Walking with Reznikoff: The Legacy of Objectivism
I was visited by Charles Reznikoff in 1974, about two years before his death at the age of eighty-one. I was twenty-six and living with my wife of six years in a small studio apartment crammed with books, musical instruments, art supplies and a small sailboat that we used as a combination ottoman-coffee table.
Some weeks before our visit, I had been phoned by one of my old professors at Grand Valley State University to ask if I’d be willing to spend a few hours with poet Charles Reznikoff. They’d invited him to read but he would only come if he got a meeting with me. The reason Reznikoff wanted to meet was that he had a personal prophecy for me. He saw something in my work that I did not yet see for myself.
He was finally being recognized at the end of his life, but he wanted to talk to me. This still amazes me a half a century later. It took decades to understand. I had to get old myself first. At that time, I did not know who Reznikoff was nor anything about Objectivism, but he saw the path I was on.
Reznikoff and I spent several hours together prior to his evening reading, talking about poetry. He gave me four of his self-published books. He already had two of mine that he’d bought in NYC.
He was familiar with my poetry. He liked my reliance on imagery and avoidance of the first person singular. He was interested in my take on Surrealism. Although he was an older, accomplished poet, he was focused on a young beginner who had a lot to learn. I believe this alone speaks volumes about his character and his work.
At one point, we went out for a walk, and I was surprised at the gait he maintained for an old man who was also short statured. About halfway through our walk, we stopped at a small park by a pond, a few miles from my apartment. There was one other person there, a young mother with a baby in a stroller, whom Reznikoff engaged in conversation. When we resumed our walk, he told me that he’d gotten “her story.” I remember this detail of our time together more clearly than our “literary” conversation. Talking the talk pales by comparison to walking the walk.
He walked an average of twenty miles a day in Brooklyn and Manhattan, observing and interacting with people. Many of his poems throughout his writing career were documentations of observations made on his long, daily walks:
“Scared dogs looking backwards with patient eyes;
at windows stooping old women, wrapped in shawls;
old men, wrinkled as knuckles, on the stoops.
A bitch, backbone and ribs showing in the sinuous back,
sniffed for food, her swollen udder nearly rubbing along the
Once a toothless woman opened her door,
showing a slice of bacon that hung from her mouth like a
This is where I walked night after night;
this is where I walked away many years.”
from Sunday Walks in the Suburbs
* * *
The above excerpt is from an early work, published in 1921. The example below was written just before his death and found in his unpublished manuscripts:
Fifth Avenue has many visitors
and many of these have cameras;
they take pictures of themselves, of course,
or of buildings,
and even of trees in Central Park.
But I have yet to see anyone
taking a photograph of the old woman
who stands on the sidewalk
wearing the blanket in which she has slept on a bench:
her stockings fallen
and showing her naked legs
streaked with black dirt;
her grey hair disheveled
and her face also streaked with smudges.
The tramp with torn shoes
and clothing dirty and wrinkled-
takes a comb out of his pocket
and carefully combs his hair.
from Walking in New York
* * *
Reznikoff perfected an observational, journalistic approach, transcribing actual court testimony or describing street scenes, people and things he heard. Like Whitman, he type-set and printed his own books in small editions (usually two hundred copies) on a printing press he set up in his parent’s basement. Like Whitman, he evoked the poetry of common speech with the lives of common people and unadorned imagery as his subjects.
Reznikoff, in his books Testimony and Holocaust especially, used poetry to address human suffering and tyranny. He felt that images and facts speak for themselves without undue intrusive interpretation from the poet. Reznikoff used his experience as an attorney to write Testimony, which is comprised of numerous excerpts from court testimonies, with the names removed to make them symbolic of the human condition in all its permutations when dealing with legal prosecution. His immersion in studying human nature fed and energized his poetry. He had a Whitmanic, expansive ego and identified with downtrodden people across the world.
The birth of the Objectivist movement is generally seen as the publication of An ‘Objectivist’ Anthology (Zukofsky, Ed.; To Publishers; New York, New York; 1932). The anthology included the work of the precursors of the movement, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, as well as the poets who later developed Objectivism. The primary poets who developed it were Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi and George Oppen, along with several minor or second-generation poets (i.e. Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker).
Objectivism was a marriage between poetry and journalism. It has its origins in Walt Whitman, who began as a printer and was a journalist before he became a poet. Whitman integrated the objective images of America into a poetry of imagistic references that function as symbols.
