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Excerpts from Interviews with Carl Rakosi

From an interview with George Evans and August Kleinzahler
originally published in Conjunctions 11 (1988)

CONJUNCTIONS: Academia in this country is the new grand-scale salon; and you've lived outside of that. How do you think it's affected your work?

RAKOSI: You'd be a better judge of that than I. As I see it, I'm afraid I've been a little cowardly in using the full extent of my experiences in the world. That may be connected to a strain of disrespect in me for most poetry, which I've had for a long time. I can't stand the endless simulations that go on in it, the keeping out of honest experience. It's so prevalent that the medium itself seems at fault, of a lesser moral order than life. Seems, not is. But of course there are exceptions. When you read Reznikoff, you know at once--or Oppen, Oppen is even a better example--you know at once that he is not simulating anything, that it's the real thing always. Good or bad, it's the real thing. It's very difficult to find that sort of integrity.... The fault is partly a lack of personal integrity, partly being subjugated by literary modes and ideas as to the way a poem should be written, the way it should sound and look. It's discouraging to buck that trend, to keep life experience intact, not to be a prisoner of a mode, an idea.

[. . . .]

CONJUNCTIONS: Were, you close to your father and step-mother?

RAKOSI: Yes, my father had a great influence on me. In the brief autobiography that I just finished, I started with my early years with my grandparents in Hungary, and when I got to my father I couldn't let go. His figure took over. As a result, most of my chronicle has to do with my childhood. I have my father's social idealism and am bound by his integrity of character. He had not had much schooling but he was intelligent and had a European's great respect for culture. Despite this, I couldn't tell him I was a poet. His life had been a constant struggle to make a living and he would have worried about me too much. With my stepmother my mouth was sealed even tighter but for a different reason. She would have made fun of me. She was a very literal, practical woman, straightforward and honest, who brought my brother and me up with a firm, responsible hand, but who never allowed her imagination to stray outside the practical.

[. . . .]

CONJUNCTIONS: Mina Loy stopped publishing for fifteen years. Oppen stopped writing as well. There was a twenty-seven year hiatus in your writing career. Would you mind briefly discussing it?

RAKOSI: My big struggle always was trying to find an occupation at which I could make a living and still have time and energy to write. I tried many different things. It seemed to me I changed almost every year. Nothing seemed to work. Finally about 1939, 1940, in desperation I decided to try to get a Guggenheim. Hell, I thought, maybe that would break this thing. If not, I'll at least have a year in which to write. Well, the history of that is a bit comical. I wrote the three people who I thought would think enough of my work to recommend me, Williams, Stevens and Marianne Moore, and sent them my little chapbook, Selected Poems. Williams wrote back saying that he'd be very glad to write something but it would be a mistake if he did it, I'd never get a Guggenheim then. Stevens made some acute observations on my work, gave me very high marks on parts of it, but he wouldn't write. There's no sense to it, he said. The Guggenheim people are just as capable as I am of judging your work, they don't need me. Marianne Moore gave a very sensible answer too, but wouldn't write for a different reason. I had the mistaken idea that a candidate had to submit a project of some kind, so I cooked one up. My proposal was to write on the psychology of the poet, using insight from my experience in psychotherapy. She thought that was a very unpromising subject. So I never applied. It didn't seem possible to make a living, have a family too, which I was starting to have, and to write. When I tried it, it kept me up all night. You can do that two or three nights, but you can't do it as a regular thing. So I stopped. For twenty-seven years.

CONJUNCTIONS: Did you experience a depression in the beginning?

RAKOSI: Terrible. I thought I was going to die. I had all sorts of physical symptoms and a dreadful depression. It went on, I think, about two years.

CONJUNCTIONS: You felt that unless you could write all the time you didn't want to write at all?

RAKOSI:  No, no. It was just that I had to put a stop to it. It was too disrupting. And also, by that time I really had lost respect for poetry, partly for Marxian reasons. I didn't see any place for lyrical poetry in society.

CONJUNCTIONS: Assuming that you've changed your opinion, what place does it have in society?

