

In fact, that’s not it at all. The meaning of a thing can not be understood in terms of what it might symbolize; it is itself, and it can only, with clarity, be itself. The concrete has more meaning, more depends upon it, than upon any abstraction.

George Oppen recalled: “What I felt I was doing was beginning from imagism as a position of honesty. The first question at that time in poetry was simply the question of honesty, of sincerity.”14 Oppen took Pound’s principle further even than Williams’ discipline. The image became a test of personal sincerity. In “The Mind’s Own Place,” Oppen explained:

It is possible to find a metaphor for anything, an analogue: but the image is encountered, not found; it is an account of the poet’s perception, of the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic qualities of truthfulness. They [modernist poets] meant to replace by the data of experience the accepted poetry of their time, a display by the poets of right thinking and right sentiment, a dreary waste of lies. That data was and is the core of what “modernism” restored to poetry, the sense of the poet’s self among things. So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow. The distinction between a poem that shows confidence in itself and in its materials, and on the other hand a performance, a speech by the poet is the distinction between poetry and histrionics. It is a part of the function of poetry to serve as a test of truth. It is possible to say anything in abstract prose, but a great many things one believes or would like to believe or thinks he believes will not substantiate themselves in the concrete materials of the poem.15

Thoughts and sentiments are ethically “right” if they are related with exactitude to “the data of experience.” This ethical quality, “the sense of the poet’s self among things” entailing his responsibility to them, goes back to Pound’s “distinction between public and private affairs,” to the distinction between propaganda and literature, or as Oppen wrote histrionics and poetry. The “Objectivist” poem was not a performance; it presented the thing that can not be feigned or counterfeited. William James wrote, “True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot.”16

“Presentation” was the word that Pound used, although not consistently, for the discipline of exactitude. It requires that every formal element of the poem be in absolute correspondence to the particulars of the object. Presentation insures vividness—the vitality of language restored by “interpretive metaphor, or image”; it excludes what Pound called ornament. Considering verbal redundance, this discipline produces economy or condensation. Considering meter, it produces absolute rhythm, which depends on cadence or the musical phrase to reproduce the feeling of the object. Considering the idea (propaganda or histrionics), it produced understatement, a method of allowing the absolute terms of concrete experience to speak for themselves. Zukofsky’s “sincerity,” “preoccupation with the accuracy of detail in writing,”17 is a redefinition of this central principle. The poem must accurately express particulars, the concrete materials of experience.

The materials to which words could with exactitude be applied was expressed differently by each of the “Objectivists.” Oppen spoke of the image and also of the “substantive, the little words or the necessary content of our lives:

I’m really concerned with the substantive, with the subject of the sentence, with what we are talking about, and not rushing over the subject-matter in order to make a comment about it. It is still a principle with me, of more than poetry, to notice, to state, to lay down the substantive for its own sake. . . .

A statement can be made in which the subject plays a very little part, except for argumentation; one hangs a prediate on it that is one’s coment about it. This is an approximate quotation from Hegel, who added (I like the quote very much): “Disagreement marks where the subject-matter ends. It is what the subject-matter is not.” 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 apprehension of some thing, whether it is or not, whether one can make a thing of it or not. Of Being Numerous asks the question whether or not we can deal with humanity as something which actually does exist.

I realize the possibility of attacking many of the things I’m saying and I say them as a sort of act of faith. The little words that I like so much, like “tree,” “hill,” and so on, are I suppose just as much a taxonomy as the more elaborate words; they’re categories, classes, concepts, things we invent for ourselves. Nevertheless, there are certain ones without which we really are unable to exist, including the concept of humanity.18

The substantive is, as Pound wrote, “true and sta s true.” Disagreement marks where it ends.

Carl Rakosi spoke of a “counter-devil” which evades subject-matter:

There’s the strongest kind of pull in a poet against subject-matter—in fact, against writing a poem at all. No psychologist understood this as well as Otto Rank. He called this force the counter-will. This force is always around when the urge to write is felt, and is a match for it, and often more than a match. The fine hand of this counter-devil is evident, of course, in a writer’s procrastination, but also operates behind the scenes in other more subtle and devious ways whenever one is evading subject-matter, by being rhetorical or elliptical, for example. On the surface this looks innocent, as if it were just a literary matter, but if the writer himself thinks so, it just means that his protective purpose has been achieved and he has been conned by his counter-devil. In the process, he may make something as good, or even better, but the fact remains that he did not retain the integrity of his original impulse, he had to appease or deceive his counter-will with a substitute. . . .

Abstraction, of course, is the most common deadly offender. When you write about something as though it were a principle or a concept or a generalization, you have in that moment evaded it, its specificity, its earthly 1ife.19

And Charles Reznikoff spoke of a limitation to “testimony”:

I see something and it moves me and I put it down as I see it. In the treatment of it, I abstain from comment. . . . “By the term ‘objectivist’ I suppose a writer may be meant who does not write directly about his feelings but about what he sees and hears; who is restricted almost to the testimony of a witness in a court of law; and who expresses his feelings indirectly by the selection of his subject-matter and, if he writes in verse, by its music.” Now suppose in a court of law, you are testifying in a negligence case. You cannot get up on the stand and say, “The man was negligent.” That’s a conclusion of fact. What you’d be compelled to say is how the man acted. Did he stop before he crossed the street? Did he look? The judges of whether he is negligent or not are the jury in that case and the judges of what you say as a poet are the readers. That is, there is an analogy between testimony in the courts and the testimony of a poet.20

The statements by Pound, Williams, Oppen, Rakosi, and Reznikoff above are assertions of the importance and reality of their art in defense against a social and economic order. The “Objectivists” redefined poetry to strike at the basis that constitutes society.

In 1928 when Pound was urging Zukofsky to form a group to fight against certain obstructions to literary life, Zukofsky complained that it would be difficult to find members among his worthy contemporaries because Jew and non-Jew alike were predisposed against his own concerns for one of two reasons—it would not support them financially, or it would not usher in the revolution.21 These two predispositions characterized the social polarization of the ensuing depression. The collapse of the capitalist economy in November 1929 shocked the frightened “conservatives” (as I shall call them) into holding the more tenaciously onto whatever claims they had to the success of the system, and shocked the alienated “radicals” into struggling the more tenaciously for the overthrow of the system. Meanwhile, the “Objectivists” were caught in the middle. While joining in the leftist struggle to institute a more equitable economic order, they had to support themselves and market their works within the capitalist system.

