I came to the work of the “Objectivist” writers, as a writer myself, because of my admiration for them and through the admiration of the generation of writers preceding them and of the generation following them. Were they the missing links in the tradition descending from the early modernists to the writers of the generation preceding my own, the Black Mountain, the Beat, and the San Francisco Renaissance poets?
I found Robert Creeley’s claim that
the poetry of the Twenties and Thirties, or that which was dominant at that time, publicly—let’s say the poetry of Ransom and Tate and Bishop and that which then came from the younger men such as Jarrell—this poetry, in effect, tended to block off, not to smother but to cover, the actual tradition operating in the poetry of say Zukofsky and Reznikoff and George Oppen, but I feel that the continuity is there, suffers no break, keeps going.1
Creeley’s claim was supported by evidence of the patronage of Zukofsky by the difficult but acknowledged master, Ezra Pound. Instead of being dismayed that Creeley’s assertion passed over certain influential poets, I was made eager to learn more about the neglected ones.
Through the influence of my teachers and friends, I discovered the Norton edition of Louis Zukofsky’s work, All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1964, and then George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous, which had won a Pulitzer Prize, and Carl Rakosi’s Amulet, both published by New Directions. I enjoyed their work, and found that it was of use in my own writing.
I gradually formed a rough picture: in the early years of the Great Depression, Pound and Williams advised and supported a group of young American avant-garde writers who briefly called themselves “Objectivists,” and who early disbanded, leaving, however, an influence on later writers disproportionate to their meager publications and popularity. The “Objectivists” issue of Poetry, edited by Zukofsky,2 seemed to have begun a movement which found further expression in works published by two presses: To Publishers in France in 1932, publishing Pound, Williams, and An “Objectivists” Anthology edited by Zukofsky, and the Objectivist Press in New York City in 1934, publishing Oppen, Reznikoff, and Williams.
My initial overview was not entirely right.
It is true that the movement was disintegrated by the Depression and overshadowed by the success of the more academic tradition descending from Eliot. George Oppen wrote:
T. S. Eliot’s immense reputation was already established by the end of the twenties: Pound’s somewhat later. It is within the present decade that Williams has achieved a comparable position. It was Eliot’s influence, far more than Pound’s, and Eliot’s influence by way of Auden which formed the tone of the so-called Academic poets who dominated the field during the forties and early fifties, and whom the Beats assailed. . . . But it is to Williams that the young poets of this school acknowledge the greatest debt . . .3
But it is not true that the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry started the movement, that at its core was a group with a clear, published policy, that Pound and Williams merely advised them, and that they were all Americans. The rather unstable group was formed by 1929, Pound and Williams learned from as well as taught the others, and, as Donald Davie has insisted, the group should not be limited to a “chauvinistically American context.”4 Basil Bunting was British, Emanuel Carnevali was Italian, Tibor Serly was Hungarian, and René Taupin was French. The disintegration of their group efforts is shown by the fact that, as early as 1933, Zukofsky disclaimed leadership and even the existence of the movement:
Mr. Zukofsky has used the word objectivist but never Objectivism in connection with the work of certain poets. He disclaims leadership of any movement putatively literary or objectionist. The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire is intended to dispel such dispensations.5
“The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire” was published in two parts by The Westminster Magazine. The above paragraph appeared with the second installment. The first appeared with the statement: “MR ZUKOFSKY is the leader of Objectivism in America; his work has appeared in the better American and European magazines.”6
Pound, who most wanted to spur another reform movement in his art, predicted this trouble. From the beginning, Zukofsky showed signs of being a man who would not be pushed into notoriety. Pound had originally suggested to Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, that Zukofsky and Donal McKenzie together edit the issue which became the “Objectivists” issue.7 When he got the news that she had asked Zukofsky alone to do it he wrote:
Did I or did I not suggest tempering Zukofsky with McKenzie? Zuk to provide the good sense and McKenzie the conviction of the value of the new group. I dunno what can be done now to make up for that bit of motive power. I may have said “or” instead of “and.”