The definition of Objectivism was unclear at the onset. Louis Zukofsky felt that objects themselves have immanent meanings without the artist imposing stylistic or pre-conceived interpretations on them. Reznikoff expanded that concept to include objectivity itself as the path poetry could take toward universal truths.
The Objectivists were Imagists with social and political consciences. They believed that images of human suffering and inhumanity would “speak for themselves” and cause readers to respond sympathetically. While the earlier Imagists also relied primarily on imagery, they had a meditative mental state/response more in mind, similar to the tradition of the Japanese haiku.
The early critical reception of the Objectivists was generally hostile, particularly in reviews by formalists Morris Schappes and Yvor Winters. In stark contrast to the other major poetic movement of their period (Confessionalism), the moral values of the Objectivists were humanistic while the Confessionalists were narcissistic. Unfortunately, critics and public alike jumped onto the band wagon of Confessionalism while ignoring the altruistic Objectivists. Both movements had their births in the 1930s and “peaked” in the early 1970s. Ironically, Objectivism, the less popular of the two, has
left us a legacy we can build on while Confessionalism promoted a poetry of self-indulgence and sensationalism. Objectivism encouraged the belief that poetry can be a vehicle of social progress instead of (or in addition to) mere personal catharsis.
The other Objectivist poets had similar humanistic objectives with their lives and
their poetry. George Oppen quit poetry for twenty-eight years in the 1930’s to organize actions supporting worker’s rights. He fought in WWII and was awarded a Purple Heart. He began writing poetry again in 1958. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his book Of Being Numerous (New Directions, 1968).
In his introduction to Oppen’s Selected Poems (New Directions, 2003), Robert Creeley wrote that the Objectivists “all worked from the premise that poetry is a function ‘of the act of perception,’ as defined by Oppen in his essay The Mind’s Own Place.” Creeley continued that “Oppen is trying all his life to think the world, not only to find or enter it, or to gain a place in it, but to realize it, to figure it, to have it literally in mind.” Using this definition, great similarities come immediately to mind in comparison to the theory that the microcosm reflects the macrocosm as espoused by the Transcendentalists of the previous century, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.
Oppen speaks directly to Whitman in this excerpt from his early poem Myself I Sing:
Me! he says, hand on his chest.
Actually, his shirt.
And there, perhaps,
Pioneers! But trailer people?
Wood box full of tools –
American. A sort of
in themselves. A
Less than adult: old.
A pocket knife,
A tool –
Here talking to the man?
That dawned along the road
And all I’ve been
Is not myself? I think myself
Is what I’ve seen and not myself
A man marooned
no longer looks for ships, imagines
Anything on the horizon. On the beach
The ocean ends in water. Finds a dune
And on the beach sits near it. Two.
He finds himself by two.
* * *
Like Reznikoff, much of Oppen’s work is based in observations of street life that evoke humanistic concerns:
Ah these are the poor,
These are the poor–
Hardship. . .
Nor are they very good to each other;
It is not that. I want
An end to poverty
As much as anyone
For the sake of intelligence,
‘The conquest of existence’—
It has been said, and is true–
And this is real pain,
Moreover. It is terrible to see the children,
The righteous little girls;
So good, they expect to be so good. . .
* * *
The influence of William Carlos Williams on the Objectivists is clear and may be summed up succinctly in Williams most famous statement on poetics: “No ideas but in things.” Williams’ detached, observational approach is especially obvious in the poetry ofCarl Rakosi. Like Williams, Rakosi was a master of the short, colloquial, observational poem.
Carl Rakosi also had a strong social conscience. He had a Master’s degree in social work (University of Pennsylvania) and gave up writing poetry for twenty-six years in order to practice social work. After his return to the literary scene, Rakosi published several award winning collections. He lived to be one hundred years old, and is widely remembered as a kind and thoughtful man.
Although most of his poems are written in the observational first person, Carl Rakosi primarily addressed social and literary issues rather than personal ones:
I have come to care
for only laborers
and poor people
and to feel ashamed
sitting like Chopin
on its exquisite ass.
from The Dream
* * *
In his later years he spoke directly for humanity more frequently:
We have broken away.
Our hearts are grounded
in the waterways.
Our butts foam
in the current like a keel.
* * *
Although a limited access to the macrocosm can be achieved through literary discipline, it comes in a distant second compared to direct life experience. I believe this is why George Oppen quit writing for a long time to work directly for the welfare of workers, why Carl Rakosi quit writing to be a social worker and why Charles Reznikoff quit practicing the law to walk and write about human suffering.
