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On Carl Rakosi's "The Menage"

[Editor's note--We have included general comments that are directly relevant to "The Menage"]

Linda Barnes

His canon is, in fact, an eclectically erudite one. "The Menage" draws from a dictionary:

    ... baby's breath, 'a tall herb
bearing numerous small,
                        fragrant white flowers.'

from Chaucer:

'What makes you so fresh,
                                        my Wife of Bath'?
What makes you so silly,
                                        o bright hen?'

and from nursery rhymes:

‘That’s for you to find out,
                                        old shoe, old shoe.
That's for you to find out,
                                        if you can.'

"The Menage" begins with a consideration of jonquils in a glass; the poet is interrupted by a familiar voice which "broke into the wood" and a mock-pastoral conversation between the lovers ensues. Rakosi deals wittily with the natural background which the first part of the poem has provided:

                    (a mock chase and capture).
'Commit her
                    into jonquils custody.
She'll see a phallus
                                in the pistil.
Let her work it off there.'

And the poem ends:

            as real pastorals in time must,
in bed, with the great
                                    eye of man, rolling.

From "Urbane Sublimity: Carl Rakosi’s Spiritus, I" In Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet. Ed. Michael Heller. Copyright 1993 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Kent Johnson

Many of his more recent and powerful poems, like "The Menage," "Yaddo," "Lying in Bed on a Summer Morning," "In What Sense I am I," "Ginger," and "Associations with a View from the House," are among the most direct engagements of the problematics of subject/object relations within the Objectivist canon.

[. . . .]

For Rakosi, being fully participant in that mystery of the "outer," also implies a need to regard the subject’s desires and speculations with a sense of modesty. While meditations on the nature of cognition and knowledge in our poetry have often been a province for melancholic seriousness if not outright existential angst, Rakosi--and with remarkable frequency--makes them into occasions for self-effacement and an easy acceptance of the unknown. In poems like "The Menage" or "How to Be with a Rock" (which may well be a take-off on Stevens's solemn and celebrated poem), he shows himself to be our happiest—and sometimes funniest—philosophical poet.

From "Prosody and the Outside: Some Notes on Rakosi and Stevens." In Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet. Ed. Michael Heller. Copyright 1993 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Eric Mottram

Records of inwardness have to be transformed if a poem is to be made. . . .

The poem offers a signature, a set of signs, rather than a sentimental journey. [cf.] Pound's "Don'ts for Imagists"--"an absolute foundation stone of contemporary American writing" (that is: "direct treatment," "musical phrase," "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time"). This much is stated in the Spring 1969 issue of Contemporary Literature. In the Stony Brook essay it is affirmed: "a curtailment of arbitrariness." That this could not imply a curtailment of intellectual and emotional range is also clear--for example in "The Menage." Out of a close definition of six yellow jonquils, and a delight in them, develops an extraordinary fusion of eye, sexuality and meditation on Nature, in an augmenting structure which only poetry can sustain through such varied levels of stringency and amusement. Feelings for the non-human, the botanical, are appreciated within human appreciation of the sexuality of such pleasures. Rakosi's poems that include sexuality and his love of women are usually amused, sometimes sardonic, observations on male and phallic assumptions. Puck or Cupid keeps them from solemnity.

From "’A Mind Working’: Carl Rakosi." In Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet. Ed. Michael Heller. Copyright 1993 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Sharon Dolin

Carl Rakosi is a poet of the visual. As he has remarked, "Each poem should be an independent little island, independent, that is, to the eye, but not of the reader." One of the first things that strikes a reader's eye in perusing Rakosi's recently issued Collected Poems is the recurrent use of a dyadic strophe or two-step line. If prosody may be defined as "[w]hatever remains most constant," then the dyadic strophe appears to be the foundation of Rakosi's visual prosody, at least in his later poetry. Using Charles O. Hartman's definition of prosody as "the poet's method of controlling the reader's temporal experience of the poem, especially his [sic] attention to that experience," I propose to meditate on just how this choice of spacing affects the reader's temporal experience of the poem.