Anyhow I shall urge Zuk to take the March or May in order to have time to get the most dynamite into it.----
Waal, waal, my deah Harriet, I sho iz glad you let these young scrubs have the show to their selves, an ah does hope they dust out your office. My only fear is that Mr. Zukofsky will be just too Goddam prewdent.8
The prudent Zukofsky never withdrew his disclaimer. In fact, he could be rude to anyone who suggested he had once affiliated with others known as “Objectivists.”9 Interviewed by L. S. Dembo on 16 May 1968, he confirmed:
In the first place, objectivism . . . I never used the word; I used the word “objectivist,” and the only reason for using it was Harriet Monroe’s insistence when I edited the “Objectivist” number of Poetry. Pound was after her; he thought the old rag, as he called it, was senile, and so on. He had had his fights with her; he couldn’t get across the people he wanted, and in one of his vituperative letters he told old Harriet the magazine would come to nothing, that there was this youngster who was one of the best critics in America ...well, I’m reminiscing. In any case, Harriet was fond of Pound and after all she was enterprising. Well, she told me, “You must have a movement.” I said, “No, some of us are writing to say things simply so that they will affect us as new again.” “Well, give it a name.” Well, there were pre-Raphaelitism, and dadaism, and expressionism, and futurism—I don’t like any of those isms. I mean, as soon as you do that, you start becoming a balloon instead of a person. And it swells and a lot of mad people go chasing it.10
One must be careful to discriminate between the “ism” and the “ist.” Zukofsky claimed that he’s not responsible for the former and that the latter was required of him. Neither of these abstractions should detract from the actual work of the writers involved. Nor, however, should the fact that the “ist” was required of him be reason to discredit its validity. Zukofsky admitted that “some of us” had the same intention in writing, but, like Williams, he knew that naming it would bring attention more to the name than to the work, to the abstraction instead of the concrete particulars.
A statement by Williams, written in 1928 about French painting, is supportive. The universal is in the work, not in the theory behind it:
The painters have paid too much attention to the ism and not enough to the painting. I’m for the painting where it is, in America or elsewhere, but I’m not for morons—vigor, worth, fervor—wherever it is and don’t be seduced by it save for the pleasure and impregnating point of it—which isn’t an ism—or of the moment.11
After all, Zukofsky’s fears were confirmed by the events. “Objectivists” ballooned into “Objectivism” and people have gone around chasing it, although sometimes not without reason. If they have been mad, there has been some method in their madness, although doubtless less method than there would have been if Zukofsky had not abandoned his creation so early. As it was, it seemed to me as I stumbled upon them that the picture was obscured with irregularities for which the errors of forty intervening years of neglect could not entirely account.
Oppen and Rakosi, who after about twenty-five years of silence had resumed their careers as poets, were, along with Charles Reznikoff, willingly called “Objectivists,” but Zukofsky and Williams and other associated writers such as Kenneth Rexroth, who had kept working through the thirties, forties, and fifties, were not. Was “Objectivism” merely a literary sensation, a temporary and noteworthy collaboration of writers, or was it a viable poetic, an ongoing esthetic program; was it merely a historically focused phase in the careers of individuals or a mode of writing available to groups or careers extending beyond the particular conditions which originally generated it?
There is also a question about the precise membership of the group. Were all forty-five writers associated with “Objectivist” publications “Objectivists?” There were thirty-two writers published in the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry and in An “Objectivists” Anthology, but only eight were included in both. In addition, Zukofsky listed nine writers who could not be published for lack of space and three writers who practiced the principles stated in his “Program: ’Objectivists’ 1931.”12
This problem is magnified not only because Zukofsky’s criteria for the group was obscurely written, but also because the term had prior use in other circles. In “‘Recencies’ in Poetry,” his preface to the anthology dated August 1931, written to clear up the confusions of hasty readers of the issue, Zukofsky explained: "The quotes around ’objectivists’ distinguish between its particular meaning in the Program of Feb. Poetry, and the philosophical etiquette associated with objectivist.”13 Whether by “philosophical etiquette” Zukofsky was thinking of A. N. Whitehead’s “objectivism,” of Leon Trotsky’s “historic objectivism,” of the uses of the term in the many forms of leftist literature, of its parallel concepts in art and photography, or of the common sense which gave all these uses consistency, these and other senses were available to lead the careless reader astray or to justify his aversion to these arrogant young reformers.