The call to direct action in the world can be a strong one. I heard it myself after my first decade on the literary scene of the seventies. I had studied with Ted Berrigan and Robert Bly, and had regular one-to-one meetings with my mentor Donald Hall. I’d been published in an international anthology (For Neruda, For Chile – An International Anthology, Lowenfels, Ed., Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1973). I had been published in litmags alongside recognizable names like Berge, Berrigan, Bly, Bukowski, Creeley, Felinghetti, Ginsberg, Hall, Hass, Holland, Hollo, Rukeyser, Sanchez, Stafford, Snyder,
Whalen, Waldman and Yevtushenko. I’d spent three years teaching and doing workshops in the Poets in the Schools Program. I’d published my translations of Arthur Rimbaud and four poetry collections, receiving the generous support of book reviewers. I’d been Poet in Residence at two small Michigan colleges (Ferris State and Schoolcraft). I was the poetry reviewer for the second-largest newspaper in Michigan (The Grand Rapids Press). I was off to a good start, yet I grew to feel that it was all so much vanity in the face of serious human suffering.
I told Donald Hall that I had a strong urge to help abused children. Don encouraged me to get a Master of Social Work degree. (His ex-wife had recently earned one, so he had direct experience of it.) “Either that, or move to New York and get serious about poetry,” he said, or words to that effect. (Soon after that, Don left Michigan himself, to purchase his grandfather’s Eagle Pond farm in New Hampshire. A few years ago, he wrote in a letter that he hated to leave the farm to give readings.)
I returned to school, earning a second BA, in Psychology, and then the Master of Social Work degree. For the next twenty-four years, I practiced as a therapist for special needs children and their families. Although I still wrote poetry, I didn’t submit it for publication during those years. As I threw myself into trying to help children, my poetry, kept to myself, got better. I learned why I wrote it. When I returned to the literary scene, twenty-four years later, poetry had a purpose for me that went beyond the personal.
I hadn’t known about the pattern of direct action among the Objectivists when I felt the call to help children. There is a special sympathetic, empathic mental space that poets enter when we focus our attention outside ourselves. I believe this state is the great potential of poetry and the ultimate legacy of the Objectivists.
In Objectivism, personal expression is limited or at least de-emphasized. However, the persona of the poet leaks through in the images chosen and described and in stylistic and tonal nuances. Real Objectivism is impossible, but the self-discipline of Objectivism is a step in the direction of greater universality. Essentially, the Objectivists were the early progenitors of universalism:
Not because of victories
but for the common sunshine,
the largess of the spring.
Not for victory
but for the day’s work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon a dais
but at the common table.
– Charles Reznikoff
* * *
In an Objectivist poem, images function as universal symbols rather than as metaphors, because personal reference is absent or minimalized and images must then function at the archetypal level of the collective unconscious and its symbols. Instead of
bearing a poet-assigned meaning, images used without intentional metaphors glow from the immanence of their own essential natures, where their symbolic value has been long established in human consciousness. When we focus on our commonality instead of our individual differences, we are walking the path of human progress blazed by Whitman and pursued by the Objectivists.
George Oppen expresses the Objectivist position perfectly in this excerpt from his late poem To the Poets: To Make Much of Life:
“. . .no need to light
lamps in daylight working year
year the poem
in the crystal
center of the rock image
and image the transparent
present tho we speak of the abyss
of the hungry we see their feet their tired
feet in the news and mountain and valley
and sea as in universal”
* * *
The contribution of Reznikoff and of the Objectivists is highly significant because,
in the final analysis, content is a higher poetic value than style. Style reflects personal values, whereas content carries a poem’s meaning. Styles vary widely and are easy to come by. When considering style, we realize that even no style is a stylistic choice. There are as many styles as there are poets. Meaning, on the other hand, is always something shared with others. Sometimes a flamboyant or special style can actually obscure or hide meaning altogether, and this may be why the readership for poetry has been small. In this time of conflict and polarization, we poets need to walk the walk.
First published in Schuylkill Valley Journal, 2019
The Collected Poems of George Oppen; George Oppen; New Directions; New York, NY; 1975.
The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi; The National Poetry Foundation; University of Maine; Orono, ME; 1986.
Holocaust; Charles Reznikoff; Black Sparrow Press; Los Angeles, California; 1975.
Poems 1918-1975, The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff; Seamus Cooney, Ed.; Black Sparrow Press; Santa Rosa, California; 1989.