On Carl Rakosi's Life and Career
Rakosi's career before the "Objectivists" moment of 1931 needs to be read in terms of the literary situation as it presented itself to writers of his generation. What then becomes apparent is that although it was a generation with something of a common frame of reference -- Imagism, for example -- its cohesion was superficial, and concealed a potential for rupture which developed, in due course, along lines marked, as much as anything, by social difference. Rakosi belonged, that is to say, to a generation of American poets who, at the start of their careers in the 1920s, took initial direction from the expression of contemporary experience and sensibility made possible by the innovations of the first generation of modernists. Tate made precisely this point about Crane: "From Pound and Eliot he got his first conception of what it is, in the complete sense, to be contemporary." Unlike some other members of his generation (Tate himself, for example, and more especially Yvor Winters) Rakosi did not ally his poetry to the formation and propagation of a new literary-critical canon, and thus make a theoretically entailed connection between writing in the present and the literature of the past on behalf of a stabilising cultural order of the sort Eliot seemed to adumbrate in "Tradition and the Individual Talent". His writing identifies him, instead, with poets more concerned to investigate the formal uses to which the data of contemporary life might lend themselves. Like Rakosi, these poets were mostly from immigrant families and, cut off from cultural traditions which American experience tended, in any case, to negate, their attention to formal compositions that could be understood as the specific, unprecedented resolution of their experience was expedient and necessary. It was also their special distinction. As members of immigrant families they were immune to nostalgia for the American past, and as Americans in the process of assimilation it is not surprising that they were less concerned with their perception of the immediacies of experience than with the discourses in which that experience was constituted. We need always to remind ourselves that America in the 1920s was not the London of 1913, and that the world of lived experience, as well as poetry, had been modernised, and continued to be modernised and rationalised at an accelerating rate.
These "Objectivists", as they became, are to be seen as initiators of the first revolt against institutionalised modernism by virtue of their rejection of the impersonal theories of discourse implicit in the notion of poetic values sustained by tradition. (It should be noted that Eliot used "tradition" as a stalking horse while in pursuit of other game. When Tate says that Crane's poetry is "in the grand manner" it is its traditionalism that wins his approval.) Their work may also be seen as an attempt, not altogether well timed, to incorporate and extend the innovations of the first generation of modernists at a moment when that generation was losing momentum and cohesion. Such a revolt, however, was inauspicious at the start of a decade in which the main opposition to the academic modernism of what became the "new criticism" came from left wing demands for a literature of solidarity and social commitment. Objectivism represents, then, a particular development of early modernism, rather than its straightforward evolution, still directly responsive to the instigations of the previous generation by virtue of an understanding of poetic form as a resolution of responses to contemporary experience and its characteristic discourses, rather than a conceptual order able to accommodate and so regulate an awkward and perhaps undesirable novelty. This development took place (perhaps only could have taken place: Rakosi and Zukofsky both were refugees from university teaching posts) outside the new establishment of literary power relations, brought into existence by the alliance with modernism of an increasingly professionalised literary criticism. This alliance, the main site of modernist affiliation for poets of Rakosi's generation, was built up around an analysis of modernism of the sort suggested by Tate's remarks about Hart Crane. Its concepts and related values are evident in Winters's review of An "Objectivists" Anthology, in which he reproached the Objectivists for their lack of "rational intelligence", and read them as "sensory impressionists of the usual sort". For Winters, as for Tate, the agency of form was conceptual; it represents (for Winters it could only do so by conventions of metre; for Tate it was signified by an intuited imaginative centre) the mind's rational control of disorderly sensation and feeling. Inevitably, therefore, they would find in Imagism and Objectivism no signs of unifying intelligence. Their realism precluded anything approaching Zukofsky's understanding of words as "absolute symbol", and its implication that form is actualised in the local and sequential relations between particular words. What is striking about Winters's theory of form, in particular, is that rational intelligence is represented symbolically, by metrical verse; its textual domain, that is to say, is the aesthetic, which acts as a corrective to the confused emotions and muddled thought of modern life. Despite the attention his criticism gives to the local vitality of poetic language, its denotation and connotation are for Winters cognitively weak. It is as though he recognised the place of modernism's energy and expression but can only assign such qualities affective status. What is outside the poet's mind, including the instrumentality of language, is a source of brute sensation and vagrant mood; it is without organisation or unity. One does not, however, have to be a phenomenologist not to suppose the mind capable of representing only its own coherence, nor idly complaisant in acknowledging the discourses that constitute the greater part of daily life. No doubt much of the twentieth century deserves our contempt, but contemptuous dismissal is a luxury as well as a cliché.