Moreover, during the years of neglect, many lost sight of or faith in Zukofsky’s warnings. With the revival of the idea that they had been a group, Zukofsky’s term gained meanings extended far beyond describing the historically limited group. Critics have argued intelligently—variously and contradictorily—that “0bjectivism” is a movement in poetry which began with a generation of writers under the influence of Ezra Pound and extended to later generations, and that “Objectivism” is a given epistemological stance which can be located in the oeuvres of different writers without reference to time, place, or literary influence, and that
“Objectivism” is an esthetic or a poetic program which is restricted to only a few writers and is described by their life works. “Objectivism” might also be confused with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, which is distinct not only historically (Rand's career as a novelist began in 1936, as a philosopher in 1961) but also in intent and focus. Rand's work supports anti-collectivism, capitalism, and rationality in the service of self-interest. “Objectivism” supports language, creativity, and the full range of human perceptual abilities in the service of the common good. Rand's theory of rights reduces to conditions for creativity. Rand puts art in the service of her ethics; the “Objectivists” put ethics in the service of their art.14
When discussing the movement in poetry begun by Ezra Pound in the teens, it is useful to distinguish among Imagisme, Imagism, and imagism. Imagisme refers to the poetics invented and practiced by Pound and associated with the work and the writers in Des Imagistes and with the Vorticist movement; Imagism and imagism refer to the popularization of Imagisme by Amy Lowell and hundreds of other writers, which Pound termed Amygism or Impressionism, the former more specifically applying to the six poets of the three anthologies of 1915, 1916, and 1917 titled Some Imagist Poets. Similarly, it is useful to distinguish among “Objectivism,” Objectivism, and objectivism. “Objectivism” is associated with the work in the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry and in An “Objectivists” Anthology; Objectivism with the complete works of the same and related writers; and objectivism with any work which sufficiently embodies or reflects the same principles. These distinctions are confused in this dissertation only where writers whom I quote do not find them necessary.
These extensions, all including Zukofsky’s work, were all disclaimed by Zukofsky. Many readers will view the confusion and discount at once both the “ism” and the “ist.” However, a painstaking, empirical study of the details of the case will do more than refute those who would claim that “Objectivism” is groundless; it will give precise definition to any ground discoverable. My strategy has been to begin with the fundamental, to see whether I can induce a poetic from the influences, the persons, and the times which gave the work of these writers birth and character. Such a procedure is in accord with their principles: the universal is found in particulars, not in generalities. If a common esthetic or poetic exists, it will be found within the years of their closest association. Such is the rationale behind this dissertation.
I have limited myself to the actions of six principal characters to reduce the stage to manageable dimensions. This limitation was not meant to exclude any writer from being considered a member of this group in any sense. The six were initially chosen on the basis of later reputations for having been involved in the group, and I found that the meaning of their affiliation was confirmed by the history as it unfolded.
Louis Zukofsky was their chief public relations man, their collaborator, editor, advisor, secretary, and friend. William Carlos Williams was an older compatriot in their common struggle, their friend and advisor, and was published by both their presses. Pound was their major influence, both personally and literally, the person most responsible for the existence of whatever group activity there was. George Oppen learned his craft in the company of Zukofsky and Reznikoff; he founded, with Mary Oppen, To Publishers; and he was involved in and published by The Objectivist Press. Charles Reznikoff’s work was the occasion for an initial definition of principles by Zukofsky, and he was involved in and published by The Objectivist Press. Carl Rakosi corresponded with Zukofsky and was well-represented in The Exile, the issue, and the anthology.