[. . . .]

Rakosi's use of dyadic verse seems to have been a later stylistic development for him, arising most strongly in the second part of his writing career, after a twenty-five-year hiatus. The timing would make it likely that Williams was his model.

Rakosi . . . uses the dyadic form not to create difficulty, not to complicate the reading process, but to give sweetness, rest, shape, and, perhaps most importantly, transcendence. This movement toward transcendence is generated both by the language of the poems and by the dyadic structure, as I will show. It is as though in a quick movement/rest of the eye down the page, some spiritual as well as saccadic leap can occur.

Remember that the soul
                                    is easily agitated
and has a terror of shapelessness.

In a free verse prosody, what can give shape? What can ease the "terror of shapelessness"? One answer that the poem's very lineation seems to supply is the two-step line. In an interview given in 1986, Rakosi says:

Well it's important to me how a poem looks on the page. I like to have it look graceful, to look attractive physically on the page, which means that I need a lot of space in between lines. When I'm starting to write something, I don't know how I want it to look until I actually put it on the page and see it and move it around and change things around. But the spacing to me is important not only for aesthetic reasons but also to give the mind and the eye a chance to rest and think for a moment before it moves on and not to cramp it, not to crowd it together. Unless I'm writing something epigrammatic.

From "Carl Rakosi’s Dyadic Strophe." In Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet. Ed. Michael Heller. Copyright 1993 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Kent Johnson

Rakosi's development of what I would call the "diadic foot," employed in most of his poems of epistemological meditation, can be seen as a productive innovation in objectivist poetics. . . .

[T]he divisions of syntactic fragments mark a formal extension of the cognitive tensions that constitute the poem's underlying theme: As framings of "inner" and "outer" engage in a give and take of pressurings throughout the text, the interfacing units enact, through shuttlings of sense and cadence across the caesura's pause, the deeper interwovenness of self and world that lies beneath any apprehension of their "discreteness."

[ . . . .]

As in Williams (and opposed to the horizontal pull of Stevens's metaphorical discursiveness) acts of seeing and thinking in Rakosi manifest themselves metonymically; the pressurings of the text's lineation against the expectations of syntax de-conventionalize the poem's reception, and open its reading to combinational possibilities outside its larger narrative flow. The particulars of attention, whether subjective or objective, are unshackled through form, and offered as a relational matrix that is open and, in the end, non-determined.

[. . . .]

As distinct from Stevens, where prosody is focused in accentual pulse, Rakosi projects the line as full unit of measure, the compressions or extensions of which aim to trace the interplays of phenomena and reflective thought. Composition in this mode, in that it grounds itself, in Zukofsky's famous phrase, in a "thinking with things as they exist," operates--and must--outside any paradigmatic metrical structure. As opposed to the rhythmic, one might even say melodic, expectations that Stevens's verse fulfills, the indeterminate patterns of meter and enjambment in Rakosi's work map, with the objectivist maxim of "sincerity," the confluence of dissonances and harmonies brought on by the open engagement of a mind with its given world. The text stands as if between the "subjective" and the "real"--a mediating grid or lattice upon which thinking and outer fact entwine as they seek their way into form.

But for Rakosi the scissorings of lyrical momentum that result from such careful articulation are not, as in much contemporary writing, weighted to suggest the frustrations of seeking to know the world through language; they are, to the contrary, areas and junctures charged with the effort of knowing, and with the implicit conviction that sincerities of attention hold out the promise of a communion with the "outside."

[. . . .]

Thus, to the "dismantling of contexts" that characterize Stevens's verse, Rakosi offers the alternative of a construction of contexts, proposing a fluid and creative exchange between the subject and that which it is given to live by. In this sense, the poem does not seek to insist its value or order into the world (or reader), but rather to be an object through which the "values" of human agency and objective world can interact on non-heirarchical and interpenetrating terms.

From "Prosody and the Outside: Some Notes on Rakosi and Stevens." In Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet. Ed. Michael Heller. Copyright 1993 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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