Unfortunately, no matter how important their efforts were in the history of the development of poetry, no matter how artistically successful, they were a practical failure. The poets had great difficulty in getting publishers or public. On the literary level, too, they fell between extremes. The conservative establishment ignored them because they seemed undisciplined and unintellectual, because they did not write in the accepted forms; the radicals scorned them because as decadent bourgeois they let an obsession with formal matters distract them from the oppression of the proletariat, and because they would not dedicate their writing to propagandizing the Party Line.

Faced with this dilemma, the “Objectivists” tried for a while to work as an independent group to realize their poetic cure for man’s disorders. They felt that the relation between literature and the state was as Pound described in How to Read. However, after the collapse of To Publishers and the Objectivist Press they disbanded and took up different resolutions according to their separate inclinations.

Pound was the first to change, being influenced before the others by the Economic Crisis, which hit Europe before the United States, and perhaps influenced more than the others by the end of To Publishers, having hoped it would print his complete Prolegomena and possibly his complete works. By 1933, Pound’s admiration of Benito Mussolini (begun in 1926)22 had ripened into advocacy. After Zukofsky visited Pound in Rapallo in the summer of 1933, Zukofsky increasingly withdrew from practical involvement with politics as his poetical father threw himself more and more vehemently into it. Although Rakosi and Oppen refused to withdraw, they both quit writing. Both felt after 1934 that in the extremity of the crisis something needed to be done which their poetry could not accomplish, and so direct action had to supplant poetry. Williams, with his practice as a doctor, also worked to help alleviate the increasing human suffering, although he stopped neither writing nor believing that writing could maintain the cleanliness of the tool of thought for the whole of society. Perhaps only Williams and Reznikoff were largely unaffected by the Depression and the failure of their group efforts, but then Reznikoff had been resigned to failure and rejection from the beginning of his career.

In 1933 Pound reviewed for Poetry a new magazine which attempted to show awareness of the problems of the day, Cambridge Left. Pound warned that its contributors, among whom was the young W. H. Auden, should not only aim at the “LARGER” subjects but should also follow Dante in rendering them with “precise and specific statements” and “concrete exact presentations.” Moving on to his own unawareness and awareness of larger problems, he wrote that he did not “regret having ignored social problems during the first ten years of my writing.” They were not important before 1910. Marx was a “great historian,” but “he did not affect his own time very greatly.” However, the times and the importance of social problems in it had changed:

On the very base of his own material determinism, Marx, alive in the 1930’s, would be the first to recognize that an enormous change in the material basis of life demands an equal change in the intellectual recognition. Labor was probably the true basis of value in 1840, but the cultural heritage, that is labor plus the whole mass of mechanical inventions, is the basis of value in 1930 (change from the machine age to the power age).

I am not dragging social discussion into this periodical. I am considering a writer’s problem, as concretely thrust under my eye by walking example.

The program of Cambridge Left, which Pound quoted, began:

The motives for writing, of those who are writing for this paper, have changed, along with their motives for doing anything. It is not so much an intellectual choice, as the forcible intrusion of social issues. Those who are left in their politics have to face certain problems as writers of prose and verse.23

Kenneth Rexroth wrote that after 1929 “it was a lean season for American poetry. Hundreds of young intellectuals who started out as writers were consumed and cast aside by the Communist Party. Most of them became political activists and gave up writing. The strong-willed ones obeyed the Party Line and dutifully wrote Proletarian literature and Socialist Realism. The stultifying effects of bureaucratic control are more than conclusively shown by the fact that all this passionate activity and commitment produced, in poetry, almost nothing of enduring value.”24

The “Objectivists,” however, in spite of the pressure of the times to be socially responsible in the narrowest sense, and in spite of lack of support for their work, did not join the radicals appearing in publications like the New Masses, the Partisan Review, or the Daily Worker; they still believed in the political, social, and moral inviolability of their art, in writing which attempted to realize something more basically human than ideology.

In 1933, Williams was asked to accept the editorship of Blast: A Magazine of Proletarian Fiction. He responded by saying he would not work for them but they could use his name if the magazine would be “devoted to writing (first and last),” not to party ideology. He wrote:

A dilemma has been broached when the artist has been conscripted and forced to subordinate his training and skill to party necessity for a purpose. . . . in order to serve the cause of the proletariat he must not under any circumstances debase his art to any purpose. . . . Bad writing never helped anybody.25

Good writing, like all true art, as Williams claimed in 1936, is the creation and maintenance of “the great tradition which we have today so largely forgotten,” namely, “the dignity and importance of man in the universe and his actual responsibility here”; art is a world which “we most need for our enlightenment,” a refuge from “the unreal if not the misshapen and the grotesque” creation in which we live and which is verified daily in the newspapers. Art offers an “asylum, a working place for the reestablishment of order,” a “battleground where difference of emotional and intellectual opinion may be engaged to the enhancement of the soul, . . . a battleground where men contend to enlarge their vision and to refresh and engage their minds and emotion.” Accordingly, Williams asserted that “America, having the wealth, should find better ways of giving the arts sustenance. . . . A means must be found to publish”—and to distribute—”books of better quality, of less general appeal than the ordinary, on some other than a purely commercial basis.” He complained that America’s endowments, not only for publishing, but for criticism, sculpture, and architecture were hopelessly inadequate.26