Kenneth Rexroth and Robert McAlmon were in similar positions but, unlike Rakosi, did not later claim to be “Objectivists.” Basil Bunting is an exception. Although he hasn’t claimed to be an “Objectivist,” he acknowledges that among the living Pound and Zukofsky taught him much.15 Bunting met Zukofsky and his friends when he lived in New York City in 1930, and he lived near Pound in Rapallo from 1931 to 1935,16 where he entertained Zukofsky in his visit to Europe in 1933.
I have limited my study to the events and works of the years between the fall of 1927, when they began to meet each other, and the summer of 1934, by which time they had abandoned their cooperative ventures. The Oppens joined the Communist Party in 1935, deferring their careers in poetry and art. Although George Oppen continued to think of himself as a poet, his second book was not begun until 1958. Carl Rakosi had become a social worker in 1924, and from as early as 1930 had been losing the struggle to write. He didn’t publish his first book until 1941, and it was his last effort until he began Amulet in 1965. Although Reznikoff and Zukofsky never stopped writing, Reznikoff was resigned to obscurity from the beginning of his career, so that his involvement in the group required the persuasion of his friends; and Zukofsky was already dissatisfied with the principles set forth in the Poetry issue by the end of 1931.17 In 1932, he had stopped submitting unsolicited manuscripts, bitter about lack of support.
My method is for the most part descriptive, documentary, and my organization is fundamentally chronological, although for convenience and clarity at certain points I bring together elements which were more strung out in time. I insert biographical and theoretical discussions at appropriate places in the chronological sequence. I also occasionally refer forward from the present to future events, publications, principles, and issues which help tie the facts together. In the empirical spirit of the investigation I present and analyze many texts: their correspondence, poetry, fiction, and essays, many of them unpublished; and I induce from these texts the similarities and the differences among them and between them and their masters, which gradually and cumulatively define and limit what can be concluded about the “Objectivists” and “Objectivism.”
Since this is a history as well as a criticism of the “Objectivists,” I present throughout biographic and bibliographic information which, rather than clarifying or developing my critical argument, supports in different ways the existence of the group and its relation to the times. Critics may misunderstand or discount the “Objectivists” only to the extent that they are ignorant of the facts. Documentary is not only in order but necessary because relevant manuscripts have never been published and relevant publications are no longer widely available.
Unfortunately, the record is incomplete and imbalanced. Only a small portion of a writer’s life ever gets written down, and in the writing it can lose its original character. We also have to rely on the foresight and the fortunes of the writers, their families, and the recipients of their letters to preserve this material. Rakosi’s early manuscripts and his letters to Zukofsky, for example, have been lost. So have most of Oppen’s early manuscripts. Partially because Oppen and Reznikoff were living in New York City with Zukofsky, there is no significant correspondence between them. For the point of view of Rakosi, Reznikoff, and Oppen, we have to rely mainly on their hindsight recollections, which can never recapture the past with its original resolution and comprehensiveness.
Consequently, the story is recorded disproportionately from Zukofsky’s point of view. He was not only the principal letter-writer of the core group, but their editor and their critic. His communications with Pound in Italy, Williams in Rutherford, and Rakosi in Wisconsin and elsewhere comprise our most detailed record of their association, and his essays our most involved record of their poetics. It is, therefore, especially unfortunate that Zukofsky became so embittered about their cooperative enterprise. His disclaimer has carried great, perhaps disproportionate weight because he did most of the work. Moreover, Zukofsky’s original critical formulations were, like Pound’s “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” in 1913,18 meant not to be dogma but exploratory approximations which, again like Pound’s pronouncements, came to mean slightly different things to each member of the group. In my examination, therefore, I have had to keep in mind that for several reasons Zukofsky deserves the first but not necessarily the last word on the meaning of “Objectivism.”