It is not that Rakosi and the other Objectivists stood outside the literary situation of their generation; Tate and Winters were, in their own way, outsider figures; indeed, the figure might apply to the whole of the generation "entre les deux guerres". The point is, rather, that the Objectivists were successfully outflanked; we can see this being done very neatly in the pages of Hound and Horn -- at first friendly to Pound and his young men, its literary policy was eventually dominated by the opinions of Winters. None of this any longer matters, but it is against just this background of generational identity and rupture that the contour of Rakosi's career shows up most clearly.
From "Carl Rakosi in the Objectivists Epoch." In Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet. Ed. Michael Heller. Copyright © 1993 by The National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
We may read in the case of Carl Rakosi at least the following: the early influence of Williams and Stevens and, later, Zukofsky; his Jewishness, as well as what some characterize as his Europeanness; his efforts through the twenties and thirties to settle on the work of his lifetime; the impact of the Depression; his lifelong work as a social worker, and his love for those he worked with who enlivened him so much; his relation to other poets linked with him as Objectivists, both in their early years and, later, in the sixties, what Ron Silliman characterizes as their "third or renaissance phase"'; his decision that he could not be both poet and social worker and the effect of a quarter-century silence as a writer; how his writing habits, circumstances, aesthetic led to an aphoristic, epigrammatic style; how the function of poet and poetry had changed in half a century.
Carl Rakosi born in Berlin, November 6.
"I am in a very long room, so long that I can not see its end. There is very little furniture. The ceiling is very high and vast. There are shadows. The further away they are, the longer and heavier. There is no one there. I lie in my crib. All I'm aware is that I am. And the silence. The silence is loud. No one comes. The silence is all there is. The nothing is oppressive. Hours go by and it becomes harder and harder to bear. There is no end. There is only the silence. And nothing. But beyond what I can see is Something ominous looming.
This is not a dream; it's a memory, and I am bonded to it. It's a memory of no one being there and no one coming. A mother was not there. I'm sure."
Parents separate. Mother moves back to her parents' home in Baja, Hungary, with Carl and his brother. Father emigrates to the United States and remarries.
"I have to remember that he was only thirty at this time and soaking up new experiences. He had one in particular which was in the nature of a revelation and forever changed his thinking. It happened somewhere near the Tiergarten, I think. A crowd had gathered around two speakers. He walked over to listen. One was a young man about his age. He was almost shouting, in order to be heard, about the terrible privations of the poor, working men included, the disabled, the homeless, the unemployed, . . . urging his listeners to band together ... in union there was strength....
. . . the realization came to my father then that this was the noblest thing a man could do . . . he could not conceive of anything nobler . . . to have a great cause, to be spokesman, an advocate, a champion of the oppressed and downtrodden. He never got over that. There was awe in his voice, almost reverence and a hush, and his face became transformed when he mentioned the names of the speakers... Karl Liebnecht and Rosa Luxemburg.
And when he went on about the brotherhood of man and the necessity for justice, . . . a wave of emotion surged through me and lifted me up and I was glad.
[. . .]
" . . . how else can I explain never seeing her [his mother], even in Baja, Hungary, where we lived next with her parents, . . . until I was six, and never remember her ever touching me an that time."
[of his grandmother]: "Her presence has always been with me. The eyes are sad and reflective. The face tired, beginning to show wrinkles, but the mouth smiles and an incomparable sweetness, her character exudes from her, holding nothing back, and envelops me. She leans towards me, attentive, smiling, and I respond in like, as I had learned to do from her, also smiling, all inside me light."
[. . .]
"I remember too ... summer. . . A Serbian workingman has just sat down on a bench to have his noon lunch and I smell something overpowering. He takes out a pocket-knife and holding a slab of smoked bacon in one hand, he slices it with the other the way one would slice a peach, and the way he slices his country bread too, and eats with gusto, a thousand years of peasant life . . . the peasant and his pig ... behind him ... that aroma ... still in my nostrils."