RAKOSI: I'll answer that in this way. Let's say there are ten thousand adult readers of poetry in this country, and that's a generous estimate. That's less than one-hundredth of one percent of the adult population who ever read poetry or are affected by it in any way. Add to that the fact that the way in which that one-hundredth of one percent of the population is affected is not social, although its medium, language, is, and poetry winds up with a place in society that's not visible. This gnaws away at us and gives us no peace, not because we are vain but because the non-poet in us, which is inseparable from the poet, is social and needs and craves, like everyone else, social recognition and social appreciation, what you mean by a place in society. This is one of those situations in life that is not remediable. Hence your question. Things are not as bad as they seem, however, because your question is misdirected. It assumes that poetry exists where the Marxists have placed it, in the world of social behavior and social values. But that's not the case. Poetry exists, like the other arts, in the private life of the individual--not a small world. It exists because man has a creative imagination and urge and was meant to use them, to realize himself through them. It exists because it wants to, it has to, that is the nature of human nature, and in that sense it is existential like life itself. To perceive it as a social activity is to misunderstand its nature. To judge it by its social utility is to give ourselves undeserved pain. In all this, society talks to the artist with a forked tongue. It goes about its business as if the arts didn't exist, at the same time extolling them as if they were superhuman. It's sickening. Another turn of the screw. On the other hand, perhaps all this means is that society, if it thinks about us at all, has a dim awareness that the arts are existential, as I've said, not social, but has not thought it through enough to clean the old, romantic cobwebs out of its thinking. The all-time low for this kind of inanity was Shelley's declaration that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. I understand from you, George, that Auden's comment on this was that Shelley must have been talking about the secret police. Well, good for Auden.

CONJUNCTIONS: Are you saying that poets and poetry don't have any political impact?

RAKOSI: I am inclined to say that, and to ask why they should be expected to have, but there are always special situations. Petöfi, for example. His patriotic lyrics fired up the Magyars during their war to free themselves from the Austrians in 1848. But why do you ask?

CONJUNCTIONS: One thinks of a poet like Neruda.

RAKOSI: He might be a special case too. I don't know what his influence was in Chile. There's no question that his poetry had political objectives but whether it had any social impact depends on how many read it and who they were and whether they read it as poetry or as message. It's true that in a repressive or unjust society, poets, who are humanists, will take up literary arms against the enemy, as in Chile, and that in countries where free expression is not allowed, people in large numbers, as in the Soviet Union, will turn to poetry as an alternative to get what poetry expresses, ideal states of beauty and expressiveness, but poetry as such is simply not institutionalized to have either a social or political impact.

[. . . .]

CONJUNCTIONS: Let's take a jump back to this hiatus and the end of it. When did you begin writing again, and what instigated it?

RAKOSI: Well, it happened in 1965. I was then director of the Jewish Family and Children's Service in Minneapolis and had another two years to go before retiring. I'd been there for twenty years and had not read any poetry or thought of writing any, not for a moment, for longer than that. People wonder how that's possible but I'm here to tell you that it can happen and life goes on and fills up with other things. Anyhow I was on a straight road. I knew exactly what would happen in the next two years. I'd go on as I had been doing and retire at the end of it or maybe work another two years after that, I'd wait and see. After that I didn't know. This particular day was no different from any other and was beginning to fill up with life's chores and particulars when I stopped to examine the mail. Nothing noteworthy there . . . bills, announcements, magazines, and a very plain envelope from someone I didn't know. That meant it couldn't be very important. The letter inside was headed English Department, SUNY at Buffalo. I began to read without much interest. "Dear Mr. Rawley," it began. The writer excused himself for intruding on my privacy and said he was writing me about the poems I had published under the name of Carl Rakosi. My heart gave a leap. Something was moving in my distant young past. I began to feet slightly nervous. He said he had gotten my address from the county welfare department to which he had written at the suggestion of Reznikoff. He had been interested in my poems since he had seen my name mentioned some three years before by Kenneth Rexroth--probably in his book, Assays, where he likens me to Reverdy--but until he came to Buffalo to study with Olson, as I learned later, he had only been able to turn up "A Journey Away" printed in Hound and Horn. Now however he had been able to find about eighty poems of mine published between 1924 and 1934 and what immediately struck him was the discrepancy between that body of work and my 1941 Selected Poems, like the way long poems such as "The Beasts" and "A Journey Away" had been chopped up into smaller units in the book. He wondered also why I had stopped publishing since 1941 and whether I had done any writing since. Again he excused himself if his letter was an impertinence but he liked and admired my poems very much and had felt impelled to write, "now my interest is so engaged with them." Signed Andrew Crozier. This not at all unusual letter knocked the wind out of me. I sat there, I don't know how long, not thinking anything, yet sensing that something big had just happened, something had changed. Was it possible I could write again? This time it was possible. I would be free in two years, and with great joy I started. The first poem I wrote was "Lying In Bed On A Summer Morning." The old ticker was still there.