Unlike Williams, as early as 1924, Rakosi began to feel a conflict between writing and social work. Before he stopped writing, he tried his hand as a messboy on a merchant ship (1925), a boy counselor at the Jewish Board of Guardians in New York City (1925), a student of psychology at the University of Wisconsin (1925-1926), an industrial psychologist in Milwaukee (1926-1927), a family counselor at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Boston (1927-1928), an English instructor and graduate student and then a student of law at the University of Texas (1928-1929), a high-school teacher and part-time group worker with Mexicans at Rusk Settlement House in Houston (1929-1931), a summer student in premedical sciences at the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Medical School in Galveston (1931-1932), a social worker at Services to the Aged in Cook County Department of Public Welfare in Chicago and a student at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Social Service Administration (1932-1933), a Director of Social Services in the new Federal Transient Bureau in New Orleans and a faculty member at the Graduate School of Social Work at Tulane University (1933-1935), and a worker at the Jewish Family Service in New York (1935-1940).27 In this period Rakosi was not only trying to accomodate both writing and social work, he was satisfying his passionate desire for new experience; he had wanted to see different parts of the country and to meet different kinds of people.28

Rakosi’s father was a strong socialist, having been inspired by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg (see Section 2). His roommate at the University of Wisconsin was Kenneth Fearing,29 whom Rexroth claimed was one of the two best poets (the other being Horace Gregory) anticipating “the proletarian poetry of the Red Thirties.”30 It is not surprising that the back cover of Amulet states that Rakosi stopped writing when “he had become disillusioned with the state of our society and felt there was no place in it for a poet.” In his interview with Dembo, Rakosi explained:

During the thirties I was working in New York—this was during the very depth of the Depression—and any young person with any integrity or intelligence had to become associated with some left-wing organization. You just couldn’t live with yourself if you didn’t. So I got caught up very strongly in the whole Marxian business. I took very literally the basic Marxian ideas about literature having to be an instrument for social change, for expressing the needs and desires of large masses of people. And believing that, I couldn’t write poetry, because the poetry that I could write could not achieve these ends.31

Rakosi married Leah Jaffe in 1939; they had a daughter in 1940 and a son in 1944. After giving up poetry by 1941, Rakosi did not begin writing again until 1965 and began writing full-time when he retired from his practice as a private psychotherapist and from his position as Executive Director of Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Minneapolis in 1968.32

George Oppen also chose acting over writing after the collapse of the Objectivist Press. We and Mary Oppen decided to postpone their life in poetry and the arts when they joined the Communist Party to oppose fascism in 1935. In New York City they “created organizations of the unemployed” through the Workers Alliance, arranging demonstrations and sit-ins, working in neighborhoods to keep people from eviction and starvation, and obtaining “emergency food and rent orders” from the relief bureau. In Utica they organized a party of leftists and radicals, and encouraged dairymen to cooperate with the Farmers’ Union milk strike.33 George Oppen remembered the deep commitment of those years:

It was a matter of going from house to house, apartment to apartment; I think we knew every house in Bedford-Stuyvesant and North Brooklyn and all the people in them. We wanted to gather crowds of people on the simple principle that the law would to be changed where it interfered with relief and that settlement laws would have to be unenforceable when they involved somebody’s starvation. And we were interested in rioting, as a matter of fact—rioting under political discipline. Disorder, disorder—to make it impossible to allow people to starve. It also involved the hunger march on Washington as well as local undertakings.34

Mary Oppen recorded the advice of her teacher Pop Mindel to a young Negro artist: “It’s the wrong time for you to be an artist—you have set your foot on the path to help your people, and you can help them more in politics than you can with your art.”35 In spite of the “Objectivist” belief in the power of art to realize and disseminate the order of the essentially human and real universe, Oppen, like Raskoi, was forced painfully to conclude that this time his art could not relieve the many whose suffering and oppression required immediate relief. In Oppen’s own words:

I think it was fifteen million families that were faced with the threat of immediate starvation. It wasn’t a business one simply read about in the newspaper. You stepped out your door and found men who had nothing to eat. I’m not moralizing now—and I’ve been through this before—but for some people it was simply impossible not to do something. I’ve written an essay that appeared in Kulchur 10 in which I explained that I didn’t believe in political poetry or poetry as being politically efficacious. I don’t even believe in the honesty of a man saying, “Well, I’m a poet and I will make my contribution to the cause by writing poems about it.” I don’t believe that’s any more honest than to make wooden nutmegs because you happen to be a woodworker. If you decide to do something politically, you do something that has political efficacy. And if you decide to write poetry, then you write poetry, not something that you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering. That was the dilemma of the thirties.36

After 1937, the Oppens had a daughter, and George was trained in a government school as a machinist. He worked in a factory in Detroit and he served and was wounded in World War II in France, returning to the States at the end of November 1945. The Oppens moved to California in March 1946, where George worked as a carpenter and a cabinetmaker. From there, fearing persecution as one-time Communists, they moved to Mexico City in 1950, where they lived until 1958, the year in which George resumed writing.37

The decisions of Rakosi and Oppen to involve themselves entirely with practical solutions to the dilemma of the thirties put as definite an end to the “Objectivists” as Zukofsky’s withdrawal from literary salesmanship. They resumed writing with the deeper understandings of human necessity and artistic purpose that their experiences in politics and social work, working in agencies and factories, fighting in war and having families had offered them, but also with changed attitudes towards poetry.

For Zukofsky, too, the thirties posed a dilemma. His employment was marginal and uncongenial. After his salary from the Oppens for To Publishers ended in August 1932, he was unemployed until 1934, when he began a broken series of relief jobs up to April 1942. After November 1942, he worked irregularly as a substitute teacher in high school, edited technical instruction books, and did stints of teaching at Colgate University (summer 1947), Queens College (evenings 1947-1948), and San Francisco State College (summer 1958). He also taught at Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn from February 1947 to August 1966, when he retired to write full-time.38 Meanwhile, he married Celia Thaew in 1939, and they had a son, Paul, in 1943.

