Wednesday, October 30, 2002

 

Objectivist poet Carl Rakosi turns 99 this week. At 7:00 PM Eastern tonight, Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus will sponsor a webcast of a live reading and conversation with the poet.*

 

Rakosi is our last living connection with the Objectivists. In far too similar a fashion, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has emerged as the last of our Beat poets, John Ashbery the lone remaining core member of the New York School’s first generation, Robert Creeley the last of the great teachers at Black Mountain College, Robin Blaser the last participant in the Berkeley Renaissance (later the San Francisco Renaissance), etc. We are, it would seem, in a curious interregnum, an epoch of lasts.

 

There are of course an infinite number of problems with all such easy definitions. Perhaps it is impossible to find any other living participant from the Objectivist issue of Poetry – the age of 99 will put some distance between you & others – but what about Barbara Guest & the New York School, what about Snyder, McClure or Meltzer among the Beats? Or, conversely, what about the ways in which Ginsberg & Kerouac seem to have kept Ferlinghetti at arm’s length, at least in the 1950s? He was a publisher before he was their comrade.

 

Literary formations are intellectual constructs that live in time. If Objectivism lives today, it does so first in the memory of Carl Rakosi, a poet who apparently did not meet most of his fellow Objectivists in person until the 1960s, and then in our own sense of what that collective term represents. Before February, 1931, when the Zukofsky-edited special issue of Poetry first appeared, it is safe to say that hardly anyone beyond Zukofsky had any idea of what that term might entail.

 

Among the appendices to The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, editor Robin Blaser includes Robert Duncan’s questionnaire for his 1958 “Workshop in Basic Techniques,” as well as Spicer’s whimsical subversions in response.** Under the third section – “Tradition” – Duncan asks the respondent to choose one of two figures, alternative he refers to as “the tree or constellation,” the former being a straight-forward genealogical abstraction. Duncan instructs the applicant to “conceive of yourself as poet (that is, the spirit of your work) in the position marked with an x; then list as many poets . . . of your genius as you can numbering them according to their position in the design.”

 

The tree identifies “x” as the off-spring of 1 & 2. Positions 3 through 6 represent the “parents” of 1 & 2, with 7 & 8 standing for a sibling of each. Figures 9 through 12 are siblings or equals of ‘x.” The constellation offers no lines connecting figures. Rather some are closer, some further, some larger, some smaller. In this figure, “x” is near an unfilled center. Spicer in fact chose the constellation as his form, placing himself (“x”) into the lower-right hand sector of a rectangular quadrant that has now been moved directly into the center. The other three sectors are labeled variously, “Robin,” “Duncan,” & “To be found.” Spicer adds two items to his constellation, enabling him to array six figures relatively near to this bound quadrant: Pound, Cocteau, Dada, Yeats, Lorca, & “Vachael” (sic) Lindsay. Above and below are two more distant figures – Miles, meaning Josephine Miles, the dominant poet at UC Berkeley in the 1940s and ‘50s, and “Untermeyer’s Anthology.” Notably more distant, because “beyond” the array of six nearer influences, Spicer places two final figures, “The English Dept” and “The Place,” the latter being a North Beach bar associated with the Beats (and not, pointedly, with Jack’s crowd at Gino & Carlo’s).

 

How would Carl Rakosi respond to this questionnaire? Or Allen Ginsberg? Jack Kerouac? Frank O’Hara? Harryette Mullen? Anselm Berrigan? Gil Ott? Jena Osman? Dale Smith? Linh Dinh? Dodie Bellamy? Regardless of the formation you select, or the modifications you might make (a la Spicer) to one of Duncan’s figures, the process requires you to position yourself within the terrain of a poetics. All any literary formation is, in one sense, is just such a process carried out consciously, collectively & in public.

 

But this hardly means that such formations are fixed or frozen in time. To see that, one need only look at the three broad phases of Objectivism –

 

§         The 1930s, interactivity, optimism, joint publishing projects, critical statements, recruiting (Niedecker)

§         The 1940s & ‘50s, almost totally receding, with several Objectivists either not publishing and even not writing for long periods of time

§         1960s onward, the emergence & success of these writers precisely as a literary formation

In 2002, one might argue that Objectivism must be whatever Carl Rakosi says it is, even if he did not meet most of his collaborators until the third phase itself was under way. While John Taggart, Michael Heller, Rachel Blau Du Plessis or I might include Objectivism somewhere in whatever configurations we ended up drawing in response to Duncan’s question, only Rakosi might be apt to place it at or near “x.”