CONJUNCTIONS: You changed your name to Callman Rawley. Was this because it was expedient for you as a psychotherapist?

RAKOSI: No, that wasn't the reason. I changed my name before that in 1926 while I was still studying for my Master's in psychology at the University of Wisconsin. And I did it because Rakosi was constantly being misspelled and mispronounced. You wouldn't believe what came out of people's mouths when they tackled the name and how they spelled it. I writhed. Back then Americans had not yet seen enough foreign names in print to leave an impression on their minds. European names were as formidable for them to handle as Chinese. Another reason I changed my name was that I thought I might want to teach English someday in a university and with a foreign name I didn't think I'd have a chance. So I changed my name legally to Callman Rawley and kept Carl Rakosi as my pen name.

[. . . .]

On the 1930s

RAKOSI: Yes, those were exciting times. A new American rose had sprung up, blooming where you'd least expect it, in the agony of the Great Depression when 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. Capitalism had obviously failed. Change the damned system! An enormous energy shot through the country. The writers and artists, most of whom were living in New York then, were steeped in it and very quickly began to express it. The thing that was new in our situation was the confrontation with reality, what was happening all around us to the American people. There was no way to duck it. Faced with that, we weren’t going to play intellectual games or hold forth from an ivory tower and we couldn’t go to Europe or the past for models. We had to deal with the present and the present was American and idiomatic. The action took place in the WPA, which at one time seemed to be providing work for every writer and artist in America, me excepted -- I already had a job in social work -- but I was in that current anyhow. Everything looked possible then. The task of the Federal Writers Project and the other projects was to discover and portray America. And that was fun. And a great public mission. It was done most eloquently, I think, by the photographers ... Dorothea Lang, Imogene Cunningham, Margaret Bourke-White in those bleak, stark photographs done for the Farm Security Administration, my first encounter with great photography, photography that had an American face, that had power and depth. In the theater Clifford Odets and Marc Blitzstein and Elmer Rice were electrifying young audiences with the power and passion of their new plays. And the writers were working away with a great eye for detail on those masterpieces of cooperative writing, the guide books for the then forty-eight states. And the painters were there with wit and satire and poignancy -- Reginald Marsh, Adolf Dehn, the Soyers. There was an unmatchable buoyancy and exhilaration in the air and in us, welling up, I think, from the fact that society had recognized our work and had given us a place and a function and was paying us for it and was acting as if we belonged, and for the first time we felt that we did. I don't know whether this had ever occurred before; certainly not since. And the fact is that the writers and artists responded with complete seriousness and clarity and in particular a love for and interest in reality.

[. . . .]

On History

RAKOSI: Well, I see history moving in somewhat the same way as the sciences, and that is that all of a sudden it moves very very fast, so fast we don't quite know where we are. I'm thinking of the internationalization of everything. Science has long been international but now in a leap American capitalism throws off its national character and responsibilities and becomes international: it moves its factories overseas--American workers be damned. It invests its capital overseas, it produces for overseas markets and the area of our economics becomes the international market. And from this it follows that our politics have to be more and more global, and, I'm afraid, drag our culture along with it. The effect will be to homogenize it, to make it lose its national individuality and variety, which had already become hard to make out. That would be a great loss, but there's no way to go back. It's gone too far. We don't know of course what resistance the individual artist is going to make to this homogenization. We are not helpless against outside forces, we have defenses and ideas and drives of our own, and something new in the way of character and possibly values may shape up when the two forces meet. You've got Third World countries with their altogether different histories and cultures thrown into this big melting pot now.

The entire interview is reprinted in Carl Raksoi: Man and Poet. Ed. Michael Heller. Copyright © 1993 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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