In the early years of the Depression, as Celia Zukofsky remembered, any thinking person came to see Communism as the only moral alternative—and in fact a viable one, since the march on Washington showed the United States very close to revolution.39 However, as Celia also remembered, Zukofsky “did not become an activist politically; he did not join groups; he didn’t get into marches or parades.” Even as a child, Zukofsky had always been a spectator, never a participant.40

Zukofsky’s radicalism was strictly literary. His defense against non-literary systems of value, whether the capitalist monetary system (exchange-value) or the revolutionist ethical system (use-value), was Marx’s labor theory of value: that the value of a thing is based on the labor required in its production.41 In this scheme, the labor in poetic composition would be equivalent to labor in any other endeavor. The beginning of “A”-8 marshalls arguments from Marx to establish Zukofsky’s belief, as he wrote in “‘Recencies’ in Poetry,” in “poetry defined as a job, a piece of work.”42 Marx sought the establishment, wrote Zukofsky, of a “labor process” in which “the opposition between brain and manual work,” as between the oppressor and the oppressed, “will have disappeared.” Accordingly, Zukofsky noted that Marx worked “like a horse” writing Das Kapital.43 This was Zukofsky’s defense against both business and revolutionary interests.

Morris U. Schappes, a radical critic, criticized An “Objectivists” Anthology for the lack of the coherence, organization, and direction which he thought were promised by Zukofsky’s “objective: inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary parti~ culars.” Countering Zukofsky’s statement that it is “impossible to communicate anything but particulars,” Schappes claimed that “there is no artistic communication of particulars only.” The “Objectivists” objective, he believed, was a socially regressive nihilism which denied “intelligence, conscious action, and art.” He explained:

At a certain stage in the decay of a class, its artists turn against it in furious vanity. Control by the middle class, its idolization of Business-Profit, make the poet of little importance. He vents his pique by refusing to write for it, and withdraws into rootless esotericism. Scorned, he scorns. But his very method of rebelling against domination by Finance is conditioned by his former roots in the bourgeoisie. In protesting, he nevertheless accepts its premises; instead of questioning its economics, its politics, its morals, its values, he denies that there are values. In practice, Objectivism is such a nominalistic denial of art, of value. Because he has been reduced, in his social status, to Nothing, he thinks All is Nothing. The intelligent alternative, however, is completely to stride beyond these premises of the bourgeoisie: that is, to ally oneself with the revolutionary proletariat. Only there will the deracinated bourgeois poet find the rock from which criticism can be made, and on which are built values that are other than those sanctioned by a decadent middle class.44

To this challenge to the radical commitment of the “Objectivists,” Zukofsky quoted Lenin: “As for the failure ‘to ally oneself with the revolutionary proletariat’: ‘This party rejected Marxism, stubbornly refused to understand (it would be more correct to say that it could not understand) the necessity of a strictly objective estimate of all the class forces and their interrelation in every political action.’ (Lenin—Left: Communism, An Infantile Disorder).” Zukofsky implied that this “objective estimate” is not only an essential aspect of Marxism, but also “the concern of the editorial presentation and the poetry of An “Objectivists” Anthology, whether the presentation be statement, image, contrast (satire), or assertion.” Schappes did not share Zukofsky’s belief that the “objective estimate” of particulars was an affirmation rather than a denial of values, and that it is up to the reader to make relations among particular values at the root of all economic, political, and moral actions. Zukofsky believed such relations were implicit in the particulars presented in the anthology and criticized Schappes for approving only of “‘poets’ who ‘express’ their ‘service’ to the revolutionary proletariat in the worst public-school honored manner of Milton—to repeat, ‘thou honored flood.’”45

Although here Zukofsky, swayed by the bias of the times, pictured himself as revolutionary, he was equally truly bourgeois; he directly neither questioned nor served either bourgoeis or proletarian economics, politics, or morals. Instead, he restored essentially human values like “love and hate to a chain of poetic fact,” that is, to “order and the facts as order” which approaches “a state of music wherein the ideas present themselves sensuously and intelligently and are of no predatory intention.”46 Schappes reduced the absence of “predatory intention” to nihilism, but Zukofsky argued instead that this absence makes possible the clarity in which universals may be perceived in the things in which they inhere.

In spite of commitment to aesthetic integrity, Zukofsky was indeed swayed by revolutionary interests during the thirties. Evidence of these interests may be found in 55 Poems (1923-1935). In addition to Poem IX, “Memory of V. I. Ulianov” (see Section 5), Poem 7, “During the Passaic Strike of 1926,” contains the line “For Justice they are shrewdly killing the proletarian” with obvious irony; and Poem 29, one of “Two Dedications” (1929), speaks of the peasants and workers in Comrade Diego Rivera’s murals and foresees the revolutionary state: “Holidays— / There’ll be many— / . . . Sunday; the / Miner’s lantern unlit, / Coal beneath the sun.” In addition, Song 23, “‘The Immediate Aim’” (1934), suggests the political implications of sincerity (”Other than propaganda”): the workers should “take time off / this March morning” so that they “might make bare” their eyes to the precisions of spring, since “your value which enslaves you / in advance / has made your eye-pupils limited— // inanity / to prate / the injustice of it.” Instead of arguing injustices, they should take a walk by the river, that is, they should “walk out / against / the // social / and political / order of / things.” Further, Song 27 (1933) in “3/4 time” quotes Das Kapital on social relations and money to suit the drunken pleasure of Zukofsky’s friend’s birthday without money; Song 29, “N.Y.” (1933) mentioned “the nth reversion, ‘re’ Marx”; and “‘Further than’—” (1935) explores the possibilities of Zukofsky’s bathroom after “a shower / expectant that today or tomorrow must / bring the new economic atomization.”47 From these poems one sees that although Zukofsky had radical interests he preferred to express them in terms of local and rather eccentric particulars. His “immediate aim” was to focus human issues rather than strictly economic, political, or moral issues.

In 1934 Zukofsky had an experience by which he felt he could deal with his belief that “the growing oppression of the poor” was “the situation most pertinent to us—, / . . . the most pertinent subject of our day.” In the subway he came upon a praying mantis, which seemed to him to be begging for help but which then flew at his chest. Sympathy and fear conflicting within him, Zukofsky experienced again the bivalence that defined his “mass-consciousness” in 1928 (see Section 1); he recognized his own poverty and his fear of poverty, his Jewish humility and need for belonging, and his American independence and need for upward mobility. He wrote: “The mantis, then, / Is a small incident of one’s physical vision / Which is the poor’s helplessness / The poor’s separateness / Bringing self-disgust.” In the facts of this experience, then, he perceived both the real and the symbolic, whose potential he wished to translate into poetry. But the “Objectivist” compromise had definitely failed; Zukofsky could not reconcile his revolutionary perceptions with “Objectivist” form and so had to write two poems (or one poem with two distinct parts), “‘Mantis’” and “‘Mantis,’ An Interpretation,” the first in the form of a sestina and the second in free verse.