Stepmother comes to Hungary and takes Carl and his brother to the United States.
"All I am thinking of is the going and the necessity to act as if this were like any other day. She [his grandmother] has suppressed her tears so as to make the parting bearable to me. I walk up to her ... and ... let myself be hugged and kissed with that self-possession and vigilance which protect children. And I leave without recognizing her grief or even acknowledging that this is a separation.
[. . .]
"We went second-class. I remember Lester [his brother] leading me down a forbidden flight of stairs to see what it was like in third-class. It was more crowded there and the talk was thicker and louder and more of it, but otherwise not different that I could see. We tried also to see what it was like in first-class, what the rich people looked like and what they were doing, but the steps were barred to that deck.
The only other thing I remember is throwing up night after night at the dinner table on the clean white tablecloth . . ."
[. . .]
"There, into what looked like an enormous, barren barracks, the immigrants poured and stood around, waiting nervously in their best clothes to check out their papers and to go through the required medical examination, and it hit them head-on for the first time that no one knew exactly what state of health they had to be in order to pass. . . ."
Family lives in Chicago where his father works as a watchmaker.
His father goes into business for himself in Gary, Indiana. Family moves to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where his father opens a second jewelry and watch repair shop after the failure of the first in Gary.
". . . one day I was sent to a room I had never seen before and given a test; ... The next day I was called out of class to the principal's office and told I was going to be moved ahead a grade. I couldn't understand it. Then a month later, the same thing, another grade ahead. I had no difficulty doing the work in the upper grades, but now everybody in the class was two years older than I, and that did make a difference in my life because henceforth everybody in class would always be two years older and bigger and I would always be two years younger and smaller. . . ."
[. . .]
"Our house was a house of daily scrimping and worry because of the nature of my father's business . . . he had started in Gary with only a credit line from Moore and Evans. He earned enough from his watch repairing to provide us with food and part of the other necessities; he could depend on that, but he never knew whether he would sell enough jewelry to provide the rest and pay his bill at Moore and Evans on time....
This is what had my parents locked in and dominated their lives, subsuming their softer, convivial qualities. It locked me in, too. It locked me into a lifelong concern about making a living and affected my personal habits and the way I deal with practical matters....
'How can you move,' I asked [Ed Dorn once], 'if you don't have something?'
'Oh,' he said, 'I can always find something.' I have never been free in that way."
[. . .]
"Although my father and stepmother were intelligent and had a high regard for learning (he had a European's great respect for culture), she was too practical and literal to be interested in more than a newspaper, and his eyes at the end of a day were too tired to be able to read. Thus, there were no books in our home."
[. . .]
"That didn't bother me because I didn't know I was missing anything, until one day I discovered the public library on the other side of town."
[. . .]
"The library now became my secret home and my secret vice....
... the old Scribner's edition of Dickens ... Thackeray ... and the great Russians . . . Maxim Gorkis unforgettable My Life comes to mind; and Huneker who introduced me to the wonders of music and the cross-cultural currents in the arts....
... all the time I was in Kenosha I don't remember ever seeing a grown man carrying books on the street, and I knew they weren't reading. So I couldn't help feeling embarrassed....
Once I was across the bridge on the immigrant North Side I was safe. During the day there was no one in the long block of saloons on the way to our house, and if a lone figure did happen to be in and looking out at the street at that exact moment, books were so far outside anything he was interested in that I passed by, invisible."
[. . .]
"I had no inkling of anything in me beyond this until I was sixteen and wrote a piece in high school in senior English on George Meredith. To my wonderment the teacher wrote back a long enthusiastic response as to an intellectual equal with comment after comment indicating that she respected my literary mind."
Rakosi becomes a student at the University of Chicago and begins to write poetry.
"They [my parents] thought they could manage to support me at a university if they were very careful and if I lived frugally and worked during the summers."
[. . .]
" . . . one day I was a reader of literature and the next day, there was the knowledge, as if it had always been there, that I wanted to be a writer and that I could best express myself in poetry, not prose."
Transfers to University of Wisconsin. Becomes editor of the Wisconsin Literary Magazine. Friendship with Kenneth Fearing and Margery Latimer. Graduates with a BA.