 

Even within formations, individual elements vary dramatically. Spicer, Duncan & Blaser had three very different relationships with Charles Olson, for example. Among langpos, one can find several people who have found Russian futurism & its critical front, Russian formalism, to be of great value. But one can find more who seem to have paid it only cursory attention, if any. Further, no two poets came to what we might call Russian modernism from exactly the same direction nor with the same set of concerns. Thus one can’t say that the relation of Russian futurism to language poetry is X or Y or whatever unless one specifies it down to the individual. Rather, it is “part of the mix,” as are (or were) any number of other disparate elements, from the New York School to surrealism to Stein to Projectivism to Zukofsky to the Bolinas Mesa phenomenon of the early 1970s.***

 

If ever there were an instance of the map not being the territory, such subjective positionings as these models suggest would be it. Spicer’s filled-out questionnaire is a perfect case in point, even if we concede that Spicer is playing with the document. Beyond Duncan & Blaser, the New American Poetry is entirely absent from this 1958 document. Those two & Josephine Miles are the only poets even born in the 20th Century. While Spicer’s constellation is notable for its internationalism, the choice of Vachel Lindsay (whose first name Spicer misspells), that old premodernist post le lettre, as his instance of Yankee nativism seems premeditatedly daft, given the absence, say, of Williams, Whitman, Dickinson, Crane or Stein. In a parallel mode, “Untermeyer’s anthology” (either The Pocket Book of American Poems or Modern American Poetry, both of which were “best sellers”) seems calculated to invoke the low-brow & decadent side of verse.

 

But what is most remarkable about Spicer’s 1958 map is what a resolutely static view of poetry it offers – two friends, one professor, one poet locked up in an insane asylum, as such hospitals were styled in those days, and everybody else basically is dead, anthologized, relegated to the English Department. The only inscrutable possibility – and it’s positioned on the outermost ring of Spicer’s constellation, as distant as the English Department – is the Beat scene at The Place.

 

Contrast this with the extraordinarily active sense of poetry, place & position to be found in Spicer’s final work, Book of Magazine Verse, published posthumously in 1966. There we find poems consciously written “for” – Spicer’s sense of preposition is especially barbed; not one of the named journals would ever print anything from this volume – The Nation, whose poetry was then being edited by Denise Levertov; for Poetry Chicago, then in the hands of Henry Rago+; for the Canadian little magazine Tish; for Ramparts, a Catholic journal that was at that point transforming itself into a muckraking antiwar publication, a leftwing publication that might have attracted Spicer precisely because it was published in San Francisco, a rare thing for a national publication in those days; for The St. Louis Sporting News, the bible of baseball in 1965; for the Vancouver Festival, not a magazine at all; and finally for the jazz journal, Downbeat. Spicer’s choices here are as clear a map as the 1958 questionnaire, but the world they address is radically changed. One might see Poetry Chicago as an equivalent, say, for either the English Department (especially given Spicer’s paranoia about his exclusion) or even “Untermeyer’s anthology” – advertised no less in that grand 50th anniversary issue. Inside, the poems are full of pop culture references: the Beatles, Ginsberg’s bust in Prague, the Vietnam war, Peter, Paul & Mary. In 1966, when Book of Magazine Verse came out, it never occurred to me that as a 19 year old, I was a regular reader of four of the publications Spicer references. But in retrospect, that’s a remarkable statement about Spicer.

 

One could argue that Spicer had changed dramatically, both as person and as a poet between 1958, when he had just finished writing After Lorca, and 1965, when he died. But whether one fixes one’s lens on the individual or on the social matters relatively little. Either way, the map itself is not static, but must be negotiated, in both the navigational and contractual senses of that word, continually. Periplum, as Pound called it, the ability to steer through waters in which no reference point is fixed.

 

All of which is to suggest that when one refers to Carl Rakosi as an Objectivist, or of Spicer as writer from the San Francisco (nee Berkeley) Renaissance, one needs to ask further: which Objectivism, which renaissance? The Objectivism of 1931 was a far cry from that of 1945, let alone 1965 or even as recently as 1985. If Objectivism (or modernism, or language poetry, the New York School or what have you) is perceived as a continuous & relatively fixed set of values, then it has become a map unanchored from the territory to which it ostensibly refers.

 

Which is why it is not possible to write language poetry in 2002.

 

 

 

* For more information, call 215-573-WRIT or see the special website: www.english.upenn.edu/~wh/rakosi.html.

 

** (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1975), pp. 357-60. Black Sparrow books are now an imprint of David R. Godine.

 

*** In the early 1970s, Bolinas’ population, never more than a few hundred, included Robert Creeley, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Joanne Kyger, Larry Kearney, Jim Gustafson, Jim Carroll, Tom Clark, Bill Berkson, Louis MacAdams Jr., and several other poets all loosely affiliated with different strands of the New American Poetry.

 

+Rago’s tenure at Poetry is worth examining further. From his arrival in 1955 through 1961 or so, he was more or less indistinguishable from the bland academics who were to follow in his wake, but from 1962 until Rago’s death in 1969, Poetry had a brief reawakening and was for that seven year period the only magazine in America to publish the New Americans & the school of quietude side by side, devoting issues to Zukofsky, publishing a 50th anniversary issue that included Creeley, Olson, Levertov, Koch, Pound, Mac Diarmid, Rexroth, Williams & Zukofsky as well as Aiken, Berryman, Merrill, Bogan, Ciardi, Cummings, Eberhart, Frost, Graves, Hecht, Jarrell, Kunitz, Lowell, Merrill, Merwin, Moss, Nemerov, Sexton, Spender, Wilbur, William Jay Smith & James Wright.

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