Andrienne Rich described “Mantis” and “‘Mantis,’ An Interpretation,” in her review of Found Objects in 1964. “Whatever the faults of the ‘interpretation’ as poetry,” she wrote, “it is an interesting study of one deliberately, consciously avant-garde poet’s pain and concern with the possible limitations of two traditions—the Anglo-European mainstream containing Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Bible, the great formal structures—and the regenerative American breakthrough of the early part of this century, with its demands for a more spontaneous measure, for a closer look at things, for an independent movement belonging to the American inflection and the American consciousness.” Finally, however, Rich wished that Zukofsky had accomplished “what is clearly the task of all today who, like him, want the best of both worlds—the work of fusion, not in separate sections of one poem, or in separate poems, but in individual lines and whole poems.”48 Despite Zukofsky’s contention that the sestina form was required by his experience rather than the other way around the sestina form proved incapable of fulfilling his complex intentions. “—Our world will not stand it,” he wrote, “the implications of a too regular form.” The interpretation was necessary to counter those implications.

Was political directive intended in Zukofsky’s presentation of political directive? Was “Objectivist” aesthetics political, and effective politically? Was a kind of “propaganda” concomitant with regard for the thing itself, for presenting the thing’s “sensuality” in the poem? In 1936, when these poems were first published, Zukofsky might have answered “yes.” He hoped, for instance, that his “original shock” would persist in the coda of “‘Mantis’” (”Fly, mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves / The armies of the poor, strength: stone on stone / And build the new world in your eyes, Save it!“)—”So that the invoked collective” (”the poor’s strength”) “Does not subdue the senses’ awareness” (”the mantis”), and that this “awareness” would arouse action against the forces of war:

After 1936, however, Zukofsky would probably have answered “no.” His next book Anew (1935-1944), contains no such evidence of radical interests.

In “A” too, Zukofsky’s ambivalence presents problems which the critic finds in the work of neither Williams (who tried to remain outside of politics) nor Pound (who became increasingly immured in politics). “A”-8, written in 1935-1937, shows favor towards the Communism of the Soviet Union and quotes Lenin and Marx at length. Or was Zukofsky simply presenting them as the significant particulars of the age? In any case, by “A”-12 (1950-1951) he confessed that he was mistaken: “13 years or so back when / I tried hard for the fact, . . . the ‘fact’ / is not so hard-set as a paradigm.”50 If Stalin did not discredit himself and Communism everywhere with his purges of 1936-1938, he did so with his pact with fascist Germany in August 1939. Between the first and final publications of “A”-8, Zukofsky omitted many of the most direct representations of leftist political utterance. For instance, the lines “The poor / Betrayed and sold. // Workers, no thought of a system exists / Completely abstracted from action” are revised to omit the words “Workers” and “of a system.” Similarly, between the lines “Two legs stand— / Pace them” (alluding to “A”-7) and “Railways and highways have tied / Blood of farmland and town,” Zukofsky omitted the lines:

After the line “With wit or steel?” which reflects Zukofsky’s dilemma whether to take up the pen or the sword, Zukofsky omitted:

The omission of these lines leaves the question open.

At a time in which every self-respecting young intellectual had to take the political situation into account and decide where he would stand, Zukofsky designed “A” as a medium for radical opinions; he took up the pen to “record / Politics. / Record / Labor.”52 Yet he always succeeded in transcending propaganda, in maintaining the poem’s inviolability as art. Robert Duncan wrote of the Cantos and “A”: “Whatever a poem meant in its truth of particulars it was not a political directive. The truth of a poem was the truth of what was felt in the course of the poem, not the truth of a proposition in whatever political or religious persuasion outside the poem.”53

Reznikoff, of all the “Objectivists,” seems the most aloof from social and political concerns. His life was not spectacular. His publisher’s biography reads: “In 1928, he went to work writing law for the firm publishing Corpus Juris, an encyclopedia of law for lawyers. Later, he worked in Hollywood for about three years for a friend who was then a producer for Paramount Pictures. After that, he made his living by freelance writing, research, translating, and editing.” Reznikoff’s stint in Hollywood is recorded in his novel The Manner Music and in “Autobiography: Hollywood,”54 but was in no way distinguished. His career as a freelancer consists principally of his work published by the Jewish Publication Society of America: The Lionhearted: A Story About the Jews in Medieval England, the historical novel (1944); The Jews of Charleston: A History of an American Jewish Community, written with Uriah Z. Engelman (1950); translations of My Three Years in the United States by I. J. Benjamin (1956), and Stories and Fantasies from the Jewish Past by Emil Bernhard Cohn (1961); and a two-volume edition of Louis Marshall, Champion of Liberty: Selected Papers and Addresses, with an introduction by Oscar Handlin (1957).

Reznikoff was not, however, unconcerned with society and politics. Jerusalem the Golden, published in 1934 by the Objectivist Press, ends with “Karl Marx,” a brief sermonic presentation of a Marxian utopia in apocalyptic terms. A Separate Way, published in 1936 by the Objectivist Press, includes “The Socialists of Vienna,” a representation of revolutionary spirit “indebted to Ezra Ehrenbourg’s Civil War in Austia (New Masses, July 3, 1934).” This piece contains the lines “Arise, arise, you workers! / Revolution!” and ends:

Reznikoff did not treat historical and political concerns in terms of theory or ideology; he treated them in terms of their observable human effects, and usually in terms of an individual Jewish sufferer. He never stated his own feelings or opinions about particulars. Even so, there is no question where his sympathies lay when he discussed the “One man” who “escapes from the ghetto of Warsaw / where thousands have been killed,” when he described the feelings that erupted after “A husky red-faced young fellow / pushed his way through the crowded subway train / selling Father Coughlin’s Social Justice,” when he overheard “people with calm intelligent facts / in snug restaurants and rooms / talking against” the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and when he remembered the coin his ailing grandfather had given him, with “the monstrous eagle of czarist Russia, / with two open beaks, / from which my father and mother and so many others had fled.”56