Eliot -- The Wasteland (1922)
Cummings Tulips & Chimneys (1923)
Stevens -- Harmonium (1923)
Williams -- Spring and All (1923)
"The University had some ten thousand students, mostly from Wisconsin farms and small towns, blond young Babbitts, their hair cropped close. Time was suspended for these boys and girls from the country while they looked each other over and saw that they were comely, and flirted and horsed around. And the big events were football and the Big Ten pennant ahead, and standing guard was a smugness hard to imagine these days, though Nancy Reagan comes pretty close to it.
Entered I, poor little Jewish, boy, stewing in an inner life, sensitive, mystical, full of Tolstoy and Nietzsche, feeling as if I had been branded by a stigma ...."
"The bestial evening of alienation and insecurity, of mysterious depths and longing. With that, I graduated...."
[. . .]
"When we were together, Eros was in Blake country, and woman as Blake envisions her, was Margery [Latimer] herself. From the start, I was drawn into a deep relationship in which, to borrow Blake's imagery, our souls contemplated each other happily .... "
[. . .]
"The only poetic-literary influences that I am aware of, at the very beginning, were Yeats, and then Stevens, and Cummings a little."
" . . . at first I was seduced by the elegance of language, the imaginative association of words; I was involved in a language world -- a little like the world of Wallace Stevens, who was an idol of mine during a certain period."
". . . you take one of his [Stevens's] poems and try to understand it as a man saying something, you're lost. Its beauties are something utterly different. He's killed all subject matter."
[See "The Domination of Wallace Stevens (1925)."]
Hired as a social worker-in-training by Family Service, a family counseling agency in Cleveland.
"I happened to be talking to somebody who was also looking for a job and he said, 'Why don't you go into social work?' I didn't even know what it was."
"I found the courses rather dull but immediately became deeply involved with my clients, more deeply and disinterestedly than I had ever been involved with anyone before. And I discovered in myself a great urge to listen deeply to their distress, to understand it, my whole attention in it, and be helpful. In this I discovered a great excitement and a gay self-fulfillment unknown to me before."
Works as messboy on merchant ship to Australia. Counselor at a treatment center for disturbed children, New York City.
Williams--In the American Grain.
Poems appear in The Little Review and Nation.
"New York was all I expected and I learned a great deal of Freudian theory in my new agency, which had the best clinical reputation in the country at the time, but I had to give it up. It was too much of a good thing, absorbing, too demanding, too rigorous. It was making it hard for me to write."
"I guess I underestimate Williams' influence on my early work. Williams did influence my form a great deal Williams and Cummings. The openness and opportunity for clarity in Williams' spatial arrangements appealed to me and I appropriated it at once. I would probably have arrived at something similar on my own because that was what my work had to have, but he saved me a lot of time. Williams' Americanisms also left their mark on me."
Returns to the University of Wisconsin to study psychology. Changes name legally to Callman Rawley. Co-founds and edits The Issue, which publishes twice.
"For one thing, Rakosi was forever being mispronounced and misspelled, but the main reason was that I didn't think anyone with a foreign name would be hired, the atmosphere was such in English departments in those days."
Works as a psychologist in the personnel department of The Milwaukee Electric.
"I checked the motorman's responses ... his speed, accuracy, endurance, and the like, and made out a psychological profile from that. And on that the poor fellows employment or future in the company depended."
Works as a psychologist for Bloomingdale's in New York City. Works as a family counselor with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Becomes an instructor and graduate student in the English Department at the University of Texas. Becomes a student in the Law School at the University of Texas.
"I felt the need to protect my time and resources for writing by work that was less compelling, less absorbing ... and got myself a job . . . teaching freshman composition to engineering students. . . . The work was easier all right.... but now it was the young prigs in the department I couldn't stand. They acted as if they had brought Oxford to Austin, . . . and were so affected and British high-toned that I felt nauseated and was faced with having to spend the rest of my life with clones. I could see too that what I would be doing as a professor would be so specialized and of so little value except in English departments. . ."
"[In law school] I was captivated by the insistent practical base of jurisprudence and found the logical and philosophical reasoning supporting it as clear and well-proportioned as the Parthenon . . . but because for me to stand up and speak in public was nerve-wracking then, an ordeal and I realized too late that's what a lawyer did."
Works as English teacher in Houston. Works evenings as a group worker with Mexicans at the Rusk Settlement House.