Reznikoff’s Holocaust (1975), “based on a United States government publication, Trials of the Criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunal and the records of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem,”57 is a supreme achievement of ironic understatement, presenting horrible incidents from the approving eyes of the Nazi’s more than from the suffering eyes of the Jews. For instance, under “Entertainment” we read: “The commander of a camp, among his amusements, as in other camps / had a large dog / and at the cry of ‘Jude,’ that is, ‘Jew,’ / the dog would attack the man and tear off pieces of flesh.” And in a footnote on the last page: “But, despite the burden on every S.S. man or German police officer during these actions to drive out the Jews from Warsaw—where they had once numbered a quarter of a million—the spirit of the S.S. men and the police officers, it was noted by one of their superiors, was ‘extraordinarily good and praiseworthy from the first day to the very last.’”58 Yet these outrageously understated observations are calculated to evoke an intense moral and political conviction against such outrages. Geoffrey O’Brien wrote that “Reznikoff’s book may help restore some sense of genocide as an actual experience rather than as an abstract concept; of real death, without recourse, without intellectual prettification, a few inches away from someone’s eyes. . . . It isn’t history, it’s poetry; and poetry, really, is not a form of fiction.”59

Whether together before or separately after the failure of the Objectivist Press, the “Objectivists” dealt with challenges from both political extremes against the relevance and enduring value of their work. No one writes in a vacuum. Sincerity in enduring art may be both distinct from propaganda and related to the matters of propaganda. We should not let the passage of time make background matters and energies seem unimportant to art in which time and place is immanent. Implicit in each “Objectivist” poem are certain and precise relations between the word, man, and the world.

II. The Literary Context

Whereas sincerity related “Objectivism” to the political necessities of the day, objectification related it to the literary necessities. When the political world was polarized into radicals and conservatives, the literary world was polarized into freeversists and formalists, the first lacking artistic discipline and the second lacking worldly relevance. Pound therefore complained in 1918 that free verse “has become as prolix and verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it,”60 and Zukofsky explained in 1931 that the work of the twenties lacked any realization of “clear or vital ‘particulars’” and of the “‘objectively perfect,’” and that no object was “‘aimed at.’”61

Carl Rakosi has written that “perfection realized outside the mind and feelings in the art-object known as a poem was very much and always the aim of the four of us whom you’re studying, but not, of course, restricted to the Objectivists.” In fact, Rakosi felt that “the special quality of the Objectivists lay not in desire but in the realization of the desire, the degree of realization, the solidity of it. To get at the particularity of that, you should read the poems appearing in Poetry at the time and during the decade preceding and compare these to what we were writing (I recommend doing this also as an empirical way of getting at what I, at least, was aspiring for in clarity).”62 Theoretically, Rakosi aspired to “clarity” in the sense that Pound used it in How to Read: writing has clarity when its “application of word to thing” is exact.63

The “kindest appreciation” Rakosi could give of Solon Barber’s Cross-Country in his review of it in Poetry in 1933, for example, was that it contained “a good deal of sentimental symbolism.” Rakosi explained:

Since this energy is not organic in the language or in the construction but is derived from an entirely different tradition, it seems faked. As far as the poem is concerned, the metropolitan bar with its jazz, the folk-lorish tough ranchero, and the awe of the poet in the open spaces are all one and the same thing: they draw on material for which the author can find only a flaccid, contourless imagery unnecessarily romantic, lacking in the incision to keep its sentiment fresh. An energy is implied in the material which is not fulfulled in the language.64

Rakosi required, as did the other “Objectivists,” the “incision” of language and structure that shows respect for the poem’s material, for the detail and form of the poet’s initial impulse.

Rakosi’s review in 1933 for Symposium of Williams’ Collected Poems 1921-1931 (then yet unpublished and titled Script) shows that Williams succeeded where Barber failed: “Williams’ persistence and concentration on his object in the face of all kinds of contemporary rhetoric are a distinct service.” Williams avoided, Rakosi claimed, the “objectionable” distortions of glamorous French models used according to “a set of badly fitting” English “critical standards” which obscure “the prose qualities of the language.” Williams could not “say it better in prose.”65 The prose standard, via Pound, is from Ford Madox Ford. Pound wrote that Ford “believes in an exact rendering of things. He would strip words of all ‘association’ for the sake of getting a precise meaning.”66 Here, claiming Hardy rather than Ford as his prose model, Rakosi claimed that Williams’ writing “expresses a solidarity of atmosphere which, if it were voluminous, would be comparable to Hardy—not an atmosphere, naturally, of ego-seduction by hidden musical forms, floating, but of those arrangements that express a consistence and a simplification, a character.” Even in Al Que Quiere, this character is “modestly expressed in perception and declaration. His notations fill the book with integrity and an explicitness that gives the feeling of the male open eye between moments of slighlty drab declaration.”67

The “Objectivists” response to the general poetic malaise was to return to the modernist inventors who had made it possible—Joyce, Stein, Pound, and Williams—and to the few who had some sense of inner necessity—Moore, McAlmon, Cummings, and even some of Eliot and Stevens. Since Pound and Williams had developed and adapted the underlying assumptions of the “Objectivists,” Zukofsky correctly recognized them as not only mentors but as members of the group. The “Objectivists” studied not how to imitate Pound and Williams but how to develop and adapt to their own time, place, and personalities the concepts which Pound and Williams confirmed in their own inclinations. In his review of Williams, Rakosi claimed that the objectionable distortions which he found absent in Williams were in Pound “never great . . . absorbed early by a great energy in critical evaluation and poetic exactness; in Eliot they were utilized by an exact measure of sentiment, in Cummings by a caper, in Stevens by a pattern. They have been stimulating but their influence had been too much against lucidity.”68 Pound, Eliot, Cummings, and Stevens’ successes were dangers for the unwary, but the “Objectivists” were wary. Although they differed among themselves according to their different interests and personalities, they all concentrated on the real rather than the “poetic” and discovered in the context of the modern age the objects upon which they founded their own poetic experiments.

The contemporary formalists, on the contrary, had reacted not only to the idea of free verse but to the idea of modernism itself. About the Southern Fugitives—notably John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—Rexroth wrote:

From the early Twenties, based on Vanderbilt University, a deliberate, highly self-conscious, tightly organized, reactionary movement was underway. This was The Fugitives group, named after their magazine, The Fugitive. The title was chosen to indicate that they were fugitives from every aspect of modernity, philosophical, social, literary, political. They were militant defenders of the Myth of the Old South, long since debunked by Mark Twain as a pipe dream resulting from falling asleep over the novels of Sir Walter Scott. They read T. S. Eliot’s Criterion and Maurras’ L’Action Français and tried to put their principles into practice amongst the corn and cotton. They allied themselves with the briefly notorious “Humanist Movement” and came to call themselves Southern Agrarians. . . . Their literary principles were equally reactionary.69

In writing “American Poetry 1920-1930,” Zukofsky recognized the formalists as the only group to pose a real threat to the “Objectivists” (see Section 12). He gave only a parenthetical to H.D., a single clause to Carl Sandburg, and a half-paragraph to Robinson Jeffers and Archibald MacLeish—but he devoted over four pages to the formalists, beginning with a discussion of the dangerous tendencies of the recent work of Eliot and Stevens. Zukofsky claimed that the work of these poets—Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Hart Crane, and even Elinor Wylie—suffered from “an attentuated ‘accessibility to experience’” because of their enslavement “to a versification clambering the stiles of English influence.” Robert Frost, too, suffered from a spiritual and ethical death of iambic seduction.70

The intensity of Zukofsky’s criticism must be balanced against the reality of the economic and poetic threat which the formalists brought against unemployed writers of Leftist persuasions like the “Objectivists.” From the viewpoint of the enemy, Rexroth wrote:

As the economic crisis deepened, American society became as highly polarized as German or French, and almost all writers to greater or degree moved to the Left. There had to be some writers around the Right pole, but America, where everybody is liberal and progressive, was very short of Right writers. The Southern Agrarians were only too happy to meet the need, to fill the vacuum in the American Geist. They already occupied certain strategic positions and they were as highly organized as the Left. It is hard to realize today when “everybody teaches” that they were the only group in America entirely based upon the universities. All of them already were academicians. They had in the days of “Humanist controversy” staked out a number of influential book-reviewing claims. (It should be explained that “Humanism” was a drive on the part of conservative and academic critics under the leadership of Irving Babbitt, teacher of French at Harvard and disciple of Maurras, to capture book-reviewing jobs from the followers of H. L. Mencken and the Midwesterners.) From then on they drove steadily toward a takeover of contemporary writing, editing, publishing, and teaching. They did not succeed, but they were unaware of it.71

Whatever Reznikoff’s distortion and oversimplification, the Southerners’ positions in the universities and their control of strategic positions in literary journalism ensured their positions of influence through the Depression, Wartime, and Cold War that broke apart the “Objectivists” (and engendered in Zukofsky a life-time distrust of academicians). They succeeded well enough in opposing the principles at the root of “Objectivism” that many academic critics still lack the appropriate expectations and understanding to approach and appreciate “Objectivist” work.

Ransom, the oldest member of the group, may be taken as representative. To the “Objectivists” concern for the new, for objects in a language appropriate to the modern age. Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair claimed that Ransom “like Spenser in The Faerie Queen . . . could be said to have ‘writ no language,’ since he cultivates archaisms, mock-pedanticisms, unaccustomed usages. . . . The pull of the past has been powerful, being the past of language, the past of literature, and the past of southern [sic] society.” To the “Objectivist” sincerity, Ransom posed artifice, ignoring the fact that formality may more easily conceal malice than honesty, and falsely assuming that intensive form is capable of less exactitude than extensive form. To illustrate, as Ellman and O’Clair observe, “Ransom is avowedly a formalist, and he defends formalism because he sees in it a check on bluntness, on brutality. Without formalism, he insists, poets simply rape or murder their subjects as, without courtship, lovers lose the possibility of discovering what is distinctive in each other. Most modern poetry seems to him to err in its exclusive aim of being sincere and spontaneous. . . . Yet only as an art can it survive, and Ransom accordingly endorses technique which is ‘vain and affected . . . like the technique of fine manners, or of ritual.’”

The art of the “Objectivists”—their sincerity, their clarity—respects the integrity of the object, neither raping it, nor deceptively flattering it, nor, as Ellmann and O’clair further note of Ransom’s strategy, “using obscurity to avoid sententiousness.”72 The “Objectivist” naturally avoids sententiousness by being sincere; the “insincere poet,” as Rakosi has written, is one “who settles for facile generalizations instead of going through the labor of working out the particulars (’attention to details’); who writes out of ego need, not poetic impulse; who professes to have feelings which the poem shows he doesn’t have; who does not write out of his own experience; who uses words deceptively to give the appearance of substance; . . . . . I could go on. The interesting thing to note is that sincerity in all this, in the sense of honesty and truth, exists as a product of the poet’s relation to his medium and that the test of it lies, therefore, in the writing, not anywhere else.”73

Not surprisingly, “Objectivist” publications received little notice in the “better” periodicals. There were no reviews in The Southern Review or The Sewanee Review; however, William Rose Benet’s review of Discrete Series in the Saturday Review of Literature may be typical of the conservative response. Benet claimed that although “Mr. Oppen’s offering exhibits that extreme parsimony of words that is taken today to imply infinite ntofundity,” he did not “believe it implies anything of the kind. Most of Mr. Oppen’s observations fail to impress me. His writing is like listening to a man with an impediment in his speech.”74 Yvor Winters also criticized the “Objectivists” for lack of intelligence. In his review in Hound and Horn, Winters stated that An “Objectivists” Anthology “is of clinical rather than of literary interest.” Since it was “next to impossible” for Winters “to disentangle more than a few intelligible remarks” from Zukofsky’s preface, he presented two sentences “selected at random” whose context, he claimed, “throws no light on them.” Furthermore, he decided that “Objectivist” poems were formally deficient and credited this to a lack of intellectual organization.75 Unable to recognize the organizational force of emotion, Winters would not have understood Pound’s definition of the Image as an intellectual and emotional complex.