Pound --How to Read
"I had a job teaching English literature to high school seniors in Houston. What I thought would be a relatively easy, mild experience turned out to have a monstrous work load, and I loathed the students' lack of interest and cutting up in class and the fixed Victorian course of study from which one was not allowed to deviate. Zukofsky's letter came when I was in despair. I had tried every occupation I could think of in which I could make a living and still have time and mental energy to write without success. There was no place else to go. It seemed like the end of the line."
"I'd send him something to look at and it would come back with just a few comments, but they were always right on the nose. He seemed to know better than I what was true Rakosi and what was not."
"Rakosi' may be dead, I wish I cd trace him.
His last address was
61 N. Main St. Kenosha, Wisconsin."'
-- Pound in a letter to Zukofsky, 25 October 1930.
During summer vacations studies premedical sciences and goes on to study medicine at the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston until his money runs out.
Objectivist issue of Poetry
"I see that his definition was tailor-made for his work and that his frame of reference was already the tour-de-force. I see too why it struck me as curious and wrong. He had omitted all reference to the poet's relation to the real world, except for his insistence on particulars, and that was at odds with his argument."
". . . if Reznikoff was an Objectivist, Zukofsky is not and never was one."
". . . the one who is closest to me . . . the critics said he hadn't done enough with the material. But my first reaction when I read it was that maybe Reznikoff was right. Maybe the material can speak for itself."
Returns to social work in Chicago ("I rode back north to Chicago on freight cars"). Takes courses in social work at the University of Chicago. Works as Director of Social Services in the Federal Transient Bureau in New Orleans. Continues to pursue a degree in social work at Tulane University. Works in social work in New York City. Completes graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and receives a Master of Social Work degree. Marries Leah Jaffe, 6 May 1939. Brief internship in psychotherapy.
Oppen --Discrete Series
Pound -Make It New
Stevens -Ideas of Order
Williams -Collected Poems 1921-1931
Stevens -- Man With the Blue Guitar
"I respect his [Oppen's] poetry. It can come through with brilliant perceptions of reality.... But I can't warm up to it. It's stripped down too much."
"I believe that Pound's critical writing--particularly the famous 'Dont's' essay--is an absolute foundation stone of contemporary American writing. But in his own work I think he's been disastrous as a model, totally disastrous to younger writers.... It's not honest. He pretends that his material is epic when it is only a device to achieve grandiosity at the expense of the reader. All that pretense and double-dealing nauseate me."
". . . Williams was not central for me. However, there are similarities between us for reasons other than literary that is, we were both in the helping professions and not in academia, we were doing somewhat parallel things, he a doctor, I a social worker and psychotherapist, both of us always out in the world, engaged with people, living always with their problems, learning from them. That common workplace left its impression on our work."
". . . with Williams you always have the feeling that there's a man there talking. With Stevens, you don't get that feeling. He's transformed himself into something wonderful and beautiful, but he's not a man talking."
"I fell in love with social work and that was my undoing as a poet, in a sense. . . . I'm not so completely subsumed by language as I was then."
"I had become convinced by 1935 that capitalism was incapable of providing jobs and justice to people and that the system had to be changed, that there was no other way . . . it seemed like half the country was out of work and ready to explode, the unemployed organizing and storming the relief offices, when true-blue Americans who had never thought much beyond the morning news and football became radicalized. The stakes had become too high to do nothing."
"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 those ends."
"After a couple of years, however, I stopped going to meetings, and that ended it. Nobody noticed because all I had ever done was listen, and march occasionally on picket lines with people I didn't know, and cheer and feel uplifted at mass rallies."
"It was impossible to pile on top of this daily regimen a night of writing. When I tried it, I turned into such a live wire that I could neither sleep afterward nor do my work right the next day. In addition, my Marxist thinking had made me lose respect for poetry itself. So there was nothing to hold me back from ending the problem by stopping to write. I did that. I also stopped reading poetry."
Leonard Bacon -- Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Works in St. Louis at Jewish Family Service. Becomes Assistant Director of Bellefaire, a residential treatment center for disturbed children in Cleveland. Becomes Executive Director of Jewish Family and Children's Service in Minneapolis until his retirement in 1968. Also works as a psychotherapist in private practice.
From "Materials Towards a Study of Carl Rakosi." In Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet. Ed. Michael Heller. Copyright © 1993 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
Return to Carl Rakosi