Politically radical critics, on the other side of the coin, criticized the “Objectivists” for lack of emotion. An anonymous reviewer of Discrete Series in the Nation noticed that Oppen differed from Williams but claimed that “His work . . . has the fault which is characteristic of this whole school of poets. The images are not fused with the emotion. They merely objectify it.”76 In Dynamo: A Journal of Revolutionary Poetry, Charles Henry Newman claimed that Williams’ Collected Poems 1921-1931 suffered from the “deficiencies of Objectivism, its philosophy and method.” extreme reversal of “the romantic poet in defeat.” “Out of specific images,” he wrote, “concepts can be built. William Carlos Williams, with few exceptions, refrains from doing so. . . . In avoiding sentimentality, he reacts to an extreme, identifies sentimentality with emotion, and avoids becoming emotional. The emotion is deliberately stifled.” This deficiency, according to Newman, meant that the “Objectivists” lacks creativity, direction, comprehensiveness, and purpose. “In remaining an Objectivist, pre-occupied with the external,” he concluded, Williams “remains the dispassionate one, the nonpartisan, without direction; he does not create with feeling; he is unable to probe profoundly into the conflicting social scene as he excludes a point of reference and maintains no true scale of values to weigh his opinions. It is impossible to-day to maintain much longer the attitude of the detached one. To-day, the poet, and Williams in particular, in order to broaden his outlook, make firmer his grip on reality, and widen his sensibility, must transform himself from the detached recorder of isolated events into the man who participates in the creation of new values and of a new world, into the poet who is proud to give voice to this new experience.”

Herman Spector’s review of Reznikoff’s Jerusalem the Golden and Testimony, which follows Newman’s review under the same title, is even more clear about the danger of the “Objectivist” politically detached outlook. Although Reznikoff is “sensitive and gifted,” his failure, which is the “failure of the Objectivist school of poets to which he still belongs,” lies in “the limited world-view of a ‘detached’ bystander: that is, of a person whose flashes of perception for the immediate esthetics of the contemporary scene are not co-ordinated in any way with a dialectical comprehension of the life-process.” Reznikoff is

one who is incompletely rebellious, who is apologetic and distraught at the spectacle of the breakdown of his class, who hesitates to view clearly the future. Reznikoff still smacks his lips over crumbs of the petty-bourgeois feast. That only crumbs remain is testified by the fragmentary character, as well as form, of his writings. . . . The fatal defect of the Objectivist theory is that it identifies life with Capitalism, and so assumes that the world is merely a wasteland. The logical consequence is a fruitless negativism. . . . Profound world events cannot leave a poet of his integrity and sanguine temperament cynical or indifferent. He must soon realize that history permits him the alternative: either to succumb to the paralysis of reaction, or else to take that great step forward which is the way of revolution. Impartiality is a myth which defeatists take with them into oblivion. The creative man makes a conscious choice.77

The creative man, according to the radical critic, obeys the Party Line.

When Williams called for a new criticism in 1919, saying that “the mark of a great poet is the extent to which he is aware of his time and NOT, unless I be a fool, the weight of loveliness in his meters,” he was not thinking of the doctrines of Marxist revolutionaries against Capitalist decadence. He was through with the thoughtless singing” of “a peasant’s feelings for lovely ladies,” but for him “the NEW, the everlasting NEW, the everlasting defiance” was something American and something human independent of both business and revolutionary interests.78

Conservative and radical critics alike were unprepared to appreciate the “Ohjectivists” compromise between discipline and innovation. The “Objectivist” objective to reconstitute thinking was not simple enough to placate the Marxists, who looked for proletarian propaganda. And the “Objectivist” technical discipline was too experimental for the conservatives, who looked for forms they could test on their fingers. The difference between the radicals and the “Objectivists” is the difference between assertion and truth, between opinion and perception, between “coercing . . . people into the acceptance of any one set of opinions” and maintaining “the clarity and vigor of ‘any and every’ thought and opinion.”79 The difference between the conservatives and the “Objectivists” is the difference between extensive and intensive form, between form which may be preconceived and measured regardless of content and form which is organic, experienced as a Gestalt, and exists as a necessary and relative intention of content.

The “Objectivists” ends and means were neither simple enough to be dictated nor established enough to be expected. This and their relative silence from the middle of the Depression through World War II meant that their talent received little recognition in their own time and is only beginning to receive belated recognition now.

III. Principles

The “Objectivists” presented much of value for their own time and for ours. In adapting modernism to the political and economic situation, they were concerned both about the state of the world and about the state of literature. They were, in Whitehead’s sense, objectivists; the shared world was meaningfully real to them. As Zukofsky’s “Marxism,” Rakosi’s “socialism,” Oppen’s “populism,” and Reznikoff’s “Judaicism” express their sense of social responsibility, so their poetics was an attempt to be socially responsible. Moreover, their very concern for formal necessity was socially responsible. Pound’s verbal, melodic, and imagistic clarity and exactitude could keep thought, the human function upon which all personal and social order is predicated, fit for use; by presentation, absolute correspondence of word to thing, the poem could cohere as Image. Williams’ doctrine of contact located the idea in the thing and the thing in the local; Oppen’s substantive, Rakosi’s subject-matter, and Reznikoff’s testimony made the poem a presentation of the real rather than of ornament, rhetoric, abstraction, comment, opinion, symbolism, solipsism, sentimentalism, mysticism, or vagueness of any sort. Zukofsky, their chief theorizer, reforged all of these concepts into new terms—sincerity, history, and objectification, which combine the ethic, the times, and the technique. By the principles upon which rest the Image and the poem as object, namely, the formal equivalence of ontological, epistemic, and linguistic objectivity, the sensibility may be re-associated, and the poem may be truly responsible to and for the shared world.